The question is inspired by the comments of this answer by @PédeLeão and I think it deserves a question of its own to have room for clarifying this.

Possible candidates

Kant, in German, has pretty (although not 100%) consistent three levels of abstractions in the analytics of the first critique, while each subsequent level includes the more concrete. They are hard to show on primary text without walls of quotes and lurking through all of the (B-)deduction. Any papers discussing them in English for sourcing them would therefore be appreciated:

1) Gegenstände der Erfahrung (objects of experience), which are not only possible, but also objectively real, as given a corresponding intuition through our senses. They are therefore sources of (empirical) knowledge.

2) Objekte überhaupt (objects in general), which are at least possible (can be thought without contradiction), no matter if they are actual objects of experience, or mere objects of thought, i.e. wether they have corresponding intuitions or not.

3) Gegenstände überhaupt (english: objects in general, but dstinguished for Kant!), which are objects of reference in general, no matter if they are actual or even possible.

I beg to keep in mind that the term "objects in general" may occur for each of them, depending on the translation.


What kind of "objects" (may it be "Gegenstände" or "Objekte") are the categories applicable on (not necessarily also determined by)?


The question should be answered for Kant's theoretical as well as practical philosophy, as the conclusion might end up differently for them.

1 Answer 1


Objects of Experience

As noted by a number of authors, Kant's use of Gegenständ and Objekt is not entirely consistent, but generally speaking, the word Objekt is the more general of the two terms, and Gegenständ usually refers to specific instances of objects. That being the case, Gegenständ is used almost without exception when referring to the intuition of objects, objects of experience and, consequently, the objects to which the categories apply:

"In Cognition, its Application to Objects of Experience [Gegenstände der Erfahrung] is the only legitimate use of the Category." (Critique of Pure Reason, B146)

"Now all intuition possible to us is sensuous; consequently, our thought of an object [Gegenstände] by means of a pure conception of the understanding, can become cognition for us only in so far as this conception is applied to objects [Gegenstände] of the senses." (Critique of Pure Reason, B146)

"That is to say, the categories serve only to render empirical cognition possible. But this is what we call experience. Consequently, in cognition, their application to objects of experience [Gegenstände] is the only legitimate use of the categories." (Critique of Pure Reason, B146)

However, the following reference to the intuition of objects seems to be an exception:

"Apperception and its synthetical unity are by no means one and the same with the internal sense. The former, as the source of all our synthetical conjunction, applies, under the name of the categories, to the manifold of intuition in general, prior to all sensuous intuition of objects. [Objekte überhaupt]" (Critique of Pure Reason, B153)

The more general word Objekte is often used for the objects of concepts. Given that concepts refer to objects in general — i.e. as a general reference to various objects or to various experiences of a single object, the usage of Objekt is well suited to the idea:

"It is by means of the transcendental unity of apperception that all the manifold, given in an intuition is united into a conception of the object. [Objekt]" (Critique of Pure Reason, B139)

The following is a good explanation of the differences between Gegenständ and Objekt:

"A Gegenstand can be understood as that which is given in the intuitional manifold 'prior to the synthesis of understanding and independently from it' (B145) and thus as an object of experience simpliciter — that is, an object that is experienced (because it is given in sensibility) but not necessarily cognized by the understanding. [...] It can thus be aligned with the 'blind' intuitions that are without concepts at A51/B75. An Objekt, on the other hand, is that which is more robustly 'objective' since it reflects Kant's innovative standards of objectivity. In other words, it can be characterized as that which results from the understanding synthesis of the intuitional manifold and thus as an object of knowledge sensu stricto — that is, an object of experience cognized by the understanding." (D. McWherter, The Problem of Critical Ontology: Bhaskar Contra Kant, p. 18)

Things in themselves

When Kant is speaking of objects as they are independent of our senses, he often distinguishes them by speaking of them as things in themselves rather than as objects. He makes it clear that the application of the categories to things in themselves is inadmissible. He refers to such applications as transcendental as opposed to the legitimate empirical application to objects of experience:

"A transcendental use is made of a conception in a fundamental proposition or principle, when it is referred to things in general and considered as things in themselves; an empirical use, when it is referred merely to phenomena, that is, to objects [Gegenstände] of a possible experience. That the latter use of a conception is the only admissible one [...]" (Critique of Pure Reason, A237/B296)

However, Kant sometimes refers to things in themselves as objects. In the following, he speaks of the impossibility of applying the categories to them, referring to them as Gegenstande:

"If, therefore, we wish to apply the categories to objects [Gegenstände] which cannot be regarded as phenomena, we must have an intuition different from the sensuous, and in this case the objects [Gegenstand] would be a noumena in the positive sense of the word. Now, as such an intuition, that is, an intellectual intuition, is no part of our faculty of cognition, it is absolutely impossible for the categories to possess any application beyond the limits of experience." (Critique of Pure Reason, B307)

Here's another example, in which things in themselves are spoken of using Objekt:

"In this case there remains a mode of determining the object by mere thought, which is really but a logical form without content, which, however, seems to us to be a mode of the existence of the object in itself [Objekt an sich] (noumenon), without regard to intuition which is limited to our senses." (Critique of Pure Reason, A289/B345)

Can Kantian categories only be applied to objects given by the senses?

Yes. I don't think there's any real debate about that. Throughout the Critique of Pure Reason, one of the principle themes which Kant maintains is that the proper application of concepts is limited to objects of experience. If that weren't the case, all his arguments against the paralogisms in the Transcendental Dialectic would lose their force. He refers to them as paralogisms precisely because such arguments employ the transcendental use (A341/B399) of concepts which, for Kant, are illegitimate:

"Our purpose is to speak of transcendental illusory appearance, which influences principles—that are not even applied to experience, for in this case we should possess a sure test of their correctness—but which leads us, in disregard of all the warnings of criticism, completely beyond the empirical employment of the categories and deludes us with the chimera of an extension of the sphere of the pure understanding." (Critique of Pure Reason, A294/B350)

  • In the text about things in themselves there are some misunderstandings going on, including that the second quote does speak of Vorstellungen, which are the Gegenstände of inner and outer sense as he uses it, indicated by his words on the forms of corresponding intuitions, which make no sense for things in themselves. Comments too short to adress other points. What is missing as well is the consideration of the question in the practical philosophy, which would relativate the last part.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 10, 2016 at 21:58
  • @PhilipKlöcking. After rereading that particular quote, I believe you're right - I'll edit it when I get a chance. However, I don't see how I could be mistaken in general; Kant made himself pretty clear on this matter. As far as his practical philosophy, I have no interest in pursuing that, so you'll have to seek your answer about that from someone else.
    – user3017
    Jun 10, 2016 at 22:21
  • I think ignoring the fact that Kant evolved writing the critiques number two and especially three, defining the place of his first critique in the system and adressing loose ends, makes it impossible to fully understand the first critique. Not to speak of the numerous reformulations, clarifications and extensions of the very same thoughts and arguments even included in almost every work up to his Anthropology. After all, every critique of him is epistemology and theoretical. I will soon come up with an answer of my own in order to show that he hasn't made himself clear enough, obviously.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 10, 2016 at 23:01
  • @PhilipKlöcking. Thanks for pointing out my error. I got it fixed with a new quote.
    – user3017
    Jun 11, 2016 at 1:15

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