Cambridge Kant Reading Group – third session 5th of February

As part of our Semester 2 Research Seminars, today we’ll discuss the following text by Mark Pickering: “The Idea of the Systematic Unity of Nature as a Transcendental Illusion.”, published in Kantian Review 16 (3): 429-448 (2011)

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5 Responses to Cambridge Kant Reading Group – third session 5th of February

  1. hennyblomme says:

    I think that this paper provides us with a good synthesis of what was already discussed by Grier and Geiger and as I see it, it is the best paper we’ve had till now. (Personally I found Geiger the least convincing). Like Grier, Pickering has no difficulties with the paradoxical statement that ideas do appear as objectively necessary but are actually “only” subjectively necessary – at the same time, I think his analysis is somewhat clearer than that of Grier. With regard to the idea of a systematic unity of nature, Pickering writes: “The unity posited by the idea is an ordered combination or system, as opposed to an aggregate of concepts. One does not get this idea from nature, but one demands that nature conform to it. This means that if our experience does not conform to it, we consider it to be defective and search for unity. Thus, while the unity is actually subjectively necessary, the thought of it may be said to appear to be objectively necessary. That is what makes it an illusion.” (p.433). Pickering concludes that “strictly speaking, the idea is not transcendental, objectively necessary, or objectively valid in any sense. However, according to Kant , the benefits of assuming that the idea of the systematic unity of nature is all three of these things in a certain sense make the assumption unavoidable as a heuristic or maxim in scientific practice. This is what makes it a transcendental illusion. As long as one keeps the difference firmly in mind between assuming that the idea is transcendental and the idea being really transcendental, one is not deceived by the illusion.” (p.445). Against Geiger’s exclusive opposition between a transcendental and a heuristic interpretation of the principles and against his position that no empirical concepts and therefore no experience whatsoever is possible without the idea of a system of empirical concepts, Pickering writes: “First, if empirical concepts do not get their meaning from intuition but from their relation to one another, we need more than the idea of a systematic unity of nature in order to have meaningful empirical concepts. Rather, we would need to actually have a system of empirical concepts if any empirical concept were to have any meaning whatsoever. The idea of a system is not the same thing as a system.” This was indeed a big problem with Geiger’s account and it is difficult to understand why Geiger didn’t see that. Pickering continues: “Second, on Kant’s view empirical concepts do get their content or meaning from intuition. Kant says when defining empirical concepts that they contain sensation. He also says that the comparison of representations precedes the concept of the thing. Additionally, Kant says in his Jäsche Logik that ‘the empirical concept springs from the senses through comparison of the objects of experience and receives only the form of generality from the understanding. The reality of these concepts rests on actual experience, from which they are created with regard to their content.’ This reference to Kant’s logic of concepts and his theory of concept-formation was absent in Geiger’s paper. Pickering refers to Longuenesse (see note 17) for an account of Kant’s theory of concept formation, which indeed shouldn’t be confused with Kant’s words about homogeneity, heterogeneity and continuity in the Transcendental Dialectic (or in the Appendix). A problem with Longuenesse’s account though is that she blurs the distinction between the concepts of reflection of which Kant speaks in the Amphiboly and the concepts of comparison involved in the formation of empirical concepts. A better – and very clear – account of Kant’s theory of the formation of concepts is to be found in the (German) book by Bernd Prien: Kants Logik der Begriffe (Kant-Studien Ergänzungshefte, published by De Gruyter, 2006).

    • Mark Pickering says:


      I will have a look at Prien’s book. Thanks for the suggestion!


      • hennyblomme says:

        Hi Mark,

        Thanks a lot for joining us in this virtual discussion!
        I just discovered that there is a new italian book on Kant’s Theory of the formation of concepts (I haven’t read it though) – it was published in September 2011: Alberto Vanzo, Kant e la formazione dei concetti, Publicazioni di Verifiche.

        All the best!


  2. Katharina Kraus says:

    Yes, indeed, our discussion has become a “debate” now – a debate concerning various issues in connection with Kant’s idea of systematic unity. And as you have rightly guessed, our discussion, again, was focussed on the aspect of concept-formation and we closely discussed Pickering’s criticism of Geiger’s position.
    Concerning the first criticism, saying that the idea of a system is not enough to get meaningful empirical concepts, but what is needed is an “actual” system of empirical concepts: This criticism itself seems valid, however, I am not sure whether it really captures Geiger’s position. I think, Geiger does not say that empirical concepts get their meaning “only” through the idea of a system; rather, he says they get their meaning from intuition, but this is not enough, therefore, the idea of a system is also required. But of course, it still leaves the gap between the idea of a system and the actual system. However, I am not sure whether Kant himself gives a convincing answer to the question of how we have acquired the “first” empirical concepts, how all language etc. got started… But that probably leads astray.
    Concerning the second criticism, the reference to the “Jäsche Logic” is definitely helpful and worthwhile. Yet, again, I don’t think that Geiger wants to deny the requirement of intuition. Rather, his point is that intuitions as such are not enough to pick out marks and thus form concepts. He criticised the empiricist picture, according to which marks can be straightforwardly read off intuitions. – We were a bit confused about Pickering’s own position here – see my second point below.

    So, back to Pickering’s own account: we had two pressing questions about his position. First, we were not really sure what exactly the differences between his account and Grier’s position were. They both seem to agree on the interpretation that certain ideas appear as objectively necessary and valid, but are in fact “merely” subjectively necessary and valid, as you have also pointed out. Grier gives an underpinning of this interpretation in terms of her reading of transcendental illusion, which says that transcendental illusions themselves are to a certain extent necessary and cannot be avoided. Pickering claims in the introduction that he would take up her reading of transcendental illusion, but as far as I see, he nowhere directly discusses his account against the background of Grier’s – or directly addresses issues that have been left open in Grier’s paper. So, what exactly does he add to (or amend with respect to) Grier’s position? I suppose it has something to do with how he understands “transcendental”. He explicitly says that the idea of systematicity is not transcendental, though it is assumed to be so. If I remember correctly, Grier says that the idea itself is transcendental – in the sense of “transcendental, but only regulative”, in contrast to “transcendental and constitutive”. She does not exactly use these terms, but that’s how I understood her. Of course, this might be a questionable understanding of “transcendental”.
    Second, how exactly does Pickering understand “experience”? Obviously, there is always a terminological difficulty here. “Experience” in ordinary English is closer to what is commonly understood as “perception” or “perceptual experience” etc. However, Kant – at least most of the time – clearly uses it as a technical term for “empirical judgment” or “empirical knowledge” or better “empirical cognition” in accordance with the categories and by means of concepts. Pickering writes: “That empirical concepts get their meaning or content from intuition and that empirical concepts are not required for experience both entail that perception of nonconceptual content is possible.” (p.441). Clearly, this statement would not be valid, if “experience” here meant the Kantian technical term. So, how does he understand “experience”? A note about his use would have at least been desirable.
    Finally, thanks, Henny, for your hints on the literature about Kant on concept-formation. That’s really helpful!!

    • Mark Pickering says:


      With regard to your first question–I should have made the relationship between my arguments and Grier’s more explicit, but I only realized this when I was reading the proofs of the article (it was too late to make substantial changes). I do not think her ultimate position as to the status of the idea of the systematic unity of nature in Kant’s philosophy is clear. But I do not think that any idea can be ‘transcendental’ in the strict sense of being an a priori condition of the possibility of knowledge (Erkenntnis) of objects. That is why I said that the idea of the systematic unity of nature is transcendental only in a “watered-down” sense of being sometimes helpful but not strictly necessary for knowledge of objects (444). So this isn’t so much a disagreement with Grier as a distinction that she doesn’t make (as I recall). I take this to be one example of where my position is compatible with hers but more specific.

      With regard to your second question–I took myself to be using ‘experience’ in its technical Kantian sense. I do not think that experience (understood as empirical cognition (Erkenntnis)) requires empirical concepts. Why should we believe that empirical concepts are required for experience? If experience=empirical cognition=empirical judgment, then experience requires some subject and some predicate. And the categories, one might say, are not specific enough for such a judgment. But why can’t we just say that this caused that? (where ‘this’ and ‘that’ stand for intuitions, which have a determinate place in space and time sufficient for indexicals to make sense). My main reason for thinking that this must count as empirical judgment for Kant is that otherwise we need empirical concepts in order to get empirical concepts. Therefore, we will never be able to get empirical concepts to start with.


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