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  • Kant’s Transcendental Deduction: An Analytical-Historical Commentary by Henry E. Allison
  • A. B. Dickerson
Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Transcendental Deduction: An Analytical-Historical Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xv + 477. Paper, $45.00.

This is a monumental study of the transcendental deduction—that argument of legendary obscurity lying at the heart of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Allison begins from the methodological precept that “Kant’s argument can best be understood in light of the internal development of his thought” (1), and his book thus provides a systematic historical account of the deduction and its emergence from earlier texts. It begins with two chapters on the major pre-critical writings (particularly focusing on Dreams of a Spirit-Seer and the Inaugural Dissertation), which trace the emergence of Kant’s “methodological” concerns with the limits and possibilities of metaphysical theorizing. However, this concern with “meta-metaphysics” (as Allison puts it) is quite vaguely specified, so these chapters do not uncover the foundations of the deduction in any especially illuminating way, and provide little evidence to support Allison’s methodological claim. The book improves with the third chapter, which is an interesting discussion of the writings of the so-called “Silent Decade” (1770–81), especially Kant’s well-known letter to Markus Herz (February 21, 1772), and a number of the most crucial Reflexionen from this period (especially those making up the Duisburg Nachlass). This chapter also contains an appendix examining the influence of Johann Tetens on Kant’s thought. The pre-history of Kant’s argument thus dealt with, there follow three chapters on the deduction in the first edition of the Critique (the A-deduction) giving a systematic (almost line-by-line) commentary on the text. There is then a chapter focusing on the version of the deduction given in the Prolegomena, and finally two chapters commenting on the text of the second-edition version of the deduction (the B-deduction).

This book is, without a doubt, the most thorough and historically-informed commentary on the transcendental deduction available in the literature. There is simply no other work that provides such a close, detailed textual analysis of all versions of the deduction. Allison’s magisterial command of the Kantian texts is deeply impressive.

Despite these strengths, however, the book is ultimately a disappointing one. To begin with, although this provides a far more detailed textual analysis, in its main lines of interpretation this book does not differ that much from the position that Allison gave many years ago in Kant’s Transcendental Idealism (Yale University Press, 1983). Of course there are more nuanced treatments of various issues, some details have changed, and the lengthy discussion of the A-deduction goes beyond that book—but, nonetheless, it is striking how little has shifted since 1983.

The other source of disappointment goes deeper, and stems from the overall approach to the history of philosophy that this text exemplifies. Robert Sleigh once wrote that “most accounts of Kant’s transcendental deduction [are] . . . lucid where Kant is lucid, degenerating to mere paraphrase just where one most wants help” (Leibniz and Arnauld, Yale University Press, 1990, 4). Allison’s book, unfortunately, does precisely that. Far too much of this lengthy work is mere paraphrase, in that it makes essential use over and over again of the very jargon terms that need to be explained. To borrow a remark from Stanley Cavell, we find the obscure Kantian phrases “not only quoted without explanation, but quoted as though they were explanations” (Must We Mean What We Say?, Cambridge University Press, 1976, 46). There are many questions about the deduction that shout for answers: for example, What exactly is “synthesis”? What exactly is a “representation” (Vorstellung)? What is it for a representation to “relate to an object”? What is Kant’s account of objectivity? Why must complexity-in-unity be produced via “synthesis” rather than “given”? How does the complexity-in-unity of a representation differ from the complexity-in-unity of an object, and how does that difference relate to Kant’s argument? But none of these questions are really answered by Allison; where we need philosophical investigation, he...


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