Written by Kathleen Raine
“Death, and it is broken,
The delicate apparatus of the mind,
Tactile, sensitive to light, responsive to sound,
The soul’s instrument, tuned to earth’s music,
Vibrant to all the waves that break on the shores of the world.”
The Elements of Cognition
Many arguments of the first half of the "Critique of Pure Reason" are intended to reveal the inadequacy of the empiricist theory of cognition. As Kant understood that view, cognitions arise in us through the actions of objects causing representations in our minds via our outer senses or our internal senses (which he called inner sense). The representations received are connected via the law of association. Thus the connections among representations in our minds reflect the patterns of our sensory experiences: However, Kant argued that mere association is insufficient to explain the ways in which representational elements are connected in empirical cognitions that everyone acknowledges that we possess.
In the case of perception, Kant maintained that we could not achieve a perceptual image solely through receiving and associating sensory impressions. Some of his metaphysics lectures provide a helpful illustration of the issue.
Suppose I take in part of the Manhattan skyline, by looking first at the Empire state building and then at the Chrysler building. To form the whole image, I must reproduce, for example, the visual materials acquired from the interaction of my senses and (light rays from) the Empire State Building. Following then standard psychology, Kant characterized the capacity to represent in perception objects that were not or were no longer present to the senses as the “imagination.” He noted that although an imagination that reproduced previously acquired visual material is necessary to form such an image, it is not sufficient.
If however, representations reproduced one another without distinction , just as they fell together, there would be no determinate connection, but merely unruly heaps of them, and no cognition at all would arise.
The problem is that I cannot form an image of this part of the skyline merely by reproducing the different pieces in the order I took them in. Rather, the imagination must create an order amoung the representational elements that represent the simultaneous spatial positions of the landmarks. Despite his legendary obscurity, Kant could not have been more clear about the new role for imagination in his epistemology:
No psychologist has yet thought that the imagination is a necessary ingredient of perception itself. This so partly because it has been believed that the senses do not merely afford us impressions but also put them together, and produce images or objects, for which without doubt something more than the receptivity of impressions is required, namely a function of the synthesis of them.
In the first edition Kant provided an explicit account of the crucial activity of synthesizing:
By synthesis in the more general sense, however, I understand the act of putting different representations together with each other and comprehending their manifoldness in one cognition The synthesis is manifold it is what first brings forth cognition and unifies them into a certain content.
That is, synthesis is an activity of the mind whereby elements contained in diverse representations are brought together and represented as unified (in various ways) into further representations. We have seen why he thought that a synthesis is involved in perception. To produce an image, various perceptual elements that were taken in sequentially must be put together in some way other than by repeating the sequence given in sense. The citation makes the sweeping claim that a synthesis of diverse elements is what first gives rise to any cognition.
Certainly, synthesis is carried out by the mind, but the question is whether the mind puts things together in a way that corresponds to a reality independent of it. Since (as Kant says) in making any judgement we are putting items together in thought, this same question as we had with judgements. Kant's solution was to say that either the object makes the representation possible, or else the representation makes the object possible. With empirical judgements the object makes the representation possible. The same will be true with empirical synthesis: here the mind's putting-together will be guided by experience. If there is such a thing as a priori synthesis - and Kant argues that there must be - then certainly, Kant will say that the representation makes the object possible, our synthesis contributes to tht ordering of things that constitutes the world we can know about, the world of appearances. But his reason for saying this rests entirely on his principle that since the object does not make the representation possible, the representation must make the object possible.