Kant and Foundationalism

According to Kant, all human experience minimally involves the use of empirical concepts. We don’t have access to anything like the raw sense data posited by many early 20th century logical empiricists, and it would not be of much use if we did. In Kantian terms, this would be a form of intuition without concepts, which he famously characterized as necessarily blind, and unable to function on its own.

Foundationalism is the notion that there is certain knowledge that does not depend on any inference. This implies that it somehow comes to us ready-made. But for Kant, all use of empirical concepts involves a kind of synthesis that could not work without low-level inference, so this is impossible.

The idea that any knowledge could come to us ready-made involves what Kant called dogmatism. According to Kant, this should have no place in philosophy. Actual knowledge necessarily is a product of actual work, though some of that work is normally implicit or preconscious. (See also Kantian Discipline; Interpretation; Inferentialism vs Mentalism.)

It also seems to me that foundationalism is incompatible with the Kantian autonomy of reason.


It seems to me that the main thing human reason does in real life is to interpret the significance of things. When we think of something, many implicit judgments about it are brought into scope. In a way, Kant already suggested this with his accounts of synthesis.

In real-world human reasoning, the actually operative identity of the things we reason about is not the trivial formal identity of their names or symbols, but rather a complex one constituted by the implications of all the judgments implicitly associated with the things in question. (See also Identity, Isomorphism; Aristotelian Identity.)

This is why people sometimes seem to talk past one another. The same words commonly imply different judgments for different people, so it is to be expected that this leads to different reasoning. That is why Plato recommended dialogue, and why Aristotle devoted so much attention to sorting out different ways in which things are “said”. (See also Aristotelian Semantics.)

I think human reason uses complex material inference (reasoning based on intermediate meaning content rather than syntax) to evaluate meanings and situations in an implicit way that usually ends up looking like simple summary judgment at a conscious level, but is actually far more involved. A great deal goes on, very rapidly and below the level of our awareness. Every surface-level judgment or assertion implicitly depends on many interpretations.

Ever since Aristotle took the first steps toward formalization of logic, people have tended to think of real-world human reasoning in terms modeled straightforwardly on formal or semi-formal logical operations, with meanings of terms either abstracted away or taken for granted. (Aristotle himself did not make this mistake, as noted above.) This fails to take into account the vast amount of implicit interpretive work that gets encapsulated into ordinary terms, by means of their classification into what are effectively types, capturing everything that implicitly may be relevantly said about the things in question in the context of our current unity of apperception.

A typed term for a thing works as shorthand for many judgments about the thing. Conversely, classification and consequent effective identity of the thing depend on those judgments.

As a result of active deliberation, we often refine our preconscious interpretations of things, and sometimes replace them altogether. Deliberation and dialectic are the testing ground of interpretations.

In general, interpretation is an open-ended task. It seems to me that it also involves something like what Kant called free play. (See also Hermeneutics; Theory and Practice; Philosophy; Ethical Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Foundations?; Aristotelian Demonstration; Brandom on Truth.)

Kantian Intuition

Kant discussed intuition (Anschauung) mainly in the Critique of Pure Reason. There, intuition and thought are said to comprise an inseparable hylomorphic unity, like matter and form in Aristotle. So when we speak of Kantian intuition, it is always as an abstracted partial aspect of a larger whole of experience.

Most famously, Kant speaks of the intuition of a sensible manifold. This resembles Aristotle’s account of sensation as mainly passive, but complemented by and interwoven with more active processes (see Passive Synthesis, Active Sense). Kant developed this quite a bit more extensively than Aristotle did. Aristotle hinted at something like passive synthesis, but mainly used its tentative results (common-sense objects) as a provisional starting point. Kant tried to reach back further into the preconscious generative process. My favorite discussion of this is Beatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge. (See also Kantian Synthesis.)

According to Kant, mathematical construction, which produces an object and not just a theorem, results in a kind of pure intuition not tied to sensory perception. This was the original inspiration for Brouwer’s mathematical “intuitionism”.

More broadly, I think Kantian intuition corresponds to the element of immediacy in experience, including what I have called feeling, as well as a kind of holistic summation of previous experience preconsciously associated with patterns preconsciously discerned in the current manifold. There seems to be a complex reverberation and mutual determination between immediate and mediate elements in experience. This appears both in the Kantian transcendental deduction (see Longuenesse, cited above) and in the Hegelian idea that immediacy is always “mediated immediacy” and thus never purely immediate. It also again reflects the fundamental hylomorphism of intuition and thought.

Something like Hegelian ethical Spirit or the Kantian transcendental is all mediation, in contrast to traditional views of spiritual or mystical experience as something immediate and unanalyzable. I take Kantian intuition, Brandomian sentience, and the main import of Aristotelian soul to be on the immediate side, but subject to the reverberation and mutual determination mentioned above. (See also What is “I”?; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

In contrast to Descartes and Locke, Kant famously rejected the idea of intellectual intuition, or passive reception of thought contents, just as he rejected the medieval notion of the intellectual soul. Anything intellectual would be on the side of thought rather than intuition for Kant, and thought for Kant always involved explicit, active development rather than passive reception. Hegel, Sellars, and Brandom take this as a starting point, and I think Aristotle would concur. (See also Subject.)

Kantian Synthesis

We naturally tend to take our experience for granted. One of the profound innovations of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was an emphasis on processes of synthesis at several levels in the formation of experience. Dominant medieval and early modern views had tended to assume some kind of direct, unproblematic mental uptake of experienced objects or data from appearances. Kant’s talk about processes of synthesis is the positive account that complements his famous rejection of this “dogmatism”. For him, all conceptual uptake involves judgment, and all judgment involves synthesis, or putting together many things.

Aristotle had hinted at something like processes of synthesis in his mention of a common sense responsible for correlating perceptions from different senses like sight and touch into what we might call sensory objects. This was slightly expanded upon by Alexander of Aphrodisias in the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE, but it was not until Kant that the idea of synthesis began to be developed more fully. Plato and Aristotle treated judgment and what we might call synthesis as a good deal more difficult and provisional than other authors in the intervening period.

The most famous kind of Kantian synthesis happens when concepts are applied to parts or aspects of the manifold of sensory and other intuition. Even in very simple cases, this turns out to involve many judgments, which in turn involve others. Kant associates this with reason and conscious activity.

Another kind of Kantian synthesis applies at a more elemental level to pieces or aspects of content in the manifold of intuition. This seems to be essentially unconscious. As Beatrice Longuenesse pointed out in her outstanding Kant and the Capacity to Judge (1998), Kant argued that this unconscious synthesis in intuition and the more famous one involved with concepts in thought both depend on the same top-level table of categories. One possible way to interpret this is that Kantian intuition incorporates and in its own way autonomously and unconsciously applies conclusions of previous judgments or processes of synthesis, based on some kind of primitive sense of similarity to current circumstances. Of course, this is not guaranteed to be sound, but the idea is that it works well enough in many practical situations, and can be also refined and corrected by conscious judgment. (See also Passive Synthesis, Active Sense.)

A third kind of Kantian synthesis is the synthesis of unities of apperception. This is a high-level combination of very many judgments or commitments in a way that respects coherence. With either the addition of a track record or the interpretation of commitment as the commitment reflected in actions, this is what constitutes the moral identity of a person, which does not come ready-made (but see Obstacles to Synthesis).

The theme of synthesis was extended by Hegel to describe purely logical processes, as well as what Brandom would call genealogical ones. Hegel complements Kant’s emphasis by dwelling especially on how syntheses break.