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According to Kantian epistemology, there are three falcuties of mind; sensibility, understanding and imagination. Unfortunately, the differentiation between these three are not totally sure to me so I would like to get verification. Here is how I attempted to understand:

When I look at a tree, the noumenon of the tree is perceived via sensibility and a corresponding phenomenon of the tree arises to my cognition. However, this phenomenon is unprocessed so I don't yet recognize that this phenomenon is that of a tree; just like how an image is nothing but a bunch of pixels to a computer. It is only after the imagination synthesizes the phenomenon that I can label the phenomenon with an appropriate concept(tree). Finally, the understanding makes a judgment about the phenomenon by using a priori categories. For example, it may use the category of unity and existence to judge that "There exists a single tree."

Is my above understanding correct?

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  • I am afraid, computer processing analogy does not really work with Kant, it attempts to peek behind the curtain using terms that only apply on the phenomenal side of it. The "noumenon of the tree" is not perceived via sensibility, it is not accessible to any of our faculties, according to Kant. There is no "noumenon of" anything, the thing-in-itself is completely inscrutable. We can talk about noumena abstractly, because they still obey logic, but not connect them to phenomena in any way. Sensibility does not deliver anything "of a tree" either, its output is completely undifferentiated.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 7:54
  • @Conifold But can't I refer to 'noumenon of the tree' in a sense that it is logically coerced for there to exist a reason as to how the phenomenon of a tree came to me, and such reason can only be referred as the 'noumenon of the tree'? Also, if sensibility does not deliver anything of a tree, by what mean is it possible for me to judge that this phenomenon is that of a tree?
    – Dimen
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 8:21
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    "Reason as to how the phenomenon of a tree came to me", i.e. its cause, relies on causality, which is a category of experience. According to Kant, it is a mistake to apply such categories beyond any possible experience, i.e. to the noumena. This is the heart of his criticism of old metaphysics. Your analogy of processing external inputs is better suited for this older Aristotelian conception. The undifferentiated manifold of sensation is first shaped by forms of intuition and schemata, they enable the result to be brought under concepts, such as tree. We read off what we placed there.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 8:56
  • @Conifold Oh I understand what you mean. Then is it at least true that after the faculty of imagination, the intuition is processed as a tree? And after understanding a judgment about the tree is formed?
    – Dimen
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 10:05
  • The word "processed" suggests extraction of information by some kind of algorithm, but that is not what Kant describes. He insists on "spontaneous" generation of each stage (intuitions, thoughts) that conforms to constraints (schemata, categories) but is not determined by the previous stage and those constraints. We can speculate (as Kant's commentators do) that the previous stage is somehow probed with what is generated at the next one until the response is "satisfactory", but Kant himself says next to nothing on this. Intuition is not processed as a tree, concept tree just "fits" it.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 5, 2021 at 22:01

1 Answer 1

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  1. It is a common mistake to view noumena as somehow corresponding to Lockean substances. Noumena are not objects as they're given to the senses - quite the opposite, they're the objects as they're thought through Pure Reason (without any contribution from the senses). Kant denies that we can have any knowledge of them, which means that Pure Reason (in its theoretical employment), although it can think, cannot cognize any objects. What is necessary for cognition is experience, i.e. intuitions given by sensibility. In other words, we perceive phenomena, i.e. objects in space and time, although Kant of course claims that space and time are contributions of our mind. I believe, although some commentators find this perspective controversial, that it is the most useful to regard 'phenomena' and 'noumena' as two aspects of the same world. Kant himself points to this reading, speaking of: "objects of experience and the very same things as things in themselves" (Bxxvii).
  2. Your view of imagination is mostly correct. It should however be noted that the terms that Kant uses aren't very significant. "Imagination" is a word that traditionally was used to denote the faculty that produces sensible representations. Whenever Kant appeals to imagination, he simply means the process of producing representations of experienced objects, e.g. reproductive imagination is what we would nowadays call "memory", so "synthesis of reproduction" (of the A-deduction) is simply "remembering" in modern terms.
  3. Your further assessment of the role of imagination in bridging the gap between sensibility and understanding is also correct. I will just explain the reason for this Kantian thesis. Concepts, spontaneous (discursive) representations, and sensible representations are inhomogeneous. In sensory data, quantities, causal relations or substance-accident relations aren't given to us, we introduce them ourselves. A repeatable sensible (Kant also uses the term "figurative") representation, which is homogeneous with our sensibility, is called a schema. All concepts have a corresponding schema and to pure concepts correspond various temporal representations. This is the sense in which "synthesis of imagination" makes it possible to apply concepts to our sensible representations. Imagination produces (spotaneously) sensible representations, which are repeatable (like concepts, unlike intuitions), but nevertheless homogeneous with what is given in sensibility. Cf. Wilfrid Sellars, The Role of Imagination in Kant's Theory of Experience; David Hyder, Figurative Synthesis and Propositional Content in B-Deduction §24. Robert Brandom also gives in his A Spirit of Trust an interesting perspective on how Hegel's Phenomenology virtually utilizes the same argument against radical empiricism in the Sense Certainty section.
  4. Although there are certain 'nonconceptualist' interpretations of Kant which deny what I will just say: I don't think it is useful to regard Kant as describing a sequential process. Kant describes concepts as 'rules for synthesis'. Similarly, he says, "the same function that gives unity to the different representations in a judgment also gives unity to the mere synthesis of different representations in an intuition" (B105). Therefore, although there is a sense in which concepts are prior to synthesis of imagination which makes possible to apply them to sensible content, in fact they are nothing but rules for their own correct application to this very sensible content. Similarly, intuitions have their 'unity' only due to the possibility of applying concepts to them (in judging). So, although acts of imagination in some sense bridge the gap between sensibility and understanding, viewed from another perspective Kant is from the very beggining describing simply two opposite poles of the same process which aren't autonomous and thus necessarily coexist: "Thoughts without [sensible] content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind" (A51/B75). In other words, at least from a philosophical point of view, Kant seems to regard as mistaken any attempts to consider concepts and sensible representations apart from eachother. Cf. J. Conant, Why Kant is Not a Kantian.
  5. Kant, following the tradition, also distinguishes two further faculties, next to the understanding: reason and the power of judgement (which, in Kant's words, "mediates" between understanding and reason). As Husserl notes in his Logische Untersuchungen, this terminology lacks any explanatory value: just as calling the supposed faculty that makes dancing possible "the power of dacing". It would be however misguided to say that this is a serious flaw in Kant's reasoning - it is simply a terminological inconvenience. Understanding, power of judgement and reason correspond in some sense to modalities of judgement which Kant discusses in the Critique of Pure Reason: possibility, actuality and necessity. They simply name the distinct roles which various propositions play in our theories of the world. Whereas understanding corresponds to simple measurements whereby mathematical categories are applied to experience, reason systematizes these cognitions into laws of nature (articulated via the dynamical, relational categories). This also could suggest a psychological reading according to which Kant describes a sequential cognitive process (because, indeed, measurements are prior to generalizations, i.e. laws), but not only is this very misleading, but also isn't true of what Kant calls reflective judgement (in modern terms, abduction), where a prior structure, provided by reason, in Kant's terminology, is necessary for the operations of the understanding. Kant discusses this in his Critique of Judgement.

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