Can Strawson's Objectivity Argument Prove Outer Objects?

Essay, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 73 (=1st)



Table Of Contents

1. Scepticism and Transcendental Arguments

2. The Objectivity Argument

3. Self-Consciousness and Self-Ascription

4. Intuitions and Concepts

5. Is and Seems

6. Objectivity

7. Conclusion

8. Final remark

9. References

Can Strawson’s Objectivity Argument Prove Outer Objects?

This essay is concerned with a part of Strawson’s book on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,“The Bounds of Sense” (1966). The chapter in question deals with a well-known part of Kant’s theoretical philosophy, the Transcendental Deduction. However, Strawson disengages his ar­guments from some of Kant’s doctrines. His objectivity argument can therefore be argued to stand on its own feet.[1] Unfortunately, this does not make his reasoning more pursuable. Strawson sketches a connection between unity of consciousness, on the one hand, and experience of objects, on the other hand, but gives different versions of this connection; what assump­tions it presupposes; what it implies; and, above all, how it can be established. The anti-sceptic purpose of the argument is particularly controversial, since Strawson’s proclamations remain vague.

This essay aims to construct an argument out of, rather than to give a complete exegesis of Strawson’s partly enigmatic reasoning. To begin with, I will first introduce the notions of scepticism and transcendental argument. I will then outline what Strawson’s argument is about. Thereafter, I will look at significant notions involved in Strawson’s essay, in order to com­plete the argument. These notions are self-consciousness and self-ascription; intui­tions and concepts; is and seems; and objectivity. Then, I will discuss the conclusion the ar­gument purports to establish, and argue that it fails. My final remark is concerned with other possible ways of reading the argument, which (despite its failure) inaugurate anti-sceptical strategies.

1. Scepticism and Transcendental Arguments

Scepticism can be divided into epistemic and justificatory scepticism. Epistemic scepticism denies that we can have any knowledge at all about the world, for we have no reason to believe that our mental images represent the world as it really is, whereas justificatory scepticism only denies that we are justified in our beliefs about the world. Strawson’s argument is tra­ditionally taken as a transcendental argument directed against the radical, epistemic scepticism.[2] I shall attempt to point out what such a purpose requires and examine whether Strawson’s argument can be used against epistemic scepticism.

As regards the transcendental argument, it is supposed to prove a conclusion “by showing that, unless it were true, experience itself would be impossible”[3]. Its general form, therefore, consists of an inarguably factual premise such as “I have experience”, “I am self-conscious”, or “I have mental images”; and a premise concerning the condition of these facts, for example “In order to have experience, there must be x”. Thus, the existence of x can be derived as a conclusion. The validity of transcendental arguments in general is dis­puted, and I shall, therefore, consider how Strawson’s argument contributes to the debate.

2. The Objectivity Argument

As already mentioned, it is unclear exactly what Strawson wants to establish, which prem­ises he supposes, and even whether he is convinced by his own arguments himself. As a result, commentators have interpreted his approach in different ways. Whereas Rorty(1970), for example, gives a linguistic interpretation of Strawson’s addition to Kant, Harrison(1970) concentrates on Strawson’s thesis that experience wholly out of sense data is impossible. In order to outline what his argument is about, I shall quote a passage of Strawson’s final re­mark, where he summarizes his discussion to the following “general conclusion”:

“(…) any course of experience of which we can form a coherent conception must be, potentially, the experi­ence of a self-conscious subject and, as such, must have such internal, concept-carried connectedness as to constitute it (at least in part) a course of experience of an objective world, conceived of as determining the course of that experience itself.”[4]

Let us consider the single parts of the affirmed connection. The starting point seems to be a series of experiences “of which we can form a coherent conception”. We might agree that our experiences are predominantly connected with each other. For example, we bring different visual impressions in a spatial arrangement, in order to understand them. Standing in front of a house, we can close our eyes, open them again, and we will think the house is still the same, although we have two different visual impressions. That is, we form a coher­ent conception of a course of experiences.

A condition for forming such conception is to be a self-conscious subject. This is the second step. The notion of self-consciousness is problematic in it-self and will be dis­cussed later. However, we can enrich this notion while moving to the next point. As a self-conscious subject one must have “such internal, concept-carried connectedness as to con­stitute it (at least in a part) a course of experience of an objective world”. Strawson declares here that a self-conscious subject must necessarily understand a part of her experience as experience of an objective world. In other words, the kind of experience a self-conscious subject has (connected, concept-carried) indicates that it is experience of an objective world. Of course, we have to question the very meaning of “concept-carried connected­ness” that is supposed to establish the gateway from subjective experience to objective world. The last point of the argument, then, is that the objective world must be considered as the ground of the experience, as determining it.

Let us now consider the disentangled argument so far:

(1) In order to be experience, various sense impressions must be unified in a coherent conception.
(2) This unification requires a self-conscious subject of experience.
(3) As a self-conscious subject I have to understand a part of my experience as experience of objects in the world (whereby these objects have to be considered as determining my experience).

The remark in brackets will not be discussed further. However, there is still something missing if epistemic scepticism is to be rejected. For the skeptic will maintain that it is not sufficient to show that experience must be “understood as” or “conceived of as” experi­ence of objects, it actually has to be experience of objects. Strawson apparently aims to fulfil this criterion when he postulates:

“A major part of the role of the Deduction will be to establish that experience necessarily involves knowledge of objects, in the weighty sense […].”[5]


[1] See, e.g., Harrison 1970, 213.

[2] See, e.g., Cassam 1997, 94-95.

[3] Blackburn, Simon 1994: The Oxford dictionary of philosophy, Oxford University Press

[4] Strawson 1966, 117.

[5] Strawson 1966, 88.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Can Strawson's Objectivity Argument Prove Outer Objects?
University of Nottingham  (Department of Philosophy)
Transcendental Arguments
73 (=1st)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
553 KB
This essay is concerned with one of the most famous "transcendental arguments", the "objectivity argument" by P.F. Strawson. In his Kant-exegesis "The Bounds of Sense" Strawson purports to refute epistemic scepticism, which denies that we can have any knowledge at all about the world. The aim of this essay is to reconstruct the complicated structure of the argument, to argue that it fails to establish its conclusion and to highlight other anti-sceptical strategies.
Strawson, Objectivity, Argument, Prove, Outer, Objects, Transcendental, Arguments
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Anonymous, 2003, Can Strawson's Objectivity Argument Prove Outer Objects?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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