What's the difference between 'überhaupt' and 'allgemein'?

I'm still not fully in the grasp of what Kant exactly mean when he uses 'überhaupt' and 'allgemein'. In German, these are completely different terms which are translated in the Cambridge Edition as "in general" and "general".

One example is the following excerpt:

Space is not a discursive or, as is said, general concept of relations of things in general, but a pure intuition. Critique of Pure Reason, B39

In German:

Der Raum ist kein diskursiver oder, wie man sagt, allgemeiner Begriff von Verhältnissen der Dinge überhaupt, sondern eine reine Anschauung.

I would love to know how Kant defines 'überhaupt' and 'allgemein', and the difference in nuance between these two terms.

Since English isn't my native tongue, please bear with me if my grammar is incorrect.

  • 3
    It would support your quest greatly if you'd specify the context in which you encountered your problems of distinguishing these terms. A cursory answer might be that "überhaupt" generally means "as such", i.e. essentially, whereas "allgemein" [general] usually is used in the juridical sense of "[valid] without exception". The former is an assertion about the concept whereas the latter is an assertion about empirical instantiations (which might, and here the confusion may arise, be derived from conceptual considerations). – Philip Klöcking Oct 14 '20 at 12:30
  • Thank you for helping me out. To be specific, for example, in B39-40, Kant writes "Der Raum ist kein diskursiver oder, wie man sagt, allgemeiner Begriff von Verhältnissen der Dinge überhaupt, sondern eine reine Anschauung." and it is translated in Cambridge edition as "Space is not a discursive or, as is said, general concept of relations of things in general, but a pure intuition. " Although I understand it cursorily, both 'allgemeiner' and 'uberhaupt' are translated as 'general'. – T S Oct 14 '20 at 23:50
  • This is off topic but I also wonder what the diffrence between 'Dinge' and 'sache' is. Is there any good book, or maybe dictionary, where I can learn the exact definition of Kant's use of words? – T S Oct 14 '20 at 23:56
  • See my answer for the German dictionary. Again, an example would help, but generally "Ding" is a possible object of experience (with the notable exception of "Ding an sich", which is not a thing at all, see 21:75), whereas "Sache" is a physical thing which can be possessed and has to be distinguished from persons - again, a juridical understanding of the term. To further complicate things, there is "object", which is a possible object of thought (wider than thing, which is of possible (sensual) experience). And Kant being Kant, he does not use these consistently, see Corresponcence, 10:272 – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '20 at 8:38

I would deem the translation misleading, to be honest. There are no definitions, really, this is simply a technical usage of language which is historical. That's why it is hard to pin down any sources discussing this as well, it is simply taken as a given.

On "XXX überhaupt" (XXX in general/as such)

There is one hint available in Ottfried Höffe's German commentary Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft: Die Grundlegung der modernen Philosophie:

Da es in keinem der vier Raumargumente um einen näher qualifizierten, etwa dreidimensionalen Euklidischen Raum geht, hätte Kant statt von Raum besser von Raum überhaupt oder von Räumlichkeit gesprochen. (Höffe 2004: 87)

My translation:

Since none of the four arguments about space is further specified as being about, for example, three-dimensional Euclidean space, Kant should have talked about space as such [Raum überhaupt], or spatiality [Räumlichkeit], instead of [simply talking about] space.

This suggests that Kant uses (or should always use, to make himself more clear) the suffix "überhaupt" - which I would, therefore, translate as "as such" (a more nuanced discussion of this choice can be found below) - to distinguish between particular understandings of a term and assertions about the concept itself in its most general meaning.

[Personal note: While Höffe is technically not wrong, any other than (relative) Euclidean space was not conceivable at that time afaik. It is questionable whether "Raum" is as ambiguous as he suggests here]

On "allgemein" (general)

I am sure there are sources for this as well, but I am short of having the time to track them down atm:

Kant studied law, which as a huge impact on his usage of language, e.g. in "deduction". The same applies for "allgemein" [general], which usually means "valid without exception" or "in all (possible) individual cases/instantiations, this holds". Which, in turn, can be a form of abstraction when the concept of something is built from these general truths about particulars.


Since the terms are closely related, I understand that they are translated similarly as in general/general, but I, personally, would prefer "as such" and "general". I know that this clashes with "an sich" - as such - which means "its being as it really is", but at this point, it conveys the meaning best. In general is simply too weak since it can just as well mean "usually", which runs contrary to what the German term actually does convey. Another option would be 'itself', ie. space itself, but this again has connotations of referring to the being rather than the idea/concept.

That being said, the former term (überhaupt) means that we make an assertion about the concept in the most abstract meaning, the very idea and core of the concept itself, whereas the latter (allgemein) means that we make an assertion about particulars or something built up from/derived from particulars. Of course, something that holds for the concept itself also holds for the particular instances and something that holds universally for all particulars will be part of the concept, but still, the scope of the assertion is different, and so is the structure of any justification for it.

In your example, he is speaking about a general (discursive) concept of space (see CoPJ §77, 5:407), i.e. a concept which is an abstraction of a whole derived from universal truths (truths without exception) about particular "relations between things". It would subsume the particular understandings of what is a "relation between things", i.e. be about relations between things as such (überhaupt). Instead, he insists that what he is speaking about is a pure intuition (albeit said concept of space certainly exists as well, it is just not what he is talking about here, so he discards it completely to avoid misunderstandings, which invites obscurity since he does not further explain why he discards it so vigorously although it is closer to our normal understanding of terms).


Generally, the extensive Kant-Lexikon by Markus Willaschek et al. is a good place to go for terminological questions on Kant if you can read German. I am sure I have a copy somewhere, but wasn't able to find it for the moment being.

  • Thank you so much!!!! I'll keep on studying to understand it further!! – T S Oct 15 '20 at 9:15
  • P.S. just ordered the Kant-Lexikon! – T S Oct 15 '20 at 9:30
  • @TS Firstly, 350€ is a lot of commitment for understanding Kant, great :D, secondly, if you find an answer to be useful, please cast a positive vote by clicking the arrow up and, if it is sufficient in content and quality, use the tick to accept it. Both can be found at the upper left of each answer. – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '20 at 9:39
  • May I ask you one more qustion? When you said that Kant studied law, were you implying Rousseau? (the term Gemeinwille came to my mind) – T S Oct 18 '20 at 16:50
  • @TS He definitely read Rousseau and discussed his concepts, but what I meant at that moment is that he studied law as in to the point he could have become a lawyer. – Philip Klöcking Oct 18 '20 at 18:15

"Allgemein" and "überhaupt" press the same thing here: general applicability. Applicability of a concept to all relations of all things.

The sentence

Der Raum ist kein diskursiver oder, wie man sagt, allgemeiner Begriff von 
Verhältnissen der Dinge überhaupt, sondern eine reine Anschauung.

can be read as

Der Raum ist kein Begriff aller Verhältnisse aller Dinge, sondern reine Anschauung.

In English

Space is not a concept of all relations of all things, but a pure intuition.
  • 1
    There is a huge difference between "Gesetze überhaupt" (laws in general/as such) and "allgemeine Gesetze" (general laws), though: The former tells us something about what makes a law a law, the latter only that the particular law(s) we are talking about is/are universally valid. For example, it is true for laws in general/as such that they are general laws if we are talking about laws proper (in Kant, there is even a point in GMM where he makes this point) - you gotta love this kind of language, don't you ;) – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '20 at 8:52
  • I like a precise use of language quite a bit. Unfortunately Kant is (very) far from flawless in this respect. The reconstruction-effort needed by any reader is immense in my opinion. – Mr. White Oct 15 '20 at 9:49
  • 1
    True, and he admits it himself. Especially the A-deductions are sprinkled with notoriously ambiguous terminology. It does not help to read in translation, either. But even as a native speaker, you need to have extraordinary reading comprehension to get by. On the upside, these arguments are way ahead of their time and a secular (non-dualistic) reading of them is basically state-of-the-art epistemology. – Philip Klöcking Oct 15 '20 at 9:57

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