Nāgārjuna (c. 1750). (Rubin Museum of Art)

It was Kant who said, in Critique of Pure Reason, that ‘all objects of an experience possible for us are nothing but appearances’. What did he mean? Well, cognition requires intuition but intuition is limited: it presents appearances, not ‘things in themselves’.

In claiming so, Kant tied metaphysics to epistemology, appealing to a distinction between objects drawn from our conceptual resources and the things we cannot know.

‘[T]he transcendental object that lies at the basis of appearances […] is and remains for us inscrutable; for although the thing itself is indeed given, we just do not have insight into it.’

However, Kant, by a long stretch, wasn’t the first philosopher to argue along these lines. Roots can be traced to classical Indian philosophy. In the Nyāya, Vedānta, and Buddhist traditions, for example, the mind’s connection to the external world has long been questioned.

From science and in our own lives, we know that mental faculties create different ‘appearances’ between us. Apparently, on average, an orange object appears redder to males and grass is greener to females; boa constrictors have infrared vision; that dress is either gold and white or blue and black. However, perhaps there is a true nature of each of these things, even if it cannot be cognised and known (Kant).

According to Nāgārjuna (b. 150 AD), a Madhyamaka Buddhist, there isn’t. Reality is empty and by banishing ‘objective thought’ upon our reflections we’re able realise this ‘ultimate truth’.

This Madhyamakan route can still be noncommittal: through it we remain sceptical about the world, neither ascribing reality nor rejecting reality in our beliefs (a view which may have inspired Pyrrho).

According to many other philosophers, though, it is possible to conceive of real ‘things’, committing one to realism. It might just be that the mind only provides windows with restricted views (cf. Locke’s distinction of primary and secondary qualities).

With our descriptions of the world, like in physics, we might just track certain patterns and structures without truly understanding the ‘why’s of reality (e.g., particles can be waves and in infinite places at once).

What do you think?