Kant lays out his theory of apperception in “Of the Deduction of the Pure Conceptions of the Understanding”. He does so in his usual style, which, as is widely known, includes a great deal of obfuscation, repetition, and tedious verbosity.
A diligent and patient reader with some philosophy background and a good translation will discover, eventually, that the vast majority of the notions he means to convey in The Critique are remarkably simplistic and powerful. I find it most unfortunate that his style has made the volume inaccessible to nearly everyone.
Below, I have attempted to render, paragraph by paragraph, Kant’s passages on apperception accessible to anyone who can handle the New York Times. This task became much more difficult toward the end of the section on apperception, but I think it’s an important project. There is certainly room for improvement in places, but I envision a collaborative effort to convert all of the Critique to simple English, so I intend for this to be more of a seed than a final proclamation on how best to convey these concepts.
My simple English paraphrases appear italicized, and my further explanations follow in regular font. The paragraph numbered 1.1 corresponds to the first paragraph of the first topic in section II of chapter II, 3.2 to the second paragraph of the third topic, etc. Without further delay, I give you the first installment of “Kant in Simple English”.
To combine a bunch of separate experiences into a single concept, there must be something outside of the experiences performing the combination.
When Kant writes “manifold content”, he’s referring to the stream of information constituting experience over time. When we form concepts, we combine pieces of information gathered over some period of time. It may be a short period, as when we listen to a sentence that takes two seconds to speak; or it may be a very long period, as when we come to understand what “Italian food”, as a whole, tastes like by ordering several different Italian dishes over the course of a few months or years. Each experience is separated by time from all the other experiences. There is nothing about the taste of garlic bread on October third that suggests it should have something to do with the smell of alfredo sauce on February second. The relationship among experiences is not contained in the experiences themselves. Instead, it is imposed on them artificially by something outside the experiences—by us.
Kant calls the ability to gather diverse experiences into larger concepts “understanding”, and the gathering itself he calls “synthesis”. The understanding can gather (or synthesize) not only experiences, but also concepts. We might form the concept “three” by gathering together many experiences in which we sensed that number of sounds or sights, but we might also form the more abstract concept “number” by gathering together the concepts of one, two, three, four, etc. All synthesis, writes Kant, is an act of the understanding.
“Combination” involves three things: 1)the concept of a bunch of separate things, 2) the concept of the action of gathering all those things together, and 3)the concept of unity—that the result of this process is a single whole. (I don’t mean the category I’ve been calling “unity”; the concept of a category requires the concept of combination, so that would be circular. This kind of unity is something more abstract still.)
Since the concept of “unity” must exist for there to be combination (or “conjunction”) in the first place, unity can’t come from combination itself. The whole-ness of unified things must be a product of something beyond combination.
Inasmuch as my sensations are specifically my sensations, they presuppose the thing I call “me”; thus the act of sensing and the ability to sense also presuppose me. Self-awareness cannot arise entirely from any of these things, because it is awareness of something presupposed by all of them.
All of my sensations and such presuppose exactly the same me.
The only thing that my experiences have in common is that there is a subject who experiences all of them. That doesn’t mean the experiencer is somehow embedded in its experiences—it is no part of the taste of garlic bread—but instead that there is a relationship that holds between the subject and its experiences. When I reflect on this fact, I perceive unity of the subject across all of the experiences; it’s the same subject every time. Moreover, it’s the same subject experiencing the reflection on the subject of experiences! I call that unitary subject “me” (Kant calls it “apperception”).
It’s interesting that there is sameness of the me presupposed by all those different sensations; the me who experiences sensations participates in of lots of different acts of experiencing, and there’s not anything about any one of those acts that ties it directly to the others. Self-awareness is needed to combine all of these actions into a single concept of “me”. So, for me to exist as an identity among experiences, I must be self-aware.
My awareness of myself is why my experiences can all be gathered together under the heading “my experiences”. Without the unity in the combination described by that heading, there would be nothing tying all those experiences together; there might as well be a different experiencer for each experience. They are, after all, each separated by time. Since I am exactly the thing that experiences all of my experiences, the lack of unity would preclude my existence. Unity, you’ll recall, can’t be a product simply of combination, so the combination of all those subjects does not itself account for selfhood. There must be something above the experience/experiencer relation that makes the combination across times possible. The self can’t exist without self-awareness (apperception).
Remember all that stuff I just said about unity and self-awareness? Good. It was important.
This paragraph is mostly repetition and emphasis of the concepts in the previous two paragraphs.
Earlier in this book, I talked about some other conditions presupposed by experience. Specifically, I said that the kind of thing we usually count as “experience” can’t exist without Space and Time. Those are both forms of what I called “sensibility”.
Self-awareness is another condition for experience just like Space and Time, but it involves the mind (or “understanding”) instead of sensibility.
Here, Kant is drawing a parallel between these passages on apperception and those on the transcendental aesthetic from earlier on. He is also enumerating the conditions he’s so far determined are necessary for experience: space, time, and self-awareness.
A judgment about the relationship of a group of sensations to the particular object that caused those sensations is called a cognition. The grouping of various sensations must be done by the self I’ve been talking about, because grouping is a kind of unity, and unity comes from self-awareness. The relationship between sensations and objects is the objective validity of cognitions, so a self is required for there to be objective truth, cognitions, or anything else that goes on in minds (or “the understanding”).
When I see an aardvark in front of me and I judge it to be true that, “The thing in front of me is an aardvark,” what I’m really claiming is, “The object that caused the sensations that I grouped together into the concept ‘aardvark’ really is an aardvark, objectively speaking.” It’s a claim about the relationship between the concept formed by my understanding and the object outside of my understanding (specifically in sensibility). Because concepts are formed through combinations, combinations require unity, and unity is a product of self-awareness, the whole notion of objective truth would be meaningless without selfhood.
That the self is the same self across all experiences is a prerequisite for there being a mind.
This is already clear from 3.2 and earlier paragraphs. Unity is a product of self-awareness; since unity is a product of self-awareness, everything that depends on unity also depends on the self. The main jobs of a mind (or “the understanding”) are to form concepts and make judgments about them. To make judgments about concepts, you first need concepts. To form concepts, you first need to combine sensations. Combination requires unity. Unity requires self-awareness. Therefore, the mind depends on self-awareness.
Read 2.2 again. I really like what I said there.
I’m not saying that there’s a particular act of combining that must happen for there to be a mind; only that the mind must be able to combine things, and that the unity of the self is what makes that possible.
We wouldn’t even be able to conceive of a mind without self-awareness to ground it.
Objective unity of selfhood is different from subjective unity of selfhood. Objective unity is the gathering up of all the different bits of self scattered across experiences into a whole. Subjective unity is the ability of the little bits of self to be gathered up like that. It’s necessary that the self is objectively unified, but it just so happens that it’s also subjectively unified.
Objective unity can exist if and only if there is subjective unity. Objective unity is one of the prerequisites for experience, and that is true regardless of whether or not there really is experience. That there is experience, however, is not logically necessary.