Understanding Immanuel Kant's 'Copernican Revolution' by way of your cat
Your cat doesn’t know what a couch is, but you do. 🐱
A cat does know what feels ideal for scratching in such a way that it will sharpen her claws though. You probably have a rough idea of this, but you probably lack the discerning taste for scratchable surfaces your cat possesses. 👿
Sometimes that scratchiness and your couch coincide; this creates a problem with your feline roommate. She will never know what a couch is and you will never what a perfect scratchable thing is.
This helps to capture my extremely nascent understanding of the Copernican Revolution offered by the 18th Century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant.
I’ve engaged with Kant’s ideas a few times over the last year and the so-called 🔭 Copernican Revolution is something I have held onto for a few hours or a day from time to time since. When it sort of became whole in my head tonight I thought I better blog about it to try to hold onto whatever I progress I might have made. 📈
So Kant’s insight is that the external world is understood through knowledge we already have. We use that knowledge to acquire new knowledge, which helps us form more ideas and those other ideas help us to understand other things.
He said that before Kant we believed that knowledge arises from encountering objects, but in fact it is our knowledge that enables us understand objects. Our knowledge is not an epiphenomena of the world. The world as we see it is constructed by our knowledge.
Back to the cat: 🛋️ There’s a lot of things you understand about the world that your cat doesn’t understand, things about aesthetics and value and feng shui that help you see the object you call a couch as a couch. Your cat just understands everything through a basic set of needs. The couch might be a nice place to curl up because it feels soft, but that’s no reason not to scratch it.
🐈 Further, as I mentioned, your cat understands optimal scratching surfaces in a way you don’t. She might think, Sure I could scratch on that pole you bought me, but this thing you are sitting on is really so much nicer. Also, you are here, and I like you. Why I can’t I scratch this thing near you?
Neither of you are ever going to see the object humans understand as a couch the same way.
Your couch is only a couch because you have knowledge of the properties of couchness. without that knowledge, it isn’t a couch. It’s wood and cloth and springs. Or it is just matter.
Imagine if a comet hit the earth and fire came out of it but it turned out the fire was an intelligent being. ☄️ We could see it wasn’t growing the way fire might be expected to. It reigned itself in and seemed to move carefully from one flammable thing to another. It seemed to be making decisions about how much to consume how soon. It seemed to move in a strategic direction that would allow it to have the most options for later consumption.
To such a being, objects would only be things that burned and things that didn’t. It wouldn’t especially need to distinguish a tree 🌳 from a house 🏡. Its knowledge did not enable it to understand those distinctions because it had no need for them.
Perhaps here’s a better way to think about it that might make this all seem a bit more down to earth.
Have you ever watched a movie that you enjoyed as a child again as an adult and noticed whole sections of the story that you had no memory of? As if you had so little context for such matters that those parts of the story just slid in your brain and out? You still enjoyed the movie, but apparently your mind was just following the pretty colors at the points that you had no context for, because looking back you really had no memory of them.
You had no knowledge to make sense of whatever had been depicted to you, so it was as if you didn’t see it.
An example of this for me: I grew up in a little town and I feel this way when I think about watching sitcoms set in big cities. 🌇 It never even really occurred to me that the people’s lives looked different from mine as I watched them, because I didn’t understand that there were any other ways to live.
I remember when I first visited a very big city, as a pre-teen, asking where people’s yards were. It just didn’t occur to me that some folks might not have them.
📚 I think this is a pretty good way of understanding how objects really don’t give us knowledge. Our knowledge enables us to see objects for what we need them to be. That’s the reorientation that Kant forces us to make. 🌃
(or at least that’s how I understand him so far)