How much is our understanding of Kant's Categorical Framework (published in German in 1781) obscured by translation and basic semantics?


Upon reading about and later researching [1] Kant's famous Categorical Framework, which is included as a key part of his classic Critique of Pure Reason (1781), I am struck by aspects that are quite basic and intuitive, like his definition of "Quantity" (unity, plurality, totality) which contrasts with a more difficult frame for "Modality" (possibility, existence, necessity). It is said this work was intended by Kant to represent a framework for all knowledge, but Kant's writing style has been described by many (most?) scholars as a challenge to unravel. How much of his original intention has been, as they say, lost in translation? Is there anyone considered authoritative on what the C.F. truly means?

[1] Tarnas (1991), The Passion of the Western Mind p. 341-347.


Posted 2013-11-04T05:17:32.217

Reputation: 333


I'm afraid I don't have anything positive to contribute, but this sounds like both an interesting and a massive question, and it's not at all obvious that there is a matter of "authoritative interpretation" to appeal to in answering it. Perhaps a good starting point for further reading might be The Cambridge Companion to Kant's CoPR ( ed. Paul Guyer, which in its closing chapters discusses the different impacts the work had for the German idealist school and the Analytic programme.

– Paul Ross – 2013-11-05T13:32:03.113

Outstanding, Paul, thanks. I shall check out this title. Most of what I've seen on shelves about Kant to date ends up being general and introductory in nature. I'm ready for a deeper dive into CoPR, & Kant's CF in particular. More soon .. – sourcepov – 2013-11-06T02:30:01.317

IIRC, Kant's categories are based on Aristotlean logic. Perhaps what seemed apodeictic to Kant about his categories was the weak understanding of logical relations at the time. I think it was De Morgan who realized that the logic at the time was obsessed with set inclusion at the expense of all other relations. – Kevin Holmes – 2014-09-11T16:25:06.503



There are some features where he is hard to understand, but I don't think they are primarily translation-related. For instance, the symmetry with the categories leads to some pretty strained groupings at times. Also, there are some places where his arguments seem to most Kant scholars just plain wrong or where there are big gaps (in modern work we would say "exercises left for the reader"). In my experience, this is what people mean when they call Kant a challenge.

That said I think decent German reading skills can help as there are some "word-plays" and other things where the relationship between two elements in German is clearer than an in English, but a solid translation should help you with that.


Posted 2013-11-04T05:17:32.217

Reputation: 23 970


It is generally accepted that (as you say) Kant was a horrible writer. I have heard of native German speakers reading Kant in English translation for clarity. I think you have hit upon something that is not merely a problem of translation but a fundamental weakness of Kant -- just what is it that he's talking about?

I would approach this as a fundamental philosophical problem rather than a merely linguistic one. That is, do not assume that "it makes sense in German" and that you don't get it because you're a native English speaker.

The definition of terminology is a basic component of persuasive arguments. It's good to be able to read German, but you do need to go beyond that and ask whether Kant is really saying something or merely describing relationships among certain words.

In my opinion, the inability to reason from the ground up is a fundamental weakness of Kantianism, and something that is addressed at length in Heidegger's return to the pre-Socratics and 'dasien.'


Posted 2013-11-04T05:17:32.217

Reputation: 190

2Can you source "It is generally accepted that (as you say) Kant was a horrible writer"? – stoicfury – 2014-07-12T04:44:04.813

Kant/Hegel scholar here. Many of the things you're saying disagree with my experience. I have never heard of Kant scholars saying they read it in English to understand it (I've heard that for Hegel). The "whether Kant is really saying something" and everything after it are really a different issue or rather it shows that you're a Heideggerian who thinks Kant is just saying dribble. – virmaior – 2014-07-12T05:21:06.987

2My source for that is a course I took at the University of Chicago, German Romanticism, taught by Robert Richards, who said that native German speakers sometimes turn to English translations of Kant for clarity. It was sort of a joke, but probably based on his anecdotal experience. The judgment of being a "horrible writer" is subjective so I'm not sure it can be definitely proven either way. – stackexchanger – 2014-07-12T05:21:25.227

BTW, yes I would say that I am a Heideggerian who thinks Kant is not really saying anything. That's why I said "approach this as a fundamental philosophical problem" because I think it's a basic weakness of Kant's philosophy. I think that's a fair answer. – stackexchanger – 2014-07-12T05:29:21.100

Re "BTW...", I don't really think that's answer to the question as asked. The OP didn't ask us if Kant is right or if Kant's philosophy overlooks major topics. He asked if it is "lost in translation" or if there are any authoritative interpretations. – virmaior – 2014-07-13T00:13:30.957

Re: "My source ...", I took courses from and conversed with several Kant scholars during my MA and PhD... Never heard that joke about Kant. Heard it from 2 sources about Hegel. I think the limitations of Kant's writing translate well (meaning same gaps and difficulties in English as in German) – virmaior – 2014-07-13T00:15:16.873

Apologies, away from this thread too long. Just last night I was reading a translator's preface, from F. Max Mueller (1st ed. 1881, 2d ed. 1922) describing the nuances of German idiom, interpretation of adverbs, and other grammatical factors providing clues to 'what Kant really meant'. I also read some of Kant's translated preface, and found it far more accessible than I'd been hearing. Next up: I'm diving head first into Kant's 1st Critique. Yes, plenty of gaps & concerns anticipated, per Heidegger, Schopenauer, et al. My focus: on-going viablity of his 4x3 C.F. More soon. – sourcepov – 2015-11-29T19:39:40.733