Dissertation Summary

Sensation and Intentionality in Kant’s Theory of Empirical Cognition

The dissertation presents an attempt to explain how sensations make possible the “intentionality”, or “aboutness”, of empirical representations in Kant’s theory of empirical cognition. Sensation is the only a posteriori element in empirical cognition, and hence is the only thing that allows for representational relations to actual, concrete, particular objects. Unfortunately, Kant says frustratingly little about sensation in his Critique, and not all of what he does say is obviously consistent. Sometimes sensations are mere mental states, other times they also have a representational function; when they are representational, sometimes they represent the sensing subject itself, other times they represent objects in the world. My reconstruction of Kant’s theory of sensation provides a reading of his various remarks about sensation in a way that is not only consistent and systematically unified, but also illuminates the role of sensation in establishing intentional relations to empirical objects. I show that the objects of cognition are mere intentional objects constructed by the faculties of “sensibility” and “understanding” and that sensation provides the basic “material” for this construction. Although my discussion is focused primarily on the historical project of reconstructing Kant’s theory, many features of my interpretation stake out positions that are defensible in their own right. This is especially true with respect to my analysis of intentionality, the phenomenology thereof, and the function of sensation in establishing intentional relations in sensory consciousness.

Most commentators who have written on Kant’s theory of sensation take sensations to be either non-representational mental states (e.g., Sellars, Pippin, and McDowell) or representations only of the subject’s own sensory state (e.g., Thompson, Aquila, and Watkins). After an introductory chapter, I show (Chapter 2) that Kant assigns an “objective” function to sensation, by virtue of which sensations do not merely correspond to objects in the world, but also in some sense represent these objects, thereby underwriting the most rudimentary form of intentionality in Kant’s model of the mind. I then turn (Chapter 3) to showing in detail how sensations can perform this function through their relation to what Kant calls “empirical intuition,” which is the representational form through which all cognition relates to objects. Two central questions stand in need of resolution here: 1. What is it for a representation to “relate to an object” for Kant (i.e., how does he understand intentionality)? 2. How does sensation establish this relation in empirical intuition? My answers: 1. “Relation to an object” is a fundamentally internalist notion and has to do only with the obtaining of certain representational contents. 2. In intuition the subject is non-conceptually aware of the qualities of occurrent sensations, and these qualities are assigned to locations within the a priori representation of space. The non-conceptual awareness presented in intuition can become full “cognition” when concepts of the understanding determine these sensory qualities in terms of concepts describing a physical body. My interpretation is thus an “intentionalist” reading because the objects of experience turn out to be mere intentional objects having no ontological status in their own right (with respect to this last point, my interpretation bears some affinities to those of Aquila and Van Cleve).

In Chapter 4 I address the relation between sensation and the concept of “reality” (as discussed in Kant’s “Anticipations of Perception”), which is the most basic conceptual representation of an object as a real thing occupying a region of space. Kant argues that we can infer transcendentally necessary features of all realities in space on the basis of certain features of sensations. Most commentators (e.g., Bennett and Guyer) who have given any attention to this argument dismiss it as a complete failure. I show that they miss the point of his argument, and that by reading the argument in terms of the intentionalist interpretation defended in Chapter 3, we can make sense of the argument and incorporate it into his broader transcendental system in a philosophically and textually satisfying way. I show that facts about sensations can determine facts about the objects of experience because these objects are mere intentional objects constructed out of what is given in sensation.

In the final chapter I address the relationship between sensations and things in themselves in order to clarify the role of sensations in Kant’s arguments against idealism. Here I reconstruct Kant’s claims that sensations “prove” the existence of external entities (both spatial appearances and transcendent things in themselves). This allows for a response to the objection (as formulated by, e.g., Abela and Allais) that intentionalist interpretations like the one I offer are incompatible with Kant’s avowed “empirical realism.” Since what we sense is dependent on things in themselves and what we represent as appearance is dependent on what we sense, a strong connection between appearance and things in themselves is established, which allows us to recognize a healthy dose of realism in an otherwise phenomenalist and idealist picture of the mind and its representations.