Kant and the Erscheinung

April 20, 2009

I think I am making progress on a grasp of what Kant means with Erscheinung (a shinning forth). In the first place he takes the general German usage of that term. This is his starting place. [I am helped by a dear German friend, JW.]

Here are three erscheinungs to consider as we search for a common denominator (a concept, a rule which combines two or more and excludes others). The following are considered to be erscheinungs in German: the rainbow, the face in the cloud and the Big Dipper. Now the common element is this: they all are actually seen out in space and (or rather but) they also cannot be located in space. A good example is the appearance of water on the hot road ahead. When this water appears it is so clear and authentic that the rear end of cars ahead are reflected and I see the car and its mirror image as clear as I can see my hand before me. And we know that the person in that car ahead, if he were to look down, will find no water there at all, just as I, when I reach that point, find it bone dry.*

* If we considered such an erscheinung to be a real thing on its own, just as my hand is, then we would probably not even marvel that the water has vanished when we reach it, just as the rainbow vanishes as I change my position relative to it (or to where it appears to be, or erscheint). It’s conceivable I might marvel and think “every time I approach the water, it vanishes”, but I’m not sure. That means it would be something remarkable, and things on their own are not remarkable at all. As the rainbow and the water on the road vanish, even so could then anything vanish and appear like that, and the fact that I haven’t noticed my hand doing that doesn’t mean that it cannot do that, and so if it should so vanish I should not be surprised. And perhaps it has disappeared when I have not been looking closely??

So how shall we English speakers make this translation of the common, ordinary German Erscheinung? We might try mirage, except that I think that this has the suggestion of a work of light in the atmosphere. The Erscheinung is not dependent upon the work of light (although it can include it), for the face in the cloud is an perspective/viewing, i.e., the way that I see a certain manifold in the shades and contours of a cloud. I have been using “specter.” The most common Kant expression in English translations of his work is “appearance” as in the appearance of a face, or the appearance of a big dipper. So I might speak of the rainbow as the specter of a bow, or the appearance of a bow, and then more briefly as specter or an appearance.

Kant then takes this term and uses it for a related, but far more profound, purpose. He wants to convey that the entire physical universe that we see is an Erscheinungswelt or merely the specter or appearance of a world. He wants to say with that that the entire physical universe as seen by us has no more existence on its own than does the rainbow, and that both are equally spectral to the human.

The quickest way to grasp this, I think presently, is to realize that the impressions made by things on our retina and other sense organs are converted into electrical impulses and delivered to the brain via optical nerves. And then there, in the brain, a panorama unfolds which we call our sighting of or looking at the physical universe. And so the mountains and trees that we spy about us, as well as the moon and distant starts have their entire existence for the human within the panorama of each person, the theater inside the human brain and skull and which I sometimes call a brainarium. It will be important to note that the space and time in which we spy the specters of this brainarium are also inside the brain and are the way we consider things, i.e., appearances, which arise to our consciousness, projections of our brains.

Once we accept this fact, then we can follow Kant as he explores how it is that we come to the notion of Erscheinung/specter/appearance in the first place, seeing that every thing we call reality is actually an appearance.* As mentioned, with regard to the make up and material of the retina, neither the rain or the rainbow are to be distinguished. They are both appearances or specters and cannot exist except in our looking/perspective.** They both vanish every time we blink.

* For emphasis I repeat: the tree that I see, the mountains beyond and the starry sky are projections within our brains. As projections/appearances they go out of existence every time I blink. How we come to realize this, is the point of all this wondering here.

** I use “perspective” or “viewing” for Kant’s Anschauung where most English students of Kant utilize “intuition”.

And so Kant’s great task is to figure out how it is that we come to make a distinction between the rain and the rainbow, for example, or the cloud and the face appearing there, and come to say that while the rain and the cloud are real things which exist independently of our looking, the bow and the face exist only in our eye/brainarium and are not really there, i.e., they are seen in space but cannot be located in space. The rain and the cloud can both be seen in space and also located in space.

We might even say that all the world that we call the objective universe is a mirage and the question arises merely as to how it is that we get into the mirage and find that some things are not a mirage, e.g., the rain, while some things are a mirage, the rainbow.*

* Mirage does not mean illusion. The face I see in the cloud is not an illusion, unless I think of faces as things on their own which can exist now and then and here and there, in a cloud, in front of a human head. The rainbow is not an illusion as long as I consider it to be only seen in space (and time), but not located there (not located there where seen).

So at this stage we can summarize a bit. We know that there is a real world apart from us and at the same time we know that this world is given to us to experience via a specter/appearance/Erscheinung which as such exists only within us. We know that there is a real world, a bunch of real things on their own, and we know that our only contact with this world is via a spectral manifestation of those real things, i.e., how they affect us via our senses. And so the task now at hand for Kant is to show how it is that we begin with a spectral world, and end up with a real world apart from us (apart from the brainarium) and which then merely appears to us. How do we go from the spectral to the real? How do we take what is entirely spectral and come up with a real world independent of our specters or appearances of that real world? How did we come to distinguish the rainbow from the rain?

One thing is certain at this point, namely we had to dream it up, i.e., it is something that we humans bring to the table of experience. All that is ever given to us is specter/Erscheinung, where things get physically smaller on the retina at a distance and where telephone poles move toward us just as we move toward them. The objects that we perceive about us, e.g., fixed poles (unmoving and constant in size), are not obvious as fixed; for for us they are appearances.

Now this is where the goings get tough, for we are coming to Kant’s Deduction of the Categories where we have to discover how it is that things we dream up, e.g., a real thing and not just a specter or appearance, hold for these things, and how things would have to conform to our way of thinking about them (through the categories of quantity, quality, relation). The fact of our experience proves that it does, e.g., Hume knew that his table did not get smaller at a distance, and so the task at hand, and to be left to a later time, is how did we figure out that we were dealing with specters of things, but not themselves real things, but only the way that real things appear to us, appearances which are entirely within us.

See here for a development of the role of the categories.

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April 2009

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