Transcendental idealism

Last updated

Transcendental idealism is a philosophical system [1] founded by German philosopher Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. Kant's epistemological program [2] is found throughout his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). By transcendental (a term that deserves special clarification [3] ) Kant means that his philosophical approach to knowledge transcends mere consideration of sensory evidence and requires an understanding of the mind's innate modes of processing that sensory evidence. [4]


In the "Transcendental Aesthetic" section of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant outlines how space and time are pure forms of human intuition contributed by our own faculty of sensibility. Space and time do not have an existence "outside" of us, but are the "subjective" forms of our sensibility and hence the necessary a priori conditions under which the objects we encounter in our experience can appear to us at all. Kant describes time and space not only as "empirically real" but transcendentally ideal. [5]

Kant argues that the conscious subject recognizes the objects of experience not as they are in themselves, but only the way they appear to us under the conditions of our sensibility. This fits his model of perception outlined at the outset of the "Transcendental Aesthetic" by which he distinguishes the empirical reality of appearances studied by the empirical sciences from the noumenal reality of things as they are in themselves, independent of empirical observation. [6] Thus Kant's doctrine restricts the scope of our cognition to appearances given to our sensibility and denies that we can possess cognition of things as they are in themselves, i.e. things as they are independently of how we experience them through our cognitive faculties. [7]


Although it influenced the course of subsequent German philosophy dramatically, exactly how to interpret this concept was a subject of some debate among 20th century philosophers. Kant first describes it in his Critique of Pure Reason , and distinguished his view from contemporary views of realism and idealism, it remains the case that philosophers do not agree on how sharply Kant differs from each of these positions.

Transcendental idealism is associated, if not identified, with the formalistic idealism Kant discusses in his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics , although recent research has tended to dispute this identification. Transcendental idealism was also adopted as a label by the subsequent German philosophers Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Arthur Schopenhauer, and in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl in the novel form of transcendental-phenomenological idealism.

Kant's transcendental idealism

Kant presents an account of how we intuit (German : anschauen) objects and accounts of space and of time. Before Kant, some thinkers, such as Leibniz, had come to the conclusion that space and time were not things, but only the relations among things. Contrary to thinkers, including Newton, who maintained that space and time were real things or substances, Leibniz had arrived at a radically different understanding of the universe and the things found in it. According to his Monadology , all things that humans ordinarily understand as interactions between and relations among individuals (such as their relative positions in space and time) have their being in the mind of God but not in the Universe where we perceive them to be. In the view of realists, individual things interact by physical connection and the relations among things are mediated by physical processes that connect them to human brains and give humans a determinate chain of action to them and correct knowledge of them.

Kant was aware of problems with both of these positions. He had been influenced by the physics of Newton and understood that there is a physical chain of interactions between things perceived and the one who perceives them. However, an important function of mind is to structure incoming data and to process it in ways that make it other than a simple mapping of outside data. [8] :57

If we try to keep within the framework of what can be proved by the Kantian argument, we can say that it is possible to demonstrate the empirical reality of space and time, that is to say, the objective validity of all spatial and temporal properties in mathematics and physics. But this empirical reality involves transcendental ideality; space and time are forms of human intuition, and they can only be proved valid for things as they appear to us and not for things as they are in themselves. [9] :41

The salient element here is that space and time, rather than being real things-in-themselves or empirically mediated appearances (German : Erscheinungen), are the very forms of intuition (German : Anschauung) by which we must perceive objects. They are hence neither to be considered properties that we may attribute to objects in perceiving them, nor substantial entities of themselves. They are in that sense subjective, yet necessary, preconditions of any given object insofar as this object is an appearance and not a thing-in-itself. Humans necessarily perceive objects as located in space and in time. This condition of experience is part of what it means for a human to cognize an object, to perceive and understand it as something both spatial and temporal: "By transcendental idealism I mean the doctrine that appearances are to be regarded as being, one and all, representations only, not things in themselves, and that time and space are therefore only sensible forms of our intuition..." [10] Kant argues for these several claims in the section of the Critique of Pure Reason entitled the "Transcendental Aesthetic". That section is devoted to inquiry into the a priori conditions of human sensibility, i.e. the faculty by which humans intuit objects. The following section, the "Transcendental Logic", concerns itself with the manner in which objects are thought.


Schopenhauer takes Kant's transcendental idealism as the starting point for his own philosophy, which he presents in The World as Will and Representation . Schopenhauer described transcendental idealism briefly as a "distinction between the phenomenon and the thing in itself", and a recognition that only the phenomenon is accessible to us because "we know neither ourselves nor things as they are in themselves, but merely as they appear." [11] In volume 1 of the Parerga and Paralipomena ("Fragments for the History of Philosophy"), Schopenhauer writes:

Now in the first place, Kant understands by transcendental the recognition of the a priori and thus merely formal element in our knowledge as such, in other words, the insight that such knowledge is independent of experience, indeed prescribes for this even the unalterable rule whereby it must turn out. Such insight is bound up with the understanding why such knowledge is this and has this power, namely because it constitutes the form of our intellect, and thus in consequence of its subjective origin ... Transcendental is the philosophy that makes us aware of the fact that the first and essential laws of this world that are presented to us are rooted in our brain and are therefore known a priori . It is called transcendental because it goes beyond the whole given phantasmagoria to the origin thereof. Therefore, as I have said, only the Critique of Pure Reason and generally the critical (that is to say, Kantian) philosophy are transcendental.

Parerga and Paralipomena, vol. I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy," § 13

Further on in §13, Schopenhauer says of Kant's doctrine of the ideality of space and time: "Before Kant, it may be said, we were in time; now time is in us. In the first case, time is real and, like everything lying in time, we are consumed by it. In the second case, time is ideal; it lies within us."

Schopenhauer contrasted Kant's transcendental critical philosophy with Leibniz's dogmatic philosophy.

With Kant the critical philosophy appeared as the opponent of this entire method [of dogmatic philosophy]. It makes its problem just those eternal truths (principle of contradiction, principle of sufficient reason) that serve as the foundation of every such dogmatic structure, investigates their origin, and then finds this to be in man's head. Here they spring from the forms properly belonging to it, which it carries in itself for the purpose of perceiving and apprehending the objective world. Thus here in the brain is the quarry furnishing the material for that proud, dogmatic structure. Now because the critical philosophy, in order to reach this result, had to go beyond the eternal truths, on which all the previous dogmatism was based, so as to make these truths themselves the subject of investigation, it became transcendental philosophy. From this it follows also that the objective world as we know it does not belong to the true being of things-in-themselves, but is its mere phenomenon, conditioned by those very forms that lie a priori in the human intellect (i.e., the brain); hence the world cannot contain anything but phenomena.

P. F. Strawson

In The Bounds of Sense , P. F. Strawson suggests a reading of Kant's first Critique that, once accepted, forces rejection of most of the original arguments, including transcendental idealism. Strawson contends that, had Kant followed out the implications of all that he said, he would have seen that there were many self-contradictions implicit in the whole. [12] :403

Strawson views the analytic argument of the transcendental deduction as the most valuable idea in the text, and regards transcendental idealism as an unavoidable error in Kant's greatly productive system. In Strawson's traditional reading (also favored in the work of Paul Guyer and Rae Langton), the Kantian term phenomena (literally, things that can be seenfrom Greek: phainomenon, "observable") refers to the world of appearances, or the world of "things" sensed. [13] :99–101 They are tagged as "phenomena" to remind the reader that humans confuse these derivative appearances with whatever may be the forever unavailable "things in themselves" behind our perceptions. The necessary preconditions of experience, the components that humans bring to their apprehending of the world, the forms of perception such as space and time, are what make a priori judgments possible, but all of this process of comprehending what lies fundamental to human experience fails to bring anyone beyond the inherent limits of human sensibility. Kant's system requires the existence of noumena to prevent a rejection of external reality altogether, and it is this concept (senseless objects of which we can have no real understanding) to which Strawson objects in his book.

Henry E. Allison

In Kant's Transcendental Idealism, Henry E. Allison proposes a new reading that opposes, and provides a meaningful alternative to, Strawson's interpretation. [14] Allison argues that Strawson and others misrepresent Kant by emphasising what has become known as the two-worlds reading (a view developed by Paul Guyer). This—according to Allison, false—reading of Kant's phenomena/noumena distinction suggests that phenomena and noumena are ontologically distinct from each other. It concludes on that basis that we somehow fall short of knowing the noumena due to the nature of the very means by which we comprehend them. On such a reading, Kant would himself commit the very fallacies he attributes to the transcendental realists. On Allison's reading, Kant's view is better characterized as a two-aspect theory, where noumena and phenomena refer to complementary ways of considering an object. It is the dialectic character of knowing, rather than epistemological insufficiency, that Kant wanted most to assert.

Allison's two-aspect interpretation also serves as an at least partially successful defense of transcendental idealism, particularly within anglophone analytic philosophy. Although his interpretive position is contested among Kant scholars, including Anja Jauernig in her 2021 monograph The World According to Kant, [15] Allison's Kant's Transcendental Idealism uncontroversially helped start the late-20th century revival of contemporary interest in Kant's metaphysical, or as Allison describes it 'metaepistemological', transcendental idealism. [16]

Opposing views: Naïve realism

Opposing Kantian transcendental idealism is the doctrine of naïve realism, that is, the proposition that the world is knowable as it really is, without any consideration of the knower's manner of knowing. This has been propounded by philosophers such as Hilary Putnam, [17] John Searle, [18] and Henry Babcock Veatch [ citation needed ]. Naïve or direct realism claims, contrary to transcendental idealism, that perceived objects exist in the way that they appear, in and of themselves, independent of a knowing spectator's mind.[ citation needed ] Kant referred to this view as "transcendental realism," which he defined as purporting the existence of objects in space and time independent from our sensibility. [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Immanuel Kant</span> German philosopher (1724–1804)

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. Born in Königsberg, Kant's comprehensive and systematic works in epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics have made him one of the most influential and controversial figures in modern Western philosophy, being called the "father of modern ethics", "father of modern aesthetics" and, by bringing together rationalism and empiricism, the "father of modern philosophy".

In philosophy, a noumenon is knowledge posited as an object that exists independently of human sense. The term noumenon is generally used in contrast with, or in relation to, the term phenomenon, which refers to any object of the senses. Immanuel Kant first developed the notion of the noumenon as part of his transcendental idealism, suggesting that while we know the noumenal world to exist because human sensibility is merely receptive, it is not itself sensible and must therefore remain otherwise unknowable to us. In Kantian philosophy, the noumenon is often associated with the unknowable "thing-in-itself". However, the nature of the relationship between the two is not made explicit in Kant's work, and remains a subject of debate among Kant scholars as a result.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">German idealism</span> Philosophical movement

German idealism is a philosophical movement that emerged in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It developed out of the work of Immanuel Kant in the 1780s and 1790s, and was closely linked both with Romanticism and the revolutionary politics of the Enlightenment. The period of German idealism after Kant is also known as post-Kantian idealism or simply post-Kantianism. One scheme divides German idealists into transcendental idealists, associated with Kant and Fichte, and absolute idealists, associated with Schelling and Hegel.

<i>Critique of Pure Reason</i> 1781 book by Immanuel Kant

The Critique of Pure Reason is a book by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in which the author seeks to determine the limits and scope of metaphysics. Also referred to as Kant's "First Critique", it was followed by his Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and Critique of Judgment (1790). In the preface to the first edition, Kant explains that by a "critique of pure reason" he means a critique "of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all knowledge after which it may strive independently of all experience" and that he aims to reach a decision about "the possibility or impossibility of metaphysics". The term "critique" is understood to mean a systematic analysis in this context, rather than the colloquial sense of the term.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Thing-in-itself</span> In philosophy, the status of objects as they are, independent of observation

In Kantian philosophy, the thing-in-itself is the status of objects as they are, independent of representation and observation. The concept of the thing-in-itself was introduced by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and over the following centuries was met with controversy among later philosophers. It is closely related to Kant's concept of noumena or the objects of inquiry, as opposed to phenomena, its manifestations.

<i>The World as Will and Representation</i> Book by Arthur Schopenhauer

The World as Will and Representation, sometimes translated as The World as Will and Idea, is the central work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The first edition was published in late 1818, with the date 1819 on the title-page. A second, two-volume edition appeared in 1844: volume one was an edited version of the 1818 edition, while volume two consisted of commentary on the ideas expounded in volume one. A third expanded edition was published in 1859, the year prior to Schopenhauer's death. In 1948, an abridged version was edited by Thomas Mann.

<i>The Bounds of Sense</i> 1966 book by Peter Strawson

The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is a 1966 book about Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781) by the Oxford philosopher Peter Strawson, in which the author tries to separate what remains valuable in Kant's work from Kant's transcendental idealism, which he rejects. The work is widely admired, and has received praise from philosophers as one of the first thorough works on the Critique of Pure Reason in the analytic tradition, although Strawson's treatment of transcendental idealism has been criticized.

In philosophy, transcendence is the basic ground concept from the word's literal meaning, of climbing or going beyond, albeit with varying connotations in its different historical and cultural stages. It includes philosophies, systems, and approaches that describe the fundamental structures of being, not as an ontology, but as the framework of emergence and validation of knowledge of being. These definitions are generally grounded in reason and empirical observation and seek to provide a framework for understanding the world that is not reliant on religious beliefs or supernatural forces. "Transcendental" is a word derived from the scholastic, designating the extra-categorical attributes of beings.

<i>Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics</i> 1783 book by Immanuel Kant

Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Present Itself as a Science is a book by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, published in 1783, two years after the first edition of his Critique of Pure Reason. One of Kant's shorter works, it contains a summary of the Critique‘s main conclusions, sometimes by arguments Kant had not used in the Critique. Kant characterizes his more accessible approach here as an "analytic" one, as opposed to the Critique‘s "synthetic" examination of successive faculties of the mind and their principles.

"Critique of the Kantian philosophy" is a criticism Arthur Schopenhauer appended to the first volume of his The World as Will and Representation (1818). He wanted to show Immanuel Kant's errors so that Kant's merits would be appreciated and his achievements furthered.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Schema (Kant)</span> Rule by which a concept is associated with a sensory input in Kantianism

In Kantian philosophy, a transcendental schema is the procedural rule by which a category or pure, non-empirical concept is associated with a sense impression. A private, subjective intuition is thereby discursively thought to be a representation of an external object. Transcendental schemata are supposedly produced by the imagination in relation to time.

<i>On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason</i> 1813 German-language doctoral dissertation by Schopenhauer

On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason is an elaboration on the classical principle of sufficient reason, written by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer as his doctoral dissertation in 1813. The principle of sufficient reason is a powerful and controversial philosophical principle stipulating that everything must have a reason or cause. Schopenhauer revised and re-published it in 1847. The work articulated the centerpiece of many of Schopenhauer's arguments, and throughout his later works he consistently refers his readers to it as the necessary beginning point for a full understanding of his further writings.

A priori and a posteriori are Latin phrases used in philosophy to distinguish types of knowledge, justification, or argument by their reliance on experience. A priori knowledge is independent from any experience. Examples include mathematics, tautologies and deduction from pure reason. A posteriori knowledge depends on empirical evidence. Examples include most fields of science and aspects of personal knowledge.

Aenesidemus is a German book published anonymously by Professor Gottlob Ernst Schulze of Helmstedt in 1792. Schulze attempted to refute the principles that Karl Leonhard Reinhold established in support of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). The title is a reference to Aenesidemus, an ancient Greek Pyrrhonist philosopher. Its complete title, in English translation, was Aenesidemus or Concerning the Foundations of the Philosophy of the Elements Issued by Professor Reinhold in Jena Together with a Defense of Skepticism against the Pretensions of the Critique of Reason.

A transcendental argument is a kind of deductive argument that appeals to the necessary conditions that make argumentation itself possible. Transcendental arguments may have additional standards of justification that are more demanding than those of traditional deductive arguments.

<i>Introduction to Kants Anthropology</i>

Introduction to Kant's Anthropology is an introductory essay to Michel Foucault's translation of Immanuel Kant's 1798 book Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View — a textbook deriving from lectures he delivered annually between 1772/73 and 1795/96. Both works together served as his secondary thesis, although Foucault's translation of the Anthropology was published separately by Vrin in 1964. The introduction was published in an English translation by Arianna Bove on in 2003.

Transcendental humanism in philosophy considers humans as simultaneously the originator of meaning, and subject to a larger ultimate truth that exists beyond the human realm (transcendence). The philosophy suggests that the humanistic approach is guided by “accuracy, truth, discovery, and objectivity” that transcends or exists apart from subjectivity.

The following is a list of the major events in the history of German idealism, along with related historical events.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Critique of the Schopenhauerian philosophy</span> Critical essay by Philipp Mainländer

Critique of the Schopenhaurian philosophy is a literary work by Philipp Mainländer appended to Die Philosophie der Erlösung, offering a criticism of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Mainländer saw the purification of Schopenhauer's philosophy as the primary task of his life. The criticism had an important impact on Nietzsche's philosophical development.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henry E. Allison</span> American philosopher (1937–2023)

Henry Edward Allison was an American scholar of Immanuel Kant, widely considered to be one of the most eminent English-language Kant scholars of the postwar era. He was a professor and chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of California, San Diego and a professor at Boston University.


  1. Kitcher, Patrica (1996) [First edition originally published in 1781; second edition originally published in 1787]. "Introduction by Patricia Kitcher, 3. Transcendental Aesthetic: The Science of Sensory Perception, B. Space, Time, and Mathematics". Critique of Pure Reason. By Kant, Immanuel. Translated by Pluhar, Werner S. (Unified Edition with all variants from the 1781 and 1787 editions ed.). Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. p. xxxvi. ISBN   0-87220-257-7. This is one of the first conclusions of "transcendental idealism," Kant's own name for his philosophical system, and we need to pause to consider it carefully to avoid some standard misunderstandings.
  2. Kitcher, Patrica (1996) [First edition originally published in 1781; second edition originally published in 1787]. "Introduction by Patricia Kitcher, 2. Prefaces and Introduction: Kant's Central Problem". Critique of Pure Reason. By Kant, Immanuel. Translated by Pluhar, Werner S. (Unified Edition with all variants from the 1781 and 1787 editions ed.). Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. p. l. ISBN   0-87220-257-7. Kant prefaces the Critique with a lament about the sad state of metaphysics. But his program for reform is thoroughly epistemological. It is only by working our way to a better understanding of the sources and limits of human knowledge that we will be able to figure out what metaphysical questions can fruitfully be asked.
  3. Kitcher, Patrica (1996) [First edition originally published in 1781; second edition originally published in 1787]. "Introduction by Patricia Kitcher, 2. Prefaces and Introduction: Kant's Central Problem". Critique of Pure Reason. By Kant, Immanuel. Translated by Pluhar, Werner S. (Unified Edition with all variants from the 1781 and 1787 editions ed.). Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. p. l. ISBN   0-87220-257-7. Because of the unusual nature of his enterprise, Kant gave it a special name: "transcendental" philosophy. The goal of transcendental philosophy is to investigate the necessary conditions for knowledge with a view to showing that some of those necessary conditions are a priori, universal and necessary features of our knowledge, that derive from the mind's own ways of dealing with the data of the senses. The term "transcendental" has often been a source of confusion, because it includes three not obviously related ideas: (1) the idea that some conditions are necessary for knowledge and (2) the idea that some claims are a priori, in stating necessary and universal features of the world, and (3) the idea that some features of our knowledge are a priori, in the sense that they do not derive from sensory evidence, but from our minds' ways of dealing with sensory evidence. What is distinctive about Kant's philosophy is his belief that some of the necessary conditions for knowledge are also a priori, in all four sense of that term: they are universal, necessary, cannot be established by sensory experience, and reflect the mind's ways of dealing with sensory experience; the term "transcendental" constantly draws attention to that complex doctrine.
  4. Durant, Will (1933). "VI. Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, III. The Critique of Pure Reason, 1. Transcendental Esthetic". The Story of Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster (published 1953). p. 267. The effort to answer this question, to study the inherent structure of the mind, or the innate laws of thought, is what Kant calls "transcendental philosophy," because it is a problem transcending sense experience. "I call knowledge transcendental which is occupied not so much with objects, as with á priori concepts of objects."—with our modes of correlating our experience into knowledge.
  5. Kant 1999, p. A36/B52.
  6. Kant 1999, p. A20/B34.
  7. Kant 1999, p. A84–130, B116–169.
  8. Martin, G., Kant's Metaphysics and Theory of Science (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1955), p. 57.
  9. Martin, G., Kant's Metaphysics and Theory of Science (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1955), p. 41.
  10. Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillan, 1933), p. 345 (A 369).
  11. Parerga and Paralipomena , vol. 2, "Sketch of a History of the Doctrine of the Ideal and the Real."
  12. Allison, H. E., Kant's Transcendental Deduction: An Analytical-historical Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 403.
  13. Nagel, T., The View From Nowhere (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 99–101.
  14. Allison, H. E., Kant's Transcendental Idealism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983); Revised and Enlarged Edition, 2004.
  15. Jauernig, Anja, The World According to Kant (Oxford University Press, 2021);
  16. Gardner, Sebastian (2005). "Kant's Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense, Revised and Enlarged Edition". Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
  17. Putnam, Hilary (Sep 1994). "Sense, Nonsense, and the Senses: An Inquiry into the Powers of the Human Mind". The Journal of Philosophy. 91 (9): 445–517. doi:10.2307/2940978. ISSN   0022-362X. JSTOR   2940978.
  18. Luis López, Alberto (2017-07-18). "SEARLE, John (2015): Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception. New York: Oxford University Press". Daímon (71): 216. doi: 10.6018/daimon/277171 . ISSN   1989-4651.
  19. Stang, Nicholas F. (Spring 2022). Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). "Kant's Transcendental Idealism". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford. Retrieved September 27, 2022. [Kant] distinguishes transcendental idealism from transcendental realism: 'To this [transcendental] idealism is opposed transcendental realism, which regards space and time as something given in themselves (independent of our sensibility). The transcendental realist therefore represents outer appearances [...] as things in themselves [...], which would exist independently of us and our sensibility and thus would also be outside us according to pure concepts of the understanding.'