In the following passage, I am not sure if I understand Kant.

I do not cognize any object merely by the fact that I think, but rather I can cognize any object only by determining a given intuition with regard to the unity of consciousness;-in which all thinking consists. Thus I cognize myself not by being conscious of myself as thinking, but only if I am conscious to myself of the intuition of myself as determined in regard to the function of thought. All modi of self-consciousness in thinking are therefore not yet themselves concepts of the understanding of objects! (categories), but mere functions, which provide thought with no object at all, and hence also do not present my self as an object to be cognized. (CPR, B406)

Here are my understanding of the problematic parts.

"By determining a given intuition with regard to the unity of consciousness."

I think that would happen by applying the forms of sensibility and understanding, rooted in the unity of consciousness, to a given intuition. Right?

"Thus I cognize myself not by being conscious of myself as thinking, but only if I am conscious to myself of the intuition of myself as determined in regard to the function of thought."

I wonder how exactly the intuition of myself could be determined in regard to the function of thought. Would that consist in applying the categories to the act of self-thinking or self-consciousness?

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    As in the end of your above quote Kant's conclusion is all kind of self-consciousness in thinking are mere empty functional thoughts without object, which by the way is consistent with and had been known as the 7th Manas (Mine) consciousness before the 8th Alayer consciousness in Yogacara long before Kant since ancient. Therefore you cannot apply the categories to the act of self-thinking or self-consciousness at all otherwise it'll be a category error since again the intuition of oneself as an object cannot be provided by them, not to mention determined in regard to the function of thought... Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 7:56
  • @DoubleKnot, Thank you. So then, am I right in thinking that the category error only holds based on Kant's principles, i.e. the assumption that cognition of an object can only take place by intuition going through the forms of cognition? Now does the error hold, if we postulate that the categories are products of the act of self-consciousness revealing its own intrinsic conditions, i.e. substantiality, unity and hence immateriality via self-reflection? Maybe this demands a separate question.
    – infatuated
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 11:42
  • Of course you can do so to resolve the Kantian category error, however, the illusionists would deny self-consciousness if exists has any real substantiality or unity. As quoted in your OP, the unity of consciousness Kant mentioned above is not a property of self-consciousness but the usual cognitive consciousness containing his categories... Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 23:04
  • @DoubleKnot, Yes. But it sounds quite arbitrary to assume consciousness somehow contains a bunch of categories with no significance or use for its own nature. You can ask why do all minds have these categories in the first place if they are not a reflection of intrinsic features of mind itself?
    – infatuated
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 17:15
  • This question bears a critical juncture for physicalistic representational illusionists who just stop here metaphysically and yogis who would further refer to the 8th Alayer all-inclusive consciousness which contains neither Kantian categories nor self-consciousness. Biologically physicalists could further invoke evolutionary process and our numerous necessary simultaneously distributed underlying non-unitary subconsciousness to explain the seeming unity of the categories are only promoted by the prefrontal cortex global workspace to concentrate on one problem at a time as some error theory... Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 19:08

1 Answer 1


Let's go through it sentence-by-sentence:

  1. The first sentence asserts the reliance of thought on intuition (and so on content necessarily being externally given to judgement by sensibility and so on judgement always being mere act of combination/synthesis of already present manifold of externally provided contents). It says that mere thought (without intuition being given) doesn't suffice to cognize an object (cognizing = thinking some object contenfully, i.e. thinking a real, not merely a formal-logical, possibility) and so all knowledge is due to "determining a given intuition with regard to the unity of consciousness" which is a fancy way of saying: subsuming objects of intuition under concepts in judgement (at the very beggining of the Transcendental Deduction Kant says that judging is bringing some content into the unity of apperception/consciousness ...which sounds difficult and smart but is actually almost a tautology; it's just saying that judgement = minimal unit of independently comprehensible thought). Kant here asserts his formal idealism.
  2. The second sentence constitutes infers ("Thus...") from the previous one that the impossibility of cognizing oneself, as an object, just by thinking - without the givenness of a sensory intuition of the relevant object (being ourselves, whatever we are). The fact that thought is self-conscious, that it's unity comprehends itself to be unity not only of judgements, concepts, intuitions etc. but for the same reason: of self-consciousness, that a judgement, an application of concept or a following of a rule is only a judgement, an application of a concept or a following of a rule as far as it comprehends itself to be it (think of Kripkenstein's rule-following "paradox"), is insufficient for saying that one knows oneself as an object just by thinking anything, exactly because no actual, contentful, empirical object, per formal idealism, is thought unless it is also an object of our sensory awareness (of either inner and outer sense). This is, as I hope you can see, a trivial conclusion of the previous fragment.
  3. In this last fragment, again, thinking as such, without the givenness of an intuiion, should be contrasted with knowing something empirically in concreto. Kant here discusses what is involved in the self-consciousness that is present in just thinking at all, regardless of the object of our thought. The fragment itself is quite straightforward once we understand what Kant means by function here. It can be conceived as such: the function that gives unity to various representations (cf. B131) is the unity of consciousness as I think, the emptiest of all representations. It only expresses emptily, analytically the prior synthetic unity of thought, it's the empty form of a self-conscious thought. It says merely, because it must be able to accompany all of our intuitions, that all our representations, including intuitions (although they have another source from the Understanding which is being causally affected by an object), have the very same conceptual shape, i.e. can be brought under one unity of thinking. The Kantian terminology of course obfuscates this a great deal but it immediately shows why this function is not a category - categories are various aspects of the synthetic unity - they're for a reason derived from various forms of judgement (remember what I said about judgement when discussing the first sentence) - whereas the function of unity is just an empty, analytic unity which is a mark of the prior synthetic unity. The point of this last sentence is that thinking such an empty unity does not involve even thinking (without cognizing) any objects. The use of the form 'to be cognized' expresses exactly the fact that it's not at all a question of whether an intuition is given of the object if it will be cognized, because this 'function' is so empty that it doesn't expect any object to cognize.

There is a passage (B422-423; footnote) from the Transcendental Dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason that sheds some light on this discussion. Emphasis are mine.

The "I think" is, as has already been said, an empirical proposition, and contains within itself the proposition "I exist." But I cannot say "Everything that thinks, exists"; for then the property of thinking would make all beings possessing it into necessary beings. Hence my existence also cannot be regarded as inferred from the proposition "I think," as Descartes held (for otherwise the major premise, "Everything that thinks, exists" would have to precede it), but rather it is identical with it.' It expresses an indeterminate empirical intuition, i.e., a perception (hence it proves that sensation, which consequendy longs to sensibility, grounds this existential proposition), but it precedes the experience that is to determine the object of perception through the category in regard to time; and here existence is not yet a category, which is not related to an indeterminately given object, but rather to an object of which one has a concept, and about which one wants to know whether or not it is posited outside this concept. An indeterminate perception here signifies only something real, which was given, and indeed only to thinking in general, thus not as appearance, and also not as a thing in itself (a noumenon), but rather as something that in fact exists and is indicated as an existing thing in the proposition "I think." For it is to be noted that if I have called the proposition "I think" an empirical proposition, I would not say by this that the I in this proposition is an empirical representation; for it is rather purely intellectual, because it belongs to thinking in general. Only without any empirical representation, which provides the material for thinking, the act I think would not take place, and the empirical is only the condition of the application, or use, of the pure intellectual faculty.

  • Thank you. With this super-clarified, I think my critique of the critique is reaching clear conclusions. Kant first reduces knowledge to a narrowly defined concept of intuition (which excludes self-consciousness), and then concludes that a pure/abstract act of cognition involved in self-consciousness is not true knowledge. Emptiness he contends is a mark of non-cognition whereas on a different account it can be exactly the justification for concluding an "immaterial" soul "empty" of determinations of matter but still able to permeate it as in production of synthetic knowledge.
    – infatuated
    Commented Mar 22 at 16:40
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    @infatuated By invoking (1) and (2) Kant simply says that it would've been impossible to say that the empty "I think" requires some object, because it would require the empty function which denotes the simple unity of thought to require something that thinking itself cannot involve, i.e. reference to an intuition: "all modi of self-consciousness in thinking are therefore not yet themselves concepts of the understanding of objects". But Hegel rejects Kant's formal idealism and still praises Kant for his critique of rational psychology in the Paralogisms. Commented Mar 22 at 17:09
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    @infatuated But Hegel would say that Kant's view, which confuses thought for a mere form of thought, is still superior to the Descartes-Hume tradition which confuses thought for an object (cf. Hegel's discussion at the very beggining of the Encyclopedia). Kant's main argument, as expressed by (3), that Descartes confuses the simple unity of thought (in the analytic tradition it's sometimes called "unity of the proposition") for unity of an object still holds, even if you reject formal idealism. Commented Mar 22 at 17:13
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    @infatuated Anscombe argues against the 'I'-referentialist position in her "The First Person". I encourage you to check it out. Commented Mar 22 at 17:18
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    @infatuated I edited my response to include a reference to a passage in the Transcendental Dialectic that might be potentially illuminating. Commented Mar 22 at 22:51

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