In this comic, the fictional Immanuel Kant talks about investigating David Hume's "An Inquiry Concerning Human Reason". Hume, in that work, argued that we only see two things happening in sequence and cannot derive causation from that alone. The comic summarizes Kant's counterargument as

To understand anything, you need certain ideas before observation

Such as unity, plurality, existence, nonexistence, and even causation

I don't understand his reasoning as given in this short summary. What did Kant actually say about observation and causation?


The argument is given in the Second Analogy, and is very convoluted. There are competing reconstructions by Guyer and Friedman, see Watkins's Kant and the Metaphysics of Causality, p.203 or Kitcher's Kant's Transcendental Psychology, p. 174. More broadly, "the project of the Analogies is to show that we can apply temporal concepts to objects—we can assign them determinate places in time—only if we can apply the concepts of substance, cause, and community to them", according to Kitcher. Here is Kant himself:

"In our case I must therefore derive the subjective succession of apprehension from the objective succession of appearances, since the former is otherwise entirely undetermined and distinguishes no appearance from any other. The former [succession] alone proves nothing about the connection in the manifold, because it is entirely arbitrary. The latter [succession] will therefore consist in the order of the manifold of appearance according to which the apprehension of the one [state] (that which happens) follows on that of the other (which precedes), according to a rule... It is therefore only in respect of a rule according to which appearances [objects] in their succession, that is, as they occur, are determined by the preceding state that I make my subjective synthesis (of apprehension) objective, and it is only under this presupposition that the experience itself of something that happens is possible".

In psychological terms (which Kant would likely reject) and very roughly, he argues that since perceptions do not come with time stamps attached causality is needed to arrange them in the "right", "objective" order. Hence causality is the "condition of possibility of the unified experience in time".

Like all of Kant's "transcendental arguments" this one is not a deductive argument, but an analysis of an apparent problem followed by a clever suggestion on how to solve it. But no matter how clever the resolution, there is no way to establish that it is the only one possible (something Fichte will vehemently deny later for his transcendental arguments, explaining the alternatives arrived at by others by their lack of "philosophical genius"). Here is Kitcher's summary of why the argument falls short of Kant's goals:

"In the Second Analogy, Kant discovers a truly puzzling fact about human cognition. States of affairs do not wear temporal locations on their sleeves and all our perceptions are successive, so how do we tell when we are observing succession in the world? Kant's transcendental psychology is sound in laying out the problem, but is he right in the claim he most wants to establish, that the recognition of temporal position depends on interpreting the world causally? Here, as in the case of the Euclidean nature of spatial perception, his positive suggestion is less compelling than his basic account of the task. Although we must have some way of making temporal determinations, "the" way may be an aggregate of many ways.

There is an obvious logic to Kant's suggestion. We need a mark or symptom of succession in time, and since effects follow their causes, establishing causal relations would do the job. However, there appear to be other low-level and high-level ways to accomplish the same task. At the lower level, the discovery of motion detectors suggests that we need not appeal to the contents of states at all... We also appear to make temporal judgments by tacitly appealing to ordering principles that involve content but not causal relations... Arthur Melnick offers a recent version. He suggests that we can be directly aware of succession because two states of affairs could succeed each other in the "specious" present."


(I have to say that JohnAm is totally correct, just a bit too compact. So I am going to lean in the opposite direction and oversimplify.)

Kant's general approach to things is 'transcendental idealism'. That means that there are ideal forms behind the physical world, but they do not make any sense if totally separated from it. They do not form it and it does not cause them.

A Platonist or someone like Berkeley might think that the patterns of causation we see are part of our mental world because the mind builds the world and imposes various forms of expectation upon it. To some, this implies the physical world is a little less than real.

A total non-idealist physicalist might think that we learn the notion of causation by observation. But as Hume points out, that does not seem quite possible once you look closely enough.

Kant's compromise (which kind of prefigures evolution) is that innate mental contents and reality meet in the middle. There are certain notions that are necessary to understand reality. 'Just enough' of that is built into us by construction. But then those built-in assumptions are triggered by exposure to our particular reality.

We cannot learn that causation is a possible relation between things, no matter how much we observe. But given the seed of that idea, we can readily learn what in particular causes what else, at least to the degree it really matters.

If anything, we do so 'too well', as we often ascribe causal connections that are complete illusions. This is part of the argument against pure idealism. If the mind imposed causation, in the form of projected will, or the Will of God, we might miss some causal relations, but we would be unlikely to assume nonexistent causes as often as we do.

  • Platonist or someone like Berkeley might think that the patterns of causation we see are part of our mental world I'm wondering if we cannot say the same thing for Descartes inMeditations when he addresses the "bad genius" (mauvaise genie in French translation). Is it right? – kouty Feb 21 '17 at 6:38
  • Not necessarily. Dualism does not necessarily allow causation in inanimate matter to arise from ideas. He goes the exact opposite direction from Kant, making the two perspectives 'separate but equal', instead of integrating them. Kant finds this unacceptable because he 1) does not see how they can work together if they are as separate as would be required by Descartes, and 2) does not consider them anywhere near 'equal', with the mental world being 'more real' in way that we just can't understand because our capacities are tuned for surviving physical reality. – user9166 Feb 21 '17 at 16:30

Kant's specific argument, as to the role of causation in observation, was that we need knowledge of causation in order to fix objective time relations. We can tell, by mere sensing and memory, what goes on before what in our raw sensory experience. These are subjective time relations. But how do I find out about objective time relations, which I don't experience subjectively? Kant answers: by considerations of cause and effect.

I am only conscious, then, that my imagination places one state before and the other after; not that the one state antecedes the other in the object. In other words, the objective relation of the successive phenomena remains quite undetermined by means of mere perception.

Now in order that this relation may be cognized as determined, the relation between the two states must be so cogitated that it is thereby determined as necessary, which of them must be placed before and which after, and not conversely. But the conception which carries with it a necessity of synthetical unity, can be none other than a pure conception of the understanding which does not lie in mere perception; and in this case it is the conception of "the relation of cause and effect"...

It follows that it is only because we subject the sequence of phenomena, and consequently all change, to the law of causality, that experience itself, that is, empirical cognition of phenomena, becomes possible; and consequently, that phenomena themselves, as objects of experience, are possible only by virtue of this law.

Kant gives the following example, as to how the experienced time relations fall short of determining the objective time relations. I move my look across a house that stands before me. I receive a temporal sequence of changing sensations. But the object itself does not change, and hence is involved only in time relations of permanence (and these, I do not perceive).

For example, the apprehension of the manifold in the phenomenon of a house which stands before me, is [subjectively] successive. Now comes the question whether the manifold of this house is in itself [=objectively] successive—which no one will be at all willing to grant.

(*) The quotations are from the Critique of Pure Reason, Second Analogy


Kant tried to bridge the gap between pure idealist and pure emprical positions. He thought that human according to their categories in their mind, build image with pure sensation coming from outer World.

What I understand from the comic, if there was no universal maxim in the mind of human, no one believes each other and the lying is pointless and no one would know there would be lying or not. This last statement is contradict so there is a universal maxim in the mind of human. But the thing is that there is real causation outer World or not we do not know. Bu there is some category of causation which is syntetic apriori (developed later) in human mind. Because no one would know it if there is not any causatio category.

  • Please note that you can edit your posts. This is not a forum, so you don't need to add a new answer if you want to add information. I have merged the answers for you now. – user2953 Jun 21 '17 at 14:55

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