I had understood 'transcendental' to be religiously inspired terminology and in fact exclusively so, so it came as a surprise to me that it had a philosophical side to it - as a term it was introduced into philosophy by Kant.

Was transcendental used prior to Kant to denote the divine realm, that beyond the human etc or did this religious meaning of the word develop after Kants adoption, in which case was it actually a neologism of Kants?


This is probably a misunderstanding. In German, "transcendent" and "transcendental" are not the same. Kant's philosophy is transcendental, not transcendent. In German, this really makes a difference. Transcendent philosophy is what Kant criticises, i.e. empty talk about things we can't know because they're beyond our reason. His philosophy, on the other hand, isn't - transcendental means "grounding the possibility of knowledge and experience a priori".

Other than that, I'd say there is no point in dividing a concept so old into philosophy and theology - a book I have here (it's in German, otherwise I would quote) says it's been used in ancient Greece and later by St. Augustine, who used it in the context of knowledge, to mark the ascent from one level of knowledge to a higher one. This probably makes it both, a concept theological and philosophical.

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    Ok - I can see the difference. It does raise the question as to why Kant uses transcendental in this way. It's so evocative of religious mysticism that his use is bound to lead to misreadings. Jan 31 '13 at 15:13
  • @MoziburUllah Yes, in this respect I totally agree.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 31 '13 at 15:14

Transcendent was a concept first used in religion. A transcendent god is a god that is completely outside and beyond the world (e.g. Christianity and Islam) and is contrasted with an immanent god (e.g. pantheism).

Transcendental is a concept first used in Medieval philosophy for reality that was beyond the Aristotelian categories.

Kant used transcendent for knowledge that goes beyond the categories of human reason, but used transcendental for all knowledge occupied, not with objects, but with the way that we can possibly know objects even before we experience them (i.e. a priori knowledge).

  • No, I am sorry, but that is simply wrong. Kant calls his own philosophy "transcendental", in a book that discusses what we actually can now, namely the categories of our mind etc. Transcendental philosophy, as Kant uses the term, is philosophy that is devoted to the "conditions of possibility of having knowledge a priori".
    – iphigenie
    Jan 31 '13 at 13:58
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    @iphigenie you are right (again). Thanks for correcting me.
    – Ben
    Jan 31 '13 at 14:10
  • @iphigenie:So his transcendental philosophy is a kind of epistemology? Jan 31 '13 at 15:36
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    @MoziburUllah I find your question a tiny little bit irritating - yes, absolutely, what else would the Critique be? He turned Metaphysics into a huge epistemology project.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 31 '13 at 16:16

Interesting discussion, but it is further evidence of many shortcomings which have impoverished Kant scholarship for too long. What is being assumed here is that Kant is really just a First Critique Kantian, but he wasn’t. Kant’s transcendental philosophy is much bolder than conventional wisdom has it. I take Kant at his word when he claims to be working out a CRITICAL philosophy, not just writing a First Critique, Categorical Imperative, constructing an epistemology, or whatever. You cannot read the First alone, but especially not without the Third and his popular essays which are too often ignored! The power of determinate judgments (Pure Reason) presupposes reflective judgment. Reason and Understanding are both forms of determinative judgments where particulars are subsumed under universals. Therefore, they both serve a legislative function. But in the case of reflective judgments, universals are the domain of all possibilities. Subsumption really entails the exhausting of all possibilities into the actuality derived in the domain of action.

It is absurd to assume that of the human cognitive powers (understanding, reason, judgment, imagination) only some have an independent legislative function because they ALL do. The focus of the First Critique is the subsumption of particulars under universals—when a predicate determines its subject, which is not that interesting from the standpoint of logic. But the Critique of Judgment (1790) investigates when a subject determines the predicate or when a particular goes in search of a universals, which is a hallmark of aesthetic judgments of taste! There Kant explains imagination as this “free-play” of reason and understanding through reflective judgment. It is our mediating power of imagining possibilities that might not even exist. It is having the possibility of reflecting upon possibilities which is required as a prerequisite for us to have ANY objects of cognition or engage in acts of the will. The first critique deals with the relationship between judgment and understanding; 2nd critique pertains to the power of reason in relation to judgment; 3rd critique analyzes the relations between reason and understanding in comparison with judgment. Reason is the experience of enlivening the body; Understanding pertains to the cognizing of experience or an empirical object; Judgment is the power of subsumption. Judgment brings the relation of the three together in such a way as to facilitate action, which have ends always in mind. Reflection is putting the possible before the actual. Transcendental philosophy takes this “reflective turn” and asks what within the domain of the possible is actually necessary. It can be done in two ways: 1) negative elimination of the possible and acting on this; 2) looking for the forms or acts of every actual moment will lead us to the domain of possibilities (e.g. space and time).

This doesn’t give us knowledge regarding the intrinsic constitution of these forms but are the conditional circumstances of our experience. Transcendental philosophy seeks to uncover the invariant aspects to the process of understanding, which presents objects of cognition according to the sensible manifold. The understanding is a process of synthesizing the sensible manifold according to the “lawful character” of natural processes. An element of judgments regarding our subjective constitution has a domain of universality. Subjective universal is the involuntary feeling completing an act before it even occurs because of given anticipatory structures within the domain of reflective judgments. Within the entire domain of action there is always some element of freedom because of putting possibilities in front of actualities for consideration. This is the function of reflection within the domain of the will, reason, and understanding.

Kant’s view of imagination develops and continuously changes such that it would be wrong to say he has a fully worked-out, consistent theory from his pre-critical writings to the Third Critique. One can be suspect of Kant’s theory because of this weakness where the cognitive power of judgment needs to be worked out in relation to the imagination. So the critical philosophy’s presentation of the imagination as an interaction with the possible as being unstable, weak, inconsistent, and misguided in its incompleteness; it appears to be arbitrary at times and challenges the legacy of Kant’s iron-clad architectonic. The 3rd Critique gives us the power of imagination as it works with the possible in terms of how judgment uses imagination in order to employ the possible. The imagination works from the whole to parts, while the understanding and reason whether of sensible or intelligible schemata works from the discrete parts to a scrambling of the whole. The crux of imagination is our ability or power to appropriate the “possible” which adds to and helps inform what is “actual” in experience.

For Kant, the difference between pre-critical and critical writings is the difference between putting actuality before possibility and vice versa. Kant makes a wild claim that no one can think about anything which is possible through the actual. In fact, human cognition comes by way of arriving at the actual by the domain of what is possible. Reason is that energy (possibilities) by which we are moved to act everyday according to Kant. I am alive by having concrete possibilities before me and acting on them by making them actualized concretely. This is a reversal of ancient and medieval traditions. Necessity is held as merely a subset of the possible which is the basis of the Kantian revolution of metaphysics and logic in the Western tradition of philosophy. We work from what could be possible to what happened by necessity, so it is the subject that is determining the predicate. That is what I take Kant’s transcendental philosophy to represent in its entirety.

Kant’s immediate contemporaries knew this and respected it! So what prevents us today from showing the same respect to one of the greatest philosophers of all times? I recommend Ernst Cassirer’s superb intellectual biography entitled, Kant’s Life and Work for this more expansive, organic reading.

  • This seems like a well thought-out and well-reasoned answer, but it doesn't seem that this actually answers the question asked, Is 'Transcendental' originally a philosophical concept or a theological one?
    – stoicfury
    Jul 15 '14 at 18:57
  • @stoicfury: no, but he is pointing out a wider perspective in which to orient oneself within Kants philosophy in the context of European philosophy; and that is worthwhile; as Iphigenie pointed out the border between philosophy and theology is porous. Sep 13 '14 at 3:31
  • Yes I saw that which is why I community-wiki'd it because it is still useful nonetheless. :)
    – stoicfury
    Sep 15 '14 at 18:57

I have to disagree with Ben that the religious concept preceded the post-Aristotelian use of transcendental for concepts "above" the Aristotelian categories. The incentive for concepts like "Being", "One", "Good" being "above" the Aristotelian comes from post-Aristotelean philosophers like middle and late Platonists, who disagreed with Aristotle that the concept of being had to be restricted to the Aristotelian categories. Christians would later embrace (or at least spend a lot of time arguing) the idea that God is "One", "Being", and "Good", like Plotinus' "One."

Middle Platonists, by the way, predate Christ and Muhammad. Perhaps (I can't really speak to this) one can find formulations of a transcendental God in Eastern Philosophy prior to Greek Philosophy, and perhaps in the Jewish tradition. But in the west, I think it's the fight between Aristotelians and Platonists that gives rise to the concept of a "transcendental" philosophy.


Schopenhauer is a good source for answering this question:

Transcendental is the philosophy that makes us aware of the fact that the first and essential laws of this world that are presented to us are rooted in our brain and are therefore known a priori.

This is only half of Kants new notion of synthetic a priori; he himself asked are there such things. The synthetic half of this notion relates to the world of experience. Here we see already a tension between the two halves of this notion - they contradict each other.

It is called transcendental because it goes beyond the whole given phantasmagoria to the origin thereof. Therefore, as I have said, only the Critique of Pure Reason and generally the critical (that is to say, Kantian) philosophy are transcendental.

Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume I, "Fragments for the History of Philosophy," § 13

He describes Kants philosophy as transcending the dogmatic (ie theological) philosophy of early 19th Century Germany.


With Kant the critical philosophy appeared as the opponent of this entire method [of dogmatic philosophy]. It makes its problem just those eternal truths (principle of contradiction, principle of sufficient reason) that serve as the foundation of every such dogmatic structure, investigates their origin, and then finds this to be in man's head.

This notion of 'going beyond' he also calls 'critical'; it attacks the 'eternal truths' that have grounded for example the philosophy of Leibniz.

Here they spring from the forms properly belonging to it, which it carries in itself for the purpose of perceiving and apprehending the objective world. Thus here in the brain is the quarry furnishing the material for that proud, dogmatic structure.

Arguably placing such basic categerical considerations in the mind as space and time does not deny them a reality; but Schopenhauer disagrees - in part it seems because it attacks the 'proud, dogmatic structure'.

Now because the critical philosophy, in order to reach this result, had to go beyond the eternal truths, on which all the previous dogmatism was based, so as to make these truths themselves the subject of investigation, it became transcendental philosophy.

Again he confirms the origin of transcendental in Kants philosophy as transcending basic and eternal truths such as the law of contradiction.

From this it follows also that the objective world as we know it does not belong to the true being of things-in-themselves, but is its mere phenomenon, conditioned by those very forms that lie a priori in the human intellect (i.e., the brain); hence the world cannot contain anything but phenomena.

The World as Will and Representation, Vol. I, Appendix: "Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy"

The 'objective world as we know it' is phenomena; this aligns with Schopenhauers philosophy: Will to Representation is the Noumenal to the Phenomenal.

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