The Biological Kant. Note Quote.


The biological treatise takes as its object the realm of physics left out of Kant’s critical demarcations of scientific, that is, mathematical and mechanistic, physics. Here, the main idea was that scientifically understandable Nature was defined by lawfulness. In his Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, this idea was taken further in the following claim:

I claim, however, that there is only as much proper science to be found in any special doctrine on nature as there is mathematics therein, and further ‘a pure doctrine on nature about certain things in nature (doctrine on bodies and doctrine on minds) is only possible by means of mathematics’.

The basic idea is thus to identify Nature’s lawfulness with its ability to be studied by means of mathematical schemata uniting understanding and intuition. The central schema, to Kant, was numbers, so apt to be used in the understanding of mechanically caused movement. But already here, Kant is very well aware of a whole series of aspects of spontaneuosly experienced Nature is left out of sight by the concentration on matter in movement, and he calls for these further realms of Nature to be studied by a continuation of the Copernican turn, by the mind’s further study of the utmost limits of itself. Why do we spontaneously see natural purposes, in Nature? Purposiveness is wholly different from necessity, crucial to Kant’s definition of Nature. There is no reason in the general concept of Nature (as lawful) to assume that nature’s objects may serve each other as purposes. Nevertheless, we do not stop assuming just that. But what we do when we ascribe purposes to Nature is using the faculties of mind in another way than in science, much closer to the way we use them in the appreciation of beauty and art, the object of the first part of the book immediately before the treatment of teleological judgment. This judgment is characterized by a central distinction, already widely argued in this first part of the book: the difference between determinative and reflective judgments, respectively. While the judgment used scientifically to decide whether a specific case follows a certain rule in explanation by means of a derivation from a principle, and thus constitutes the objectivity of the object in question – the judgment which is reflective lacks all these features. It does not proceed by means of explanation, but by mere analogy; it is not constitutive, but merely regulative; it does not prove anything but merely judges, and it has no principle of reason to rest its head upon but the very act of judging itself. These ideas are now elaborated throughout the critic of teleological judgment.


In the section Analytik der teleologischen Urteilskraft, Kant gradually approaches the question: first is treated the merely formal expediency: We may ascribe purposes to geometry in so far as it is useful to us, just like rivers carrying fertile soils with them for trees to grow in may be ascribed purposes; these are, however, merely contingent purposes, dependent on an external telos. The crucial point is the existence of objects which are only possible as such in so far as defined by purposes:

That its form is not possible after mere natural laws, that is, such things which may not be known by us through understanding applied to objects of the senses; on the contrary that even the empirical knowledge about them, regarding their cause and effect, presupposes concepts of reason.

The idea here is that in order to conceive of objects which may not be explained with reference to understanding and its (in this case, mechanical) concepts only, these must be grasped by the non-empirical ideas of reason itself. If causes are perceived as being interlinked in chains, then such contingencies are to be thought of only as small causal circles on the chain, that is, as things being their own cause. Hence Kant’s definition of the Idea of a natural purpose:

an object exists as natural purpose, when it is cause and effect of itself.

This can be thought as an idea without contradiction, Kant maintains, but not conceived. This circularity (the small causal circles) is a very important feature in Kant’s tentative schematization of purposiveness. Another way of coining this Idea is – things as natural purposes are organized beings. This entails that naturally purposeful objects must possess a certain spatio-temporal construction: the parts of such a thing must be possible only through their relation to the whole – and, conversely, the parts must actively connect themselves to this whole. Thus, the corresponding idea can be summed up as the Idea of the Whole which is necessary to pass judgment on any empirical organism, and it is very interesting to note that Kant sums up the determination of any part of a Whole by all other parts in the phrase that a natural purpose is possible only as an organized and self-organizing being. This is probably the very birth certificate of the metaphysics of self-organization. It is important to keep in mind that Kant does not feel any vitalist temptation at supposing any organizing power or any autonomy on the part of the whole which may come into being only by this process of self-organization between its parts. When Kant talks about the forming power in the formation of the Whole, it is thus nothing outside of this self-organization of its parts.

This leads to Kant’s final definition: an organized being is that in which all that is alternating is ends and means. This idea is extremely important as a formalization of the idea of teleology: the natural purposes do not imply that there exists given, stable ends for nature to pursue, on the contrary, they are locally defined by causal cycles, in which every part interchangeably assumes the role of ends and means. Thus, there is no absolute end in this construal of nature’s teleology; it analyzes teleology formally at the same time as it relativizes it with respect to substance. Kant takes care to note that this maxim needs not be restricted to the beings – animals – which we spontaneously tend to judge as purposeful. The idea of natural purposes thus entails that there might exist a plan in nature rendering processes which we have all reasons to disgust purposeful for us. In this vision, teleology might embrace causality – and even aesthetics:

Also natural beauty, that is, its harmony with the free play of our epistemological faculties in the experience and judgment of its appearance can be seen in the way of objective purposivity of nature in its totality as system, in which man is a member.

An important consequence of Kant’s doctrine is that their teleology is so to speak secularized in two ways: (1) it is formal, and (2) it is local. It is formal because self-organization does not ascribe any special, substantial goal for organisms to pursue – other than the sustainment of self-organization. Thus teleology is merely a formal property in certain types of systems. This is why teleology is also local – it is to be found in certain systems when the causal chain form loops, as Kant metaphorically describes the cycles involved in self-organization – it is no overarching goal governing organisms from the outside. Teleology is a local, bottom-up, process only.

Kant does not in any way doubt the existence of organized beings, what is at stake is the possibility of dealing with them scientifically in terms of mechanics. Even if they exist as a given thing in experience, natural purposes can not receive any concept. This implies that biology is evident in so far as the existence of organisms cannot be doubted. Biology will never rise to the heights of science, its attempts at doing so are beforehand delimited, all scientific explanations of organisms being bound to be mechanical. Following this line of argument, it corresponds very well to present-day reductionism in biology, trying to take all problems of phenotypical characters, organization, morphogenesis, behavior, ecology, etc. back to the biochemistry of genetics. But the other side of the argument is that no matter how successful this reduction may prove, it will never be able to reduce or replace the teleological point of view necessary in order to understand the organism as such in the first place.

Evidently, there is something deeply unsatisfactory in this conclusion which is why most biologists have hesitated at adopting it and cling to either full-blown reductionism or to some brand of vitalism, subjecting themselves to the dangers of ‘transcendental illusion’ and allowing for some Goethe-like intuitive idea without any schematization. Kant tries to soften up the question by philosophical means by establishing an crossing over from metaphysics to physics, or, from the metaphysical constraints on mechanical physics and to physics in its empirical totality, including the organized beings of biology. Pure mechanics leaves physics as a whole unorganized, and this organization is sought to be established by means of mediating concepts’. Among them is the formative power, which is not conceived of in a vitalist substantialist manner, but rather a notion referring to the means by which matter manages to self-organize. It thus comprehends not only biological organization, but macrophysic solid matter physics as well. Here, he adds an important argument to the critic of judgment:

Because man is conscious of himself as a self-moving machine, without being able to further understand such a possibility, he can, and is entitled to, introduce a priori organic-moving forces of bodies into the classification of bodies in general and thus to distinguish mere mechanical bodies from self-propelled organic bodies.