Diﬀerence between Appearance and Thing In Itself
It is arguably with this distinction that phenomenology has its start.
the traditional reality / appearance understanding is based on a metaphor: the cave allegory. this becomes deﬁnitive
for the long tradition of philosophy, the paradigm of a two-world dichotomy.
there has to be a conversion from the false world to the true world, and coupled with that there must be a form of
transport—moving from ordinary experience to true understanding.
for plato, this is a metaphor! what you truly know, for plato, are ideas, and this characterization of the
philosophical project (two-worlds) is for him explicitly an image so it falls short of truth on its own terms. but the
metaphor gets taken up in the history of philosophy and in various ways takes on a form of its own truth.
implications for Kant:
when people think about the appearance / thing in itself distinction, they think of it in these platonic cave terms. if
you think of it that way it is still about seeing past the appearances to get at the thing-in-itself. the idea there is
that what is real in itself is before and beyond our ordinary experience in the world. that gives rise to, in Kant's
terms, the dogmatist model—that we begin philosophizing in the ordinary world of experience but can, through
thought, raise ourselves to transcendent truth. THAT IS A MODEL THAT KANT REJECTS. but nonetheless,
this model of a world of appearance and a world of truth in itself still haunts the philosophical project.
Kant's copernican hypothesis, though, transforms that model in a fundamental way. Kant asks not what things are
truly in themselves, not what they are beyond the world of all human perspective, as if you could see them as God
sees them. What he asks are what are the universal and necessary conditions of the possibility of anything being
present to us in the ﬁrst place. He is asking about the structures of our cognition. Not in terms of making sure in
every instance we get it right. Rather he is asking is how can anything be accessible at all, knowable at all.
Metaphor of glasses: in order to see anything at all you must have these glasses. it is a limit that enables. BUT, for
Kant, everyone has the exact same prescription—it is a universal apparatus, not individual in any way.
Two points to keep in mind: any question you ask about what is true and what is false, what is real or illusory, is a
question you ask within the framework that makes any knowledge possible. any inquisition as to what is real and
what is a sham has nothing to do with thing-in-itself but only with appearances, within the horizon of our
For Kant, it makes no sense trying to get rid of 'the glasses' so to speak. we only see things through the glasses, we
don't see them as they truly are in themselves but only in terms of the way they are for us, as the one who sees. All
we see is appearance. But without this apparatus we would see nothing at all. Can we get around the glasses? No.
THERE IS NO OUTSIDE TO THOSE GLASSES, they are the very condition of the possibility of having a visual
experience in the ﬁrst place.
What Kant is not doing, contrary to the reading given by famous full endowed professors, this isn't a two worlds
dichotomy. In invoking the distinction between appearance and thing-in-itself, KANT IS NOT POSITING TWO
WORLDS. he is saying that the very idea of experience, in this context the very idea of having empirical
knowledge, presupposes this distinction. why? when you pose the problem of knowledge itself you must
presuppose that there is something there to be known, because what distinguishes knowing from simply having an
experience is that knowing posits what is present to you as independent, as a reality in itself .. that you seek to know.
so the very sense of what it means to know is that there is something there independent of your awareness that
you are trying to pin down. so what Kant says is that the very basis of our experience is the presence of things to us, to
be aware, to be conscious, is to be conscious of something. But as the project of knowledge, the very possibility of
that thing appearing to us as an object of knowledge is this added meaning: there is something in itself that is
appearing. we are not simply having a mental experience but we are actually conscious of somehting independent
and other to us that we seek to know.
how does that diﬀer from the two-worlds dichotomy: twd says what we have as an object of experience is
deception. the really real is another world beyond that ordinary experience. so if what it is you know are
appearances, that, by deﬁnition, is a failing. you don't really know appearances. you can take them on faith, on
trust, but the level of actual knowing is of things as they really are in themselves. so in the trad. model you say i
know only appearances, you are saying i know only the way things show themselves to me (but that way they show
hemselves to me is fundamentally delusion). what is diﬀerent with Kant is that he's saying all that is real is what
appears to us. the only thing you could possibly know is an object of consciousness. and part of the very meanign of the knowing project is that we make the distinction between the appearing thing and its being in itself as a
meaning necessary to make sense of the project of knowing. so our consciousness of anything has that diﬀerence in
meaning built in: what appears to us is in itself something appearing.
in kant's own view, what is necessary for the project of knowing (the consciousness of a thing) is the thought of
that thing as a thing in itself!
even though we can't know the thing in itself. we are limited to the way it appears to us. some take this to mean
'we don't have genuine knowledge' because the true in itself lays out of our reach. but kant says the range of our
knowledge is limited to the range of possible experience, and it is within that range that anything can eﬀectively be
for us. what is eﬀectively real must be real within the bounds of our experience.
so is there even a thing there that is not how we perceive it, is there a thing-in-itself diﬀerent than the appearance
of the thing? yes there is somethign objectively other from us, but is it diﬀerent in its ontology than the way we
apprehend it? THAT IS NOT KNOWABLE EITHER.
the bounds of experience is what is real.
the thing in itself is not an object of knowledge whatsoever. but it is a meaning essential to the project of actually
nwoing. all we know of is the way things are present to ourselves. it requires that meaning of'thing-in-itself' being
posited for knowledge to begin.
if soemthing doesn't appear, it is not an object of cognition whatsoever.
the distinction between appearance and thing-in-itself is a distinction we make within the bounds of experience to
begin with, and the very project of knowledge necessitates that we make the distinction in the ﬁrst place!
what we know in appearances is appearances, and everything else we know is also appearance!
- we never get beyond or around or behind or outside appearance to get at something in itself because that is non-
sensical. as soon as we get at it, that somethign is what appears to us!
Plato sets this model up as a world of expereince in which what it is you know is ambiguous. things show
themselves to us in ambiguous manifold ways. you wanna know what justice is? you look around and ﬁnd it
manifest in all kinds of ways and you can't pin it down, essentially. how do you get to justice in itself? you reorient
yourself from the manifold images of justice to the very idea of justice itself. you raise yourself in thought from the
world of trust to the world of episteme where you actually know.
BUTWHEN YOU ACTUALLY KNOW, WHAT IS ITYOU KNOW? you know and IDEA! Have you gone
beyond the way things appear to get at the reality itself? no! you have just changed what you take to be reality of
what appears to you. so at one level you take the manifold appearances of justice to be true, or you take one
appearance at the expense of all the others without a reason to do it, but when you get to the truth what you get is
not reality in itself or teh true in itself but the truth as when it shows it to you as one. you substituted one kind of
appearance (manifold, ambiguous, etc) for another kind of appearance (ideational).
this implies, as Heidegger points out, that the measure of the truth is not reality in itself but the way in which it
shows itself to us. the measure of the truth really lays with us! what conforms to our intellect, our capacity to see
the idea as one, is our measure for truth. the metaphor itself, the cave allegory (which plato knows is an allegory
and not a truth), has the insight that what counts as true for us can only be a matter of how what it is we take to be
real appears to us, shows itself to us. we don't step outside our understanding, we just look at the real diﬀerently!
the fundamental force of