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).


If what we are in the most comprehensive sense is the aimed-at realization of an ethos within the context of an organic life, then even though who we distinctively are is mainly a matter of ethos, the aimed-at ethical “self” will not be just a currently actualized ethos or unity of apperception, but a fully rounded practical being involved in all sorts of doings, which will also continue to be a work in progress as long as we live. Such a “self” will not have a strict logical identity, but rather something like what Ricoeur called narrative identity. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Two Kinds of Character; Personhood; Self, Infinity; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

Kantian Intentionality

Brandom’s Woodbridge lectures – published in Reason in Philosophy (2009) — are to date the best introduction to his groundbreaking thought on Kant and Hegel.  He makes it clear this will be a rational reconstruction of key themes rather than a textual or historical commentary.  

The first lecture, entitled “Norms, Selves, and Concepts”, summarizes the innovative account of intentionality Brandom attributes to Kant.  According to Brandom, Kant raises the radical question of representational purport — what it even means for someone to take something as representing something.  Simultaneously, Kant breaks with the standard early modern view of judgment that identified it with mere predication.  

“Here is perhaps Kant’s deepest and most original idea, the axis around which I see all of his thought revolving.  What distinguishes judging and intentional doing from the activities of non-sapient creatures is not that they involve some special sort of mental processes, but that they are things knowers and agents are in a distinctive way responsible for….  Judgments and actions make knowers and agents liable to characteristic kinds of normative assessment….  This is his normative characterization of the mental” (pp. 32-33; emphasis in original).

For Kant, to judge and act are to bind ourselves to values, or as Brandom calls them in arguably more Kantian terms, “norms”.  The rules or principles by which the content of our commitments is articulated Kant calls concepts.  Brandom quips that Descartes had asked about our grip on concepts, but Kant asked about their grip on us.

Reversing the traditional order of explanation, Kant says we actually understand concepts in terms of the role they play in judgments, rather than understanding judgments in terms of component concepts.

What Kant calls the subjective form of judgment (“I think”) indicates the relation of a judging to the unity of apperception to which it belongs.  Brandom says this tells us who is responsible for the judgment.  (I think the identity of unities of apperception is actually more specific than that applied to human individuals in common sense, because the constellation of commitments that is the referent of “I” today may not be quite the same as it was yesterday.)

In making a judgment about something, we make ourselves responsible to that thing — to however it may actually turn out to be.  Judgments are supposed to be about how things are.  To make a judgment about something is to acknowledge that how it actually is has authority over the correctness of our judgment.

What we make ourselves responsible for in judging is the content of the judgment, which Brandom will understand in terms of what further inferences it licenses or prevents from being licensed.

Finally, what we do in making ourselves responsible is to make ourselves responsible for a fourfold task: to integrate our judgment into a unity of apperception; to renounce commitments that are materially incompatible with our judgment; to endorse commitments that are material consequences of our judgment; and to offer reasons for our judgment.

Kant’s alternative to judgment as predication, according to Brandom, is judgment as the undertaking of these task responsibilities, understood ultimately in terms of the ongoing synthesis and re-synthesis of unities of apperception.  Further, “The key to Kant’s account of representation is to be found in the story about how representational purport is to be understood in terms of the activity of synthesizing an original unity of apperception” (pp. 37-38).  

“[W]hat one is responsible for is having reasons for one’s endorsements, using the contents one endorses as reasons for and against the endorsement of other contents, and taking into account countervailing reasons….  [W]e are the kind of creatures we are – knowers and agents, creatures whose world is structured by the commitments and responsibilities we undertake – only because we are always liable to normative assessments of our reasons” (p. 38).

Concepts “are rules for synthesizing a unity of apperception.  And that is to say that they are rules articulating what is a reason for what” (p. 39).

“Kant’s ideas about the act or activity of judging settle how he must understand the content judged” (ibid).  Kant’s methodological pragmatism, Brandom says, consists not in privileging practice over theory but in “explanatory privileging of the activity of synthesizing a unity of apperception” (p. 40).

A unity of apperception is not a substance (and especially not in the rigid early modern sense).  As Brandom says, it is the “moving, living constellation of its ‘affections’, that is, of the concomitant commitments that compose and articulate it” (p. 41).  Looked at this way as extended in time, I would say it is not an existing unity but rather a unity always in the making.

All conceptual content for Brandom traces back to this original synthetic activity.  “[R]epresentational purport should itself be understood as a normative (meta) concept: as a matter of taking or treating one’s commitments as subject to a distinct kind of authority, as being responsible (for its correctness, in a characteristic sense) to things that in that normative sense count as represented by those representing states, which are what must be integrated into an original synthetic unity” (p. 42).

The early modern tradition took it for granted that referential representational intentionality is prior to inferential expressive intentionality – in effect that it is possible to know what is being talked about without understanding what is said.  This would seem to me to require a kind of magical clairvoyance.  As Aristotle might remind us, we approach what is primarily through what is said of it, not of course by the mere saying, but through the care and responsibility and many crisscrossing revisitings that we invest in understanding what is said.

Brandom suggests we look for an approach to Kantian objectivity by a kind of progressive triangulation through examining material incompatibility and material consequence in what is said.  “Represented objects show up as something like units of account for the inferential and incompatibility relations” (p. 45) that for Brandom come first in the order of explanation. To treat something as standing in relations of material incompatibility and consequence “is taking or treating it as a representation, as being about something” (ibid).

The most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought, Brandom suggests, can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception.


I usually think of judgment as a process of interpretation or a related kind of wisdom, but at least since early modern reformulations of Aristotelian logic, “a” judgment has also traditionally meant a logical proposition, or an assertion of a proposition.

An older, but still post-Aristotelian notion is that what the early moderns called a judgment “A is B” should be understood (on the model of its surface grammar) as the potentially arbitrary predication “A is B”. Such a potentially arbitrary predication by itself does not contain enough information for us to assess whether it is good or bad. The predication model was associated with a non-Aristotelian notion of truth as simple correspondence to supposed fact.

L. M. De Rijk, arguably the 20th century’s leading scholar on medieval Latin logic, developed a very detailed textual argument that the understanding of logical “judgments” in such grammatical terms is actually an unhistorical misreading of Aristotle. In the first volume of his Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology, De Rijk concluded that Aristotle’s own logical or semantic use of “is” or “is not” should be understood not in the traditionally accepted way as a “copula” or binary operator of predication, but rather as a unary operator of assertion on a compound expression — i.e., on the pair (A, B), as opposed to its two elements A and B.

I also want to emphasize that Aristotle himself did not admit simple, potentially arbitrary predications as “judgments”. The special form of Aristotelian propositions makes them express not arbitrary atomic claims as is the case with propositions in the standard modern sense, but two specific ways of compounding subclaims. Aristotle’s two truth-value-forming operations of combination and separation (expressed by “is” and “is not”) limit the scope of what qualifies as a proper Aristotelian “judgment” to cases that are effectively equivalent to what Brandom would call judgments of material consequence or material incompatibility (see Aristotelian Propositions). What the moderns would call Aristotelian “judgments” thus end up more specifically reflecting judgments of what Brandom would call goodness of material inference.

Proper Aristotelian “judgments” thus turn out to express not just arbitrary predications constructed without regard to meaning, but particular kinds of compound claims that can in principle be rationally evaluated for material well-formedness as compound thoughts, based on the actual content of the claims being compounded. (Non-compound claims are just claims, and do not have enough content to be subject to such intrinsic rational evaluation, but as soon as there is some compounding, internal criteria for well-formedness come into play.)

So, fortuitously, modern use of the term “judgment” for these ends up having more substance than it would for arbitrary predications. For Aristotle, truth and falsity only apply to what are actually compound thoughts, because truth and falsity express assessments of material well-formedness, and only compound thoughts can be assessed for such well-formedness. The case for the fundamental role of concerns of normativity rather than simple surface-level predication in Aristotelian truth-valued propositions is further supported by the ways Aristotle uses “said of” relations.

Independent of this sort of better reading of Aristotle, Brandom in the first of his 2007 Woodbridge lectures points out that Kant also strongly rejected the traditional analysis of judgment in terms of predication. Brandom goes on to argue that for Kant, “what makes an act or episode a judging in the first place is just its being subject to the normative demand that it be integrated” [emphasis in original] into a unity of apperception. This holistic, integrative view of Kantian judgment seems to me to be strongly supported by Kant’s discussion of unities of apperception in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, as well as by the broad thrust of the Critique of Judgment.

Thus, a Kantian judgment also has more substance than the standard logical notion, but while an Aristotelian “judgment” gets its substantive, rational character from intra-propositional structure, a Kantian judgment gets it from inter-propositional structure.

Self, Subject

Once again, I’d like to dwell on the subtlety of the relation between empirical “me” and transcendental “I”. As usual, for philosophical purposes I want to advise that we hold off on identifying the two in the way that we commonly do when immersed in living our lives.

A contentful self exists on the empirical side. There are biographical and psychological facts about it. Each such “me” is unique. I take the primary referent of this “self” to be our developed emotional constitution, or Aristotelian hexis. When immersed in living our lives, we often say “I” in common-sense reference to this contentful, factual self, but this is very different from a transcendental “I”. Each person who says “I” for “me” in this common-sense way says it differently, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to a different “me”.

A transcendental “I” is a contentless symbolic index for a constellation of values and commitments, i.e., what we care about and what we believe, our Aristotelian ethos. Here, what is of interest is not the content of a contentful, factual self (“us”), but rather the content of what we care about and what we believe. Transcendental “I” refers to the identity of an ethos or unity of apperception. Thus anyone who in some context cares about the same things and believes the same things says “I” transcendentally in exactly the same way in that context, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to the same ethos.

(I’m using the common vocabulary of reference and identity here to keep things simple, but the usual caveats apply. Reference and identity are actually derivative notions, not primitive ones, but there is no philosophical harm in using them in a simple way anyway, provided we avoid tacitly assuming they are primitive.)

What identifies us as individuals is the empirical “me”, but what plays the role of an ethical subject or subject of knowledge is the paradoxically intimate but anonymous transcendental “I”. (See also Transcendental?; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; and many articles under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Historically, tight theoretical identification of ethical subjects and subjects of knowledge with empirical individuals is associated with the rationalization of practices of blaming and punishment, especially when translated into a theological context.

Apperception, Identity

If personal identity is mainly emotional, while reason is at root trans-individual, it should make perfect sense that a Kantian unity of apperception or rational “I” would be quite different from a personal identity. In my view, there is no such thing as rational personal identity. There is emotional personal identity, there is rational coherence of thoughts, and there are various ways in which these may be interwoven. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Soul, Self; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Ego; What Is “I”; Psyche, Subjectivity; Individuation; Mind Without Mentalism; Subject.)

Desire, Coherence

We experience all sorts of passing and possibly conflicting impulses or wishes upon which we don’t necessarily act, and to which we never commit ourselves. It would not be appropriate to call these things that we “really” want.

Really wanting something implies what Aristotle would call a choice. This does involve a kind of ethical commitment. As Aristotle and Brandom might jointly remind us, to choose something is also inherently to choose whatever the realization of that thing requires; to choose what follows from the realization of that thing; and not to choose anything else that is incompatible with any of these. That is why Aristotle associates choice with deliberation. Just as emotion and reason interpenetrate in feeling, really wanting something implicitly has a rational and normative component as well as a desiring component.

Of course the possibility remains open that in particular cases, we may be unclear on what we want. In this case, we are back in the territory of wish and impulse. There is still some responsibility even here, but it is shared with others, and generally also matter for forgiveness. But as talking animals, if we explicitly say to someone that we want something, we are in the realm of choice and commitment, and we are responsible to be able to explain ourselves. Our participation in the universal community of ethical reason lifts organic desire into a defeasible rational desire. (See also Unity of Apperception; Dialogue; Scorekeeping.)

Unity of Apperception

Kant’s notion of a unity of apperception seems very useful. The too-easy gloss for this is that it is what properly says “I”. I call it too easy because in ordinary speech, this is typically deeply confused with the empirical, factual “me” for which we also say “I”. Kant rethought personal identity in ethical rather than psychological terms. A transcendental “I” is wholly constituted by a totality of simultaneous implicit commitments.

The term apperception had been used by Leibniz for a reflective apprehension of content. Apperception for Leibniz — in this way like intellect for Aristotle — was neither an intrinisic characteristic of soul as such, nor continuously present in a given soul. It thus seems already to have had an implicitly normative character. We would, I think, speak of a failure to apperceive rather than a bad apperception. Apperception seems to carry a built-in notion of relative rightness for its context. Nonetheless, one Leibnizian monad’s apperception of a given content would not be the same as that of another, due to inherent differences in the total constitution of each monad. To use a Hegelian word, apperception is all about mediated apprehension.

Unity of apperception is a result of the highest of the three kinds of synthesis Kant discussed, formed from a coherence of many apperceptions that are themselves already syntheses. This seems like a more refined, clearer notion of what Plotinus obscurely anticipated in speaking of a sort of microcosmic counterpart of the One in the soul. In Aristotelian terms, unity of apperception is a form and an end. Brandom has particularly emphasized the status of such unity as an ethical goal, rather than something that just factually happens. The movement toward such unity at each moment has to continually try to integrate new content, so whatever unity is achieved is in a way born anew at each moment. I think this process involves something like the free play of reflective judgment in the Critique of Judgment.

The phrase “unity of apperception” also makes it nicely explicit that we are talking about something that corresponds in the first instance to an adverbial expression, and only derivatively to a simple noun. “I” is like that. I have argued that this is generally true of what is conventionally translated as Aristotelian “substance”. (See also What is “I”; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

Beyond Subject-Object

Hegel famously wanted to move beyond the subject-object dichotomy he saw as typical of early modernity. In practical terms, Kant’s most famous concern to avoid “dogmatic” assumptions about direct possession of epistemic objects had seemed to accentuate the separation of subject and object, by focusing on the distinction between appearance and reality. But both Kant and Hegel wanted to assert the possibility of knowledge in a strong sense, while avoiding what Kant called dogmatism. They also had considerable common ground in a shared rejection of naive early modern notions of subjects and objects and their relations.

Kant had begun — seemingly unwittingly — to recover some neglected Aristotelian insights in these areas, and Hegel made this an explicit theme. Thus they both already questioned the dichotomous interpretation of subject-object relations. Kant had also already highlighted the inevitable involvement of concepts in experience. For Kant, there is no direct epistemic access to real-world objects, or things in themselves (or to our own subjectivity). All knowledge proceeds by way of concepts, but he retains the concept of objects (and subjects) as a sort of placeholders for new distinctions between appearance and reality that can always be wrapped around current concepts in a new iteration.

When dichotomous connotations have already been applied to a distinction in some communicative context, it can be tricky to simultaneously clarify the transcendence of the dichotomy and the preservation of the underlying distinction, but the general solution is not far to find — just ensure that the underlying distinction is expressed in terms of some finite relation, rather than A versus not-A. Then we have Hegelian determinate negation or Aristotelian difference between the terms, rather than classical negation. So in effect, the solution lies in recognizing that the previous understanding of the distinction in terms of dichotomy was wrong in the first place.

More positively, Hegel eliminates dichotomies by putting determinate relations, coherence, and mediation first in the order of explanation, before all particular terms. The Hegelian Absolute — or that which transcends the subject-object dichotomy — is just a handle for perspectives that put processes, relations, coherence, and mediation before any preconceived notion of the conceptual content of particular terms.

I think Hegel saw this sort of structure as common to Aristotelian substance or “what it was to have been” a thing on the one hand, and Kantian subjectivity or synthesis of apperception on the other.

Working in the Hegelian Absolute does not require epistemic super powers or specious Cartesian certainty, just a sustained honest effort that is still implicitly defeasible. Hegel intends the Absolute to be a kind of Aristotelian achievable perfection, not a kind of omniscience or theological perfection that could never be legitimately claimed by a rational animal. (See Substance Also Subject.)

In approaching these matters in A Spirit of Trust, Brandom characteristically focuses not directly on higher-order abstractions, but on their implications for what we do with ordinary concepts in ordinary experience. Like Aristotle and Hegel but following a distinct strategy of his own, Brandom avoids the impasse of a supposed transition from psychological to “metaphysical” terms, or from ordinary experience to something that would seemingly have to be like the mind of God, by clarifying what we implicitly mean by concepts in the first place.

With Aristotle, Hegel, and Frege and in contradistinction to the empiricist tradition, Brandom understands concepts and apperception in a nonpsychological, nonrepresentational, normative-pragmatic, inferential-semantic way. Through the discovery of counterfactually robust relations, concepts evolve toward increasing universality. Through the experience of error, synthesis of apperception comes to incorporate the recognition that not only its commitments but also its concepts are always in principle provisional, subject to reformulation when faced with a new case. Through both of these combined with the additional cross-checks provided by mutual recognition, synthesis moves toward increasing objectivity and what might be called contact with reality. Through Brandom’s “expansive” model of responsibility, the last remaining obstacle to a full resolution of subject-object separation — the lack of a normative interpretation of unintended consequences of actions — is removed.

Neither “subjects” nor “objects” as such are very prominent in an account of this sort. It is much more a story about processes, relations, coherence, and mediation. Aristotle, Hegel, and Brandom each develop their own ways of working that start in the middle, as it were, and do not need reified subjects and objects to begin with. This, again, is just what the Hegelian Absolute is — a name for the sort of perspective that emphasizes the in-principle provisional character of all finite concepts, as contrasted with the more directly practical sort of perspective that provisionally works with the current basis as a source of reasons for particular sayings and doings. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Contradiction vs Polarity; Three Logical Moments.)


Aiming at coherence is a moral necessity. Serious people are serious about avoiding material inconsistency, as Aristotle noted in the Metaphysics, and Brandom has more recently thematized. (Unity of apperception is a moral imperative, not a fact, and certainly not something that could be simply possessed.)

Reality or objectivity is measured by the counterfactual robustness of our generalizations; our ability to recognize incongruities; and our commitment to resolving them. This one way of formulating what is sometimes referred to as a coherence theory of truth, or “coherentism”. Reality is not something you could point at, but a normative criterion, admitting of degree. (See also Objectivity of Objects; Foundations?)

The thing that complements coherence is not correspondence, but rather non-correspondence. Putative correspondence provides no additional assurance of veracity, but non-correspondence tells us something is wrong with our conceptions, which is valuable information. From an intuition of incongruity arises a task to improve our understanding. (See also Error; Obstacles to Synthesis.)