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Amogha Sahu


On the Conditions of Possibility of the Objects of

Experience: Reading Brian Cantwell Smith as a
Transcendental Metaphysician
1. A short Trek through Transcendental Philosophy
What does the word transcendental mean? Philosophers in the analytic
tradition, ranging from Barry Stroud to Quassim Cassam to Charles
Taylor, have described it as species of argument, which aims to take
experience1 as a certain kind of given or foundation, and thus argue
for the necessary existence of structures within experience. A typical
example of a transcendental argument is the anti-skeptical argument for
the existence of an external world. Given that our experience indubitably
testifies to the existence of a world independent of our experiencing, it
should be obvious that there is a world.
Kant and Heidegger famously describe it as a different kind of
metaphysics, namely transcendental metaphysics. Proponents of
transcendental metaphysics accuse non-transcendental metaphysicians
of ontic nonsense; in so far as they reify the nature of the world as a
world of objects, properties, relations and sets which would be structured
the way it was independently of our rendering the world intelligible.
Traditional Realism thus takes the nature of the world as such to be
given (thus looking at the world through a view from nowhere),
unaffected by the sense-making practices of the human subject.
Transcendental Metaphysicians accuse this picture of making two
fundamental errors. Firstly, it projects the structure of the world
resulting from our intentional practices onto the world as it exists
independently of us. For example, Facts (which connect a property (F)
with a particular (a) in the form Fa, where F is instantiated by a) are
considered to be structures in the world by many contemporary
metaphysicians, with no account of how a very specific linguistic
structure generated by 20th century analytic metaphysicians comes to be
written in the book of the world since it began.
Secondly, within its view from nowhere, it finds itself unable to
accommodate intentionality and semantics (and indeed, all of what were
traditionally referred to as the human sciences). One can read this
1 There is a certain equivocation in the use of term experience here. It seems to
be easiest to analogize it to phenomenal experience (our conscious experience),
but it is clear that what is being referred to here (at least in Kant and Heidegger)
is not the individual experience of a particular thinker, but experience as an
intersubjective structure which can be instantiated by a particular subject.

Amogha Sahu

inability to accommodate in three ways:(i) The view from nowhere typically takes as the nature of the world of
objects (which it has taken to be primitive) as a world governed by the
natural sciences, and the natural sciences cannot accommodate
intentionality, as the emphasis on locality and efficacy underwrites the
essentially non-local, non-effective relation present in intentional mental
(ii) The Heideggerian claim that traditional realism restricts itself to a
single way of Being, which is the being of present-of-hand entities,
which appear to us to be separate and detached from our intentional
activities. Having begun with objects (understood in this restrictive way),
one can no longer reconstruct subjects, except as a kind of object (a
Cartesian thinking substance, an Aristotelian rational animal, a
Leibnizian super-monad, a Spinozistic mode and so on). However, we still
recognize the distinctiveness of mentality, and attempts to do justice to it
lead us to untenable metaphysical positions, such as idealism (the mind is
the only object) and dualism (there are two fundamentally different kinds
of objects, mental things and physical things).
(iii) The Kantian claim that traditional metaphysics (which he calls
transcendental realism as opposed to his transcendental idealism)
leads to irreducible antinomies, or contradictions, which can only be
resolved by adopting a new metaphysics, transcendental idealism.
The above should indicate that transcendental metaphysics involves
taking intentionality metaphysically seriously. What it means to take
intentionality metaphysically seriously is to ensure that the intentional
practices of subjects has much more metaphysical pride of place than the
traditional realist metaphysics of objects allows it. This pride of place
can be understood in terms of the Kantian distinction between empirical
and transcendental cognition.
Empirical cognition is concerned with individual objects, or sets or
classes of individual objects. Transcendental cognition is concerned with
what makes those objects possible. In other words, it is concerned with
objecthood, with what it is to even be an object at all. The answer that
both Kant and Heidegger give to the transcendental question (what
makes objects possible?) is that our intentional practices (which Kant
calls transcendental synthesis of the faculty of imagination, and which
Heidegger2 calls comportment or disclosure) generate a domain of
intelligibility, which contains an implicit criterion of objectivity.
2 I will distinguish objects from entities, where the latter is associated with
Heideggers present-at-hand, the detached objects of traditional metaphysics.

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This domain of intelligibility allows objects to disclose themselves to us

as objects. Objects here may be understood as Austins medium-sized
dry goods, as objects which have stable identity conditions, enter into
causal relations with each other and so on. These objects can also be
understood as objects of individual intentional acts, as objects of
demonstrative reference, as objects which can form part of inferential
judgements (This <cat> is dead) and so on.
It is important to note that the world does not have to be made
intelligible in the way suggested above (which is the world common to
analytic metaphysics). I read Heideggers critique of Kant along these
lines; Kant was right that the world has to be understood as being made
intelligible by our intentional practices, but he had a very restrictive
understanding of what intelligibility consisted of (Kant thought the
intelligible world was the world of the detached objects of 18th century
mechanistic natural science).
I have been using the phrase our intentional practices to describe the
transcendental account of what grounds the world as world. This our is
traditionally read as a claim that subjects ground the world of objects,
and thus as a lapse into a dangerous subjective idealism. The
transcendental philosopher can respond to this in two ways. Firstly, the
cry of subjectivism is not unfounded so much as incoherent: What can
you possibly mean when you say subjectivity?
This is because transcendental metaphysics ditches traditional
conceptions of the subject (four of them are listed above), as they are the
by-products of traditional realist metaphysics failing to integrate
intentional practices into its restrictive conception of being. Kant
claimed that subjectivity could be understood in two ways, as a formal
structure of apperception underlying all experience or as an observation
of inner mental states.
If what is meant by subject is the latter, then it is exegetically incorrect.
Kant categorically denies the Cartesian claim that our experiential access
to our own mental states is prior to our experiential access to outer
objects through representations of them. Introspective access to mental
states presupposes a world of outer objects. If what is meant by subject
is the former, then the claim that subjects ground objects should be
rendered as the structure of intelligibility generated by the intentional
practices of subjects grounds both subjects and objects.
Heidegger does not even use the traditional Kantian notation of I,
believing (probably correctly) that Kants usage of I reflected a residual
Cartesianism which must be avoided. He describes the Being of entities

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like us as Dasein (or Being-there), where Dasein is not understood on the

lines of a traditional metaphysical subject, but is understood as a
semantic, intentional, embodied thing for whom thinghood is an issue
(and many other salient characteristics which I dont want to go into
Secondly, subjectivist critiques of Kant and Heidegger can be read as
arguments to the effect that both do not do enough justice to the fact that
the world exists independently of our sense-making. Kant can easily
respond to this point by pointing to his construct of the thing-in-itself,
the noumenal world of objects which exist in-themselves, and are not
grounded in our intentional practices. Heidegger can also claim that
objects can disclose themselves to us while still being independent of us.
The tool character of the hammer as it is disclosed to me does not
impinge on its having Being independent of me.
Talk of practices must not be understood in terms of pragmatist
readings of practices. Pragmatists will typically claim that our
knowledge of the world answers not to the nature of the world (as
nature does not describe itself), but to our purposes, constituted by our
particular historical character and normative concerns. The general
tenor of the pragmatist argument is anti-metaphysical, in that it aims to
defuse metaphysical questioning and turn airy philosophical concerns
into down-to-earth practical ones.
We must not conceive ourselves as living in a world which we must
theoretically gain access to through inferential, propositional argument,
but as already in the world, as having access to the world as a site of
projects. Metaphysics, in so far as it aims to put the practical world in
question, has to be undercut by practicality. Although this approach
bears some resemblances to Kants and Heideggers projects, it founders
on its appeal to the normative concerns or purposes of a historical
community, as if these were not themselves amenable to further analysis
or ontological interrogation. The pragmatist reading of transcendental
philosophy thus founders on the rocks of ontology.
My task in this paper will be to read Brian Cantwell Smiths On the
Origin of Objects as a work of transcendental philosophy on the lines of
the transcendental philosophies of Kant and Heidegger laid out above. I
will outline what motivates Cantwell Smiths project, and articulate it in
terms of transcendental philosophy. Then, I will attempt to explicate the
various levels of transcendental structure (such as the notion of
registration) implicated in Cantwell Smiths vision. I will then conclude
with an evaluation of the defects and strengths of Cantwell Smiths
project with respect to the projects of Kant and Heidegger.

Amogha Sahu

2. What motivates On the Origin of Objects?

Cantwell Smith begins Origin with the professed desire to avoid the
Scylla (OOO p.3) of realism and the Charbydis (OOO p.3) of pure
constructivism, in favour of a philosophy of presence (OOO p.3), which
is intended to do justice to the realist epistemic deference to the world
(OOO p.3) and the constructivist respect for the constitutive human
involvement in the world (OOO p.3). This will be done through an
investigation of the middle distance, which is the middle bridging the
causal connection stressed by the natural, and the non-causal
disconnection stressed by the intentional.
The middle distance is thus a realm of partial connection and partial
How does Smith plan to deliver on this grandiose promise? Through an
investigation into the metaphysical foundations of intentionality (How
does the world have to be such that there exists intra-worldly beings.

This focus on finding a metaphysical ground for intentionality and

reconciling the intentional and the natural without denying one or the
other unites Kant, Heidegger and Brian Cantwell