Nonempirical But Historical?

What I have been calling the transcendental field and Brandom just calls the transcendental is supposed to be social, historical, and linguistic in its constitution, but nonempirical in its manner of subsisting. Its content would be like a vast implicit structure that is continually being implicitly replaced by new versions incorporating further historical experience. Brandom does not use terms like “field” or “structure” in this context, but the point I currently want to consider is just the nonempirical but historical character of the transcendental, which might seem paradoxical.

There is a related issue with the associated universal “community” of rational beings that I have invoked. This would be larger than any empirical community. It also would not exist at a moment in time, but rather would include an extension across the span of a history, including a past that may need to be reinterpreted, and a future that is not yet determined. But in principle, each participant in the rational community should have some empirical correlate in an actual rational animal existing at some time.

The answers lie, I believe, in the delicate way empirical and transcendental subjectivity are related. Without ever directly intermingling or even existing in the same way, they are each indirectly affected by the other. I have previously begun to sketch how this could be possible (see What Is “I”; Subject; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation). (See also Geist; Hegelian Genealogy; Rational/Talking Animal; Ethos, Hexis.)

Transcendental Field

In mentioning a transcendental field, I am adapting a term from the one book of Sartre that I sort of liked long ago, The Transcendence of the Ego (1936). Husserl had built his phenomenology on the supposition of a “transcendental Ego” — a foundational Subject that was to be free of the limitations of empirical subjectivity, and prior to any particular content. Despite this unpromising beginning, Husserl achieved some keen insights into details of the nature of appearance. Sartre wanted to adopt some of these results without the baggage of the transcendental Ego. (See also Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology.)

In transplanting this term to a more Kantian register, I want to suggest we should pause at the level of an ecosystem of transcendental Subjectivity-functions, without going on to assume that it must take the form of a single, strongly centralized Subject-entity. The idea is that every bit of transcendental content is already in itself a bit of Subjectivity (which is how I want to read “Substance is also Subject”), and any number of such bits that is more or less coherent may be taken as together constituting a subject. I then want to combine this with Brandom’s reading of the Kantian transcendental as linguistic/social/historical in nature and his identification of it with Hegelian Geist. (See also Psyche, Subjectivity.)


In mentioning our second natures’s “participation” in a transcendental field, I am falling back on a Platonic metaphor. Plato spoke of a thing’s “participation” in a separate Form. While a transcendental field is not per se a Platonic form, it is both generally on the side of form, and “separate” from the psyche in approximately the same sense that a Platonic form is separate from what participates in it. This separateness indicates that the psyche or a putative empirical subject could never have simple possession or mastery of it. A transcendental field is also not the immanent form of some matter in the Aristotelian sense; it is not even to be identified with second nature; rather, it is something the empirical psyche can indirectly participate in by virtue of acquired second nature’s participation in it. Conversely, the empirical psyche has its own more direct characteristics that are relatively independent of this participation. (See also Psyche, Subjectivity.)