A node your homework release:

The précis below discusses Kant's consideration of a person's thoughts about his own mind, and whether it is possible to generate accurate thoughts about your own mind. I wrote this précis for a Philosophy class dealing with the German Idealist philosophers, at the University of Maryland, College Park.


An encounter with the problem of Self-Reference
in the "Transcendental Aesthetic"

Concluding the "Transcendental Aesthetic", Kant attempts in §8 to summarize his claims about space and time as intuitive, writing in Part I, that "space and time, as the necessary conditions of all (outer and inner) experience, are merely subjective conditions of all our intuition . . ." (A49/B66, 188). In the second edition only, he elaborates on this in Part II, writing that "Everything that is represented through a sense is to that extent always appearance."(B68, 189). Then, Kant addresses a particularly interesting question: Does this also apply to one’s own mind? Can I at least be absolutely certain that the things I perceive about my own mind are metaphysically precisely as I believe them to be? Kant answers that, no, the mind is not exempt:

If the faculty for becoming conscious of oneself is to seek out (apprehend) that which lies in the mind, it must affect the latter, and it can only produce an intuition of itself in such a way, whose form, however, which antecedently grounds it in the mind, determines the way in which the manifold is together in the mind in the representation of time; there it then intuits itself not as it would immediately self-actively represent itself, but in accordance with the way in which it is affected from within, consequently as it appears to itself, not as it is. (B68, 189-90)

Here, Kant is considering a problem of self-reference, and concluding that even inward mental faculties –- such as intuition –- are subject to the process of representation he has been describing in the "Transcendental Aesthetic". When a person considers what her mind is doing –- when she 'metacognizes' –- she is necessarily exercising and modifying the activity of the very mind she endeavors to observe, thereby altering the object of her apprehension.

Kant claims that intuition is a necessary ingredient in knowledge, and the intuitions we form are based on sensory data ("sensibility"). But sensory data is, by its nature, subjective – sensed. It is perfectly possible for the actual nature of a thing to be other than the way it is sensed or perceived by its observer, but the observer would never know the difference because all she has to go on is the sensory data she has received and parsed, and the concepts she has formed a posteriori. (This, in fact, is a large part of the point of Kant's "Transcendental Aesthetic").

Kant is concluding in this passage that we cannot possibly sense -- nor intuit -- the true, metaphysical nature of the 'self' because we cannot ever generate an intuition about the self that transcends the mind’s own nature. Our sensory data is no less subjective when the object of our intuition is the mind (or the self) than it is when the object is, say, a boulder.

Kant’s reasons for including these comments about mental self-reference are not immediately obvious. Kant may be responding to criticism by the readers of the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, who, having examined their own minds for evidence of intuitions manifesting from sensory data, concluded that these processes simply weren’t occurring. It’s as if Kant is responding, "Of course you can’t correctly sense the metaphysical nature of your sensibility, nor generate metaphysically accurate intuitions about your intuitions! Your inner sense is subject to the same rules as outer sense. Your mind deceives you not only about the nature of the world around you, but even about the nature of itself."

Important and easy to lose sight of in the excerpt quoted above (in alternate font) is the referent of the word "it." By the end of the sentence, one might easily forget that the "it" Kant refers to when he writes, "there it then intuits itself not as it would immediately . . . represent itself . . . not as it is," (B68, 189-90), is "the faculty for becoming conscious of oneself". So, "[the faculty for becoming conscious of oneself] intuits itself not as it would immediately . . . represent itself . . .[and] not as [such faculty] is."

The phrasing Kant uses in this passage is not capricious. The English word chosen by the translating editors, faculty, is apt for the German Vermögen in the original, so Kant’s meaning is perfectly preserved. The faculty to which Kant refers has profound meaning; it is not merely the 'mind' (as I have referred to it above), although it certainly must include the mental thoughts and processes that compose any concept we might have of a 'mind'. Rather, this faculty is composed of much more.

I propose that Kant is suggesting the "faculty for becoming conscious of oneself" is the very essence of that "self". That is, the "self" comes into existence because something intuits it. But what is that something –- the something that has this intuition of a self? That something is the faculty for becoming conscious of oneself. This faculty is the substance of the self. The mind (and consequently the self), Kant proposes, is as much a constructed object as any outward object is.


Cited in this précis:
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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