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Step 81: Kant and the Rise of Subjective Realism

Kant & the Rise of Subjective Realism

Ryder Richards discusses how Kant bypasses the conundrum of fate vs. determinism, vouching for the transcendent realm. Which squares the circle between undignified reality and our less honorable desires.

Kant introduced a philosophy that creates a square grid, with the influential idea of a priori knowledge in one quadrant. This abstract knowledge exists in Kant’s unknowable “noumenal” realm. This marked a departure from Hobbes and Newton, who emphasized submitting to the laws of reality discovered through science and experimentation to uncover the secrets in this realm. Instead we can determine our own morality.

In the episode, Ryder references Slavoj Zizek, Thomas Hobbes, Mark Fisher, and Matthew Crawford. Images created by DALL-E


  • 0:00 Recap and overview
  • 3:06 History: the shift from reality to belief
  • 6:17 Kant’s quarrel with objects
  • 8:14 Kant’s freedom from reality
  • 14:19 The contradiction of Transcendental ideology
  • 17:00 The false dichotomy between freedom and determination
  • 19:28 The ascent into abstraction
  • 220:01 Consequences of transcendent beliefs
  • 25:24 outro


The World beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford
Sex and the Failed Absolute, Slavoj Žižek


Intro: Recap and overview
Part 1: History: the shift from reality to belief
Part 2: Kant’s quarrel with objects
Part 3: Kant’s freedom from reality
Part 4: The contradiction of Transcendental ideology
Part 5: The false dichotomy between freedom and determination
Part 6: The ascent into abstraction
Part 7: Consequences of transcendent beliefs

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism


The podcast introduction commences with a reflection on previous discussions, particularly focusing on the interplay between reality, science, religion, and simulacra. In Step 79, the host critiqued the notion of reality functioning as a filter between science, religion, and simulacra. However, this concept was identified as flawed, particularly in its inability to distinctly categorize science as a form of religion or religion as a simulacrum. This sets the stage for a deeper exploration of these complex relationships and how they intertwine with our perception of reality.

In Step 80, the podcast introduced an alternative model, likening the concept to a ladder. This model posits reality as the foundational ground, with truth emerging as an abstraction from this base. This truth then evolves into science, further developing into unverifiable religious beliefs, and eventually descends into the realms of lies, propaganda, and simulacra. This progression suggests a hierarchical structure in understanding and interpreting reality, truth, science, and belief systems.

Ryder also integrates philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s concept of the “apocalypse” to illustrate how human desires often overshadow the pressing issues of physical material reality, leading to a metaphorical and ongoing apocalypse that is often ignored due to our preoccupation with individual sovereignty.

Today, we will dive into Immanuel Kant’s philosophical ideas and his contentious relationship with the concept of objects. We will challenge Kant’s creation of a false dichotomy (freedom vs. determinism) and its contemporary consequences, questioning the necessity of such ideological separations.

This critique, framed as an “anti-Kant rant,” is intended not to dismiss Kant’s philosophy but to explore the psychological tendencies that lead us away from reality, using Kant’s theories as a case study. Ryder also acknowledges the role of storytelling in shaping cultural ideals and norms, binding us together societally, which often diverge from scientific or objective realities, but is more concerned today with direction back to reality.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

The Shift from Reality to Belief

Thomas Hobbes, the author of “Leviathan” (1651), presented a rather bleak view of human nature, suggesting that in the absence of societal structures, individuals would revert to their selfish instincts. He argued that life in a state of nature, without governance, would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Hobbes posited the necessity of a strong sovereign authority to maintain peace and order, acknowledging human self-interest but also recognizing our rational capability to understand the need for a society governed by rules. This perspective reflects a tension between innate self-centered tendencies and the rational understanding of societal benefits.

Hobbes’ encounter with Galileo Galilei in 1629 influenced his worldview, particularly the idea of a mechanical reality, which some perceive as deterministic. This mechanistic view, shared by Galileo and later expanded by Isaac Newton, emphasizes causality and is grounded in empirical science. The natural sciences and this empiricist perspective contributed to the development of a causal understanding of reality. However, figures like Galileo, Newton, and later Charles Darwin, grappled with reconciling their scientific observations with their beliefs in God, a common intellectual challenge of their times.

The philosophical landscape shifted with the birth of Immanuel Kant, who introduced a significant departure from the empirical and mechanistic views of Hobbes and Newton. Kant proposed the concept of a priori knowledge, which exists in an inaccessible “noumenal” realm. This abstract knowledge marked a divergence from the emphasis on adhering to the laws of reality as discovered through scientific experimentation.

Kant’s philosophy allowed for the existence of an individual realm of sovereignty and autonomy, contrasting with the deterministic views of Hobbes and Newton. Kant suggested that the most profound truths about humanity (knowledge and belief) reside in this transcendent realm, once again, a metaphysical domain beyond our immediate understanding.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

Part 2: Kant’s Quarrel

Immanuel Kant’s philosophical quarrel with the nature of reality and objects, which led to his concept of the “Noumenal” realm, is rooted in his discomfort with the idea of external objects imposing upon human perception and autonomy.

Matthew Crawford articulates this by highlighting Kant’s aversion to the notion that objects in reality could influence and dictate human behavior, thereby hindering self-governance. This concept reflects a resistance to “heteronomy,” a term borrowed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which describes the condition of being governed by external forces rather than by self-directed reason. Kant viewed this influence of external objects as a threat to human autonomy and dignity, a perspective that rapidly evolved from a critique of physical reality to a moral argument against the influence of external reality.

[M]oral teleology compensates for physical teleology and for the first time supplies a basis for theology. For physical teleology on its own […] could not provide a basis for anything but a demonology.

Immanuel Kant

Kant’s philosophical stance posited that the moral realm, or what he termed “moral teleology,” compensates for the constraints of physical reality, laying the groundwork for a form of “theology” that rejects the idea of being dominated by external, physical forces. This perspective sharply contrasts with the idea of “physical teleology,” which Kant believed could only lead to a form of “demonology,” where reality is demonized for not conforming to human expectations and desires.

Kant’s discomfort with the external world’s resistance to human conceptions of meaning and order was profound, reflecting his belief that reality should ideally conform to human will, almost as if humanity held a god-like power over the natural world.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

Part 3: Kant’s Freedom from Reality

“The will does not give itself the law, but the object through its relation to the will gives the law to it.”

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant’s philosophy represents a significant shift in the understanding of reality, as he introduced the distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. He posited that certain truths, known as a priori truths, exist independently of experience.

For instance, we understand that “all bachelors are unmarried men” without needing to verify this through experience. He points out that our perception of the real world is limited to appearances; we cannot fully comprehend the entirety of the objects we encounter. For example, a microscope reveals aspects of a loaf of bread that are otherwise invisible, indicating that our understanding is incomplete. Kant argues that our senses, and more importantly, our mind (cognition), are inherently incapable of grasping the full essence of objects.

Kant differentiates between the appearance of an object (the “thing”) and its true essence or “thing-in-itself” (Ding an sich), which remains inaccessible to us. He refers to this unknowable realm where the true nature of things resides as the noumena. This concept suggests a realm beyond our reach, transcending physical laws and the causal forces of nature.

Mark Fisher describes this realm as neither material nor immaterial but as a site where the transcendent subject and identity are produced.

Context Check: Kant’s ideas mark a transition from the reality-based processes of Galileo and Newton, who emphasized observable, falsifiable causality, to a secondary, transcendent realm that contains truths beyond our empirical knowledge.

Furthermore, Kant challenges Thomas Hobbes’ notion that a sovereign authority is needed to govern human self-interest. Instead, he asserts that humans, as rational beings, possess autonomy and a noumenal self capable of making moral decisions independently of external, deterministic physical laws. Kant proposes that humans, through rationality, can self-legislate morality, a concept that clearly diverges from the need for external moral authority.

Kant also addresses the conflict between determinism and free will. He argues that if reality is entirely determined by causal laws (as in Newtonian physics), then the concept of free will becomes untenable. To hold individuals accountable for their actions, the presupposition of free will is necessary. This philosophical stance opened the door to individual subjective autonomy, allowing for a shift from objective facts towards personal belief and faith. Kant’s noumenal realm endorses a deeper reality where beliefs can exist without empirical justification. This has led to the proliferation of subjective relativism in society, where personal truths are upheld irrespective of external reality, reflecting a psychological preference for individual importance over objective reality. In a way, Kant’s philosophy creates a metaphorical Never-never Land, allowing individuals to prioritize their desires over the constraints of the external world.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

Part 4: The Contradiction of Transcendental Ideology

The critique of transcendental ideology, often overlooked in general discourse, centers on the inherent contradictions involved in postulating realms beyond empirical reality. The fundamental problem with such transcendental concepts is that they promise greater freedom and expanded possibilities while simultaneously limiting our ability to verify or challenge these assertions within a rational framework. Slavoj Žižek highlights this paradox in the “transcendental frame,” noting that while it broadens our conceptual horizons, it also imposes a rigid boundary on rational contemplation. This paradox is evident in various intellectual movements like Marxism, psychoanalysis, and deconstruction, which, despite their claims of liberating thought from repressive and fixed assumptions, ultimately establish new limitations and assumptions at a higher level of abstraction, often grounded in belief rather than empirical facts or truth.

Immanuel Kant’s assertion that the noumenal realm facilitates free will through pure reason, transcending the causal chains of the physical world, exemplifies this contradiction. While reason is posited as the proof of the noumenal realm’s existence, it fails to bridge the divide between the phenomena (the observable world) and the noumena (the realm beyond sensory perception). This dilemma results in pure logic revolving around internal paradoxes, unable to be held accountable to or validated by empirical reality. This theoretical impasse underscores the limitations of transcendental ideology in providing concrete, verifiable insights into the nature of reality.

Further complicating the issue, Kant himself seems to acknowledge this conundrum. Žižek points out that Kant’s philosophy suggests that through reason, one can arrive at moral truths similar to Kant’s own derivation of the categorical imperative and the highest good. However, this presupposes a level of rational discipline that is rare among individuals. In reality, people are often driven by irrational desires and emotional needs, seeking both stability and excess, and exhibiting frustration and aggression when their desires are unmet. This observation aligns with Hobbes’ view of human nature as fundamentally self-interested and prone to brutish behavior, thereby highlighting the practical challenges in applying Kant’s idealized notions of rational morality to the complexities of human nature.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

Part 5: The False Dichotomy of Freedom and Determination

Matthew Crawford challenges Kant’s supposed conflict pitting human freedom against causal determinism. Crawford argues this is a false dichotomy, creating problems unnecessarily. Few people have absolute freedom, yet we insist on total autonomy despite daily lives heavily shaped by external conditions. Key terms like “freedom” lose meaning through cultural distortion.

The paradox is that the ideal of autonomy (freewill) seems to work against the development and flourishing of any rich ecology of attention—the sort in which minds may become powerful and achieve genuine independence.

Matthew Crawford

Rather than escape limits, Crawford says meaningful agency emerges through interacting with concrete constraints, not fantasies of self-directedness. Navigating tangible boundaries fosters applicable skills and options. This hands-on reality affords dignity. No transcendence needed, just clear-eyed engagement.

Crawford advocates attentiveness – active acceptance of given circumstances. This attention nurtures response-ability. Fate or luck lacks the imagined bogeymen power when we focus our agency through reality’s channels. Creativity arises by working through limits rather than denying them via impossible, literally nonsensical freedom. Wisdom lies in embracing embeddedness, liberating ourselves from both selfish delusions and false dichotomies.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

Part 6: The Ascent into Abstraction

Kant’s introduction of the “categorical imperative” within his ethical system represented an attempt to formalize moral reasoning, an effort to temper the subjectivity inherent in his philosophical framework. His approach suggests that adherence to his transcendental ideology should naturally extend to embracing his moral principles.

However, there is a critique that this approach merely serves as a superficial nod to rationality and morality. This veneer (a medicine coating on an everlasting gobstopper) allows individuals to subsequently indulge in their subjective interpretations of morality. This critique argues that while Kant emphasizes the importance of rational, moral behavior and the responsible exercise of subjective freedom, the practical application often degenerates into a convenient abandonment of reality’s demands, justified under the guise of personal morality. This interpretation of Kant’s philosophy leads individuals to prioritize their subjective experiences and personal reasoning, eventually neglecting universal principles in favor of more self-gratifying beliefs.

The descent into this subjective realm and prioritizing personal freedom over objective rigor mark a transition from self-governance to self-entitlement. This shift in responsibility, from aligning with external reality to constructing extravagant personal identities, is seen as a form of liberal individualism devoid of the Enlightenment’s more rigorous challenges. The critique suggests that this indulgence in subjective morality and identity construction sidesteps the demanding nature of engaging with reality, opting instead for an easier, more self-centered existence.

Despite the allure of this subjective freedom, there is an acknowledgment of the value in diligently engaging with reality. This engagement requires a commitment to attuning oneself to the external world, which, while challenging, offers the potential for genuine agency and skill development. This perspective (from Matthew Crawford) underscores the importance of not allowing Kant’s ideals to be warped into self-serving dogmas, but rather using them as a basis for a more grounded and responsible interaction with the world… with its subsequent rewards.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

Part 7: The Consequence of Transcendental Ideology

The cultural tendency to embrace beliefs, especially those emphasizing self-importance, poses significant challenges. When a society collectively commits to certain ideas or ideals, particularly those that are more abstract or transcendent in nature, it can lead to the marginalization or scapegoating of dissenting voices. This collective adherence to subjective and transcendent beliefs often involves an implicit assumption of having special access to a higher truth, potentially leading to further individuation and differentiation within society.

Such differentiation can be seen as a form of creative self-expression and moral creation sovereign from restraint. This questions the state’s role in enforcing societal norms and peace. This situation echoes the dilemmas that question the legitimacy and origins of societal contracts and the state’s authority, rejecting Thomas Hobbes’s notion of the necessity for a strong authority.

Slavoj Žižek highlights a common human response to catastrophe and difficult truths: the tendency to deny reality and retreat into an inner refuge of the mind. This escapism is often rooted in a form of perverse optimism, which, while presented as offering hope, is fundamentally based on a pessimistic view of the world (a fear to engage reality).

Such an attitude can lead to a disconnection from reality and overemphasizing internal, subjective experiences. This perspective is contrasted with approaches like Morita therapy, or as discussed by Matthew Crawford, which emphasize the importance of engaging with the external world as a remedy for self-centered psychological issues such as depression and narcissism.

The implication is that despite the allure of beliefs in higher purposes like “free will,” our existence is more significantly influenced by our external circumstances.

The belief in a Kantian split, which separates the individual from the external reality, can lead to various psychological issues. This division can contribute to feelings of pain, anxiety, and a range of mental health challenges, including psychological dysfunction and schizophrenic symptoms. By emphasizing a divide between the individual’s internal world and the external reality, the Kantian dichotomy can exacerbate personal struggles, suggesting that a more integrated approach to understanding the self to the world (embedded perception) might be beneficial in addressing these issues. Overall, Ryder encourages reevaluating the impact of philosophical beliefs on individual well-being and societal functioning.

Step 81: Kant and Subjective Relativism

Thank you!

Ryder concludes that Kant helped sophisticate philosophy but left ambiguity by trying to protect creativity from an indifferent universe. His internal hopes opened the door to unevidenced beliefs. This encouragement of comforting delusions seems disastrous but is rampant: a desire to shed concrete entanglements.


The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford

Flatline Constructs, Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher argues that Kant’s transcendental subject is neither immaterial nor material, but rather a “Gothic materialism” that “deploys the Kantian critical machine to interrogate what remains uncritiqued in Marx (the reification of already-constituted actualities like ‘the social’) whilst using Marx to re-insert Kant’s subject into the hypermaterialist field of Kapital.”

  • Fisher sees the transcendental subject as a “site of primary process where identity is produced (and dismantled)” and the “line Outside” (a term borrowed from Deleuze). The “line Outside” is the place where everything happens, beyond both life and death.
  • Fisher uses the work of William Butler to critique Kant’s view of the transcendental subject. Butler argues that machines may not only be capable of consciousness and purposiveness, but that they may also become so advanced that they will eventually surpass human beings.

Sex and the Failed Absolute, Slavoj Zizek

From Catastrophe to Apocalypse… and Back, Slavoj Zizek, 2022

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