Between Affinity and Expression: Kant, Nishida and the Sensible Foundations of Expressivity, #2.

By Otto Paans




II. Definitions

III. Why Rethink Affinity?

IV. Nishida and the Unity of Experience

V. Affinity, Sensibility and Expression

VI. Conclusion

This is the second of five installments, and contains section II.


II. Definitions


Sensibility (Sinnlichkeit) is “[t]he capacity (receptivity) to acquire representations through the way in which we are affected by objects” (CPR A20/B34). The use of the notions of “receptivity” and “affected by” might lead one to think that sensibility is a passive capacity. But human sensibility is an active power for human responsiveness to the world and ourselves that inherently structures the way we experience. Therefore, it extends well beyond the mere passive reception of external impulses:

All appearances as possible experiences, therefore, lie a priori in the understanding, and receive their formal possibility from it, just as they lie in the sensibility as mere intuitions, and are only possible through the latter as far as their form is concerned. (CPR A127)

So there is an intimate connection between sensing and the mental modes by means of which intuitions are registered by us (CPR A126). More precisely, our sensibility provides us with two different forms of intuition (Anschauungsformen): our representation of space and our representation of time. These forms are not constrained by bodily senses like seeing or hearing, but instead they are non-empirically embedded in every bodily sense modality. Indeed, they are forms in the strong two-part sense that (i) they are the a priori formats in which sensory information is experienced by us, and (ii) they are innately specified in our sensory capacities, although not innately contained as representational contents. In principle, there could be sensing animals with different forms of intuition, or more than two forms of intuition, but these animals would not be us. Hence our specifically human sensible capacity has two and only two forms of intuition, the representation of space and the representation of time, as a part of our cognitive essence.


In introducing the notion of affinity, Kant postulates the

necessity of a law extending through all appearances for regarding them throughout as data of sense that are associable in themselves and subject to universal laws of a thoroughgoing connection in reproduction. (CPR A114)

This thesis leads Kant to define the objective ground that underlies all association of appearances, called affinity (Affinität). If we take this initial definition at face value, we might be in danger of constraining affinity to associability as such. This would mean that affinity is just another name for the mental activity of what is more commonly called “association.” But although association is certainly enabled by affinity, it is not synonymous with it.

To see why, we can distinguish between (i) affinity in the narrow, associative sense mentioned above, aka empirical affinity, and (ii) transcendental affinity as the set of necessary laws to which all mental representations are subject. Affinity in the narrow, associative, empirical sense (i) is, broadly speaking, that characteristic of mental representations that enables them to be experienced as being sensibly generated by and for a unified subject. Affinity in the transcendental sense (ii) consists in the fact that we presuppose empirical unity in our perceptions because of a foundational transcendental sensible unity. So, we assume that a set of empirical observations somehow is actively connected because we project a kind of transcendental sensible unity or affinity into it. In turn, this unity lies more or less hidden, and more or less unself-consciously represented, beneath everything we cognitively encounter. In some texts, Kant seems to disagree with this point and argue that the unity that underlies all sensory appearances is in fact constituted by a set of causal laws under transcendental principles, and as such, this is responsible for any form of empirical affinity (CPR A114). Unity would then result from causal laws and pure concepts of the understanding rather than from our transcendental sensibility. However, Kant does not succeed entirely in successfully establishing this point.[i] Then the question becomes how and why our mind actively and sensibly projects a unity behind the multiplicity of empirical intuitions, and whether any sensory manifold is possible only because of the hidden workings of transcendental affinity.

Precisely because the point can be made that some intuitional manifolds do not fit any conceptualization or categorization, and thus fall not only inside the unifying work that transcendental sensible affinity (via the forms of intuition) carries out, but also outside the unifying work that transcendental discursive understanding (via the categories) carries out, this question has fundamental critical relevance for Kantian philosophy.[ii]


The imagination comprehends the synthesizing capacity for representing objects in their absence (general imagination) and its associated specific functions of memory, daydreaming, creativity, and anticipation, and some forms of seeing-as. Therefore, the imagination can be discussed in two basically different ways: (i) in general, non-specific terms, as the all-purpose imagination, and (ii) in specialized, specific terms, as the dedicated imagination.[iii]


The use of the term “expression” in this essay has been inspired by R. G. Collingwood’s treatment of this notion in The Principles of Art. To express something (whether a judgement, emotion or affect) is to pull something undefined into the domain of consciousness, thereby relieving oneself from a burden or tension that was present but lacked a definite form.[iv] To express something in any creative context is also to individualize it: one expresses a given judgement or feeling in a way that is unique, personal, anchored in space and time, and sometimes truly novel. In doing so, either a new mode of expression is introduced in the world, or something that appears as being beyond words or images receives a tangible form. An example of the first kind would be the development of atonal music by the composers of the Second Viennese School, which offered a completely new range of artistic possibilities; and an example of the second kind would be the depiction of solitude in Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. Schubert’s vivid and foreboding imagery became almost the standard auditory means of referring to loneliness and despair, providing the public with a potent vehicle to express a thought that otherwise would have remained abstract or ungraspable.


[i] See also H. Allison, “Transcendental Affinity — Kant’s Answer to Hume,” in L.W. Beck (ed.). Kant’s Theory of Knowledge (Dordrecht: Springer, 1974), pp. 119–127.

[ii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Kant’s Non-Conceptualism, Rogue Objects, and the Gap in the B Deduction,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 19 (2011): 397–413; R. Hanna, “Kantian Madness: Blind Intuitions, Essentially Rogue Objects, Nomological Deviance, and Categorial Anarchy,” Contemporary Studies in Kantian Philosophy 1 (2016): 44–64, available online at URL = <!Kantian-Madness-Blind-Intuitions-Essentially-Rogue-Objects-Nomological-Deviance-and-Categorial-Anarchy/cmbz/576018190cf2c6c572641509>; R. Hanna, “Kant’s Theory of Judgment,” in E.N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), sections 4.1 and 4.2, available online at URL = <>; and Paans, “Opening Up Towards the Non-Conceptual: From Kantian Judgment to Creative Oscillation.”

[iii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Kant and the Foundations of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 39–41.

[iv] R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), pp. 109–110. In this connection, it should be noted that the act of pulling a notion into consciousness does not always entail conceptualizing it; each notion has essentially non-conceptual contents that extend well beyond what can be grasped conceptually; moreover, one can also become conscious of essentially non-conceptual content even though it cannot be expressed by means of concepts.

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