‘Transcendental’ in Kant, Husserl, Heidegger etc.

Werner asked:

After reading about ‘transcendental’ Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, others, I am still confused.

I am looking for a down to earth explanation and I would like to get examples of transcendental things or terms and why they are transcendental.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I would like to ask you a counter question: Why read ‘about’ Kant, Husserl and Heidegger? Why don’t you read the philosophers themselves? After all, they didn’t purposely write books for other people to write ‘about’ them, but for readers in search of philosophy to read the originals!

A good reason for reading philosophy, rather than ‘about’ philosophy, is this: most philosophers are actually very good writers and express themselves quite clearly. Men like Hume, Bacon, Descartes, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Plato, Augustinus etc. belong among the most brilliant writers of their language and literature. Even Kant writes better prose than most of his commentators. So let me encourage you to open his book and discover what he says himself, about transcendental philosophy:

‘I call all such cognitions ‘transcendental’ that are not concerned with objects, but with our capacity for the cognition of these objects, to the extent that the latter are supposed to be a priori possible. A system of such concepts would have the name ‘transcendental philosophy’.’

I can’t imagine anyone writing clearer than this.

If you’re a bit dubious about the ‘a priori’, it means, simply, that we humans presuppose objects to exist (they don’t suddenly come into existence when we look). So the issue is: How come we sense and perceive them, and how do we make concepts about them after perception? So you can see that ‘transcendental philosophy’ is a philosophy of mind, perception, reason and such matters; and of course the same applies to Husserl and Heidegger.

The passage I have quoted comes from the end of Kant’s Introduction to the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. If you have a mind for finding out what this is all about, I would recommend that this is what you should read first. By all means have a commentary to hand, to help you along. But don’t go hunting for ‘easy ways’. Anyone interested in these three philosophers is never going to find an easy way!

Answer by Tony Fahey

Wow Werner!, this is a mighty task to put to the panel and, taking into to consideration the breadth and complexity of the works of the three philosophers, something of a difficult task given the limited space this forum affords. I should add that if you have been trying to glean an understanding of ‘transcendental’ by reading through each of the above named thinkers works, I can understand why you are confused. That being said, in response to first part of your question, I would say that, for me, the ‘down to earth’ explanation is that the term ‘transcendental’ refers to that which exists in the mind prior to empirical experience. The second part is not so easily dealt with. However, I would say that whilst each of the above thinkers seems to have his own unique understanding of the term, in the following response I hope I can show that in each’s understanding of term there is a common thread.

For Kant, ‘transcendental’ means a priori or necessary experience. That is, experience that does not depend on outside influences – empirical experience. David Hume had maintained that it was only the force of habit that made us see the causal connection behind all natural processes. Kant refuted this argument: the law of causality, he held, is eternal and absolute: it is an attribute of human reason. Human reason, he said, perceives everything that happens as a matter of cause and effect. That is, Kant’s transcendental philosophy states that the law of causality is inherent in the human mind. He agreed with Hume that we cannot know with certainty what the world is like in itself, but we can know what it is like ‘for me’ – or for all human beings. We can never know things-in-themselves (noumena), said Kant, we can only know them as they appear to us (phenomena). However, before we experience ‘things’ we can know how they will be perceived by the mind – we know a priori.

The mind, says Kant, receives data of the phenomenal world through sensory perceptions. However, in order to understand this information these sensory perceptions must be processed by certain conditions inherent in the human mind. As well as the ‘intuitions’ space and time, Kant lists ten categories which were meant to define every possible form of prediction: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, possession, action, and passivity. These concepts (or categories) were reorganised to consist of four types: quantity, quality, relation, and modality. In short, everything we, as humans, experience we can be certain will be imposed within the a priori framework of the intuitions space and time, and subject to the law of causality – the law of cause and effect.

Thus, for Kant, the mind contains conditions that contribute to our understanding of the world. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and so on, happening in the phenomenal world occurs in space and time. However, we do not know that space and time is part of the phenomenal world; all we know is that they are part of the way in which we perceive the world. Time and space, he says, are irremovable spectacles through which we view the world. They are a priori forms of intuition that shape our sensory experience on the way to being processed into thought. Space and time are innate modes of perception that predetermine the way we think. It cannot be said that space and time exist in things themselves, things ‘out there’ in the world, rather they inherent intuitions through which we perceive and conceive our world. Time and space, says Kant, belong to the human condition. They are first and foremost modes of perception, not attributes of the physical world. Kant called this approach the Copernican Revolution in the problem of human knowledge. That is, it was just as radically different from earlier thinking as Copernicus’ claim that the earth revolved around the sun.

For Husserl meaning is neither in the mind, nor in the world alone, rather it is discovered by the a priori modes of intentionality. These intentional modes fall into three categories – perception, imagination, and signification. What this means is that intentionality is like a screen between consciousness and the world onto which objects and acts are projected; without the screen objects and acts would not exist. Intentionality, then is a conduit, a channel, between consciousness and phenomena. Consciousness itself cannot be grasped as itself because it is intentional: it is always directed towards that which is not consciousness: it is always looking away from itself. It is only by an analysis of intentionality that consciousness itself can be discovered. Thus, when we peel away the encrustations of preconditioning not only can we intuit the essence of things themselves but also the essence of consciousness – pure consciousness. To examine consciousness, we need to bracket out all objects and facts. What remains is ‘the transcendental ego’, which, for Husserl, is pure being – Absolute Being. It is important to realise that Husserl does not deny that the real world exists; rather that it is only realisable in virtue of the transcendental ego. Without pure consciousness, nothing is possible. Pure consciousness is before all acts and objects. It is only through pure consciousness that all other entities are known; and they are known as entities that appear in consciousness.

For Husserl, the ultimate truth is that all we can know for certain is that we have pure consciousness. All objects and acts that appear to consciousness must be treated with circumspection: they must be kept under constant review. Before feelings, imaginings, fears, doubts, and even thought itself, there is pure consciousness – the transcendental ego. Thus, while Husserl seems to echo Descartes, in effect he goes beyond the cogito. For Descartes the only thing we can know with any certainty is that we are thinking things – ‘I think, therefore I am’. For Husserl, it is more the case that ‘I am, therefore I think’. Pure consciousness can be grasped by thought, but it is not synonymous with thought. For Husserl, in order to think, first we must be: we must have consciousness.

Martin Heidegger was a student of Husserl and was expected to carry the phenomenological movement forward in the spirit of his former master. However, Heidegger chose to go his own way and caused great surprise in Germany when, in 1927, he published Being and Time. Heidegger’s ambition in Being and Time is to show what it means for a person to be – what is the meaning of Being? According to Heidegger we are not, as Husserl held, separate from the world – not something laid up in some realm to which the phenomenologist has some mysterious access, but are ourselves an integral part of the world; and our being cannot even be conceived of as other than in a world of some kind. For Heidegger, to be human, is to ask questions about Being. And it is in relation to his approach to human existence, or Dasein, (the German term for existence, but literally means ‘being-here’ or ‘being there’) that we encounter Heidegger’s concept of ‘transcendental’. Whilst, in Being and Time, it may seem that Heidegger is keen to divorce himself from Husserl, it should be said that in his concept of Dasein he echoes both Kant and Husserl when, in his attempt to explain his concept of Dasein he says ‘we all have an understanding of being, even if we are not conscious of it’. Thus, in the same way that Kant argues that the mind possesses, a priori, the intuitions space and time and the various categories, and Husserl argues that pure consciousness or the ‘transcendental ego’ is inherent in the mind, so too does Heidegger make the case that there exists, a priori, an awareness of ‘being’ that is unique to human existence.

In finishing, I should add that the later Kant admitted that he regretted not including a concept of self – the ego – in his list of ‘transcendental’ categories.

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