Kevin S. Decker  


In the preface to the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant informs us that the basis of his critical project is '...a critique of the faculty of reason in general, in respect of all the cognitions after which reason might strive independently of all experience...' (Kant 1998, 101; A xii). Elsewhere, Kant repeatedly holds that he is comprehensively outlining the conditions for the possibility of experience itself. Given the centrality of experience (Erfahrung) to Kantís philosophy, the lack of a close Anglo-American treatment of the concept of Erfahrung seems to be unconscionable. 2   Two general factors seem to explain this omission: first, Kant consistently fails to give and maintain a clear definition of the term; second, the broader argument that Kant inveighs against skepticism in traditional epistemology (epitomized by Hume) begins with one conception of experience, a common-sense notion that 'experience is...the first product that our understanding brings forth as it works on the raw material of sensible sensations' and, in the process of the transcendental proof of the conditions of experience, radically transforms the concept by linking it to the methodology of the natural sciences (Kant 1998, 127; A 1). Thus, in the first Critique, what is proved is not what was assumed. In this paper, I will defend this interpretation of a serious equivocation of experience in Kant, as well as attempt to show how this equivocation affects Kantís defense against epistemological skepticism. 3   In section one, I trace the lineage of Kantís understanding of experience in several of his pre-critical works, finally presenting his engagement with Hume. In section two, I show how Kantís introduction of experience in the first Critique, cast in terms of perception and understanding, attempts to meet epistemological skepticism on its own terms. In section three, I show how this original conception of experience is transformed, and its broader justification in terms of Kantís metaphysics of science. In the conclusion, I maintain that this equivocation of 'experience' deflates Kantís argument against the skeptic.


In his 'Dreams of a Spirit-Seer' (1766) and 'On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World,' his Inaugural Dissertation (1770), we see Kant already beginning to lay the groundwork for the critical project fifteen years before the Critique of Pure Reason. In 'Dreams,' Kantís critique of Swedenborg, Kant notes that metaphysicsí attainment of the status of a science is dependent on the idea that experience must not be treated as a 'given' in the way that traditional metaphysics has mistakenly treated it. Cloaking postulates from experience in a priori guise, he notes, metaphysicians have maintained that '...if enough empirical cognitions (Erfahrungskenntnise) are acquired, they can then gradually ascend to higher general concepts' (Kant 1992b, 358). The path to such concepts would be called a priori, even though it was properly framed through reference to nothing but a posteriori cognitions. 'Their procedure,' he writes of such metaphysicians, 'is exactly like that of the romantic author: he makes the heroine flee to distant countries so that, by means of a happy adventure, she may accidentally meet her admirer...'(Kant 1992b, 359). Kantís criticisms also illustrate another crucial aspect of his early idea of experienceóits intrinsic link to scientific consensus, more commonly taken as agreement based in a community of (qualified) inquirers:

If, however, certain alleged experiences cannot be brought under any law of sensation, which is unanimously accepted by the majority of people, and if, therefore, these alleged experiences establish no more than an irregularity in the testimony of the senses... it is advisable to break off the enquiry without further ado, and for the following reason. The lack of agreement and uniformity in this case deprives our historical knowledge of all power to prove anything, and renders it incapable of serving as a foundation to any law of experience, concerning which the understanding could judge (Kant 1992b, 372).

This passage, particularly its idea that some experiences may not be able to be subsumed under laws of sensation, establishes that Kantís understanding of experience as yet is uncertain in respect to an account of the objective validity of experience through its universalization. This uncertainty is made more clear by comparing Kantís account above with his treatment of experience in his Dissertation, where he discerns that a lawlike 'internal principle of the mind' is necessary 'if the various factors in an object which affect the sense are to coalesce into some representational whole', i.e., to have experience (Kant 1992a, 393). Here, Kant adopts the term appearance to refer to objects of the senses previous to the logical use of the understanding; several such appearances compared to each other through the understanding form a 'reflective cognition' called experience. He writes:

Thus there is no way from appearance to experience except by reflection in according with the logical use of the understanding. The common concepts of experience are called empirical, and the objects of experience are called phenomena, while the laws both of experience and generally of all sensitive cognition are called the laws of phenomena (Kant 1992a, 394).

The problem of experience now shifts from the generation of experience, the appearance-phenomena dynamic of which continues to be essential in the first Critique, to those factors which might be involved in Kantís 'reflective cognition' itself. As Paul Guyer points out, Kant is unsure of whether the rules constituting this mental principle are to be derived from empirical concepts, '... or whether there are rules for self-consciousness itself which are epistemologically prior to rules for objectivity... as rules of the medium through which all objects must be represented' (Guyer, P. 1987, 25). In a series of fragmentary writings, the Duisburg Nachlass, dating from between the Dissertation and the first Critique (1774-75), Kant attempts to resolve this uncertainty in a similar fashion to the latter work. Here, Kant prescribes a more limited role for the categories of the understanding; instead of being justified by their role as the conditions for the possibility of experience as a whole in the first Critique, they instead determine only the temporal sequence of experience. This, in effect, makes the categories constitutive of experience itself, since, as Guyer says:

Experience itself is nothing other than the determination of the temporal position of the realities which are indeterminately given in mere appearance. These rules of the understanding that are the conditions of the possibility of experience going beyond the mere forms of intuition, as well as beyond the merely logical functions of judgment, then, would be the rules or relations that allow the temporal position of such objects to be made determinate (Guyer, P. 1987, 35).

In the Nachlass, Kant takes as exhaustive of these rules the concepts of substance, ground and whole (Guyer, P. 1987, 35). This limited formulation is a problem, Kant realized, particularly with respect to a priori synthetic judgments. 'If concepts can be shown not just to be found in us independent of any experience,' Guyer writes, 'but also to be conditions of the possibility of experience, then they can be inferred to be valid of all objects that are given to us by experience...' (Guyer, P. 1987, 29).

Demonstrating the distance he has come from the Dissertation, Kant in the Nachlass realizes that the categories in themselves do not serve to establish the objective validity of experience; without both an understanding of the understanding self and a principle of necessary legislation that ensures that each understanding self (subject) treats the manifold of appearances in the same way, the categories still serve only a 'subjective function'.

He writes:

Just so I would not represent anything as outside me and therefore mere appearance into (objective) experience if the representations did not relate to something which is parallel to my I, through which I refer them from myself to another subject. Likewise if manifold representations did not determine each other according to a general law. The three relations in the mind therefore require three analogies of appearance, in order to transform the subjective functions of the mind into objective ones and thereby make them into concepts of the understanding which give reality to the appearances (Kant, in Guyer, P. 1987, 44). 4  

As Guyer rightly points out, this passage serves as a 'promissory note' for the Analogies of Experience in the first Critique. The Nachlass is thus both the source of the idea that the analogies, which serve as 'rules for representing a determinate succession of objects and their states' (Kant, in Guyer, P. 1987, 45), as well as the notion that apperception, the representing of a unified self, are necessary in order that a priori synthetic concepts be absolutely valid, not only of those things which a subject is capable of experiencing, but of all things in general.5  

These pre-critical writings in epistemology show a marked distinction from the integrative approach of Kantís first Critique, a distinction which we may characterize as a move toward epistemology of science. This movement is manifested in Kantís modification of an essentially monadalogical metaphysic (on the model of Leibniz and Wolff) through an encounter with Newton. Michael Friedman gets to the crux of the problem posed by Kantís earlier Leibnizian orientation when he says:

The main problem, of course, is that, by definitively securing the autonomy of space, time, and the phenomenal world in space and time from the underlying metaphysical reality of simple substances, Kant has also entirely isolated this underlying monadic realm from our epistemic purview. In particular, since space, time, and the phenomenal world are no longer derivative from or constituted by the external relations of the original monads, it is no longer clear how they are at all connected with the metaphysical reality which they are still supposed somehow to express or reflect. Hence, since it appears that objects are given to us only through our sensible faculty of cognition, it is entirely unclear how our intellectual faculty of cognitionówhich is supposed to represent the fundamental monadic reality as it is in itselfóhas any access at all to its objects (Friedman, M. 1992, 34-5).

With this context in mind, the question distinguishing the Critique of Pure Reason from Kantís earlier theoretical work, namely, 'How is metaphysics as a science possible?' (Kant 1998, 148; B 22) makes a good deal more sense. The question situates Kant in opposition to Hume, who, according to Kant, stopped in his consideration of the possibility of synthetic a priori judgments at the issue of causality. Given Humeís judgment about the impossibility of the connection of cause and effect as an a priori proposition, Kant tells us,

...according to his [Humeís] inferences everything that we call metaphysics would come down to a mere delusion of an alleged insight of reason into that which has in fact merely been borrowed from experience and from habit has taken on the appearance of necessity... (Kant 1998, 146; B 19).

For Kant, the project of the critique of reason leads to science, not to skepticism (Kant 1998, 148; B 22-3).

For this paperís purposes, it is crucial to note that amongst all the threads of disputation between Kant and Hume, the most important is Humeís use of experience as a 'given'. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume defers from defining experience, instead focusing his attention on the critique of knowledge based on reason. Hume casts the function of reason as working by analogy, for example in the observation of similar causes to the expectation of similar effects. This is clearly a conception of reason far weaker than Kantís understanding of it, but it is crucial to underpin Humeís treatment of learning as habituation. In section nine of the Enquiry, 'Of the Reason of Animals,' Hume writes:

First, It seems evident, that animals as well as men learn many things from experience, and infer, that the same events will always follow from the same causes. By this principle they become acquainted with the more obvious properties of external objects, and gradually, from their birth, treasure up a knowledge of the nature of fire, water, earth, stones, heights, depths, &c., and of the effects which result from their operation (Hume 1988, 139).

Humeís naturalistic stance regarding the role of reason in the organization of experience is derived from a series of questions about matters of fact which presuppose each other in a series, finally ending with the query, 'What is the foundation of all conclusions from experience?' (Hume 1988, 77). Hume is here unable to define experience in terms of another set of philosophical ideas, instead answering this final question only in the negative: '...that, even after we have experience of the operations of cause and effect, our conclusions from that experience are not founded on reasoning, or any process of the understanding' (Hume 1988, 77). Hume treats as experience our direct apprehension of objects in all their 'superficial' aspects (perceptive as well as affective). This apprehension is previous to that function of analogical reasoning which makes a connection between the aspects of objects and the 'secret powers' of those objects hidden to direct apprehension (Hume 1988, 77-8). In short, by eliminating the need for the postulation of any capacity of reason or the understanding for having experience (since animals have it as well), Hume treats experience as a 'given'. This is the ground upon which Kant must meet Hume if he is to re-trace the skeptical path back to the 'nature of all our reasonings concerning matters of fact' (Hume 1988, 77).


The question about a priori synthetic knowledge that defines the first Critique is one that, on the face of it, admits of little common ground between the transcendental philosopher and the skeptic. Kantís interestóthe ground of the possibility of such knowledgeóis not even in the purview of someone like Hume, who stoutly denies its existence. As Philip Kain notes, Kantís project in the Critique of Pure Reason is designed to stand up to the objections of skepticism much more strongly than his previous work; there Kant argues in the Transcendental Deduction that 'ordered and coherent experience actually existsówe need not ask whether it is possible' (Kain, P. 1989, 154). This notion of what we might call a 'minimal experience' is not only viewed by Kant as an indubitandum shared by both he and Hume, but also key, in Kantís proof of the conditions for its possibility, in justifying the categories. In turn, the categories will show the possibility of a priori synthetic knowledge against the skepticís objections.

In treating Kantís own idea of experience as it has developed by the first Critique, first let us consider the opening words of the second edition Introduction:

There is no doubt whatever that all our cognition begins with experience; for how else should the cognitive faculty be awakened in exercise if not through objects that stimulate our senses and in part themselves produce representations, in part bring the activity of our understanding into motion to compare these, to connect or separate them, and thus to work up the raw material of sensible impressions into a cognition of objects that is called experience? As far as time is concerned, then, no cognition in us precedes experience, and with experience every cognition begins (Kant 1998, 136; B 1).

As Lewis White Beck rightly points out (Beck, L.W. 1978, 40-1), there is already an equivocation of 'experience' in this first passage; in the first sentence, Kantís assertion that all cognition begins with experience means nothing more than that cognition begins through the utilization of the 'raw material of sensible impressions.' At the end of this same sentence, however, experience is explicitly identified with the 'cognition of objects'. Following C.I. Lewis, White Beck points out that one way of interpreting the Critique is to not treat this equivocation as a paralogism, but rather as intentional. This leads to the understanding of Kantís purpose as tracing the movement from the prior kind of experience to the latter (Beck, L.W. 1978, 41). As we have already seen, however, this reading is hostile toward Kantís intention of presupposing a 'minimal experience.' Further, it is clear by the unfolding of the argument about time-determination in the Analytic why Kant appends the qualification 'as far as time is concerned' at the end of the passage above, but what does Kant intend by this? The qualification is, of course, the wedge of Kantís argument that although our cognition begins with experience, not all cognitions arise from experience. The possibility of non-empirical a priori cognitions is vital for Kantís reconstruction of the phenomenal world, and the wedge allows for this possibility. Although it may be objected that Kantís qualifications moves away from consensus with Hume about the starting-point of theoretical philosophy, it cannot be denied (if Kantís derivation of the principles of pure sensibility at A 22/B 36 ff. and the pure concepts of the understanding at A 78/B 104 ff. are accepted) that Kant has accurately characterized the difference between cognition beginning from versus that beginning with experience.

However, this is not Kantís only point of departure from Humeís experience-as-given. By the writing of the Prolegomena, Kant insists on an analysis of experience in general in order to confirm what he had already argued in the first edition of the Critiqueóthat there must be something more to experiences than merely direct apprehensions if they are to be taken as more than merely subjectively valid:

The foundation [of experience] is the intuition of which I become conscious, i.e., perception (perceptio), which pertains merely to the senses. But in the next place, there is judging (which belongs only to the understanding). But this judging may be twofold: first, I may merely compare perceptions and connect them in a consciousness of my state; or, secondly, I may connect them in consciousness in general. The former judgment is merely a judgment of perception and is of subjective validity only; it is merely a connection of perceptions in my mental state, without reference to the object. Hence it is not, as is commonly imagined, enough for experience to compare perceptions and connect them in consciousness through judgment; there arises no universal validity and necessity, by virtue of which alone consciousness can become objectively valid and be called experience (Kant 1985, 43-44; AK 300).

Because the work of concepts through Kantís faculty of spontaneity, the mental processes of synthesis and reproduction, make us capable of achieving universal validity in the organization of inchoate appearances, we can strongly distinguish him from Hume here: for Kant, the understanding is absolutely necessary for experience in a way that, for example, Humeís conception of 'imagination' as a form of belief is not. 6   This does not mean, however, that Kant does not begin with an understanding of experience as 'given'; as late as his attempt to resolve the antinomies, in fact, he says, '...the objects of experience are never given in themselves, but only in experience, and they do not exist at all outside it' (Kant 1998, 512; B 521/A 492). 'Givenness' here signifies only the relationship of objects in 'empirical connection with my real consciousness,' (Kant 1998, 512; B 521/A 493) a kind of connection that Kant later treats in terms of perception, defined as the empirical representation (in space and time) of appearances by the senses (Kant 1998, 236; A 115). He says:

Nothing is really given to us except perception and the empirical progress from this perception to other possible perceptions. For in themselves, appearances, as mere representations, are real only in perception, which in fact is nothing but the reality of an empirical presentation, i.e., an appearance. To call an appearance a real thing prior to perception means either that in the continuation of experience we must encounter such a perception, or it has no meaning at all (Kant 1998, 512; B 521/A 493).

This view of experience seems to meet the skeptical challenge on its own ground, avoiding as it does the importation of any highly debatable theory of the understanding. However, this view must in turn be modified by another formulation of experience that Kant presents in the B-Deduction, namely that it is empirical cognition.

In framing experience as empirical cognition, Kant is interested in the rule-governedness of our perceptions. In the Deduction, he is concerned to show that cognition, as distinguished from mere thinking, is composed not only by the object or 'given' intuition, but also by concepts, through which the object is thought. 'Sensible intuition is either pure intuition (space and time),' he writes, 'or empirical intuition of that which, through sensation, is immediately represented as real in space and time' (Kant 1998, 254; B 146-7). Cognition, on Kantís terms, does rely on an importation of a theory of the understanding, namely that empirical intuitions only serve as the basis for empirical cognition insofar as the pure concepts of the understanding are applied to them; does this threaten the idea of experience as 'given'? The answer to this is found through an analysis of a passage at B 147:

Things in space and time, however, are only given insofar as they are perceptions (representations accompanied with sensation), hence through empirical representation. The pure concepts of the understanding, consequently, even if they are applied to a priori intuitions (as in mathematics), provide cognition only insofar as these a priori intuitions, and by means of them also the concepts of the understanding, can be applied to empirical intuitions (Kant 1998, 254; B 147).

'Empirical representations' are what we have been terming 'minimal experience,' but now Kant is raising the stakes by relating cognition to experience. The necessity for this seems to be in the fact that '...the combination (conjunctio) of a manifold in general can never come to us through the senses, and therefore cannot already be contained in the pure form of sensible intuition' (Kant 1998, 245; B 129-30); instead, a spontaneous, synthetic act of the understanding is necessary for this combination. As mere 'forms of thought' (Kant 1998, 256; B 150), however, the concepts or categories have no determinate content, as shown by Kantís admission that their application to a priori intuitions serves for cognition only in the relation of such an application to empirical intuitions. As Lorne Falkenstein stresses in his account of Kantís problematic empiricist leanings (Falkenstein, L. 1997), the refutation of idealism in a Berkeleian key hinges on the notion of constraint on our perceptions and concomitant cognitions by the content of their representations. Insofar as even our a priori intuitions stand upon the need for an 'empirical' ground (even in this strange Kantian sense), it seems that Kant continues to treat experience as a given.

However, it is important to note that this is not the 'experience' that Kant has in mind as he examines the conditions for the possibility of experience in relation to mathematics and geometry in the Transcendental Aesthetic and similarly in relation to natural science in the Analytic. Rather, the radical modification in the treatment of experience that occurs as Kant pursues the Principles of the Pure Understanding takes as its basis not merely a conception of experience as constituted of a conglomeration of sense and understanding, but in addition a highly articulated view of the natural sciences based upon Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics. The problem with this, as pointed out in a slightly different context by Sergio de C. Fernandes, is

That we have not only objective experience, but also subjective-conjectural guidance for the success of our research, is something at which, Kant says, the transcendental philosopher marvels. But realizing that we have both of them, and that we must have both of them for science to be possible, is only to formulate the problem : how is it possible that we also have the ability to grasp an objective world, at the lower level of perception and observation. If experience must decide the fate of our higher level theories, then we cannot account for the objectivity of experience exclusively in terms of our higher level scientific theories, without circularity (de C. Fernandes, S. 1985, 127).

In the next section, I attempt to show through Kantís use of 'experience' in the argument of the Analogies of Experience that Kant abandons experience as a 'given,' instead substituting a view that presupposes much of the 'subjective-conjectural guidance' of science, and thus poses problems for Kantís argument against the skeptic.


Having discussed the applicability of the 'unhomogeneous' concepts of the understanding to the representation of an object in the section of the Critique on the schematism of the concepts, Kant turns in his consideration of the pure principles of the understanding to the task of outlining the supreme a priori principles of analytic and synthetic judgments. In the case of the former, Kant uncontroversially identifies the principle of non-contradiction as the rule by which we should avoid combining concepts 'in a way not entailed by the object' (Kant 1998, 279; A 150/B190). In his treatment of the a priori synthetic principles of understanding, however, we see Kant moving to a new understanding of experience, one the conditions for the possibility of which are heavily reliant on natural science. How does Kant make this move, and why?

The answer to both these questions is found in the 'System of all principles of pure understanding' (Kant 1998, 278 ff.; A 148/B 187 ff.) and is framed by Kant in this way:

The possibility of experience is therefore that which gives all of our cognitions a priori objective reality. Now experience rests on the synthetic unity of appearances, i.e., on a synthesis according to concepts of the object of appearances in general, without which it would not even be cognition but rather a rhapsody of perceptions, which would not fit together in any context in accordance with rules of a thoroughly connected (possible) consciousness, thus not into the transcendental and necessary unity of apperception. Experience therefore has principles of its form which ground it a priori... (Kant 1998, 282; B 195-6/A 156-7).

Kant has already treated experience in terms of the synthesis of the manifold of appearances according to concepts, but in advancing the notion of 'rules of a thoroughly connected... consciousness,' Kant appears to be importing organizational principles well beyond what we have understood as the 'givenness' of experience. These principles are best organized parallel to the categories themselves, according to Kant, and so he groups them in terms of the Axioms of Intuition, the Anticipations of Perception, the Analogies of Experience, and the Postulates of Empirical Thinking in General. For this paperís purposes, we will focus specifically on the third group of these in their role of modifying Kantís view of experience.

Justus Hartnack notes that the Analogies of Experience serve as the rules for the synthetic unity of the three modes of time-determination: duration, succession, and simultaneity. The temporal modes are themselves only the categories schematized in relation to time as an a priori form of intuition, as Kant showed in the Aesthetic (Hartnack, J. 1967, 75). In the First Analogy, Kant shows that we must have a notion of substance through the positing of an essentially unchanging subject in order to deal with changes in temporal sequence of appearances. In the contentious Second Analogy, Kant attempts to indicate that a rule (causality) is necessary for distinguishing subjective from objective sequences of events. Without such a rule, he contends, there would be no way of distinguishing between events, and therefore would be no such thing as an event, and therefore no possibility of objective judgments or experience itself. The Third Analogyís point is in many ways a modification of the Second. While true causality cannot be thought of as reversible, other sequences of objects or events can be. These sequences indicate a relationship of coexistence, rather than cause-and-effect. In the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, Kant utilizes the Analogies, as well as the other principles, to undergird his fundamental unit of matter in motion and thus lay the 'metaphysical foundations of the doctrine of body' (Kant 1985a, 15; AK 477).

As we can see, these methods of interpreting experience through the modes of time-determination are what swing Kantís view of empirical cognition in general. Kant seems to think that there is no cognition of objects through perception without this process happening 'objectively in time.' As he puts it:

But since experience is a cognition of objects through perception, consequently the relation in the existence of the manifold is to be represented in it not as it is juxtaposed in time but as it is objectively in time, yet since time itself cannot be perceived, the determination of the existence of objects in time can only come about through their combination in time in general, hence only through a priori connecting concepts (Kant 1998, 296; B 219).

Kant goes on to say that since the a priori concepts 'carry necessity along with them,' experience is possible only through the necessary connection of perceptions (Kant 1998, 296; B 219). This argument for the necessity of time-determination is of little importance in the daily life of the average person whose entire schedule is dictated by our chronometric devices, but on Kantís view, it embodies a strong claim. This is so because, for Kant, the distinction between objective and subjective significance of representations hinges on the temporal relations between them, which in turn hinges on their necessary relation to an object (Kant 1998, 309; B 242-3/A 197-8).

Not only is this claim difficult to swallow because the necessity of the categories rests upon the transcendental deduction itself, which has presupposed our earlier notion of 'minimal experience,' but the necessity of the categories is never identified by Kant as having any basis in temporal relation until the Second Analogy (see above). Because the a priori concepts are themselves independent of experience, space and time are necessary (either as forms of sensible intuition or intuitions themselves), but it is not proved that they lend such necessity, qua pure sensible intuitions, to the understanding. As we have seen, Kantís argument for how a transcendental time-determination would be 'made homogeneous' with the categories is through the schematism, the schema of which being a 'product of the imagination' which demands unity in the determination of sensibility (Kant 1998, 273; B 179/A 140), is more concerned with producing a coherent set of representations than with preserving the character of the 'givenness' of our notion of 'minimal experience'. It should be noted that Kantís other argument for the necessity of the categories, that 'we can extract [them] as clear concepts from experience only because we have put them into experience, and experience is hence first brought about through them' (Kant 1998, 308-9; B 241/A 196), only seems to beg the question about the equivocation that we have been examining all along.

Again, we may rely on de C. Fernandes for a broader statement of the issue involved in this equivocation of 'experience.' He says:

Since the object of a transcendental proof is the possibility of experience, that is, the conditions of possibility of experience in general, whatever is to be legitimated by a transcendental proof is not any particular experience, or any particular (synthetic a posteriori) judgment of experience, or even any particular feature of that which is experience.... What has to be legitimated, or proved, is that experience in general, in the sense, we will see, of objective experience (not infallible experience, but corrigible experience) is only possible if certain very special, transcendental, rules (concepts) have objective validity, that it, can be followed, or applied to whatever is given. Conversely, it also has to be proved that the given in experience, or the objects to which those rules apply are really possible (de C. Fernandes, S. 1985, 137).

In these terms, what I have been contending is that the basis for the possibility of 'experience in general', the conception articulated in terms of substance, cause and reciprocity in the Analogies, is clearly tied to the nature of the 'given' in experience through the concepts of the understanding. And while Kant uses a transcendental proof to show the conditions of possibility of 'experience in general,' the basis for the proofóthe manifold of 'minimal experience' as organized through the categoriesóhas, in effect, been abandoned. The conception of experience that meets the epistemological skeptic on her own ground has been replaced by a conception read through an argument for Newtonian physics.


Kantís purpose in the first Critique cannot reasonably be read monologically: he was clearly not simply attempting to defeat the pretensions of traditional metaphysics, but at the same time answering skeptical criticisms about an essentially Lockean epistemology. And, as Michael Friedman reminds us, Kant was equally as interested in establishing a justified theory of knowledge in the natural sciences as he was meshing the best of both Leibnizian and Newtonian physical theory. The crux of all these projects seems to be Kantís tactic in the Critique of asserting that

Öpure intellectual concepts no longer characterize an underlying reality situated at a deeper and more fundamental level than the phenomena themselves; on the contrary, such concepts can acquire a relation to an object in the first place only by being realized or schematized at the phenomenal level (Friedman, M. 1992, 37-8).

However, as we have seen, such a schematization takes Kant well past the 'minimal experience' which stands as the common ground on which he argues the skeptic; it even passes the problematic conception of 'empirical representations' that presuppose Kantís theory of the understanding. By importing, and sometimes challenging, Newtonian conceptions of substance, force, and reciprocity in the Analogies of Experience, Kant makes the implicit argument that the conceptualization of matter itself is only possible through the means of the mathematical exact sciences. By the writing of the Critique of Judgment, we see Kant adopting this view of experience:

We saw in the Critique of Pure Reason that nature as a whole, as the sum total of all objects of experience, constitutes a system in terms of transcendental laws, those that the understanding itself gives a priori (to appearances insofar as, connected in one consciousness, they are to constitute experience). That is why experience too, considered objectively, i.e., in the way experience as such is possible (ideally), must constitute a system of possible empirical cognitions, and it must do so in terms of both universal and particular laws: for the unity of nature [which is implicitly in the concept of nature as spelled out by those transcendental laws] requires [that intrinsically experience form] such [a system, one] in terms of a principle of the thorough connection of everything contained in that sum total of all appearances. To this extent, then, experience as such must be regarded, according to transcendental laws of the understanding, as a system and not as a mere aggregate (Kant 1987, 397; AK 208-9).

This idea of a 'system of experience' is derived from seeming impossibility of proof in the first Critique for another, different series of appearances other than the one we now find ourselves in; this leads Kant to treating the whole of nature as 'a single all-encompassing experience' (Kant 1998, 331; B 284/A 232), an idea which also reinforces his warning against the goals of traditional metaphysics as rooted in objects outside experience itself.

This notion of experience is very distant from the 'minimal experience' we attributed to Hume; in fact, it is distant enough to come to the conclusion that in attempting to establish the a priori conditions for the possibility of experience, Kant has presupposed a certain kind of experience (namely, a kind of commonly-shared, subjective 'minimal experience' plus the operations of concepts through the understanding in the way characterized in section two above) in order to prove the possibility of the very different, highly articulated, systematic experience of science, which serves as the basis for objective validation.


1.  The author would like to thank William Charron, Jason Murphy, and Robert Arp for their criticism and comments on an earlier version of this paper. Special thanks to Keith Decker.

2. A notable exception is T.C. Williams' The Unity of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason: Experience, Language, and Knowledge (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1987). However, Williams maintains that there is no inconsistency in Kant's 'duality of meaning' in the use of experience. 'That is to say,' he writes, 'the reflexivity in usage which relates, on the one hand: (a) to physical (=perceptual) experience; and, on the other: (b) to the logical conditions of (discursive) understanding and of language as such' (117). On my view, both sides of this duality are understood (but in very different ways) as being constitutive of experience in both equivocal senses of the term.

3.  Posing this problem, I maintain, is not the same thing as rehearsing the popular criticism, pointed out by Howard Caygill, that Kant's view of experience in the Critique is restrictive in its embrace of natural science and Euclidean geometry, and therefore impoverished. See Caygill, A Kant Dictionary (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995), 187.

4. In the original Akademie edition at AK 17: 648.

5. See Vasilis Politis, 'The Apriority of the Starting-point of Kant's Transcendental Philosophy', International Journal of Philosophical Studies 5 (1997) 255-84, where Politis objects to Patricia Kitcher's naturalization of Kant's transcendental psychology, instead suggesting that when Kant talks about objects of experience, he is referring to 'the notion of an object of any possible experience, not the notion of an object of one specific kind of experience, human experience' (255).

6. See Hume's Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), I.4.2, 193.


Works by Kant:

Critique of Pure Reason, Guyer and Wood, eds. & trans., Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Dissertation, in Walford and Meerbote, eds. & trans., Theoretical Philosophy, 1755-1770, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992a).

'Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics,' in Walford and Meerbote, eds. & trans., Theoretical Philosophy, 1755-1770, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992b).

First Introduction to the Critique of Judgment, Pluhar, trans. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1987).

Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, in Ellington, ed. & trans., Philosophy of Material Nature (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1985a)

'On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and the Intelligible World,' in Walford and Meerbote, eds. & trans., Theoretical Philosophy, 1755-1770, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992c)

Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, in Ellington, ed. & trans., Philosophy of Material Nature (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1985b)

Works by Hume:

An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, ed. Antony Flew (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1988)

Secondary Sources:

Allison, Henry E., Kantís Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Baldner, Kent, 'Subjectivity and the Unity of the World,' The Philosophical Quarterly 46 (1996), 333-346.

Beck, Lewis White, "Did the Sage of Königsberg Have No Dreams?" in Essays in Kant and Hume (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).

de C. Fernandes, Sergio L., Foundations of Objective Knowledge: The Relations of Popperís Theory of Knowledge to that of Kant (Boston: D. Reidel, 1985).

Caygill, Howard, A Kant Dictionary (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995).

Falkenstein, Lorne, 'Kantís Empiricism,' The Review of Metaphysics 50 (1997), 547-589.

Friedman, Michael, Kant and the Exact Sciences (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Guyer, Paul, Kant and the Claims of Knowledge (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Hartnack, Justus, Kantís Theory of Knowledge , trans. M. Holmes Hartshorne (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967).

Kain, Philip J., 'Kant and the Possibility of Uncategorized Experience,' Idealistic Studies 19 (1989), 154-73.

Meerbote, Ralf, 'Kantís Use of the Notions ĎObjective Realityí and ĎObjective Validity,í' Kantstudien 63 (1972) 51-58.

Melnick, Arthur, Kantís Analogies of Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973).

Norton, David Fate, ed., The Cambride Companion to Hume (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

Pippin, Robert, Kantís Theory of Form (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

Politis, Vasilis, 'The Apriority of the Starting-point of Kantís Transcendental Philosophy,' International Journal of Philosophical Studies 5 (1997) 255-84.

Reuscher, Jay, A Concordance to the Critique of Pure Reason, (New York: Peter Lang, 1996).

Williams, T.C., The Unity of Kantís Critique of Pure Reason: Experience, Language, and Knowledge (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1987).

Copyright © 2000 Minerva. All Rights Reserved.

Kevin S. Decker is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Missouri, St. Louis and is completing his studies in Dewey's political thought at St. Louis University

Mail to: Kevin S. Decker

Return to Minerva (Volume 4) Main Page                          Go to Top of This Page