The Building Forces of Nature and Kant’s Teleology of the Living

Kant’s Critique of Judgement is divided into two parts. The first deals with taste and aesthetic judgement, the second with living organisms. At first glance these topics appear to have nothing to do with one another, but in Kant’s mind they were closely related. The dominant tradition of Anglo-German physico-theology explained the attraction to the forms of flowers, shells, the feathering of birds, and the geometrical forms of plant parts as indicative of a ‘harmony’ (Henry More) between the Creation and the intellectual soul of man. The adaptation of animals to their environments, the ‘perfection’ of their limbs and organs remained a powerful inducement, in an era of skepticism about metaphysical proofs to belief in the divine origins of the world.

Kant was however a religious skeptic and the Critique of Judgement was intended to put the undeniable harmony between aesthetic taste and the products of nature in a new, secular light. The harmony between the mind of man and beautiful objects was a sort of ‘given’ like the other a priori pre-adaptations of human perception. It was evidence of the power of the inbuilt faculty of taste, but rather than pointing to the existence of a supernatural creator, it pointed to the capacity of human beings to take a disinterested perspective on their world. This was important for his claim that moral agency required such a perspective.

Kant believed that the laws of nature were sufficient to form organisms, even beautiful organisms, without divine intervention. He was willing to entertain the hypothesis of a single common animal ancestor that had become progressively differentiated, and he applied the same reasoning to his explanation of the formation of human ‘races’ from an original human type in which various potentials were latent.

It was crucial to his programme of explanation that the ‘building forces of nature’ should be law-governed and that the elicitation of potentials should be causally explicable. These post-Newtonian forces had to work in and on inanimate matter, since he rejected hylozoism. At the same time, Kant was persuaded that the direction of Nature, and human society considered as a part of it, was overall progressive, like the maturation of an organism, or at least that there was reason to believe this and that one ought to believe it. This progressive character had been seriously doubted by the great naturalist, the Comte de Buffon, who was inclined rather to emphasis the degenerative character of the natural transformation of animals and human society in the absence of human intervention.

The paper will discuss Kant’s commitment to naturalism vs. supernatural theism, but will also make clear the inescapably teleological character of his optimistic theory of cosmic evolution. It is often claimed that Kant regarded teleology and natural purposes as ‘regulative’ guides for researching and understanding living nature. The paper will suggest that in fact Kant had a far more substantive commitment to a providential nature co-existing with his belief that the form of explanation was always ‘mechanical.’


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