Problems of Kantian Nonconceptualism and the Transcendental Deduction

In Kant's Radical Subjectivism. Perspectives on the Transcendental Deduction. London, UK: Palgrave. pp. 195-255 (2017)
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In this paper, I discuss the debate on Kant and nonconceptual content. Inspired by Kant’s account of the intimate relation between intuition and concepts, McDowell (1996) has forcefully argued that the relation between sensible content and concepts is such that sensible content does not severally contribute to cognition but always only in conjunction with concepts. This view is known as conceptualism. Recently, Kantians Robert Hanna and Lucy Allais, among others, have brought against this view the charge that it neglects the possibility of the existence of essentially nonconceptual content that is not conceptualised or subject to conceptualisation. Their critique of McDowell amounts to nonconceptualism. However, both views, conceptualist and nonconceptualist, share the assumption that intuition is synthesised content in Kant’s sense. My interest is not in the validity of the philosophical positions of conceptualism or nonconceptualism per se. I am particularly interested in the extent to which the views that McDowell and Hanna and Allais respectively advance are true to Kant, or can validly be seen as Kantian positions. I argue that although McDowell is right that intuition is only epistemically relevant in conjunction with concepts, Hanna and Allais are right with regard to the existence of essentially nonconceptual content (intuitions) independently of the functions of the understanding, but that they are wrong with regard to non-conceptualised intuition being synthesised content in Kant’s sense. Kantian conceptualists (Bowman 2011; Griffith 2012; Gomes 2014) have responded to the recent nonconceptualist offensive, with reference to A89ff./B122ff. (§13)—which, confusingly, the nonconceptualists also cite as evidence for their contrary reading—by arguing that the nonconceptualist view conflicts with the central goal of the Transcendental Deduction, namely, to argue that all intuitions are subject to the categories. I contend that the conceptualist reading of A89ff./B122ff. is unfounded, but also that the nonconceptualists are wrong to believe that intuitions as such refer strictly to objects independently of the functions of the understanding, and that they are mistaken about the relation between figurative synthesis and intellectual synthesis. I argue that Kant is a conceptualist, albeit not in the sense that standard conceptualists assume. Perceptual knowledge is always judgemental, though without this resulting in the standard conceptualist claim that, necessarily, all intuitions or all perceptions per se stand under the categories (strong conceptualism). I endorse the nonconceptualist view that, for Kant, perception per se, i.e. any mere or ‘blind’ intuition of objects (i.e. objects as indeterminate appearances) short of perceptual knowledge, does not necessarily stand under the categories. Perception is not yet perceptual knowledge. In this context, I point out the common failure in the literature on the Transcendental Deduction, both of the conceptualist and nonconceptualist stripe, to take account of the modal nature of Kant’s argument for the relation between intuition and concept insofar as cognition should arise from it.

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Dennis Schulting
University of Warwick (PhD)


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