The American Philosophers from the Transcendentalists to the Pragmatists were all following in the footsteps of the great German Idealist Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804). This isn’t too surprising because all of Western Philosophy follows in the footsteps of Kant. In 1781 Kant published Critique of Pure Reason and rocked the world of philosophy. What Kant articulated and what later generations of philosophers picked up on was that reality as we perceive it is not purely objective – it is at least partly subjective.
It is easy to believe that reality as we see it is a reflection of reality as it actually is. In other words we tend to assume that the perceptual function that the mind plays is passive, like a mirror, and doesn’t alter the image of reality that it reflects to us. Not so, said Kant. Our perception of reality might start with sensations of something outside of ourselves, but by the time we perceive it our mind has organized, categorized and arranged those raw sensations into reality as it appears to us.
We can’t know reality directly. We don’t perceive of things in themselves. What we perceive as reality is in part created by our minds. And this creation of reality isn’t only the unconscious work of the mind as a machine, as some before Kant had believed, the creative process that constructs reality as we see it is also influenced by us. Of all of the infinite sensations, physical, emotional and conceptual that we experience at any given time we are only aware of a small percentage. The rest we ignore, but those that we attend to are compiled into reality as we see it.
One of the things that influences what we attend to and therefore what we see is our purpose at any given moment. If we are late for a train we will notice the sound of a clock ticking and use it to find the clock that we need to look at, while at other times when our purposes do not involve time we might not notice the sound of the clock at all.
In addition the picture of reality that we construct has to be consistent with reality as we have known it in the past. All of the incoming information that we get from our senses has to be ordered not to conflict with the past. We constantly must create a necessary unity between the present moment and the past.
What Kant did for Western Philosophy was make human beings part of the creative process of reality as we see it. In this he dealt a blow to both religion and science. To religion he insisted that we can’t perceive of God directly because our perception of God will also be partly of our own construction. To science likewise he takes away the ruse of objectivity because everything we observe will always be influenced by us.
This profound connection between human perception and the creation of reality set the stage for the rest of Western Philosophy and more recently for the pursuit of Evolutionary Spirituality. The American Pragmatists were building on Kant’s insight when they connected truth to human activity. In their view, not only was our perception of reality partly a product of our own influence, but truth itself was partly created by our own actions. Ideas became true when they were acted on. Reality was created as we lived it out. Charles Sanders Peirce – yes finally back to Peirce – in his early writings was very directly trying to rearticulate Kant’s work.
What Kant did for us was redefine reality. Where we at one time had a fixed stage that we observed passively from a seat in the audience, we now had a cooperative process of creation right in the middle of the production. This insight opened doors that philosophers have been walking though ever since and I intend to walk through a few myself.