Transcendental Apperception and the Phenomenology of Significance

When we perceive something, what is the phenomenological experience of that perception? Do we experience it, as Edmund Husserl would have said, as a series of objects in space? Or do we experience it in a doxastic way, as an immediate sense of there is particular thing X – a sort of proposition that happens without words? Or do we experience it as a web of significance as Martin Heidegger thought? Here I will explore some of these ideas.

Immanuel Kant defined the transcendental apperception as the synthesis of all our experiences into a unified consciousness that belongs to the self. He said that this synthesis was a priori to consciousness and used his own Categories of Understanding as the synthesizing tools. I am making a similar argument here.

We do not apprehend the world in the way that it actually exists. We know that there is a self involved in all perceptions, distilling the way objects exist in-themselves down to a single point of view. This point of view is already limiting, because an object must be apprehended from a certain angle at a certain distance.

Try imagining a world that is completely objective. It does not have anything to witness it existing. There is no such thing as color, the only differentiation in light is its energy. Sound can only be said to exist as vibrations in a molecular substrate. Try imagining an object from no specific point of view – it is merely there, just being. There is no negation of all other points of view from which it is observed; it is an object as totality, suspended in existence. There is no frame of reference scale – the subatomic and cosmically large are just existing without anyone there to distinguish their relative size. This is the world as it actually exists without any consciousness there to make sense of it. In consciousness, objects are compared to the self in their magnitude. Without a point of view limiting the objects, they don’t contain anything like size. Something is not big-in-itself or small-in-itself, it just exists as being-in-itself in its totality.

At the same time, the ideas of multitudes require a point of view. What does it mean, at the level of the noumenon – of being-in-itself – that there are three of something? This relation that three objects has exists in the mind. The same can be said of discrete and continuous; without a mind to consciously perceive any mereological entity, what does it mean for something to be a part of a whole? This requires that someone be there to see the form and function of the whole; without someone there, being-in-itself exists at the level of interacting quantum fields without any sort of size or function.

Objects that do not possess consciousness moving relative to one another would have no way of perceiving movement. Indeed, by Einstein’s theory of relativity, all objects contain an inertial frame of reference and remain static. But what does movement really mean without a consciousness there to see two objects with a size relative to the self of the consciousness, from a certain position in space, and at a certain time?

Space and time themselves are meaningful only to a consciousness that occupies a single point in spacetime. Without my being right here to see this happening right now, the when and where of events is arbitrary. What is the space between two things without it being seen from a particular point of view? A meter is a short distance to a human and long to an ant. If neither of those points of view exist, then what is the distance?

None of this is to say that nothing exists unless a consciousness is there to perceive it. What I’m getting at is that these ideas like space, time, distance, magnitude, etc. are all things that our brains need to first manipulate in order to make the world understandable. This is Kant’s transcendental apperception – using the Categories of Understanding to synthesize perceptual data into a conscious representation of the world.

But what is the actual phenomenological experience of this? Edmund Husserl talked about our need to retain and protain objects in order to experience them as objects in the world: retain the memory of seeing the object from a particular point of view and protain (or predict) how it will look in the future, namely if I change the position from which I look at it. It’s through this that these objects, in their totality, suspended in space, come to be perceived from a specific point of view that is knowable to us.

However, is this really the way we experience the world? Don’t we instead experience the world as significance a priori to our experience of it as geometrical shapes? Alvin Plantinga says that we can acquire warranted knowledge from our immediate (basic in his parlance) doxastic experiences. This would mean that there is a sort of phenomenological way of belief formation that occurs a priori of conscious thought. This would mean that our perceptions are primarily a belief-forming faculty rather than a faculty for reporting the external world to us in some objective way as someone like Husserl might have thought.

Heidegger seems to take this a step further when he says that we experience things as their significance to us rather than as mere objects – I experience a coffee cup as that which holds liquid and which I received for my birthday two years ago rather than as a cylindrical shape with a curved handle coming off it. This isn’t Aristotle’s version of substances to which we predicate things – or, indeed, Plantinga’s way of experiencing things as propositions about those things in an immediate (basic) way – but as a a web of significance. The object itself, as it exists objectively, could almost be said to be invisible to us, the actual phenomenological experience being of the object’s significance. The same goes for words, which merely invoke meaning that already exists in the Dasein as a web of significance.

These ideas, if true, all mean that there is more to the transcendental apperception than the mere binding of perceptual data. We must also synthesize what I call cognitive phenomenology. To do this, there must be mechanisms of phenomenology that can construct this conscious experience.