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Reinhold's Foundation in "The Fact of Consciousness"

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The following is formed of excerpts from my book in progress. The principal helps for the Elementarphilosophie of Karl Leonard Reinhold (1757–1823) have been:


Between Kant and Hegel – Texts in the Development of Post-Kantian Idealism

George di Giovanni and H. S. Harris, translators (2000 [1985])


The Fate of Reason – German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte

Frederick C. Beiser (1987)


Kant had accepted, as had Descartes, some notion that I think entails I am. Notice that in Rand’s mature philosophy acknowledgment Existence exists entails existence of one who acknowledges. For Kant, contrary Descartes, I think does not mean I think with a mental substance,[1] radically distinct from body; and thinking of my body and of bodies outside me is as certain as the circumstance that I think and that I exist as a thinking thing.[2] Kant had a role for I think basic to his transcendental idealism, and such is not the role it had in the first philosophy of Descartes. Let me call Kant’s the “company-role” of I think.

The I think must be capable of accompanying all my presentations; for otherwise something would be presented to me that could not be thought at all—which is equivalent to saying that the presentation either would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me.[3] (B131–32)

Kant’s I think is utterly dependent on there being rational judgments it attends. I think is not premier of knowing, contrary Descartes. Neither it nor the cogito sum containing it nor join of the cogito sum to premise of divine, absolute perfection amount to an adequate foundation of all human cognition.[4]

. . .

Kant saw Hume’s epistemological skepticism as an incomplete and unstable moment on the road from earlier, positive metaphysics and epistemology to Kant’s own critical theoretical philosophy. By the lights of Kant, Hume had brought to prominence certain important defects in prior theoretical philosophy, but his efforts had been piecemeal, had failed to recognize the existence and significance of synthetic a priori knowledge, and had failed to ascertain the true a priori element (bounded by possible experience) of law in all particular sorts of causal occasions. Hume’s enterprise had limited human understanding, although without systematic account of judgments and the role and source of their fundamental concepts, he had gotten the limits wrong and had not grasped the bounds of human understanding and reason.[5]

. . .

Epistemological foundations or frameworks of Descartes and Kant were not only for the sake of barring various radical skepticisms over the powers of sense and reason. They were intended also for integrative effective reason in all our theoretical disciplines and practical actions. Rand’s 1957 philosophic axioms Existence exists, Existence is identity, Consciousness is of existence, Consciousness is identification have also that dual character of barring skepticisms and being foundation-elements for integrative effective uses of reason. . . .


Rand maintained that the rational morality she set out in her mature philosophy of Objectivism was “contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live” (AS 1018). The reader is taken to understand some difference between an axiom and a choice, and Rand had by this stage of her presentation already (i) indicated that by existence she meant both any particular existent and the single whole comprising all such particulars, (ii) lain out fundamental character of existence in its relation to consciousness and in its variations on her principle Existence is identity, and (iii) lain out the instrumental necessity of thought to human life. All of those characters are included within her single-axiom, single-choice epitome. The foundations of Rand’s philosophy, including moral philosophy, are in fact not two single strokes, but a handful of existential conditions, mental conditions, and choices. Among them are the two deep ones she bannered as single-axiom, single-choice. All of her most basic foundational principles are intended as axioms or corollaries of axioms by their truth of every occasion of existence or by their integrative organization for every occasion of thought, and for all existence and thought, by their issue to self-contradiction upon denial.[6]

. . .

Descartes is often summarized as attempting to rest right philosophy “on a single initial principle, which can be shown to be true and from which the entire theory can be rigorously deduced” (Rockmore 2011, 72–73). I see no way such a thing could be done, and I do not see Descartes or anyone until Karl Reinhold attempting such a thing. There are immediate inferences from a single elementary proposition such as obversion and conversion. It might seem also immediate to infer “That was a bird” from “That was a Grosbeak,” but there is here another premise at work, a piece of background understanding at work: “A Grosbeak is a type of bird.” Consider also the inference “That was something” from “That was a bird.” I should say this is not only an inference made with the background understanding “Everything that is is something,” but that that background knowledge is a necessary precondition for understanding any propositions or inferences at all. Similarly, there might be found presuppositions surrounding a candidate single-proposition foundation of a philosophy.


Stay with the bird Grosbeak a minute. Which is more fundamental? Both bird alone and Grosbeak alone can refer to the same concrete. One is not more removed from the concrete than the other. The concept bird is logically more fundamental and the more fundamental blueprint in nature. The existence of the kind Grosbeak is not deducible from the existence of its logically and organically more fundamental super-ordinate bird. Outside of living systems and artifacts, a genus is not existentially more fundamental than species, only logically more fundamental, and it remains, of course, that the species cannot be deduced from the genus.[7] Then too, if one identifies presuppositions of a purported initial most fundamental proposition from which a philosophy is said to be deducible, one has identified an equally comprehensive collection of propositions that should replace that single one as most fundamental in the philosophy.[8]


In his sketch of a geometry-like organization of right first philosophy, Descartes sets out multiple definitions, postulates, and axioms (common notions) as the beginning, not a single proposition as the beginning.[9] Similarly, there are multiple propositions composing the base of Spinoza’s philosophy.[10] Foundations of Leibniz’ mature theoretical philosophy are an interrelated handful, not a single stroke. These are the principle of identity (and with it, noncontradiction) and the principle of perfection, which latter includes principles of plenitude and harmony and which, joined with identity, imply the principle of sufficient reason.[11] His great differences with Rand’s foundationalism or mine lies in his platonic spring for principles most basic, their purported innateness in the mind, and the purported confusedness or disorder of percepts. Those errors continue with Leibniz’ successors Christian Wolff and Alexander Baumgarten. Leibniz’ mature philosophy aims at a dynamic equilibrium between what we might call idealism and realism, to use terms of art introduced into philosophy by his successor Wolff.[12] Objectivism and [name of my philosophy] are philosophies purely realist, maintaining reality of existence, existence with definite characters, most basically utterly independent of life, mind, and ideals, and maintaining human mind adequate to all species of existents.


The foundations of Kant’s philosophy, theoretical and practical, consist of a number of interrelated theses about the conditions and powers of the human mind. These include preeminently conditions and powers of sense, intellect (understanding, judgment, and reason), and will. With those include the purported fact of synthetic a priori knowledge, fact that determinate basic form in the world is from the subject, fact that synthetic unity of apperception underlies all intellection, and fact that reason’s self-legislation frames morality. There is systematic, organic unity among those theses, but that unity is not base of those bases.[13]


Karl Leonard Reinhold tried to find a single foundation supporting Kant’s theoretical and practical philosophy. In favor of a single foundation: “It belongs to the groundwork of a science as the ultimate condition for its foundation and as sign that it has been completed, that its first principle should be discovered and propounded” (1794, 68). Fichte and Schelling joined Reinhold’s “insistence that philosophy begin with a single, self-evident principle” (Beiser 1987, 228). I should dispute the notions that finding a single proposition as entire base for a systematic discipline makes its base more secure or justified or indicates completeness of the discipline. That existence is one and is presupposed in any of its resonances does not entail that all its resonances are reducible to one resonance or presuppose one resonance. Eckart Förster points out that Kant’s conception of philosophy as rightly a priori and systematic gives considerable impetus to the ideal of uncovering a single a priori foundation of the entire Kantian system.[14] I should say, however, there is no logical necessity of singularity in a base from requirements of system and a priori method. Moreover, although relatively a priori propositions are important among philosophic principles, there are other fundamental comprehensive propositions of philosophy that are not a priori to any degree. Reinhold’s effort to locate a single base of Kant’s philosophy is nevertheless of interest, notwithstanding his puffed up commendations for such a find. To recast fundamental propositions of a philosophy into a more perspicacious dependency-order might further clarify them and the philosophy and its open problems.


Reinhold’s philosophy in the period 1789–94 is called Elementarphilosophie, or Philosophy of the Elements. It was a major factor promulgating Kant’s philosophy and shaping conception of what that philosophy amounted to, and it was a significant clearing of the road from Kant to subsequent German idealism.[15] Reinhold’s foundational proposition and its elements are crafted as remedy for defects he argues in the foundations of British empiricism, common-sense philosophies, and Leibnizian rationalism. His proposition is crafted also as foundation of Kant’s idealism.[16] Reinhold’s representation of the foundations of pre-Kantian modern philosophies reduces each foundation to a single tenet, and this is inaccurate. He takes the foundation for Leibniz, for example, to be merely the (innate and eternal) law of noncontradiction. That said, the basic principle Reinhold attaches distinctively to each Locke, Leibniz, Hume, and Reid-Oswald-Beattie are right attachments. He argues that his own singular foundation for Kantian philosophy (and fortification against Humean skepticism[17]) winnows what is incorrect from what is correct in those pre-Kantian modern traditions. His single-foundation fix for Kant’s philosophy was also platform for stepping from that philosophy to his own kindred one.[18]


Elementarphilosopie is regarded as realist, not idealist, by some scholars today.[19] I should say Reinhold’s renovation and extension of Kant’s idealism inches towards realism in one respect. Although he maintained, as Kant had, that things as they are in themselves, things apart from certain most fundamental structures they have from ourselves in our experience of those objects are unknowable to us through our perceptual and rational powers, he alleges knowable “an object as distinct from its mere presentation” (1794, 66). With Reinhold’s Philosophy of the Elements, with its deviations from Kant in theoretical philosophy, the thing-in-itself is becoming otiose.[20] All the more so because in ethics Reinhold abandons Kant’s role of the theoretically unknowable noumenal realm. He defends an attenuated version of Kant’s ethics, entirely from rational considerations of mind and this world with its knowable objects.[21] Reinhold’s deepest reality is shifted from the noumenal to the essential.


I estimate Reinhold’s Elementarphilosophie a mitigated form of Kant’s idealism as transcendental and as critical and, somewhat regressively, a reification of Kant’s idealism as formal.[22] Like Kant, he divined too much mind-dependence in the structure of the world in experience and in thought of the world situated in experience. He remained, at this stage of his philosophical odyssey, with Kant’s formal idealism, with its dual aspect of fundamental forms being sourced in cognitive faculties and those forms being the seal of objectivity on sensory material. The fundamental forms we find in sensory experience and in thought of the world are not any of them forms of the mind-independent world, but forms we find in the world only because our cognitive powers have put them in the world as cognized.


The foundational proposition of Elementarphilosophie pertains to Kant’s concept of presentation (Vorstellung), which is Kant’s concept of the thing as in awareness, whether in perceptions, intuitions, concepts, schemata, or ideas.[23] Reinhold’s foundational proposition asserts a basic character of all our presentations, a basic fact of consciousness: “In consciousness presentation is distinguished through the subject from both object and subject and is referred to both” (1794, 78). Reinhold upholds this fact as the common a priori principle in all presenting “through sensibility, understanding and reason; on this form depends the form of knowledge, as well as desire” (1794, 71).[24] The foundational role of this fundamental fact of consciousness in Reinhold’s Elementarphilosophie is precarious. He has to admit that the various species of presentation are not deducible from the generic concept of presentation, yet they are supposed to derive from it.[25] Reinhold would have benefitted in casting this philosophy if he had taken a biological approach to it: an archetype of consciousness can be deeper and more enduring than its species somewhat in the way that fundamentals of animality can be deeper and more enduring than its species. However, his archetype of consciousness is anyway incorrect.


Until the last two decades, it was customary to translate Kant’s Vorstellung not as presentation, but as representation. This imported a layer of general indirectness into Vorstellung that is not there in Kantian usage, and I have replaced the translator’s representation with presentation for Reinhold’s Vorstellung in the preceding quotations. Under presentations Kant includes all variety of our mental contents, all being various modifications of our mind and being subject via judgments to the company-role I think. Sensations are a variety of modifications of our mind and are the material in presentations indicating external reality affecting us.[26] Presentations of things through sensations are perceptions.[27] Such sensations signify objective reality.


We have within us presentations of which we can also become conscious. But no matter how far this consciousness may extend and how accurate and punctilious it may be, they still remain forever only presentations, i.e., inner determinations of our mind in this or that time relation. How is it, then, that we posit an object for these presentations; or how is it that in addition to the subjective reality that they have as modifications [of the mind], we also attribute to them who knows what sort of objective reality? . . . Suppose that we inquire what new character is given to our presentations by the reference to an object, and what is the dignity that they thereby obtain. We then find that this reference does nothing beyond making necessary the presentations’ being combined {or linked} in a certain way and being subjected to a rule; and we find, conversely, that only through the necessity of a certain order in the time relation of our presentations is objective signification conferred on them. (A197 B242–43)


Kant was wrong in thinking of objective time order in the contents of our consciousness as a compelled correct order placed on a consciousness floating freely among possibilities of time orders. We have no such time-order-free consciousness (rising to the level of what we today call focal attention) prior to contents ordered in time. Still, Kant has it right that sensory perception is an objective presentation. In his view it is, further, an intuitive presentation, direct and singular in reference to its object, in contrast to conceptual presentations, which are indirect and multiply referring to objects through shared characteristics. I should say Kant is vaguely right, but only vaguely, concerning indirectness of reference in concepts. The case is rather that referral to classes in concepts is direct and referral to particulars in those classes can be direct or indirect depending on the context of discourse. For our present pursuit, the important point is that Vorstellung, the key Kantian concept that Reinhold fastened upon, is not inherently representational and indirect in its reference to its object.


I think Reinhold fastened on the wrong concept as most fundamental among the Kantian menagerie and that Reinhold’s fundamental fact of consciousness is not the most basic distinctive thesis of Kant’s idealism. Rather, the key fundamental concept is form, and the crucial fundamental proposition is that form is unifying act from the mind.[28] Moreover, the attempt, such as with Reinhold and Fichte, to find a generative single base of Kant’s philosophy, theoretical and practical, is not true to Kant’s system.[29]


Reinhold is right in recognizing presentation to be a central concept in Kant’s theoretical philosophy. Reinhold is right in recognizing that the concept presentation includes necessarily that there is a subject for whom the presentation is and includes necessarily that the presentation is of something. In a more robust form, these are among Rand’s corollary-axioms. These are corollaries she locates as grasped upon one’s prior grasp that existence exists. They are not conditions for the circumstance that existence exists, only conditions for and implications of the grasp of that fundamental fact. Reinhold’s starting proposition is not a valid place to start when it comes to metaphysical, epistemological, or phenomenological basics. The concept of being a subject of presentations is parasitic on the concept of being aware of existence; the concept of an object in presentations is parasitic on the concept of existents in awareness. The concept presentation addressed by Reinhold presupposes the concepts existence and consciousness of existence, which he fails to recognize.[30] Reinhold thought of the concept consciousness indeed as presupposing the concept presentation and not the other way around.[31] I imagine that was because he was thinking of consciousness severed from its fundamental character, which is awareness of existence. It is furthermore not presentation (or representation), but identification and two other activities I shall elaborate in chapter Seven that are fundamental elements in the awareness of existence.[32]


Reinhold in this period of his philosophical bearings founded first philosophy on consciousness and some of its character. It is character of self-conscious consciousness wrongly imputed to all human consciousness. The cognition it and it is and it is thus precede I am in relation to it both genetically and analytically. Reinhold’s Philosophy of Elements is a version of the pervasive fundamental error The Primacy of Consciousness joined expressly with its associate error of requiring self-consciousness for any consciousness, including all sensory perception.[33] In this philosophy, the objective consciousness as in it is or it is thus is reconceived as fundamentally “a reflective modification of self-consciousness—a move Kant himself had always avoided. . . . The center of philosophical interest has been shifted away from the relation between consciousness and the ‘thing-in-itself’, where Kant had still left it, to the relation between the explicit and the implicit . . . . And it is here that it will remain throughout the evolution of post-Kantian idealism” (di Giovanni 2000, 18–19).


© Stephen C. Boydstun 2015



[1] But see Heidegger 1953, 318–21.

[2] Kant, KrV B270–79.

[3] Also B137–39, B157–-58n, A341–43, B399–401, A347 B405, A354–55, A397- 402, B422–23n, B428–32, A848 B876; 1798, 7:127–28.

[4] Kitcher 2011, 57–62, 116–17, 193–97.

[5] Kant, KrV A758–69 B786–97.

[6] AS 1040; ITOE 55–60.

[7] Cf. Reinhold 1794, 75; Beiser 1987, 245–47, 260–61.

[8] E.g., the reality of sameness and difference, form and matter, and causality; Beiser 1987, 259.

[9] Descartes, Med. 2nd Replies, 160–66.

[10] Spinoza, Ethics I.

[11] Loemker 1969, 45.

[12] Garber 2009, 385–87.

[13] Kant, KrV A832 B860; A838-40 B866–68.

[14] A64–65 B89–90, A645–46 B673–74, A833–42 B861–70; 1783, 4:322–26; Förster 2012, 154–60.

[15] Beiser 1987, 226–29, 255. Reinhold was an important early advocate Kant’s philosophy at a popular level, although not the first to popularize Kant. “The Critique had been well received by the Jena theologians from the beginning, because it provided what they thought was a new, non-metaphysical foundation for their religious beliefs (Hinske 1995)” (di Giovanni and Harris 2000, xiv).

[16] Reinhold 1794, 55–67, 135–36.

[17] Kuehn 2001, 351–53.

[18] Reinhold 1794, 132–33. In our time, a similar strategy of moving by reasoning internal to Kant’s idealist philosophy to a kindred more realist one is Westphal 2004.

[19] Rockmore 2011, 73.

[20] See also Beiser 1987, 257–59; di Giovanni 2000, 14–19; Franks 2000, 104.

[21] Reinhold 1794, 127–28, and translator’s Note 64.

[22] Kant 1783, 4:375.

[23] KrV A320 B376–77.

[24] On Reinhold’s obstacles to bringing the form of desire under the structure set out in his fundamental principle of presentation, see Beiser 1987, 263–65; 2002, 230–32.

[25] Reinhold 1794, 75–77, 93–94, 105–11.

[26] Kant, KrV A19–20 B33–34, A320 B376–77.

[27] B147.

[28] Further, Pippin 1982.

[29] Cf. Beiser 1987, 265; 2002, 7.

[30] Reinhold 1794, 80–84. Cf. criticism by Schulze 1792 of the fundamentality of Reinhold’s purported fundamental fact of consciousness, reported in Beiser 1987, 274–75, and in di Giovanni 2000, 21.

[31] Reinhold 1794, 79.

[32] Contra identification, 1794, 84–85, 92–93, 99.

[33] On the primacy of consciousness in Reinhold’s foundationalism, consider his conception of the phenomenal character of his foundation; Beiser 1987, 247–51. On Reinhold’s requirement of self-consciousness for consciousness, see Beiser 1987, 254–55; on Schulze’s 1792 complaint against this move by Reinhold, Beiser 1987, 275.

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