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  • On Seeing Away: Attention and Abstraction in Kant
  • Rodolphe Gasché (bio)

In one of the chapters that he added to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, in an effort to further clarify the seminal distinction between the power of apperception and inner sense, Kant explains that in inner sense “we intuit ourselves only as we are inwardly affected by ourselves; in other words, that, so far as inner intuition is concerned, we know our own subject only as appearance, not as it is in itself.” In a footnote to this conclusion, Kant expresses his surprise at the difficulty that some of his readers professed to have found “in admitting that our inner sense is affected by ourselves.” Indeed, as Kant suggests, such affection of inner sense by ourselves is not at all mysterious. Rather than something extraordinary and difficult to grasp, it is something quite common, something that actually occurs frequently, if not all the time. Indeed, if one were to pay attention to it, and to the occasions in which it takes place, self-affection in inner sense would appear unproblematic, if not self-evident. In fact, it is obvious to such a degree that one example should suffice to establish its universality. But an [End Page 1] example of self-affection still seems to be necessary to establish its existence, and Kant, thus, gives one, and only one. He writes:

Such affection finds exemplification in each and every act of attention. In every act of attention the understanding determines inner sense, in accordance with the combination which it thinks, to that inner intuition which corresponds to the manifold in the synthesis of the understanding. How much the mind is usually thereby affected, everyone will be able to perceive in himself.

(1965, 168)

In this footnote, which, to my knowledge, is the only place in the whole corpus of the first critique in which attention is explicitly mentioned, Kant, at first sight at least, makes attention one compelling example of the affection of inner sense by ourselves.1 As Henry E. Allison has remarked in his commentary on the footnote in question, attention may simply be “a convenient empirical illustration of the apparently paradoxical claim that the mind affects itself.” But this appeal to the empirical evidence of attention does something more, Allison admits. According to him, the real significance of the reference to the phenomenon of attention is to indicate “the specific kind of self-affection required for the institution of inner experience” (1983, 268). Rather than an example of self-affection in general, attention, then, is one example (and thus still one among possible others) to illustrate the sort of inward self-affection that, according to Kant, distinguishes inner sense.

But is it that simple? Are there other mental acts distinct from attention that could eventually serve as examples of self-affection? Or, could the act of attention be so fundamental as to be the foundation of all other similar mental acts, if not even all acts in general? In short, has Kant’s example of self-affection been one among many possible others? I note that Kant does not define what kind of attention he is referring to, just as if, at this point, it did not matter whether the attention is directed toward oneself or toward outside things. Indeed, since any act of attention, no matter which, determines inner sense at all times (jederzeit), what counts in the example is attention’s status as an act, and not what this act focuses on. As Kant writes, in an act of attention, the understanding “determines inner sense . . . to inner intuition” [End Page 2] (bestimmt darin jederzeit den inneren Sinn . . . zur inneren Anschauung); in other words, inner sense is shaped by it into inner intuition. Moreover, the affection of the mind caused by this determination is perceived in oneself. But if inner sense is determined by such an act of attention to inner intuition, an affection of the mind that is perceptible by everyone, one must wonder whether attention can at all be only one example among other acts that could cause an affection of inner sense. In fact, one must ask: is the...


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