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Apperception is usually defined as the mental process that raises subconscious or indistinct impressions to the level of attention and at the same time arranges them into a coherent intellectual order. The term apperception, however, has been used ambiguously, sometimes to mean merely consciousness or awareness, at other times to mean the acts of concentration and assimilation. Inevitably, a process of such significance has implicitly and explicitly been dealt with by philosophers ever since they first concerned themselves with the cognitive process. Aristotle, the Church Fathers, and the Scholastics all distinguished between vague notions and feelings on the one hand, and conceptions brought about by an act of intellectual willing on the other.


The concept of apperception (in the form of the verb apercevoir ) appears in René Descartes's Traité des passions.

Later writers generally use the term perception for denoting a state of dim awareness. So John Locke believes that perception is "the first step and degree towards knowledge, and the inlet of all materials of it." It "is in some degree in all sorts of animals" (Essay concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Ch. 9). On the other hand, apperception denotes a state of conscious or reflecting awareness.

In contrast, Descartes makes no distinction between the two. But he stresses the volitional element (which he calls passion) in the cognitive process: "For it is certain that we would not even know how to will something, unless we had apperceived it by the same medium by which we will. And just as one can say with regard to our soul that willing is a form of action, so one can also say that there is in the soul an element ["passion"] by which it apperceives that which it wills" (Traité des passions ).


It was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who introduced the concept of apperception into the more technical philosophical tradition. In his Principes de la nature fondés en raison et de la grâce he says: "One should distinguish between perception, which is an inner state of the monad reflecting the outer world, and apperception, which is our conscious reflection of the inner state of the monad."

For the understanding of Leibniz's ideas about perception and apperception, one should also refer to his Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain, which contain a discussion of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding. There Leibniz objects to Locke's tabula rasa theory, according to which "there are no innate principles in the mind" (Book I, Ch. 2). Leibniz's insistence on innate mental powers had a decisive influence on the idealism of Immanuel Kant and Johann Friedrich Herbart.


The concept of apperception was taken up by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. There he distinguished between empirical apperception, the person's awareness of himself which depends on the changing conditions of his consciousness, and transcendental apperception, or "pure reason," the inner, unchangeable fundamental, and therefore "transcendental" unity of consciousness. This transcendental unity of consciousness precedes all data of perception and makes possible their inner order and meaning ("Transcendental Logic," Para. 12). It consists of the ideas of space and time, which are not objects of perception but modes of perceiving, and a number of categories which Kant orders under the headings of quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Kant's attempt to organize these categories and their subcategories according to a symmetrical scheme has been generally rejected as artificial. Kant's rejection of the opinion, however, that our conscious reasoning about the world reflects the world as it really is remains as one of the great epistemological problems in his concept of apperception.


The self-critical quality in Kant's philosophy was not heeded by romantic idealists impatient to achieve a complete insight into the essence of all existence. Thus Johann Gottlieb Fichte turned Kant's self-critical concept of apperception into the absolute self; Hegel developed logical idealism; and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling maintained in his philosophy of identity that the evolution of mind or consciousness is nothing but the evolution of ultimate reality from its prerational and groping state of willing toward self-consciousness and self-direction, toward the discovery of its inherent and universal laws. Whatever we think about Schelling's lofty speculation, it led its author to the understanding of myth. For in myth, so Schelling concluded, the human mind in its prerational state creates its first perceptions of reality in the form of artistic intuition and imagery. Myth, so we could say with Schelling, is not untruth but pretruth. About half a century later, following Schelling's lead, Wilhelm Wundt became one of the foremost interpreters of prerational or mythical thinking.


In contrast with the romanticists, Kant's successor, Johann Friedrich Herbart, insisted on a less romantic and more empirical interpretation of the transcendentalist position. In the second part of his Psychologie als Wissenschaft, however, Herbart characterizes the gift of apperception as onethough not the only oneof the qualities that distinguish man from animal because it gives him the power of reflection. In the human soul, so Herbart says, there are operating series of presentations, combinations, and whole masses of perceptions that are sometimes completely and sometimes incompletely interwoven, in part conforming and in part opposed to each other. It is the function of apperception to assimilate the various and often divergent ideas. In this process the older apperceptive mass, consisting of concepts, judgments, and maxims, will tend to assimilate more recent and less settled impressions. No one, however, can measure how strong the older apperceptive mass must be in order to fulfill effectively the function of assimilation.

Obviously, the power of apperception as conceived by Herbart is closely related to a person's inner stability, self-consciousness, and self-identity. Apperception requires will and attention in order to function adequately. A mentally sick person will be unable to perform it.

Inevitably, the concept of apperception plays a decisive role in Herbart's pedagogical theory. In his Allgemeine Pädagogik aus dem Zweck der Erziehung Abgeleitet, Herbart emphasizes the obligation of the teacher to arrange the course of instruction in such a way that the new material can be properly integrated with the already available store of knowledge. If the two fall apart, the learner cannot assimilate the new experience and will feel frustrated.


The qualities of will and attention, which from Descartes to Herbart were emphasized as inherent in the apperceptive process, are still more accentuated by Wilhelm Wundt. In his Grundriss der Psychologie, Wundt distinguishes between passive apperception, in which the consciousness simply accepts impressions, and active apperception, in which the new impression is met by an emotional state of tension followed by a sense of satisfaction. Furthermore, in all apperception a personifying element is at work in that the apperceived objects are colored by the mode of the apperceiving subject. This is the reason why we tend to identify apperceived objects with our own form of existence. The most obvious historical example of this tendency is myth, in which, for example, animals, the forces of nature, and the gods appear in anthropomorphic transfiguration.

Entirely in the spirit of Wundt is the following (freely translated) passage from the well-known Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie seit Beginn des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts :

There is nothing inside and outside of man which he could call totally his own but his will. Hence, looking for the terminus of individual psychological regression, we discover the inner will or the pure apperception, which is not in a state of quiet, but in a state of never resting activity. The apperceptive will is not an a-posteriori conception, but an a-priori, postulated by reason, a transcendental quality of the soul, postulated by empirical psychology as the ultimate source of all mental processes, yet at the same time beyond the competence of the empirical psychologist.

The Deeper Unity

In quoting the foregoing passage (omitted in later editions of Ueberweg-Heinze) we have already indicated the deeper unity that in spite of all differences underlies the apperception theories of Leibniz, Kant, Herbart, and Wundt. They predicate a transcendental element, or an inherent logos, in the human process of cognition because they are convinced that there is no other explanation for its uniting and ordering capacity. They belong, in the wide sense of the term, to the "idealistic" tradition of the philosophia perennis, although they are in no way opposed to painstaking empirical and statistical inquiry, as the examples of Herbart and Wundt prove.

In postulating a transempirical factor as the condition of experience, however, they expose themselves to the reproach of mysticism by the empiricist. And there can be no doubt that the modern experimental, associationist, and behaviorist schools have made us more critical of psychological concept. Nevertheless, it still seems to many contemporary philosophers and psychologists that a purely empirical account of knowledge is inadequate and that in order to achieve a defensible position it is necessary to have recourse to nonempirical factors such as apperception.

See also Aristotle; Descartes, René; Fichte, Johann Gottlieb; Herbart, Johann Friedrich; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Patristic Philosophy; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Wundt, Wilhelm.


In addition to the works cited in the text, the following may be consulted: Benno Erdmann, "Zur Theorie der Apperzeption," in Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 10 (1886): 307ff.; Karl Lange, Ueber Apperception, 6th rev. ed. (Leipzig, 1899), translated by E. E. Brown (Boston, 1893); L. H. Lüdtke, "Kritische Geschichte der Apperzeptionsbegriffs," in Zeitschrift für Philosophie (1911); Hugo Münsterberg, Grundzüge der Psychologie (Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1900), pp. 436457; G. F Stout, "Apperception and the Movement of Attention," in Mind 16 (1891): 2353, and Analytic Psychology (London, 1896); and Friedrich Ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie seit Beginn des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, 10th ed., edited by Max Heinze. (Berlin: Mittler, 1902).

other recommended titles

Allison, Henry E. "Apperception and Analyticity in the B-Deduction." Grazer Philosophische Studien 44 (1993): 233252.

BonJour, Laurence, and Ernest Sosa. Epistemic Justification. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

Brandom, Robert, B. "Leibniz and Degrees of Perception." Journal of the History of Philosophy 19 (1981): 447479.

Castañeda, Hector-Neri. "The Role of Apperception in Kant's Transcendental Deduction of the Categories." Nous 24 (1) (1990): 147157.

Howell, Robert. "Apperception and the 1787 Transcendental Deduction." Synthese 47 (1981): 385448.

Kitcher, Patricia. Apperception and Epistemic Responsibility in Central Themes in Early Modern Philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1990.

Kulstad, Mark. Leibniz on Apperception, Consciousness and Reflection. Germany: Philosophia, 1990.

Robert Ulich (1967)

Bibliography updated by Benjamin Fiedor (2005)


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ap·per·cep·tion / ˌapərˈsepshən/ • n. dated Psychol. the mental process by which a person makes sense of an idea by assimilating it to the body of ideas he or she already possesses. ∎  fully conscious perception. DERIVATIVES: ap·per·cep·tive / -tiv/ adj.


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apperception (ap-er-sep-shŏn) n. (in psychology) the process by which the qualities of an object, situation, etc., perceived by an individual are correlated with his/her preexisting knowledge.