Short Commentary on a Selection from  The Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Dialectic: Book I. Section 1.  On Ideas As Such.

Jamie Mellway


Forum: Undergraduate course, University of Waterloo, 2000


This essay is submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for participation in Enlightenment’s First Annual Meeting, June, 2001. The author has submitted an informal proposal for a paper on logical-argumentative dialectic to be presented at the meeting.



In the A319-20/B376-7[1] passage, Kant starts with a few polemical words directed against the Leibniz-Wolffian German tradition and then Kant divides the term ‘presentation’[2] into several species.  The passage begins with:


“I beseech those who have philosophy at heart (which is saying more than one commonly encounters)—if they should find themselves convinced by what I say here and later—to safeguard the expression idea in its original meaning, lest it henceforth and up among the remaining expressions by which people commonly designate, in carefree disorder and to the detriment of science, sundry kinds of presentation.”


Here Kant is attacking the Leibniz-Wolffian notion of philosophy as organizing appearances synthetically (i.e., arbitrarily) in order that we can read them as experiences[3].  When one forms definitions synthetically (e.g., as Leibniz does with ‘slumbering monad’) one is at best making a grammatical definition and not a philosophical definition[4].  While synthetic definitions are valid for mathematical definitions such as “trapezoid”[5], this type of defining is inappropriate for philosophy.


Philosophers should instead be concerned with a conception of philosophy that is concerned with constructing analytic (i.e., explicative) definitions.  Analytic definitions are arrived at by spelling out distinctions and dissecting concepts[6] from analysis[7].


The term that Kant highlights in the above passage is ‘idea’.  While the Leibniz-Wolffian tradition (among others) used the term to include such things as the “idea of red”[8] and the “idea of a triangle”, while not using it to include such things as the concept of God and virtue[9].  The Leibniz-Wolffian tradition is using the term such that it expresses anything we experience; I experience red, so ‘red’ must be an idea.  Ideas are abstracted from sensible perception and the relationship between an object and an associated idea is of taken for granted.


Kant instead takes a very different route by denying any relationship between an idea to a real object and whose referent “simply cannot be met with in experience”[10]. 


Since his conception is different from the common usage and coining new words is rarely successful, Kant looks “around in a dead and scholarly language” to find an appropriate expression[11]. Plato’s Ideas are similar to Kant’s ideas in so far as Kant’s ideas are not taken from experience, they contain archetypes that are used by the understanding faculty[12], cannot be defined synthetically (see above), and all of morals is based on ideas[13]; while Plato’s Ideas are not taken from experience (i.e., the senses)[14], are archetypes of things themselves, are not formed by merely sorting out appearances according to synthetic unity (as Leibniz-Wolffian tradition’s ideas are formed), and are primarily practical. 


This is not to say that Kant’s ideas are the same as Plato’s Ideas, but they are similar enough that it justifies Kant in using the term.  This analogy between ideas and Ideas is what Kant meant by “safeguard the expression idea in its original [i.e., Platonic] meaning.”


“We are, after all, not lacking in names properly fitting each kind of presentation, and do not [in defining idea] need to encroach upon the property of another kind of presentation.”


That is, since we have the below chart, we do not have to have imprecision in explicating our terms.

Figure 1: Presentation Genus-Species Tree (with differentia in brackets)


“Here is a chart [Stufenleiter] of them.  The genus is presentation [Vorstellung] as such (repraesentatio).  Under it falls presentation with consciousness (perceptio).  A perception [Perzeption] that refers solely to the subject, viz., as the modification of the subject’s state, is sensation [Enfindung] (sensatio); an objective perception is cognition [Erkenntnis] (cognitio). Cognition is either intuition or concept [Anschauung, Begriff] (intuitus vel conceptus). An intuition refers directly to the object and is singular; a concept refers to the object indirectly, by means of a characteristic that may be common to several things.”


In Aristotelian fashion, Kant is presenting his definitions in genus-differentia form.  The highest genus term being used here is presentation.  Unfortunately, Kant believes that presentation cannot be defined nor explained despite that everyone “knows immediately” what a presentation is.  This is because logic presupposed the consciousness of presentations; hence, logic cannot teach how to present something.  He is willing to say that every presentation is something that is in us and is related to something else that is its object[15].  In CPR, Kant describes presentations as “inner determinations of our mind in this or that time relation”[16], but this seems rather unhelpful a description than, say, something like presentations are psychological or mental states in general.


A presentation-with-consciousness is called a perception.  Here, consciousness is a presentation of another presentation in me[17].  Conscious presentations are also called clear presentations.  While Kant does not discuss unconscious presentations in CPR, he does elsewhere where they are called obscure presentations (dunkle Vorstellungen)[18].  Kant describes obscure presentations as presentation whose activity “goes unnoticed even while it is being exercised” although it is “an admirably busy activity”[19].  One example Kant gives there is reading.  We are not conscious of the detailed activities of reading.


Perceptions are divided into perceptions that are objective (i.e., deal with objects although are not derived from objects or ideas) are cognitions and perceptions that refer to one’s self only are sensations.  Sensations include feelings of pain and the like, while cognitions refer to an object or a concept.  Cognitions that refer to a singular object are intuitions and cognitions that refer to many objects are concepts.  Kant also says that intuition refer to objects directly and conception refer indirectly, but these does not imply any “direct awareness” of the physical object in itself, but only that an intermediate concept isn’t needed.




Caygill, Howard.  1995.  A Kant Dictionary.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Copleston, Frederick.  1994 [1960].  A History of Philosophy.  Volume VI: From The French Enlightenment to Kant.  New York: Image Books.

Gardner, Sebastian.  1999.  Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason.  New York: Routledge.

Kant, Immanuel. Werner S. Pluhar, tr.  1996 [1781, 1787].  Critique of Pure Reason.  Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

________. David Walford, tr. and ed.  1992.  Theoretical Philosophy: 1755-1770.  New York: Cambridge University Press.  [This includes “Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy” and “Inquiry Concerning The Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality”]

________. J. Michael Young, tr. and ed.  1992.  Lectures in Logic.  New York: Cambridge University Press. [This includes “Blomberg Logic”, “The Vienna Logic”, and “The Jäsche Logic”.]



[1] Reference to Critique of Pure Reason will use page numbers of the first (A) and second (B) edition.  Other citations of Kant will have the English title of the work in italics, the German “Academy Edition” page numbers (AK) and the English Cambridge edition page numbers.

[2] I am following the Pluhar translation of rendering ‘Vorstellung’ as ‘presentation’ instead of ‘representation’.

[3] A314/B371

[4] Inquiry Concerning The Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality, AK 2:277, p. 249.

[5] Ibid., AK 2:276, p. 248.

[6] A730/B758

[7] Inquiry Concerning The Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality, AK 2:276, p. 248.

[8] A320/B377

[9] The Vienna Logic, AK 24:906-7, p. 350.

[10] The Jäsche Logic, AK 9:92, p. 590.

[11] A312/B369

[12] The Jäsche Logic, AK 9: 92, p. 590.

[13] The Vienna Logic, AK 24:906, p. 350.

[14] A313/B370

[15] The Blomberg Logic, AK 24:40, pp. 27-8.

[16] A197/B242

[17] The Jäsche Logic, AK 9:33, p. 544.

[18] The Jäsche Logic, AK 9:33, p. 545.

[19] Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy, AK 2:191, p. 229.