Archive for September, 2011

Knowing the World


“There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. … But although all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it arises from experience. For it is quite possible that even our empirical knowledge is a  compound of that which we receive through impressions, and of that which our own faculty of knowledge … supplies from itself ”

The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant



How do we know the world around us? How do we recognize and organize what we experience in our lived-world? How do I know myself as different from the other sitting across from me? Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) spent his life thinking and writing about these questions. He presented his thoughts around these questions in The Critique of Pure Reason, widely recognized as one of the most important works of Western philosophy. It is in this work that Kant presents his “Copernican revolution” of philosophy arguing that it is processes internal to us that provide the critical elements to our knowing the world outside of us.

I sit in a cafe and look around me. I see tables, chairs, and people sitting in the chairs at tables. I feel the grain of the wood on the table before me. I smell the aroma of the coffee on my table. People read newspapers or books, or talk with one another. I see pictures hanging on the walls. I hear, but do not see, others talking about politics. In this moment, this is my lived-world of experience. Yet, there is more going on than just these sense perceptions. I receive these impressions, but I am ordering and creating the knowing of this moment. My very being in this moment is conditioned by my knowing. Even before these impressions are colored and hued by my self identity, social conditioning and belief systems, I am ordering and giving form to the sense impressions  that confront me.

The manifold impressions are brought together into a coherent whole and the “I” that thinks is also unified into a sense of a conscious self. A synthesis takes place that creates my experience of an ordered and causal world. Kant called this process of knowing, “the transcendental unity of apperception.” A mouthful to be sure, but Kant – like many philosophers – loved to create his own terms to describe his ideas. The important thing to understand is that we may feel that knowing is mainly about taking in sense impressions, but Kant tells us there is so much more to knowing our world. He argues that we can never really know the things out there, only objects as known in us.

Why is this so important to psychotherapy? How can such a seemingly abstract idea be relevant to understanding ourselves and others? Kant’s illumination that we co-create our world is extremely important to how therapy works. It informs us that this innate unity of apperception works in me and the other. We can communicate and connect because we share a common way of knowing that precedes our personal and social conditions. It provides a common ground of understanding the world in which we live.

Kant also believed that we can never know the things in the world themselves, since our knowing is rooted within ourselves and this effects the way we understand the world. This is also relevant to the therapeutic process. Interpretation is never objective. My interpretation or understanding of an other is always filtered through myself. I listen to the other, I observe their presence in body. I am aware of my felt experience in this moment of being with the other person. Yet, how I see the other will always be conditioned by how I am in this world. Here I am going beyond Kant by including the personal and social conditioning that defines me as a self and how I see the world.

These are humbling thoughts for any therapist. The therapist must be aware of the different ways of knowing, the way that creates a common experience of the lived-world and the way that forever prevents me from really knowing an other’s experienced world. We do the best we can in connecting with the world of others. We open ourselves to possibilities of experience. Often, in these moments of sharing our experienced world with an other, something significant happens, a deeper knowing takes place that creates a state of healing.

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