PSYCHICAL APPEARANCE AND REALITY: KANT, RATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY
AND THE IDENTITY THEORY
by Titus Rivas
I want to express my gratitude to Drs. Vincent Pompe for
his useful advice. And to Ms. Elena and Katerina Manevska for
their moral support.
'Who forces us to think that subjectivity is real, essential?'
Friedrich Nietzsche, Der Wille zur Macht
The author shows that there is a common epistemological basis for Kant's rejection of rational psychology and contemporary identity theory in the philosophy of mind. He shows that Kant was mistaken about his claim that the distinction between noumenal and phenomenal reality would also apply to the conscious mind.
This implies that the identity theory can no longer be upheld, since it rests precisely on such a mistaken Kantian distinction.
The only viable ontologies for contemporary philosophy of mind thereby turn out to be dualism and idealism.
In this essay I claim that the negative evaluation of "rational psychology" by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant forms the main implicit basis for the present acceptability of the identity theory in the philosophy of mind. Furthermore, I state that the Kantian analysis mentioned cannot stand critical scrutiny. I will finally show what this means for the philosophical status of the identity theory.
1. Kant and rational psychology -in his well-known "Kritik der reinen Vernunft"- wanted to show that the pretensions of the metaphysics of his own days were groundless. He stated that all our knowledge is relative to certain unchangeable, given suppositions of human perception and reasoning. We have no access to reality as it is in itself -"an sich"-, but only to reality as it appears to us through our specific human filters of perception and thought.
Therefore, we can never hope to reach any insight in the true nature of things. The only attainable goal we can reasonably wish for, is to reach knowledge of how things are and behave within reality as it appears to us.
Kant used a specific terminology to distinguish the metaphysical and the empirical objectives. Metaphysics is searching for knowledge of "noumenal" reality, i.e. of reality as it truly is, independent of any human presuppositions or cognitive deformations. Empirical science, however, strives for knowledge of "phenomenal" reality, i.e. the world as it appears to us people.
Within metaphysics in Kant's days there was the branch of a so-called "rational psychology" which may legitimately be compared to our own contemporary philosophy of mind. As a subspecies of metaphysics, Kant criticized the rational psychology of people like Leibniz and Wolff and analyzed its "paralogisms". The main problem Kant has with rational psychology is that it tries to rationally deduce truths about the soul, whereas all rational psychologist can logically dispose of, consists of phenomenal psychical reality. Psychical reality as it really is, noumenal psychical reality in other words, remains unknown to them. Rational psychology pretends it can deductively show the immortality of the soul, and so on, whereas everything it can really do is give a catalogue of phenomenal truths which imply nothing for noumenal reality.
Thus, rational psychology fails hopelessly. We can know nothing about noumenal reality, and we can make no exception for our own conscious experiences. The Cartesian "Cogito ergo sum" can only hold for my conscious existence as a phenomenon, not as a noumenon.
2. Kant's rejection of rational psychology, and identity
One of the main lessons Kant wants to teach his readers is that, contrary to common metaphysical doctrines, we have absolutely no knowledge of noumenal reality. For example, we don't know if anything noumenal corresponds to the phenomenon of matter. And if there is indeed something which corresponds to it, we have no way whatsoever to find out what it is. Similarly, what phenomenally appears as mind, might in noumenal reality be something entirely different.
I hope that the epistemological correspondence between this Kantian position and the modern position about the ontology of mind called identity theory, is clear immediately.
Both Kantian and modern identity theory distinguish between mind as it appears to us, from a "first person perspective" ("by acquaintance"), and mind as it is in in itself. Mind can be considered both subjectively and objectively according to both positions. It is hardly surprising therefore if Karl Popper (1977) traces the identity theory back to Kant via Schopenhauer, Clifford, Schlick, Feigl and Russell.
However, there is an important difference which should not be overlooked. Kant clearly states that one can never know the true nature of mind, only mind as it appears to us. On the other hand, identity theory usually is certain that the true nature of mind is material, that mind seen from an objective ("third person") perspective is precisely the brain or part of it. Kant would doubtlessly characterize the identity theory position as a groundless metaphysical claim of rational psychology.
Still, the identity theory would be nowhere if Kant could be shown to be wrong in his general rejection of rational psychology. There is something paradoxical about this, because if Kant is right about rational psychology, identity theory would be a form of groundless speculation, as any other type of philosophy of mind would. However, if Kant is wrong about rational psychology, that would mean that we do directly know something about mind as it is, from our private first person perspectives, so that the distinction between phenomenal and noumenal underlying identity theory would collapse. Either way, within the context of an evaluation of the Kantian critique on rational psychology, immediately it becomes surprisingly clear that identity theory isn't viable.
3. Phenomenal and Noumenal Reality of Mind
I want to defend the position that the distinction between the conscious mind as it appears to us and noumenal conscious mind is groundless. This position can be compared to that of Franz Brentano (1973), though I doubt that he has held it for the same reason. Another parallel may be found in Bolzano (1970).
According to Kant, we have phenomenal experiences of an external world and of our own private, psychical world. Since our acquaintance with both worlds is necessarily phenomenal, we don't know anything of those worlds in themselves.
An explicit nineteenth-century defender of the Kantian phenomenalism of mind, was Friedrich Nietzsche, (Nietzsche, 1992, book I, 65). Not only does
Nietzsche speak of the exclusively phenomenal access to our inner mental processes, but he also states that this access might even be completely ficticious, meaning that there might in fact (noumenally) be no such thing as introspection or subjectivity. This mental phenomenalism is a central notion within Nietzsche's philosophy.
Now, I claim that there is serious contradiction hidden in this assertion. Kant is sure that there truly are phenomenal experiences, and rightly so. But if he is, how can he at the same time deny that we know something of our minds, namely that we have phenomenal experiences? It is contradictory to claim that all we really (= noumenally) have are phenomenal experiences of an inner and outer world, while denying at the same time that we know that those phenomenal experiences as such are (noumenally) real. This means that phenomenal experiences as such must be noumena, i.e. objectively (an sich) real. Note that I'm not claiming this only, but proving it.
The point is that the conscious mind can only be conscious. It cannot really (noumenally) be something else than itself. If we say that a conscious experience might in reality be something else than that conscious experience we are saying that the conscious experience as such might really be unconscious, which is analytically absurd. It would be like saying that we only imagine and think that we imagine and think, but that it might be the case that we actually never imagine and think anything. The contradiction is that it would require us to have only the illusion that we ruly experience things, whereas this can ever be the case, as illusion is tself such an experience.
We cannot have the illusion of experiencing subjective phenomena (compare: Popper). Only in the phenomena's possible referential characteristic of pointing at something outside themselves can we have an illusion. Phenomena might point at something completely non-existent, as in the case of hallucination, or they might distort sensorial stimuli. But as such, phenomena cannot be illusions. Being phenomena, they necessarily are what they seem.
Kant therefore made a very serious mistake in his evaluation of rational psychology. Whereas it is logically thinkable that the outside world is not what it seems, it is simply inconceivable that the world of phenomenal experiences, the conscious mind i.e., would be anything else than itself. In phenomenal life, the life of "how things appear to us subjects", the distinction between a phenomenal experience as it appears and a phenomenal
experience as it is, cannot be made.
Therefore, we do have direct access (via intro and/or retrospection, i.e. through memory) to our own phenomenal experiences. We experience them as they are, not just as they appear.
Their appearance is their reality. Appearances as appearances are always those very same appearances. In other words: The objective (an sich) nature of subjectivity is subjective.
So, it is Descartes or even the ancient Greek scholars, like Plato and Plotin, that should from now on be the historical basis for the ontology of mind, not Kant's error of analysis.
4. Identity theory and Kant's error
Kant has made an unfortunate error in analysing rational psychology. He thought that consciousness as it appears and consciousness as it is could be two different things.
The same thing holds for identity theory as we have seen. Thus, Feuerbach says (p. 168):"(...) from the fact that thought is not a brainprocess to me, but an act which differs from the brain and which is independent of it, it doesn't follow that is not in itself a brain process. No, on the contrary: What to me or subjectively is a purely spiritual, immaterial, non-sensuous act, is in itself or objectively material, sensuous. The identity of subject and object (...) particularly concerns the brain process and the process of thought" (Thies, 1975).
The implication is obvious: If Immanuel Kant can be said to go astray in this respect, the same must go for identity theory. In other words: The conscious mind cannot really be the unconscious brain. What if we consider the other possibility, namely that the brain is the appearance of the noumenal reality of consciousness? According to Karl Popper (1977), this would be what Feigl thinks, so that Popper considers him more of a spiritualist than a materialist. The answer is that only if the brain as a material object is a phenomenal illusion and exists only as that illusion, it would be possible to consider it as really (and exclusively) a part of the mind. The point is that ontologically speaking we would than have a type of idealism, not of identity theory. Thus, Popper mentions that Feigl wishes to be seen as a materialist.
Summing up, we can say that identity theory is a contradictory position based on the untenable notion of two perspectives from which one could consider the conscious mind. The only viable road to the conscious mind is the subjective one. The conscious mind is not really something physical. The objective perspective on the conscious mind is the subjective perspective. Now, if we wish, as I do, to cling to a notion of matter as a noumenon, the only possible ontology for contemporary philosophy of mind can be a dualist one (Smythies & Beloff,1989). The only alternative would be an idealism which rejects the real existence of matter.
- Bolzano, B. (1970). Athanasia oder Gründe für die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (first edition 1838). Frankfurt am Main: Minerva.
- Brentano, F. (1973). Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunkt,
Erster Band (first edition 1924). Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag.
- Kant, I. (1974). Kritik der reinen Vernunft (first edition
1781). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
- Nietzsche, F. (1992). Herwaardering van alle waarden (Dutch
translation of Der Wille zur Macht: Versuch einer Umwertung
aller Werte). Amsterdam: Boom Meppel.
- Popper, K.R. (1977). The so-called identity theory, in: Popper, K.R., & Eccles, J.C. The self and its brain. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 81-86.
- Smythies, J.R., & Beloff, J. (1989). The case for dualism.
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
- Thies, F. (Ed.) (1975). Ludwig Feuerbach: Werke in sechs
Bänden: 4. Kritiken und Abhandlungen III (1844-1866). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Correspondence should go to:
6533 RT Nijmegen
This is an unpublished paper. If you want to help me publish it, I would be much obliged.