Kant and the Mind

Part II: Kant’s Model of the Mind (Overview)

  • General Class = Representations (Instead of Cartesian Ideas or Humean Perceptions)
  • Distinguishing Characteristics = Formal Features and Functions (instead of Degrees of Clarity and Distinctness or of Force and Vicacity)
  • Intuitions, Concepts, Ideas
  • Sensibility, Understanding, Reason
  • Actions in Judgments (thinking, distinguishing, determining)
  • Judgments and Empirical Knowledge
  • Categories (Concepts) and the Possibility of Experience as Empirically Justified Knowledge

Kant’s Model of the Mind

Hume divides all perceptions of the mind into impressions and ideas, which differ from one another only in terms of their force and vivacity.

Kant focuses on the mind’s various powers and capacities with respect to representations, and distinguishes between representations of different kinds by reference to formal features and cognitive functions:

Intuitions: immediate representations of individuals

Concepts: general representations of (an indeterminate multiplicity of) individuals by reference to some feature or characteristic mark of individuals of that kind

Ideas: representations of a unified multiplicity or a totality

The key for Kant is understanding how each of these kinds of representations is involved in making judgments, and in justifying the judgments we make, when we are concerned with grasping and communicating truths. Judgments are things we make, rather than perceptions or feelings we have, even in those cases where our perceptions and feelings play a crucial role in providing us with the objects for these judgments. The judgments themselves are expressed through concepts, even when we also make appeal to intuitions and/or to ideas in making and justifying these judgments.

Kant assigns each of these distinct kinds of representation to a distinct cognitive capacity:

Sensibility: our capacity for intuitions or intuitive representations

Understanding: our capacity for concepts or conceptual representations

Reason: our capacity for ideas or representations of totalites

These distinct capacities of the mind work together in the complex processes of judgment that are involved in cognitive activities aimed at determinate knowledge and truth–regardless of what various kinds of objects and domains these activities might be focused on (i.e., abstract geometrical forms, inert bodies, bodies with vegetative and animal capacities, minds, nature as a whole, substances in general).

Kant also distinguishes between sensations, which are a matter of passive awareness of the states of bodies (through the five senses–organs of outer sense) and passive awareness of the states of our own souls (through an inner sense that is not attached to a particular organ), and sensible representations or acts of representing objects as they would appear through sensations. Although we do not have any sensations independent of experience, we do have the ability to represent objects according to the ways they would appear to us, if we were to have actual sensations of them (whether or not we have ever actually come across such an object in our experience). When we do this, we are not simply thinking abstractly by means of concepts. We are using the imagination to provide a sensible representation of some individual that instantiates a general concept; i.e., our sensible representation of some object involves both concepts and intuitions.

The judgments we make when we are concerned to establish determinate knowledge about existing things include the logic of relations of ideas (formal logic) and the logic of matters of fact (empirical thinking). Beyond that, however, they also involve an element that is not captured in Hume’s cognitive psychology. They involve the activities of:

Thinking an object that is not itself a perception, an impression, or a sensation

Distinguishing between i) the object that appears and/or is thought and ii) the subject who is a) made aware of it through sensations and/or b) thinks it through sensible representations

Determining the general concept of the object through attributing some specific predicate or property to that object that is not already represented through the general concept.

If Kant’s approach is right, the mind does not passively receive content (impressions) and then copy, augment, diminish, etc. the materials for thinking that these provide in forming abstract ideas. There is an aspect of (some of) our thinking that depends on our being passively made aware of the states of external bodies and of the states of our own bodies, but these states of awareness are not yet cognition or knowledge of objects. What is more, no number of repetitions of similar states, or habits that are developed through them, can somehow count as empirical knowledge. Cognizing empirical objects requires a process of actively working on what is provided by our sensible awareness in order to have concepts that involve content provided by sensible intuitions that we can further determine in acts of judgment that appeal to these intuitions for their justification.

Judgments and Empirical Knowledge or Experience

For example, empirical cognition that fire is hot requires more than sensible awareness of the state of our body and the states of other bodies. The forceful and vivid perception of heat in my hand together with the forceful and vivid visual perception of flame need to be taken by me (the thinking, cognizing subject) as evidence for some state of affairs that is not merely a matter of my own state. The sensation of pain is taken to be both a state of my own inner sensory awareness of my body and a result or effect of the more general state of affairs that includes my body interacting with other bodies. The visual perception of flame is taken to be both a state of my own inner sensory awareness and a result or effect of the more general state of affairs of which my own states are parts. The seemingly simple judgment that I make (partially) on the basis of this sensory awareness. i.e., “This fire is hot”, actually involves me in doing quite a bit that it isnt at all obvious that I have to do if we simply appeal to the logical form of the judgment “S is P”.

I have to think some object = x through concepts or categories (like the concept of substance, and the concept of causality) that I refer to by appeal to some visible feature or characteristic mark as ‘fire’. I also have to think some object = x through concepts or categories (like the concept of substance, and the concept of causality) that I refer to as ‘me’ or ‘I’. I have to distinguish the object I refer to as ‘fire’ from the object I refer to as ‘me’. I have to connect the feeling of heat with the visible images in me (as co-existent states of my inner sense), and refer them (as effects of causal interaction) to their causes in ‘this fire’, which I take to be a single, persisting, body that is distinct from my own and that I am aware of both through sight and touch.

All of this, according to Kant, would have to be involved in, or presupposed by, my making the emprical judgment that ‘this fire is hot’. Moving from this to similar experiences and, then, inferring that the connection between fire and heat is not an accidental connection but is really a matter of fact that I can rely on for reasoning about other matters of fact, etc. would obviously be an even more complicated process. So, if I claim to have empirical knowledge that fire is hot, or I assert that fire is hot, and then appeal to experience as a justification for my claim, I must have already done a whole lot more than noticed some obvious feature of my perceptions.

Hume’s attempt to derive the idea of causality from impressions and long experience cannot succeed, from Kant’s perspective, for the relatively simple reason that the possession and use of concepts or categories like the concept of causality are really pre-conditions for the possibility of the cognitive functioning involved in making any judgments. Since all experience or empirical knowledge requires making judgments about objects on the basis of our sensory awareness, all experience requires that we possess and use the concept of causality. In other words, there is a basic conceptual or categorical framework involved in our thinking–and in our reasoning about real existence and matters of fact–that cannot arise from experience, because it is a condition for the possibility of experience.


Forward: Part III: Synthetic Judgments (a priori and a posteriori)

Back to Main Page: From Hume to Kant