KANT: Transcendental Esthetic

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VI, Immanuel Kant and German Idealism, Section 3 (part 1) from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


Transcendental Esthetic

The effort to answer this question, to study the inherent structure of the mind, or the innate laws of thought, is what Kant calls “transcendental philosophy,” because it is a problem transcending sense-experience. “I call knowledge transcendental which is occupied not so much with objects, as with our a priori concepts of objects.” [Critique of Pure Reason, p. 10.] –with our modes of correlating our experience into knowledge. There are two grades or stages in this process of working up the raw material of sensation into the finished product of thought. The first stage is the coordination of sensations by applying to them the forms of perception—space and time; the second stage is the coordination of the perceptions so developed, by applying to them the forms of conception—the “categories” of thought. Kant, using the word esthetic in its original and etymological sense, as connoting sensation or feeling, calls the study of the first of these stages ‘Transcendental Esthetic”; and using the word logic as meaning the science of the forms of thought, he calls the study of the second stage ‘Transcendental Logic.” These are terrible words, which will take meaning as the argument proceeds; once over this hill, the road to Kant will be comparatively clear.

There are innate laws that govern the inherent structure and function of the mind. According to Kant, the first of these is the coordination of sensations by applying to them the forms of perception—space and time. And the second is the coordination of the perceptions by applying to them the forms of conception—the “categories” of thought. This raises the question about the nature of space, time and categories.

My understanding of these stages is (a) breaking down the incoming sensations and arranging them into a matrix of perceptual elements to generate immediate perceptions, and (b) generating subsequent ideas from this matrix using the criterion of consistency, harmony and continuity.

Kant refers to the first stage above as “transcendental esthetic” (feeling); and, second stage as “transcendental logic” (ideas).

Now just what is meant by sensations and perceptions?—and how does the mind change the former into the latter? By itself a sensation is merely the awareness of a stimulus; we have a taste on the tongue, an odor in the nostrils, a sound in the ears, a temperature on the skin, a flash of light on the retina, a pressure on the fingers: it is the raw, crude beginning of experience; it is what the infant has in the early days of its groping mental life; it is not yet knowledge. But let these various sensations group themselves about an object in space and time –say this apple; let the odor in the nostrils, and the taste on the tongue, the light on the retina, the shape-revealing pressure on the fingers and the hand, unite and group themselves about this “thing”: and there is now an awareness not so much of a stimulus as of a specific object; there is a perception. Sensation has passed into knowledge.

Sensation is the crude beginning of experience. It is not yet knowledge. According to Kant, these various sensations group themselves in space and time: and there is now a perception of a specific object. In my opinion, the immediate perception comes about with the assimilation of sensation into the mental matrix, which gives it meaning.

But again, was this passage, this grouping, automatic? Did the sensations of themselves, spontaneously and naturally, fall into a cluster and an order, and so become perception? Yes, said Locke and Hume; not at all, says Kant.

For these varied sensations come to us through varied channels of sense, through a thousand “afferent nerves” that pass from skin and eye and ear and tongue into the brain; what a medley of messengers they must be as they crowd into the chambers of the mind, calling for attention! No wonder Plato spoke of “the rabble of the senses.” And left to themselves, they remain rabble, a chaotic “manifold,” pitifully impotent, waiting to be ordered into meaning and purpose and power. As readily might the messages brought to a general from a thousand sectors of the battle-line weave themselves unaided into comprehension and command. No; there is a law-giver for this mob, a directing and coordinating power that does not merely receive, but takes these atoms of sensation and moulds them into sense.

The sensations (perceptual elements) are directed and coordinated into immediate perception by the innate characteristics of the mental matrix.

Observe, first, that not all of the messages are accepted. Myriad forces play upon your body at this moment; a storm of stimuli beats down upon the nerve-endings which, amoeba-like, you put forth to experience the external world: but not all that call are chosen; only those sensations are selected that can be moulded into perceptions suited to your present purpose, or that bring those imperious messages of danger which are always relevant. The clock is ticking, and you do not hear it; but that same ticking, not louder than before, will be heard at once if your purpose wills it so. The mother asleep at her infant’s cradle is deaf to the turmoil of life about her; but let the little one move, and the mother gropes her way back to waking attention like a diver rising hurriedly to the surface of the sea. Let the purpose be addition, and the stimulus “two and three” brings the response, “five”; let the purpose be multiplication, and the same stimulus, the same auditor)’ sensations, “two and three,” bring the response, “six.” Association of sensations or ideas is not merely by contiguity in space or time, nor by similarity, nor recency, frequency or intensity of experience; it is above all determined by the purpose of the mind. Sensations and thoughts are servants, they await our call, they do not come unless we need them. There is an agent of selection and direction that uses them and is their master. In addition to the sensations and the ideas there is the mind.

The mind selects the perceptual elements appropriate to its present purpose from the matrix to transforms them into the final perception with ideas and understanding.

This agent of selection and coordination, Kant thinks, uses first of all two simple methods for the classification of the material presented to it: the sense of space, and the sense of time. As the general arranges the messages brought him according to the place for which they come, and the time at which they were written, and so finds an order and a system for them all; so the mind allocates its sensations in space and time, attributes them to this object here or that object there, to this present time or to that past. Space and time are not things perceived, but modes of perception, ways of putting sense into sensation; space and time are organs of perception.

According to Kant, the sense of space and time helps assimilate sensations into the mental matrix. But it is the pattern of the matrix that cleans up the duplicates and provides some sort of meaning to immediate perception. Actual space is the extents of the perception formed, and actual time is the duration of that perception.

They are a priori, because all ordered experience involves and presupposes them. Without them, sensations could never grow into perceptions. They are a priori because it is inconceivable that we should ever have any future experience that will not also involve them. And because they are a priori, their laws, which are the laws of mathematics, a priori, absolute and necessary, world without end. It is not merely probable, it is certain that we shall never find a straight line that is not the shortest distance between two points. Mathematics, at least, is saved from the dissolvent scepticism of David Hume.

The pattern of the matrix is formed and continually evolved by the inherent structure of the mind. It does not come from the sensation arriving through sense channels. This forms a kind of priori knowledge like the laws of mathematics.

Can all the sciences be similarly saved? Yes, if their basic principle, the law of causality that a given cause must always be followed by a given effect can be shown, like space and time, to be so inherent in all the processes of understanding that no future experience can be conceived that would violate or escape it. Is causality, too, a priori, an indispensable prerequisite and condition of all thought?

In sciences, the presence of space and time denotes the existence of extent and duration. And these two characteristics cannot exist without the presence of substance. Therefore, substance is a priori to thought, field, and matter in sciences.


There is some “stimulus” out there that generates sensations in our body. These sensations arrive at the mind through different sense channels. The mind transforms these sensations directly into perception, and subsequently, into ideas, guided by the purpose in the mind.

The mind has an innate structure that helps break down the incoming sensation into “atoms” (perceptual elements). These “atoms” assimilate into a mental matrix providing immediate perception. Mind then selects and associates “atoms” from this matrix according to its purpose, and generates meaning and ideas applied to the perception using the logical criterion of consistency, etc.

The inherent structure of the mental matrix and the basic laws of logic (consistency, harmony and continuity) are a priori knowledge that actively moulds incoming sensation into perception, meaning and ideas.


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