«ABSTRACT I argue that Kant’s distinction between the cognitive roles of sensibility and understanding raises a question concerning the conditions ...»
Two Kinds of Unity in the
Critique of Pure Reason
I argue that Kant’s distinction between the cognitive roles of sensibility
and understanding raises a question concerning the conditions necessary for
objective representation. I distinguish two opposing interpretive positions,
namely Intellectualism and Sensibilism. According to Intellectualism, all objective
representation depends, at least in part, on the unifying synthetic activity of the mind.
In contrast, Sensibilism argues that at least some forms of objective representation, speciﬁcally intuitions, do not require synthesis. I argue that there are deep reasons for thinking that Intellectualism is incompatible with Kant’s view as expressed in the Transcendental Aesthetic. We can better see how Kant’s arguments in the ﬁrst Critique may be integrated, I suggest, by examining his notion of the “unity” (Einheit) of a representation. I articulate two distinct ways in which a representation may possess unity and claim that we can use these notions to integrate Kant’s arguments in the Aesthetic and the Transcendental Deduction without compromising the core claims of either Sensibilism or Intellectualism—that intuition is a form of objective representation independent of synthesis, and that the kind of objective representations that ground scientiﬁc knowledge of the world require synthesis by the categories.
KEYWORDS concepts; conceptualism; Immanuel Kant; intuition; non-conceptualism;
perception; space; synthesis; transcendental deduction; unity Space is not an existing object of sensible intuition, nor—as little as time—is it something existing outside me, in which the manifold of perceptions is determinable as to its position, rather [space and time are] themselves intuitions given a priori, which contain in themselves, synthetically a priori, the formal principle of the composition of the manifold in appearance. Limitless with regard to their extensive magnitude, they hence contain unconditional unity (and thus inﬁnity); there is only one space and one time. (Opus Postumum, 22:12)1 Quotations from Kant’s work are from the Akademie Ausgabe, with the ﬁrst Critique cited by the standard A/B edition pagination, and the other works by volume and page. Translations are my own, though I have regularly consulted translations from the Hackett editions by Werner Pluhar and the Cambridge Editions of the Works of Immanuel Kant, general editors Paul Guyer and Allen Wood.
Speciﬁc texts are abbreviated as follows:
An: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View BL: Blomberg Logic * Colin McLear is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 53, no. 1 (2015) 79–110  80 journal of the history of philosophy 53:1 January 2015 kant famously distinguishes between two distinct cognitive faculties, namely “sensibility” (Sinnlichkeit) and “understanding” (Verstand), whose joint operation allows for Erkenntnis or “cognition” to occur. Consider, for example, his introduction of the distinction at the beginning of the Transcendental Aesthetic
of the ﬁrst Critique:
Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions; they are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts.
(A19/B33; cf. B33/A19, A51/B75) Here we have a distinction between the cognitive roles of the two faculties in giving (sensibility) and thinking about (understanding) objects. If we construe this “givenness” in terms of having an objective representation—that is, a representation of some mind-independent feature of reality—then Kant appears committed to a fairly straightforward division of cognitive labor.2 Sensibility furnishes the mind with objective representations (intuitions) and the understanding allows for thought of what is objectively represented in intuition.3 However, Kant’s argumentative strategy in the Transcendental Deduction appears to complicate this seemingly straightforward separation of the faculties’ cognitive roles. In the Deduction, Kant hopes to show that the a priori concepts he calls the “categories” have legitimate application to objects of experience. The strategy by which he intends to achieve this result has been interpreted by many as requiring that the categories play a necessary role in being given an object.4 For example, Kant clearly states in the conclusion of the argument of the Deduction that the categories are the “conditions of the possibility of experience” (B161).
This would seem to deny the possibility of any objective representation without the categories.
C: Correspondence CJ: Critique of Judgment FI: First Introduction to CJ JL: Jäsche Logic LL: Lectures on Logic MFNS: Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science Pr: Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics R: Reﬂections and Fragments For a similar gloss of objective representation, see Pereboom, “Kant’s Deductions,” 160. I leave open here exactly how Kant understands the mechanism for objective representation. For example, it might be that objective representations are those representations that possess correctness conditions of some kind. We might further explain the possession of correctness conditions in virtue of causal covariance between representations and states of the subject’s environment. I discuss these issues further in “Kant on Animal Consciousness” and “Kant on Perceptual Content”; see also the discussion in §3 below.
Cf. Pritchard, Kant’s Theory of Knowledge, 28. I should also note that here and throughout I am primarily concerned with objective representation in ﬁnite beings. The intellectual intuitions by which God represents objective matters are another story. I brieﬂy discuss this issue further in §1 below Notable proponents of this view include Strawson, The Bounds of Sense; Sellars, Science and Metaphysics; Pippin, Kant’s Theory of Form; Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Knowledge; Pereboom, “Kant on Intentionality”; Kitcher, Kant’s Transcendental Psychology and Kant’s Thinker; McDowell, Mind and World, “The Logical Form of an Intuition,” “Hegel and the Myth,” and “Intentionality as a Relation”;
Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge; Van Cleve, Problems from Kant; Engstrom, “Understanding and Sensibility”; Ginsborg, “Kant and the Problem of Experience”; Land, “Kant’s Spontaneity Thesis” and “Prescribing Unity to Intuition”; Pereboom, Kant’s Deductions; Haag, Erfahrung und Gegenstand;
Grüne, Blinde Anschauung; Grifﬁth, “Perception and the Categories.” two kinds of unity in the CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON More generally, Kant’s argument in the Deduction appears to make objective representation dependent on a particular kind of mental activity, which Kant terms “synthesis”: the running through, gathering together, and building up of discrete bits of data into a uniﬁed state of awareness of an object, property, or state-of-affairs (A77–79/B102–5).
Using the notion of synthesis, we can distinguish two very general positions regarding the cognitive roles of sensibility and the understanding. Either sensibility, independently of any synthesis, furnishes the mind with objective representations (intuitions), or such objective representations depend, at least in part, on mental acts of synthesis.5 Call the position that sensibility may furnish the mind with at least some unsynthesized objective representations “Sensibilism.” This position contrasts with one—call it “Intellectualism”—that says that all objective representation requires synthesis.6 As interpreters, we must wonder which view—Sensibilism or Intellectualism—is Kant’s view. In what follows, I claim that Kant’s arguments in the Transcendental Aesthetic concerning the structure and nature of our representations of time and space are incompatible with Intellectualism.
Indeed, several interpreters have noted that there seems to be an incompatibility between the claims of the Aesthetic and subsequent parts of the Transcendental Analytic. They have therefore suggested that, once Kant’s commitments in subsequent sections of the ﬁrst Critique (especially the Transcendental Deduction) have been made clear, we must reread or otherwise recast his arguments in the Aesthetic in the light of the requirements set by his articulation of the nature of synthesis.7 In short, they argue that we must reread the argument of the Aesthetic in an Intellectualist manner. I believe that such a proposed rereading is mistaken.
If the argument I present in §2 below is correct, then we cannot give an Intellectualist rereading of Kant’s argument in the Transcendental Aesthetic without compromising central tenets of the critical philosophy. This appears to leave us at a signiﬁcant interpretive impasse. On the one hand, we are faced with the possibility that Kant’s critical philosophy is an incoherent blend of Sensibilist and A protracted debate in Kant studies concerns whether Kant is a “conceptualist”—one who regards the content of perceptual experience as wholly conceptual. However, there are a variety of ways in which one might construe the content of an experience as conceptual (cf. Heck, “Nonconceptual Content”; Speaks, “Is There a Problem?”), and a variety of ways in which Kant utilizes the notion of a “concept” in his arguments regarding the relation between the two stems or faculties of cognition— viz. sensibility and understanding (cf. Hanna, “Kant and Nonconceptual Content”). Fortunately, we can separate the question of whether intuitions have conceptual content from whether intuition, insofar as it is objective representation, depends on the synthetic (whether understood as conceptual or not) activity of the intellect (my catch-all term for those faculties of the mind that are “higher” or more cognitively sophisticated than sensibility). It is this latter question that I focus on in this paper.
For further discussion of the conceptualism debate with respect to Kant, see McLear, “The Kantian (Non)-Conceptualism Debate.” See Burge’s Origins of Objectivity for an extremely critical discussion of forms of Intellectualism concerning perceptual representation in the twentieth century. I am not concerned here with whether Intellectualism is false, but rather how best to understand Kant.
Longuenesse (Capacity to Judge, ch. 8) discusses the importance of carrying out this “rereading” of the Aesthetic. Cf. Natorp, Grundlagen; Pippin, Kant’s Theory of Form; Sedgwick, “McDowell’s Hegelianism”;
Abela, Kant’s Empirical Realism; Wenzel, “Die Categorien”; Ginsborg, “Was Kant a Nonconceptualist?” 82 journal of the history of philosophy 53:1 January 2015 Intellectualist ideas. On the other hand, Sensibilism may seem unable to account for a central and surely correct insight of interpreters attracted to Intellectualism, namely that synthesis ﬁgures prominently in Kant’s account of rational human cognition. However, I believe we can integrate Kant’s arguments in the Aesthetic and the Deduction without compromising the core claims of either side: that intuition is a form of objective representation independent of synthesis, and that the kind of objective representations that ground scientiﬁc knowledge of the world require synthesis by the categories.
We can better see how Kant’s arguments in the ﬁrst Critique may be integrated, I suggest, by examining his notion of the “unity” (Einheit) of a representation. I articulate two distinct ways in which a representation may possess unity. One is aesthetic and given via sensibility.8 The other is discursive and generated by the understanding.9 Insofar as intuition has aesthetic unity, it counts as a form of objective representation. If, however, it is granted that intuition has aesthetic unity, the question arises as to why the understanding, and particularly the categories, might be necessary for the generation of experience. In the second half of the paper I sketch an answer to this question by explicating the second notion of unity—namely, “discursive unity”—which I suggest is the notion of unity at issue in the argument of the Transcendental Deduction. I claim that the Deduction’s argument concerning discursive unity is no threat to the conception of aesthetic unity laid out in the Transcendental Aesthetic, and thus no threat to the Sensibilist claim that intuition is a non-synthesized form of objective representation. I then discuss how these aesthetic and discursive unities relate in the perceptual experience of an object.
This paper consists of four sections. Section one examines in further detail the Intellectualist argument for the dependence of aesthetic unity, or the unity of intuition, on the intellect. Section two presents, in two steps, my argument against the existence of such a dependence relation based on Kant’s characterizations of intuition and the discursive activity of the mind. I also address an objection to my argument that stems from Kant’s conception of our cognition of totalities.
Section three discusses the notion of discursive unity and the compatibility of aesthetic unity, as I have articulated it, with Kant’s argument in the Transcendental Deduction. Finally, in section four, I summarize the paper as a whole.
1. the intellectualist argument for the primacy of discursive unity In the Transcendental Aesthetic Kant makes the case for thinking that sensory consciousness has certain formal features, which are present in any sensory Here and throughout I use ‘aesthetic’ in the sense that Kant uses it in the ﬁrst Critique—viz.
as having to do with our receptive faculty of cognition, and not with the issue of beauty or taste; see A21/B35, note.
I use ‘discursive’ here and throughout to denote the manner in which the understanding acts—viz. moving to and fro, from part to part—rather than merely as a synonym for ‘conceptual,’ ‘linguistic,’ or ‘rational.’ Perhaps the clearest example of the understanding’s activity is in combining conceptual representations into a whole uniﬁed propositional judgment. Kant is clear, however, that the understanding works upon more than just concepts; most signiﬁcantly, for our purposes, is that it works on sensory representations as well. I discuss and defend this claim further in §§2–3 below.