In “Critique of Pure Reason”, Bxxvi-Bxxvii, Kant wrote:

[...] all possible speculative knowledge of reason is limited to mere objects of experience. But our further contention must also be duly borne in mind, namely, that though we cannot know these objects as things in themselves, we must yet be in a position at least to think them as things in themselves; otherwise we should be landed in the absurd conclusion that there can be appearance without anything that appears.

It is not clear to me what Kant exactly meant here by “we must yet be in a position at least to think objects of experience as things in themselves”? Did he simply mean that we should endorse the existence of things in themselves from that of objects of experience (under penalty of reductio ad absurdum)? Did he mean that we should think “as if” there were things in themselves? Something else?

I have a doubt because it is not obvious to me that the existence of a definite and individuated thing is required for producing an experience of a definite and individuated object. Thanks.

  • 4
    It is a problematic and obscure point of his philosophy that he was criticized for by subsequent generations because there is no satisfactory way to coherently flesh out what he meant. The problem is that existence is a category of experience and, by his own strictures, we cannot apply it to things in themselves. And if those things are wholly unknowable, as he says, not only existence, but that there are things rather than thing, and even the use of "thing" are problematic. He is usually interpreted as saying that we can think "them" as subject to formal logic and nothing beyond that.
    – Conifold
    Jan 23, 2023 at 21:51
  • @Conifold So, you would favor the “(we just have to do) as if” interpretation?
    – Georges
    Jan 23, 2023 at 21:57
  • 1
    "As if" is a different aspect of it, the noumenal. Although noumena and things in themselves are often identified, it is clear that he treats them, at least, as different aspects or perspectives, see Palmquist, Two Perspectives on the Object of Knowledge. "As if", the noumena, are needed for the "unity of experience" that the reason aims at, but that is not what he is concerned with in this particular passage. He is clearly concerned with logical coherence of this conception here, not its regulative use.
    – Conifold
    Jan 24, 2023 at 0:27

3 Answers 3


Levels of "thing" talk in the first Critique:

  1. Things in general.
  2. Things in themselves (AKA transcendental subjects/objects).
  3. Noumena (some overlap with (2), but note that space and time of different dimensionality than {3 + 1} would also count as noumenal in a weaker sense).
  4. Phenomena, or things as they appear to us.

At one point in the Transcendental Dialectic, Kant says:

The question, "What is the constitution of a transcendental object?" is unanswerable—we are unable to say what it is; but we can perceive that the question itself is nothing; because it does not relate to any object that can be presented to us. For this reason, we must consider all the questions raised in transcendental psychology as answerable and as really answered; for they relate to the transcendental subject of all internal phenomena, which is not itself phenomenon and consequently not given as an object, in which, moreover, none of the categories—and it is to them that the question is properly directed—find any conditions of its application. Here, therefore, is a case where no answer is the only proper answer. For a question regarding the constitution of a something which cannot be cogitated by any determined predicate, being completely beyond the sphere of objects and experience, is perfectly null and void.

This is the English translation, from J. M. D. Meiklejohn, of the B-edition. Here is the German base:

Man kan zwar auf die Frage, was ein transscendentaler Gegenstand vor eine Beschaffenheit habe, keine Antwort geben, nemlich was er sey, aber wol daß die Frage selbst nichts sey, darum, weil kein Gegenstand derselben gegeben worden. Daher sind alle Fragen der transscendentalen Seelenlehre auch beantwortlich und wirklich beantwortet; denn sie betreffen das transsc. Subiect aller inneren Erscheinungen, welches selbst nicht Erscheinung ist und also nicht als Gegenstand gegeben ist, und worauf keine der Categorien (auf welche doch eigentlich die Frage gestellt [479] ist) Bedingungen ihrer Anwendung antreffen. Also ist hier der Fall, da der gemeine Ausdruck gilt: daß keine Antwort auch eine Antwort sey, nemlich daß eine Frage nach der Beschaffenheit desienigen Etwas, was durch kein bestimtes Prädicat gedacht werden kan, weil es gänzlich ausser der Sphäre der Gegenstände gesezt wird, die uns gegeben werden können, gänzlich nichtig und leer sey.

When I fed the first part of the first sentence into Google Translate, I got a peculiar result: "One can indeed answer the question of what a transcendental object is..." So far, though, the rest of the start of the quote and the end of the whole bit, do seem to compare pretty well with the given English version.

So why would an empty thesis be necessary? In the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant makes a lot out of the fact that understanding and reason are "spontaneous" or proactive, with reason the most spontaneous (compared to sensation/perception and understanding). And things-in-themselves, he says in the first Critique, would be objects of intellectual intuition, which is how God would intuit things. But so now things-in-themselves are spontaneous enough, in relation to us, to be "recognized" by their proactivity (grounding phenomenal representations), but this "recognition" does not and cannot have any implications more specifically, here.

Yet Kant "dreads" (with good enough reason) that even this lonely sentence about things-in-themselves might get the wheels of transcendental realists turning, to try to deduce a whole ensemble of metaphysical claims from that sentence; or, worse, to attribute the potential for such deductions to Kant himself, then. He knows for reasons of general logic, the logic of things in general, that he is compelled to differentiate the concept of things-in-themselves from things-as-they-appear-to-us, noumena from phenomena, and he's understandably concerned that this compulsion, which is abstract, will not be cautiously satisfied by others. For transcendental illusions are as unavoidable as optical ones, and must be corrected for by reflection.

So when Kant says that the distinction between things-in-themselves and phenomena is necessary, but that the question of what things-in-themselves are is "empty," is he contradicting himself? Perhaps. But perhaps it's an easy enough fix: just take him to be denying that the distinction, by itself, carries substantial meaningfulness. Or c.f. Wittgenstein's distinction between senselessness and nonsense, then.


He meant that we should suppose that they are things in themselves, on the grounds that we would not be able to experience them if they were not.

  • I got the idea of your answer (corresponding to my first guess) but I think that he said that the objects that we experience are not directly the things in themselves.
    – Georges
    Jan 23, 2023 at 21:21
  • What he means is that you don't experience the objects directly. What you experience in your mind is inputs from your senses. So you experience objects indirectly-nonetheless, the objects must exist otherwise your senses would not be able to generate inputs from them... Jan 23, 2023 at 22:09
  • ...imagine looking at a rock, say. What your mind experiences is signals from your optic nerve that are triggered by light arriving at your retina from the rock. What you see is a mental image generated by your mind from the signals from your eye- your don't see the rock itself. Nonetheless you must suppose the rock is real otherwise it wouldn't reflect light. Jan 23, 2023 at 22:12
  • I probably must suppose that “something” reflects light so that I perceive a rock. Yet, the question is whether that something must be a definite and individuated thing corresponding to an object of experience and whether this is what Kant really claims.
    – Georges
    Jan 25, 2023 at 11:58

He means that all that you see/saw is not the real thing, but it's phenomenal. Manifestation of things, but not things. So that you feel or thinking is not a real reason, the thing is a reason, but all feelings or any other monitoring, thinking is a result of thing being. Ding an sich; thing-in-itself; chose en soi; cosa in se... But we can mind about things, find the reason's of phenomena but this ll be like Hegel's dialectic. But theory is only thoughts about phenomena of things. Now delete "Hegel's dialectic", "reason" and u got something that Kant told, cause he didn't use these "things".

  • 1
    This answer outlines a general overview of Kant's ideas about experience and reason. But it doesn't pay enough attention to the actual question. The question asks about a detailed point in Kant's general schema and you don't address it. In addition, Kant's idea of reason is very different from Hegel's, so the comparison at the end is not helpful.
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 30, 2023 at 12:36

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