Transcendental idealism

From Academic Kids

Transcendental idealism is a doctrine founded by 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant which was influential in much subsequent German Philosophy. Despite this influence, it is a subject of some debate amongst 20th century philosophers exactly how to interpret this doctrine, which Kant first describes in the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant distinguished his view from contemporary views of Realism and Idealism, but philosophers are not agreed upon what difference Kant draws.

Transcendental idealism is occasionally identified with formalistic idealism on the basis of passages from Immanuel Kant's Prolegomena although recent research has tended to dispute this identification. Transcendental idealism was also adopted as a label by Fichte and Schelling and reclaimed in the twentieth century in a different manner by Edmund Husserl.


In The Bounds of Sense, P.F. Strawson suggests a reading of Kant's first Critique which rejects most of the arguments, including Transcendental idealism. Strawson views the analytic argument of the Transcendental Deduction as the most valuable idea in the text, determining Transcendental idealism to be a great but unavoidable error in Kant's system. In this traditional reading (also favored in the work of Paul Guyer and Rae Langton), the Kantian term phenomena (literally something that can be seen from the Greek word phainomenon = observable) refers to the world of appearances, or the sensible. The necessary preconditions of experience, such as space and time, are what make a priori judgments possible, but all of this only applies to human sensibility. Kant's system requires the existence of noumena to prevent a rejection of external reality altogether, and it is the absurdity of this concept (senseless objects of which we can have no real understanding) to which Strawson objects in his book.

Henry Allison

In Kant's Transcendental Idealism, Henry Allison proposes a reading in opposition to Strawson's interpretaton. Allison argues that Strawson and others take Kant too literally in discussing a world of phenomena, making the doctrine of Transcendental idealism seem untenable by assuming that Kant oscillated between two different concepts of "appearance." In Allison's reading, Kant's view is better characterized as a two-aspect theory, where noumena and phenomena refer to aspects of a single reality, and thus Kant is an ontological monist. It is the discursive character of human sensibility rather than epistemological humility that Kant asserted.

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