HENRY E. ALLISON | Kant’s Transcendental Deduction. An Analytical-Historical Commentary | Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015


By Henry Allison

At the close of her comments, Alison Laywine notes that she “had the luxury of focusing on just […] one” aspect of my book and she chose my conception of a normative necessity. Assuming that a respondent should focus on a single aspect of a work under discussion, she has certainly chosen correctly, since this is a focal point of my account. Accordingly, I gladly accept her invitation to say more on the topic, and I am grateful for the opportunity that this has provided to clarify my view.

To begin with, by normative necessity I understand the kind of necessity that Kant attributes to empirical judgements or, in the language of the Prolegomena, to judgements of experience. That Kant attributes a kind of necessity to such judgements, despite their empirical or a posteriori grounding is indisputable.  For example, in a passage cited by Laywine, Kant writes:

We find […] that our thought of the relation of all cognition to its object carries something of necessity with it, since […] the latter is regarded as that which is opposed to our cognitions being determined at pleasure or arbitrarily rather than being determined a priori, since insofar as they are to relate to an object our cognitions must necessarily agree with each other in relation to it, i.e., they must have that unity that constitutes the concept of an object. (A104)

Similarly, in a note to §22 of the Prolegomena Kant asks rhetorically: “[H]ow does this proposition: that judgments of experience are supposed to claim necessity in the synthesis of perceptions, square with my proposition […] that experience, as a posteriori cognition, can provide merely contingent judgments?” (Prol, AA 4:305). And, again, in the B-Deduction, in a passage that reflects the account in the Prolegomena, Kant notes that the function of the copula ‘is’ is to distinguish the objective unity of given representations from the subjective; and by way of explaining this he remarks: “For this word designates the relation of the representations to the original unity of apperception and its necessary unity, even if the judgment itself is empirical, hence contingent” (B142). Kant cites “Bodies are heavy” as an example of such a judgement, and in an attempt to explain how this fits his account of the copula, he writes:  

By that, to be sure, I do not mean to say that these representations necessarily belong to one another in the empirical intuition, but rather that they belong to one another in virtue of the necessary unity of the apperception in the synthesis of intuitions, i.e., in accordance with principles of the objective determination of all representations insofar as cognition can come from them, which principles are all derived from the principle of the transcendental unity of apperception. Only in this way does there arise from this relation a judgment, i.e., a relation that is objectively valid, and that is sufficiently distinguished from the relation of these same representations in which there is only subjective validity, e.g., in accordance with laws of association. (B142)

Despite the fact that Kant himself called attention to it and attempted to explain it in the above-cited passage from the Prolegomena, his counter-intuitive insistence on ascribing a kind of necessity to empirical judgements has met with either incredulity or harsh criticism by some of his interpreters. Thus, one Kant’s most loyal disciples, in a review of a work critical of Kant acknowledged the obscurity of the Critique and as an example of it asks rhetorically: 

[I]f I cannot perceive anything without first bringing my empirical representations under an objectively valid category, does not this say: in order to be able to judge empirically, I must first judge a priori and, more specifically, synthetically? For example, would I have to know that the sunlight is the cause of the warmth of the stone in order to be able to say: when the sun shines, the stone grows warm? (Schultz 2000:213)

Moreover, closer to home, we find Paul Guyer, who referring to the above-cited passage from the B-Deduction, attributing to Kant the “shocking” view that “empirical judgments are a form of necessary truth” (1987:114), and later making the same claim with respect to judgements of perception in the Prolegomena (1992:148). But while I cannot follow Guyer in attributing this indeed shocking view to Kant, I do think that he put his finger on a real problem, to which the conception of a normative necessity is my proposed answer.

Although she does not say so explicitly, since Laywine suggests that she understands the term ‘normativity’ to be applicable “only in those cases where we stand before choices about how to conduct ourselves intellectually or otherwise”, I suspect that she considers the notion of a normative necessity to be an oxymoron. I disagree with this; though I shall not pursue the matter further here, beyond noting that normative claims such as being supremely good are often made about God, even though it is also frequently thought that this goodness somehow follows necessarily from God’s nature. Setting that aside, as Laywine notes, my account of a normative necessity is closely connected with Kant’s conception of concepts as rules and the view that rules have by their very nature a certain normative force. In the book I expressed the point by suggesting that the use of a concept, at least insofar as it consists in its predication of an object in a judgement, involves a two-fold epistemic ‘right’ or warranted expectation, each of which includes what I term a normative necessity: one is to expect that whatever objects fall under the concept contains the properties thought in the concept and the other is to expect that other cognisers who possess the concept will agree. The former stems from the nature of concepts and their role in an empirical judgement, the latter from the nature of such judgement.

To begin with, concepts for Kant (at least empirical concepts) may be considered as both analytic and synthetic unities. They are the former with respect to their extension, that is, the entities falling under them, and they are unities in the sense of containing a many under one, e.g. the class of all red things. More importantly for present purposes, concepts are synthetic unities with respect to their intension; that is, the concepts, contained within them. Kant typically calls these ‘partial representations’ because they represent particular properties of things, which as such do not completely determine the objects to which they are applied, e.g. solubility in aqua regia in the concept of gold. Accordingly, they are unities in the sense of containing a many within one. The essential point, however, is that, rather than being merely a random collection of marks based on association, e.g. Humean complex ideas, as a result of their unification through what Kant terms the complex “logical act” of comparison, reflection, and abstraction (Log, AA 9: 95), the concepts composing the intension of a concept are in some sense necessarily connected.  Thus, Kant states that “the concept of body makes necessary the representation of extension, and with it that of impenetrability, of shape, etc.” (A106). Clearly, this is not a logical necessity; for though the claim that bodies are extended is analytic and, presumably, the same may be said of the claim that they have shape, that they are impenetrable (or, to cite another of Kant`s examples, heavy) is not; and let us not neglect the “etc.”, which suggests that an indefinite number of other ‘partial representations’, i.e. representations of the properties of whatever falls under the concept, may be thought in the concept. Moreover, lest one think that this reference to necessity can be glossed over, the cited passage is immediately followed by Kant’s remark that “[e]very necessity has a transcendental condition as its ground” (A106). And, not surprisingly, Kant proceeds to identify this transcendental ground with transcendental apperception, which, as Laywine notes, is where the necessity buck stops for Kant.

This gives rise to two questions. The first is what sort of necessity can transcendental apperception endow upon empirical concepts? And the answer appears to be the kind that is involved in their relation to an object in a judgement, that is, a claim of objective validity, which is just what Kant maintains in the previously cited passage from A102. Moreover, since for Kant this relation is not one that is simply found or passively observed, but is imposed by the cognising subject, the second question is how this relation to an object is brought about? And the answer that Kant provides in both versions of the Transcendental Deduction is that it is by bringing the concepts connected in a judgement under the pure concepts of the understanding. Like all concepts for Kant, they function as rules and, as such, have a normative force; though they differ from other concepts, i.e. empirical and pure sensible (mathematical) concepts, in being second-order rules, that is, rules for bringing other concepts under the transcendental unity of apperception in a judgement. But it should also be noted that the necessity attributed to these concepts is both derivative and conditional. It is derivative because its source is the transcendental unity of apperception. And it is conditional because, as “concepts of an object as such [überhaupt]” (A93/126), these concepts function as vehicles of cognition in the sense that they are both necessary and sufficient conditions of the representation of an object. Appealing to Laywine’s analogy, these concepts are like the rules of the game of chess, which means that if you want to play the ‘game’, which in this case is cognition, you must obey them. Moreover, it is crucial for Kant that they are not unconditionally necessary, at least not in their schematised form, since that would preclude even the thought of transcendental freedom and with it the pure practical use of reason.

Returning to the empirical judgements to which Kant attributes both objective validity and the necessity in question, it is important to keep in mind that he considered such judgements to be defeasible, since the concept can be misapplied, which I take to be the point of Laywine’s remark about the concept of a giant panda. In fact, on the basis of what Kant claims in the B-Deduction, I believe that this defeasibility is built into the concept of objective validity and is, therefore compatible with the necessity in question. Note that Kant there defines judgement as “nothing other than the way to bring given representations to the objective unity of apperception” (B141), which follows his claim in §18 that the latter is objectively valid (B140). And, later in §19, in contrasting the unification of representations in a judgement in accordance with the categories with a connection based on association, he remarks that “[o]nly in this way does there arise from this relation a judgment, i.e., a relation that is objectively valid” (B142). By attributing objective validity to judgement as such Kant is here apparently distancing himself from his position in the Prolegomena, where he distinguished between judgements of experience and judgements of perception and attributed objective validity only to the former and considered the latter to be merely subjectively valid (Prol, AA 4:298). I shall turn to the Prolegomena account below; but what is striking about the B-Deduction account is that, since Kant obviously did not hold that all judgements are true, he is in effect, if not in so many words, distinguishing between objective validity and truth, at least the truth of empirical judgements. I further suspect that Kant may have had something like this in mind, when in his discussion of the Second Analogy, he remarks in passing that, “since the agreement of cognitions with the object is truth, only the formal conditions of empirical truth can be inquired after here” (A191/B236). Presumably, by “here” Kant meant the Transcendental Analytic as a whole, not merely the Second Analogy, and by “formal conditions” the a priori rules that condition experience and make possible the determination of empirical truth. Moreover, if this is the case, I think it reasonable to maintain that what these formal conditions (the categories and principles) are conditions of is not the truth but the objective validity/normative necessity of empirical judgements; and that the latter is best understood as their possession of a truth value, that is, a capacity to be either true or false, which cannot be said of the merely subjectively valid associations with which Kant contrasts them in §19. Otherwise expressed, my suggestion is that the objective validity/normative necessity of an empirical judgement consists in its agreement with the concept of an object (as delineated by the categories); while its empirical truth or falsity consists in its agreement or lack thereof with an object of possible experience.

This brings us, then, to the second prong of my account of the normative necessity of empirical judgements: the sense in which they contain a warranted expectation of the agreement of others with the claim made in the judgement. Although the main text for this aspect of Kant’s view is the Prolegomena, I shall argue that indirect but significant support for it is also to be found in Kant’s account of judgements of taste in the third Critique. To begin with, the Prolegomena is quite clear on the matter. Setting aside the thorny issue of judgements of perception and their subjective validity which I shall not consider here, Kant’s position on the normativity issue in the Prolegomena is relatively straightforward. As we have seen, Kant calls attention to the problem of a normative necessity, albeit without referring to it as such, by noting the seemingly paradoxical result of his analysis that judgements of experience involve necessity, even though experience, as a posteriori cognition, can yield only judgements that are contingently true. And by way of explanation Kant distinguishes between the perceptual content (e.g. the perception of warmth in the judgement “The sun warms the stone”) and a priori element (the pure concept of the understanding), through which experience is first generated (Prol, AA 4:305).  

For present purposes, however, the crucial point is Kant’s claim that “[o]bjective validity and necessary universal validity (for everyone) are […] interchangeable concepts”, to which he adds that, “although we do not know the object in itself, nonetheless, if we regard the judgment as universally valid and hence necessary, objective validity is understood to be included” (Prol, AA 4:298). Since Kant here claims that the necessity attributed to a judgement of experience is a consequence of its “universal objective validity” (nothwendige Allgemeingültigkeit), the question becomes what is to be understood by the latter phrase, which is not to be found in the Critique nor, as far as I can determine, anywhere else in the Kantian corpus. The answer seems to lie in the parenthetical clause “for everyone”. This indicates that the universality that Kant claims to be interchangeable with the necessary universal validity in a judgement of experience is a subjective universality, i.e. one that holds for the universe of judging subjects, rather than the objective universality of the Critique, which concerns its logical quantity, i.e. the extent of the domain of objects falling under the subject concept in a synthetic a priori judgement. Moreover, this subjective universality, like the necessity, is both normative and conditional. It is normative, because this universality brings with it a right to expect that all other cognisers will concur with one’s judgement; for, as Kant puts it, “if a judgment agrees with an object, then all judgments of the same object must also agree with one another” (Prol, AA 4:298). And it is also conditional, because this right depends upon the agreement of the judgement with the object. But, as in the Critique, this agreement of the judgement with the object is ambiguous, since it could mean either agreement with the empirical object or with the concept of an object as determined by the categories. And though the letter of the text may suggest the former, if, as with the Critique, we do not wish to saddle Kant with the view that every judgement of experience is true, it seems reasonable to take it in the latter sense. In other words, in forming a judgement of experience one is subsuming the representations united in the judgement under the “formal conditions of empirical truth”; so even if it fails to conform also to the material conditions it remains a judgement of experience, albeit a false one.

Finally, though I did not discuss the topic in my book, I believe that a word is on order regarding Kant’s account of judgements of taste in the third Critique. My justification for this is two-fold. First, it is the clearest example in the Kantian corpus of what I understand by a normative necessity. Second, it is clearly modelled on the account of the necessity attributed to empirical judgements in the first Critique and the Prolegomena, which suggests that it might be fruitful to consider what these two radically distinct forms of judgement have in common for Kant. Since, as aesthetic, judgements of taste, which concern natural and artistic beauty, are based on feeling rather than concepts Kant only belatedly incorporated them into his ‘critical’ project. His justification for doing this was the recognition that, despite their aesthetic nature, such judgements were based on an a priori principle and, therefore, lay claim to a kind of necessity. Kant called this necessity “exemplary” and he says that it consists in “the necessity of the assent of all to a judgment that is regarded as an example of a universal rule that one cannot state” (KU, AA 5:237). The basic idea is that in judging something to be beautiful (or not beautiful), I am not merely expressing a personal liking (or disliking), but implicitly claiming that I am judging as one ought to judge, and that this brings with it a warrant to expect that everyone else should concur with my assessment. Of course, as Kant notes, this warrant is conditional, since it assumes that one has in fact judged as one ought to have, which he takes to mean that one has correctly subsumed the judgement under this indeterminate norm, which he identifies with common sense. But for present purposes the crucial point is that, assuming that the subsumption is correct, Kant claims that one “could demand universal assent just like an objective one” (KU, AA 5:239). And, unless one wishes to side with Guyer and others who hold that in the cited passages Kant really intended to claim that empirical propositions are necessarily true, I submit that this provides a warrant for regarding the necessity that Kant links with empirical judgements to be likewise normative.


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

——— (1992), ‘The  Transcendental Deduction of the Categories’, in P. Guyer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 123–60.

Schultz, J. (2000), ‘Jena, Cröker: Institutiones Logicae et Metaphysicae by Jo. Aug. Henr. Ulrich 1785,’ in B. Sassen (ed.), Kant’s Early Critics: The Empiricist Critique of the Theoretical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 210–14.

© Henry E. Allison, 2019.

Henry Allison is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego and Boston University. He has published widely on Kant, Spinoza and German Idealism and is best known for the standard work of Kant scholarship Kant’s Transcendental Idealism. An Interpretation and Defense (Yale UP 1983, 2004). His next major work will be published by Cambridge University Press in late 2019, under the title of Kant’s Conception of Freedom. A Developmental and Critical Analysis.