I have referred many times to transcendence in recent Chronicles without making explicit exactly what I mean by it. Transcendence is a charged term, with religious connotations or at least metaphysical ones. For medieval thought, transcendence is the relation of God to the world; for Kant, the transcendental is the realm of the possibility of knowledge; for Sartre, transcendence is the free relationship of the subject (pour-soi) to its intended objects. But the human subject’s freedom to “transcend” objects is a function of his possession of language, the implicit model of intentionality that phenomenology ignores. Similarly, it is language that makes knowledge in the Kantian sense possible. The absence of any reflection on the connection between language and knowledge in Kant reveals the unquestionable status in his time of the ahistorical metaphysical equation of language with the production of declarative sentences or propositions attributing predicates to Ideas. As for relevance of the linguistic model to the medieval notion of God’s transcendence, this idea has been at the core of GA from the beginning. As an advocate of Ockham’s razor, I propose as a minimal model of transcendence the relation of the linguistic sign to its worldly referent.

Following Max Weber, many thinkers, including Hans Blumenberg (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 1966) and more recently, Charles Taylor (A Secular Age, 2007), have described the “disenchantment” of the passage from the medieval world to modernity. The “enchanted” universe was peopled with all kinds of “spiritual” beings–ghosts, demons, fairies, angels–with man in the middle and God at the top of the so-called great chain of being. The modern world-view, alas, eliminates all these spirits, leaving only man and, for the believer, God–but God alone in his heaven, deprived of the intermediaries through whom he traditionally maintained contact with his creatures.

This familiar account has the defect of all metaphysical discourse: it takes for granted the inexplicable or supernatural character of the transcendental realm, so that we are faced with the choice of either believing in it or considering it as a figment of our imagination–the familiar dichotomy of God-creates-man vs. man-creates-God. From the standpoint of the originary hypothesis, the minimal ontology of the human involves things and signs; the spiritual realm is minimally modeled by the sign, whether as its source or simply as its correlate in human experience. The pre-modern plethora of beings at different levels of spiritual perfection reflected, on the positive side, a more compelling intuition of the genesis of “spirit” in an event in which the sacred becomes an object of experience, but on the negative, a lack of clarity in grasping the dichotomous ontology of the “spiritual.” In other words, what we lose in “disenchantment” is the incarnated (or less kindly, fetishized) trace of the ostensive experience of the genesis of the transcendent. The strictly dichotomous separation of the human and the divine in the new era, for which Protestantism returned for inspiration to the Old Testament, allows a clearer understanding of the distinction between the worldly and the transcendent, although it never intersects with the nearly contemporaneous inquiries into the origin of language.


Kant’s notion of the transcendental as the prior condition of knowledge, while ignoring the ontological priority of language to “knowledge,” establishes the ontology of traditional metaphysics on a new epistemological ground. Kant’s is the first concept of transcendence as a veritable a priori not linked to the folk memory of historical experience preserved in religious narrative. This revolutionary step was taken in response to Humean skepticism concerning the existence of a realm of thought separate from the empirical world. No doubt we can associate Kant’s turn away from the empirical naturalism of the Enlightenment with the coming realization that the social order itself had moral and epistemological preconditions inaccessible to empirical observation–that the evolution of the ritual order of the “old regime” into a bourgeois society based on exchange could not simply be described as the replacement of an irrational order by a rational one. But Kant’s achievement depends precisely on excluding any such historical contingencies from the category of the transcendental. (Whether Hegel’s reintegration of history into metaphysics is more than a supremely brilliant ratiocination, as suggested by Francis Fukuyama’s ever-so-controversial declaration of the “end of history,” is a matter I cannot deal with here.)

How are the “pure forms” of space and time, along with the “transcendentally deduced” categories of causality, negation, possibility, etc., that Kant poses as the transcendental conditions of knowledge, related to language? As prerequisites of worldly experience, space and time are not dependent on language. But for Kant, space, time, and the quasi-Aristotelian “categories” provide the ground not of worldly experience but of the intuitions that are the basis for the synthetic a priori truths of geometry as well as all other representations. The relationship of Kant’s space and time to the phenomena that appear within them is analogous to the relationship between the world of the signs of language and the world of objects to which these signs are made to refer. No doubt animals may be said to have “experiences,” but they cannot have what Kant calls intuitions, since they cannot formulate their experiences in such a way as to share their meaning with others, or express it to themselves.

Space and time in the Kantian sense are the preconditions of the néant of intentionality that separates the human subject from its worldly experience. The transcendental conditions of experience are the constitutive elements of a scene. For Kant, this scene exists a priori; if we are driven beyond the limits of a priori certitude to conceive its origin, our conception will be theological, not anthropological. Yet the scene can indeed be understood anthropologically as originating along with the representations that we situate on it. Kant’s conception of the transcendental is in fact an abstract version of the distinction between the world of signs and the world of things that is the central ontological distinction of GA.

The philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff, in thus treating the difference between the sensible and the intelligible as merely logical, has given a completely wrong direction to all investigations into the nature and origin of our knowledge. This difference is quite evidently transcendental. It does not merely concern their [logical] form, as being either clear or confused. It concerns their origin and content. It is not that by our sensibility we cannot know the nature of things in themselves in any save a confused fashion; we do not apprehend them in any fashion whatsoever [my emphasis]. If our subjective constitution be removed, the represented object, with the qualities which sensible intuition bestows upon it, is nowhere to be found, and cannot possibly be found. For it is this subjective constitution which determines its form as appearance.
(Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Kemp Smith, I, 1, sec. 8: “General Observations on Transcendental Aesthetic”)

Kant reproaches Leibniz and Wolff with failing to grasp the transcendental nature of the distinction between the “sensible” and the “intelligible,” as if the faculty of “sensibility” gave us confused ideas of the things-in-themselves that our intellect grasps clearly. This critique involves two distinct elements. First, the “merely logical” distinction between the sensible and the intelligible treats all beings as of the same nature, placing them on a continuum between the empirical and the abstract rather than grasping the transcendental nature of the latter. From this there results a second failure, even more serious from Kant’s standpoint: the failure to recognize that the “intelligible” does not deal with reality-in-itself at all, but intends its own ideal objects. The introduction of the category of the transcendental, by making explicit the implicit language-reality dualism of metaphysics, serves to correct those whose monistic ontology (whether empiricist, like Locke, Condillac, and Hume, or rationalist, like Leibniz and Wolff) led them to see ideas as mere abstractions from sense-data.

The “indexical” signals used by animals are traces of the impingement of objects on their senses and should therefore be understood as belonging to the same world as these objects, whereas human language, constructed of “symbolic” or “arbitrary” signs, occupies a different ontological space. No doubt Kant speaks not of signs and things but of the “sensible” and the “intelligible,” and he is concerned above all to distinguish between the phenomena of our empirical knowledge and “things in themselves.” But the representations that inhabit the intellect are made of nothing but language. True to the metaphysical tradition that begins with Plato, and whose limitations he is the first major philosopher to acknowledge and the last one to accept, Kant does not concern himself with the anthropological basis of language or with the constructed nature of the declarative propositions in which his ideas, like Plato’s, are formulated. But the ontological distinction he was the first to make rigorous–one whose analogy in Plato is that between the Ideas and their imitations or cave-wall shadows–is modeled on the linguistic one, even when it exceeds it. Kant’s refusal to countenance knowledge of things-in-themselves defines his transcendental “idealism.” This cutting off our sensations and intuitions of worldly objects from their being-in-itself (the ancestor of Saussure’s distinction between the linguistic signified and the worldly referent) is a metaphysical holding action that shifts our interaction with material reality from the thing-side to the sign-side of the ledger in the interest of protecting the intentional space, the Sartrian néant, with which our possession of language surrounds the objects of our perception.

Kant brought metaphysics to its supreme level of accomplishment by grasping “pure reason’s” dependence on the transcendent realm of ideas counterpoised to the universe of things unknowable in themselves. But an unresolved dualism not overtly based on faith is unstable. Whence comes the transcendental into the immanent world? The various ways of answering this question pose for Kant the “antinomies” of pure reason: Did the world have a beginning? Did it have an external (free) cause? Is there a “necessary being”? The monisms that would attempt to “lift up” and abolish Kant’s dualism, from Hegel to Marx and Nietzsche, have their point of departure in the abstractness of Kant’s ontological divide between “horizontal” reality and its “vertical” semiotic counterpart.


Today’s world is little preoccupied by the question of transcendence that remained under different guises the central theme of the great existentialists, from Heidegger to Sartre. Ordinary language philosophy thinks it can jettison the transcendental framework and come to an understanding of language through careful observation of its usages, in which Austin discovered the ostensive residue of the sacred. Contemporary with this tendency and of at least equal significance is the death–and possible transfiguration–of the “continental” tradition that had preserved the notion of transcendence. With Jacques Derrida, the critique of metaphysics reaches the point where it no longer denies transcendence or psychologizes it but analytically dissolves it in immanence. Derrida’s différance undermines the ontological ground of the distinction between language and reality by situating it in a worldly time of deferral incompatible with Kant’s transcendental notion of time as a pure ground of intuition. But this return to a Humean agnosticism concerning the transcendental is at the same time an opening to theanthropological generation of the transcendent from the immanent. The différance within which language appears is the opening of human time to the emergence of the sign, the deferral of the violence attendant on “absolute” desire that surrounds the common birthplace of the sacred and the significant.

It will be no surprise to readers of this Chronicle that this provisional history of transcendence concludes with the originary hypothesis. For GA, the generation of the transcendent from the immanent is at the same time the emergence of the human from the prehuman. In the originary scene of representation, mimetic violence is deferred through the collective sacralization of the central desire-object by the sign. I will not describe this scenario in detail, as I have done it many times elsewhere (for example, in the Introduction to GA on this site). It will suffice here to point out that the minimal demonstration of the transcendental character of the linguistic sign is the fact that its meaning inheres not in the minds of the individual members of the community but in the shared understanding of the community as a whole. There is no physical locus, neuronal or otherwise, in which the meaning of a linguistic or other cultural sign can be found. Whether or not we attribute it to a supernatural source, the transcendental status of human representations is the defining trait of the creature that Aristotle defined by its possession of the logos.