Figurative Synthesis

I wanted to extract a few more key points from Beatrice Longuenesse’s landmark study Kant and the Capacity to Judge. She strongly emphasizes that judgment for Kant refers to a complex activity, not a simple reaching of conclusions. She especially stresses the role of a capacity to judge that precedes any particular judgment and is grounded in a synthesis of imagination. (See Capacity to Judge; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant; Kantian Synthesis.)

At issue here is the very capacity for discursive thought, as well as “the manner in which things are given to us” (p. 225, emphasis in original), which for Kant involves what he called intuition. (See also Beauty and Discursivity).

Through careful textual analysis, Longuenesse argues that Kant’s claim to derive logical categories from forms of judgment makes far more sense than most previous commentators had recognized. For Kant, she argues, the “forms of judgment” are not just logical abstractions but essential cognitive acts that reflect “universal rules of discursive thought” (p. 5).

She recalls Kant’s insistence that the early modern tradition was wrong to take categorical judgments (simple predications like “A is B“) as the model for judgments in general. For Kant, hypothetical and disjunctive judgments (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“, respectively) are more primitive. These correspond to the judgments of material consequence and material incompatibility that Brandom argues form the basis of real-world reasoning.

Another distinctive Kantian thesis is that space and time are neither objective realities nor discursive concepts that we apply. Rather, they are intuitions and necessary forms of all sensibility. Kantian intuitions are produced by the synthesis of imagination according to definite rules.

“[I]ntuition is a species of cognition (Erkenntnis), that is, a conscious representation related to an object. As such it is distinguished from mere sensation, which is a mere state of the subject, by itself unrelated to any object…. One might say that, in intuition, the object is represented even if it is not recognized (under a concept).” (pp. 219-220, emphasis in original).

Before we apply any concepts or judgments, “Representational receptivity, the capacity to process affections into sensations (conscious representations), must also be able to present these sensations in an intuition of space and an intuition of time. This occurs when the affection from outside is the occasion for the affection from inside — the figurative synthesis. The form of the receptive capacity is thus a merely potential form, a form that is actualized only by the figurative synthesis” (p. 221, emphasis in original).

“[A]ccording to Locke, in this receptivity to its own acts the mind mirrors itself, just as in sensation it mirrors outer objects…. Kant shares with Locke the conception of inner sense as receptivity, but he no longer considers the mind as a mirror, either in relation to itself or in relation to objects…. Just as the thing in itself that affects me from outside is forever unknowable to me, I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me” (p. 239, emphasis added).

The point that the mind is not a mirror — either of itself or of the world — is extremely important. The mirror analogy Kant is rejecting is a product of early modern representationalism. We can still have well-founded beliefs about things of which we have no knowledge in a strict sense.

“Kant’s explanation is roughly this: our receptivity is constituted in such a way that objects are intuited as outer objects only in the form of space. But the form of space is itself intuited only insofar as an act, by which the ‘manifold of a given cognition is brought to the objective unity of apperception’, affects inner sense. Thanks to this act the manifold becomes consciously perceived, and this occurs only in the form of time” (p. 240, emphasis in original).

She develops Kant’s idea that mathematics is grounded in this kind of intuition, ultimately derived from the conditions governing imaginative synthesis. In particular, for Kant our apprehensions of unities and any kind of identification of units are consequences of imaginative synthesis.

“Extension and figure belong to the ‘pure intuition’ of space, which is ‘that in which the manifold of appearances can be ordered’, that is, that by limitation of which the extension and figure of a given object are delineated. Therefore, space and time provide the form of appearances only insofar as they are themselves an intuition: a pure intuition, that is, an intuition preceding and conditioning all empirical intuition; and an undivided intuition, that is, an intuition that is presupposed by other intuitions rather than resulting from their combinations” (p. 219, emphasis in original).

“According to Locke, the idea of unity naturally accompanies every object of our senses, and the idea of number arises from repeating the idea of unity and associating a sign with each collection thus generated by addition of units…. But for Kant, the idea (the concept) of a unit is not given with each sensory object. It presupposes an act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity…. Thus the idea of number is not the idea of a collection of given units to which we associate a sign, but the reflected representation of a rule for synthesis, that is, for the act of constituting a homogeneous multiplicity. When such an act is presented a priori in intuition, a concept of number is constructed.” (p. 260, emphasis in original).

“Mathematics has no principles in the absolute sense required by reason. Axioms are not universal propositions cognized by means of pure concepts. They may be universally and apodeictically true, but their truth is based on the pure intuition of space, not derived from pure concepts according to the principle of contradiction” (p. 287).

Incidentally, Longuenesse thinks it does not follow from Kant’s account that space is necessarily Euclidean, as many commentators have believed and Kant himself suggested.

Imagination: Aristotle, Kant

In the glossary to his translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul, Joe Sachs nicely summarizes the various roles of phantasia or “imagination” in Aristotle:

“A power of the soul that perceives appearances when perceptible things are absent and thinks without distinguishing universals (429a 4-8, 434a 5-11). The imagination is identified in On Memory and Recollection as the primary perceptive power of the soul (449b 31 – 450a 15). Thus, many activities discovered in On the Soul may be collected and attributed to the imagination, such as perceiving common and incidental objects of the senses, being aware that we are perceiving, discriminating among the objects of the different senses (425a 14 – b 25), distinguishing flesh or water (429b 10-18), and perceiving time (433b 7). Also, implicit within the power of imagination to behold images (phantasmata), there must be imagination in a second sense, eikasia, by which we can see an image as an image (eikon) or likeness (On Memory and Recollection 450b 12-27)” (pp. 194-195; citations in original).

In the above, I would particularly highlight “thinking without distinguishing universals” and “being aware that we are perceiving”. Imagination — and not intellect, for instance — seems to me to be the primary source suggested in Aristotle for what we, following Locke, call “consciousness”. Also noteworthy is language suggestive of what Kant would later call synthesis.

The vital implication here is that the closest analogue of “consciousness” in Aristotle comes into being not as a transparent medium of representation, but rather as a shifting collection of concrete forms in imagination. Further, the forms we experience are not just passively received, but actively organized and discriminated at a pre-conscious level. Thus when Aristotle says — as he also does — that, e.g., the eye is essentially passive in receiving forms as differentiations in received light — this latter is intended at a purely physical level, and is far from providing a full account of, e.g., visual perception by a human.

Prior to Descartes’ confabulation of scholastic “cogitation” and “intellection”, concrete human psychic activity or “cogitation” was generally recognized as having its roots in imagination. Intellection was understood to have a more specialized role, focused on the constitution of universals. However, attempts to reconcile Aristotle with Plotinus and Proclus in the Arabic tradition, and then with Augustine and pseudo-Dionysius in the Latin tradition, provided a background that was ultimately very supportive toward Aquinas’ strong claim that intellect must after all be understood as the leading part of the individual human soul, morally responsible for all its concrete thoughts and actions. This made it far more plausible for Descartes to take the further step — which Locke followed — of simply identifying cogitation and intellection. The self-transparency of the cogito in Descartes and of consciousness in Locke, respectively — along with their identification with intellection — served to marginalize the role of forms in imagination in their conceptions of “mind”.

A very important feature of Kant’s work that is relatively little appreciated is that he restored a central role for “imagination” in philosophical psychology and anthropology. For Kant, humans can have neither direct knowledge of empirical facts or objects, nor any knowledge of transcendent realities. All intellection and knowledge are discursive, as I think Aristotle would have agreed. We have immediate though “blind” intuition of a sensible manifold, but intellectual intuition is an oxymoron, because intellection is inherently discursive. And in between the synthesis of initial sensory apprehension in intuition and the synthesis of recognition in the concept (Kant’s equivalent for intellection) comes a crucial synthesis of reproduction in imagination. Though his terminology is quite different, Kant not only recovers but even expands upon the role that imagination played in Aristotle.

In Kant and the Capacity to Judge, Beatrice Longuenesse carefully develops what Kant says about imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is a major dimension of her book, so I can only give a flavor of it here.

“The imagination ‘in which’ there is reproduction is not the imagination as a faculty or power (Einbildungskraft), but the representation produced by this faculty (Einbildung)” (p. 35). Though Kant uses the terminology of representation, this effectively refers to the same forms in imagination that Aristotle emphasized.

“[Kant] shows that these acts of combination can contribute to the cognition of a phaenomenon, an object distinct from the ‘indeterminate object of empirical intuition’ (Erscheinung [or mere appearance]), only if they all belong to one and the same act of synthesis of the spatiotemporal manifold. The form of this act is determined a priori by the nature of our mind, and its outcome is threefold: the manifold of intuition represented ‘as’ manifold, the representation of imagination (Einbildung) emerging from empirical associations, and finally the universal representation or concept, under which particular representations are subsumed. This act is that very act of synthesis which Kant, in section 10, attributes to the imagination, in the A Deduction [of the categories] more precisely to transcendental imagination, and which in the B Deduction he calls synthesis speciosa, figurative synthesis” (pp. 35-36).

As usual in Kant, “transcendental” means not metaphysical, but simply constitutive in a way that is not reducible to empirical events. Longuenesse points out that imagination in Kant is not merely reproductive, but also productive. In any case, for Kant not only the logical “matter” but also the elaborated form of our fully constituted experience owes a great deal to imagination, and a recognition of this — as opposed to the assumption of a putative transparency of consciousness — is fundamental to the “Critical” attitude Kant aimed to promote. Here I am using “form” in a sense more Aristotelian than Kantian. (See also Capacity to Judge; Figurative Synthesis; Imagination, Emotion, Opinion; Animal Imagination; Imagination; Four Layers of Being Human.)

Capacity to Judge

I’ve previously referred several times to Beatrice Longuenesse’s superb Kant and the Capacity to Judge (French ed. 1993; English ed. 1998). Here I’d like to offer a few quotations from the summary in her conclusion.

“The transcendental unity of apperception was first introduced in the [deduction of the categories in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, referred to by scholars as the] A Deduction, in the exposition of the ‘synthesis of recognition in the concept’. There Kant argued that we could not recognize singular representations under common concepts unless they were taken up in one and the same act of combination and comparison, and unless we were (however dimly) conscious of the numerical identity of this act of combining our representations. This consciousness is what confers ‘logical form’ upon our representations. And it ‘presupposes’ or ‘includes’ a synthesis of imagination. In the [second edition] B Deduction, Kant specified that the ‘logical form’ thus given to our representations is that of judgment. The synthesis of imagination it presupposes is figurative synthesis (synthesis speciosa) or ‘affection of inner sense’ by the understanding. I argued that this meant affection of inner sense not by categorial understanding (i.e., understanding already equipped with categories as full-fledged concepts), but by understanding as the mere capacity to form judgments, Vermögen zu urteilen. Thus, the ‘I think’, or ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’, has no other meaning or status than that of being the unified activity of combination and reflection on the sensible given. There is no unity of self-consciousness or ‘transcendental unity of apperception’ apart from this effort, or conatus toward judgment, ceaselessly affirmed and ceaselessly threatened with dissolution in the ‘welter of appearances'” (p. 394).

“Kant’s view is rather that unity of consciousness is always both ‘my own’ and, insofar as it is ‘transcendental unity of self-consciousness’ whose form is that of judgment, so constituted that it is capable of transcending the point of view of ‘myself, in the present state of my perception’ to the point of view of ‘everybody, always’.”

“Kant further maintains that the conscious effort toward judgment, that is, transcendental unity of self-consciousness, is what makes possible consciousness of an objective temporal order. We have such consciousness only insofar as our perceptions are related to realities, to permanent or changing properties of singular things reciprocally determining each other’s location in space and time” (p. 395).

“The capacity to represent discursively (thought) and the capacity to locate things, ourselves included, in time are thus one and the same. The ‘unity of self-consciousness’ as the unity of the discursive conatus, and the unity of self-consciousness as the consciousness of an individuality located in time, are one and the same” (p. 396).

“For behind the deceptively rigid parallelism between logical forms of judgment and categories, what emerges is the cognitive effort of discursive beings confronting what is given to them in sensibility. This effort, conatus of the Vermögen zu urteilen, is according to Kant what essentially defines the kind of beings we are. It is also what generates the universal forms in which we think our world” (ibid).

“Kant argues that things (singular objects thought under concepts) are substitutional instances for ‘x’ in the logical form of categorical judgments only if they are also substitutional instances for ‘x’ in hypothetical judgments (whereby we are able to recognize their alterations)…. The ‘simple’ judgments (categorical judgments) by means of which we cognize things under concepts reflecting their essence, are thus possible only under the condition that we also generate ‘composite’ or ‘complex’ judgments (hypothetical or disjunctive judgments), by means of which we cognize a thing under its accidental marks, in universal correlation with all other things cognized in space and time” (p. 397).

“For Kant’s table of logical functions of judgment turns out to be, according to it author, an exposition of the minimal norms of discursive thinking necessary for us to be able to recognize and reidentify objects under concepts. And the infamous ‘transcendental synthesis of imagination’ turns out to be the complex web of perceptual combinations by means of which we take up sensible data into what we, in present times, have come to term ‘the space of reasons’” (p. 398).


“Imagination” is said in at least three major ways.  Aristotle minimalistically characterized phantasia as a production of images that both plays a role in our experience of sense perception and can operate independent of it, as in dreaming.  Spinoza treated imagination as kind of a passive belief.  For him, this was strongly associated with common illusions and wishful thinking – especially with regard to our status as agents — in ordinary life.  The Romantics identified imagination with creativity.

Beatrice Longuenesse in her marvelous Kant and the Capacity to Judge has developed in detail Kant’s argument that the same basic “categories” used in reflective thought are already implicit in our pre-reflective apprehensions of things in what Kant called a synthesis of imagination.  I think this means not that the Kantian categories have some pre-given or metaphysical status, but rather that for the kind of beings we are, even “pre-reflective” apprehensions have some dependency on previous reflective apprehensions.  We are never either entirely active or entirely passive.  (See also Passive Synthesis, Active Sense; Voluntary Action; Middle Part of the Soul.)

Richard Kearney in On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva nicely develops Ricoeur’s view that imagination is not so much a special way of seeing as “the capacity for letting new worlds shape our understanding of ourselves…. This power would not be conveyed by images, but by the emergent meanings in our language” (quoted in Kearney, p. 35).  According to Kearney, Ricoeur associated imagination first and foremost with “semantic innovation”.  What Aristotle in a different context called “searching for a middle term” is an aspect of this creativity with respect to meaning.

The Greek root for “poetry” (poiesis) fundamentally means making or doing in a much more general sense.  The Romantics added a stress on innovation, which they saw as coming from the inner depths of the soul.  Ricoeur’s treatment of imagination as fundamentally involving the emergence of new meaning nicely takes up the Romantic stress on imagination as innovation, without depending on the Romantics’ dubious metaphysical psychology of interiority.  (See also Personhood; Reason, Nature.)