Transcendence (philosophy)

In philosophy, the adjective transcendental and the noun transcendence convey three different but related meanings, all of them derived from the word's literal meaning (from Latin) of climbing or going beyond, that correspond with Ancient philosophy, Medieval philosophy, and modern philosophy. The concept of transcendence, together with its paired concept immanence, is a common philosophical term and is used by many philosophers. The meaning of the concept of transcendence more or less differs according to each philosopher's framework of thought.

Transcendence often refers to an experience with the divine or God, which is conceived as absolute, eternal, and infinite. Negative theology and mysticism recognizes the limits of conceptual understanding or linguistic articulation of that which transcends the phenomenal world. Negative theology in particular is an example of an attempt to describe what is transcendent by negating what is finite and relative.


Kant characterized his critical philosophy as "transcendental" as an attempt to explain the possibility of experience. While Kant's use of the term is unique to him, Husserl also adopted the Kantian notion in his phenomenology.

Introduction: concept, language, and transcendence

Transcendence generally refers to the divine, or God, who is conceived as being transcendent, infinite, absolute, and eternal. These concepts are difficult to conceptualize and further difficult to define. They are, therefore, often defined in terms of the negation of finite concepts. For example, infinite is defined as "not finite," eternity is "not temporal" or "no beginning and no end." Negative theology likewise tries not to describe God in direct or immediate terms, but tries to describe Him as a negation of what human beings can directly conceptualize.

Although transcendence or immanence is not part of Plato's philosophical vocabulary, his Ideas are divine objects that are transcendent of the world. In Plato's ontology, Ideas, such as beauty and good, are eternal, absolute, and are manifested in a relative and imperfect form in the world we live in.

Mysticism can also be seen as an attempt to access the divine, or that which is transcendent.

Transcendence and Immanence

(See Transcendence (religion) and Immanence)

One use of the term transcendence, as part of the concept pair transcendence/immanence, is the use of the term in reference to God's relation to the world. Here transcendent means that God is completely outside of and beyond the world, as opposed to the notion that God is manifested in the world. This meaning originates in the Aristotelian view of God as the prime mover, a non-material self-consciousness that is outside of the world. On the other hand, philosophies of immanence such as stoicism and those held by Spinoza and Deleuze maintain that God is manifested in the world.

Similarly, Plato's Ideas are also divine objects that transcend the world. For Plato, the Idea of beauty is perfect and absolute, which manifests itself in imperfect form in the phenomenal world. Similarly, the Idea of the Good is eternal, perfect, and absolute, and transcendent of the world. On the other hand, goodness in the world is imperfect, temporal, and finite, and it is understood in reference to the Idea of good.

Transcendentals: Medieval use

Another use of the term transcendence, which originated in Medieval philosophy, refers to that which falls within the Aristotelian categories that were used to organize reality. Primary examples of the transcendental are the existent (ens) and the characteristics, designated transcendentals of unity, truth, and goodness.

Kant and modern philosophy

(See Transcendental idealism)


In modern philosophy, Kant introduced a new use of the term transcendental. In his theory of knowledge, this concept is concerned with the conditions of possibility of knowledge itself. He also set the term transcendental in opposition to the term transcendent, the latter meaning "that, which goes beyond" (transcends) any possible knowledge of a human being.[1] For him transcendental meant knowledge about our cognitive faculty with regard to how objects are possible a priori. "I call all knowledge transcendental if it is occupied, not with objects, but with the way that we can possibly know objects even before we experience them."[2] He also equated transcendental with that which is " respect of the subject's faculty of cognition."[3] Something is transcendental if it plays a role in the way in which the mind "constitutes" objects and makes it possible for us to experience them as objects in the first place. Ordinary knowledge is knowledge of objects; transcendental knowledge is knowledge of how it is possible for us to experience those objects as objects. This is based on Kant's acceptance of David Hume's argument that certain general features of objects (e.g. persistence, causal relationships) cannot be derived from the sense impressions we have of them. Kant argues that the mind must contribute those features and make it possible for us to experience objects as objects. In the central part of his Critique of Pure Reason, the "Transcendental Deduction of the Categories," Kant argues for a deep interconnection between the ability to have self-consciousness and the ability to experience a world of objects. Through a process of synthesis, the mind generates both the structure of objects and its own unity.

A metaphilosophical question discussed by many Kant scholars is how transcendental reflection is itself possible. Stephen Palmquist interprets Kant's appeal to faith as his most effective solution to this problem.[4]

For Kant, the "transcendent," as opposed to the "transcendental," is that which lies beyond what our faculty of knowledge can legitimately know. Hegel's counter-argument to Kant was that to know a boundary is also to be aware of what it bounds and as such what lies beyond it—in other words, to have already transcended it.

Husserlian phenomenology and Sartre

In Husserlian phenomenology, the "transcendent" is that which transcends our own consciousness—that which is objective rather than only a phenomenon of consciousness. "Noema" (object of intentionality, that is, object of mental acts such as thinking, feeling, imagining, hoping, believing, and others) is used in phenomenology to refer to the terminus of an intention as given for consciousness.

Following the Kantian distinction, Husserl distinguishes transcendental from transcendent. Transcendental means a type of discourse that explains the possibility of experiences, that is, why and how experience is possible. So "transcendental phenomenology" is a phenomenology which explains the condition of the possibility of experience.

Jean-Paul Sartre also speaks of transcendence in his works. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre uses the term transcendence to describe the relation of the self to the object oriented world, as well as our concrete relations with others. For Sartre, the for-itself is sometimes called a transcendence. Additionally if the other is viewed strictly as an object, much like any other object, then the other is, for the for-itself, a transcendence-transcended. When the for-itself grasps the other in the others world, and grasps the subjectivity that the other has, it is referred to as transcending-transcendence. Thus, Sartre defines relations with others in terms of transcendence.[5]

Jaspers and other contemporary thinkers also used the concept of transcendence in various ways as an integral part of their thoughts.


(see Transcendentalism)

Transcendentalism primarily refers to a nineteenth century intellectual movement in the U.S., which attempted to establish a philosophy based on Kant's transcendental philosophy as a reaction against the social, culture, and spiritual movements of the time.

See also


  1. cf. Critique of Pure Reason or Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics
  2. Critique of Pure Reason, A12
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Introduction, V
  4. Stephen Palmquist, "Faith as Kant's Key to the Justification of Transcendental Reflection," In The Heythrop Journal 25:4 (October 1984), pp. 442-455. A revised version of this paper appeared as Chapter V in Palmquist's book, Kant's System of Perspectives (Lanham: University Press of America, 1993).
  5. Jean-Paul Sartre and Hazel E. Barnes (trans.), Being and Nothingness (New York: Washington Square Press, 1956).


  • Candler, Peter M., and Conor Cunningham. Transcendence and Phenomenology. London: SCM Press, 2007. ISBN 9780334041511
  • Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology; An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Northwestern University Studies in phenomenology & existential philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970. ISBN 9780810102552
  • Kant, Immanuel, and J.H. Bernard. Critique of Judgment. New York: Hafner Pub. Co, 1951.
  • Kant, Immanuel, Paul Guyer, and Allen W. Wood. Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 9780521657297
  • Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1950.
  • Palmquist, Stephen. Kant's System of Perspectives: An Architectonic Interpretation of the Critical Philosophy. Lanham: University Press of America, 1993. ISBN 9780819189271
  • Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness; An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

External links

All links retrieved December 15, 2015.

General Philosophy Sources


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