Recap: Transcendental Idealism

07Mar08

Transcendental Idealism differs from standard (empirical) idealism in that it does not claim that the objects of our experiences would be in any sense only within our minds. Whenever we experience something, that experience is necessarily personal. The object experienced exists independent of our minds, but our perception of it is corrupted by the categories and the forms of sensation, space, and time, which we use to understand it.

In modern philosophy, Kant gave transcendental a new, third meaning in his theory of knowledge, concerned with the conditions of possibility of knowledge itself. For him it meant knowledge about our cognitive faculty with regard to how objects are possible a priori. Something is transcendental if it plays a role in the way in which the mind “constitutes” objects and makes it possible for us to experience them as objects in the first place. Ordinary knowledge is knowledge of objects; transcendental knowledge is knowledge of how it is possible for us to experience those objects as objects. This is based on Kant’s acceptance of David Hume’s argument that certain general features of objects (e.g. persistence, causal relationships) cannot derive from the sense impressions we have of them. Kant argues that the mind must contribute those features and make it possible for us to experience objects as objects. In the central part of his Critique of Pure Reason, the “Transcendental Deduction of the Categories”, Kant argues for a deep interconnection between the ability to have self-consciousness and the ability to experience a world of objects. Through a process of synthesis, the mind generates both the structure of objects and its own unity. For Kant, the “transcendent”, as opposed to the “transcendental”, is that which lies beyond what our faculty of knowledge can legitimately know. Hegel’s counter-argument to Kant was that to know a boundary is also to be aware of what it bounds and as such what lies beyond it — in other words, to have already transcended it.

For Kant, we cannot be skeptical about the (phenomenal) external world since we can establish the necessity of its existence transcendentally.

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