Objects can indeed appear to us without necessarily having to be related to functions of the understanding. (A89/B122)

Appearances can certainly be given in intuition without functions of the understanding. (A90/B122)

Appearances might very well be so constituted that the understanding would not find them in accordance with the conditions of its unity…. [and] in the series of appearances nothing would present itself that would yield a rule of synthesis and so correspond to the concept of cause and effect, so that this concept would be entirely empty, null, and meaningless. Appearances would none the less present objects to our intuition, since intuition by no means requires the functions of thought. (A90–91/B122–123)

How is Kant here justifying the proposition that there do exist intuitions without understanding?

For example, we may consider a dream, from which when we wake up we realise it was not real because the unity of all categories needs to be preserved by experience. However, even inside the dream, I think of permanent substances and cause-and-effects applied to appearances. It just so happens that later this gets 'destroyed' by another cognition (in this case, waking up). I can simply say that I considered the dream as a 'dream' just to fit the narrative to preserve my Unity. Nevertheless, Kant has still not given an example of pure appearances, i.e, intuitions where concepts have not been applied by us.

Moreover, if he cannot do that, why does he have this distinction between understanding and intuition at all?

  • 2
    Why does he need to justify something that, under his terminology, is a direct observation? An example of raw intuitions can not be "given" for the simple reason that anything talked or written about of necessity has to be already dressed into concepts. But concepts are defined as rules of synthesis, so they better have material to synthesize. Friedman has a good discussion of the role the concept/intuition dichotomy plays in Kant's architectonic globally in Parting of the Ways.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 10:26
  • 2
    If not, there would be no clear-cut difference between passive (receptive) and active (spontaneous) faculties, hence we could just as well produce the contents of our perceptions and all there would be is solipsism without objectivity. Since he speaks about the necessary conditions for the possibility of our experience - the experience that there really is an apple, it can fall down, has taste, etc. - it only makes sense. The second part is how he rules out that objects are given spontaneously. That's in his rejection of idealism (B edition) which was added in part to reject this possibility.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 10:33
  • Isn't this almost axiomatic if you set out to refute idealism? That's how I justify the lack of justification itself. Basically, you can come into contact with the real without forming any concepts in the mind. Otherwise concepts would be innate and you would need a Platonic mechanism to remind yourself ie. knowing something for the first time would be impossible.
    – meguli
    Commented Jun 20, 2020 at 21:27
  • Yes if you 'set out' to refute idealism, this is a necessary route to take. However, Kant cannot take that position before developing his investigations. I understand through historical context that Kant had a purpose in mind - to refuse Hume's skepticism. However, his investigations should be scrutinized independent of his project, because otherwise it's biased. He cannot develop a theory to disprove idealism, he just should investigate and form conclusions wherever it leads him. I personally don't like this way of creating concepts by philosophesr. Looks biased to me (yes, I am from STEM). Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 11:19
  • Edited because the three quotations presented repeat the token 'understanding', and the connection between 'understanding' and 'concept' are a philosophical problem in and of themselves.
    – J D
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 15:57

5 Answers 5


The only answer I could muster after reading various positions on this is, that it is contested.

There are two forms of interpretation - conceptualist and non-conceptualist. Former thinks Kant cannot establish that there do exist such intuitions, and therefore the difference between concepts and intuition is merely that of difference in the working of them. The latter, of course, does think that Kant is saying that humans do have a cognition (used here in the broader manner) of appearances lacking in concepts.

Both of them cannot be justified by looking into the CPR only, Kant in my opinion does not do justice to this doubt (as far as I know, at least).


There are multiple levels in which concepts fall short in determining and embracing intuition.

  1. There are sensible representations that are unconscious, "obscure", no appercieved (this is inherited by leibniz's petite perception), yet they are given sensible representations. This is the strongest case of a sensible representation without a concept for it. Of course, even here, this representations are susceptible of being appercieved and even determined by judgment but, as I hope I'll show, intuition can be given without concepts in the sense that there can be undetermined experience, i.e. unknown things can be experienced.

  2. Something we don't know happens, for example, a "sercio" hits you, you do experience the sercio hitting you but you have no idea of what a sercio is, still you have a sensible representation of it "that hard thing that hit you".

  3. Now of course you can go on and study the "sercio", discovers its physical and chemical properties. By then you will have a better knowledge of the "sercio". Still, something of a contingency will remain and your concepts will never embrace and determine the "sercio" completly because of the multiplicity of sensation. The only way to have complete knowledge over something would be to build such a knowledge from top to bottom (intuitive knowledge) but human empirical knowledge is in it's constitution from the bottom up, and as such always lacking the first principle of determination (the inner determination) of the thing in question.

So there you have three perspectives under which intuition is non conceptualized. 1) it's not appercieved, 2) it's undetermined 3) it's undeterminable. You can of course think of it, which means that is part of experience and as such the process of conceptual determination is legitimate. Yet that can't win the overabbundance of multiplicity of intuition, which is coessential with it not being the product of a subject.

  • Hello, and welcome to Philosophy.SE. I honestly think that you are facing a severe misunderstanding here, at least when it comes to Kant: The moment that you know that something hit you, there are the concepts of being hit and probably trajectory etc. involved. The same for fever. Generally, indeterminate concepts are still concepts, they in fact only receive determination through immediate intuitions. The question has much more depth to it than you give it credit for.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 15:04
  • Thanks @PhilipKlöcking. I just want to add to that. In the literature I reviewed subsequent to posting this question made me arrive at the two interpretation of transcendental idealism, i.e, conceptualism and non-conceptualism. Conceptualism posits that we cannot congnize anything without concepts of understanding, whereas, non-conceptualism posits that we can cognize objective appearances without concepts, only that they do not have true/false value (since they cannot make up a judgement). Also, welcome to the philosophy stack exchange and thanks for the answer. Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 17:14
  • Moreover, the debate cannot be, in my knowledge at least, established by Kant's own position - since he is incredibly contradictory here. In some passages his definition of cognition is broader than the others. He does, however, as I quoted above, state that appearances do exist without concepts. Now, this for me is because he wants to establish 'sensibility' as being affected by 'sensations'. The distinction bw concepts and intuition is to me, a conceptual one only. They have different forms of representations and this is why Kant separates them, but that's about it. Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 17:19
  • @RajanAggarwal The point many commentators seem to ignore is the structure of the overall argument: While he first seeks to firmly establish that receptive sensibility and spontaneous understanding are both separate and necessary faculties, he later goes on to clarify that one cannot produce empirical knowledge without the other. Both are fundamentally different, yet blind/empty without the other because they both contribute necessary input to veridical perception (ie. empirical knowledge).
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 17:37
  • 1
    @RajanAggarwal While I agree that CPR is assumptive at times, one has to take into account that most of what is leading to this thesis has already been established in his dissertation years before the publication of CPR, and that he tried to compress nine years of hard thinking into one book here.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 17:42

For Kant, intuitions do not mean only one thing. For instance, every sense-datum that is received by the faculty of sensation (Sinnlichkeit) is directly called an 'empirical intuition' (empirisichen Anschauung). In the form of empirical intuitions, they are not yet appearances, for in order there to be an appearance, empirical intuitions have to be 'molded' under pure intuitions, firstly by space (Raum) and then time (Zeit). Only then they would become appearances (Erscheinungen). However, these appearances necessarily go under the categories of the understanding (which I believe what you meant with concepts are categories) in the faculty of understanding (Verstand). Therefore, whether they are the products of imagination (Einbildungskraft) or empirical intuition which is received from the thing-in-itself (Ding an sich), there is nothing in mind which does not get molded by the concepts.

  • Sure, I understand the theory, I was looking for a justification. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 12:46
  • I guess he does not explicitly give a justification on this account. He just states that this is the way it is :)
    – Ece
    Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 12:50
  • I mean that'd be very odd because he gives quite tedious explanation and justification for every little single thing and sometimes I feel like he doesn't even need to justify somethings lol. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 15:31

Kantian intuition is a mental 3D-image of a particular object. Like that chair in the living room. After it made a few appearances from different sides, you can close your eyes and enjoy the view of its intuition suspended a few feet above the floor and slowly rotating counterclockwise.

I'm sure Immanuel Aspergerovich would have explained it in his own words... Actually, I'd rather not be taking any chances, so... yes, concepts!

A concept of a chair doesn't pertain to any chair in particular (yeah, you can put that one down). In fact, the concept is not of a chair, but of chair-ness. That's why we cannot visualize the concept itself (we have no use for it consciously, and it's probably huge and scary). If we need to use an abstract char in simulation, we can use the concept to quickly instantiate an inner intuition of one, usually in hot pink leatherette and green stars on it.

Also, I found this treasure -- an actual Kantian-English lexicon, and it looks extremely decent.

  • 1
    Your answer seem to be more about the difference between intuition and concepts in terms of particulars and universals. I was actually looking for a defense of Kant's claim that there are indeed intuitions without concepts. I would ask, can there be any chair without 'chairness'? Can there be any 'appearance' without 'concepts'? Commented Jun 7, 2020 at 12:43
  • oh ic... in that case, the answer is no -- empirical concepts are created and maintained automatically (subconsciously)... the moment you see a chair for the first time, you create a concept for it.. or maybe the first intuition is also a concept Commented Jun 7, 2020 at 19:53
  • from then on, every time you encounter a new chair object, your mind will a) create an intuition of it, and b) integrate that intuition into your concept of a chair Commented Jun 7, 2020 at 19:56
  • in fact, that's what a neural net is fundamentally about, that's how it processes and stores new experiences -- by integrating them into concepts Commented Jun 7, 2020 at 19:57
  • Hmm. So why does Kant say that intuitions can exist without concepts in animals or non-rational humans. Is he justified in saying that? Commented Jun 8, 2020 at 5:46

I would have just placed this in a comment, but the comments are spilling over. I am probably missing something here, but I just don't see the problem. Kant does seem to use "intuition," "understanding," and "concept" in evolving ways, but I don't think, for starters, "understanding" and "concept" are interchangeable.

Intuitions that are unmediated sensations already contain, or are formed within, space and time, sort of primitive concepts. But certainly they can be perceived without being connected into judgments, which is the active task of "understanding" things and compiling knowledge.

The reverse is not possible. We can't have "empty" concepts without some material to conceptualize, or at least they provide no knowledge. But we can and do have "blind" intuitions, as animals or infants might, and even react, to a flash of pain maybe, without then adding a predicate, knitting together concepts, and forming a judgment. This latter is a human/spiritual faculty or set of faculties, not, in Kant's thinking, a property of sentience.

The example of your dream, of course, is loaded with overactive concepts mauling misplaced intuitions. But when we read a book, say, we may have an unmediated representation of the white paper under the letters, but we aren't engaging that whiteness with concepts, until we write about it, that is. As I say, maybe I'm missing something here, which I often do.

As to why he doesn't collapse intuition and understanding, well then he sure wouldn't be Kant. It is essential that he both interrelates and distinguishes them to answer "how a prior synthetic concepts are possible," which is more or less to answer how scientific knowledge is possible.

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