On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’​: Making Honours of Men’s Impossibilities — Part Four

‘I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither … ‘

- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Hamlet’, Act 2, Scene 2

‘The highest idea of the Kantian philosophy’, said Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), ‘is the complete emptiness of subjectivity’.

Now there’s an interesting thought. What does he mean by it?

‘Woman with outstretched arm’, c. 1868, Odilon Redon

If the ‘original identity’ (see previous article) that Hegel claims to unearth in the operations of productive imagination is not captured by the idea that receptivity is simply a mode of and therefore ultimately reducible to spontaneity just what does he have in mind by it? One possibility maybe that Hegel saw that the speculative insight that concepts and intuitions are identical is merely the conclusion to draw from Kant’s observation that intuitions without concepts are blind. Hegel found that Kantian point to be compelling and therefore it is not unreasonable to suppose that when he insists upon the original identity of concepts and intuitions he means little more than to profess support for Kant’s contention that empirical consciousness is only possible for us if what is given in sensible intuition is already subject to acts of spontaneity. Hegel maybe is asserting that concepts and intuitions are identical therefore because he believes Kant was justified in concluding that without concepts intuitions for empirical consciousness are nothing at all.

We need to look more closely into this interpretation of what Hegel has in mind by original identity however, for albeit there is clear indication of his approval for the Kantian objection that perception or empirical consciousness is necessarily determined by acts of spontaneity at the same time he dismisses Kant’s particular account of conceptual form. Kant was justified in arguing that intuitions without concepts are blind, according to Hegel’s, but mistaken to treat concepts as ‘external’, and by the ‘externality’ of conceptual form Hegel is thinking of the conjunction of two assumptions. First, the assumption that concepts are not already given with the a posteriori matter of empirical intuition but must be contributed by us, and second, the assumption that the conceptual form we contribute cannot be known to reflect the nature of the given content itself. Kant is committed to both assumptions and his idealism is thereby doomed, in Hegel’s appraisal, to the vapidity of ‘subjectivity’ and scepticism.

This accounts for Kant’s view that albeit we must for the sake of empirical inquiry presuppose a harmony or fit between our concepts and the independently given matter of sensation we can never know that such a harmony exists and hence with respect to that given sense content our concepts necessarily remain ‘contingent’. Hence it cannot be that ‘original identity’ on Hegel’s conception is just another name for Kant’s thesis that intuitions without form are blind. Hegel allows Kant’s observation that we have no cognition or even perception of the sensible manifold without acts of spontaneity, but he does not accept Kant’s account of the status of the concepts that govern those acts. In particular he is not convinced at all by the Kantian assumption that the conceptual form we contribute cannot be known to reflect the nature of the independently given content itself and he calls into question the presupposition that form is in this sense subjective, a reflection merely of what we a priori put into things but not of things themselves. Hegel is assured that as long as this is our understanding of subjective form we can have no means of progressing from subjective to ‘genuine’ or ‘absolute’ idealism.

But if original identity is achieved neither by a reduction of intuitions to concepts nor by granting the truth of Kant’s insight that intuitions without concepts are blind how then does Hegel believe we are to make the transition to authentic idealism? If he is persuaded that authentic idealism demands a new account of conceptual form what is that new account and how does he set out to support it? If to comprehend Hegel’s idea of original identity are we to be directed by his interest in Kantian assertions regarding the necessary interdependence of concepts and intuitions as conditions of experience?

‘The Kantian philosophy’, said Hegel, ‘has the merit of being idealism insofar as it demonstrates that neither the concept alone nor intuition alone is anything at all; the intuition by itself is blind and the concept by itself is empty’. In virtue of the fact that Hegel endeavours to provide an alternative to Kant’s ‘subjective’ version of idealism it cannot be that he believes that Kant’s own account of the interdependence of concepts and intuitions is fully adequate. It cannot be the case, then, that all Hegel is informing us about is that Kant was correct to emphasise that experience requires, as a condition of its possibility, the co-operating roles of concepts and intuitions. In declaring that the Kantian philosophy ‘has the merit of being idealism’ Hegel is suggesting something more than this, he is informing us that, if properly understood, the point about the interdependence of concepts and intuitions should clear the way towards an authentic form of idealism, for it is his view that genuine or absolute idealism acknowledges, in a way that Kant’s subjective idealism declines to do, that neither concept nor intuition ‘alone’ is ‘anything at all’.

What, then, is the more profound or ‘speculative’ lesson that we are supposed to learn from the interdependence of concepts and intuitions? With regards to the dependence of intuitions upon concepts Hegel is not concerned with persuading us that intuitions depend upon concepts because they are really nothing more than modes or species of concepts, he does not, that is to sat, support the view that merely by thinking it is possible for us to bring sensible intuitions into being. Hegel is, however, persuaded by the Kantian observation that our perception or empirical consciousness of what is given in sensible intuition requires the synthesizing acts of special concepts or categories. Intuitions depend on concepts, for Hegel, in this sense, and if what we intuit are objects of perceptual awareness in contrast to merely a succession of sensations categorial determination is necessarily in play.

So far then Hegel’s stance is unproblematically Kantian, but this is most assuredly not the case with regard to his interpretation of the second part of Kant’s formula, the assertion that ‘the concept by itself is empty’. Hegel’s understanding of this assertion is key to his strategy for overcoming the ‘externality’ of conceptual form, for his speculative transformation of it is absolutely decisive for the development of his own alternative to Kant. With the assertion that concepts without intuitions are empty Kant has in mind that unless our categories apply to a particular kind of content, to the manifold given by means of our forms of sensible intuition, they are empty, in that they cannot serve for us as conditions of knowledge. Were our understanding intuitive, this restriction on the application of the categories would not be necessary. Were our understanding intuitive, we would not need to rely for our cognitions of nature on an independently given sense content at all, we would have the capacity to bring the objects of our knowledge into being merely by exercising our intuitive powers. So the fact that the valid application of the categories is limited for us to what is given in space in time is a necessary consequence, for Kant, of our discursivity, of the fact that, in knowing nature, we have to rely upon a sensible content that is independently given.

With regard to Hegel’s transformation of these points he was cognisant of the features Kant associates with human discursivity, he was aware that, for Kant, our knowledge of nature depends upon both the a priori functions of thought and the application of those functions to appearances. The categories are ‘for themselves empty’ and ‘have their application and use only in experience’, and he was aware of Kant’s claim that our form of understanding cannot merely by thinking bring objects of experience into being. He reminds us of this restriction on our cognitive powers by paraphrasing Kant’s statement: ‘through the empty I as single representation nothing manifold is given’, a paraphrase that would be an exact quote were it not for Hegel’s insertion of the word ‘empty’.

Nonetheless from Kant’s thesis about the necessary reliance of thought upon sensible intuition Hegel drew implications going beyond anything that Kant intended. One indication that this is so is Hegel summarizing his reflections upon the significance of Kant’s insight that thoughts without content are empty with the following remark: ‘The highest idea of the Kantian philosophy is the complete emptiness of subjectivity’. How are we to understand this in the light of the indispensable role Kant awards subjectivity in determining (through its a priori concepts and laws) the very form of our experience? What could Hegel be trying to say to us? We first need to establish just which form of subjectivity, in Kant’s system, Hegel means to refer to as ‘empty’. Hegel refers to the ‘I think’ that ‘does the representing’ and that ‘accompanies all representations’ as the ‘empty identity’. The ‘I think’ is ‘empty’, in Kant’s system, because its operations are incapable of producing or generating intuitions. ‘[T]hrough the I as single representation’, Kant writes, ‘nothing manifold is given’. Because the ‘I think’ is in this sense empty, no appeal to its functions can thus be sufficient to establish a necessary connection between its concepts and their objects. Hegel observes that Kant secures this connection in the ‘Transcendental Deduction’ by introducing a form of self-consciousness other than that of the empty ‘I think’, a form of self-consciousness that on Kant’s own characterization is an ‘originally synthetic unity’. As Hegel says: ‘The whole transcendental deduction cannot be understood without distinguishing what Kant calls the faculty of the original synthetic unity of apperception from the I that does the representing’.

‘The Dreamer’, c. 1897, Jan Theodor Toorop

And so it is that when Hegel informs us that the ‘emptiness of subjectivity’ is the ‘highest idea’ of Kant’s philosophy what he is suggesting is that even Kant recognized that by appealing solely to the operations of the ‘I think’ the problem of the ‘Transcendental Deduction’ could not be solved. According to Kant we can only secure the necessary relation of the categories to experience (we can only secure their ‘objective validity’) by presupposing a form of self-consciousness in addition to the ‘I think’, a form of self-consciousness capable of connecting the ‘I think’ and the sensible manifold. The emptiness of the ‘I think’ is Kant’s ‘highest idea’ therefore given that it motivates that which Hegel takes to be the ‘speculative’ insight that a necessary connection between our concepts and the sensible manifold is secured only by means of a form of self-consciousness that, on Kant’s own description, is ‘originally synthetic’.

Hegel never expresses the view that Kant’s philosophy in itself deserves to be characterized as genuinely speculative, au contraire he informs us that although Kant had the idea of a faculty of self-consciousness that is originally synthetic he failed to exploit the full potential of that idea. And as it transpires Kant identifies that faculty as not originally synthetic in the least. On Hegel’s interpretation original synthetic unity of apperception is ultimately, for Kant, just another faculty of combination or synthesis, and as such it is not an identity or original unity of receptivity and spontaneity, rather it is a faculty of thought or spontaneity alone.

Directing his attention towards Kant’s treatment of the faculty of productive imagination, Hegel argues that this faculty suffers essentially the same sorry outcome. There are passages of the ‘Transcendental Deduction’ that convey give the impression that Kant aims to classify productive imagination as neither a faculty of receptivity nor of spontaneity but as ‘belonging to’ both. Kant asserts that imagination ‘belongs to sensibility’ and yet is also ‘spontaneity’, and he explains that productive imagination ‘belongs to sensibility’ because the intuition it ‘gives’ to the categories is sensible rather than intellectual. Productive imagination, in other words, is ‘dependent … for the manifoldness of its apprehension on sensibility’. Productive imagination is at the same time ‘spontaneity’, however, because its synthesis, like all synthesis or combination, is an ‘act of spontaneity’. The ‘unity of its intellectual synthesis’, Kant writes, is ‘dependent … on the understanding’.

Hegel interprets these remarks as further evidence of Kant’s own acknowledgement of the necessity of postulating a form of subjectivity that is an original identity. He informs us that Kant recognized the speculative idea of figurative synthesis, a synthesis that is not a combination of originally items different in kind but from which, as he writes, the ‘I as thinking subject, and the manifold as body and world first detach themselves’. But once again Kant did not remain true to this (speculative) conception of productive imagination. He forsook the idea of productive imagination as what Hegel designated a ‘genuine’ middle. In the final outcome its synthesis for Kant is not that from which the ‘I as thinking subject, and the manifold as body and world first detach themselves’, rather, it is a synthesis that, as Hegel says, presupposes antithesis or ‘absolute opposition’. In that Kant describes figurative synthesis as an ‘action of the understanding on the sensibility’, productive imagination on his account ultimately ‘abandons its place in the middle’, as Hegel puts it. Rather than ‘originally synthetic’, productive imagination gets ‘fixated as intellect’ or turned back into what Hegel calls a ‘pure unity’.

So the ‘highest idea’ of Kant’s philosophy is the ‘emptiness of subjectivity’, according to Hegel, because Kant’s recognition of the emptiness of the faculty of the ‘I think’ is precisely what motivated his introduction of a form of self-consciousness that is neither pure thought nor pure intuition but a unity or identity of both. Kant, however, turned this original synthetic unity back into a ‘pure unity’, and as far as Hegel is concerned, this is why he was unable to make the transition from ‘subjective’ to authentic or ‘genuine’ or ‘absolute’ idealism.

‘Mädchen am Fenster’, 1927, Heinrich Hoerle

But hold on a minute, I hear the Kantian protest, it is surely a gross error to suggest as Hegel on occasion apparently suggests that Kant is inconsistent in identifying transcendental apperception as ‘originally synthetic’, on the one hand, and as a faculty of spontaneity or understanding, on the other. Kant commits no such inconsistency for the simple reason that he does not argue in the way that Hegel does that as originally synthetic transcendental apperception is neither a faculty of spontaneity nor of receptivity, but an ‘identity’ or ‘unity’ of both. Transcendental apperception performs a synthesis that is prior to and a condition of the possibility of all other acts of synthesis or combination, but the fact that its synthesis is ‘prior’ or ‘original’, in Kant’s view, is perfectly compatible with its originating in acts of the faculty of understanding. The Kantian will furthermore point out that transcendental or original apperception, as Kant defines it, is entirely adequate to the task he sets for it, the task of connecting the ‘I think’ and the sensible manifold. On Kant’s conception, connecting the ‘I think’ and the sensible manifold is a matter of demonstrating, against David Hume, (1711–1776), that we have at least some concepts that relate with necessity to experience. Kant provides this demonstration in the ‘Transcendental Deduction’ by arguing that unless the sensible manifold is subject to the synthesizing activity of these concepts or categories, there can be for us no objects of perception or empirical consciousness at all.

But even were we to allow the accuracy of this representation of Kant’s objectives and assumptions in this section of the Critique we should not therefore be seduced into the conclusion that it serves as an adequate response to Hegel’s objections. For one thing, Hegel never attempts to persuade us that Kant intended by original or transcendental apperception a faculty that is neither spontaneity nor receptivity. He was fully aware that original apperception, as Kant defines it, belongs to the faculty of spontaneity alone. For that very reason he never claims that Kant is inconsistent in identifying transcendental apperception both as ‘originally synthetic’ and as a faculty of the understanding. Hegel’s point is merely that in conceiving original synthetic unity in this way Kant misses its potentially speculative implications. Furthermore, Hegel was aware of the specific problems Kant set out to solve in the ‘Transcendental Deduction’, that is, he was aware that Kant intended his demonstration of the objective validity of categories primarily as a response to the empiricisms of John Locke, (1632–1704), and David Hume.

Hegel observes for instance that the ‘Critical philosophy’ moves away from empiricism in arguing that ‘universality and necessity’ are contributed to experience by the ‘spontaneity of thinking’. It is perhaps even fair to say that he believed that, relative to the specific objectives Kant set for himself, the argument of the ‘Transcendental Deduction’ was somewhat happily successful. A more accurate portrayal of the the ground of Hegel’s objections would be to note that as far as he was concerned the success of the ‘Transcendental Deduction’ is something of a pyrrhic victory, it comes at too high a cost. The amount we pay on his account is subjective idealism, for even if we allow that it is possible to establish the objective validity of the categories with reference to their role in unifying the given manifold, the most this demonstrates, as Kant himself repeatedly keeps us informed, is their validity for nature as it must be thought and known by us. Kant by no means ever pretended to establish anything more than this, he never argues that it follows from his Copernican revolution in philosophy that we have necessary synthetic knowledge of the independently given matter of experience itself.

[Side note: Copernicus, (1473–1543), changed the centre of the universe away from the earth and humanity. Kant changed the centre of philosophy from being human reason and empirical observation to subjective a priori assumptions. Hence it is a Copernican revolution. For Kant it is the representation that makes the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible. Isn’t that more like a Ptolemaic revolution? Ptolemy, (c. 100–170 AD), propounded a geocentric theory of the solar system forming the basis of our understanding of the motions of stars and planets for more than a thousand years. If it is our representations making the objects possible rather than vice versa that is fixing us firmly at the centre of things is it not?)

Instead Kant insisted that we can know that independently given content only as conditioned by our a priori forms, it is precisely this implication of his Critical project that is responsible for Hegel’s frequently re-asserted complaint that in spite of their role as necessary conditions of experience, the categories remain subjective. They remain subjective, not just in virtue of originating in us (as a priori concepts), but in virtue of Kant concluding from the fact that they originate in us that their validity extends only to objects considered as conditioned by our subjective forms. As Hegel writes even the ‘objectivity of thinking in Kant’s sense is itself again only subjective’. Although thoughts according to Kant are ‘universal and necessary determinations, they nonetheless are only our thoughts and separated from what the thing is in itself by an unbridgeable gulf’.

Of course, from Kant’s perspective, there is nothing unacceptable about this restriction on the validity of the categories. The restriction is a necessary implication of his Copernican revolution (? ) and without this revolution he tells us metaphysics cannot be rescued, and rescuing metaphysics, for Kant, requires two major innovations in our understanding of the conditions of theoretical knowledge. First, it requires us to recognize that our knowledge of nature depends upon concepts as well as sensible intuitions, neither of which derives from or reduces to the other. Second, it requires us to grant that both our thinking and our intuiting are conditioned by a priori forms. The given content of our experience is necessarily conditioned by our a priori forms of intuition, space and time, the synthesis of that given content into objects of perceptual awareness and judgment is made possible by a priori concepts or categories.

Hegel’s critique would therefore be misrepresented were we to suppose that it is directed at inconsistencies that he unearths internal to Kant’s system. Hegel is able to conceive of an alternative form of idealism only because he believes that we need not take Kant’s basic assumptions for granted, and he is especially critical of the view that our concepts and intuitions are originally different in kind, for a better model of these two sources of knowledge is available, a model inspired by Kant’s idea of a form of self-consciousness that is ‘originally synthetic’.

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place,

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels

and crowned them with glory and honor.

- ‘Psalm’ 8.

To be continued ….

‘La Danse de la Mort’, 1912, Joseph Sattler



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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.