- Counter-Currents - https://counter-currents.com -

Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Nine:
Kant & the Perils of Representationalism


M. C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935.

6,864 words

All essays in this series available here [2]

1. Introduction

My two previous essays introduced readers to Kant’s transcendental idealism and discussed the similarities and differences between Kant’s critique of metaphysics and Heidegger’s. It is now time to begin to consider Heidegger’s critique of Kant, and how Heidegger locates him within his history of metaphysics. These are tricky issues. After all, in the last essay, we saw that there is strong evidence for the claim that Kant belongs to the history of metaphysics only in the sense that he was one of its most formidable critics. Further, I argued that there is some basis for claiming that Kant anticipated some of Heidegger’s thoughts concerning the role of metaphysics in the rise of modern nihilism. 

Like Heidegger, Kant recognizes that metaphysics seeks to cancel absence and finitude: it seeks to go beyond the limits of human knowledge and to make present what must be forever absent to us (things as they are in themselves). Both thinkers condemn the hubris of metaphysics. Unlike Heidegger, however, Kant was very much an enthusiastic supporter of Enlightenment and of modern scientific method. However, Kant also recognized that the trajectory of modern science is the complete manipulation and “disenchantment” of all that exists. This poses a threat to human dignity, for science seems to declare freedom to be a fiction. And if there is no freedom, then there is no morality. (For a full discussion of this issue, see my last essay [3].)

Thus, Kant winds up not only preempting the possibility of metaphysics, but also circumscribing the realm in which science is permitted to make its claims. Kant argues that transcendental subjectivity — which includes our consciousness of the moral law — exists beyond the world of sensory appearances. Transcendental subjectivity is the condition for the possibility of those appearances, thus it does not itself appear. And transcendental subjectivity is also the condition for the possibility of science, since the judgments of science are confined to expanding our knowledge of the world of appearances. Thus, science can say absolutely nothing about transcendental subjectivity and its contents; it cannot, for example, rule out the possibility that we are transcendentally free (even if we do not appear to be free, i.e., when empirical evidence is considered). 

As I argued in the last essay, Heidegger fundamentally agrees with Kant when he places transcendental subjectivity (which Heidegger will eventually come to refer to as “the Clearing”) “beyond nature,” and thus beyond the reach of naturalism. However, Heidegger’s critique of science is much more radical than Kant’s. As I discussed in part three [4] of this series, Heidegger argues that modern physics (the most fundamental of the sciences) achieves its impressive exactitude by projecting certain exact presuppositions (what Heidegger refers to as ta mathēmata) onto nature. The exactness of modern physics is possible precisely because it understands the physical world in terms that are simple, narrow, and artificial. 

The basis for this understanding of modern physics was actually laid by Kant, who maintained that knowledge of nature is possible only through the imposition of the “a priori categories of the understanding” (read: presuppositions) onto sensibility. The understanding of the ordinary person functions in this way to make consciousness of nature possible, and the fundamental concepts of modern physics build upon those same basic categories — or so Kant argues (see especially his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, 1786). Thus, Kant had maintained that nature is knowable for us precisely because we “construct” it by means of the a priori presuppositions we project upon sensibility. 

There is, however, a fundamental difference between Kant and Heidegger in their analysis of the “a priori character” of modern physics. Kant believed, in effect, that Newtonian physics was written into the mind’s synthetic a priori knowledge — that Newtonian physics was founded in (and therefore a kind of specification of) the basic categories of the understanding. To put the matter crudely, he thought that the mind is wired to see nature in Newtonian terms. In just the same way, he believed that our intuition of space was innately Euclidean. 

From Heidegger’s perspective, these positions are naïve. Heidegger holds that modern physics, in all its stages from Newton to Heisenberg and beyond, is a historically conditioned body of thought. It is based upon certain concepts and assumptions that were the result of “decisions” (as Heidegger puts it) at certain historical junctures. (See, parts three [4]four [5], and five [6] of this series for a brief account of Heidegger’s interpretation of the history of modern science.) Prior to these “decisions,” human beings most certainly were not “wired” to see nature in the terms of modern physics! 

As a result of this, Heidegger has to reject Kant’s basic claim that modern science holds authoritative sway over the realm of appearances. In fact, things appear to the scientist, or the scientifically trained, in a scientific manner only as a result of their holding to a narrow set of presuppositions. Other ways of seeing the world are not only possible, but were actual in earlier eras, governed by earlier “dispensations of Being” — and they too “produced results.” Thus, Heidegger cannot ultimately accept even Kant’s basic claim that science has demonstrated that we do not appear to ourselves to be free. Though, as I have already indicated, he does accept Kant’s claim that transcendental subjectivity is not an object of investigation by the natural sciences.

Despite these differences, it would seem that, from Heidegger’s perspective, Kant still has to rank as one of the good guys in the history of philosophy. After all, Kant saw that both metaphysics and modern science could lead to nihilism, and he sought to rein in the hubris of both. Kant’s philosophy, like Heidegger’s, affirms human finitude. It challenges the metaphysical tradition’s insistence that beings must be absolutely present and manipulable, by affirming that there is an element of ineluctable absence in our experience of the world: the thing in itself. Modernity’s will to make all things transparent and available had been checked, or so Kant thought. The sage of Königsberg demonstrates that we know only the tip of the iceberg — how things appear to us. And certain things, such as human nature as it truly is, remain forever unknowable, and are not open to manipulation and control by science. 

But not so fast! Kant is a transitional figure, and his thought exhibits some fundamental inconsistencies. For Heidegger, Kant’s thought is still beholden to some of the most basic assumptions of modern metaphysics. Furthermore, Kant unwittingly prepares the way for a radicalization of the metaphysics of presence [7] — the hidden will behind the history of metaphysics, whereby Being is construed, in one way or another, as that which is permanently and wholly present to human subjects. This process culminates in Nietzsche, and in modern technological civilization. 

As a way to approach an understanding of Heidegger’s critique of Kant, I am going to frame the discussion in terms of two questions:

1. Does Kant buy into the representationalist paradigm, or at least into some of its presuppositions? We have seen in previous essays that Heidegger’s critique of representationalism is absolutely basic to his account of modern metaphysics (and while representationalism is a modern concept, it has ancient roots). 

2. What about “will to power”? Is it present in Kant? In my essay on Leibniz [8], I discussed Heidegger’s claim that Leibniz identifies perceptio and appetitus (perception and appetite). For Leibniz, Being or substance just is the mind in its act of perceiving. But this perceiving is inherently appetitive; it is a drive for power. Thus, for Leibniz, Being is the unity of perception/representation and will. Heidegger sees Leibniz’s position as prefiguring Nietzsche’s doctrine of will to power.

The present essay and the next will address the first issue. The installment after that will take up the second issue and will be the final such essay I will devote to the Heidegger-Kant relationship. 

Now, in fact, these two issues — representationalism and will to power — cannot really be separated. Heidegger argues that the modern metaphysical tradition follows Leibniz in identifying perception (which it always construes as representation) and will. But how can these two be identified, exactly? The matter is actually quite simple. As I have discussed at length in earlier essays, representationalism erects a sharp dichotomy between a subject conceived as “in here,” and an object “out there.” Further, it sees them as standing in a relation of opposition, in more than one sense. It is not just that objects oppose in the sense of being “put before” us. Their opposition, their otherness comes to be seen as challenging the subject. The object challenges us to represent it and to manipulate it. Knowing becomes a form of striving: we strive “outward” to seize the object in our representation, and we aim to know it so thoroughly that we can manipulate and transform it in order to maximize our own power and control. Thus, representing becomes inseparable from willing — indeed, it becomes a type of willing. 

It is therefore somewhat artificial to separate the above questions. However, doing so gives us a clear path and an economical way to proceed. Really, to answer these two questions about Kant is tantamount to answering just one, single question: does Kant’s philosophy endorse, presuppose, or somehow imply the metaphysics of presence? 


You can buy Collin Cleary’s What is a Rune? here [10]

2. Kant for and Against Representationalism

Heidegger’s most celebrated treatment of Kant is his 1929 book Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics (which Heidegger scholars refer to simply as “the Kant book”). He also delivered lecture courses on Kant (including Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, given during the same period in which the Kant book was being prepared), and published individual essays on his thought as well, including “Kant’s Thesis About Being” (1961). This latter essay, the Kant book, and Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason are the chief sources for my treatment of Heidegger’s critique of Kant. 

Let us begin with Kant’s distinction between phenomena (appearances) and things as they are in themselves, for here the reader may already believe that he detects traces of representationalism. Surely phenomena are basically the same things as representations, and they are “copies” of things in themselves. The phenomena, in other words, are equivalent to the “ideas” spoken of by representationalists, which exist “in here,” while things in themselves are “out there.” Many readers in Kant’s time understood him to be saying exactly this and, as I shall be discussing, Kant’s language often invites this reading. Nevertheless, it is a serious misinterpretation that manages to miss one of the features of Kant’s philosophy that is truly revolutionary. In fact, Kant’s distinction between phenomena and things in themselves was a conscious rejection of representationalism. Just how is this the case?

First of all, notice that representationalism always posits two objects. One object exists “out there” in the world; it is the one we are striving to represent, to “copy.” We never know this object directly. The only thing we know directly is the copy or representation we make of this external object. This copy exists “in here,” within the interiority of my mind. In an earlier essay [5], I presented the classic problem with the representationalist position: if direct knowledge of an external object is impossible, how do I know my “internal ideas” (my internal objects) directly? Wouldn’t I have to represent those as well in order to know them, and wouldn’t this lead to an infinite regress?

Kant’s solution to this problem is to reject the idea that I have an “internal object” of which I am directly aware. This may seem surprising to my readers, since everything said about Kant in the last two essays might suggest that he claims we only have knowledge of internal objects. But this is not the case. In response to representationalism, Kant claims that perception involves only one object, not two. Perception is always perception of an object in the external world; there is no intervening internal object that “copies” the external object. The reader may resist this claim: “Why then does Kant distinguish between appearances and things in themselves?”

The answer is that appearances and things in themselves are two ways of talking about the same object. As an example, consider the coffee cup sitting to my right. The phenomenal coffee cup is the cup as it appears to me and, as we know by now, Kant affirms that I am only aware of the cup as it appears to me. However, I can also think of the coffee cup as it is in itself. In other words, I believe that the cup has an existence independent of my perception of it; it exists in its own right, not just when it is appearing to me. I can never know or perceive the cup independently of its appearing to me, because that’s the same thing as perceiving it independently of my perceptions, which is absurd. Nevertheless, I can think about it as a thing in itself; in other words, I can conceive that it is a thing in itself. Thus, only one object exists for Kant, considered in two different ways: the coffee cup as it appears to me, and the cup in so far as it doesn’t appear to me. But in both cases, it’s the same cup, the same object. 

Still, this point will also be resisted. And the root reason for this resistance is that representationalism is not just a theory in philosophy textbooks. Heidegger’s whole point is that it permeates our entire culture, and structures how we understand ourselves. The habit of thinking that we are directly aware of internal objects is deeply engrained in us. To understand Kant (and, especially, the phenomenological tradition he plants the seeds of) we must unlearn the representationalist habit of mind. The key error we make in trying to understand Kant’s point is that we insist on understanding appearances as things that intervene between us and objects. But appearances are not thinglike; they are acts, they are experiences. The appearance of the coffee cup is not a “thing” that I experience in my mind; the appearance of the cup just is my experience of the cup. It is the cup, as it looks to me. 

This theory of perception cuts at the very root of representationalism. It rejects the idea that perception involves intervening internal objects of which we are directly aware. The implication of this is not that we are directly aware of external objects, if direct awareness is construed as some kind of unmediated beholding that does not involve a process by which objects become present for us. [1] [11] Kant affirms that there is such a process, with transcendental subjectivity pulling all the levers and flipping the switches from behind the proverbial curtain. But the result of this process, and its entire raison d’être, is our awareness of objects in the world — not our awareness of objects in our heads. 

Further, Kant’s theory of perception would also seem to challenge the “in here”/“out there” dichotomy that is fundamental to representationalism (though, as we will see, it is not at all clear that Kant fully appreciated this implication). If awareness means awareness of things in the world, then our minds are always directed toward that world, always involved with it. Awareness is a relation between “my mind” and the world — but a relationship cannot be reduced to either of its terms. Thus, awareness obviously does not happen “in the object” but it also does not happen “in the subject”; awareness is an interaction of the two, a relationship. Descartes and his successors arrive at their concept of the mind as subjective interiority by artificially abstracting the mind from its world. These two cannot be separated, however; they are always already bound up with each other. [2] [12] 

One Kant interpreter puts matters very clearly:

[Appearances] are not simply representations but aspects of things insofar as they are perceived according to the conditions of human sensibility. In this sense, appearances are not a kind of entity opposed to things-in-themselves . . . Rather, they essentially involve a relation between perceivers and an independent reality; and, more specifically, they are how things-in-themselves appear to perceivers endowed with a human sensibility. [3] [13]

The interpretation of phenomena and things in themselves as two ways of considering one and the same object is referred to by Kant scholars as the “dual aspect” reading of the distinction, and it is amply supported by Kant’s texts. [4] [14] Much of the evidence comes from the second edition of the first Critique, because Kant felt that his language in the first edition too easily leant itself to a representationalist misreading. For example, in the second edition preface, Kant refers to his distinction between “things as objects of experience and those same things as things in themselves” (B xxvii; italics added). [5] [15] A few lines later he is even more explicit, saying that “the object is to be taken in a twofold sense, namely as appearance and as thing in itself” (B xxvii; italics in original). Much later in the Critique, Kant states 

The Transcendental Aesthetic, in all its teaching, has led to this conclusion . . . namely, that something which is not in itself appearance must correspond to [appearance]. . . . Unless, therefore, we are to move constantly in a circle, the word appearance must be recognized as already indicating a relation to something, the immediate representation of which is, indeed, sensible, but which, even apart from the constitution of our sensibility (upon which the form of our intuition is grounded), must be something in itself, that is, an object independent of sensibility. [A 251-252; italics added]

One of the virtues of Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics is that it champions this dual aspect reading, explaining it with unusual clarity. Heidegger writes that “The term ‘appearance’ means the being itself as object of finite knowledge.” In other words, it is a being that appears to us (a being in the world); the appearance is not itself an object (a being) that appears. He writes, further,

The being “in the appearance” is the same being as the being in itself, and this alone. As a being, it alone can become an object, although only for a finite knowledge. Nevertheless, it reveals itself in accordance with the manner and scope of the ability that finite knowledge has at its disposal to take things in stride and to determine them. . . . Appearances [Erscheinungen] are not mere illusion [Schein], but are the being itself. And, again, this being is not something different from the thing in itself, but rather this [thing in itself] is precisely a being. [6] [16]

Heidegger also quotes Kant’s Opus Postumum (his posthumously published private notes) as support for this interpretation: “the difference between the concept of a thing in itself and the appearance is not objective but merely subjective [i.e., objectively they are not two distinct things]. The thing in itself is not another object, but is rather another aspect [respectus] of the representation of the same object.” [7] [17] It thus seems, if this reading is correct, that Kant goes decisively beyond the representationalist paradigm. 

Alas, matters are more complicated than this. While Kant is striking a blow against representationalism, he is actually inconsistent in this — both in the terminology he employs (which is largely borrowed from the representationalists), and in the substance of his arguments. One commentator on the Heidegger-Kant relationship summarizes these Kantian terminological inconsistencies as follows. “Kant indeed sometimes uses the term Vorstellung in a way that corresponds roughly to the term idea and its cognates in other languages, as used by Locke and other modern philosophers.” [8] [18] 

 Vorstellung is the standard German translation of “representation.” Locke and the representationalists had used “idea” as an all-purpose term for internal objects known directly by the mind (e.g., Locke writes, “It is evident that the mind knows not things immediately, but only by the intervention of the ideas it has of them” [9] [19]). The same commentator continues, “And [Kant] talks about sense-representations, even giving them at one point the Humean designation impressions [Eindrücke], and asserts that they are necessarily involved in our knowledge of the sensible world. But these representations are [Kant writes] ‘a mere determination of the mind [Bestimmung des Gemüts].’” [10] [20] 

In another place, Kant refers to the thing in itself as the “correlate of sensibility,” saying, “The true correlate of sensibility, the thing in itself, is not known, and cannot be known, through these representations [Vorstellungen]; and in experience no question is ever asked in regard to it” (A 30). Further, Kant sometimes speaks as if things in themselves “cause” Vorstellungen in our minds. Critics were quick to pounce on this, since Kant had argued that the category of causality was applicable only to appearances and could not be applied to things in themselves. Kant thus appeared to be guilty of a significant inconsistency, and he attempted to clarify this language in the second edition of the first Critique[11] [21] 

In truth, one could argue persuasively that Kant’s treatment of things in themselves as (somehow) “causing” appearances reflected his deep commitment to the representationalist paradigm, in spite of his own conscious intentions. The reason is simple: the very imputation of causality to things in themselves seems intended to answer a basic question: what causes appearances “in here”? Answer: things in themselves “out there.” In short, Kant sometimes still reasons exactly like a representationalist: appearances are distinct objects existing in an internal world, caused by objects in an external world. [12] [22] Thus, setting aside all misleading language, Kant is attempting to transcend representationalism — but clear traces of representationalism’s dichotomization of mind and world still remain in his thinking.

It is thus not simply a matter of Kant’s employing inconsistent or misleading language that might cause one to misread him as a Lockean representationalist: he actually seems to buy into some of the theory’s deepest assumptions. Perhaps the single best indication of this is Kant’s celebrated “deduction” of the categories of the understanding. This is a notoriously difficult section of the first Critique, fraught with problems of interpretation. Nevertheless, Kant’s intentions in the deduction are perfectly straightforward. Having argued that the a priori categories of the understanding shape our experience of the world, Kant raises a problem with his own position: how can we justify the idea that something in the mind (the categories) has applicability to something outside the mind? 

Kant frames his long and involved answer to this problem by presenting it as a legal proceeding: “Jurists, when speaking of rights and claims, distinguish in a legal action the question of right (quid juris) from the question of fact (quid facti) and they demand that both be proved. Proof of the former, which has to state the right or the legal claim, they entitle the deduction” (A 84; B 116). In short, Kant is challenging himself to answer the question “by what right do the categories of the understanding apply to sensibility?” Heidegger argues, however, that this is a pseudo-problem, generated by Kant’s lingering commitment to the presuppositions of representationalism.

Heidegger’s exposition of this point occurs in his Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Essentially, he argues that Kant has lapsed into the standard Cartesian construal of the subject as locked away in an interiority divorced from an “external world.” Once this assumption is made, then there always arises a “problem” of getting the subject and the world back together again. Kant has, in effect, forgotten his own claim that “the word appearance must be recognized as already indicating a relation to something.” The substance of such claims can be expressed in the language of phenomenology as the recognition that awareness and all that comprises it, including what Kant calls “appearances,” is intentional: it is not a thing “in here,” it is a relation to the world[13] [23] Appearances thus do not need to be connected up with things “out there.” Appearances just are our relation to things; they bridge the “gap” between the “subjective” pole and the “objective.” Indeed, they give us warrant for saying there was never any “gap” in the first place. 

Heidegger writes of Kant,

[Kant construes the a priori as] that which belongs to the subject, lies in the mind, and is accessible therein prior to any move to the ob-jects. A priori is that which is initially accessible in the sphere of the pure subject. This fundamental comprehension of the a priori now covers pure concepts of the understanding. They belong to the activities of the subject; they are, so to speak extant in the subject and only in it. Such a comprehension of the a priori character of pure concepts of the understanding leads necessarily to the juridical form of inquiry. If these pure concepts of understanding, as belonging to the subject, are to be determinations of objects, then as purely subjective they claim a single “validity” for ob-jects. But this gives rise to the question: What constitutes the legitimacy of the claim of subjective categories, in view of the fact that this subjective element has a value, so to speak, for what is ob-jective? What justifies taking this subjective element for something ob-jective, which basically it is not? [14] [24]

In short, had Kant not assumed the standard model of the Cartesian subject, locked in its interior, there would never have been any need for a “legal proceeding” to legitimate the applicability of “subjective” conditions to an “external world.” Again, “appearances” just are our relatedness to the world. They are not separate, internal “things” whose relation to the world needs to be established. 

In Being and Time, Heidegger similarly takes Kant to task for thinking that he has to provide a proof for the existence of the “external world”:

At first, it appears as if Kant has abandoned the Cartesian position of the prediscovered isolated subject. But that is only an illusion. The fact that Kant requires any proof at all for the “existence of things outside me” already shows that he takes the subject, the “in me,” as the starting point for this problematic. . . . The “scandal of philosophy” does not consist in the fact that this proof [of the external world] is still lacking up to now, but in the fact that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again. . . . It is not that the proofs are insufficient, but the kind of being of the being that does the proving and requests proofs is not defined enough[15] [25]


You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [27].

But even if we grant that appearances already relate us to the world and thus do not have to be “reconnected” with “things out there,” we might still inquire about the legitimacy of the transcendental conditions (e.g., the categories) that make experience possible. Mustn’t their application to appearances somehow be justified? No, because these transcendental conditions are also not “things,” nor is it correct to say that they get “applied” to appearances. This way of construing matters seems to be committed to a mechanical model of consciousness in which thing-like categories go to work on thing-like appearances, like cookie cutters cutting out little star-shaped pieces of dough. In fact, what Kant has identified, with his account of the categories (and other a priori “structures”) is simply the invariant features (or aspects) of objects in general. For example, objects are always given to our awareness (1) as things with properties (substantia et accidens), (2) causing effects or being caused, and (3) in a “community” of agents and patients (these are, in fact, Kant’s three “categories of relation”). 

However, not until Husserl and Heidegger is it recognized that Kant was actually giving a proto-phenomenological description of the “moments” of the experience of objects — i.e., its inseparable, eidetic (non-thinglike) aspects. Kant essentially misconstrues these inseparable moments as “pieces,” as separable “parts” (like the parts of a machine). In this, Kant was burdened by two influences. The first is traditional logic, from which he derives (in a somewhat uncritical fashion) his categories and judgment forms. According to logic as it is still taught to this day, logical categories and judgments are “forms” into which “content” is inserted. The second influence was a mechanistic psychology. Kant construes his transcendental structures as thinglike “faculties” that “inform” the “matter” of sensibility. The Kantian model of human subjectivity, in fact, is very much like a machine. Sensibility gets inserted into one end and the machine spits appearances out of the other — after having been “processed” by innumerable gears, levers, bells, and whistles (all concealed under the hood, i.e. in transcendental “interiority”). 

Heidegger writes in Phenomenological Interpretation:

Kant vacillates between psychology and logic. To be sure, he realizes that with empirical psychology he will not get anywhere, but also that the problem cannot even be seen therewith. He also realizes that a formal logical consideration is not enough. But instead of an unclear combination of psychology and logic, what is needed is a clear insight that we are dealing here with a purely phenomenological interpretation of human knowing Dasein — with a phenomenology which supports psychology and logic. But fortunately Kant’s actual procedure is far better than his knowledge of it. [16] [28]

In the end, we have to conclude that Kant’s position vis-à-vis representationalism is inescapably inconsistent. His fundamental insight is that human subjectivity is intentional. Subjectivity, in all its forms (perception, understanding, etc.) is not a thing “in me”: it just is my relatedness to the world. Thus there is no “problem” of connecting “me” to that world. We are already connected. Yet, Kant is burdened with the terminology he inherited from representationalism, as well as the imperative to solve certain problems that preoccupied the thinkers of his time. He fails to see that these problems are generated by the basic assumptions of the very representationalist theory he is challenging. 

Kant did not have the term “intentionality” at his disposal (at least not in Husserl’s sense), so he expresses this fundamental idea through such formulations as “the word appearance must be recognized as already indicating a relation to something.” It is important to note that he also does so through one of the most interesting and important concepts in the first Critique: the so-called “transcendental unity of apperception.” “Apperception” means, literally, perceiving that we perceive. For example, I perceive the coffee cup. But I can also perceive that I am perceiving the coffee cup. Here, the first usage of “perceive” refers to perception via the five senses. But when I say that “I perceive that I perceive,” this other sort of perception is obviously not sensory. It is a different form of awareness; it is self-awareness. Only I am able to have this self-awareness of my “subjective acts.” Only I can perceive that I am perceiving the cup, or perceive that I am feeling a pain in my left foot, etc. 

Kant characterizes apperception by saying that it is as if the thought “I think” accompanies all of my experiences. Now, he does not mean that we are always engaged in conscious apperception; I am not always aware that I am aware of the cup; sometimes I am completely absorbed in the cup, and do not reflect on my awareness of it at all. Nevertheless, Kant insists that “I think” must potentially accompany all of my experiences, and he argues that this is one of the transcendental conditions that makes experience possible. Experience is always my experience (there is no such thing as a free-floating experience that does not belong to any subject!). And I am tacitly aware of this at every moment; at all times I am aware (even if this does not come to conscious expression) that these experiences are my experiences. (In Kant’s language, the “I think that X” — i.e., “I am aware that X” — silently accompanies every experience.) This is one of the factors, indeed, that confers unity upon my experiences — that they are all related to me; that they are all experienced as “mine.”

But in what way does this “transcendental unity of apperception” somehow express what phenomenologists mean by “intentionality”? This is quite simple. To perceive that I perceive entails that I take appearances as appearances of something. “I perceive that I perceive” means “I take my perceptions to be perceptions,” where “perception” is always taken as having an object. Phenomenologically, Kant has hit upon what is an indisputable fact of experience: I always take my experiences not only as mine, but as referring beyond me to something else. In other words, I take them as intentional. With his identification of the transcendental unity of apperception, Kant has struck at one of the chief weaknesses of the representationalist theory: if we are only directly experiencing internal ideas, why do I doggedly insist that these ideas refer to something beyond themselves (that they “represent” something else)? 

Representationalism cannot solve this problem, except by arbitrarily (and baselessly) positing a “mark” borne by our internal ideas that signals to us that they refer beyond themselves. Kant’s solution (when he is being consistent) is to reject the existence of internal ideas and to affirm that I am always aware that I am aware of the world. In other words, intentionality is absolutely basic to experience — so basic, in fact, that all experience presupposes the conviction that I am experiencing things in the world. Thus, the transcendental unity of apperception and its intentionality are transcendental conditions of all awareness, and thus not derivable from, or reducible to, anything more basic. One scholar puts matters very clearly, as follows:

The so-called way of ideas [i.e., representationalism], which Kant is seeking to supplant, is a characterization not only of the knowing process but also of the knowing subject. It is the view that the mind is a thing that has certain properties, and these properties are thoughts, ideas, or representations. But Kant affirms, as we have seen, that the mind must not merely have representations, it must also take them to be representations, and thus refer beyond themselves. But the tradition has no place in its theory of mind for this act of taking. This act is nothing other than the “I think” whereby I relate my representations to objects by means of concepts. If we start with the traditional conception, its relation to the world has to be explained after the fact. Kant is saying that we must begin with a mind that is characterized by intentionality, a mind whose essence is to refer beyond itself. . . . Rather than starting with the encapsulated mind and then asking how we can get out of it to the world, we must begin with a notion of mind that is already (i.e., a priori) outside of itself and in the world. [17] [29]

Therefore, the same author concludes that “Kant’s great insight was, or should have been, that we don’t have to ask permission, as it were, to apply the categories to objects or to relate the mind to the world.” [18] [30] Why? Because, again, the mind is already related to the world. All our experience is an experience of this relatedness, of intentionality, and all philosophical discussions of awareness must at least covertly presuppose intentionality as an irreducible fact (e.g., representationalism does this when it denies that we are directly related to the world, but then assumes as basic our relatedness to internal objects). 

In conclusion, we might come to Kant’s defense with the following question: “if we can readily discern Kant’s intentions, and the revolutionary character of his theory of perception, then does it ultimately matter whether he sometimes lapses into representationalist language, or even sometimes missteps and seems to adopt representationalist assumptions?” This is a fair question, and it is crucial for understanding Heidegger’s critique of Kant. Heidegger’s destruction of representationalism is absolutely central to his critique of the Western metaphysical tradition, because, in essential terms, representationalism plays a direct causal role in the rise of modern nihilism. Kant’s representationalist tendencies would only be significant, then, on two conditions: (1) if they infected his entire philosophical system in a way so significant that its progress against representationalism was essentially vitiated; and (2) if they served to intensify or to entrench the representationalist-founded “metaphysics of presence” in subsequent philosophers influenced by Kant, and thus to hasten the rise of nihilism. 

Unfortunately, Heidegger argues that both these conditions are satisfied. In my next essay we will explore why Heidegger believes this. We will do so first by exploring Heidegger’s analysis of what Kant takes Being to mean — an issue we have not looked at so far. In the essay following the next, we will explore Kant’s treatment of the will, which Heidegger takes to be a direct precursor to Nietzsche’s will to power. 

*  *  *

Counter-Currents has extended special privileges to those who donate $120 or more per year.

To get full access to all content behind the paywall, sign up here:


[1] [31] For an argument for how perception can be understood as direct, construing “direct perception” rather differently, see part four [5]

[2] [32] It is easy to see how mind is bound up with the world: I depend on the world to have an object for my consciousness. The radical step taken by the post-Kantian “Absolute Idealists” — Hölderlin, Schelling, and Hegel — was to argue that in a real sense the world also depends upon mind, for the telos (the end or goal) of existence is to give rise to mind. 

[3] [33] Frederick Beiser, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism 1781-1801 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 70; only the first italics added.

[4] [34] For a very influential defense of the dual aspect reading, see also Henry Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). 

[5] [35] I am using Norman Kemp Smith’s translation of The Critique of Pure Reason (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965). Reference is to the marginal pagination, standard in all editions of the Critique. “A” refers to the pagination of the first edition (1781), “B” to the second edition (1787).

[6] [36] Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, trans. Richard Taft (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 21-22.

[7] [37] Quoted in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, 23, italics in Kant’s original. Another passage from the Opus Postumum states that “the thing-in-itself = X is not another object but only another [standpoint], namely the negative standpoint from which we consider one and the same object.” Quoted in Beiser, 213.

[8] [38] David Carr, “Heidegger on Kant on Transcendence” in Transcendental Heidegger, ed. Steven Crowell and Jeff Malpas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 36.

[9] [39] Quoted in The Age of Enlightenment, ed. Isaiah Berlin (New York: New American Library, 1984), 95.

[10] [40] Carr, 36. For the Eindrücke instance see the first Critique A 50/B 47. For Bestimmung des Gemüts see A 50/B 47; compare A 147/B 242. Other scholars concur in recognizing these inconsistencies. For example, Frederick Beiser writes: “Kant has an ambivalent position vis-à-vis the way of ideas [i.e., representationalism]. On the one hand, he denies some of the fundamental tenets of this tradition: that ideas are given, self-evident, and resemble their objects. On the other hand, he sometimes affirms its basic principle: that the immediate objects of awareness are ideas.” Beiser, 21; cf. p. 134. Kant sometimes equates “appearances” (Erscheinungen) with “representations” (Vorstellungen). See, for example B 59: “Wir haben also sagen wollen: daß alle unsere Anschauung nichts als die Vorstellung von Erscheinung sei” (“What we have meant to say is that all our intuition [Anschauung] is nothing but the representation of appearance”). A few other examples in the first Critique (there are many): B 59, 164, 235, 236; A 104, 373, 375, 384-385. 

[11] [41] Kant tries to extricate himself from this difficulty through his distinction between knowing and thinking. I cannot know that the thing in itself exercises causal power because I have no sensory experience of the thing in itself to which the category of causality could be applied (i.e., I can’t experience the thing in itself as causing anything). However, I can still think the thing in itself as cause, in fact I may have no choice but to think in this way. But this just seems like conceptual sleight of hand. If I do think the thing in itself as cause, aren’t I just flat out wrong? (If, indeed, the category of causality is restricted to appearances.) 

[12] [42] Beiser sums matters up: “Kant writes about appearances as if they were distinct entities, as if they were representations detached from objects in themselves, and as if their existence and essence depends entirely upon the perceiver.” Beiser, 51.

[13] [43] That consciousness is “intentional” simply means it is always of or about something else. It does not mean that consciousness is intentional in the sense of deliberately meaning to do something. Husserl’s usage is a different meaning of the same word, derived from the jargon of logic. 

[14] [44] Martin Heidegger, Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Parvis Emad and Kenneth Maly (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 213.

[15] [45] See Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh, rev. Dennis J. Schmidt (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2010), 196-197; italics in original. 

[16] [46] Phenomenological Interpretation, 219-220; italics added.

[17] [47] Carr, 37-38

[18] [48] Carr, 42.