I have a basic understanding of Kant's philosophy which revolves mostly around how human mind synthesizes valid knowledge, that is, the forms of understanding unifying perceptions, and forms of sensibility conditioning sense data, etc.

But from what I have read, it appears to me that Kant has totally ignored questions about the nature of the mind. Well, maybe I have missed the point of Kant's philosophy because he actually argues how any purely rational ontology, including that of mind, consists in "transcendental application of the categories" hence an invalid intellectual business. But I still can't see why the following questions may be invalid: how do pure concepts come to be in the first place and what do they tell us about the nature of mind?

A question about the genesis of those concepts may be directed to Kant's stuff on how they are deduced from forms of judgement, but my question is deeper: how can there be any pure concepts considering they are unlike anything in the sensible world? Are we born with them? Or do they magically appear in our mind once we form our first judgements during infancy? What do the fact that such concepts occur in our mind at all tell us about the nature of our mind?

  • In one sense, "how do pure concepts come to be?", sounds like asking to apply empirical category of causality to inscrutable noumena, a category error. In another sense, how we master our mind's inherent faculties, historically and developmentally, is a matter for empirical science and not Kant's business. "What do they tell us about the nature of mind?" Quite a lot, that we possess discursive intellect split into sensibility and understanding, transcendental unity of apperception, etc. But we simply infer the "nature" from how mind ideally functions, that is orthogonal to its "genesis".
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 11:21
  • @Conifold Thanks but are pure concepts an instance of noumena in Kant? I can't see why they must be considered inscrutable. If mind has a developmental origin and not inherent inborn qualities which must sound obvious, that alone can and must raise interesting metaphysical possibilities like there being some mysterious supernatural origin for consciousness that inspires the mind with the said categories somewhere along the development process.
    – infatuated
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 12:36
  • They are not, but the noumenal self that they "come from" is. You misunderstood. Mind, as in Kant's "transcendental subject", does not have developmental origin, evolutionary conceptions of this sort do not appear until Hegel. It is what it is, all that happens historically and developmentally is mastering what is always there. This mastering is a contingent empirical appearance with zero metaphysical import, it cannot answer "how" in your sense. There are no metaphysical possibilities and supernatural mysteries, all of that is illusory, a misapplication of categories to noumena.
    – Conifold
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 13:12
  • @Conifold Thank you again for the reply. Yes, evolutionary thinking emerges after Kant. But I was not critiquing Kant only on his own terms, but on what we may know about mind from other sources/periods. You mention that the historical evolution can only "master what is always there". If I have understood you correctly, I can still ask what was the thing that has always been there? I guess you'd say it's mind as the noumena. But you (following Kant, it appears) do not to allow any further inference ("scrutiny"), like why do you or Kant just assume that the noumenal mind has always been there?
    – infatuated
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 13:27
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    Though sourcing from the free-floating imagination, it by no means the fundamental form of Kantian time as a thinking thing could be arbitrary idiosyncratically otherwise there's really nothing to measure and philosophize about human mind, and never ever would Yogis be possible at all. OTOH its corresponding physical time (duration) needed to complete a thought is an empirical matter due to evolution and other contingencies. But more or less for a same species they're similar, and the ancient yogis Vasubandhu described all hungry ghosts saw water as fire and a moment as almost eternity... Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 21:23

1 Answer 1


This is an excellent question. It is hard to give an exhaustive answer, given that Kant combines in his writings both strictly empirical considerations and some more a priori concerns and discusses a manifold of topics, like the questions of free will and determinism, rational agency, intentionality, explanation in psychology, self-knowledge, language, symbols, the mind-body problem, Bildung, the status of the 'I' (Kant says it's not a referring expression) and the problem you're interested in, i.e. the genesis of the mind from nature.

There have been many significant works on the topic. The most significant works concerning these issues are, of course, the first and the third Critiques and Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view. Patricia Kitcher's works, Kant's Thinker and Kant's Transcendental Psychology, I know to be good. I, however, will focus on Jennifer Mensch's account from the book Kant's Organicism (although only in very broad terms).

The problem you notice, of the incommensurability of reason and nature, is, in fact, acknowledged by Kant himself as the Third Antinomy, of spontaneity and causal necessity. This antinomy is often misunderstood as corresponding to what we would today call the problem of free will in a world of determinism. Although Kant indeed is a determinist in a very strict sense, his problem is not one of compatibility of physical, causal explanation to freedom. He considers them from the very beggining incompatible, as the structure of causality is determination by an external factor, i.e. if X, then necessarily Y, whereas spontaneity, or thought, has the structure of self-determination by its own internal principle. The Third Antinomy expresses this fundamental tension which causes Kant to affirm a dualism in the second Critique.

In the third Critique this dualism is dissolved in the notion of internal teleology (or life; in contrast with external teleology whereby the purpose of some thing is distinct from its own principle, ex. the purpose of writing a book is not internal to the book but is determined by the intent of the author). This structure Kant claims (in contrast to the later German Idealists) to be only heuristically valid, because it involves causal structures which are excluded by Newtonian physics, but nevertheless provides a way to make intelligible in a non-dualistic way the relation between freedom (spontaneity) and nature. It is unsurprising that Kant is drawn towards organic metaphors (in relation to unity of apperception and reason) even in the first Critique. At B167 he uses the term "epigenesis of reason" which quite clearly indicates his organic understanding of the development of reason.

In what sense, however, does Kant understand the development of reason to be analogous to a biological process? Life, just like reason, constitutes a structure of self-determination which develops according to its own internal principle. In this way, reason's development must always be a self-development exemplifying a teleological structure. But the connections run deeper. At A835/B863 Kant claims that a system of knowledge has the structure of an organism which develops organically according to an idea. Thus, the development of human knowledge in history, although each step is marked with imperfections, exemplifies a tendency towards self-purification and systematic unity which is already implicit at the previous stages of the process (hence, epigenesis).

This doesn't of course constitute a naturalistic or semi-naturalistic account of genesis of thought. These will be elaborated by Goethe, Schelling and Hegel in their philosophies of nature. However, that this became a topic for the German Idealists shouldn't be seen as a surprise, as these problems are already, as I hoped to show by answering your question, implicitly present in Kant's reccommendationn us to think about reason in biological terms.

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