Philosophy of Error: Notes on Kant

The Error of Kant’s View on Error

Kant, on pg. 297 of the Critique of Pure Reason, supposes that the senses do not err because they cannot judge. Kant argues that error only arises between our knowledge of an object and the object its self. Which is to say, error stems from judgement because no natural law or thing can error; whatever gravity does is simply gravity, it is no error. It is this analysis which he applies to the senses.

However, I take problem with such approach. If we suppose that the natural law contains no error, and that judgement is the true source of error, then is judgement its self not natural? For if natural things do not error, then judgement, supposing it to be natural, cannot error. Thus, the absurdity “error is not error” arises.

Of course, I do believe judgement can error, as such is sensible. But it is the notion that natural things cannot error which I seek to reject. I believe Kant uses the notion of error in an overly selective way. He supposes that judgement gives us error because our representations of the world can, despite best efforts, be a mismatch. That we, in our determinations, did not accurately judge the thing as it is and have instead represented it as something it is not; like when we miscalculate in an operation of arithmetic. However, this seems to suppose that only humans judge. He selects, for us humans, the central role of being the only thing which judges. And so it is only to humans to which error can apply.

Two objections which leap to the front of thought on this issue relate to complex systems and to the other things which can judge.

Complex Systems and Error

Firstly, complex systems do indeed have a design, allotted to them by evolution. These designs are defined by the fact that there is order amidst chaos. For there to be order amongst chaos requires effort on behalf of something, an expenditure of energy in some way towards some goal. For example, apes spend energy in maintaining their social hierarchies, trees spend energy in developing their roots, and the brain spends energy in performing basic cognitive functions. These are all indications of resistance against something, which might be insufficient for us to suppose that all complex systems have intentional states, but it is nonetheless sufficient evidence to suppose these things are designed.

Now, because there are many things with a design, it follows that more than just human judgement can error. Which is to say, it is an error on behalf of a given system when it performs something that it was not designed for, like a genetic error within an animal’s DNA. These errors, we might say, lack the property of intentionality. For instance, when a person has the intention to build a house and has in mind a specific blueprint, yet builds incorrectly because they have placed too much confidence in their ability to remember the blueprint. Such an error is accompanied by intentional states. However, the error which a gene makes might result from signal distortion while reading a protein, which lacks the distinctive property of intentional states. So, complex systems can produce errors, and our sensory organs are an instance of such complex systems.

The Judgement of Senses

Secondly, the senses do judge. There is no central place for judgement; instead, judgement is distributed throughout various locations within the brain, some of which are within the sensory organs themselves. That is, the synapses are performing judgements of information, as when a ligand screens various chemicals. The sensory organs judge, though not in the sense which we consciously experience judgement.

Judgement can be characterized by the process of discerning, no doubt. But where I believe Kant goes wrong is in supposing the processes of natural things, like sense organs, do not discern or judge and so cannot perform error. Indeed, natural processes judge. The very existence of thresholds, feature detectors, and sensory mechanisms found throughout nature tell us that the processes performed by natural things, like eyeballs, require much judgement to function.

Moreover, I should clarify, that I do agree with Kant on the fact that gravity cannot error; however, sensory organs and gravity are vastly different. One is a tool subject to signal distortion, the other is an underlining property of the universe. It is the conflation of these two types of things into the category of  “natural” which leads one to suppose all natural things cannot error: “if gravity cannot error and it is natural, then sensory organs cannot error, for they are also natural”.


By limiting error to the seat of consciousness, Kant had made an error. Complex systems have homeostatic functions which seek to maintain a specific state of existence, to which they sometimes fail to maintain as a result of an error in some process: signal distortion. Likewise, the notion of judgement fits perfectly well, so long as we suppose judgement requires discernment rather than intentionality, to those things which have sensory mechanisms, feature detectors, and thresholds. Thus, Kant’s philosophy of error seems, rightly put, to be a philosophy of error.

After Note: If anyone takes issue with my use of judgement, then I must ask; if we cannot suppose ligands to be judges of a sort, then what physical embodiment does human judgement take? Or is it not located anywhere? Physical things can be said to judge as long as humans can be said to judge.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

14 thoughts on “Philosophy of Error: Notes on Kant

  1. I believe you are fundamentally misunderstanding Kant. To argue that our intuition can err is to argue that what we sense in space and in time is wrong compared with some other thing of which it is a representation. However, Kant would argue that our representations are all we can know, and that to argue that they are in error would be to argue that one can know the thing-in-itself. The only errors that can be made are by the understanding because the understanding is what relates all of our sense data, and it is only in this relation that something can be in error because those relations are the only ones that exist for us.

    1. I know that, but I wasn’t disagreeing with that. I’ve argued against Kant’s “organizing” of reality. I’d recommend re-reading the post.

      If my previous arguments are accepted, then we have no reason to suppose only judgement can error.

    1. He doesn’t state it, its a background assumption. All philosophy relies on a whole bunch of background assumptions, some of which aren’t very defensible – (George Lakoff’s Philosophy In the Flesh talks about this topic a lot).

      Kant says error can only come from judgement, and that subject is the only thing which can judge.

    1. My guess is placed into the global neuronal network hypothesis – or astrocytes.

      But, in all honesty, I haven’t refined my ideas on the subject all that much since my early teen years. So, I still hold a fairly basic materialist/neuroscience position. Perhaps in the future I’ll write an essay regarding the matter.

      You have any thoughts as to where it resides?

  2. “You have any thoughts as to where it resides?”

    Does walking reside in legs?

    You wrote, “So, I still hold a fairly basic materialist/neuroscience position.”

    What is your definition of ‘matter’?

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