Kantian Metaphysics of the Mind

Image Credit: Wireless Philosophy, YouTube, 2014, Kant: On Metaphysical Knowlege

Paper penned for post-graduate studies, Religious Studies.

Rationalism versus Empiricism, and Metaphysics on the Backfoot

Much of Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) work was concerned with questions of the mind and metaphysics, particularly in response to criticisms from developments in science of his day (Want & Klimowski 2011, 28). His work was also an engagement with the debate between rationalists and empiricists, both of whom held different views concerning how human beings could know things and acquire knowledge (Want & Klimowski 2011, 38-39). As claimed by the empiricists, knowledge of the world could only be derived from sense experience. However, for the rationalists, such knowledge could only be acquired through the use of reason. Kant, however, realized that empiricism and rationalism could be combined, and he not only attempted to determine the conditions under which scientific knowledge was possible but also elucidate how human beings gained knowledge. Such a project led him to examine the features of the human mind deemed relevant to the acquisition of knowledge.

Mind and Soul: the Soul as Kant’s Starting Point

Kant’s work, in particular in his view of the soul from which he expands his examination of the human cognitive faculties, shows influence from the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (Kant 1783, 35-40). Aristotle proposed different kinds of souls such as the nutritive and the sensitive. The sensitive soul possessed certain faculties such as imagination, movement, and feeling pleasure and pain. Human beings had all these faculties as well as another faculty, namely that of reason. Through them, humans could think rationally, and possessed the ability to achieve an end (a purpose) as well as the power to enact change (potentiality). Aristotle’s framework was influential to later theorists, one of whom was Kant himself. Kant, following in Aristotle’s footsteps, entertained the idea of the soul and would assign different attributes to it.

The soul, wrote Kant, was “the thinking substance as the principle of life in matter,” and he provided a “tripartite” division to it in which he gave it three faculties: knowledge, desire, and feeling (pleasure and displeasure) (Want & Klimowski 2011, 45). Kant’s three critiques are expanded examinations of these three faculties as within each critique he examined what was specific to each one. However, of primary importance here is Kant’s first critique for it was in his Critique of Pure Reason that he so vividly fleshed out his conception of the mind to which one must turn if to understand Kant’s idea of experience.

The Mind’s Two Fundamental Capacities: Receptivity and Spontaneity

Kant saw the human mind as comprising two fundamental capacities, namely, receptivity and spontaneity (McLear 2018). Receptivity is deemed to be the mind’s ability to be affected by something external which produces representations. Throughout his first critique, Kant put emphasis on representation, which is perhaps best defined as discrete mental events or state of which the subject’s mind is aware, and that are produced by the mental faculties. Spontaneity is the term Kant used to denote the activity in the subject’s own mind postulated to be a combination of several fundamental faculties. For Kant, receptivity and spontaneity constituted the basis for all mental behaviour and thus paved the foundation from which he could go on to explore the different aspects of the mind (McLear 2018). Kant did, and derived additional faculties which included one receptive faculty (sensible intuition) and three active faculties (imagination, understanding, and reason). The term “faculty” is best understood in how a subject has the fundamental power or ability to perform rational functions.

One Mind, Many Faculties

Kant believed that a subject’s experience of objects were dependent on a system of mental processes and faculties within the subject (Want & Klimowski 2011, 44-46; Brook 2013). The term “subject” denotes the experiencing individual who is capable of possessing knowledge. These mental processes and faculties work together (some of them independently) to allow a subject to intuit, perceive, and experience objects within the world.

The receptive faculty of sensible intuition denotes how human beings, as well as other animals, are receptive. Intuition concerns that which is given to the subject through his or her perceptual experience of the world, and as such it is both receptive and pervasive. It is receptive in that the world impinges on the experiencing subject, and it is pervasive in that the experiencing subject has no choice but to experience the world. It is also immediate by which Kant meant that it occurred with minimal activity from the subject’s mind. Further, through what Kant called “forms of intuition,” a subject could observe and appreciate distinct objects through an awareness of their features. Kant observed two such domains of intuition, namely the inner and outer domains. The former denoting the subject’s intuition of the spatial world of material objects (within which the subject can be affected by physical things) and the latter the denoting temporally ordered states of mind (where the subject is affected by his or her own mind). There are also “pure” forms of intuition by which Kant meant intuitions absent of any sensation or that which could not be derived by the subject looking at the world. Kant referred to 12 of these under four headings (Quantity, Quality, Modality, Relation) some of which include mathematical truths (4+2=6) and logical truths such as there are no married bachelors. Kant thus posited fascinating ideas, one of which was that pure knowledge is synthetic given it adds to a subject’s knowledge. In other words, a subject’s knowledge could be increased without input from his or her senses. Kant also believed that the faculty of sensible intuition could never be mistaken for the “Senses do not judge.” If a mistake were to occur in the subject’s perception of an object in the world it would occur in one of the active faculties. As already noted, this faculty both generates and provides a subject with sensory representations. Representations are also structured by two “forms” of intuition, namely, space and time, meaning that a sense perception on behalf of the perceiving subject would always be spatial or temporal, and therefore have some corresponding spatial or temporal feature such as shape or extension (space) or successive or simultaneous features (McLear, 2018).

Additionally, the three faculties (understanding, imagination, and reason) are active as well as interactive processes, each of which depends on another. The faculty of imagination plays an important role in the generation of sensory representations of an object, and it is due to imagination that the subject can have a sensory experience of objects, namely, three-dimensional geometric figures. Kant also theorized that this faculty is a kind of mediator between the faculties of sensibility and understanding, which he referred to as a “transcendental function” in order to note its unique mediating role. This led Kant to introduce an additional faculty within this process: judgement, whose primary role is to synthesize experienced objects with concepts. A concept is understood here to be a species of representation which enables the subject to make sense of an object. In other words, judgement puts an experienced object (like ‘chair’) under the correct concept (‘furniture’) thus enabling the subject to make sense of the world. Judgement further explains why subjects could perceive the same objects in different ways and also be mistaken about objects. A subject could be mistaken about an object when, for instance, the subject subsumes it into the wrong concept.

The faculty of understanding is that which spontaneously generates conceptual representations, and engages in the ordering and classification of data given to it by the faculty of imagination. This faculty has the ability to form concepts, which are referred to as “categories,” and that both represent and order the data given by the imagination. Kant theorized numerous such categories, all of which act as mental rules according to which the subject links intuitions together into judgements. This too suggested that certain things could be known while other things could not, which led Kant to introduce the concepts of phenomena and noumena, with noumena denoting the nature of things as they are “within themselves” which were beyond the reach of the faculty of understanding. These were unprovable things such as transcendental objects unavailable to the faculty of sensible intuition (such as God). On the other hand, phenomena are those objects as they appear to perception (as we experience them), and that are objects of knowledge.

The faculty of reason, also to which Kant referred to as the “faculty of principles,” is that in which special kinds of concepts (Kant referred to these as “Ideas”) may be generated. There are three such concepts (Ideas) Kant proposed such as the soul, the cosmos, and God. In his later second critique, Critique of Practical Reason, Kant posited that the faculty of reason functioned as a legislative faculty which imposed a moral law on to the faculties of understanding and imagination.

Deducing Kant’s Notion of Experience

Given this basic formulation of Kant’s concept of the mind one is able to deduce Kant’s notion of experience. As evident, a subject’s experience of objects in the world (which are bound by the pure intuitions of space and time) is a result of a complex, layered interlocking of cognitive faculties acting independently and/or together to perform cognitive tasks. As such, the logical deduction is that a subject’s experience is based primarily in his or her mind, thus the mind being central in that without its faculties and processes there could be no experience of objects in the world for a subject. The world and its objects are therefore filtered through the human mind. There are additional reflective questions this inevitably raises. For example, if a subject’s experience of objects is bound by space and time (which are deemed to be constructs of the mind) then is there really an objectively existing world beyond the subject’s own mind? In other words, what exists independently of the subject’s own mind, and if we experience objects through our faculties then what are we really experiencing?


Brook, Andrew. 2013. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Kant’s View of the Mind and Consciousness of Self. Accessed March 15. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-mind/

Kant, Immanuel. 1783. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, pp. 35–43.

McLear, Colin. 2018. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Kant: Philosophy of Mind. Accessed March 15. https://www.iep.utm.edu/kandmind/

Want, Christopher & Klimowski, Andrzej. 2011. Introducing Kant. London: Icon Books

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