Part II: Hegel’s Autocritique of Kant’s Pure Transcendental Idealism

Philosophy Is No Secret
9 min readFeb 28, 2022


Hegel’s argument for the world’s rational character continues what Immanuel Kant names transcendental philosophy.

What is Transcendental in Kant?

According to the American analytic philosopher Richard Schacht, what is transcendental in Kant is “what might be called the basic structures of the mind” (1975, p. 24). Those “structures of the mind” are the “basic” requirements for experience. Conditions of possibility are transcendental to subjective experience for being required to have subjectivity at all.

Kant’s argument pertains to those structures “which,” Schacht writes, “are essentially the same in all of us and which do their work prior to the emergence of our thoughts and perceptions” (Schacht, p. 24). Rather than the passive reception of stimuli, the mind activates a framework of basic associations “which do their work” to synthesize experience from raw sense data. Before we have any experience, the very possibility of thought and perception depends on prior conditions for receiving sensation. That necessary status of priority is what is transcendental.

Kant refutes each the skeptical and empiricist theories of knowledge by completing both. Uniquely, he contends how, although all knowledge comes from sense perception, understanding requires basic structures of mind.

What is Copernican about Kant’s Critique?

“We should then be proceeding precisely on the lines of Copernicus’ primary hypothesis. Failing of satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolved round the spectator, he tried whether he might not have better success if he made the spectator revolve and the stars to remain at rest.” (1960, p. 375)

In the above selection, Kant reveals his Copernican intention from the very start of his Critique of Pure Reason (1781). He critique’s the conclusion from empiricism “that all our knowledge must conform to objects” (1960, p. 375). In Kant’s transcendental critique, the reverse is true, that all objects conform to the requirements of knowledge.

Kant revolutionizes the claim from empiricism that “all our knowledge begins with experience,” in his critique, “that it should be possible to have knowledge of objects a priori, determining something in regard to them prior to their being given” (p. 375). By his critique of empiricism, Kant asks what is possible to know about an object prior to experiencing that thing.

In a concrete sense, I still know certain things about a birthday present before I unwrap it, things that are universal to all objects. It is a basic requirement of space that any object must fit within the bounds of its container.

Kant’s transcendental critique establishes the necessary conditions for having any knowledge of objects a priori, that is, before their being given or perceived. Before I unwrap that gift, I already know some things about it. Namely, that it exists in space and time.

In his book Hegel and After (1975), Schacht writes how Kant’s Copernican “revolution” in philosophy reverses the relation of the mind knowing a natural world. Instead, “it [the world] is now understood, not as existing independently of the mind, but rather as having no existence independent of it” (p. 24). In consequence, what humans understand about “the nature of things,” according to Schacht, “reflects not the nature of things in themselves but the nature of the mind” (Schacht, p. 24).

The transcendental argument is, as Schacht writes, “that we experience things as ordered in space and time” because “we cannot, according to Kant, conceive of experience except in terms of the forms of space and time and the categories” (1975, p. 23). Prior to experience, the mind’s ability to understand depends on universal judgments like the categories of space and time.

The a priori judgment is independent of all experience. Pure knowledge is prior to empirical knowledge which, by contrast, is “possible only a posteriori.In his first Critique, Kant gives the example of a transcendental judgment prior to experience:

“Thus we would say of a man who undermined the foundations of his house, that he might have known a priori that it would fall, that is, that he need not have waited for the experience of its actual falling.” (1960, p. 376)

Kant distinguishes pure from empirical knowledge, the former being derived not “immediately” or “from experience, but” he writes, “from a universal rule.” The difference is the source each knowledge.

For his distinction, Kant writes that experience still teaches heaviness is a “concept.” His example of the house undermined is not pure knowledge since, “he had first to learn through experience that bodies are heavy, and therefore fall when their supports are withdrawn” (376). Impure knowledge requires the admixture of experience to form a concept. Pure knowledge is derived from a universal rule.

Kant establishes the necessity of those structures universal to subjective experience. Understanding anything is the effect of the a priori judgment. The universality of his argument seriously challenges the empirical theory of experience and knowledge.

Empirical Knowledge and Hume’s Skepticism

Before Kant, the British philosopher John Locke argued that human knowledge relies on experience of the world. Locke’s famous metaphor for the mind is a blank slate or tabula rasa as a passive surface for receiving sense inscription. Only by the senses do minds passively receive knowledge about the world. In his doctrine of empiricism, Locke denies the existence of innate ideas in the mind prior to experience. Transcendent to experience are real forces like bodies of matter in movement. Kant calls the philosophy of John Locke “transcendental realism” because, to Locke, reality causes our ideas. To him, sense phenomena respond to mechanical cause and effect.

The theory of knowledge from Locke is critiqued by the philosopher David Hume. Originally in 1739, Hume concludes reason alone is inadequate for justifying the idea of causality. Although things appear to carry on independently by natural law, there is no contradiction to compel the form of a logical guarantee. His is the famous problem of induction. Ultimately, Hume argues there are no non-circular justifications for concluding anything based on experience.

Still, Hume concedes the world admits regularity, except that order does not prove its own necessity. From this discrepancy, Hume contends there is no non-circular justification for arguments grounded in experience.

The problem of induction is that experience cannot guarantee causality as scientifically valid. In appearances, Hume argues that we do not apprehend cause and effect as such, but only as a constant conjunction. We believe in the relation of cause and effect because our experience habituates the mind to form a belief.

Hume argues all we perceive are disparate sense phenomena in succession. In his distinction, empirical observation proves no causal necessity between appearances. The mind perceives no causation from experiencing that “constant and regular conjunction” of things (section IV, paragraph 29).

We expect the regular results of an effect because we have experienced it in the past. This is no guarantee of necessity or scientific validity. This is due rather to the associative mechanisms of the mind.

In Kant’s critique, cause and effect are imperceptible since they are universal concepts. Precisely what Kant needs to re-establish metaphysics as a pure science is the mind’s ability to associate ideas in a framework of understanding. On the basis of that connection, Kant appeals to the pure understanding rather than experience as the source of pure knowledge.

Metaphysics itself is a composite of these prior connections made by the understanding. The effect of Kant proves the existence of a priori conditions that make universal and necessary judgments possible. Prior to empirical knowledge, concepts from the understanding prove the reality of the a priori judgment.

Kant writes that “the concept of the connexion of cause and effect was by no means the only idea by which the understanding thinks the connexion of things a priori” (Kant, Prolegomena, p. 10). Kant concluded Hume was right, although underdeveloped. Hume’s interest in the validity or usefulness of causal reasoning overlooks the origin of such reasoning.

Kant puts Hume’s “understanding” “into a general form.” For this, Kant generalizes an intuition from Hume’s “connexion of the given perceptions” to the form of “the universal and necessary” categories which structure our experience (Hume, part 2, section 19).

Kant’s Metaphysics After Hume

Kant’s ambition for metaphysics is to re-establish it as a necessary and universal science. Metaphysics is a body of knowledge like any other, composed by judgments. Metaphysical judgments are necessary and universal. In order to retrieve metaphysics as science Kant must establish the synthetic a priori judgment because synthetic judgments justify the scope of reason.

Hume considers metaphysical judgments to be inferences or simply “the effects of the human make and fabric” (section IV, paragraph 22). In his skeptical argument, human psychology makes associations, “to connect ideas” (section III, paragraph 19). There is where Kant begins, in the prior foundation of necessary and universal judgments. Necessary and universal judgments like those in metaphysics and mathematics are only possible due to the mind’s prior ideas of time and space.

In Kant’s perspective, Hume’s skepticism threatens to reduce metaphysics to an empirical psychology. As an empiricist, Hume bases his theory of knowledge on a “science of human nature.” In his book, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) the human mind already has innate ideas including “resemblance, contiguity in time and space, cause and effect” (section III, paragraph 19). In Kant’s reading of Hume, these innate ideas are not unreal or arbitrary for being precarious judgments.

After his reading Hume, Kant’s slumber is over when he asks whether causality could be true a priori or “independent of all experience” (Introduction to Prolegomena). If, as Schacht writes, Kant’s argument pertains to “all empirical and theoretical knowledge,” (24) then all experience of nature complies not to nature in-itself, but universally to the mind’s categories of understanding formed prior to experience.

As a consequence, all sense phenomena come pre-structured by the formal intuitions of space and time. Phenomena are structured by intuition, but the things-in-themselves are not. The actual nature of things is what Kant calls the noumenal, something unknowable because it is beyond all possible experience.

Although humans experience nature as something ordered, Schacht writes, “it is because the mind operates as it does, rather than because things in themselves are actually like that” (23). That we experience nature is no proof of any knowledge deriving from it. What things are like in-themselves is something beyond the range of possible experience.

Hegel’s Negation of Kant’s Thing-In-Itself

Hegel‘s rupture with purely Kantian philosophy occurs at the level of fundamental metaphysics. Of things themselves, knowledge is not impossible. “On the contrary, as we read in our text [Reason in History], we not only have the possibility, we have the duty of knowing” (Hartman, p. xvi). Knowing “Him” is “this point” at which, Hartman writes, “Hegel needed to take one step to regard reality itself as the thought of a thinker” (xvii). Against Kant, Hegel’s world is fully knowable in the sense that the world is God’s mind.

In his translator’s introduction to Hegel’s Reason in History, Hartman writes that: “Thought, for Hegel, recognizes things themselves.” By that arrangement, Hegel refutes the thing-in-itself even though it is essential to Kant. There is no thing “in itself,” lying unknowably beyond thought, not even God,” since the world is his divine “thought” (p. xvi).

From his perspective of self-knowledge, the human experience of nature is the self-experience of the divine. In that relation of dialectic and development, individual moments develop toward the complete Idea in self-knowledge. Worldly phenomena are the thoughts of God.

The effect of Hegel on Kant’s pure idealism is the elimination of the thing-in-itself. Hegel bring Kant’s transcendental critique to the point of autocritique. Kant refutes empiricism by completing it. His completing Hume is properly dialectical. Hegel considers his system the completion of Kant’s transcendental Idea.

The thing-in-itself is an explainable effect of skepticism remaining from Hume after his critique by Kant. The dialectic of autocritique is reproduced by Hegel’s relation to Kant.

In his Logic, Hegel names his relation to Kant still a “refutation.” “The refutation of a philosophy,” he writes, “only means that its barriers are crossed, and its special principle reduced to a factor in the completer principle that follows” (Logic, 1960. p. 614). That completion is the promise of autocritique. Still, the effect of that self-relation describes the threat of “refutation” across “barriers” of formal intuition. What qualifies as refutation in Hegel’s sense is that “barriers” are “crossed” by his “completer principle.”

Hegel considers his own self-relation to Kant to be a dialectical relation of completion. What the dialectic produces is “what is worthwhile and necessary in both,” both Kant and Hegel (Hartman, xvii). Hartman translates Hegel’s early lecture notes as including Kant in a broader totality of methodical development. Early on, Hegel’s system of logic is that completer dialectic surpassing even Kant.

Later, Hegel names his method phenomenology. By subjecting sense phenomena to reason, he effectively destabilizes the coherence of that category taken for granted by Kant.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Hegel, G.W.F. Reason in History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Bobbs-Merrill Company. The Library of Liberal Arts 1953.

Hegel, G.W.F, Logic accessed in The European Philosophers: From Descartes to Nietzsche, edited by Monroe C. Beardsley. Random House. 1960.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Edition 1902.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith, London: Macmillan, 1929. Accessed in The European Philosophers: From Descartes to Nietzsche, edited by Monroe C. Beardsley. Random House. 1960.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. Translated by Gary Hatfield. Cambridge University Press. 1997, 2004. (pp. 10, 94–97).

Schacht, Richard. Hegel and After: Studies in Continental Philosophy Between Kant and Sartre. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1975.