A C Grayling begins his exposition of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in The History of Modern Philosophy by arguing that there are three great figures in Western philosophy – Plato, Aristotle and Kant. He bases his assessment on the power of their intellects, their willingness to plunge into answering the most difficult questions and the scope of their contribution to those coming after them. Kant’s most well known work is the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) but he also followed this with critiques of Practical Reason (1788) and Judgement (1790).

There is a lot that could be written about Kant, but I would like to focus on his writings on reality and how this might influence photographic practice.

In terms of ontology, Kant believes that we all walk around wearing rose-tinted glasses and that these glasses act as a filter on the world and influence the way we understand it. He argues that our perceptions take place in time and space and every change has a cause. As human beings we do not have direct access to the world and we are not able to remove the glasses to get a less inhibited look!

Kant spent much of his life trying to understand our relationship with reality and the limits to what we can know and understand. So, what is reality like? How can we learn more about the noumenal world – what lies behind the veil of perception? As discussed above we can’t gain direct access to the noumenal world but only experience it – we can only know about the phenomenal world. What we see is mountains, trees, lochs and skies but behind them lie the noumenal world.

Kant’s great work the Critique of Pure Reason set out to establish whether synthetic a priori knowledge is possible – that is whether knowledge of the world of things can be achieved independent of any experience. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century an epistemological debate between the empiricists (believing the origin of knowledge lies in sensory experience  alone) and rationalists (arguing that reason is the only sure path to knowledge) dominated discourse in philosophy.  Those such as Locke spoke of the tabular rasa or the blank slate of a child’s mind on which experience writes. The rationalists on the other hand believed that a priori synthetic knowledge did exist. Kant chose to take the middle ground espousing that it was possible for truth about the world to be revealed independently of experience – this he categorised as synthetic a priori knowledge.

Kant’s theory of knowledge is that our minds handle incoming data from sensory experience and organises it in order for us the make sense of the world. It does this through the use of a priori concepts and the combination of these concepts with the intuitions received via our senses determine our experience of the world – the phenomenal world. Furthermore, we cannot experience the world as it is in itself (the noumenal reality) as we are, forever, limited by the fundamental a-priori concepts that allow us to make sense of the world as it is.

I hope you are all still with me. I have to admit to having struggled to get any kind of grasp on Kant’s thinking although I am assured that scholars of many years would consider their knowledge and understanding of the depth of Kant’s thought as at best superficial. I have some way to go in this journey!

So how does Kant relate to my photographic practice. It tells me, what I knew already, that we cannot, as human beings, gain direct access to the noumenal world and reality. We can only experience the world through our senses and in relation to space and time. However, there is a significant question here that Ryan 2019 argues about the nature of the camera as an instrument. Can the camera freeze space and time in a way that no other instrument can and thus capture a fleeting glimpse of the real essence that Harman argues is borne of the  fundamental relationship between the ‘real object’ and its real qualities?



 GRAYLING, A C. 2019. The History of Philosophy. London: Viking.

RYAN, Robert James. 2019. Intuition, Expertise and Judgement in the Assessment and Capture of Photographic Images. PhD at the University of Gloucestershire.

WARBURTON, Nigel. 2011. A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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