One of the central branches of philosophy studying the nature of being is called ontology, and the question of being itself is one of the major topics in philosophy. The formation of this discipline began precisely with the study of the nature of being. Ancient Indian, Chinese, and Greek philosophy were primarily involved with ontology. They tried to explain the essence of being, and only later did philosophy expand its subject to include epistemology, logic, and other dilemmas. Understanding human life is significant in explaining the purpose of the universe. The main challenge in discussing the nature of a human being is understanding the role humans play in the world. Humans may be the central aspect of the universe or may only be peripheral. This paper explores this question using the ideas of Kant and Berkeley.
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One of the most relevant works of Kant in the context of the asked question is the Critique of Pure Reason. It is considered one of the most significant works in the history of philosophy and the primary book of the scholar. The key question of the work is the study of the cognitive possibilities of the mind, in isolation from the knowledge obtained empirically (Adorno, 2018). In the course of the examination, the philosopher covers the issues of space and time, the possibility of proving the existence of God through reason, and other relevant topics.
Kant establishes the unknowability of things-in-themselves, which generate, through their influence on our consciousness, the phenomena of the external world. Only these phenomena are available in our consciousness for facilitating our knowledge (Adorno, 2018). Space and time that we perceive as reality are subjective (Adorno, 2018). That is, they are our ideas, but do not exist by themselves. Therefore, everything that fits into them is also our ideas, since we cannot perceive anything outside of space and time (Adorno, 2018). Thus, in the experience, we deal only with our thoughts and perceptions but merely appear to us as objects. So, without exception, we know everything only as phenomena, and not as things-in-themselves. Above all that, however, Kant does not consider it possible to deny the very existence of things in themselves (Adorno, 2018). The exception would be if such a denial were a well-known proposition about them, which, in view of their unknowability to us, we have no knowledge to claim. The primary meaning of the work is that behind the phenomena accessible to our experience is the world of objects (things-in-themselves), which we cannot know.
When speaking of God, Kant distinguished between dogmatic and symbolic anthropomorphism. Whereas the majority of individuals made literal attributions to God’s qualities, Kant claimed that the human mind does not have the capacity to make literal descriptions of God’s deity. Symbolic anthropomorphism was proposed, which can be summarized as the idea that all of our thoughts about God and his relation to our world are merely results of analogy. Humans are limited in their vocabulary, and this set of abstract concepts and words we use to describe phenomena grants us only a distinct range of possibilities. Thus, Kant sets a limit on how far a human mind can go in terms of perception.
In summary, Kant claims that the world around us is only our perception, and different individuals perceive it in their own way. The question of whether or not the world is about us attains two meanings in this context. First, we might be asking whether we play a central role in our perceived world. In this case, the answer is yes, because the world does not exist without our perception. However, when speaking of the world of things-in-themselves, we have no role to play because these objects exist without our participation and are beyond our cognitive capabilities. For instance, if we think about the universe and its borders, we have no means to imagine what is beyond those boundaries. Humans may invent tools that will allow us to inspect the edges of the universe. However, it will not be possible to see what is outside of space. As mentioned, we only exist within the borders of space and time, and everything past them is beyond the reach of our cognitive skills.
Berkeley’s philosophy arose under the strong influence of Locke’s theory of empirical knowledge. However, Berkeley reworked this theory to such an extent that it started contradicting the original version (Tipton, 2019). George Berkeley begins his philosophy with the absolute denial of the reality of general abstract concepts (Tipton, 2019). According to him, there are only specific perceptions and no abstract ideas. When we imagine a familiar object, for instance, a tree, a triangle, or a similar entity, then, in fact, we are thinking about a concrete instance – a known example of a tree or a triangle of a known shape and size. We cannot represent general concepts except in specific images or symbols.
Everything that we ascribe to objects, in addition to our senses, Berkeley concludes, is fiction and fabrication. According to his philosophy, it is necessary to recognize the absence of the most general concept, which is called matter, that people have composed in their imagination from the most abstract ideas (Tipton, 2019). Locke believed that we are able to go back to the concept of matter by gradually distracting concrete signs from objects (Tipton, 2019). However, Berkeley denies this possibility – a matter for him is the most contradictory and incomprehensible of all concepts and must be withdrawn from use. He claims that most of the human race will never notice its absence (Tipton, 2019). The idea of matter existing independently of our perceptions, external in relation to consciousness, according to Berkeley, is needed only by atheists. A true philosopher must understand that all our experience comes down from the totality of our inner sensations.
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Berkeley also denies the existence of general ideas of extent, size, shape, position, and space itself. In his opinion, there is no mechanical causality that atheists try to put on the basis of all phenomena in order to deny the existence of God. However, Berkeley does not believe that we should doubt our feelings and suspect that they can give us a false picture of the world (Tipton, 2019). The actual source and criterion of the objective reliability of our knowledge are God, who gives us our perceptions. It, however, does not mean that God introduces absolutely every idea into human consciousness. God only puts a system of basic concepts that agree with each other into our cognition. Berkeley puts God in the middle of all being and states that our perceptions are shaped by our natural capabilities that were given by God. It can be concluded that, according to Berkeley, the world is about us and the capabilities that God gave us.
When asking whether the world is about us, it is critical to specify the definition of the “world.” All of our perceptions of the environment are subjective and exist only within our minds. Therefore, it is safe to claim that the world is about us if the world is what we see and feel. Kant had a similar opinion, but also indicated the existence of objects that are not subject to our perception. Berkeley, on the other hand, emphasized the significance of God.
- Adorno, T. W. (2018). Kant’s critique of pure reason. John Wiley & Sons.
- Tipton, I. C. (2019). Berkeley: The philosophy of immaterialism. Routledge.