Between Affinity and Expression: Kant, Nishida, and the Sensible Foundations of Expressivity, #3: Why Rethink Affinity?

By Otto Paans



I. Introduction

II. Definitions

III. Why Rethink Affinity?

IV. Nishida and the Unity of Experience

V. Affinity, Sensibility and Expression

VI. Conclusion


This is the third of five installments, and contains section III.


III. Why Rethink Affinity?

If we take Kant’s notion of affinity at face value, then we must conclude that it closely resembles the solution to a problem that Descartes had pointed up: every sequence of mental representations must be a sequence for someone, and that someone must experience the very fact that these representations belong to them. Taken literally, Kantian affinity flows from the same fundamental fact as Descartes’s notion of the Cogito: namely, the grounding of a unified point of contact between the mind and the external world. The problem that immediately emerges when dealing with this fundamental fact is a sceptical possibility that threatens to upset the idea that we have any reliable insight into how the external world works: what if I believe the external world to be coherently ordered according to natural laws, whereas in reality, this apparent coherent ordering is actually wholly accidental and contingent?

Intended as a response to this sceptical possibility, Kant’s appeal to affinity is an attempt to answer or avoid Hume’s worry that the associations we combine in experience are ultimately the consequence of accidental, contingent, fragmentary perceptions on our part. For Hume, custom and habit guide our dealings with appearances in everyday experience, but they have no necessary predictive value, and therefore any regularity in nature is either merely assumed or imaginatively projected by us rather than proven.[i] Not satisfied with this approach in view of its arbitrariness, Kant set out to argue for necessary law-governed connections that underlie the unity of our experience.

The basic flaw in Kant’s argument — as Henry Allison points out in one of the relatively few articles on Kantian affinity[ii] — is Kant’s use of the notion of Erscheinung (appearance). Kant switches subtly between “appearance” as (i) a generic object of experience or phenomenon, and (ii) its private, first-person variation that is better rendered as Vorstellung, i.e., mental representation. By switching between the two meanings, Kant infers the necessity of the unity of appearances from its existence.[iii] To circumvent this argumentative weakness, Allison proposes the following possible Kantian response:

A (…) promising approach involves the reformulation of Kant’s argument in such a manner that it is no longer dependent upon the equivocal notion of Erscheinung. This requires the translation of claims about appearances into claims about possible experience, i.e., the consciousness of a public objective world, distinct from the self.[iv]

Thus, the emphasis of the argument shifts from talking about individual appearances to the consciousness of an external world:

This line of argument is based upon the correlation between self-consciousness and the consciousness of an objective world, or more specifically, upon the fact that experience requires both an object to be experienced and a self-conscious subject who does the experiencing. This subject-object structure of all possible experience is the ultimate ground of the claim that experience requires a synthesis according to necessary rules.[v]

It is not too difficult to identify two themes in this quote that have dominated Western philosophy since Parmenides and Plato: first, the so-called “Correlationist circle,” according to which thinking and being cannot be separated; second, the object-subject distinction. While Allison’s critical diagnosis of Kant’s argumentative strategy might be cogent, his answer leaves an alternative philosophical response to the role and form of Kantian affinity unexplored. Partially, this can be ascribed to the fact that we are uncritically accustomed to think in subject-object relations, precisely because the analytical advantages of this model appear to make other approaches superfluous.

Allison argues that the subject-object structure of reality requires the definition of a set of necessary rules that structure the synthesis of experience. Kant himself set out just to provide such an account, and consequently defined affinity as a necessary component of cognition. However, while Allison pointed out where Kant may have gone wrong, he himself remains also trapped in the same predicament — i.e. with the task of defining necessary laws, or nomological structures that structure and unify our experience.

By contrast, the alternative line of thought that I will present here builds on a different philosophical tradition, namely, the views of the Kyoto School’s founder Kitarō Nishida. Japanese philosophy became acquainted with Western philosophy through Hegelianism and Neo-Kantianism. It is not surprising, then, that Nishida in his early works repeatedly refers to Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Wundt, Rickert, and Natorp. The methodological advantage of pairing Nishida’s and Kant’s conceptual worlds in one single argument is that they speak a philosophical language that is curiously similar. Yet, Nishida’s take on Western philosophical language opens up an entirely different point of view. Despite the similarities, one of the main differences is the status of the subject-object structure of reality.

In the thought of many Japanese philosophers, the subject-object distinction often appears as a hurdle to be overcome, or as an intermediate stage on the road to fully disclosed truth.[vi] If we accept Nishida’s frame of thought, and reject the subject-object distinction as the final level of analysis that philosophical reflection can reach, we end up in a position to leverage Kant’s usage of affinity for a purpose for which it was not originally meant, but that exists nevertheless as an unexplored interpretation.

By contrast, if we accept Allison’s line of thought, and affirm the subject-object structure, then we are once again obliged to perform the Kantian task of grounding necessary laws that shape experience. In this case, the issue that remains unsolved is whether at the level of the subject-object distinction, one can find the answers or ideas that solve the philosophical puzzle. If we reject the subject-object distinction as final level of analysis, we end up with a new philosophical problem: namely, to see how the object becomes subject, and the subject becomes object, thereby overcoming the gap that separates the two. To address this problem, the unifying character of Kantian affinity provides a useful vehicle to clarify this process.

Correspondingly, we can rethink affinity as a different concept altogether, and we can work out the insight that associability according to pattern-like structures lies at the root of our creativity, but in a rather different way than Kant envisioned. To introduce this alternative “take” on the notion of affinity, I’ll make a short excursus into some fundamental claims about the nature of experience made by Nishida, linking them to the main line of my argument.


[i] D. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 34.

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

[iii] Ibid., pp. 122–123.

[iv] Ibid., p. 124.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] J.W. Heisig, Much Ado About Nothingness: Essays on Nishida and Tanabe (Nayoga: Chisokudō Publications, 2016), pp. 12–15. It is worth noting that Heisig is describing general tendencies in Japanese thought in this passage. His list of characteristics is not meant to be construed as a summary of either “uniquely Japanese” traits or Nishida’s thought as a whole. Rather, he is sketching the overall historico-philosophical context in which the thought of the Kyoto School was embedded.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 12 July 2021

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

Please consider becoming a patron!