So I'm almost done with the Enquiry and came across something in this section that reminded me of Kant's phenomena and noumena. If this is the case, I'm just curious, why hadn't anyone made this distinction between phenomena and noumena before Kant? Did philosophers before Kant already had the idea that all we get through our senses is just a representation of a reality that might or might not be out there? (hope I got that correctly) If so, what makes Kant so relevant in this regard? I know Kant was influenced by Hume but I can't seem to find anything online where it says that he got this idea, specifically, from Hume.

It seems evident, that men are carried, by a natural instinct or prepossession, to repose faith in their senses; and that, without any reasoning, or even almost before the use of reason, we always suppose an external universe, which depends not on our perception, but would exist, though we and every sensible creature were absent or annihilated. It seems also evident, that, when men follow this blind and powerful instinct of nature, they always suppose the very images, presented by the senses, to be the external objects, and never entertain any suspicion, that the one are nothing but representations of the other. This very table which we see white, and which we feel hard, is believed to exist, independent of our perception, and to be something external to our mind, which perceives it. Our presence bestows not being on it: our absence does not annihilate it. It preserves its existence uniform and entire, independent of the situation of intelligent beings, who perceive or contemplate it. But this universal and primary opinion of all men is soon destroyed by the slightest philosophy, which teaches us, that nothing can ever be present to the mind but an image or perception, and that the senses are only the inlets, through which these images are conveyed, without being able to produce any immediate intercourse between the mind and the object.

I appreciate your help!

  • 1
    Various skepticisms from ancient such as those of Xenophanes and Pyrrho and various idealisms such as those of Spinoza and Leibniz had already been clear about the distinction and misuse between phantasmagoria and noumena if it exists. Kant's own transcendental idealism is in a sense a further elaboration of the a priori forms of one's perception and intellect independent of one's experiences (which means a 17 years old person free of language and terminology problems can grasp the same content from the core of Kant as a 70 years old). Some idealists (Berkeley) may not even admit noumena... Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 5:59
  • There have also been various philosophies that treated the quantitative properties of the physical world as more real in some sense than qualitative perceptions such as color--see the history of the primary qualities/secondary qualities distinction. Greek atomists like Democritus made a similar distinction. Kant was different in that he put mathematical qualities on the side of the "phenomenal" rather than the "noumenal"; Hume was apparently skeptical that we could say anything about a sensation-independent reality.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 14:28
  • Also as evidenced in several famous objections to Locke's well-known Primary–secondary quality distinction: Leibniz was an early critic of the distinction... that "[i]t is even possible to demonstrate that the ideas of size, figure and motion are not so distinctive as is imagined, and that they stand for something imaginary relative to our perceptions as do...Long before Locke's time, but assuredly since him, it has been generally assumed and granted without detriment to the actual existence of external thing... Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 19:53
  • I see that you've edited your post. Is my answer irrelevant to your concerns or did you just fix some formal errors? Commented Mar 27 at 21:01

1 Answer 1


You're misunderstanding Kant. The phenomena/noumena distinction has nothing to do with the distinction between some states which we, as humans, given our physiology, enter, when we're affected by an object, and objects which are the cause of these changes. Phenomena are objects as they're given to us in experience, i.e. under our forms of sensibility, space and time. These objects are, of course, given to us due to a sensation (this is a technical term: Kant introduces it at the very beggining of the Transcendental Aesthetic) - i.e. affection by an object - but are not themselves mere sensations, i.e. mere determinations of a subject (certain states). Kant of course doesn't deny that we represent phenomena, i.e. objects of our senses, and thus have access to them only through a representation. But he doesn't think that this justifies us to think that these representations are not genuine representations, i.e. that the objects that they purport to represent are irrelevant to their content (quite literally, they are their content). Noumena is what remains from phenomena, objects of our experience if we abstract entirely from the contribution of sensibility (not of sensation, mind you - when abstracting from content provided by the sensation, what remains are mere forms, i.e. space and time; what Kant means is totally abstracting from experience at all). The noumena being unknowable is then a simple consequence of the fact that they're product of abstraction in which all sensory content is abstracted. And, Kant says, there is no content but sensory content - there is no intellectual intuition. See the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.

Of course many philosophers, since at least Berkeley, have, on empiricist grounds, doubted that positing any further ground for our sensations in the form of an object that interacts causally with our senses and makes us able to perceive the external world is justified. Locke and Hume, in contrast with Berkeley, think that positing such ground is compatible with empiricism, however they say we can have no knowledge that goes beyond regularities in sensations. Kant, however, never doubts that there is such a ground and, furthermore, although he insists that all content of our sensory representations comes from the sensation (i.e. affection by an object), and all of our knowledge is due to these sensory representations, i.e. intuitions, says that our cognitions are of objects proper, not sensations, which don't yet have any conceptual shape and are merely causes of our beliefs. Kant, in other words, doesn't make the mistake of confusing certain physiological states which convey some information about the world with the content which this state provides thanks to presence of more advanced, discursive capacities (Kant says: Thoughts without content [this is a technical term - otherwise the first sentence would be an obvious tautology] are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind). That the British empiricists and later logical empiricists confused causes of our knowledge, i.e. interacting with external objects or "sense data", with their epistemic status was pointed out by Wilfrid Sellars in his famous essay Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind under the name: the Myth of the Given. You can clearly identify this mistake in the passage by Hume you quote.

  • I am not sure I can agree with the claim that it was an abstraction from the content. Rather, it is an abstraction from any import of our particular understanding, ie. pure forms and categories, into intuition, not from the material itself, which gives us the negative definition of noumenon. And it is unknowable to us exactly because knowledge, for us, is necessarily constituted through spontaneous activity of the understanding, thus making knowledge about noumena impossible by definition (a positive determination is only possible for an intuitive understanding, not ours).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 27 at 17:24
  • @PhilipKlöcking Abstracting from the material of sensation gives you forms of sensibility (so I wouldn't use the word "material"). I mean content in the sense of the following quote: "Concepts without content are empty; Intuitions without concepts are blind". With noumena, we abstract with sensible content (but for Kant that's the only kind of content), i.e. content that is structured spatio-temporally. So, indeed, this can be seen as abstraction from space and time, as you suggest. I don't think we disagree here. I'm surprised with your assertion that we abstract from "our" categories. 1/2 Commented Mar 27 at 18:59
  • @PhilipKlöcking Kant is quite explicitly commited to there being only one Reason and thus only one set of categories. Commented Mar 27 at 19:08

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