Paper Review: Essence and “Appearance”

Regardless of how one feels about Kant, it is undeniable that he had a profound influence on philosophy. I’ve recently been looking a little into the Vienna Circle, and it has been fun to explore how much the early thought of the Vienna Circle was driven by direct criticism of Kant’s philosophy. In particular, one of the founding members of the Vienna Circle, Moritz Schlick, was very concerned with responding to Kant.

***The original paper can be found here.***

For this post I’ll focus on his paper/chapter Essence and “Appearance”, which appeared in his book “General Theory of Knowledge”. In order to get a better handle on Schlick’s criticism of Kant, it will be helpful to have a model of Kant’s philosophy on the table.

What follows is a brief sketch of Kant’s position on metaphysics and epistemology. Much ink has been spilled and many keyboards worn out trying to understand and propose exactly what Kant’s position is. For the purposes of this post I’ll try to just capture a few key ideas — in particular the parts relevant for Schlick’s paper.

For Kant there is a distinct difference between the world as we experience it — the phenomenal world — and the world as it really is — the things in themselves. All we have access to is the world as we experience it. This is because of the kind of beings we are. According to Kant, we take some kind of input from the world and process it, combining it with concepts, categories, and intuitions that we supply from our minds. The result is our experience. For example, Kant thinks that both time and space are organizing principles that we bring to the table in order to process the world. Thus, we can think of Kant’s framework as kind of having two levels of reality — the real world consisting of things are they really are, and the world of experience consisting of things as we experience them. Furthermore, we can only know things about the world of experience.

This is the basic position against which Schlick is opposed. I think the best way to proceed now is to see where Schlick is trying to go, and then see how he gets there. At the end of the paper he writes this:

Let us summarize. There is only one reality. And whatever lies within its domain is in principle equally accessible, in its being as well as in its essence, to our cognition. Only a small part of this reality is ever given to us. The remainder is not given. But the separation this effectuated between the subjective and the objective is accidental in character. It is not fundamental, as the separation between essence and appearance is supposed to be — a separation that we have recognized as not feasible.

p. 244

So the main thesis Schlick wants to advance is that this kind of Kantian separation between the world of appearance and the real world is wrong — there is only one reality. Now let us trace Schlick’s thought to get there.

He starts off by “rooting out certain dogmas, which would draw a boundary between the real that is given and the real that is not given” (p. 234). Schlick thinks that we get the concept of reality from experience, since this is the part of the real with which we are ever directly acquainted. From this, we then extend the idea to cover things which we do not and cannot experience. He thinks this is fine and correct. However, where philosophy and philosophers have gone wrong in the past (one of the dogmas) is by then making the claim that this reality beyond experience is somehow a higher order of reality.

He takes Plato to be the pinnacle of this. Indeed, it “was Plato, as we know, who pushed this strange view to its extreme and developed it most brilliantly…He thereby brought confusion into questions of a world outlook for more than 2000 years” (p. 234). This was Plato’s world of forms — the perfect, inaccessible, ideal reality of which all material objects are imperfect copies. In order to make progress on understanding reality we must reject this philosophical temptation.

This much seems right to me. In particular, even if there were an inaccessible reality, to say that it is “more real” or “higher” or “more perfect” does seem like a temptation to be avoided. These kind of terms and images seem more to obscure. If we were to replace them with more specific claims — for example, that the world of experience depends on the inaccessible part of reality for its existence — this seems like a step in the right direction, since it is a more tractable meaningful claim. Of course Plato did develop these ideas beautifully, and gave sophisticated arguments in defense of his positions. However, there is still I think a kind of aesthetic temptation to use the idea of a “higher” or “more perfect” reality to do philosophical work that I think is misleading. Indeed, as Schlick points out, Plato also gave this higher reality more value then the lower reality, and “was the first conflate [value ordering] with the logical rank ordering of conceptual generality” (p. 234). This to me certainly seems like an important dogma to cast off.

However, according to Schlick, others went too far the other way. As he writes

On the very same terrain, however, there was also erected the conception of materialism, which in its admiration for the solid reality of physical objects simply forgets that there also exists a real world of consciousness, or believes that is may be treated as a quantité négligeable.

p. 234

This mistake is to devalue the world of experience in favour of the material. Schlick thinks this is actually a similar mistake to Plato’s — instead of valuing abstract inaccessible reality over the world of experience, these kind of philosophers value material reality over experienced reality. In both cases, there is a “higher” reality that takes precedence over experience.

Kant continues in this tradition of making such strong distinctions. As I briefly described above, central to Kant’s philosophy is the separation between the being of the given (experience or appearance) and the being of the not given (the things-in-themselves).

Not just metaphysical, the distinction is also epistemic. We can only know appearances. In particular, if we recall from my brief description earlier that we use categories and general concepts to understand things, Kant thinks that such concepts and categories do not apply to things in themselves. Schlick emphasizes that the only thing Kant thinks we can know about things-in-themselves is that they exist. (He points out that many interpreters of Kant would disagree that Kant thinks we can know even this, but points to some relatively convincing textual evidence in support or his claim.)

Thus, for Kant, a kind of transcendent reality exists, but we cannot even in principle know it. This is where the distinction between essences and appearances comes in. We cannot know the essences of things, but only their appearances. It is not that these appearances aren’t real — there are not “illusion or pretense” (p. 236) — and they are perfectly objective. It is just that they are not the things-in-themselves. A slightly more complicated thing Schlick discusses is that “reality” is a category for Kant, and thus can only be applied to appearances. This leads Schlick to think (and I would agree) that for Kant the way in which the things-in-themselves is real is more “genuine and fundamental” than the world of appearance, since the latter depends on our applying the category “reality” to it.

The reason we can know that things-in-themselves exists is because “each datum [of experience] points to or suggests a being of which it is an appearance” (p. 236). In order for us to have any experience, they must be a thing we are experience, even if we can never know anything about it.

This is the starting point for Schlick’s critique of Kant. He thinks that “the thing-appearance pair is in general a very poor piece of concept formation and that the concept of appearance should be banished from philosophy” (p. 236). He thinks first that this distinction is untenable on broader philosophical grounds against duality (which he doesn’t spell out in this paper, but in a different one — I will not go into the details here, but focus on his next point). He also thinks that this distinction is untenable because any notion to sharpen the term “appearance” fails.

He goes through a few attempts to characterize what an appearance is. First he considers the idea that an appearance of a thing is the part of the thing that “extends or flows into consciousness”, but rejects this as an adequate notion of experience, since, if the thing of which it is a part is transcendent (part of the higher reality) then its part must be as well, and thus the appearance would be equally real, and so not a distinct type of thing at all.

He also rejects the idea that an appearance is a picture of the appearing object, thinking of this as reflecting only a figure of speech. He also notes that even if we did adopt such a position, it would only hurt the Kantian’s position, since we would then actually be able to know quite a bit about the thing-in-itself by examining its image.

He then considers an empirical example which might help clarify the relationship between an appearance and the thing-in-itself. He considers the way an object might look from two different angles; we might want to say that the particular pattern of lines I see from one angle is different than what you see from another, and that the actual geometric configuration of lines on the object, which does not change based on perspective, is the thing-in-itself. However, this also would not work for the Kantian, since Kant thinks that the whole body itself is also just an appearance.

Schlick considers trying to think about this relationship in terms of cause and effect. He points out that Kant defines appearances as “the representations that they (the things) being about by affecting our senses” (Kant, Prolegomena, section 13, Remark 2). However, Schlick rightfully highlights that this is a tough spot for the Kantian view since, just like “reality”, “cause and effect” is also a concept that we bring to the table — it is not supposed to be part of things in themselves, but part of our cognitive scheme for processing the data given to us. Thus the Kantian is forced to take this kind of relationship between the thing-in-itself and experience as “something unique and inexplicable, which must simply be accepted and cannot further be clarified” (p. 238).

But on this view, Schlick contends, the clarity of the term “appearance” is lost. He considers an example of a perceptual image. Is it the direct appearance of some body? (Consider the image in my mind of the laptop on which I am typing this.) Schlick thinks we might also just as reasonably conceive of it as an appearance of the nerve processes in my sensory organs, or even the brain processes “that we assume are running parallel to [the] perceptual image” (p. 238).

This kind of ambiguity of appearance mirrors the ambiguity of cause. Just as we can never pick out on unique and particular cause of another thing, but instead are left with a whole host of causes, so too are we left with a whole host of things which could rightfully be said are the thing of which an appearance is an appearance.

Due to all of these issues, Shlick suggests we reject using appearance as a starting point of our inquiry. Indeed, he thinks that “we can obtain the concept only if we already presuppose a difference in reality between the world of consciousness and the transcendent world” (p. 238).

Here is where Schlick then makes his main argument:

Now there is no set of facts that either forces or justifies such a counterposing of two irreducible realities, of which one rests entirely on itself and the other is dependent on the first. On the contrary, we obtain a much simpler and hence more satisfactory picture of the world if we ascribe the same reality to all objects without distinction, so that they are all in the same sense self-dependent but also in the same sense dependent on each other. This means that the happenings in my consciousness not only are conditioned by the transcendent world but in turn also exert an influence on it. And the interrelations of the two reals are of exactly the same kind as those that hold between processes within one of the two reals.

p. 239

For Schlick, in rejecting this division between appearance and reality, we gain the happy result that there are no radically different kind of relations between appearances and real objects. Just as objects in reality might influence each other in various ways, so too with our experience, and vice versa.

Thus we arrive at Schlick’s conclusion. Again, there is only one reality, and our experience and material objects are equally parts of it. We don’t have direct access to all of reality, but this does not lead to a difference in kind. This separation is merely accidental, and not fundamental. In Schlick’s words, it “is only with this formulation that we remain faithful to the original sense of the concept of reality” (p. 240).

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