‘The Necessity of Transcendental Philosophy’
Transcendental philosophy, in the context of the philosophy of mind, is the attempt to account for the conditions of possibility of states of understanding. By ‘states of understanding’ I mean all the ways in which subjects can make sense of things – cognition, perception, emotions, the imagination, and acts and attitudes of valuing. I will outline the questions a transcendental philosophy must address, and argue that any complete theory of the subject or of the mind must answer these questions; therefore, any complete theory of the mind must be, in part, a transcendental theory. I will conclude by drawing out the implications of this claim for the project of naturalizing states of understanding. Accepting the necessity of transcendental philosophy does not entail rejecting the project of naturalization, but it does entail that a naturalist account of the mind must include a rethinking of our concepts of the intentional or the non-intentional, or both.
A striking feature of the contemporary philosophy of mind is how alien the problems and practices of transcendental philosophy seem to it. The few practitioners of what could be termed transcendental philosophy often don’t, in my opinion, make it clear what it is they are doing, and how it differs from other approaches to studying mental states. For methodological clarity, we need an account of what transcendental philosophy is, why it is of value, and what implications practising it would have for other kinds of philosophical enquiry. This paper is a limited response to these issues. I will offer a characterisation of transcendental philosophy, and defend two claims.
(a) No philosophy of mind can be complete without addressing transcendental questions. In other words, a complete philosophy of mind must be, in part, a transcendental philosophy.
(b) Transcendental philosophy does not necessarily stand in contradiction to naturalism; rather, to accept the necessity of transcendental philosophy is to accept certain conditions on an explanation of certain states, namely states of conscious understanding. The upshot of this is that intentionality should be recognised as posing a problem for naturalism very similar to the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’. In both cases, a naturalistic solution will require significant conceptual development.
Transcendental philosophy is any inquiry into the understanding which aims to account for the conditions for its possibility. That is, granted that a subject can occupy a variety of states by means of which it understands anything, the question is how this is possible. An answer to this question must do two things: (i) outline the essential features of states of understanding as such; and (ii) outline the features a subject must possess in order for it to be capable of occupying such states.
This is a rather schematic account, which I will try to fill in presently. However, the definition just given yields two essential features of any transcendental philosophy. Firstly, it is a philosophy dealing with a particular subject matter, namely understanding. A study of any other area will therefore fall outside its remit. Secondly, it addresses this subject matter in a particular way: it considers the conditions for the possibility of understanding. Any study of understanding which does not investigate or account for the conditions of the possibility of understanding is not a transcendental philosophy.
To the details themselves: key to my entire position is the notion of understanding something. Kant saw the understanding as the faculty of thinking of objects, as distinct from both the faculty of sensibility and our cognition of sensible objects, which arises from the functioning of both these faculties (Kant, A51/B75). I want to use the term in a broader sense, drawing primarily on the work of Husserl, particularly as interpreted by such commentators as JN Mohanty and DW Smith. To understand something is to make sense of it. The term ‘understanding’ is thus coterminous with the term ‘intentional’ as used by Husserl: each is a different way of looking at the same relation, that between a conscious subject and the objects of their consciousness. Intentionality is this relation considered as such; understanding is the relation considered in terms of the subject’s being made aware through this relation. To talk of ‘understanding’ rather than ‘intentionality’ is largely a matter of emphasis. To understand something is to make sense of it through intending it (Mohanty, 1969, p. 44).
Intentionality is the directedness of certain conscious states of the subject. Each intentional state is ‘about’ a particular thing, event, or state of affairs (I will refer to this as its ‘object’, for short). In each case, we can distinguish the intentional state itself, with its particular content, from its intentional object. It is in virtue of the content that the subject can make sense of the object of the act; and it is the content which directs the subject towards the object.
The content of the intentional state is its noema. The noema can be thought of as very similar to the Fregean notion of sense; roughly speaking, it is that aspect of the intentional state which presents its object as being in a certain way, “as under a certain description, as such and such” (Mohanty 1985, p. 16). Any object of your thought or perception is given to you as being in a certain way: you think of it under a certain description, you perceive it from a particular perspective, and so on.
To describe something as an intentional act is simply to say that it bears sense within it. Those objects which are meaningful, in that they make sense to us, are those which are constituted by intentions. To understand something is to make sense of it, to be aware of it by way of the noemae of your intentional states.
Understanding so defined extends far beyond thinking (Mohanty, 1969, p. 45). It incorporates perception, the emotions, the imagination, memories, hallucinations: all are ways we have of making sense of something or other. It even includes what might be termed ‘orientations’ or ways of comporting oneself towards the world; for example, projects, life-plans, values, and so on. The value that playing the oboe or reading poetry has for one is a type of understanding, on this account. To value an activity or a thing is to make sense of it as valuable, or as interesting or important for us.
Furthermore, understanding includes literally any way in which the subject can make sense of anything – including misunderstanding and failing to understand. This may seem paradoxical, but the difficulty here is being caused by the tension between two senses of ‘understanding’. On the one hand, understanding is a normative state, with success conditions – you come to understand a theorem that you had previously failed to understand, for example. On the other hand, understanding is any way in which an object can be presented to you as something or other. In this broader sense of understanding, which is the one I am interested in, failing to understand is itself a form of understanding, in that whatever it is you fail to understand is still presented to you as something or other. Consider failing to understand a theorem – it is quite possible that, even though you fail to grasp it properly (to understand it in the normative sense), you can grasp it in a diminished way, as a theorem which you do not understand. That is, to understand something properly and to fail to understand it are both varieties of the wider kind, state of understanding.
Given that understanding incorporates even misunderstandings and failures of understanding, it may be asked what relations the subject can enter into which do not involve it. By way of example, consider the phenomenon of mere responsiveness. Amoebae respond to light and nutrients; humans respond to a tap of a hammer on the knee. To respond in this sense is not the same as to understand. When one is tapped on the knee, one’s leg will either respond reflexively or not; in neither case can one be said to understand, or for that matter to misunderstand. In neither case does sense enter into what is happening.
It is difficult to draw a clear and principled distinction between states of understanding and states which lack understanding, without using terminology associated with the former (states of understanding allow the subject to make sense of something, or have noematic content, etc). Furthermore, problems arise when it comes to specifying criteria for the attribution of understanding. Some might be tempted to see this circularity and lack of criteria as reasons for questioning the usefulness of the concept, and perhaps rejecting any distinction between states of understanding and other kinds of states.
I doubt if such an argument could be made to work. After all, we can give pretty clear examples where understanding is present, and equally clear examples where it is not (I will elaborate a little on this in the next section). Furthermore, we frequently use concepts and distinctions even when they admit of substantial grey areas – think of ‘consciousness’, ‘the mind’, ‘science’, ‘art’, and so on. It would seem very odd to deny that art exists, or that it can be studied usefully, simply because an uncontroversial non-circular definition of it isn’t to hand. To take another example, while we may lack clear and decisive grounds for attributing pain in every case, we tend to know it when it happens to us. In general it seems dubious to deny the usefulness of a concept or the validity of a distinction on the grounds mentioned.
The very broadness and flexibility of the notion of understanding is its great strength and, perhaps, its great weakness. The fact that so many areas of conscious life can be thought of as ways of understanding allows us to acknowledge the unity of our conscious lives, the way perceptions, emotions, cognitions and values can mesh so easily together. That is, different kinds of mental states are not just juxtaposed in the stream of consciousness, but are capable of standing together in relations of meaning. Think of how people with different values or perspectives on life will view the same film differently; one person’s devastatingly true portrayal of modern life will be another person’s parade of clichés. The film will mean something different to each of them, depending at least partly on how they understand other matters. [more?]
These, then, are some, though by no means all, of the features of states of understanding per se. A transcendental account of such states is an account of the features of the subject in virtue of which it can come to occupy such states.
To get a clearer idea of such an account, let us contrast it with another possible account of understanding. A popular way of explaining intentional states is to appeal to mental representations, theoretical entities whose semantic properties are held to explain how mental states can have intentional content (Stich & Warfield, p. 4). For example, according to Stephen Stich, “[p]hilosophical theories about the nature of mental representation typically offer what purport to be necessary and sufficient conditions for claims of the form: Mental state M has the content p” (p. 352).
On the face of it, such an account may seem like a transcendental theory. M has the content p if and only if certain conditions obtain; are these conditions not the conditions for the possibility of M’s having the content p?
However, such an account would not be a transcendental one. It would not explain how it is that M is the kind of state capable of having content p. An answer to this question must pick out the features of M in virtue of which it is capable of having content p. The ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ account assumes that M is capable of having the relevant content, and specifics the conditions for its actually having it.
following case: neuroscientists isolate an exact correlation between a brain
state, B, and a particular state of understanding, U (say that U is identified
by its having the content ‘that the
The distinction I want to draw here can be quite difficult to state clearly, because the notion of possibility appears in both the accounts that I am trying to keep separate: ‘It is (only) possible for M to have content p given conditions a, b, and c’, versus ‘It is (only) possible for M to have content p in virtue of conditions x, y, and z’. The latter, I suggest, is a transcendental account; the former is not. The distinction between transcendental and non-transcendental accounts does not turn on the presence or absence of modal considerations, and thus the traditional formulation of transcendental accounts, as accounts of the conditions for the possibility of the explanandum, is potentially misleading.
The best way I can think to put the distinction is as follows: a ‘necessary-and-sufficient conditions’ account of the kind Stich describes provides us with knowledge of the existence-conditions of certain types of states, properties, etc. A transcendental account, on the other hand, would provide us with the conditions for the possibility of that type of state’s being that type of state. To return to the example of the state of understanding, U: the account Stich describes tells us the conditions that are required for U’s existing. A transcendental account of U would tell us the conditions for U’s being a state of understanding; that is, how it is possible that U can be directed towards its object (the Eiffel Tower) and bear the sense that it does (that the Eiffel Tower is pink).
Another way of putting this distinction might be between specifying the conditions in which is it possible for M to have p, and explaining why these conditions make it possible for M to have p. Or: one kind of account of a property explains why it is instantiated when it is; another kind of account explains how it is possible that it is instantiated when it is.
This characterisation of transcendental philosophy is, I admit, somewhat idiosyncratic, but it is not wildly so. It bears the definite marks of its ancestry: Kant’s study of “the conditions under which objects can be experienced or known by the human mind” (Allison, p. 26), and Husserl’s concern with “the necessary conditions for the possibility of intentional experiences” (Smith & McIntyre, p. 103). Carr suggests that the transcendental tradition should not be characterised as a doctrine, but as an enquiry into “the relation of experience to the transcendent or objective world”, investigating “how it is possible or how it works” (p. 114). My characterisation of transcendental philosophy is recognisably a somewhat restricted version of this general enquiry.
The Transcendental Insight
Such is transcendental philosophy; now for its alleged necessity.
As stated earlier, I am going to assume that understanding is a legitimate subject-matter for philosophical enquiry. Given this, why must we take a transcendental approach towards it? The following is, of course, only an outline of the kind of detailed argument required, but it gives a pretty clear indication of where the support must come from.
To defend the necessity of transcendental philosophy, I will appeal to what I will term the transcendental insight. Consider a subject – a human, capable of occupying all manner of causal, physical and biological states. Our subject can respond to stimuli, can fulfil certain biological roles (such as being a parent or an offspring), they can interact with physical objects, and so on. They can also occupy all manner of states of understanding. These states of understanding are different in an important sense from all the other kinds of states – the non-understanding states – the subject can occupy. The difference is that the subject is not making sense of anything by virtue of being in any of the other kinds of state. But to be in a state of understanding is, of necessity, to make sense of something.
Furthermore, this difference yields a difference in explanation. When we have explained how it is that our subject can occupy any of the non-understanding states, the question will remain as to how it is that they can occupy the states of understanding. It is a different question, because of the difference in the kind of state. In other words, understanding marks a difference in the world, and this means that a difference in explanation is required. These two claims – that the states are different, and that this difference entails a difference in explanation - is the transcendental insight.
This insight needs to qualified. It is not the claim that no account of a subject in, say, biological terms will entail anything about its states of understanding. On the contrary, it seems possible in principle to find precise biological correlates for any state. But even if such correlations were found, and even if they allowed us to conclude that biological state B entailed the state of understanding U, it would not follow that we could give a transcendental account of U in terms of B. We could give an account of U’s occurrence in terms of B, but, as mentioned above, that is a different matter.
More generally, to say that states of understanding are different in kind from non-understanding states does not entail that the former cannot be explained in terms of the latter. It is merely to point to what seems to me to the rather obvious fact that what happens when a subject makes sense of something is different to anything that happens when the subject does not make sense of something. If a slate falls off a roof and lands on my head, I will be in a particular causal state, in virtue of my being a physical object; and I may lose consciousness, in virtue of my being an animal, and being able to possess a consciousness which might be lost. The transcendental insight is that this is just a different sort of event to my thinking about the possibility of being felled by a falling slate.
It’s possible to reject this insight, simply by claiming that the two states I’ve mentioned by way of examples just aren’t different, or that their difference is not a difference in kind, or not an important difference at any rate. This is a coherent position to take, but I will simply say that, in my opinion, the burden of proof rests heavily on those who would deny that there is any difference worth talking about here.
By way of a brief defence of the insight, consider a closely related claim, that the intentional is independent of the causal. On this view, while any intentional state will have a causal basis – that is, it must be the result of some other state’s occurring – it is not directed at its object in virtue of any causal relations.
independence is most obvious in cases of, say, thinking about non-existent
objects. Recall that the term
‘object’ stands for whatever an intentional state is about. This term must be
distinguished from the term ‘entity’, which usually refers to an existing
The object of one’s thinking need not exist – you can think of the Fountain of
Youth, or Santa Claus, or the economic system operating in the
The transcendental insight can be seen as a broader version of the independence of the intentional. Not only is the intentional independent of the causal, it is different to all non-intentional properties. This, I suggest, means that it must be explained in a different fashion. The last section will consider what exactly this difference in explanations comes to.
Naturalism and Transcendental Philosophy
One response to what I have offered so far would be to accept that there is a (at least prima facie) difference, but to worry about where this will lead us. In particular, does saying that states of understanding are different to non-understanding states commit us to some kind of metaphysical dualism? And does the further claim that there is a difference in explanation between states of understanding and non-understanding states commit us to reject the possibility of naturalising the understanding? In other words, can one be committed to naturalism and accept transcendental philosophy? My answer is: it depends what this commitment to naturalism actually commits you to.
Naturalism, in the present context, is roughly the view that states of understanding can be explained in terms of states or properties or events or entities which are not themselves states, properties or events of understanding. Naturalism in this sense is both a metaphysical theory and an outline for a research programme. It is the view that, say, the instantiation of every understanding property occurs in virtue of the instantiation of a non-understanding property; and it is the view that the first can be explained in terms of the second.
To speak of states of understanding as different to non-understanding states seems to open the possibility of ‘ontological danglers’, of a mind populated with things that aren’t “plausible candidates” for being among the ultimate constituents of reality (Fodor, 18). And how can such states be explained naturalistically, if there is a difference between a naturalistic account of something and the account that states of understanding require?
These worries are mistaken. Consider firstly the idea of different explanations. This difference does not entail that the intentional cannot be explained in terms of the non-intentional. What it does entail is that, given (i) an explanation of an intentional property in terms of a non-intentional property, and (ii) an explanation of some non-intentional property in terms of some other non-intentional property, (i) will be a different kind of explanation to (ii).
In particular, (i) will require what (ii) requires, plus a conceptual supplementation. This supplementation is simply whatever is required to show that it is in virtue of possessing the relevant non-intentional properties that the state in question possesses its intentional properties. In other words, it would a particular kind of answer to the transcendental question. Therefore, what the transcendental insight commits us to is that any account of the intentional in non-intentional terms would require special conceptual work to the tie the explanandum and the explanans together. (One might compare this case with an example given by McDowell: he mentions someone who might respond to Zeno by walking across the room. This, of course, would be to miss the point; but what is more interesting is what an answer which did not miss the point might consist in. An answer to Zeno’s paradox, whatever else it involves, requires metaphysical work, that is, a rethinking of the concepts we use to think about the relevant kinds of states. This kind of rethinking is what I mean by ‘conceptual supplementation’).
Two points by way of clarification: this conceptual work will, if it is actually possible, ultimately come down to allowing us to understand a metaphysical position. It might therefore be a bit misleading to call it conceptual work, but what I mean by this title is that it will amount to us rethinking the nature of the intentional, or the non-intentional, or both. In other words, some of our metaphysical concepts will be reworked.
Secondly, we are a long way from such a reworking. In fact, on this issue I suggest that proponents of naturalism face a very close analogue to the so-called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. There is an ‘explanatory gap’ between physical states and experiential states, in that it is just hard to see how the first can explain the second. And this gap is based (though not reducible to) a conceptual gap, between the concepts we use to pick out and think about physical states, and those we use to pick out and think about experiential states. Similarly, if we take the transcendental insight seriously, an explanatory gap opens between states of understanding and non-understanding states; and this gap is similarly based on, though not reducible to, a difference in the way we think about the different kinds of state.
This mightn’t seem like a particularly exciting conclusion, but it seems to run counter to a lot of thinking in the philosophy of mind. The problem, in fact, seems to be twofold. On the one hand, in collapsing the intentional into the representational, there is a danger that intentionality is being misdescribed to start with. On the other hand, many theorists in this area seem to think that accounts of the kind Stich discussed (providing necessary and sufficient conditions for M’s having content p) are sufficient to explain intentionality. I expect most naturalistic philosophers would agree with John Heil that, since thoughts and other mental states supervene on physical characteristics, “[a]gents possess thoughts in virtue of their possession of particular sets of physical characteristics” (Heil, p. 5). But the supervenience claim doesn’t entail the ‘in virtue of’ claim, for reasons discussed earlier. To put it another way, supervenience doesn’t explain; it only picks out certain states or properties which might figure in an explanation. But supervenience claims require a transcendental account, making clear exactly how it is possible that the supervenient entity, M, can have any intentional content. Otherwise, we are left with a position the truth of which, to quote Nagel in a different context, we cannot understand.
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 For example, John McDowell, although he might not agree with this description. This is partly because he uses the term ‘transcendental’ in very restricted, specifically Kantian sense. See Mind and World, pp. 41-4, 95-8.
 More specifically, it’s coterminous with ‘object-intentionality’. But for this paper, the term ‘intentionality’ will suffice.
 I am not saying that understanding is a further relation, one holding between the subject and its intentional state. Apart from the logical problems such a view would throw up, it is untrue to our experiences. When I understand, say, a poem, I cannot separate my understanding the poem and my thinking of it or reading it.
 The issue of whether nonconscious states can have intentionality in the same sense as conscious states have it is a vexed one. I mention it only to put it to one side – it must be acknowledged, but I cannot address it in this paper. Conversely, I don’t think that every conscious state must have intentional content. For example, when one feels dizzy and sees red spots before one’s eyes, it is not clear to me that that state can be said to be intentional.
 Smith & McIntyre, p. 87.
 It doesn’t follow that the noema can suffice to determine the unique reference of your intentional state, but it is a necessary condition for intentional reference. See Mohanty 1985, p. 22.
 One should note that the noema is not a representation, in the sense of being an intermediate entity between the subject and the object of their awareness. When I am aware of, say, a tree, I am aware of the tree itself, not of a representation of the tree. Husserl’s theory of intentional content is a mediator-theory rather than an object-theory (Smith & McIntyre, p. 87).
 This is suggested by the analyses offered by Mohanty, in 1969, pp. 36-37, 103-4.
 This way of grasping their relation is modelled on O’Shaughnessy’s characterisation of being conscious, unconscious and asleep as varieties of the wider kind, state of consciousness (1991, p. 138).
 Strictly speaking, one should say: in neither case can one be said to understand in virtue of one’s responding as one does.
 I don’t think these relations of meaning are identical to rational relations, although I’m open to correction on this as the latter isn’t an area I’ve studied much. I think the example of appreciating films differently suggests that relations of meaning are broader than rational relations.
 I’m thinking particularly of the film Closer here. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t subscribe to the first interpretation.
 There are a number of difficulties with the representational theory of meaning, but I will ignore these for the purposes of outlining this alternative explanation of intentionality.
 More precisely, it would not, in virtue of offering necessary and sufficient conditions for M’s having content p, be a transcendental theory.
 This way of distinguishing the two accounts is suggested (though not stated explicitly) by Mohanty 1985, pp. xviii-xix.
 Even if one doesn’t accept my description of understanding, a similar transcendental question might be posed of, for example, states with conceptual content.
 [This relation might be something like the following: token supervenience but type independence, ie every intentional state must supervene on a causal state, but the type ‘intentional’ doesn’t supervene on the type ‘causal’. I haven’t worked this out fully – I’m just thinking out loud here.]
 This is one of a number of standard arguments. See for example Mohanty 2002, pp. 106-110.
 AD Smith, pp. 33-4.
 For example, Jacob, p. 20: “At least, they [ie minds] must be explainable on the basis of some non-intentional, non-semantic properties and relations”. There is probably a difference between what philosophers such as Jacob mean by ‘intentional’ and ‘semantic’ and what I mean by ‘understanding’, but there is enough in common for us to have a common conception of the naturalization project.
 None of this entails that I think such an account is actually possible. But I don’t know of any reason to think that it is impossible; and if the intentional can be naturalised, this is the form it must take.
 McDowell, p. xxi. It should be obvious that I disagree with McDowell over the need for what he terms ‘constructive philosophy’ (see pp. xxiii-xxiv, 95). Unlike McDowell, I think the questions that transcendental philosophy addresses are genuine, in the sense of not being merely the product of a frame of mind that we can easily dispense with. The transcendental insight is one way of motivating this claim.
 See for example Levine, p. 77.
 It might be said that what I have in fact done is not draw a parallel between the two explanatory gaps, but divided the problem of consciousness in two. After all, I have been talking about the intentionality of conscious states, but if phenomenal consciousness cannot be separated from the intentionality of conscious states, as has been suggested [refs – Zahavi, Lowe?] then the problem of intentionality is at best a sub-problem of the problem of consciousness. However, while consciousness may not be separable from intentionality, the two are distinct, and this would suggest that they give rise to distinct problems.