A transcendental argument is a deductive philosophical argument which takes a manifest feature of experience as granted, and articulates what must be the case so that such experiences are possible. Transcendental arguments may have additional standards of justification that are more demanding than those of traditional deductive arguments.
Typically, a transcendental argument starts from some accepted aspect of experience, and then deduces what must be true for that type of experience to be possible. Transcendental arguments are often used as arguments against skepticism, usually about the reality of the external world or other minds.
So-called progressive transcendental arguments begin with an apparently indubitable and universally accepted statement about people's experiences of the world, and use this to make substantive knowledge-claims about the world, e.g., that it is causally and spatiotemporally related. They start with what is left at the end of the skeptic's process of doubting.
Regressive transcendental arguments, on the other hand, begin at the same point as the skeptic, e.g., the fact that we have experience of a causal and spatiotemporal world, and show that certain notions are implicit in our conceptions of such experience. Regressive transcendental arguments are more conservative in that they do not purport to make substantive ontological claims about the world.
An example is used by Kant in his refutation of idealism. Idealists believe that the experience of objects independent of our mind is not legitimate. Briefly, Kant shows that
- since idealists acknowledge that we have an inner mental life, and
- an inner life of self-awareness is bound up with the concepts of objects which are not inner, and which interact causally,
- then we must have legitimate experience of outer objects which interact causally.
Not all use of transcendental arguments are intended to counter skepticism, however. The Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd used transcendental critique to establish the conditions that make a theoretical attitude of thought (not just the process of thinking, as in Kant) possible. In particular, he showed that theoretical thought cannot be neutral, rather, must be based on presuppositions that are "religious" in nature (in the sense of pre-theoretical commitment).
It was Immanuel Kant who gave transcendental arguments their name and notoriety. It is open to controversy, though, whether his own transcendental arguments should be classified as progressive or regressive.
In the Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant developed one of philosophy's most famous transcendental arguments in 'The Deduction of the Pure Concepts of the Understanding'. In the 'Transcendental Aesthetic', Kant used transcendental arguments to show that sensory experiences would not be possible if we did not impose their spatial and temporal forms on them, making space and time "conditions of the possibility of experience".
Criticisms of transcendental arguments
As stated above, one of the main uses of transcendental arguments is to use one thing we can know, the nature of our experiences, to counter skeptics' arguments that we cannot know something or other about the nature of the world. One need not be a skeptic about those matters, however, to find transcendental arguments unpersuasive. There are a number of ways that one might deny that a given transcendental argument gives us knowledge of the world. The following responses may suit some versions and not others.
- First, critics respond by claiming that the arguer cannot be sure that he or she is having particular experiences. That a person cannot be sure about the nature of his or her own experiences may initially seem bizarre. However, it may be claimed that the very act of thinking about or, even more, describing our experiences in words, involves interpreting them in ways that go beyond so-called 'pure' experience.
- Second, skeptics object to the use of transcendental arguments to draw conclusions about the nature of the world by claiming that even if a person does know the nature of his or her experiences, that person cannot know that the reasoning from these experiences to conclusions about the world is accurate.
- Lastly, critics have debated whether showing that we must think of the world in a certain way, given certain features of experience, is tantamount to showing that the world answers to that conception. Perhaps transcendental arguments show only necessities of our cognitive apparatus rather than realities of the world apart from us. This objection may amount to throwing doubt on whether transcendental arguments are ever more than merely "regressive".
- Transcendental-arguments and Scepticism; Answering the Question of Justification (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2000), pp 3-6.
- Strawson, P., Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985) Premise-10.
- "Transcendental arguments… have to formulate boundary conditions we can all recognize. Once they are formulated properly, we can see at once that they are valid. The thing is self-evident. But it may be very hard to get to this point, and there may still be dispute… For although a correct formulation will be self-evidently valid, the question may arise whether we have formulated things correctly. This is all the more so since we are moving into an area [experience] that the ordinary practice of life has left unarticulated, an area we look through rather than at." Charles Taylor, "The Validity of Transcendental Arguments", Philosophical Arguments (Harvard, 1997), 32.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Transcendental Arguments, Adrian Bardon section 8, third paragraph.
- Stapleford, Scott. Kant's Transcendental Arguments: Disciplining Pure Reason - Continuum Publishing 2008 (ISBN 978-0-8264-9928-8 - hb)
- Dooyeweerd, H. 1984  A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Paideia Press, Jordan Station, Ontaria CA. See also http://www.dooy.info/tc.html
- For a progressive reading of Kant's arguments, see Strawson, P. F. (1966), The Bounds of Sense: An Essay on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. For a regressive reading, see Karl Ameriks (1978), "Kant's Transcendental Deduction as a Regressive Argument", Kant-Studien. Volume 69, Pages 273–287
- Kant, Immanuel. 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Baggini, Julian and Peter S. Fosl. 2003. '2.10 Transcendental arguments'. In The Philosopher's Toolkit: A compendium of philosophical concepts and methods. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
- A. C. Grayling, "Transcendental Arguments" in The Blackwell Companion to Epistemology, Jonathan Dancy and Ernest Sosa, eds (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) .
- Brueckner, Anthony. " Transcendental Arguments I". Nous 17 (4): 551-575. and "Transcendental Arguments II". Nous 18 (2): 197-225.
- Stapleford, Scott Kant's Transcendental Arguments: Disciplining Pure Reason - Continuum Publishing 2008 (ISBN 978-0-8264-9928-8 - hb)
- Stern, Robert, ed.Transcendental Arguments: Problems and Prospect. Oxford: Clarendon.
- Stroud, Barry. "Transcendental Arguments". Journal of Philosophy 65 (1968) 241-56.
- Taylor, Charles. "The Validity of Transcendental Arguments". Reprinted in Philosophical Arguments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955.