Kant, Immanuel

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is perhaps the single most influential figure in the pre-twentieth-century history of cognitive research. He was a devoutly religious man from a very humble background: his father was a saddlemaker. Though one-quarter Scottish (it is said that Kant is a Germanization of Candt), he lived his whole life in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), just below Lithuania. By his death he was virtually the official philosopher of the German-speaking world.

Until middle age, he was a prominent rationalist in the tradition of Leibniz and Wolff. Then DAVID HUME, as he put it, "awoke me from my dogmatic slumbers." The critical philosophy ensued. One of its fundamental questions was, what must we be like to have the experiences we have? The view of the mind that Kant developed to answer this question framed virtually all cognitive research until very re-cently.

Philosophy of mind and knowledge were by no means the only areas in which Kant made seminal contributions. He founded physical geometry. (Fieldwork must not have been too important -- he is said never to have traveled more than thirty-five miles from Königsberg in his whole life!) His work on political philosophy grounds modern liberal democratic theory. And his deontology put ethics on a new footing, one that remains influential to this day.

It is his view of the mind, however, that influenced cognitive research. Four things in particular shaped subsequent thought:

  1. MENTAL REPRESENTATION requires both CONCEPTS and SENSATIONS (percepts). As Kant put it, "concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." To represent something, we require both acts of judgment and material from the senses to judge. Put another way, to discriminate, we need information; but we also need the ability to discriminate. This doctrine is now orthodoxy in cognitive science.
  2. The method of transcendental argument. Kant's central methodological innovation, transcendental arguments are inferences from phenomena of a certain kind to what must be the case for those phenomena to exist. Applied to mental representations, such arguments are about what must be true of the thing that has those representations. Because this move allows us to infer the unobservable psychological antecedents of observed behavior, it is now central to most experimental cognitive science.
  3. The mind as a system of functions. Kant was the first theorist to think of the mind as a system of functions, conceptual functions transforming ("taking") percepts into representations, at any rate of the modern era (Sellars 1968). (Aristotle may have had the same idea much earlier.) FUNCTIONALISM is by far the most influential philosophy of mind of cognitive science. Even the recent antisententialism of ELIMINATIVE MATERIALISM and CONNECTIONISM still see the mind as a system of functions.

Indeed, Kant's notorious "noumenalism" about the mind might be simply an early expression of FUNCTIONALISM. Noumenalism is the idea that we cannot know what the mind is like, not even something as basic as whether it is simple or complex. Part of Kant's argument is that we cannot infer how the mind is built from how it functions: function does not determine form. (The other part is an equally contemporary-sounding rejection of INTROSPECTION. Both arguments occur in his most important treatment of the mind, the chapter attacking rationalism's paralogisms of pure reason in the Critique of Pure Reason.)

  1. Faculties: Kant developed a theory of mental faculties that strongly anticipates Fodor's (1983) well-known modularity ac-count (see MODULARITY OF MIND).

Kant also developed important ideas about the mind that have not played much of a role in subsequent cognitive research, though perhaps they should have. Two of them concern mental unity.

  1. Synthesis: Kant urged that to represent the world, we must perform two kinds of synthesis. First we must synthesize colors, edges, textures, and the like into representations of single objects. Then we must tie the various represented objects together into a single representation of a world. The first kind of synthesis is now studied under the name "binding" (e.g., Treisman and Gelade 1980). The second receives little attention, though it would appear to be equally central to cognition.
  2. Unity of CONSCIOUSNESS: The unity of consciousness is our ability to be aware of a great many things at the same time, or better, as parts of a single global representation.

Finally, Kant articulated some striking ideas about:

  1. Consciousness and the SELF. The awareness that we have of ourselves is one form of unified consciousness; we are aware of ourselves as the "single common subject" of our representations. But Kant had insights into it that go well beyond that. Ideas he articulated about the peculiar barrenness of one form of consciousness of self and about the referential apparatus that we use to attain it did not reappear until Castañeda (1966) and Shoemaker (1968).

In sum, Kant articulated the view of the mind behind most of cognitive science (see Brook 1994 for further discussion).

See also

Additional links

-- Andrew Brook


Brook, A. (1994). Kant and the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Castañeda, H.-N. (1966). "He": A study in the logic of self consciousness. Ratio 8:130-157.

Fodor, J. (1983). Modularity of Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kant, I. (1781/1787). Critique of Pure Reason. London: Macmillan, 1963.

Sellars, W. (1968). Science and Metaphysics. New York: Humanities Press.

Shoemaker, S. (1968). Self-reference and self-awareness. Journal of Philosophy 65(2):555-567.

Treisman, A., and G. Gelade. (1980). A feature-integration theory of attention. Cognitive Psychology 12:97-136.

Further Readings

Ameriks, K. (1983). Kant's Theory of the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brook, A. (1994). Kant and the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Falkenstein, L. (1996). Kant's Intuitionism: A Commentary on the Transcendental Aesthetic. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kant, I. (1798). Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Trans. Mary Gregor. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974.

Kitcher, P. (1990). Kant's Transcendental Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press .