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Heidegger’s History of Metaphysics, Part Ten:
Kant & the Metaphysics of Presence

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1961 West German Bundespost stamp featuring Kant

6,542 words

All essays in this series available here [2]

1. Introduction

With this, the tenth essay in this series, we have reached a significant milestone. Our journey has taken us from Plato to Kant, and this is the fourth essay on Heidegger’s Kant interpretation. In the last installment, we saw that Kant is struggling to transcend the representationalist paradigm, but that he is inconsistent in this. For Heidegger, Kant’s great insight was the recognition that consciousness is intentional, to use Husserl’s terminology: all the structures of consciousness are of or about something else. “Appearances” [Erscheinungen] are always appearances of things in the world.

However, Kant’s “appearances” are not the same things as the representationalists’ “internal ideas,” locked in the interiority of a mind that must prove that its ideas have a connection to things “out there.” Rather, Kant maintains that “the word appearance must be recognized as already indicating a relation to something” (A 251-252). [1] [3] Appearances are not things “in here,” in my mind. Appearances are things in the world manifesting themselves to us, and consciousness just is our relation to the world. Nevertheless, Kant undercuts his own position by thinking that he must provide answers to philosophical pseudo-problems generated by the assumptions of representationalism. 

For example, Kant thinks that he must provide an answer to the “problem of the external world.” However, this problem only arises because the Cartesian representationalist severs the connection of mind and world through the postulation of those internal ideas, which are supposed to “copy” things “out there.” But how do we know that they faithfully copy anything? And how do we even know that there are things out there? Kant still felt he had to answer these questions – even though his own theory of awareness transcends the presuppositions that give rise to them. As one commentator on Heidegger’s Kant interpretation expresses the problem, “to argue against skepticism is to accept the presuppositions according to which skepticism needs a refutation.” Thus, Kant’s attempt to answer skepticism runs counter “to what is genuinely innovative in [his] theory of concepts and even to his basic idea of the Copernican turn.” [2] [4] 

In Phenomenological Interpretation of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Heidegger points out that this is also the fundamental problem with Kant’s celebrated “deduction” of the categories of the understanding. Kant thinks he must answer the question of by what right the categories are applied to things in the world. But this, again, presupposes an “encapsulated mind” cut off from the world, and conceives the categories as “things” in the mind whose applicability to the external world must somehow be justified. The same commentator expresses Heidegger’s criticism of this when he writes 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.” [3] [5] Why? Because, again, the mind is already related to the world; all experience is an experience of this relatedness, of intentionality.

We can thus see that while Kant gives us the means to transcend representationalism, he remains mired in its presuppositions. His philosophy is thus fundamentally inconsistent. As a result of this, many commentators (up to the present day, in fact) have taken Kant as some variety of representationalist, and have failed to appreciate the ways in which the truly essential insights of his philosophy constitute a radical critique of representationalism. Consequently, the net effect of Kant’s position was only to entrench representationalism even further. This does not mean that the philosophers after Kant were some sort of Cartesian or Lockean representationalists. Instead, it means that, like Kant, they remained in thrall to the deeper assumptions of representationalism.

At this point in my series, I hope I do not need to convince my readers that this was a very bad thing indeed. But, as a reminder, let us recall Heidegger’s claim that the present modern, technological age is dominated by a metaphysics that sees all that exists as having the status of raw material or “standing reserve” (Bestand) to be exploited for human use. Where does this metaphysics come from? It stems precisely from our decision to see beings as what is “set before” or “thrown against” an encapsulated subject removed from the world. We began to believe that to be is just to be an ob-ject that opposes the subject. This is the very essence of representationalism, the chief modern expression of what is referred to by Heideggereans as the “metaphysics of presence.” With roots in Platonism, the metaphysics of presence is the hidden will behind the history of philosophy whereby Being is construed as that which must be permanently and wholly present to human subjects.

In short, the present age and all its horrors were made possible by representationalism. As I put it in an earlier essay [6], this includes, among other things, the ugliness of the modern industrial and commercial landscape, environmental crises of all kinds, and the carnage of “social planning” (for man, too, is a raw material). If we are looking for one individual to blame for all our problems, it must be Descartes. However, as I have argued in previous essays, Heidegger holds that philosophers such as Descartes do not create ideas but instead give expression to the Zeitgeist, to the spirit of the times. Thus, no one man is to be blamed. (In a sense, all are to blame, and none.) From whence, then, comes the spirit of the times? Answering this question would require us to explore Heidegger’s enigmatic theory of das Ereignis (the event), which I will do in a later essay. (A brief discussion can be found here [7].)

In the present essay, I will round out our indictment of Kant’s representationalist inconsistencies through a consideration of how he understands Being. This issue has not so far been raised, but it is crucial. Heidegger’s “history of metaphysics” is the same thing as a history of Being, or a history of how philosophers have “forgotten Being.” Thus, it is essential that we understand Kant’s explicit statements about Being. When we confront this issue, we will find the real basis for the claim that Kant’s philosophy winds up inadvertently entrenching representationalism. More than this, we will see that the manner in which he does so has the effect of radicalizing the “subjective turn” in modern philosophy initiated by Descartes. This radicalization ultimately issues in the Nietzschean doctrine of “will to power.” In the next and final essay on Kant, we will explore Kant’s own conception of will, and how it sets the stage for Nietzsche. Ultimately, for Heidegger it is impossible to disentangle representationalism from the will, for he regards representationalism as a concealed form of will to power

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You can buy Collin Cleary’s Summoning the Gods here [9].

2. Kant on Being and Position

A major source for Heidegger’s analysis of Kant’s understanding of Being is his 1961 essay “Kant’s Thesis About Being.” There, Heidegger focusses on one section of The Critique of Pure Reason, “The Impossibility of an Ontological Proof of the Existence of God,” which appears in the “Transcendental Dialectic” division of the text. This division is devoted largely to demonstrating the ways in which rationalist metaphysics tries to exceed the limits of human reason, and winds up running aground. 

The ontological argument is most famously associated with two thinkers: Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), who put forward the argument in its classic formulation, and Descartes, who offered a simplified version in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). For the uninitiated, I will explain the Cartesian version, not just because it is easier to present but also because it was the version of the argument Kant actually had in mind. The ontological argument is a classic example of rationalism, because it claims to be able to deduce the existence of God merely from the definition of God. But whence comes this definition, and when did we all agree on it? Descartes believes, in fact, that there is a simple definition of God that no man would dispute, not even an atheist: God is supposed to be a perfect being

Even an atheist will assent to this definition, with the caveat that such a perfect being does not happen to exist. Descartes’s argument (which he presents in his fifth meditation) depends upon demonstrating that the atheist contradicts himself in taking this position. The claim “God is a perfect being, but God does not exist” involves a logical contradiction, though the atheist is unaware of this. If we can show that the denial of God’s existence results in a contradiction, then logically we must infer that God does exist (or, at least, that we cannot deny his existence). Thus, the ontological argument is a form of indirect proof. This is a logical strategy that consists in demonstrating that x must be true, because “not x” leads to a contradiction, and a contradiction is an infallible indicator of error.

But exactly how does the atheist contradict himself? To see this, we must unpack what a “perfect being” means exactly. Descartes argues that it means a being that lacks nothing. Thus, if we said that God is all powerful, with the exception that he is not able to change tomorrow’s weather, we would immediately spot a problem because a perfect being could not lack this ability. Similarly, we could not deny any form of knowledge to God (such as knowledge of the future), for this would again mean that a perfect being lacks something. Even an atheist can follow, and assent to, this logic, for he will be able to say, “I have an idea of a perfect being, and I know that this being cannot lack anything, therefore he cannot lack knowledge of x – I just don’t believe that this perfect being exists.” 

But what of this claim that God does not exist? Isn’t the atheist in fact saying, “I have an idea of a perfect being, but in my idea of the perfect being he lacks existence”? But this is the same thing as saying, “I have an idea of a being that lacks nothing, but that lacks something: existence.” This, however, is clearly a contradiction. The being cannot both lack nothing and lack something[4] [10] In order to avoid contradiction the atheist cannot claim that his idea of a perfect being is an idea of a being that lacks existence. In short, if the atheist truly understood the implications of his words, he would have to affirm the existence of God, since he cannot deny it. Indeed, merely thinking through the concept of God in a consistent manner leads us necessarily to affirm that existence must belong to this being. Descartes believes that with this argument he has deduced the existence of God just as surely as one can take the mere definition of a triangle and deduce from it, via geometrical proof, that its interior angles must add up to 180 degrees. 

Kant’s response to this is to claim that “Being” (or “existence”) [5] [11] is not a predicate at all, meaning that Being is not an attribute of things. Predicates tell us what something is; they are specifications of its nature. But when I say that the coffee cup is, that it has Being, I am not speaking about what it is, I am merely saying that it is. The ontological argument depends on misconstruing Being as a trait or attribute of things. We clearly can deduce some attributes of God from Descartes’s definition. For example, if God is a perfect being, a being without any lacks or limits, then clearly God must possess the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, etc. But Being is not an attribute. 

Suppose you asked me to describe the coffee cup on my desk and I said, “Well, it’s ceramic, it was made in the USA, it holds more than eight ounces of liquid, it’s decorated with stylized images of animals native to the American Northwest, and it exists.” You would doubtless say, in consternation, “Wait, what was that last bit?” Because in telling you the cup exists, I am not telling you one of its characteristics; again, I am not telling you what the thing is. If Kant’s analysis is correct, then philosophers cannot deduce God’s existence as an attribute of God, in the same way that they deduce omniscience, omnipotence, etc.

Kant formulates the matter as follows: “‘Being’ [Sein] is obviously not a real predicate; that is, it is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of the thing. It is merely the positing [Position] of a thing, or of certain determinations in and of themselves” (A 598, B 626). Now, Heidegger is not the slightest bit interested in whether Kant has refuted the ontological argument, because he is not interested in the argument (or in any argument for God’s existence, except insofar as it is of historical interest). Instead, Heidegger is interested in what Kant’s statement reveals about his construal of the idea of Being. Obviously, what is key here is the meaning of “positing,” because Kant simply identifies Being with the “positing of a thing.” 

Heidegger notes that when Kant says that Being is not a “real predicate,” “the word ‘real’ still has its original meaning [for him]. It means that which belongs to a res, to a substance, to the substantive content of a thing.” [6] [12] In other words, Kant is saying that Being is not a “thing” or anything “thinglike.” So far so good, for Heidegger would agree. But what is meant by “positing”? The Latin positio comes from the verb ponere, which means “to put” or “to place,” so that positio literally means a putting, or a placing. This, of course, only increases our puzzlement: how can Being be a putting or placing? Heidegger points out that Kant uses Setzung interchangeably with Position. But this is of little help to us since Setzung is derived from the verb setzen, which usually means “to put” or “to place,” exactly like Latin ponere (so that Setzung means putting or placing). [7] [13] 

But there is actually no great mystery here: by the “positing of a thing” Kant simply means that a thing is put before, placed before, or set before a knowing subject. Kant is thus saying that “to be” means to be in a relation to a subject. But this notion of “positing” ought to be familiar to us by now: it is identical to how representationalism understands the relation of things in the world to the subject. 

In his essay “The Age of the World Picture” (discussed extensively here [14]) Heidegger writes that “[The modern] objectification of beings is accomplished in a setting-before, a re-presenting [Vor-stellen], aimed at bringing each being before it in such a way that the man who calculates can be sure – and that means certain – of the being.” [8] [15] Representationalism, the modern objectification of beings, understands beings merely as that which is “set before” or “put before” a subject. Heidegger writes in “Kant’s Thesis About Being” that “the posited” is “something placed opposite and standing over against us, something thrown over against us [Entgegengeworfen], i.e., an object [Objekt].” [9] [16] 

He writes, further,

In every case the characterization of being as positing points to an ambiguity that is not accidental and also not unknown to us. For it plays about everywhere in the realm of that setting and placing that we know as representing. For this, the learned language of philosophy has two characteristic names: representing is percipereperceptio, to take something to oneself, grasp; and: repraesentare, to hold opposite oneself, to hold present to oneself. In representing we place something before ourselves, so that it, as thus placed (posited), stands over against us as object. Being, as position, means the positedness of something in representational positing. [10] [17]

“Positing” is not identical to representationalism – it does not, for example, entail that “internal ideas” must “copy” external objects. Instead, it expresses the deep, metaphysical assumption behind representationalism: that beings are nothing more than objects set before a subject. The inherently “subjectivist” nature of this position is obvious from the simple fact that something cannot be an “object” except in relation to a subject that “has” this object. Kant has defined Being precisely as the objectness of the object (i.e., its givenness to a subject). Heidegger writes, “Kant gives the name transcendental philosophy to the ontology that, as a result of the transformation effected by the Critique of Pure Reason, considers the Being of beings as the objectivity of the object of experience.” [11] [18]

Now, my earlier essays on Kant should have made clear that he is no phenomenalist: Kant believes that objects exist independently of our awareness of them (as things in themselves). Thus, when he identifies Being as “position” – as “objecthood,” as “setting before” a subject – he is not adopting some version of Berkeley’s dictum “to be is to be perceived.” But if this is the case, then shouldn’t Heidegger be accused of misinterpreting Kant? At the very least, he seems guilty of a highly tendentious reading. Certainly, many Kant scholars would make such an accusation. Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant has been so controversial that he was moved to acknowledge this in the preface to the second (1950) edition of Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. He states there that “Readers have taken constant offense at the violence of my interpretations.” [12] [19] 

However, I believe that there is a way in which we can understand Heidegger’s claims about Kant that is charitable to both thinkers. Heidegger, of course, is well aware that Kant is at pains to distinguish his position from Berkeley’s and to affirm that objects exist independently of their appearances. So why does Heidegger find Kant’s assertion that “Being is positing” so problematic? Essentially, it is because this is yet another instance of Kant’s ambivalence regarding the representationalist tradition. Yes, he seeks to go beyond that position – and, in important ways, he succeeds in doing so. Yet he remains heavily influenced by its assumptions. In this particular case, though “Being is positing” clearly does not mean that beings have no existence apart from how they appear to us, Kant has nonetheless treated them as if this is the case. In other words, Heidegger claims that for Kant Being has no more meaning for us than that which is posited, that which is “put before” us. The Kantian position, in short, is that Being means no more to us than “objecthood.” Kant may not be a Berkeleyan, but sometimes he behaves as if he were one. 

A very loose analogy may help. Consider the sort of person we call a “user”: he treats people merely as means for the satisfaction of his desires (rather than treating them, as Kant would put it, as “ends in themselves”). Now, such a person is decidedly not committed to the metaphysical position that other people really do exist solely as means to his satisfaction. If he believed this literally, he would be insane. What we say, however, is that he behaves as if this were the case. Given how the user treats others, they might as well be, for him at least, nothing more than means. 

For Heidegger, Kant is guilty of something similar. Kant is quite clear that objects have an existence independent of us, and is careful to insist upon a thing in itself. Yet when he comes to define “Being,” a very significant step for a philosopher, he defines it solely in terms of the givenness of beings to subjectivity. At this point in his philosophy, he is thinking and writing very much in the subjectivist spirit of modern metaphysics. Indeed, he is giving voice to the metaphysics of presence. Heidegger writes in “Kant’s Thesis About Being” that 

The age-old prevailing meaning of Being (constant presence) not only is preserved in Kant’s critical interpretation of being as the objectness of the object of experience, but even reappears in an exceptional form in the definition of “objectness,” while the interpretation of Being as the substantiality of substance, which otherwise prevails in the history of philosophy, virtually covers it up or even disguises it. Kant, however, defines “substantial” entirely in the sense of the critical interpretation of Being as objectness. [13] [20]

As a result of this, Kant remains, for Heidegger, very much a part of the history of metaphysics – which means, very much a carrier of the metaphysics of presence. His understanding of Being as objectness, and his tacit acceptance of other representationalist assumptions (see the introduction to this essay), were transmitted to later thinkers. This makes Kant a highly complex and problematic figure in the history of philosophy. On the one hand, as I have said already, he gives us the means to overcome representationalism and the metaphysics of presence. Yet, because of the inconsistent tendencies in his thought, he winds up inadvertently advancing these. 

Heidegger writes that Kant’s thesis about Being “everywhere shines through as the guiding idea, even when it does not form the scaffolding expressly constructed for the architectonic of his work.” [14] [21] In other words, Heidegger regards Kant’s identification of Being and objecthood as a central feature of his thought, which winds up more or less vitiating the elements in his philosophy that challenge and, when properly understood, overcome representationalism (a very controversial claim, I must add). The trouble, you see, is that almost no one properly understood Kant. The situation is not unlike that of Plato (which I have discussed here [22]): whatever Plato might really have meant, what has been influential in the history of metaphysics is what “Platonism” was taken to mean. Kant’s “subjectivist” tendency will be seized upon and radicalized in later thinkers – as we will see in a future essay, when we turn to Kant’s follower, J. G. Fichte. [15] [23] 

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You can buy Collin Cleary’s What is a Rune? here [25]

3. The Transcendental Unity of Apperception as Ground of Being

However, there is more to Kant’s account of Being than simple “position” and, for Heidegger, it involves Kant digging himself deeper into the subjectivist hole. I am referring specifically to Heidegger’s interpretation of what Kant calls the “transcendental unity of apperception.” I briefly discussed this difficult concept in my last essay, in the context of explaining how the transcendental unity of apperception expresses intentionality, and forms part of Kant’s response to representationalism. In the present context, we will explore very different implications of the transcendental unity of apperception. We will see that Heidegger argues that it actually constitutes Kant’s ultimate answer to the question of Being – a higher-level answer than the claim that Being is position.

First, let us simply try to clearly understand what Kant means by the transcendental unity of apperception. As I noted in the last essay, “apperception” means perceiving that I perceive something, or being aware that I am aware of something. For example, I am aware of the coffee cup to my right. But I can also mentally “step back” and become conscious of the fact that I am conscious of the coffee cup. Kant characterizes apperception by saying that it is as if the thought “I think” accompanies all of my experiences. By “I think” he simply means “I am aware,” or “I perceive.” 

This does not mean that I am always aware that I am aware. No, sometimes I am just aware of things, and wholly absorbed in them. Still, at any given moment I can choose to “step back” and become aware of my awareness of things. You can easily see for yourself that this is true. Look at some object near you (or use another sense: touch it with your hand). Now, reflect on your perception of the thing; be aware of yourself having this perception. We are able to make this shift automatically, at any time we wish. Thus, Kant insists that “I think” must potentially accompany all of my experiences. Further, this is not just an odd tidbit about the reflexive nature of human consciousness. Kant argues that apperception is one of the transcendental conditions that makes all experience possible. Why?

For Kant, all knowledge of objects depends on acts of synthesis, of which I am typically unaware (for they take place at a transcendental, or we could say “subconscious” level). Kant writes, “By synthesis, in its most general sense, I understand the act of putting different representations together, and of grasping what is manifold in them in one [act of] knowledge” (B 103). For example, my awareness of the cup in front of me is an awareness of one unitary object that persists through time and possesses qualities that I am aware of via multiple senses (e.g., it is white, hard, warm to the touch, makes a “ping” sound when struck, etc.). This awareness of the object begins with multiple, discrete sensory “inputs.” All of these must be synthesized by the mind into a unified experience of a single object. To see why this is the case, just imagine if your mind lacked the ability to link your visual experience of the cup with your tactile experience, so that you have the experience of seeing and feeling the same thing. Your experience would be utterly confused: you would have vision and touch, but they would not be linked, so that it might seem to you that you are seeing one object and touching another. It’s easy to see from examples like this that objects are only “given” to us due to prior acts of synthesis performed by the mind “behind the scenes.”

But there is more. In order for this synthesis of the object to take place, Kant claims that there must be a parallel synthesis in the subject – or, we could say, there must be a parallel synthesis of the subject. Kant means that in order for me to be aware of objects as unities (as ones), I must simultaneously be aware of myself as a unity. In other words, grasping a multiplicity as a unity (as a unified object) requires or presupposes a unified subject. It takes one to know one, we might say. This “subconscious” synthetic unity of the self is just what Kant means by the transcendental unity of apperception. 

But why must awareness of a unified object presuppose a unified subject? Consider: At each moment of my awareness of the multiple aspects of an object – say, when I turn it over in hands, examining the different sides – I am implicitly aware that this thing is given to me, that it is my experience. Suppose that we experienced no connection between these moments of awareness. Suppose that the experiences of the different sides were not taken as the moments of one over-arching experience I call mine. No awareness of a unitary object would be possible, and we would have no sense of personal continuity through time. In order to be aware of an object, I must therefore hold my different impressions of it together in one consciousness and be aware that this is my consciousness. In short, the awareness of a world of objects would be impossible without the transcendental unity of apperception. 

However, there is a flip side to this argument: it is also true to say that we are aware of the unity of our selves through our awareness of the unity of the object. We could not synthesize the manifold into a unitary object without a continuity of personal experience. The synthesis of the object requires the awareness that this is the same object I experienced in the preceding moment in time. Imagine if this were not present: every time I looked at the cup, I would encounter it as something entirely new! (Something like this state is approximated in Alzheimer’s patients and in people who have lost all short-term memory through a brain injury.) 

It is obvious that the transcendental unity of apperception is an extraordinarily important element in Kant’s account of the transcendental structures of consciousness. In fact, he gives the following title to one subsection in the first Critique: “The fundamental principle of the synthetic unity of apperception is the supreme principle of all employment of the understanding” (Der Grundsatz der synthetischen Einheit der Apperzeption ist das oberste Prinzip alles Verstandesgebrauchs, B 136). Now, what Kant calls “the understanding” (Verstand) is precisely what is involved in the synthesis spoken of earlier, by which objects are given to us. In other words, it is the understanding that makes possible the “position” of objects. As the supreme principle of the understanding, the transcendental unity of apperception is what makes position possible. 

What are the implications of this, if any, for Kant’s equation of position with Being? Heidegger writes that because the transcendental unity of apperception “makes possible the Being of beings, or in Kantian terms, the objectivity of the object, it lies higher, beyond the object. Because it makes possible the object [Gegenstand] as such, it is called ‘transcendental apperception.’” [16] [26] Heidegger’s words here are very clear, and I can do little more than restate them: because the transcendental unity of apperception makes possible the objectivity of the object (i.e., position), the transcendental unity of apperception makes possible the Being of beings. The transcendental unity of apperception is thus in some sense “higher” than Being itself – or it is “beyond Being” (to use the language of Plato in describing the Good). 

For Heidegger, the “subjective” language in which Kant chooses to frame the transcendental unity of apperception is deeply problematic. It is bad enough that Being is understood as position, as the objecthood of the object, as mere givenness to a subject. But if the transcendental unity of apperception is the necessary condition for position, then it looks like the Being of beings is inescapably subjective – again, despite Kant’s insistence (which he never abandoned) on a thing in itself. However, there are grounds for throwing this very objection right back at Heidegger, and they have to do with his deep indebtedness to the transcendental tradition Kant founded. 

In Heidegger’s philosophy it is also possible to speak of something that is a “transcendental condition” for Being, in the sense that it makes possible the givenness of the Being of beings to Dasein. This something that “gives Being” is what Heidegger calls “the Clearing” (Lichtung). (I have discussed this difficult concept at length in the first essay that launched this series, “Heidegger Against the Traditionalists [27].”) The Clearing thus occupies a position in Heidegger’s philosophy analogous to that occupied in Kant’s philosophy by the transcendental unity of apperception. The connection is actually quite close, because although Heidegger deliberately eschews all “subjective” language in describing the Clearing, in fact the Clearing is more or less identical to the “transcendental subjectivity” spoken of in Kant, and in Husserlian phenomenology. So why isn’t Heidegger’s account of Being just as “subjective” as Kant’s?

To respond to this objection, we have to take seriously Heidegger’s desire to move beyond “subjective” language in recasting what has been called “transcendental subjectivity” as the Clearing. Heidegger argues cogently that when we reflect on “transcendental subjectivity” it does not actually show up to us as anything “subjective” at all. The task of a phenomenologist is to faithfully describe just how objects show up for us. This includes “objects” that are eidetic or non-physical – such as the ideas we have, the fundamental categories in terms of which we understand the world, the judgment forms we use in reasoning, etc. In short, all the features that are grouped under the heading of transcendental subjectivity. But when we reflect on those features of transcendental subjectivity they do not show up as anything personal, self-like, or subjective. It is not my transcendental subjectivity, it is (or I take it to be) universal. Further, transcendental subjectivity has no location: it does not show up as “in here” any more than it shows up “out there” (as a thing occupying space). Transcendental “subjectivity” is neither subjective nor objective, neither mindlike nor thinglike. But this mysterious something seems to make a world possible for me. Thus, Heidegger is simply being a good phenomenologist in seeing transcendental subjectivity as nothing subjective after all.

Kant, on the other hand, is not being a good phenomenologist (nor could we really expect this of him). As I noted in an endnote to my second Kant essay [28], Heidegger’s de-subjectivizing of transcendental subjectivity is analogous to the response of Schelling and Hegel to Kantianism, as it was re-framed by Fichte. Fichte had reconfigured Kantian transcendental subjectivity as the “Absolute Ego.” But, as Schelling was the first to ask, why treat this as an “ego” (as an “I”) when there is nothing personal, self-like, or egoic about it? The result was the shift to the language of “the Absolute,” which transcends the subject-object distinction entirely. 

Heidegger charges (in Being and Time and elsewhere) that Kant’s “I think” (= the transcendental unity of apperception) is more or less identical to Descartes’s res cogitans (the thing that says “I” in “I think, therefore I am”). In other words, like Descartes, Kant insists on understanding transcendental subjectivity not just as subjective, but as a subjective thing, a “thinking thing.” He thus substantivizes “subjectivity,” turning it into, in effect, the “thing in here” flipping the switches from behind the curtain. Indeed, Heidegger charges that Kant makes the “I” into a hupokeimenon. As discussed in the fourth essay [6] in this series, this Greek philosophical term is often translated “substance” or “substratum” and literally means “what lies under.” The early Greek thinkers were searching for a hupokeimenon in the sense of an ultimate source out of which all things were made, or from which they emerged. Heidegger charges that in the modern period, the subject (the self, the mind, the ego) becomes, in effect, the hupokeimenon, the “foundation” for all things. 

He writes in “The Age of the World Picture,” “When . . . man becomes the primary and genuine subiectum, this means that he becomes that being upon which every being, in its way of being and its truth, is founded. Man becomes the referential center of beings as such. But this is only possible when there is a transformation in the understanding of beings as a whole.” [17] [29] In Kant, this trend in Western thought comes to a climax of sorts (though not a conclusion) because it is in his philosophy that modernity’s implicit conviction that “to be is to be an object for a subject” is made explicit for the very first time. [18] [30] “To be is to be an object for a subject” implies that subjectivity is the ground of Being itself – and this too is made explicit by Kant, in his doctrine of the transcendental unity of apperception. 

In his Nietzsche lectures, in the midst of an aside on Leibniz, Heidegger writes,

Subjectivity as the Being of beings means that outside the legislation of self-striving representation there may “be” and can “be” nothing that might still condition such representation. Now, however, the essence of subjectivity of itself necessarily surges toward absolute subjectivity. Kant’s metaphysics resists this essential thrust of being – while at the same time laying the ground for its fulfillment. That is because Kant’s metaphysics for the first time subsumes utterly the concealed essence of subjectivity, which is the essence of Being as conceived in metaphysics, under the concept of Being as beingness – in the sense of the condition of the possibility of beings. [19] [31]

Thus, if our aim has been to establish whether Kant’s philosophy expresses the metaphysics of presence, it looks as if this has been clearly demonstrated – at least, if Heidegger is right (and it must be stressed, once again, that his interpretation of Kant has been highly controversial). We can understand the metaphysics of presence as having two moments: it is the tendency in Western philosophy to construe what is as that which is (1) permanently present to us, hiding nothing, and (2) available to us for manipulation. To speak more precisely, therefore, we should say that so far in our account it seems that the first of these moments is exhibited by the Kantian philosophy: Kant understands beings purely as what is present to a subject, and the subject as the ultimate condition for the possibility of the Being of beings. [20] [32] But what about the second moment, the construal of what is as what is available for manipulation?

I will address this question in the next essay (the final one on Kant), when we turn to Kant’s conception of will, especially as he develops it in his mysterious late writings known as the Opus postumum

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Notes

[1] [33] 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). Italics added.

[2] [34] David Carr, “Heidegger on Kant on Transcendence” in Transcendental Heidegger, ed. Steven Crowell and Jeff Malpas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 39. 

[3] [35] Carr, 42. The phrase “encapsulated mind” also comes from this author. 

[4] [36] Usually we have to add the caveat “at the same time, in the same respect.” But God is an eternal, unchanging being. Thus, it is impossible for him to lack nothing at one time and then to lack something later. God is outside time altogether.

[5] [37] To avoid confusion, I follow the custom of English translators of Heidegger and capitalize the b in “Being” to indicate that we are referring to “Being as such” and not a particular being, i.e., a thing that has Being. I will do this even in contexts where I am not referring to Heidegger’s views on Being, but to those of another philosopher. The only exception I make to this is when I am quoting another author. Also, it should be noted that “existence” has a special, technical meaning in Heidegger’s philosophy. In the present context, the word is being used as it normally is, as a synonym for “Being.”

[6] [38] Martin Heidegger, “Kant’s Thesis About Being,” trans. Ted E. Klein, Jr. and William E. Pohl, in Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 341. Henceforth referenced as “KTB.”

[7] [39] KTB, 343.

[8] [40] Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 66. Italics added.

[9] [41] KTB, 350.

[10] [42] KTB, 343.

[11] [43] KTB, 350.

[12] [44] Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, trans. Richard Taft (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), xx.

[13] [45] KTB, 351.

[14] [46] KTB, 339.

[15] [47] Indeed, we will see in the next essay that Kant begins this process of radicalization himself, in the collection of late notes known as the Opus postumum

[16] [48] KTB, 348.

[17] [49] Off the Beaten Track, 66-67.

[18] [50] If we do not count Berkeley. And we should not count Berkeley, as Kant’s position is significantly different, and much more sophisticated and forcefully argued than Berkeley’s.

[19] [51] Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Vol. 3, ed. David Farrell Krell, trans. Joan Stambaugh et al. (New York: Harper and Row, 1987), 222.

[20] [52] See, again, p. 351 of KTB, and see also p. 360.