Christo Stoev

Transcendental (transzendental)

                    Transcendental is that which concerns the critical-philosophical reflection on the conditions and possibility of our knowledge a priori. In a different but similar sense, transcendental is any spontaneous activity (or understood functionally: any condition) of our cognitive capacity in so far as in it the possibility of a priori knowledge or the possibility of experience in general in its a priori structure is grounded.

            The transcendental should be carefully distinguished from the transcendent. If the latter is that which completely goes beyond the sphere of experience and in that sense is extra-experiential, then the transcendental “does not mean something which goes beyond any experience but that which really precedes any experience (a priori), though it is not determined for anything more than making the experiential knowledge possible”[1]. With a view of placing the distinction in question in a wider context, it can be said that if the transcendent is what goes beyond a given realm (experience) from an objectual perspective, then the transcendental is what goes beyond the realm in question from a cognitive-reflexive perspective. Thus, if the opposite of the transcendent is the immanent, then the opposite of the transcendental is the empirical (in the sense of empirically grounded).

            Firstly, the transcendental for Kant concerns the critical philosophical reflection on the possibility of knowledge a priori and in this sense also on the possibility of experience (in so far as the form and constitution of the latter is to be given a priori). In accordance with this Kant states that he calls “transcendental any knowledge that deals not so much with objects in general as with our manner of knowing objects insofar as this manner of knowing is to be possible a priori”. Thence it becomes clear that transcendental knowledge is not in the least knowledge of objects (essences), i. e. it is not in the least real knowledge but meta-knowledge of the manner in which real knowledge itself is acquired. This categorical understanding of the reflexive character of transcendental knowledge would protect us from confusing it with some type a metaphysical (i. e. transcendental) knowledge concerning intelligible (supersensible) essences. On the contrary, transcendental knowledge in its capacity of meta-knowledge will be in fact a critique of any knowledge that claims to have access to objects a priori, analyzing its claims with a view to its origin and grounds of validity. In this sense transcendental knowledge will be critical knowledge of the source, conditions and bounds of any objectual knowledge or even knowledge that claims to be such.

            In this line of thought one more thing needs to be emphasized.  The scientific character of a given piece of knowledge consists of exclusively in its character of universality and necessity. But “necessity and strict universality are the certain distinguishing marks of every a priori knowledge”. Therefore, scientific knowledge will be possible solely a priori at least with a view to its grounds (basic propositions). Thence it is understandable why Kant specifies that transcendental knowledge concerns the possibility of our knowledge exactly a priori. Because it is critical knowledge that considers objectual knowledge not simply and only with a view to its natural possibility but also the grounds of its scientific status (or even only its claim to being scientific). In this sense, the task of a precisely transcendental philosophy will be to answer the familiar questions ensuing from the main problem of pure reason: “How is pure mathematics possible?”, “How is pure natural science possible?” and “How is metaphysics as science possible?”.

The above mentioned makes it clear what the term “transcendental philosophy” actually stands for, what the subject-matter of that philosophy is and what it will include. It will be “a science that determines the possibility, principles and the scope of all a priori knowledge”. Thence it is also elucidated what the meaning of the expression “transcendental” in the titles of the major sections of the Critique of Pure Reason that try to find the answers to the above-mentioned questions is. Thus, the transcendental aesthetic is the study of the possibility, principles and the scope of the a priori forms of sensibility (which ground pure mathematics), the transcendental analytic – of the possibility, principles and the scope of understanding (as a basis of pure natural science), and the transcendental dialectic – of the possibility, principles and the scope of reason in itself in particular (the supposed basis of metaphysics).  

According to a consonant definition of Kant’s,
“not every a priori knowledge should be called transcendental but only the one through which we come to know that and how certain representations (intuitions or concepts) are applied or are possible solely a priori”. In relation to this it must be categorically stressed that the transcendental must not be equated with the a priori. As previously noted, the transcendental should be understood as being in fact an a priori critical philosophical reflection on the a priori itself. Transcendental is the investigation of how the a priori is possible, how it is valid and how it is applied to objects. This is the sense in which we should understand also titles as, for example, “transcendental deduction” – the latter is a critical philosophical investigation of the legitimacy of application and of use of the a priori forms of the understanding (the categories) and in this sense of their validity.  

In accordance with the above Kant distinguishes the “transcendental elucidation” from the metaphysical one. Whereas the latter simply certifies a concept as given a priori, the transcendental elucidation is the “explanation of a concept as a principle from which one can understand the possibility of other a priori synthetic propositions”. Accordingly, the mentioned deduction of the categories can be understood as their transcendental elucidation too.

To summarize: the concept transcendental taken in a strict sense is not to be associated with the real knowledge of some given objects but only with the philosophical reflection on the manner of a priori knowing objects. The aim of the transcendental investigation is not some objects (be they phenomenal or noumenal) but the cognitive attitude to objects itself, in so far as it can be determined a priori. The transcendental investigation and transcendental logic in particular should also be clearly distinguished from purely formal logic. Transcendental logic, in its capacity of a critical philosophical logic, unlike general formal logic is not in the least interested in the forms of knowledge in themselves, i. e., with no reference to their origin and abstracted from any relation to their potential content.  On the contrary, it is interested in these forms, only and solely “in so far as they are a priori related to objects”.

Finally, in the context of all that has been said so far, it can be noted that the critical philosophical (transcendental) question of the possibility of knowledge a priori is at the same time a question of the a priori possibility of the objects of knowledge themselves. Transcendental philosophy investigates in this sense how the very objects of knowledge are constituted and regulatively determined and what is the origin of their objective status. Thus, the focus of its attention is on those acts of our cognitive capacity (with a view to the spontaneity of the latter) through which experience and its potential objects are determined (formed). Curiously enough, Kant calls the acts in questions also “transcendental”, by which transcendental here acquires the sense of making experience possible a priori.

When introducing the concept, we emphasized that “transcendental” has this second, additional sense of making experience possible. In this context it can no longer be surprising that Kant explicitly speaks of “transcendental acts of mind” (transzendentale Handlungen des Gemüts). In the same sense it also becomes clear why apperception (in its capacity of an act and in the end of a condition of the possibility of experience and its objects) is called “transcendental apperception” and its unity – “transcendental unity”. In the same sense Kant further speaks of the “transcendental capacity of imagination” and its “transcendental synthesis”. What is more, Kant even defines this second sense of the concept of “transcendental”, with the remark that the syntheses in question “are transcendental not only because they themselves act a priori but also because they ground a priori the possibility of another knowledge”.

Let us summarize: according to the second sense in question what is called “transcendental” is not the critical methodological investigation of the possibility of our knowledge a priori but an act (or functionally understood: a condition) such that within the frame of our cognitive capacity makes (grounds) some other knowledge possible or makes experience itself in it’s a priori constitution possible. In this second sense the transcendental is not itself a priori but is what makes the a priori possible or whose product is the a priori.

In the considered context it could become clear what the sense is in which Kant speaks of a “transcendental subject” or of a “transcendental object”. They are the formally understood poles of the cognitive activity in question, through which knowledge is formed for us and its empirical objects are constituted. They are not to be understood as some extra-experiential objects or essences because, as Kant repeatedly insists, there is no respective intellectual intuition in which they could be “given”. Nevertheless, another aspect can be recognized according to which Kant speaks of a “transcendental subject and object (Gegenstand)”[2] and it is in fact the negative aspect. The transcendental, in its capacity of the opposite of the empirical, can be understood as that which is thought of regardless of the specifics of our capacity of intuition, sensibility and therefore regardless of the manner, in which things can be given to us, respectively known by us. Accordingly, a “transcendental object” will mean object in general[3] (i. e. an object regardless of the manner in which it could be known). That is why Kant says that “the transcendental subject is something = X, of which we know absolutely nothing and of which (in accordance with the present structure of our understanding) we cannot know anything”.

Finally, it is worth noting to explain in what sense Kant speaks of the “transcendental use” (or rather “misuse”) of categories so that it is not confused with the claim of a “transcendental use” of ideas. Here “transcendental” again has the sense mentioned above – a use with regard to objects in general and hence regardless of our manner of intuition. So, the transcendental use is to be understood simply as a non-empirical use. If in this respect it can be said that the transcendental use of categories would only wish to ignore our capacity of intuition (sensibility) and the realm of the empirical, then of the transcendental use of ideas it will have to be stated that, on the contrary, it postulates completely determinately a supersensible realm with its respective intelligible objects. In connection with the latter uses of the term, a third sense could be recognized, a sense explicitly formulated by Kant himself, according to which transcendental is that which is “independent of empirical principles”.

[1] Kant, Prolegomena, p. 157.

[2] Here, in that most general of aspects, the cognitive distinction between Gegenstand and Objekt disappears.

[3] Analogously, Kant speaks of the transcendental subject as a “thing in general“.


Kant, Immanuel (1974) Kritik der reinen Vernunft. – In: Werkausgabe in 12 Bänden. Band III/IV. Suhrkamp.

Kant, Immanuel (1998) Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Allison, H. (2004) Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, Revised and Enlarged Edition.

Höffe, O. (1994) Immanuel Kant, Albany: State University of New York Press.

How to Cite:

Stoev, Christo (2021) Transcendental, in Thesaurus. Sofia University Dictionary of Philosophy. Online edition. Sofia: St. Kliment Ohridski University Press, 2021, ISSN 2815-2832.