The Transcendental Ego (or its equivalent under various other formulations) refers to the self that must underlie all human thought and perception, even though nothing more can be said about it than the fact that it must be there.
The notion of an Ego or self that precedes all experiences and makes them possible by creating the unity of consciousness has fascinated many modern philosophers. In medieval philosophy, the certainty of existence and knowledge rested on the certainty of God as the origin of all things. With the collapse of that certainty, statements based on faith in God came to be challenged as dogmatic. The Ego, or “I,” from which all experiences begin replaced God as the starting point of certainty. This transition towards the self did not necessarily mean that belief in God was abandoned. However, if God was still to be the Alpha and Omega of all things, this could only be acknowledge through the door of human consciousness.
Kant and the transcendental unity of apperception
"Transcendental" itself is defined as preceding any experience. The notion is strongly linked to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and its effort to trace down all human knowledge to an irrefutably certain starting point, free from any metaphysical speculation. Unlike René Descartes, who before him had found initial certainty of knowledge in his famous cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), Kant did not believe that any further metaphysical certainties could be deducted from the certainty of the “I.” For Kant, even the nature of that “I” could only be known as it appears to human observation (as a phenomenon), not as it is in itself. Hence, the Transcendental Ego is something that must be posited for human thoughts to make sense, not something known in any way.
Kant speaks of the "transcendental apperception" of the thinking subject as the capacity of that subject (the “I,” Ego, or self) to create a meaningful world of experience by unifying all its perceptions according to the categories of human understanding.
It must be possible for the "I think" to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all. … I call it pure apperception, to distinguish it from empirical apperception … The unity of this apperception I likewise entitle the transcendental unity of self-consciousness, in order to indicate the possibility of a priori knowledge arising from it. For the manifold representations, which are given in an intuition, would not be one and all my representations, if they did not all belong to one self-consciousness. (I. Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, §16 The Original Synthetic Unity of Apperception, B131-132, translation by Norman Kemp Smith.)
Fichte’s pure Ego
Kant’s successor Johann Gottlieb Fichte maintained the master’s view of a transcendental consciousness as the necessary beginning point of all certainty in knowledge. But he went further, rejecting Kant’s notion that the “I” was facing a world of things-in-themselves or noumena that could only be known as they appeared through phenomena. For Fichte, the pure Ego was the source of direct intellectual intuition of things. In a sense, it was the starting point of all reality, which it created through moral action. In this, Fichte’s philosophy was a continuation of subjective idealism in the line of George Berkeley, for whom the world only exists through the thinking subject.
Fichte’s view of the pure Ego also carries a certain amount of ambiguity, the source of repeated misunderstandings: Is that Ego a person’s individual self, or does it refer to an all-encompassing, cosmic Ego taking on the place traditionally held by God? Fichte’s successors Schelling and Hegel criticized what they perceived to be a one-sided emphasis on subjectivity and later proposed their own objective idealism and absolute idealism, respectively.
Husserl and the transcendental ego
Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method consisted, from the beginning (Logical Investigations I and II, 1900-1901), in exploring the fundamental way in which human consciousness grasps reality by striving to isolate the process of cognitive functions apart from any empirical data (by “bracketing out” what is contingent). In his later period, Husserl’s thought took an increasingly idealistic turn and the notion of the Transcendental Ego became essential for his philosophy of meaning.
Husserl thought of his "transcendental-phenomenological idealism" as a strictly demonstrable position. He seems to have reasoned as follows: "The world" cannot be thought of except as being "constituted" by the transcendental ego’s intentional acts. It follows, says Husserl, that nothing can exist if it is not dependent for its existence on the transcendental self. This implies that the essences emerging as residues at the end of phenomenological and transcendental reduction as well as bodies an other minds are existentially dependent upon the transcendental ego. (George Nakhnikian, introduction to Husserl’s The Idea of Phenomenology, xix-xx.)
This view exposes itself to the standard objections leveled against all forms of subjective idealism, i.e., that it seems to imply that the Ego literally brings the world into existence. In fact, many of Husserl’s early followers were disappointed by this development of his thought.
More generally, one can say that Husserl’s thought brought to its ultimate conclusion runs into the dilemma of any thought in the line of Berkeley, Kant, and Fichte, that attempts to achieve final certainty based on the sole starting point of self-consciousness. Husserl’s stated aim to achieve knowledge of “apodictic certainty” through his phenomenological method thus ran into difficulties that prompted him to admit towards the end of his life that “the dream was over” (Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften und die transzendentale Phanomenologie, 1936).
Sartre’s "The Transcendence of the Ego"
"The Transcendence of the Ego" is the title of an essay written by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1937. This essay, in which Sartre criticizes Husserl’s notion by contending that it leads to the solipsism typical of subjective idealism, marks the French philosopher’s break with phenomenology in favor of existentialism.
The Transcendental Ego as a philosophical concept has been further used by a number of modern and contemporary thinkers, including Henri Bergson and Giovanni Gentile.
- Fichte, Johann Gottlieb. Wissenschaftslehre (1797). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521270502
- Husserl, Edmund. Cartesian Meditations. An Introduction to Phenomenology (1931). Springer; 5th edition (1977). ISBN 978-9024700684
- Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Philosophy: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy (1936), trans. D. Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970.
- Husserl, Edmund. The Idea of Phenomenology. (2006). ISBN 978-9024701148
- Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787). Palgrave Macmillan; 2nd Rev edition (September 6, 2003). ISBN 978-1403911957
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Transcendence of the Ego: An Existentialist Theory of Consciousness (1937). Hill and Wang. ISBN 978-0809015450
All links retrieved May 1, 2023.
General Philosophy Sources
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Paideia Project Online.
- Project Gutenberg.
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