Following this question; given that Kantian Categories are required to sythesise Concepts and for the conditions of experience; does this mean that we are born with them?

  • Good question. Since according to Kant categories are the only way to make sense of phenomena, not just us but anything capable of learning must have them. So I am guessing yes.
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 1:46
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    My answer to that basically answers this question as well. No, we are not born by any rational concept including Kantian Categories. Rational concepts emerge from conscious distinction between sensual phenomena which in turn takes place after adequate sensual experience by the infant which usually takes months.
    – infatuated
    Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 5:07
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    I wonder if the premise, that categories are required to conceptualize, is not a given. If consciousness can subsume experience - which it clearly does as the "self" can think about and research the nature of its own thinking - then categorical underpinnings are moot. Consider, how could Kant arrive at seeing categories as a priori unless he could get behind / above them, as it were? Just because Kant's semi-objectification excluded thinking as priori in his analysis (concepts of concepts) does not mean the process of observation requires definition to work. He anthropomorphized experience. Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 0:44
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    So, what constitutes 'mental manipulation'. If you want a clear external vision of your own instincts as a precondition for thought, then most four-year olds don't think. But I see them trick me, and I resent being dumber than something that does not think.
    – user9166
    Commented Sep 23, 2014 at 17:07
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    Related: Förster in *The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy, p. 127, explains why Kant thinks that judgements of tastes are understood as being universal and refers among others to 5:219. Essentially the story is that beauty is the fruitful and animating interplay and accordance of imagination and understanding (two faculties every finite rational being shares!). Same faculties means we can presuppose that others share this feeling. This implies the supposed identity of faculties to a certain extend (by Kant himself) and could easily - as a faculty - be described as "we are born with them".
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 15:21

4 Answers 4


Some categories, like the notion of quantity that underlies space and time, have to be inborn, or the remainder could not possibly gain traction.

We do not learn that time passes, we have already experienced it doing so before we leave the womb. An unborn child shifts in its sleep in response to its mother's posture, so it is already dealing with space and time and thus the category of quantity.

A baby cries when you scare the breath into it, (to the extent that people still do that) so it has a notion of (pain, and therefore pleasure and therefore) beauty and the underlying category of quality.

Something has to exist as a seed for meaning to accumulate around, and Kant has attempted to isolate the most minimal kernel for that seed. So the categories, and quite a bit of instinctive correlation around them clearly enter the mind before birth.


I do not mean to beg the question here, or to misleadingly affirm the consequent. Clearly that we are born with these things can be established without establishing that that phenomenon proceeds from our premise in any way.

And I am only saying that a few of the categories Kant believes in need to exist for the very young.

A category is that which can be asserted of any thing, regardless of what it is, regardless of what you are. From that definition, for me, the question hinges on the necessity of asserting things, when you are a foetus, or a baby.

I am saying that things like 'I have fallen on my arm, and I would be more comfortable if it moved.' are in fact asserted by foetuses, if only unconsciously, as they do move their arms. And given that very minimalistic example, I am challenging whether anyone can imagine beginning to acquire knowledge from a position where nothing would ever need to be asserted in this sense.

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    – Joseph Weissman
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 20:22

Truth (the idea causing correspondence between words and what words portray), which relates to categories, is certainly a priori knowledge, otherwise children would not be able to learn to speak.

  • That's a good point but the question still stands, are they born with it as the ability emerges several months after birth?
    – infatuated
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 18:12
  • "Being born" with a priori Truth does not mean, when babies emerge they have it. That is not the idea of a priori. A priori refers to knowledge, all humans have, naturally. Other talents people are born with, like ball sense or musical talent are, in my view, currently, not a priori knowledge, which refers to something all humans get. The meanings of words are not most important, because, without a doubt, all people do not acquire the same view of quality, a priori, which was one of the categories of Kant Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 19:57
  • I know what the idea of a priori in Kant means. In fact I have very extensive views on the relation between human cognition and his biological evolution. However the OP is specifically asking whether we are born with Kantian categories. Your answer doesn't address that.
    – infatuated
    Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 2:20
  • I assume the question was meant absolutely literally and did not consider rebirth. Probably a priori knowledge is inborn because at animals, i.e. beavers build dams naturally; instinct is inborn. Some similarities between animals and humans exist, therefore "probably" without knowing for certain, in this case. Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 7:58
  • Maybe relation is inborn. If a new born baby is naturally un-attracted to some people and attracted to others, it could mean relation was a priori inborn. Commented Sep 10, 2017 at 8:06

No. We are born into a priori circumstances and operative conditions (Kant's 1st Critique is sitting on the shelf), but we are not born with these understandings at birth. Rational thought and understanding require language, which we acquire later. Agree that infants begin to learn some of the basics of causality very quickly, but it is through experience, in conflict with the a priori definition.

[Wittgenstein reference added]

My philosophy of language bias shows in my answer, underscored by Wittgenstein: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" Tractatus, 5.6 (1921). Prior to any means for recording or understanding concepts as made possible by language, the fetus and newborns mentioned have fairly limited room for rational introspection. Moreover, I think any insight gained is a posteriori, i.e., after they have experienced something (a fallen arm, etc.). At the earliest of developmental stages, prior to any language, all they truly have to go on is experience.

[Phil.SE re: Chomsky reference added]

Here is a related 2014 site post by some of the same participants in this thread: Is Chomskys universal grammar synthetic a priori?.

Based on these inputs, but in line with my previous arguments, I'll argue further that it seems grammar can be used to represent an analytic judgement (X is Y, or X means Y, or X inheres in Y) representing Kant's form of understanding, whereas an associated synthetic judgement (X relates to Y, or X causes Y) are instances of the realization of knowledge itself, converting analytic understanding to synthetic knowledge. This process I believe can be called synthesis (as used by Descartes, Fichte, Kant).

As we unpack this, I see the role(s) of grammar emerge from Kant's 4x3 categorical framework, with an ability to describe both analytic and synthentic judgements. Like grammar, Kant's classes play similar roles as adjectives, nouns and verbs. If it is done prior to any experience (as with math/geometry), it is a priori, or pure. If not, no harm, it is simply an empirical pursuit.

I may not have this fully sorted out as yet. I am still learning Kant and Chomsky. But I truly think these arguments move us closer to Kant's epistemic intention, with some modern day semantic/analytic support ("role of grammar") from Chomsky's UG.

  • To clarify: It is correct that we are born with them in the sense that they are modes of the synthesis of intuition, it is wrong that we are born with them as concepts. Ability yes, concept no.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 22:12
  • -1: I'd go along with Klockings clarification; this is what I was essentially asking about. Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 4:12
  • But it's unsurprising that the gist of the question wasn't caught, as the question was short and ambiguous; I'd probably say born with, as opposed to born into. Commented Dec 17, 2015 at 4:20
  • Ok, I suppose I should defer, but I did some more digging, and found Noam Chomsky had some ideas on this (attributing the ability for inductive reasoning to newborns .. and kittens, by the way). @MoziburUllah do you find the language argument as a prerequisite for understanding and deductive reasoning not a factor in this?
    – sourcepov
    Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 4:36
  • @sourcepov: keep digging... Commented Dec 18, 2015 at 4:47

Is this question about Kant or about innate capacities?

I have absolutely no idea how Kant might deal with an idea like "being born," and I do not see an answer here, though I personally would be very interested to see one.

My own naive understanding is that Kant was setting out the preconditions of any "rational being." We might even add, whether "born" or not.

It is unclear, at least to me, whether "birth" is to be considered "experience" or perhaps an amphibian a-priori-posteriori transition. One can image Hegel dealing with this, but not Kant.

This is very interesting, I believe, from a feminist perspective, in that philosophy does a very poor job of sorting out universal human conditions like "in utero" or "being born."

I would like to hear more on this. The great challenge posed by Kant is that we cannot, I believe, simply turn the categories into "instincts" or Chomsky's presumably embodied categories.

To me, "being born" with "Kantian categories" really mixes or "materializes" incommensurable perspectives, effectively discrediting idealism. And it would be good to settle this incommensurability in some way.

  • "And I don't see an answer here" - neither do I. Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 17:53
  • Yes, I should be posting a question rather than an answer. But my implied "answer" is that the question seems to mix terminologies in a way inappropriate to Kant's theories. The categories are logically "prior to" physical processes, such as birth. We may reinterpret them as instincts, but they are no longer "Kantian categories." I sort of agree with @sourcepov that "born within" might be better, since "born with" could imply their dependence on a particular physical process. Still, I agree it's good question.... raising the idea of an "in utero epistemology." Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 18:09
  • Thanks @NelsonAlexander, you picked up on my train of thought. I am taking 'understanding' literally here, which perhaps is dangerous with Kant, but think "Pure Categories of the Understanding" still means an act of rational thought. You need words for that, I think. Newborns simply have experience, coupled with genetically inherited motor responses: hot/cold, pain/comfort (their "need to move my arm" trigger), hungry/not hungry ..
    – sourcepov
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 18:54
  • Especially like your idea @NelsonAlexander of spawning question(s) from this one, especially if they further prompt implications of Chomsky. Researching this question prompted a deeper dive on him than I'd taken before, and his deep or universal grammar is fascinating ..
    – sourcepov
    Commented Dec 19, 2015 at 18:56

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