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Kant on Representation and Objectivity

Published: September 11, 2004


A. B. Dickerson, Kant on Representation and Objectivity, Cambridge University Press,
2004, 217pp, $60 (hbk), ISBN 0521831210
Reviewed by Robert Howell, State University of New York, Albany

Kants Transcendental Deduction of the Categories, in the Critique of Pure Reason, justifies
the objective validity of those fundamental a priori concepts. Dickerson offers a novel
exegesis of the Critiques second- (B-) edition version of the Deduction, the clearest
development of Kants reasoning. Dickersons work should interest everyone concerned with
the details of this, the central argument of the critical philosophy. For Dickerson, Kant is a
representationalist. Representations are the immediate objects of our awareness. However, we
cognize objects like trees neither by inferring those objects as the causes of representations
nor by constructing them out of representations. Rather, via what Kant calls apperception we
are made aware of the object cognized in the representation, just as we see a face in the
lines of a picture. That object is distinct from the matter of the representation, just as the face
is distinct from the lines themselves. Moreover, the lines do not determine their own
interpretation; we must apply a rule of projection in order to grasp them as representing the
face. Similarly, representations as given (impressions and empirical concepts) do not
determine their own interpretation. For apperception to grasp the tree, an act of category-
applying spontaneity is required (an act not grounded upon the (passive) recognition of
features of what is given in experience, 37). This act is synthesis. In it, we apply a category-
governed rule of projection and grasp the manifold as representing the tree. This application
imposes an interpretation on our experience that our given experience does not ground.
However, imposing this interpretation appears incompatible with the objectivity of cognition.
The interpretation could be a fantasy; and even if we in fact use categories to interpret
experience, what justifies that use as objective? Hence the Deductions basic aim: to
demonstrate that, and how, our categorial interpretation of experience can be not only
spontaneous but also objective (44). To meet this objective, the Deduction analyzes the
concept of cognizing an object. It shows that, given that we cognize an object in a
representation, category application is required to interpret that representation. Moreover, that
application is objective, for it is grounded only upon essential facts about the cognizing
mind (56) in such a way that any possible cognizing mind would synthesize given intuitions
in the same way. Thus objectivity is reconciled with spontaneity. Dickerson presents this
interpretation in chapters 1 and 2, summarizing the overall B-Deduction argument thus (51):
. All our cognition must involve a spontaneous synthesis. . If our cognition involves a
spontaneous synthesis then this synthesis must be governed by the categories. The
categories make our cognition possible. In chapter 3 he explains how B-Deduction 16
supports and in chapter 4 how 17-20 and 26 support b and the conclusion. It is here, and
especially in chapter 3, that Dickerson offers some of his most striking exegeses. Dickerson
sees 16beginning with the famous claim that the . think must be able to accompany all
my representationsas the master argument for . Past interpreters (for example, Allison,
Bennett, Guyer, Henrich, Patricia Kitcher and myself) suggest that 16 holds that I can be
aware of each of the relevant representations as mine (or that any of my judgments can be
made in the first person). Kant then argues that this self-awareness of representations as mine
requires a synthesis: the relation [of my representations] to identity of the subject comes
about by my adding one representation to the other and being conscious of their synthesis
(B133). Dickerson rejects this interpretation. He regards Kants notion of apperception as
Leibnizs. For Leibniz and Kant, apperception is the reflexive awareness of representations.
This awareness does not, however, grasp the representations in such a way that I explicitly
become aware of them as mine. In cognition I apperceive my representation in thought; but
the object of my thought is the object presented by the representation, not the representation
itself. Dickerson holds that because the B-Deduction simply analyzes what is involved in
cognition, 16 starts from the assumption that an object is cognized via a representation.
Because it presents a single object, that representation is an intuition. Our apperception of the
intuition thus just isand does not simply implya synthesis. That synthesis from the start
grasps the whole representation as representing the object. As so grasped, the intuition hangs
together as a single representation offering a point of view on the world. Moreover,
apperception intimate[s] (83) the viewpoint of this point of viewit is mine. So the
intuition forms my point of view on the world. In that senseand not because I am aware of
the components of the manifold as mineKant speaks of the relation of my representations
to the identity of the subject. In agreement with Bell and Hylton, Dickerson argues further
that Kants apperceptive relation of representations to the identity of the subject is the
representationalist equivalent of the idea of the unity of the proposition, an idea discussed
later by Frege and Russell. For Frege, a judgment is prior to concepts. For Kant, a
synthesized intuition is not a collection of component representations each of which I first
grasp individually. Rather, in apperceptive synthesis I holistically grasp the unified
representation and only then segment it into its components. Synthesis therefore does not
combine given atomic elements. This synthesis is spontaneous, not a receptive grasp of
component representations (122-23). Dickerson thus defends . In chapter 4, he supports b.
His basic account is familiar. His interpretation involves, however, at least two important
novelties: (a) Having argued for unity of apperception in 16, in 17 Kant claims that all
unification of representations requires unity of consciousness in the synthesis of them.
Consequently the unity of consciousness is that which alone constitutes the relation of
representations to an object, thus their objective validity, and consequently is that which
makes them into cognitions (B137). This looks like a fallacious argument from unity of
consciousness as necessary for the unification of representations to unity of consciousness as
sufficient for that unification. Dickerson denies the fallacy. Kant is simply analyzing the
concept of human cognition as achieved via a unified manifold of intuition. Kant holds that
because that manifold relates to an object and yet, as given, has no determinate
representational content, that relation must arise through unity of apperception. B137 in fact
simply identifies unity of consciousness with unity of object. (Contrary to many interpreters,
B137 also does not argue for a mutual implication between unity of apperception and unity of
object.) (b) Suppose that the Deduction simply analyzes cognition, showing that it is
constituted by the category-applying apperception of a given intuition. Then the most that the
Deduction proves is that if we have cognition or objective experience, then the categories
apply. This is not (as Ameriks has suggested) a regressive argument that begins from the
premise that we do have cognition. But it is not antiskeptical either. A skeptic like Hume
could grant the preceding conditional but deny its antecedent by noting that no proof has been
offered that we have cognition of an object (206). To put the point in my own (Strawsonian)
terms, why cant our experience simply be a sense-datum stream of elements of the manifold,
no object being experienced as common to and presented in those elements? Many scholars
(for example, Wolff, Strawson, Guyer, Keller, myself) read the Deduction as arguing that we
have cognition in the above sense. Dickerson demurs. If, in 17, Kant identifies a manifold
unified in apperception with the cognition of an object, then he can hardly be arguing from
such apperceptive unification to the manifolds providing cognition. Moreover, even if the
Deduction is not antiskeptical, it still has philosophical interest. Dickerson raises central
questions about the B-Deduction, and his book should be read by anyone serious about
understanding the Deductions argument. It is impossible to settle, here, all the issues that
arise, but there are substantial grounds for doubting his interpretation. And although they are
forcefully expressed, his criticisms of the literature are not always on target. (i) Describing
the aim of the Deduction as reconciling objectivity with spontaneity seriously distorts the
text. Kant stresses that the Deduction is to explain the way in which concepts [the
categories] can relate to objects . priori (A85/B117). Dickerson connects the categories, as
applied via apperceptive spontaneity, to this point. However, his stress on spontaneity plays
down the fact that it is the . priority (and necessity) of the categories, already established in
the Metaphysical Deductionand not just their failing to represent conditions under which
objects are giventhat poses the initial Deduction problem. Moreover, a careful reading of
A50/B74ff. shows that it is the faculty of thoughtthe faculty of operating with concepts
that is spontaneous; and thought operates with both empirical and a priori concepts. The
spontaneous/nonspontaneous distinction simply does not line up with a distinction between
the categories and all other elements of cognition (given representations, empirical concepts,
and so on). (ii) Dickerson asserts (but argues only by appeal to what he sees as the success of
his overall interpretation) that Kant in 16 adopts Dickersons Leibnizian account of
apperception. But Kant was perfectly capable of thinking for himself, and his use of I think
carries Cartesian overtones. Observe B422 note and A355 (and compare B-Deduction 25),
where Kant notes the designation relation that he takes the . think to have to the subject of
thoughts. (Of course, Kant, unlike Descartes, takes that designation to provide no information
about the nature of that subject.) Moreover, Dickersons account of the relation to the
identity of the subject as not involving the awareness of my representations as mine is belied
by Kants saying, in a text whose present implications Dickerson does not discuss, that only
because I can comprehend [the manifold of representations] in a consciousness do I call them
all together my representations (16, B134; first, third emphases mine; see also B135, B138,
A122, and B408). Such passages (and texts like B133 on my representing to myself the
identity of the consciousness in these representations) imply that, contrary to Dickerson, 16
is arguing to synthesis of the manifold from facts about self-awareness [of representations as
mine], [and] the reference of I (97). (iii) Dickersons holism captures one strand in Kants
complex account of synthesis. However, many texts support an atomistic view. Dickerson
discusses one such (137, A163/B03-204). But other, more troublesome texts exist that
Dickerson should have consideredfor example, A162/B203 (an extensive magnitude is
that in which the representation of the parts makes possible the representation of the whole
(and therefore necessarily precedes the latter)) and A120 (since every appearance contains
a manifold, thus different perceptions by themselves are encountered dispersed and separate
in the mind, a combination of them is therefore necessary). (iv) There is textual evidence
that 17 does not simply identify unity of apperception with cognition of an object. Note the
repeated consequently in the above B137 quote: Kant is saying that unity of consciousness
holds with respect to the relevant representations, and consequently those representations
relate to an object and constitute a cognition. This is the language of argument, not
identification, and it means that interpreters are right to worry about a fallacy here. (v) Point
(iv) also bears on the idea that the Deduction is not meant antiskeptically. The 17
consequently, taken together with the 16 interpretation that Dickerson rejects, suggests
that Kant means to be considering, among other things, any manifold through which I can be
said to cognize (even in what might be no more than a minimal, sense-datum way). Kant
argues that because that manifold is subject to unity of apperception, it must be so united that
through it I am aware of an object distinct from the individual elements of the manifoldin
Dickersons terms, that manifold must be so united that through it I cognize an object. Note
B158 (cognition of an object distinct from me); 26, where Kant takes one of the
Deductions results to be that all possible perceptions, hence everything that can ever reach
empirical consciousness stand under the categories (B164-65, my emphases); and A111,
A112, A121-22, A156/B195, on why the holding of unity of apperception rules out mere
aggregations of representations as constituting cognition. Of course if 17 involved the
identification Dickerson suggests, one reason for interpreting the B-Deduction as
antiskeptical would collapse (207). However (as noted in (iv)), I find that view of 17
unconvincing. (vi) Dickersons ability to analyze the text and competing interpretations may
have been hampered by space limitations outside his control. To some extent this would
explain the brevity of many of his critical remarks. But, in his eagerness to forward his
account and undermine those of others, problems arise. For example, Kemp Smith gets
criticized for saying that, for Kant, representation of the parts precedes and renders possible
representation of the whole (135). But this sentence just paraphrases Kants own A162/B203
claim about extensive magnitudes (quoted in (iii) above), as Dickerson doesnt note or
discuss further. Again, an important part of Georges article Kants Sensationism is
dismissed in a one-line footnote (24); yet it presents ideas (ignored by Dickerson) that seem
contrary to Dickersons holistic, nonconstructivist view of synthesis. This article also brings
out (as Dickerson fails to remark) the relation of Kants to Freges view of judgment.
Dickerson also misrepresents parts of my own book on the B-Deduction. At 102-104, in the
course of noting that I find a certain fallacy in 16, he implies that I read Kants principle of
the unity of apperception in a way that I expressly repudiate in three different places in the
relevant chapter. At 195, he attributes to Allison, Henrich, and me a certain absurd idea
about the relation of 20 and 26, and he objects to that idea. But he fails to indicate that in a
long footnote three pages later I reply to just that objection. Given these and similar readings
of the secondary literature, I hesitate to trust too far Dickersons other characterizations of
previous scholarship. Dickersons book contains interesting interpretations, forcefully argued,
which need careful evaluation. Whether they are correct or not, his accounts of apperception,
synthesis, and the 16-20 argument make a serious contribution to the literature. His view of
the relation of Kants treatment of judgment to the problem of the unity of the proposition
seems right (although I dont believe that relation comes in directly in 16, as 107 implies).
However, his work must be read with care. A number of important texts, not considered by
Dickerson, run contrary to his account; and not all of his remarks on other interpretations are
either complete or correct.