A transcendental argument, simply defined, is an argument purporting to demonstrate that some X (such as a particular concept, belief, or state of affairs) is a necessary precondition of some undeniable feature of human cognition (e.g., that we have orderly experiences or make judgments). At least, that is the conventional understanding of the term today. But who was the first to use the term in that sense?
Surprisingly, it might have been Cornelius Van Til.
I’m currently working on a monograph on Van Til’s transcendental argument for God (more precisely, for Christian theism). Preparatory research has required me to review everything Van Til says, explicitly or implicitly, about transcendental argumentation across his corpus, and to take a deep dive into the contemporary literature on transcendental arguments. In the process, I discovered something quite interesting.
Immanuel Kant is rightly credited with bringing to prominence the idea of a transcendental argument and deploying several instances of transcendental argument. However, while he uses the phrases “transcendental argument” and “transcendental proof” in his Critique of Pure Reason (more precisely, those phrases appear in the English translations of CPR), he isn’t referring in those places to what are now referred to by those terms (or to what are now considered to be Kant’s main transcendental arguments). Indeed, there’s only one instance of “transcendental argument” in CPR (at least in the Kemp Smith and Guyer-Wood translations: A627/B655) and in that context it refers to an argument with a conclusion that transcends the limits of human reason (specifically, a classical theistic argument).
So who was the first to use “transcendental argument” in the modern sense?
Barry Stroud, a leading authority on TAs, wrote the following in a 1991 essay:
The earliest use of the phrase “transcendental argument” that I am familiar with is by J. L. Austin in a 1939 Joint Session symposium on ‘Are There A Priori Concepts?’ As far as I know, Kant never used the corresponding German expression, although he spoke of many different things as ‘transcendental’, including ‘transcendental philosophy’. I have not seen the expression “transcendental argument” used anywhere in the nineteenth century, or in the twentieth before Austin. I cannot say I have searched.
Paul Franks, writing in the same volume, concurs, albeit with some hedging:
The earliest instance of current usage I have found is in Austin . . . in a paper given in 1939. Since Austin does not give the impression of introducing a usage, it is likely that earlier instances are to be found.
Adrian Bardon, another expert on TAs, writes:
“Transcendental” reasoning, for Kant, is reasoning pertaining to the necessary conditions of experience. Though he did coin the term “transcendental argument” in a different context, Kant actually did not use it to refer to transcendental arguments as they are understood today. He did sometimes use the term “transcendental deduction” for a range of arguments concerning the necessary conditions of coherent experience. Early uses of the term “transcendental argument” for arguments of this type have been noted in Charles Peirce and J. L. Austin.
The sources Bardon cites are dated 1931/1958 (Peirce) and 1939 (Austin, the same source cited by Stroud and Franks).
It’s a documentable fact, however, that Van Til used “transcendental argument” in the contemporary sense prior to 1939. From his book A Survey of Christian Epistemology:
A truly transcendental argument takes any fact of experience which it wishes to investigate, and tries to determine what the presuppositions of such a fact must be, in order to make it what it is. . . . Now the only argument for an absolute God that holds water is a transcendental argument. . . . [T]he transcendental argument seeks to discover what sort of foundations the house of human knowledge must have, in order to be what it is.
Clearly Van Til is using the term “transcendental argument” in the modern sense, i.e., an argument that discloses the necessary preconditions (or presuppositions) of human knowledge and experience. Although SCE was published in 1969, it originated as a 1932 syllabus with the title “The Metaphysics of Apologetics.” It’s possible, I suppose, that Van Til added the references to “transcendental argument” sometime after 1932, but that’s unlikely for two reasons. First, the usage isn’t merely incidental. The entire four-page section entitled “Transcendental” in chapter 1 of SCE is devoted to discussing the need for a “transcendental argument” and “transcendental method” in Christian epistemology and apologetics. Secondly, Van Til had previously used the term “transcendental argument” seven times in his 1927 doctoral dissertation, “God and the Absolute.” A sampling:
Without the conception of a self-sufficient God our human experience would be meaningless. It is well to note at once the nature of the argument; it is transcendental and not formally logical. An argument for the existence of God based on formal logic would imply the ability to define God and arrive at a comprehensive rationality of all our experience. A transcendental argument on the contrary, is negative in so far that it reasons from the impossibility of the opposite.
But we have already indicated that the Beyond of Idealism is quite distinct from the Beyond of Theism. The latter is not the product of a priori thought and for that reason asks no destruction of spatio-temporal reality nor even any transmutation. On the contrary it is a concept obtained by transcendental argument and therefore necessary for the reality of time-experience.
Theism, accordingly, does not accept the challenge on this basis. It holds that anyone who seeks unassisted to cross the whole channel or perish will more than likely perish; scepticism is the only alternative to Theism. Theism too is sceptical as to man’s ability to know the whole of truth but it has sought by transcendental argument to establish the philosophical tenability of the existence of a timeless reality which is completed self-conscious actuality in which it rests for the validity of our knowledge as far as it goes.
It’s clear enough that Van Til is using “transcendental argument” in a sense that aligns, more or less, with contemporary usage.
So, does Van Til win the prize? Well, perhaps not. The potential spoiler is supplied by Christopher Hookway, also writing in the volume cited earlier:
In 1902 [C. S.] Peirce attempted to write a logic text, the Minute Logic (unfinished but excerpts appeared in his Collected Papers in 1932). The first chapter surveyed some approaches to logic including a discussion of the transcendental method of Kant and Hegel. It concluded ‘I have never met with an attempt to state a transcendental argument with precision which began to convince me’ . . . Peirce’s easy use of the phrase suggests that he saw nothing innovative in it.
Perhaps we must concede that Peirce deserves the credit for the first known use of the exact phrase in the now-conventional sense. (Van Til was only 6 or 7 years old when Peirce wrote that logic text!) Still, the 1902 reference looks like an outlier in the literature. Peirce doesn’t engage in an extended discussion of transcendental argumentation (using that terminology) in the way Van Til does in his earliest works, and it appears he doesn’t use that phrase again until his much later writings. So, we can at least say this: Van Til is one of the earliest 20th-century thinkers to speak of “transcendental arguments” in the contemporary sense. He is also one of the earliest 20th-century advocates of such arguments. It’s too bad that he isn’t given more credit for those distinctions.