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The Kantian Sine Qua Non:

Experience, Modality, and the Structure of Transcendental Thinking


C.J. Sentell
Fall 2007

“Experience may well teach us what is, but not that it could not be otherwise” - Kant

One of the central problems of the Critique of Pure Reason concerns the nature and
possibility of synthetic a priori judgments. In this work, Kant wants to show how judgments,
the truth of which are not dependent upon experience but which yet pertain to and amplify
knowledge of experience, are possible. To solve this and other problems, Kant introduces
what is arguably his most significant and innovative contribution to the Western
philosophical tradition, namely, the critical or transcendental method. This method, Kant
claims, not only yields an answer to that crucial yet perplexing question of the synthetic a
priori, but it also reformulates the way in which the traditionally interminable problems of
metaphysics are understood. And since the most interesting answers almost always involve a
certain destruction of the questions, or at least how the questions are understood, the answers
Kant provides too do not do so much as answer the traditional metaphysical questions as
provide a new framework through which to conceive them.
This is in fact Kant’s explicit aim in the first Critique, and the transcendental method
he deploys therein is intended to inaugurate and ground what would amount to a “Copernican
Revolution” in philosophy. In this way, the concept of the transcendental is perhaps the
central feature of Kant’s self-styled philosophical revolution. But in the first Critique, as
well as throughout his other critical works, Kant deploys the concept in a variety of ways.
For example, there are transcendental arguments (e.g., the Second Analogy), transcendental
deductions (e.g., the Deduction of the Categories), transcendental ideas, expositions, a
transcendental logic, and a transcendental aesthetic. The complete system of these
transcendental concepts and expositions would, according to Kant, comprise an organon
whose “utility would really be only negative, serving not for the amplification but only for
the purification of our reason…” (A11/B25). In this way, Kant’s transcendental philosophy
does not seek to produce a positive doctrine about knowledge, reason, or experience, but
rather only a critique of these that delineates their limits and conditions of possibility.
For Kant, our knowledge of the world is always already mediated by the specific way
in which we experience the world. But that we experience and that we know Kant takes as a
fundamental fact, the explanation of which is the task of transcendental philosophy. To
explain this fact, Kant asks the transcendental question – namely, what are the conditions
necessary for experience and knowledge to be possible? – so as to explain the fact that
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knowledge is actual and to account for synthetic, a priori judgments in and about the world.
For Kant, moreover, the explanations that the transcendental method provides constitute the
paradigm of philosophical explanation. And in pursuing the conditions without which
knowledge and experience would not be possible, Kant’s creates a space behind knowledge
that gives a certain depth – an epistemic depth – to our experience of the world. This depth,
this space wherein reason seeks its own conditions, is precisely the space of Kant’s
transcendental, which is at once ambitious in its claims and modest in its aims. That is,
within the epistemic re-presentation of objects and their relations, the transcendental is
ambitious in its search for the substantive, necessary conditions for the possibility of
experience. But if this experience is epistemically bounded – if it is, in the end, experience
considered only in its discursive, epistemological aspects – then its limits are relatively
modest. By rigorously circumscribing what can be said of the knowable, Kant restrains
reason’s reach for knowledge within experience.
In this essay, I will inquire into the nature, structure, and function of the
transcendental. To this end I will consider the concept in two ways, the first of which is more
specific and is the one Kant is inquiring into in the first Critique, namely, about the necessary
conditions for the possibility of cognitive experience. The second sense, however, is more
general and is perhaps best characterized in terms of the structure of the question. With
respect to these different senses, I will inquire into two different modal frameworks at work
within Kant’s transcendental. On the one hand there is the modality of empirical thinking,
which consists of cognitive judgments expressive of the relation between the objects of
experience to the subject of experience; on the other hand there is the modality of
transcendental thinking, which is different in scope, sense, and aim insofar as it takes the
actuality of experience as its starting point and subsequently seeks its constituent conditions
of possibility. Thus, the operative modality of the transcendental is one based in actuality,
and takes as its starting point the fact of experience. This experience is material, empirical,
and is the sine qua non of the transcendental itself; in this way, there is a necessary condition
for the possibility of the transcendental itself, a condition of material actuality that,
importantly, is not at issue within the epistemic frame of transcendental philosophy. Without
this experience of the world, a world that appears stable, solid, and wholly material from an
empirical point of view, the transcendental question could not even be asked. At least that is
my specific suggestion. My aim more generally, however, is to interrogate these differences
so as to better understand what is at stake in using the concept, both for Kant and those in his
wake, and, only indirectly, how it might be employed in possible critical futures.

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To begin to understand Kant’s conception of the transcendental, it is important to
distinguish it from what it is not, namely, neither the empirical nor the transcendent.
Empirical cognition, for Kant, concerns the objects and the relation between objects as they
appear in the representative faculty of the mind, i.e., the understanding. Transcendental
cognition, on the other hand, does not concern the objects of representation nor their relation
within the faculty of understanding, but rather pertain only to the necessary conditions under
which those objects and their relations can appear at all. “I call all cognition transcendental,”
Kant says, “that is occupied not so much with objects but rather with our a priori concepts of
objects in general” (A11/B25). So, importantly, the transcendental is neither a unique thing
(or set of things), nor a rarefied space in which true or real thought occurs; rather, the
transcendental is a certain type of cognition that is both behind and about contingent,
empirical knowledge. Certain cognitions are transcendental or empirical, then, and a thought
of the former category is produced when it concerns the a priori conceptual grounds of any
and all objects in general.
Compared to the subject matter of empirical thinking, then, the subject matter of
transcendental thinking “is not the nature of things, which is inexhaustible, but the
understanding, which judges about the nature of things” (A13/B26). Kant says that the
“difference between the transcendental and the empirical therefore belongs only to the
critique of cognitions and does not concern the relation to their object” (A57). Thus,
transcendental thought concerns the understanding itself and not what the understanding
understands, namely, the empirical relation between objects. In this way, the distinction
between the empirical and the transcendental is not one of strict, mutually exclusivity.
Indeed, as Kant says, it is a distinction only to those interested in undertaking a critique of
cognition, and is not intended to hypostasize or reify these types of cognition as being
actually separate or mutually exclusive. On the contrary, for the crux of the critical project is
precisely to elaborate the thoroughgoing reciprocity and mutually dependency of these two
types of cognition by way of establishing their relationship through necessary conditions.
This way of understanding the difference between the transcendental and the
empirical is structurally analogous to the distinction Kant draws between form and content.
While transcendental cognition concerns the form of the understanding itself, empirical
cognition concerns the content or matter, and the relations between these that the
understanding organizes according to its forms. But like the distinction between the
transcendental and the empirical, the distinction between the form and content of thought
should not be overdrawn and hypostasized into mutually exclusive, independently existing

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entities. This is because each distinction is only separable analytically and always actually
occurs in conjunction with one another. For Kant, there is no such thing as bare content
without form, or empty form without content; each of these necessarily depends upon the
other in actual fact. So even though the distinction between form and content is fundamental
to Kant’s project of articulating the necessary conditions for any possible experience, the two
are inextricably linked and are, therefore, insufficient independent of one another.
In Kant’s account of cognition, for example, he distinguishes between intuitions,
which are given through the faculty of sensibility and supply the content of every cognition,
and concepts, which are given through the faculty of the understanding and supply the form
for every cognition (A50/B74). For cognition to occur both intuitions and concepts are
required; each is a necessary condition for the possibility of cognition, and neither is
sufficient unto itself. Neither is to be privileged, because, as Kant says, “[w]ithout sensibility
no object would be given to us, and without understanding none would be thought. Thoughts
without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” (A51/B75). Only through
the union of sensibility and understanding can cognition arise, and these functions are neither
exchangeable nor mixable. As part of the faculty of the understanding, concepts provide the
discursive rule by which sensible content is thought, thus making concepts more like an
activity than a thing. The activity of concepts, moreover, is spontaneous and is occasioned
by the sensible material of intuition. But, as McDowell says of Kant, in every experience
“conceptual capacities are not exercised on non-conceptual deliverances of sensibility.
Conceptual capacities are already operative in the deliverances of sensibility themselves”
(1999: 39). In this way, sensibility provides the content or matter of cognition, while the
understanding conceptualizes that content in such a way that makes it intelligible to
discursive knowers, and in each case both form and content are inextricably bound together.
So like the distinctions between form and content and concept and intuition, the
distinction between the empirical and the transcendental is not accurately characterized as a
rigid, hierarchical, mutually exclusive dichotomy. Rather, they are relational distinctions that
each presuppose and entail the other. Because the transcendental concerns the necessary, a
priori conditions for the thinking of any object in general, it depends upon the actual thinking
of objects – a thinking that is by definition empirical – so as to even formulate its question
about what those conditions might be. Given the fact of thought concerning empirical
objects and their relations, in other words, the transcendental is entailed insofar as there must
be conditions that enable such thought to occur. In this way, empirical cognition is itself a
necessary condition for any transcendental cognition whatsoever; if there were no such thing

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as empirical cognition, transcendental cognition would make no sense at all precisely because
the latter is looking into the conditions of the former.
In this way, the possibility of transcendental cognition is situated within the matrix of
actual experience that is empirical thought. Put differently, given that there is empirical
thought, there must be some conditions that necessarily obtain so as to make that thought
possible, and these conditions are, ipso facto, transcendental conditions. So while Kant
indeed says that the empirical is a “consequence” of the transcendental (A114), there is an
important sense in which the transcendental is also a consequence of the empirical. To put
this point more strongly, empirical cognition is a necessary condition for the possibility of
transcendental cognition. This reciprocal dependency of the transcendental and the empirical
is often lost in the emphasis Kant places on the transcendental method providing the
necessary conditions for the possibility of experience. But if experience itself were not
possible – indeed, if it were not actual – then the transcendental method would have no place
to begin. This is because, whether it is empirical or transcendental, cognition always begins
from with experience.
Of course, for Kant this does not mean that all knowledge is necessarily grounded
upon or arises from experience. Kant draws this distinction from the very beginning, for in
the Introduction to the A edition experience is the “first product” of the understanding as it
“works on the raw material of sensible sensations” (A1). And in the Introduction to the B
edition, Kant claims that “all our cognition begins with experience,” because experience is
what “awakens” and “puts into motion” the cognitive faculty by working up the raw material
of sensation into representations and their concomitant relations (B1). And so, temporally,
“no cognition in us precedes experience, and with experience every cognition begins” (B1).
In this way, though it is not dependent upon it, transcendental cognition itself always begins
within experience but is at the same time an establishment of the bounds and limits of any
possible experience.
It is important to note, however, that for Kant experience and the empirical are not
exactly identical. Experience, for Kant, is the product of the receptive and the spontaneous
faculties of the mind – namely, sensibility and understanding, respectively – which, when
joined in a certain manner, produce experience. The empirical, on the other hand, is but one
of type of cognition found within experience, which pertains to objects and their relations as
they are represented when the faculties of sensibility and understanding join to produce
experience. As McDowell puts it, experience is always “receptivity in operation” such that,
“in experience, spontaneity is inextricably implicated in deliverances of receptivity (1996:

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24, 41). Experience is always already a passive reception of the world and a spontaneous
contribution by the subject for whom the world is represented. In short, experience is the
product of an active receptivity, while the empirical is specific instance of that active
receptivity. In a very literal sense, then, experience is an artifact produced by the ongoing
and ever-present union of sensibility and understanding within discursive human beings.
Only from within this productive framework can cognition then be differentiated into its
various components (i.e., the empirical and transcendental) and its various grounds (i.e., the a
priori and a posteriori). Such differentiations are accomplished only after experience is
underway and are always distinctions as they are found within experience in general.
So for Kant experience cannot be transcended; one cannot go beyond the limits of
experience or, better yet, suspend experience, so as to examine the nature of experience. For
to do so would be to transcend experience, to go beyond the limits of experience, and the
transcendental is emphatically not transcendent in that it aims to establish the limits, scope,
and possibility of experience from within experience itself. This is why Kant introduces the
transcendental in the first place, namely, to establish the boundaries of experience through an
examination of the necessary conditions for the possibility of experience. And even though
the conclusions of transcendental inquiry do not depend upon experience, the inquiry itself
always occurs from within experience. In this way, the concept of the transcendental is not
divorced from experience or the empirical per se, but rather only separable from these as a
way of grounding knowledge and explaining its possibility. The transcendental project, in
other words, always occurs in the middle of experience, and is operative only within and after
experience has begun. The transcendental question is not one opposed to experience, but is a
question one asks from within experience and is a question one asks of experience, if only
indirectly.
Having now drawn some of the basic distinctions central to the concept of the
transcendental, I would like to turn to the concept in action, so to speak, by means of
examining how it functions within the structure of arguments more generally.1
One place to begin characterizing the general form of a transcendental argument is to
note its basic structurally similarity to traditional conditional or stipulative arguments. Like
traditional conditional arguments, transcendental arguments posit an initial premise and
proceed in a conditional manner to the conclusion. The general form of such an argument

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This is important because a variety of philosophers after Kant have employed this form of argument in the
service of ends that, though they may be formally similar to, are by no means identical with Kant’s own
ends. I am thinking about philosophers as diverse as Marx, Pierce, Royce, Wittgenstein, Strawson,
Davidson, Habermas, and Foucault, to name but a few of the widely acknowledged instances.
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can be rendered: A; if A then B; ergo, B. But, unlike conditional arguments, transcendental
arguments expand upon the initial premise in ways that a traditional conditional syllogism
does not. Because they begin with a premise that most, if not all, interlocutors accept or must
accept, and expand upon that premise by outlining the necessary conditional connections for
that premise to obtain, transcendental arguments conclude with the conditions necessary for
that premise to be true. In this way, the general form of a transcendental argument can be
rendered: A; A only if B, B only if C, C only if D; ergo, B, C, D…, which characterizes the
transcendental argument as a “regress back up a series of necessary conditions” (Harrison
1989: 43).2 In transcendental arguments, this series of conditional connections is meant to be
strictly necessary, and hence a priori, which, when the argument is run forward, amounts to a
deduction and the strict certainty that accompanies all such arguments. In this way,
transcendental arguments can be characterized as two-way arguments: on the one hand, the
conditions can be seen as regressively formulated so as to explain the initial premise, while,
on the other hand, the conditions can be progressively formulated so as to deduce necessary
conclusions from the initial premise. In both aspects, however, the initial premise is
expanded through the minor premises that establish the necessary conditional connections,
and the nature of this expansion is precisely what constitutes the philosophically interesting
character of transcendental arguments.3
With this in mind, I would now like to distinguish transcendental arguments from
conditional arguments in more detail by noting two fundamental differences between them,
namely, 1) the status and use of the primary premise, and 2) the nature, scope, and function
of its conclusion. I will take each of these in turn.
The status and use of the primary premise in a transcendental argument not only
firmly differentiates it from traditional conditional arguments, but it also has much to do with
whether or not the argument is, in the end, successful in its aims.4 And while Stroud points
out that such aims are central to distinguishing an argument as a transcendental one, I want to
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This regressive characterization of transcendental arguments is not entirely unproblematic, however,
because while it indeed finds clear expression in Kant’s Prolegomena, in the first Critique the
transcendental is taken to have a progressive function as well, that is, to advance substantive, synthetic a
priori claims.
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To oversimplify Kant’s classic example: there is experience; the condition for the possibility of
experience is the necessary truth of, among other things, the categories of the pure understanding; ergo, the
categories must be true given that they are necessary conditions for the possibility of experience, which has
already been granted in the initial premise. In this example, the expansion of the major premise in the
conclusion of the conditional includes the necessary entailment of the pure categories of the understanding.
It is, in other words, precisely the categories that are philosophically interesting, and not the fact that
experience is possible.
4
Historically, transcendental arguments are typically understood to have, among other things, a general
anti-skeptical thrust, while more recently they have been used to establish the necessary conceptual features
for the possibility of such things as belief, language, and communication.
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suggest that the overall aim of the argument determines the sense in which the initial premise
is to be understood (1999:157). Thus, if the specific goal of an argument determines its
status with respect to a transcendental project, and if that goal also determines the status of
the initial premise, then there seems to be a genuine possibility for transcendental arguments
(and thinking more generally) to have varying degrees of “modesty” based on varying aims.5
To capture this continuum of modesty, consider the various characterizations that can be
accorded to the status of the initial premise as ranging from being a) simply generally
accepted, to b) being uninferred and advanced without further grounding, or to c) being
necessary insofar as the denial of the premise would involve a contradiction or absurdity.
This continuum ranges from the most to the least modest status accorded to the initial
premise, which then carries over to the strength of the argument more generally; naturally,
the stronger the sense in which the initial premise is understood, the stronger the conclusion.
The important point to note, however, is the use derived from the status of the initial premise.
The use of the initial premise in a transcendental argument aims, above all, to engage
as many interlocutors as possible by putting forward a claim that most, if not all, interlocutors
will accept. (After all, getting someone to agree to the first premise is the sine qua non of an
argument actually being an argument, let alone a successful one.) By positing its initial
premise in this way, a transcendental argument begins by making a claim of what is actual;
the premise, in other words, is a statement of fact, a statement about what is the case that
many or most interlocutors can accept. But once the argument begins, and if it proceeds
along strictly necessary conditional minor premises, the conclusion is meant to be undeniable
– it has the force of a deduction – and this is precisely the unique characteristic of such
arguments. Thus, the denial of the initial premise is one of the only ways to fundamentally
object to a transcendental argument.
So from the initial premise of the actual, transcendental arguments draw out
connections to show that the premise can be true if and only if some other necessarily
connected claim is true as well. In this way, “transcendental arguments thus generate
conclusions which are strictly conditional...but where the consequent inherits (if the argument
is successful) the incontrovertibility of the argument’s premise” (Gardner 1999: 188). The
general structure of a transcendental argument, then, is that of a stipulative argument that
inquires into the conditions that are necessary given the initial premise, which is always a
claim of actuality or an accepted factual claim. In this way, the conclusions of transcendental
arguments can be distinguished from the conclusions of other conditional arguments in that

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For more on the possible modesty of transcendental arguments, cf. Hookway (1999).
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they are conclusions of conditions rather than conclusions of consequents. A normal
conditional argument describes the conditions under which a certain consequent obtains. For
example, if the clouds are sufficiently saturated with moisture, then it will rain; the clouds are
sufficiently saturated; ergo, it will rain. The conclusion in this type of conditional argument
is about what will happen if the premise conditions are fulfilled; it is a conclusion about the
consequences of conditions satisfied. To put it another way, the conclusion of a normal
conditional argument is about the conclusion of the consequent insofar as its conclusion
concerns consequences. But this formulation is needed only because of the unique structure
of a transcendental argument and the nature of its conclusions, which concern the very
conditions under which it is possible for the initial premise to obtain. So from the initial
premise of the actual, transcendental arguments proceed by outlining what must be the case
given the actuality of the premise. This articulation of what must be the case constitutes the
conclusion of a transcendental argument; the conditions for the possibility of the premise, in
other words, just are the conclusions of a transcendental argument. And the conclusion of
such an argument actually amounts to an explanation of the premises; that is, by
extrapolating the necessary conditions for the possibility of the premise, the conclusion of a
transcendental argument explains how the premise is possible.
Having now outlined the structure of transcendental arguments in particular, and the
concept of the transcendental more generally, I would now like to return specifically to the
way in which Kant uses the transcendental method to establish the conditions necessary for
the possibility of experience. According to Kant, for transcendental cognition to establish
such conditions requires that its guide always be the possibility of experience in general
(A783/B811). In other words, for Kant it is the possibility of experience that guides all
transcendental inquiry; this signpost, simply put, declares that experience is possible. And
not only is experience possible, but Kant takes the actuality of experience as a fact so
indisputable that his various interlocutors must agree to this initial premise. Once the initial
premise of the actuality of experience is granted, Kant’s transcendental arguments aim to
show that “experience itself, [and] hence the objects of experience, would be impossible
without such a connection” as he lays out in the first Critique (A783/B811). For Kant, such
connections must be derived a priori, since to do otherwise would involve a reference to the
very premise for which one is seeking the necessary conditional connections. But, crucially,
these conditions are not merely conceptual conditions; transcendental proofs do not show that
a certain concept leads directly to a certain other concept, e.g., that the concept of event leads
directly to the concept that the event has a cause. Rather, according to Kant, transcendental

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proofs establish the “objective validity” of certain concepts by determining the possibility of
their cognition a priori.
Since Kant, however, the nature of the conditions that comprise transcendental
arguments has been widely disputed. This dispute within the post-Kantian tradition has led to
widely different interpretations of Kant and, therefore, to different appropriations of the
nature, scope, and efficacy of transcendental thinking.6 In the course of these interpretations,
two general alternatives to construing transcendental conditions have arisen, and because these
alternatives affect the way in which transcendental thought is understood, I will briefly
consider their merits.
The first of these alternatives is to construe the conditions as merely conceptual
conditions. On this account, the conditions that transcendental thinking uncovers are solely
conceptual in nature and explain the initial premise according to the concepts that are
necessary to make sense of the premise. This alternative is acceptable insofar as it goes, but,
as Gardner points out, this construal of the conditions as solely conceptual is in direct tension
with Kant’s own conception of them (1999: 189). If such conditions were merely conceptual,
their conclusions would be purely analytic and fall short of synthetic a priori status. In
Kant’s terminology, this conceptual construal would conflate such conditions with subjective
conditions of thought rather than demonstrate their objective validity, which is Kant’s stated
aim. That is to say, construing the conditions as solely conceptual ignores the special status
Kant allocates to them within transcendental philosophy by way of their providing the a
priori and yet synthetic conditions for the possibility of experience.
The second alternative to understanding the nature of the conditions is to construe
them as being of a phenomenal nature, or conditions that ultimately rely upon empirical or
phenomenal verification. In different ways, skeptics and conventionalists, respectively,
attempt to construe transcendental conditions such that their justification would stem from
the continued collection of direct empirical evidence or from the practical necessity such
conditions provide for the account at hand. And despite such construals being in direct
tension with Kant’s definition of the transcendental, Stroud argues further that inquiring into
the necessary conditions for the possibility of a given phenomena does not in any way settle
the question as to whether, in fact, that phenomenon actually obtains (1968: 254). Stroud’s
point rests on the “simple logical observation that something’s being so does not follow from
its being thought or believed to be so” (1994: 241). So when construed phenomenally, such

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That is, for example, certain interpreters would like to retain transcendental arguments while dispensing
with Kant’s idealism. For more on the various interpretations, cf. Allison (2004: 3-19) and Gardner (1999:
30).
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conditions fail to address the issue as to whether the connections drawn from the initial
premise are, in fact, valid beyond the contingency of experience. By pushing the issue of
validity back to some further criterion, namely, a phenomenal one, any such construal of the
conditions of transcendental thought would eventually invoke “some version of the
verification principle” (Stroud 1968: 255-6). Thus, when transcendental conditions are taken
to require a phenomenal confirmation of their validity, those conditions inherit the recursive
problems of justification that all forms of verificationism eventually encounter.
Both Gardner and Stroud point out, then, that the conditions that transcendental
arguments seek to establish, if they are to be successful in the way Kant takes them to be, can
neither be merely conceptual nor in any way phenomenal. This is because Kant intends for
transcendental arguments to answer the quid juris, or question of justification, and in doing
so provide the necessary grounds for objective validity (A84). In the Transcendental
Deduction, for example, Kant argues that the categories, as pure concepts of the
understanding, “contain a priori the pure thought involved in every experience” (A96). The
objective validity of such concepts would be sufficiently justified by proving “that by means
of them alone an object can be thought” (A97). To establish a particular condition or set of
conditions as necessary, Kant’s transcendental strategy considers the alternatives through a
negation of the condition(s) at issue so as to demonstrate the internal incoherence or
impossibility of the initial premise without such a condition, and insofar as such a negation
exhausts the field of possible alternatives, such conditions are necessary (Förster 1989: 15).
In other words, the objective validity of transcendental conditions is achieved by showing
them to be absolutely necessary for the possibility of any object appearing at all.
But the understanding, as the faculty that relates objects as they are represented, itself
requires an explanation as to how it is possible for it to achieve this relation, i.e., it requires a
transcendental explanation. The justification for the objective validity of the categories,
therefore, first requires a transcendental explanation of the understanding itself, which begins
“not [with] the empirical but the transcendental constitution of the subjective sources that
comprise the a priori foundations for the possibility of experience” (A97). Because
cognition for Kant is “a whole of compared and connected representations,” if each
representation were disconnected and isolated from one another, cognition or knowledge
would not be possible (A97). For cognition to be possible, the understanding must be
possible. Because cognition is the strict and inseparable union of the understanding and
sensibility – even though they are, again, analytically isolable – the understanding is
necessary though not sufficient for cognition to be possible. That is, because cognition is

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possible only when receptivity is combined with spontaneity – indeed, because experience is
always already an active, conceptualized receptivity – the manifold of sense in intuition
corresponds to a synthesis in the understanding, the spontaneity of which goes through, takes
up, and combines the sensible manifold into a unified content so as to be experienced.
Kant terms this process synthesis, which is the “action of putting different
representations together with each other and comprehending their manifoldness in one
cognition” (A77/B103). As such, synthesis is an activity of the imagination that is always
both an apprehension and a reproduction (A120). Such synthesis, or unity, involves a three-
fold activity that constitutes the subjective sources of all cognition, which includes: 1) the
apprehension of representations as modifications of mind in intuition; 2) the reproduction of
the representations in the imagination; and 3) the re-cognition of the representations in the
concept (A97). These are the three subjective sources that comprise the a priori foundations
for the possibility of experience, and thus are necessary for cognition in particular, and the
understanding in general, to be possible. These conditions, in other words, are the grounds
upon which the understanding itself is made possible, and, through the understanding, also
make possible “all experience as an empirical product of the understanding” (A98). Qua
empirical product, then, experience itself must be capable of being experienced, or at least
recognized as experience, for without this there would be no starting point whatsoever for the
transcendental project.
Behind the three-fold synthesis that serves as the transcendental ground for the
understanding is Kant’s transcendental subject. This subject is not the subject encountered in
experience, nor is it the self as we experience it. Rather, for Kant, the transcendental subject
is the a priori ground for any experience at all; it is the bare “I think” that necessarily
accompanies any and all thought (B132). Kant terms this originary synthesis the
transcendental unity of apperception, which is the “unity through which all of the manifold
given in an intuition is united in a concept of the object” (B139). This transcendental
function of the subject is contrasted to the subjective unity of consciousness, which is just the
unity of the empirically given manifold of intuition, i.e., it concerns only appearances and is
thus entirely contingent (B140). Precisely because the transcendental unity of apperception
constitutes the conditions without which objects could not be possible objects of experience
at all, it is through the former unity alone that objective validity is established. Objective
validity, then, is not a matter of the categories corresponding or matching up to the objects as
they are in themselves; it does not involve bridging a gap between two types of objects,
namely, phenomenal and noumenal ones, which Kant clearly considered unbridgeable

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(A255/B311). Rather, objective validity is an achievement of transcendental philosophy
precisely because it demonstrates the necessity of the categories by means of showing that
through them alone any object whatsoever must be thought.
Thus, by answering question of justification, or quid juris, Kant intends for the
transcendental method to prove the objective validity of the categories. Kant draws this
question, along with its counterpart the quid facti, or question of fact, from Roman
jurisprudential thought, which is also an important historical and theoretical source for the
concept of the transcendental itself. Given that the quid juris is so closely connected in
Kant’s mind to the function of transcendental explanation or justification, in other words, it is
not coincidental that the Roman legal concept of the condicio sine qua non, or the conditions
without which a certain fact could not be, is strikingly similar to Kant’s later development of
the transcendental. For, as I have shown above, such conditions are precisely the ones Kant’s
transcendental method means to establish.
So, given that Kant’s original formulation of the transcendental always concerns the
necessary conditions for the possibility of some one thing, namely, experience, modality is
central to the entire concept of the transcendental. More specifically, the transcendental
always occasions a certain thinking through of possibility and, in so doing, also occasions a
certain inquiry into necessity. Necessity and possibility, in this way, are inextricable from
the transcendental point of view: for if some one thing is necessary for some other thing to be
possible, necessity and possibility are two requisite aspects of any actual state of affairs. This
necessity at the heart of possibility is grounded upon actuality, which, in turn, is the key to
the modal structure of the transcendental. From within the transcendental perspective,
however, empirical modality is differently defined precisely because the transcendental is
seeking the necessary conditions for the possibility of objectively valid empirical judgments,
including judgments of modal relation, and it is to these that I will now turn.
In The Postulates of Empirical Thinking in General (A218/B265), Kant defines the
possible as that which “agrees” with the formal conditions of experience. These formal
conditions are just those forms of intuitions and concepts that concern the Transcendental
Aesthetic and the Transcendental Analytic, respectively. Whatever agrees with these formal
conditions of experience is, in other words, possible – it is a possible object of experience.
But, as I have mentioned, while for Kant such formal conditions are necessary for
experience, they are by no means sufficient and always require a set of corresponding
material conditions. Such conditions are met through the contribution sensibility makes to
experience, as that faculty which supplies the matter or material that the understanding

13
“works up” into a cognition that is constitutive of experience. Kant defines the actual, on the
other hand, as that which is connected [Zusammenhängt] to the material conditions of
experience. Moreover, that whose connection [Zusammenhangt] with the actual is
determined in accordance with “general conditions of experience” is (exists) necessarily so.
It is crucial to note that, strictly speaking, the material provided by sensibility is not
itself what is actual; rather, the actual is a determination or judgment connected to the
material conditions of experience. That Kant uses various forms of Zusammenhängt here is
insightful, for the connection that the material conditions satisfy so as to be actual is a certain
“hanging together” of sensation. This hanging together is the accomplishment of the three-
fold synthesis mentioned above, which, again, constitutes the transcendental condition of the
understanding by synthesizing the sensible manifold into perceptual unity. The important
point, however, is the way in which this hanging together is affected, namely, through the
spontaneous activity of the experiencing subject. This synthetic activity of the understanding
joins with the receptivity of sensation to produce the experience that is empirical cognition.
Thus, when the material of sensation connects or hangs together according to “the general
conditions of experience,” i.e., when the material and formal conditions of experience are
met, what results is a determination of the actual as necessary. Put another way, when the
material of experience hangs together with the form of experience accordingly, what is
experienced is, ipso facto, necessary. In this way, for Kant, what is necessarily is. The
necessary and the actual coincide precisely because the formal and material conditions of
experience each require the other and always occur simultaneously.
At this point, recall the distinctions mentioned at the beginning of this essay, namely,
those between the transcendental and the empirical, on the one hand, and between the formal
and the material on the other. While the faculty of sensibility supplies the matter that hangs
together so as to satisfy the material conditions of experience, recall that the correlative
distinction to the material is the formal. And, like the other distinctions, while it is very
tempting to take this distinction as being one of mutually exclusivity, I argued above that
they are strictly correlative and thus inextricably linked. But when this distinction is taken in
the former manner, i.e., as a mutually exclusive dichotomy, the result is that the formal is
taken to be non-material. Once this step is taken, however, the traditional metaphysical
problem of how the material and the non-material can interact is raised anew. This
interaction problem, or the problem of affection, is avoided altogether when the formal and
the material are seen as two aspects of an interdependent and coextensive whole. In this
sense, the formal is as dependent upon the material as the material is upon the formal. In a

14
certain sense, then, the formal is itself a type of materiality at least insofar as it is not non-
material; rather, the formal conditions that constitute the transcendental merely stipulate how
the material must be conceived so as to produce cognition, and not that the formal and the
material are in some radical way separate. This is because Kant’s transcendental distinction
is not between the material and the non-material, but between the material and the formal.
And as conditions they are separable, not separate.
A similar point can be made, moreover, for the distinction between the transcendental
and the empirical. The transcendental is not somehow beyond or outside of the empirical;
rather, the transcendental point of view is immanent from within, though not epistemically
dependent upon, empirical cognition. Put another way, because the actuality of the empirical
– qua objects and their relations as they are represented – is the necessary point of departure
for any and all cognition, it follows that if the transcendental is a type of cognition, then it too
takes as its starting point empirical cognition and, mutatis mutandis, the empirical point of
view. Importantly, then, while the transcendental seeks the formal conditions for the
possibility of the empirical, the conditions of materiality it takes as necessary are themselves
one aspect of those formal conditions. Materiality, in short, is a transcendental necessity for
any and all cognition. So whether the cognition is empirical or transcendental is irrelevant
here; the relevant point, rather, is that the transcendental itself establishes as necessary certain
conditions of materiality, which are neither equivalent to nor analogous with the more
specific material conditions of empirical cognition.
To better understand this point, it is important to note the way in which the concept of
the transcendental is tightly bound up with Kant’s larger philosophical framework of
transcendental idealism. Above all, this framework is epistemological, and thus the
conditions for the possibility of experience are epistemic conditions; that is, they are not
psychological (i.e., merely conceptual) or ontological or phenomenal conditions. When Kant
identifies a condition as a necessary one, he means that it is necessary for the representation
of objects or, alternatively, a condition without which our representations could not relate to
objects and therefore lack all claims to objective validity. In this way, things as they appear
are always taken as they are presented to knowers such as we are. Alternatively, things as
they are in themselves are those things considered apart from their epistemic relation, which,
obviously, cannot be known but only thought. As Allison points out, “this means that the
way in which sensibility presents its data to the understanding for its conceptualization
already reflects a particular manner of receiving it…which is determined by the nature of
human sensibility rather than by the affecting objects” (2004: 14-15). There are, then, not

15
two worlds – one of which we have access to through the appearance of things and one of
which we do not have access to through the noumenal nature of things – but rather these are
two aspects of the one world, the knowable features of which are appearances in accordance
with the possible objects of experience in general.
The crux of Kant’s idealism, then, is that the only world to which we have access is
always already mediated by our experience of it. There is nothing we can know outside of
our representations of the world. Everything knowable, indeed, everything experienceable, is
inextricably situated within the context of the active contributions that the understanding
makes to human sensibility. In this way, Kant’s transcendental idealism is not a substantive
philosophical or otherwise metaphysical doctrine; it is concerned, for example, neither with
the psychological status of objects as they appear nor with the ontological status of objects as
they are in themselves. Rather, Kant’s idealism is a metaphilophical position or method that
seeks to establish both the a priori conditions for the possibility of experience and the
necessary limits to cognition. This method is both formal and critical: it is formal in that it is
a position concerning “the nature and scope of the conditions under which objects can be
cognized by the human mind,” and it is critical in that it is “grounded in a reflection on the
conditions and limits of discursive cognition, not on the contents of consciousness or the
nature of an sich reality” (Allison 2004: 35-6). Kant’s transcendental idealism, then, is
proto-philosophical insofar as it provides the foundation for future philosophy by delimiting
the scope of its legitimate activity. And so any statement about things as they are in
themselves or noumenal, transcendental objects must be taken as necessary, technical terms –
as place holders, if you will – within Kant’s framework of transcendental idealism, and not as
making substantive claims about transcendentally real entities (Allison 2004: 73).
Thus it is clear why Kant situates his discussion of modality in terms of empirical and
not transcendental thought, to wit, because all cognition begins with experience and there is
nothing knowable or experienceable outside of experience. As Kant says:
There is only one experience, in which all perceptions are represented as in
thoroughgoing and lawlike connection.…If one speaks of different experiences, they
are only so many perceptions insofar as they belong to one and the same universal
experience. The thoroughgoing and synthetic unity of perceptions is precisely what
constitutes the form of experience, and it is nothing other than the synthetic unity of
the appearances in accordance with concepts. (A110)
There are two important points I would like to draw from this. First, in this passage it is quite
clear that the form of experience is constituted by the synthetic unity of perceptions. Through

16
synthesis, the material of perception and the form of experience are united in a mutual
affinity whose structured, substantive product is experience in general. Because the form of
experience, as that which makes possible conceptual understanding, is constituted by
perceptual appearances, the formal features of experience are not non-material, but are
material precisely in that they are constituted by the synthesis of material perceptions. So, in
short, the form of experience is as mediately comprised by the content of perception as the
content of perception is mediately comprised by the form of experience. The mediation of
form by content and content by form runs both ways, thus making each a strict correlate of
the other. They are, in short, co-constitutive of one another. Second, and more briefly, there
is only one experience and it is from within this experience alone that real determinations,
including determinations of modality, are possible. In this way, the modal categories of
possibility, actuality, and necessity are always categories connected to an empirical, and not a
transcendental, use.
In elucidating the Postulates, Kant emphasizes that the categories of modality are
peculiar among the categories in that they merely express a relation between the represented
object and the faculty of cognition (A219/B266). Thus, the relation expressed in the
categories of modality is an inter-systematic, epistemic relation that expresses how the object,
together with all its other determinations, is related to “the understanding and its empirical
use, to the empirical power of judgment, and to reason in its application to experience”
(A219/B266). As such, the modal categories are categories of empirical cognition, and thus
apply only to the objects and their relations as they appear in representation. For, as Kant
says, “the categories do not afford us cognition of things by means of intuition except
through their possible application to empirical intuition, i.e., they serve only for the
possibility of empirical cognition.” (B148). And from this, Kant says, it
follows irrefutably that the pure concepts of the understanding can never be of
transcendental, but always only of empirical use, and that the principles of pure
understanding can be related to objects of the senses only in relation to the general
conditions of a possible experience, but never to things in general. (B303)
As such, any possible experience must be related (or capable of being so related) to an
empirical cognition in which an object is determined through the material given by
perception (A176/B218). That is, because experience just is a cognition whose matter is
given through sensibility according to the formal conditions of the understanding – i.e., it is
empirical – it is not possible to have an a priori cognition of an object that is not a possible
object of experience (B166). And so without the contribution of sensible intuition, “the

17
categories have no relation at all to any determinate object…[and thus do] not have in
themselves any validity of concepts” (A246). But the categories, including the categories of
modality, are intended to have more than a merely logical significance, which would simply
express analytically the form of thinking, and are meant “to concern things and their
possibility, actuality, and necessity” (A219/B267). So while from the transcendental
perspective the categories do indeed function in a purely logical manner, from the empirical
perspective they function precisely as that which makes possible both experience and the
objective validity of judgments within experience. Here the importance of the status of the
transcendental premises returns, which highlights again the mistake made by those who
understand the conditions of transcendental arguments as merely conceptual conditions, to
wit, they would thus fall short of objective validity and thereby express the mere subjective
form of thought.
For Kant, transcendental concepts, and transcendental predicates more specifically,
always provide the rule for their own application. Empirical concepts and predicates, on the
other hand, always require a rule to be given from without, i.e., from the transcendental point
of view, so as to be applied to particular instances. So Kant intends the transcendental to
provide the necessary, a priori rules for the application of thought to reality, and thus mutatis
mutandis the standard by which cognitions can attain objective validity. In this way, the
transcendental functions so as to give empirical concepts their real, objectifying use; the
transcendental supplies the necessary framework in which empirical concepts have real, as
opposed to merely logical, application. So the opposite of objective, for Kant, is not
subjective; Kant’s objectivity is not a matter of inner ideas connecting up with outer objects
in the right sort of way. Rather, Kant’s is epistemological precisely because objectivity is a
matter of cognitions being susceptible to truth-values within this framework of criteria. Thus,
the opposite of objectivity is simply incapability of being judged true or false. Objectivity, in
short, is a standard of veridicality between subjects of equal cognitive constitution.
As predicates of any possible judgment, transcendental concepts function to provide
the necessary form through which any content whatsoever can be judged. And insofar as
they establish the general descriptive parameters under which an object can be a possible
object of experience, transcendental predicates are real, rather than merely logical,
determinations of objects (Allison 1994: 86). Thus, as concepts, transcendental predicates
are “nothing other than the logical requisites and criteria of all cognition of things in general”
and do not, as “the transcendental philosophy of the ancients” mistook them to be, belong to
the possibility of things in themselves (B113). Put another way, transcendental predicates are

18
not predicates of things per se, but are rather the formal, purely logical predicates necessary
for the possibility of things being represented as objects at all. So, crucially, transcendental
predicates should be used “in a merely formal sense, as belonging to the logical requirements
for every cognition,” and neither in a substantive, empirical sense, nor as belonging to things
as they are in themselves (B114).
As cognitions, modal determinations always involve the union of the faculties that is
necessary for experience in general, and thus are always and only expressions of a relation
within the understanding; they are not cognitions of the modality of things as they are in
themselves – cognitions are by definition unable to do any such a thing – but rather express
the modal relations obtaining between cognitions, from appearance to appearance. To
cognize the actuality of a thing, then, “requires perception, [and] thus sensation of which one
is conscious – not immediate perception of the object itself the existence of which is to be
cognized, but still its connection with some actual perception in accordance with the
analogies of experience, which exhibit all real connection in an experience in general”
(A225/B272).7 In this way, actuality is always an empirical cognition of actuality; actuality
is not a static thing, but always an activity of cognizing actuality. And the same goes for the
other modal categories as well, that is, they are always cognitions. Even the possible, which
must only agree with the formal conditions of experience, is a cognition if only because its
corresponding material is provided by the pure, a priori intuition of an object of possible
experience. So, because Kant defines possibility with respect to a certain conformity to rules,
that is, to the a priori principles of pure understanding, to determine the possibility of a thing
does not require an infinite regress through a series of empirical conditions, but “only the
progress from appearances to appearances, even if they should not yield any actual
perception…because despite this they would still belong to possible experience”
(A522/B550). In this way, the potential phenomenalistic construal of conditions I discussed
above is obviated by Kant’s transcendentally idealistic position precisely because “the a
priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same time conditions of the
possibility of the objects of experience” (A111).
Thus, from the transcendental point of view, modality is not “in the world” precisely
because the world is “in us,” insofar as it can be cognized. Rationality, in other words, is
always already implied through the form of sensible receptivity. There is no reality “beyond”

7
As part of the Principles of Pure Understanding, the Analogies of Experience provide the set of a priori
principles that determine “the laws of the unity of experience,” i.e., the “rules of all temporal relations of
appearances [that] precede all experience and first make it possible” (A494/B522 and A180/B222,
respectively).
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experience because, for Kant, experience is coextensive with the real. Again, because Kant’s
metaphilosophical framework is epistemological – and not metaphysical or ontological –
objective validity is grounded in the possibility of veridical judgments between subjects that
cognize in the same way. And because within the framework of transcendental idealism
cognition is always a cognizing of appearances, modal predicates always function in terms of
their empirical use. As such, the modal predicates of active judgments are always
determinations of an empirical cognition. All this is to say, again, for experience to occur it
must begin with perception or sensation; without this material point of departure there would
neither be sensible content nor conceptual form, since the two are inextricably linked and co-
constitutive. If this is so, and if the postulates of modality are nothing more than definitions
of the concepts of possibility, actuality, and necessity in terms of their empirical use, then the
operative modal notions in transcendental cognition must be something different altogether.
Given that the modal notions at work in the transcendental itself are not the
modalities Kant defines in the Postulates of Empirical Thinking, it is possible to begin
framing the different modalities operative within transcendental and empirical thinking. That
is, in asking about the necessary conditions for the possibility of experience, neither necessity
nor possibility is understood in the way Kant describes them in the Postulates, wherein
modality pertains to empirical thinking only, to objects and the relations between objects, and
to the whole of these representations as they are related within the active receptivity of
experience. This active receptivity is an undergoing, it is the experience of a particular
bipedal organism in time of time, and in the form of time that is itself a necessary condition
for the possibility of experience. In this undergoing, the forms of understanding and the
content of sensibility correlatively constitute the conditions for the possibility of experience.
This mutual conditioning of form and content is captured succinctly when Kant says, again,
that “the a priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same time
conditions of the possibility of the objects of experience” (A111). So within the architectonic
of Kant’s transcendental, objects and their relations are represented in experience only by
taking the necessary unity of their representation as the representations of objects. This field
of representation constitutes the scope of empirical thinking in which modality expresses the
relations between objects and the understanding.
As I argued above, the transcendental is entirely dependent upon the empirical insofar
as without the latter the former would have nothing into which to inquire. In this way, the
modality at work in asking about the necessary conditions for the possibility of objectively
valid empirical cognition is the ordinary, everyday sense of necessity and possibility, which

20
is a modality based within a framework of actuality. For Kant, this actuality is the actuality
of experience whose conditio sine qua non is the totality of material existence. From the
empirical to the transcendental point of view, the activity of transcendental cognition
involves thought moving back in upon itself, where reasons confronts itself at its limits,
moving from the actual to the preceding actual, or from what is to what must be, which is the
modal structure of the transcendental. Importantly, this does not involve a movement from
actuality to possibility in the sense of moving between two distinct modal categories; the
transcendental is not asking about what could be, but about what must be given what is.
Both, crucially, are species of actuality, and the “given” that joins these different forms of
actuality is not the “raw given” that so vexes epistemology, but is already a complex,
conceptualized experience of a certain state of the material world.
This division of the actual into the conditioned and the conditioning, moreover,
explains the possibility of the former through the latter. Thus, to pose the transcendental
question is to anticipate a certain type of explanation, the central feature of which does not so
much as require a past as it does a moment in which actuality is seized, a fact ascertained,
and an inquiry begun into its necessary conditional constituents. This moment, this place,
this experience is the necessary starting point of transcendental inquiry, and only from here
can one ask the transcendental question. So Kant’s transcendental conditions are, in one
sense, enabling and account for some fact positively insofar as they explain its conditioned
nature, while, in another sense, are limiting insofar as they critically circumscribe the bounds
beyond which knowledge cannot legitimately reach. But Kant’s critical limit is not a
boundary in the sense that some thing is beyond experience; there is, again, no given in the
sense of the “Myth of the Given,” precisely because such unconceptualized data for Kant is
always already conceptualized in experience, and is only analyzable into its constituent
aspects after experience is underway.
In this way, the operative modality of transcendental thinking is one wherein
possibility is determinable only with respect to actuality. More specifically, the
characterizations of the modes of being – i.e., possibility, impossibility, necessity, and
contingency – are all predicated upon material actuality. Kant intimates the structure of this
modality early on when he says of the synthetic a priori natural sciences that, “since they are
actually given, I can appropriately be asked how they are possible; for that they must be
possible is proved through their actuality” (B20). The specific content of this actual does not
concern me here – e.g., it does not matter whether it is a claim about sense data or the
meaning of a proposition, nor does it matter whether it concerns the possibility of

21
communication, belief, language, or even the possibility of present experience – because I
merely wish to indicate the way in which the modal notions guiding transcendental inquiry
are grounded within a framework of actuality. This actuality is, in the end and above all, a
material actuality, the experience of a subject in a world limited by the forms of possible
experience.
Through the structure of transcendentalism, Kant gives depth to experience, but this
depth is epistemic only; behind the fact of cognition and experience are conditions that create
the possibility for cognition and experience, and these conditions are epistemic, not
ontological or material or conceptual, conditions. Through his thoroughgoing idealism, Kant
establishes that there is but one knowable world, namely, the world of appearances, beyond
which the understanding cannot legitimately reach. This world of appearances, as Deleuze
notes, is more aptly characterized as a world of appearing, which is not to say that it is a
world where objects are mere semblances, or seemings (1984: 8). In the Aesthetic, Kant
explicitly rejects the thought “that bodies merely seem [scheinen] to exist outside me…[For]
it would be my own fault if I made that which I should count as appearance into mere
illusion” (B69). Rather, these appearances are real, objectively valid, and, when taken
together, constitute nature itself. Thus, for Kant, “nature is nothing itself but a sum
appearances,” the combined totality of possible representations and their relations, and the
unity of this totality can only be cognized by that “radical faculty of all our cognition,”
namely, the transcendental (A114).
In the end, however, the transcendental cognition of the unity of all appearances –
that is, the cognition of all of nature – serves only as a limit to experience in general and does
not offer a positive, substantive possibility for a complete knowledge of the world.
Appearances, for Kant, are in the world only conditionally, and “the world itself is neither
conditioned nor bounded in an unconditional way” (A522/B550). Thus the world, from the
transcendental point of view, has both conditional boundaries and unconditioned grounds,
both of which are epistemically determined within an actual, material world. It is in this
sense, then, that there is a material condition to the transcendental question. The
transcendental is not a denial of materiality, but is precisely a recognition of the material as a
necessary condition for the possibility of experience. And so, because empirical cognition in
the form of experience is a necessary condition for the possibility of the transcendental, and
because the actual, material contribution of sensibility is itself a necessary condition for the
possibility of the empirical, it follows, in turn and in due course, that the material is the
condition without which the transcendental could not be.

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Förster, Eckart. (1989). “How are Transcendental Arguments Possible?”, in Reading Kant:
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