STEFANIE GRÜNE | Blinde Anschauung. Die Rolle von Begriffen in Kants Theorie sinnlicher Synthesis | Klostermann 2009
By Stefanie Grüne
In my book Blinde Anschauung. Die Rolle von Begriffen in Kants Theorie sinnlicher Synthesis, I examine how Kant conceives of the generation of intuitions and I argue that John McDowell’s claim that Kant was the first to ascribe conceptual content to intuitions is wrong.
In the introduction, I start by stating that Kant makes three claims about the relation between intuitions and concepts, two of which at least at first appear to be inconsistent:
1. The thesis of the independence of sensibility and understanding: Intuitions and concepts are representations, for which two distinct cognitive capacities are responsible. Sensibility provides intuitions. The understanding provides concepts.
This first claim follows from Kant’s explicit characterization of sensibility and understanding at the beginning of the Transcendental Aesthetic in A19/B33.
2. The thesis of the genetic primacy of intuitions vis-à-vis concepts: The understanding can form concepts only if sensibility already has supplied intuitions.
This second claim can be inferred from Kant’s theory of concept formation by comparison, abstraction and reflection in the Jäsche Logic and is confirmed by several passages from the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prolegomena.
3. The thesis of the genetic primacy of concepts vis-à-vis intuitions: Intuitions are generated only if one already possesses concepts that function as rules for synthesizing sensations into intuitions.
That having intuitions presupposes possessing concepts is argued by Kant in most detail in the A-Deduction of the Critique of Pure Reason. There he points out that in order for intuitions to be generated the sensations that are supplied by sensibility have to be synthesized by the understanding. Furthermore, he claims that sensations cannot be synthesized without concepts functioning as rules for such a synthesis.
Three positions concerning the generation of intuitions
The second and the third of the above claims at least at first do not seem to be compatible with each other. In the introduction, before presenting my own solution to this difficulty, I discuss three ways to deal with this difficulty that have been dominant so far. How one reacts to the difficulty mainly depends on how one conceives of Kant’s conception of the generation of intuitions. Thus, the three positions I discuss in the introduction are three positions concerning Kant’s conception of the generation of intuitions. I refer to the proponents of these three positions as judgmentalists, conceptualists, and non-conceptualists.
Judgmentalists, like Wolfgang Carl, Hannah Ginsborg, John McDowell, Robert Pippin and Peter Strawson assume that to synthesize sensible representations is to make a judgement or at least involves making a judgement. Thus, they ascribe the thesis of the genetic primacy of concepts vis-à-vis intuitions to Kant. Yet, at least according to Ginsborg and Pippin, by comparison, abstraction and reflection concepts are not formed, but already formed concepts are made distinct. This means that judgmentalists like Ginsborg and Pippin do not ascribe the thesis of the genetic primacy of intuitions vis-à-vis concepts to Kant. Therefore, according to them Kant does not describe the relation of intuitions and concepts in a seemingly contradictory manner.
Nonconceptualists like Lucy Allais, Robert Hanna, Colin McLear, Clinton Tolley and Wayne Waxman either assume that the generation of an intuition does not presuppose any synthesis at all, or they believe that even though the generation of intuitions does presuppose sensible synthesis, this synthesis does not presuppose possession of concepts. Thus, non-conceptualists do not ascribe the thesis of the genetic primacy of concepts vis-à-vis intuitions to Kant and therefore, just like the judgmentalists, they do not believe that Kant characterizes the relation between intuitions and concepts in ways that seem to be incompatible.
Conceptualists like Johannes Haag, Thomas Land and Béatrice Longuenesse assume that sensible synthesis is an activity that is distinct from any form of judging, but nonetheless involves deployment of concepts. Conceptualists thus believe that concepts can be used in two fundamentally different ways: first, as components of judgements; second, as rules for sensible synthesis, where sensible synthesis is not a form of judging. In contrast to non-conceptualists and judgmentalists, conceptualists ascribe to Kant both the thesis of the genetic primacy of intuitions vis-à-vis concepts and the thesis of the genetic primacy of concepts vis-à-vis intuitions. Still, they do not believe that these theses are incompatible, because according to them the term ‘concept’ is used in different ways in the two theses.
So far, the most prominent strategies have been the following two. Either one assumes that the relevant distinction is the distinction between empirical concepts and categories. In this case, Kant would claim that the generation of intuitions only presupposes possession of the categories, but does not presuppose possession of empirical concepts. And he would claim that having intuitions is only necessary for the formation of empirical concepts, but is not necessary for the formation of the categories. Or one takes the relevant distinction to be the distinction between schemata and concepts. According to this interpretation, Kant claims that only schemata but not concepts are genetically prior to intuitions and he claims that intuitions are genetically prior only to concepts, but not to schemata.
Defending a conceptualist position
In Blinde Anschauung, I defend a conceptualist position. Yet, on my view the relevant distinction is neither the distinction between empirical concepts and categories, nor the distinction between schemata and concepts, but the distinction between obscure concepts and clear concepts. I argue that for Kant only obscure concepts, but not clear concepts are genetically prior to intuitions and intuitions are genetically prior only to clear, but not to obscure concepts.
I end the introduction by showing that if one assumes that the concepts that function as rules for sensible synthesis are concepts of another kind than the concepts that one applies in judgements, then one can interpret Kant’s claim that intuitions without concepts are blind in a way in which one could not interpret it, if one believed that the same kind of concepts function as rules for sensible synthesis and as elements of judgements.
The reason why intuitions without concepts are referred to by Kant as blind is that for him intuitions that are not combined with concepts are not cognitions. Since Kant has (at least) two different concepts of cognition, it follows that he also may have two different notions of blindness. Cognitions in the narrow sense are a certain type of judgements, namely those that contain concepts that have objective reality (that is, refer to objects of experience). Cognitions in the wide sense are representations that refer to objects. Corresponding to these two notions of cognition we get two versions of the blindness-thesis:
- An intuition without a concept is blind in the sense that no judgement about its object is formed, or blind in the sense of ‘not-judged-about’.
- An intuition without a concept is blind in the sense that it does not refer to an object, or blind in the sense of ‘object-less’.
One remark concerning the second notion of blindness: Kant defines intuitions as conscious representations that refer immediately to a particular object. Intuitions, so understood, could not be blind in the sense of ‘object-less’, since it is already contained in their definition that they are representations that refer to objects. However, Kant sometimes also uses the concept of intuition in a manner that departs from the official definition. In some places Kant refers to the manifold of sensations that have not yet been synthesized as ‘intuitions’. This means that the material from which intuitions in the official sense are first formed, is also sometimes called ‘intuition’ by Kant. Thus, the second version of the blindness thesis can be understood more precisely as follows: A manifold of sensations that is not combined with a concept is blind in the sense of ‘object-less’.
I argue that in A51/B75ff., where Kant writes that intuitions without concepts are blind, he only wants to claim that intuitions without concepts are blind in the sense of ‘not-judged-about’. Yet, he would also agree to the claim that an intuition or rather a manifold of sensations without concepts is blind in the sense of ‘object-less’, since this claim is implied by the way in which Kant characterizes the generation of intuitions: A manifold of sensible representations constitutes a representation with objective reference—namely, an intuition in the official sense of the definition, only if it is synthesized and if a concept functions as a rule for this synthesis. Thus, a manifold of sensible representations only refers to an object, if it is combined with a concept.
If one distinguishes, as I do, between obscure and clear concepts, then one can ascribe the following position to Kant: Intuitions in the sense of ‘manifold of sensations’ are blind in the sense of ‘object-less’, if they are not combined with obscure concepts. Intuitions in the official sense of ‘intuition’ are blind in the sense of ‘not-judged-about’, if they are not combined with clear concepts. According to this position, an intuition that is blind in the sense of ‘not-judged-about’ is not blind in the sense of ‘object-less’. As long as we only have obscure concepts, we are in a position to synthesize the representations supplied by sensibility in such a way that intuitions as representations with objective reference are formed.
A central aim of Blinde Anschauung is to show that it is possible to have intuitions that are blind in the sense of ‘not-judged-about’ without being blind in the sense of ‘object-less’. As I argue in Blinde Anschauung, such an intuition is not blind in the sense that someone who has it sees nothing at all. Instead, it is only blind in the sense that someone who does not have clear or distinct concepts is not in a position to classify the intuited object or to infer from the application of a concept to the object to the application of the concepts that constitute its content.
In the first chapter, I define the central concepts of my book. I start by explaining how I understand Kant’s definitions of the concept of an intuition and the concept of a concept. In the second part of the first chapter, I argue that not only concepts, but also intuitions have content and that the content of intuitions consists of intuitive marks. In the third part, I point out that for Kant concepts and intuitions are either obscure or clear and that clear concepts and clear intuitions are either distinct or indistinct. I then explain these different notions: An intuition is clear (or conscious), if the subject of the intuition distinguishes the object of the intuition either spatially or temporally from its surroundings. An intuition is distinct, if the subject of the intuition distinguishes parts of the represented object from each other. Whereas my intuition of a certain star which belongs to the Milky Way is obscure as long as I look at the Milky Way with the naked eye and cannot distinguish the star from the stars in its surroundings, this intuition becomes clear when I use a telescope and thus am able to distinguish the star from its surroundings. Given that I enter a spaceship and travel near the Milky Way, I might even be able to distinguish different mountains and valleys on the star and then I have a distinct intuition of the star.
A subject possesses a clear concept F, if she can classify objects that fall under F as being F, or rather if she can correctly apply F to objects of perception. One possesses the clear concept of a lemon, for example, if one is able to form the judgement “This is a lemon” upon seeing a lemon. A subject possesses a distinct concept F, if she can infer from the application of F to the application of the concepts that constitute its content. For example, according to Kant one has the distinct concept of gold, if one can infer from the fact that an object falls under the concept of gold to the fact that it falls under the concept of yellowness and under the concept of metal.
Whereas it is relatively easy to determine how Kant conceives of distinct and clear concepts, it is rather unclear what he understands by obscure concepts. From his characterization of obscure concepts as concepts of which the subject is not conscious, one can only infer that in order to possess an obscure concept F, one neither has to have the capacity to classify Fs as F, nor does one have to have the capacity to infer from the application of F to the application of the concepts that constitute its content. For a positive characterization of obscure concepts the reader has to wait until the fourth chapter of Blinde Anschauung.
In the second chapter, I specify why I think that judgmentalism, non-conceptualism and the version of conceptualism that has been defended so far, are false.
In the third chapter, I explain in great detail how I interpret Kant’s theory of the threefold synthesis in the A-Deduction. Against non-conceptualism, I argue that in the sections on the threefold synthesis Kant clearly claims that without involvement of concepts intuitions would not be generated. For Kant, there are two reasons why without involvement of concepts we would not have intuitions. In the section on the synthesis of apprehension, in the section on the synthesis of reproduction and in the beginning of the section on the synthesis of recognition Kant argues that without involvement of concepts complex sensible representations would not become conscious representations. And in the remaining part of the section on the synthesis of recognition he argues, first, that only complex sensible representations that exhibit a necessary unity refer to objects. Secondly, he argues that sensible representations only exhibit a necessary unity if they are synthesized according to a priori concepts, which he then identifies with the categories. Thus, without involvement of concepts, complex sensible representations would be neither conscious representations, nor would they refer to objects, and for these two reasons they would not be intuitions.
In the fourth chapter, I argue that concepts as rules for sensible synthesis are obscure concepts. At the beginning of the section on the synthesis of recognition, Kant characterizes concepts, insofar as they are rules for sensible synthesis, as constituting a ‘consciousness of unity’. In the first section of chapter four I argue that concepts, insofar as they constitute a ‘consciousness of unity’ cannot be clear or distinct concepts and thus can only be obscure concepts and I develop the following provisional conception of obscure empirical concepts: To possess an obscure concept F that contains the discursive marks M1—Mn is to have the primitive capacity to conceive of the corresponding intuitive marks m1—mn as a unity. This capacity is primitive in the sense that the actualization of this capacity neither involves judging nor inferring. In the second part of the fourth chapter I discuss three objections to my claim that concepts as rules for sensible synthesis are obscure concepts.
Since the categories do not contain different partial concepts or marks, the explanation of the categories as obscure concepts has to be different from the provisional explanation of obscure empirical concepts in the first part of the fourth chapter. Therefore, in the third part of this chapter, I explain what is the function of the categories as obscure concepts and I give further exegetical evidence for my claim that the categories as rules for sensible synthesis are obscure concepts. In the fourth part I turn to obscure empirical concepts. By comparing empirical concepts to mechanisms of association I find a definite explanation of obscure empirical concepts: To possess an obscure concept F that contains the discursive marks M1—Mn is to have two capacities: (i) the primitive capacity to conceive of the corresponding intuitive marks m1—mn as a unity and (ii) the capacity to combine these intuitive marks in such a way that they exhibit a necessary unity.
I end Blinde Anschauung with some remarks concerning the question of how Kant’s position, as I interpret it, relates to the contemporary debate about the question of whether perceptions have conceptual or non-conceptual content. As I see it, Kantian intuitions do not have conceptual content in any interesting sense. Even though for Kant it is not possible to have intuitions without possessing obscure concepts, according to the understanding of concepts that is prevalent today, Kant’s obscure concepts are not concepts at all. In the contemporary debate, two questions are typically at issue: (i) the question of whether perceiving objects presupposes having the capacity to classify objects and/or (ii) the question of whether perceiving objects presupposes having knowledge of inferential relations between concepts. Translated into Kant’s terminology, this discussion corresponds more or less to the question of whether having intuitions presupposes possessing clear and/or distinct concepts. If one accepts my interpretation, one must answer “no” to both questions. For, on my view, having intuitions presupposes only possessing obscure concepts, but does not presuppose possessing clear or distinct ones. Consequently, on my interpretation it turns out that, pace McDowell, Kant would ascribe non-conceptual content to intuitions.
 “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. […] The understanding is not capable of intuiting anything, and the senses are not capable of thinking anything. Only from their unification can cognition arise” (A51/B75ff.)
© 2014, Stefanie Grüne.
Stefanie Grüne is Wissenschaftliche Assistentin at the University of Potsdam, Germany and is currently pursuing a Habilitation. She obtained her Ph.D. degree in philosophy from the Humboldt Universität Berlin in 2007. Her work focusses on the history of early modern philosophy, especially Kant, and the philosophy of mind. Apart from her dissertation Blinde Anschauung (Klostermann, 2009) she has published ‘Is There a Gap in Kant’s B Deduction’ in International Journal of Philosophical Studies and various contributions on Descartes, Kant, Hegel, and Sartre.