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Kant on Transcendental Deduction

This paper examines Section 25 of Transcendental Deduction, contained in Critique of Pure Reason, in detail. (13 pages; 2 sources; MLA citation style.


Immanuel Kant’s work entitled Critique of Pure Reason is considered by many to be one of the most important philosophical studies ever written. In it, Kant attempts to reconcile two opposing viewpoints: reason and experience. Greatly simplified, the a priori viewpoint (reason) says that we know what we know because we know it; we reason it out. The a posteriori viewpoint says that we know what we know because we can prove it. Critique of Pure Reason attempts to find a middle ground.

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This paper discusses one section (25) of the Critique. Perhaps the best way to approach the subject is to restate Kant’s words to make sure we know what he’s saying, and then see what conclusions we draw.


Section 25 of the “Transcendental Deduction” begins “On the other hand, in the transcendental synthesis of the manifold of representations in general…” and ends “… not as it would know itself if its intuition were intellectual.” (Kant, p. 168-169). (I’m using the Norman Kemp Smith translation, 1965).

The first sentence gives us a lot to think about: “On the other hand, in the transcendental synthesis of the manifold of representations in general, and therefore in the synthetic original unity of apperception, I am conscious of myself, not as I appear to myself, nor as I am in myself, but only that I am.” (Kant, p. 165). The first clause, “On the other hand” indicates that this is both an ongoing discussion and a comparison, and indeed it is, for in Section 24, Kant has been discussing inner intuition and how it affects our understanding of ourselves. He concludes “… so far as inner intuition is concerned, we know our own subject only as appearance, not as it is in itself.” (Kant, p. 165). The “on the other hand” indicates that now he is going to examine the opposite viewpoint—not intuition, but representation.

There are terms that need examination here: “transcendental synthesis” “manifold of representations” and “synthetic original unity of apperception” must be understood before we can go further. “Synthesis” is a process, a blending of separate parts into a whole, an active rather than a reflective state. Kant says:

“Space and time contain a manifold of pure a priori intuition, but at the same time are conditions of the receptivity of our mind—conditions under which alone it can receive representations of objects, and which therefore must also always affect the concept of these objects. But if this manifold is to be known, the spontaneity of our thought requires that it be gone through in a certain way, taken up, and connected. This act I name synthesis.” (Kant, p. 59).

“Transcendental synthesis,” then, is the process of examining the concepts we have of objects. This leads directly to the “manifold of representations” phrase, which is simply a way of saying that there are many different values, qualities, perceptions, etc, attached to each representation. Kant is saying, then, that as we examine the various qualities of representations in a specific way, that examination is “the synthetic original unity of apperception”. Webster’s dictionary doesn’t define “apperception” but it does list “apperceive”: “to assimilate and interpret (new ideas, impressions, etc.) by the help of past experience.”

Finally, then, Kant’s meaning seems to be that by examining the different qualities found in each representation and using past experience to evaluate them, he has arrived at the conclusion that he can draw only one conclusion from the experience, and that is that he exists. He is conscious of himself, but neither as he appears to himself nor as he is, only that he exists. He calls this realization a “representation”: “This representation is a thought, not an intuition.” (Kant, p. 168). To understand why this is instructive, we have to go back to the way in which he defines thought and intuition and the difference between them.

This is very subtle because Kant tells us that thoughts and intuitions are closely connected:

“In whatever manner and by whatever means a mode of knowledge may relate to objects, intuition is that through which it is in immediate relation to them, and to which all thought as a means is directed. … Objects are given to us by means of sensibility, and it alone yields us intuitions; they are thought through the understanding, and from the understanding arise concepts. But all thought must … relate ultimately to intuitions, and therefore, with us, to sensibility, because in no other way can an object be given to us.” (Kant, p. 65).

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Then if Kant’s understanding that he exists is a thought, not an intuition, as he says, then it’s almost as if he’s “skipped” part of the process; that is, he has arrived at the knowledge of his existence without intuiting it in relation to any object or other thing; it’s almost as if he’s accepted it as an a priori fact—his existence is known to him without being proven. Let’s see if this conclusion holds up in the rest of the section, or if it needs further adjustment.

After saying the representation (his knowledge of his existence) is a thought, Kant goes on with the next sentence:

“Now in order to know ourselves, there is required in addition to the act of thought, which brings the manifold of every possible intuition to the unity of apperception, a determinate mode of intuition, whereby this manifold is given; it, therefore, follows that although my existence is not indeed appearance (still less mere illusion), the determination of my existence can take place only in conformity with the form of inner sense, according to the special mode in which the manifold, which I combine, is given in inner intuition.” (Pp. 168-169).

We’ve already discussed some of the first parts of the sentence; we’ve worked through his discussion of thought and intuition, so we can recast his words in this way: “In order to know ourselves, we need a way to examine the many and various parts of self, and if we can find this way, we will also find that although existence is neither appearance nor illusion, we can truly examine it only in conjunction with the inner sense, which can also be called inner intuition.”

We’ve come back to the idea of intuition only this time it appears to be allied with the “inner sense”; it is slightly different from pure intuition. This intuition leads Kant to an awareness of the way in which he appears to himself, but not to true knowledge; as he says: “Accordingly I have no knowledge of myself as I am but merely as I appear to myself.” (P. 169). He continues this theme, of the difference between knowledge and awareness, in the next sentence: “The consciousness of self is thus very far from being a knowledge of the self, notwithstanding all the categories which [are being employed to] constitute the thought of an object in general, through a combination of the manifold in one apperception.” (P. 169).

What he seems to be saying is that despite all the mechanisms used to examine the various parts of an object and assimilate those ideas in light of past experience, consciousness and knowledge cannot be made congruent. They continue to exist separately. That would imply that there is a limiting factor at work here, and Kant does in fact address just such a condition further in the section.
The next sentence is this:

“Just as for knowledge of an object distinct from me I require, besides the thought of an object in general (in the category), an intuition by which I determine that general concept, so for knowledge of myself I require, besides the consciousness, that is, besides the thought of myself, an intuition of the manifold in me, by which I determine this thought.” (P. 169).

It seems clear that Kant requires two separate things for knowledge: thought and intuition. This would disagree with the earlier conclusion I made that he had arrived at the knowledge of himself in what seemed to be almost an a priori manner; in fact, both conditions are necessary. Does that mean that Kant contradicts himself, or is it my error? (The latter is most probably, I suspect.)

Let’s finish the section and come back to this point unless it resolves itself further on. Having said that both thought and intuition are necessary for the knowledge of himself, he goes on:

“I exist as an intelligence which is conscious solely of its power of combination; but in respect of the manifold which it has to combine I am subject to a limiting condition (entitled inner sense), namely, that this combination can be made intuitable only according to relations of time, which lie entirely outside the concepts of understanding, strictly regarded.” (P. 169).

Ah-hah! So it would seem that I understood him correctly after all and that it is the combination of thought and intuition that allow him to know himself. And here he says clearly that there is a “limiting condition” (what I called a “limiting factor”), and that it can be understood only with respect to time, and that time lies outside the concept of understanding. (I think time in this sense is not time as in “Where will you be at 2:00 this afternoon?” but time in the much larger sense: the huge construct that we use to describe all of history, the present, and the future. When we consider time as something that has always been and presumably will always exist, it does become far too large a concept for most of us to grasp; it is “outside the concept of understanding.”)

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He finishes the section with these words: “Such an intelligence, therefore, can know itself only as it appears to itself in respect of an intuition which is not intellectual and cannot be given by the understanding itself, not as it would know itself if its intuition were intellectual.” (P. 169).
Now we have another split, between intellectual and non-intellectual intuition. But I think what he means is that there is no way to understand the self intellectually; self-knowledge is not something that results from experience but is understood intuitively. (This goes back then to the conclusion that the experience of self must be prior.)

There is an extensive footnote to the section that might help us as well. In the note, Kant discusses the mode he uses to determine his existence and says that “self-intuition is required—and that such intuition is “condition by a given a priori form, namely, time…” (P. 169). (We’d already determined this from exploring the section in detail.) Time is “… sensible and belongs to the receptivity of the determinable [in me].” (P. 169). This is difficult, but I believe what he’s saying is that we are now in the realm of more “concrete” concepts; things that can be determined with some degree of certainty. But then he really tangles it up:

“Now since I do not have another self-intuition which gives the determining in me (I am conscious only of the spontaneity of it) prior to the act of determination, as time does in the case of the determinable, I cannot determine my existence as that of a self-active being; all that I can do is to represent to myself the spontaneity of my thought, that is, of the determination; and my existence is still only determinable sensibly, that is, as the existence of an appearance. But it is owing to this spontaneity that I entitle myself an intelligence. (Kant, p. 169).

It seems to me that there are two concepts here that we haven’t seen before: determination and spontaneity, with the latter being much the more important of them. Kant is saying that he is unable to see himself as a self-aware being prior to having the spontaneous realization of his existence—once again, we are back at the idea of self-knowledge being a priori knowledge, rather than knowledge gained through experience. The spontaneity of knowledge is what brings self-awareness.


This is difficult material, but after going through it a number of times, I think we can say that Kant while seeming to display inconsistency, doesn’t actually become inconsistent in his arguments. Any struggles with meaning might be due to the translation, or to a misunderstanding on my part.

Kant begins the section with his observations that his awareness of himself is not as he appears to himself, or as he is in himself, but only as an existence. He exists, but that is as much as he can determine, and that determination is a thought rather than an intuition. Take at face value, it would seem that intuition has no further part to play in his discussion, but it does, for Kant believes that thought and intuition are so intrinsically linked that it is all but impossible to examine one without the other. Indeed, he goes on to say that both thought and intuition are necessary for the process of self-knowledge to take place.

However, he continues, there is a “limiting condition” that makes this process difficult, and that limiting is what he calls “inner sense”, which he doesn’t define here, but which can only be, practically speaking, a close “relative” of intuition. This inner sense, which seems to me to be that part of Kant (and us) that “feels” things rather than understanding them completely intellectually, is a vital component in the process, even though he finds it limiting, because, as he says, the only way he can understand himself as intelligence is if he intuits his existence in a non-intellectual way. (I believe we have to realize that “intellectual” here is not used in the same sense it is when we speak of someone’s “intellectual accomplishments”; instead, Kant is distinguishing between reason and instinct.)

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Although the argument seems somewhat circular, the heart of it seems to me to be that both intuition and thought are necessary for self-knowledge, but that intuition is the real key. (This is an odd position when we realize that he said, in the beginning, that his representation of himself as being self-aware was thought not an intuition, yet it is intuition that, in a sense, “completes the cycle.” When anyone has the spontaneous intuitive “breakthrough” that allows him/her to say, “I exist”, that person has used Kant’s transcendental deduction to arrive at that conclusion.

But intuition without thought is not what we’re seeking here; it doesn’t go far enough. “Now there are two conditions under which alone the knowledge of an object is possible, first, intuition, through which it is given, though only as appearance; secondly, concept, through which an object is thought corresponding to this intuition.” (Kant, p. 126).

Here Kant says that intuition will give us only the appearance of an object; we need to couple the intuition with thought to achieve a meaningful result; in this case, the recognition of the self as an aware organism. So the two concepts work together to make it possible for us to recognize ourselves as living, thinking organisms.


The Critique of Pure Reason is possibly the most influential philosophical work ever written. It is vitally important because it attempted something that no one had yet tried: a synthesis of two different themes than current in philosophical thinking. “It [Kant’s work] was produced at a crucial time in the development of philosophy when there was tension between the continental allegiance to rational thought and the British espousal of sense experience.” (Collison, p. 89). With the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant changed the course of philosophy.

We might wonder why he felt such a drastic step was necessary. Collison tells us that Kant couldn’t accept either philosophy completely; that he saw the strength of the claim that empirical knowledge is the source of belief, but rejected the empiricists when their skeptics claimed that such beliefs couldn’t be justified. Likewise, he couldn’t accept the rationalists’ claim that truth about existence can be determined by the use of reason and reason alone. His task, as Collison puts it, was to find out “whether it is possible to have metaphysical knowledge…” (P. 89). At it is his exploration of metaphysics that forms the bulk of the Critique.

If we look at Section 25 in light of this information, we can, I think, see that he has taken input from both sides of the question, and used it to come to the conclusion that both parts are necessary. That is, the empiricists’ claims of rationality are represented by thought while intuition can be seen to “stand for” the rationalists’ claims of reason.

Finally, in this very short section, Kant has managed to show the ways in which sense experience (empirical evidence), here represented as “thought” and reason (here represented as “intuition”) can work together to help the philosopher reach a coherent conclusion; in this case, that men are thinking beings. Section 25 then would appear to be a functioning example of the two disparate schools of thought working in harmony, with the result being that they produce a coherent whole. It’s easy to see why this book is widely considered a major contribution to the history and development of modern philosophy.


Collison, Diané. Fifty Major Philosophers: A Reference Guide. London: Routledge, 1988.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.

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