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Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci.

33 (2002) 79131

Instruments of judgment: inscribing organic

processes in late eighteenth-century Germany
Joan Steigerwald
Science and Society, Bethune College, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada M3J 1P3
Received 11 May 2000; received in revised form 7 May 2001

The paper argues for the importance to Kants critique of judgment of epistemological
reflections upon the problematics of experimentation on organic processes. It examines the
investigations of generation by Wolff and Blumenbach, demonstrating how their experimental
practices mediated reflectively between organic phenomena and their conceptualisation, acting
as instruments of their judgments of these processes. It then reads Kants Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft in light of these experimental investigations, arguing that Kant highlights
how the problematic relation between organic phenomena and their conceptualisation manifested in such investigations is opened up as a space for reflection, thus making this act of
judgment conscious. The relation between Kants critiques of judgment in his first and third
critiques are then discussed, and it is argued that the reflective character of judgment highlighted in the judgment of organic processes draws into focus the problematic aspects of all
judgments of natural phenomena, by making conscious the synthetic process of judgment
effected by unconscious acts of the imagination in the first critique. Finally, the paper examines
Humboldts galvanic experiments, showing how they were informed by Kants critical philosophy, but also how they contributed to the blurring of the boundaries between the judgment
of organic and inorganic processes. Thus it is claimed that the reflections upon judgment in
the Kritik der Urteilskraft problematized rather than clarified Kants treatment of judgment in
the first critique. 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Blumenbach; Humboldt; Kant; Wolff; Experiment; Judgment; Imagination

E-mail address: (J. Steigerwald).

1369-8486/02/$ - see front matter 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
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J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

Histories of the life sciences in the eighteenth century have had a persistent preoccupation with marking out metaphysical typologies, with the categories of vitalism,
mechanism, materialism and the like. Immanuel Kants Kritik der teleologischen
Urteilskraft is usually introduced into these histories as placing strictures on such
metaphysical speculations, or as introducing a cautious metaphysics, that of teleomechanism.1 Certainly Kants critical project started from a critique of the dogmatic
metaphysics of the eighteenth century, and sought a method for guarding against the
errors and contradictions of reason in its speculative, non-empirical use. Kants critical works, however, were conceived as treatises on method, as investigations of
cognitive processes rather than their products; they were an examination of how
cognition is possible, of the sources and conditions of cognition, of in what ways
and by what right reason arrives at its concepts. They were epistemological treatises,
upon which, Kant argued, any metaphysical system, as the inventory of all our
possessions through pure reason, must be dependent.2 The Kritik der teleologischen
Urteilskraft was thus concerned with the process of teleological or reflective judgment, and specifically the conditions of judgments made in the investigation of
organized bodies or nature as an organized system. Indeed, in his critical examination
of teleological judgment Kant referred to the strategies employed by contemporary
anatomists, natural historians and physiologists in their investigations of organized
bodies, and suggested methodological guidelines informed by those strategies.
Accordingly, the scientific context of Kants third critique was the investigative
activities of anatomists, natural historians and physiologists, rather than simply the
theories produced by these investigations. This paper examines aspects of that context, relating the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft to some of the reflections
upon the experimental investigations of organic processes to which it responded and
to which it contributed, focusing upon those of Caspar Friedrich Wolff, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and Alexander von Humboldt. It will offer a reading of Kants
1790 work from the perspective of the epistemology of experiment.
The emphasis here on the epistemology of experiment is influenced by work in
science studies during the last two decades which has been critical of the emphases
of previous histories of science on scientific theories and which concentrates instead
upon experimental practices. It is perhaps surprising to include Kant in a discussion
of experiment. Kant, after all, has often been invoked negatively as an exemplar of
an emphasis upon theoretical reason by those advocating instead attention to experimental practices. Bruno Latour, for example, is critical of the influence of Kants
Copernican Revolution, which he characterizes as a shift from the mind of scientists
revolving around the things to the things revolving around the mind. In Kants suncentered perspective, Latour contends, things are passively shaped by the categories
The term teleo-mechanism was introduced by Timothy Lenoir in a series of works in the early 1980s.
These important and influential works have informed most studies of the life sciences in Germany in the
late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. See in particular Lenoir (1982), Ch. 1; and Lenoir (1980).
All citations from the Kritik der reinen Vernunft are taken from the translation by N. Kemp Smith
(Kant, 1993), hereafter abbreviated as KrV (KrV Axx). See also the Preface to both editions and the
Introduction, Aviixxii/Bvii-xliv and A116/B130.

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


impressed upon them by a transcendental subject.3 But if one reads Kant carefully
and contextually, rather than taking him as a representative of the viewpoint of a
disembodied mind, one finds that his metaphor of a Copernican Revolution is
subtler than Latour suggests. Kant did argue that given the failure of contemporary
philosophy to extend our knowledge of objects on the supposition that all our knowledge must conform to objects, we should examine whether we might be more successful on the supposition that objects must conform to our knowledge we can
only know what has meaning for our forms of cognition. But Copernicus primary
hypothesis was that, failing satisfactory progress in explaining the movements of
the heavenly bodies on the supposition that they all revolve around the spectator,
he tried whether he might not have more success if he made the spectator to revolve
and the stars to remain at rest.4 For Kant the mind may be the active component
in knowledge formation, but it occupies the position of the earth, not the sun, in the
Copernican system. Kant does not play the God-trick.5 In fact, he was critical of
dogmatic metaphysics for such presumptions, and started from the premise of the
limitations of human cognition in contrast to an imagined divine or archetypal intellect. Kant, of course, did claim to prove the universality, necessity and objective
validity of a priori concepts in terms that cannot be accepted today. But Kants
critical philosophy becomes much more interesting if an attempt is made to read it
in the terms of its context, and as some of his immediate and most competent readers
read it.6 This is especially true of the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft, where
the subject, from its partial perspective of the revolving earth, finds no a priori concept by which determinately to judge organized bodies, but rather must move reflectively between phenomena and their conception, seeking a principle as an instrument
to guide this movement from the act of judgment itself.
Kants critique of judgment in his third and final critical work, and his arguments
for the absence of a determinate concept for the judgment of organized systems,
opened up an interesting problematic. In the vast territory in which the cognition of
objects is possible, for beings with our particular cognitive powers, Kant distinguished two domains, that of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, in which understanding legislates through the concept of nature, and that of the Kritik der praktischen
Vernunft, in which reason legislates through the concept of freedom. Between these
two domains is fixed an immense gulf [Kluft] . . . just as if they were two different
worlds.7 It is this total separation of the two domains, and the lack of a domain

On Kants Copernican Revolution and Latours Counter-Copernican Revolution, see Latour

(1987), pp. 22433; Latour (1991), pp. 5562, 769; and Latour (1999), pp. 57, 16, 305.
KrV, B xvixvii.
The expression is Donna Haraways: she accuses scientists, philosophers and sociologists of playing
this game, albeit from different perspectives. See Haraway (1991), pp. 183201. Latour refers to Haraways argument in making his. See Latour (1999), p. 4.
The concept of contemporary, competent readers is discussed in Jardine (2000), first supplementary essay.
All of the citations from Kritik der Urteilskraft are taken from the translation by W. S. Pluhar (Kant,
1987), hereafter abbreviated KU. Page numbers refer to the Akademie edition (Kant, 190813, Vol. 5),
which are also given in the Pluhar translation (KU 1756).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

in which a concept legislates, the lack of an ontology for the space in between, at
which Latour protests.8 Yet it is in this indeterminate space that judgment must act,
mediating between experience and reason. Kant highlighted the contingency of the
harmony of diversity and complexity in nature with the need and ability of our
cognition to grasp order in that complexity. His critique of judgment accentuated
the synthetic and dynamic character of judgment, as it brings together disparate
elements. In the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft the lack of a determinate
concept for organized bodies brings this synthetic action reflexively into consciousness. But judgment is also at the center of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, a judgment
in which the application of given a priori concepts to phenomena make possible
objective and determinative knowledge. Judgment as represented in the first critique
is also a synthetic act, but the act of relation remains unconscious, effected by the
transcendental imagination. The fundamental difference between the kinds of judgment discussed in the first and third critiques thus appears to be the difference
between a conscious reflexive act of synthesis, and a synthesis enacted unconsciously
and automatically. But both, as synthetic or productive acts, are problematic.
The problem of synthetic judgments also confronted those investigating organic
processes at the time the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft was written. Having
no way to make visible the linkages between the successive stages in a complex
organic alteration, such as generation or muscle contraction, investigators such as
Wolff, Blumenbach and Humboldt nevertheless needed to find concepts to make
sense of those phenomena. How were such judgments to be made? Experimental
interventions and their conceptual counterparts were used as instruments of judgment.
Intervening in the phenomena of generation, disrupting the process and marking its
recovery, studying regeneration, tracing the imagined action of generation with the
aid of an experimental tool, investigating muscle contraction under diverse conditions
and attending to the various components affecting its action these experimental
interventions became means for judging such phenomena. The literature on experiment from Fleck and Bachelard through Hacking, Holmes, Shapin and Schaffer
to Pickering, Barad, Rheinberger and Galison has made us aware of the complex
processes of experimental reasoning: how knowledge is gained through producing
and intervening, how experimentalists think through or with tools, how these tools
become a form of extended imagination, and how experimental technologies become
theories materialized.9 The anatomists, naturalists and physiologists investigating
organic processes at the end of the eighteenth century used experiments as techniques
for conceiving how such processes occurred, as they tried to reproduce with their
instruments the actions they studied. Concepts of formative actions or forces, such
as a Bildungstrieb or Lebenskraft, were similarly used as instruments of judgment,
guiding such experimentation, but also being produced from and reconceived within
experimental activity. Kant appealed to the instruments used by such investigators

Latour (1991), p. 56.

See, for example, Fleck (1979), Bachelard (1984), Hacking (1983), Shapin and Schaffer (1985),
Holmes (1985), Pickering (1995), Barad (1996), Rheinberger (1997) and Galison (1997).

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


in his Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft as both products of and guides to judgment in its reflective activity, in its attempt to apperceive organic phenomena.
These instruments of judgment acted as a kind of stylus, inscribing in organic
material specific conceptualisations, making the processes studied manifest and
meaningful. The term inscription was introduced into science studies by Latour and
Steve Woolgar to refer to all types of transformations, with the help of instruments
and other devices, through which an entity is materialized into a sign, an archive, a
document, a piece of paper, a trace.10 Drawing upon Gaston Bachelards notion of
phenomeno-technology, they emphasize the process of producing inscriptions and
the dependency of phenomena upon the apparatus producing them.11 But their notion
of inscription is derived from Jacques Derrida, in that they conceive the products of
the laboratory as a kind of writing, as material signifiers. Their conception of writing
is closer to the common sense view than Derridas, however, in that they emphasize
parallels between writing at the lab bench and writing in the office space, taking
inscriptions as the written documents that are the end results of complex processes
in the laboratory the tables, graphs or pictures finally used in a published paper
and excluding prior intermediary forms, and in that they regard such textual inscriptions as immutable mobiles, which, although subject to translations, have relatively
fixed forms. In contrast, Derrida emphasizes the instability of such material signifiers,
their dissemination, with signifiers always referring to other signifiers, so that signifier always already means more than the writer meant to say; and he emphasizes
the primacy of writing, writing being put ahead of objective things and subjective
ideas, so that not only language but even the world and subjectivity are materialized
as writing.12 Hans-Jo rg Rheinberger has developed the notion of inscriptions articulated in experimental contexts, drawing upon a closer reading of Derrida. He does
not distinguish between apparatuses that transform pieces of matter from one state
to the next and inscription devices that transform pieces of matter into written
documents. Rather he takes all instruments in an experimental arrangement as productive of graphemes, of material signifiers, so that printed tables, graphs and diagrams are but further transformations of a graphematic disposition of pieces of matter. But again the emphasis is upon the inseparability of inscriptions from the
instruments of their writing; graphemes cannot be conceived apart from their spaces
of representation, the experimental arrangement in which they are produced.13 Latour, Woolgar and Rheinberger are, of course, concerned with the complex experimental processes of the modern laboratory. But recent work, such as that found in
the collection Inscribing science: scientific texts and the materiality of communication, has extended the notion of inscription to a wider range of experimental and


Latour and Woolgar (1979), pp. 4553, 889 and 245. Latour also uses the notion in his Science in
action (Latour, 1987, pp. 6471), but has subsequently distanced his ideas from Derrida. See Latour
(1991), pp. 58 and 625. Latours treatment of the semiotic turn is the more ambitious and less convincing part of his critique of the modern constitution.
Latour and Woolgar (1979), pp. 639. See Bachelard (1984), p. 13.
See Derrida (1997, 1982, 1981, 1978). See also Bennington and Derrida (1993).
Rheinberger (1997), pp. 10212.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

representational activities.14 Those experimenting upon organic processes at the end

of the eighteenth century produced relatively simple forms of inscription; with their
instruments they wrote in the organic material itself, as with their pens they wrote
verbal narratives, as means of articulating, of representing these processes, and of
giving them material significance.
There were temporal and even teleological dimensions to the writing of these
inscriptions, complex relations between the means of inquiry and its end or result.
In the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft Kant remarked upon the apparent purposiveness of nature in its complex forms for human judgment, as if the organized
forms of nature were the result of a higher cause. The critical project started from
the premise that reason only has insight into what it produces after a plan of its own
and constrains nature to answer questions of its own determination. But in the judgment of organized bodies, there was no determinate concept commensurate with
nature. Judgment, in its reflection upon organized bodies, Kant contended, arrives
at two possible principles it can use as a guide, the principle of the mechanism of
nature or the principle of purposiveness. Depending upon which principle guided
judgments reflections, different phenomena were made manifest. In addition,
depending upon which instruments and techniques were used in investigations, different phenomena were inscribed in the organic matter. The purposiveness of
organized nature for our cognitive capacities might thus seem a product of an investigators own designs rather than those of a higher reason. But these conceptual and
experimental activities were not wholly intentional or within investigators control.
Specific conceptual and instrumental resources, the specific skills of investigators,
constrained the character of investigations and shaped the phenomena in tacit ways.
As Rheinberger argues, the spaces of representation are created through graphematic
concatenations if productive of graphemes, they are also engendered by them.15
The result was a lacuna between what an investigator meant to make evident and
what he was constrained to inscribe. Moreover, phenomena were not completely
malleable to conceptual or instrumental prodding. Some resisted being comprehended
in terms of a mechanical principle. Sometimes the organic material studied responded
to an experimental intervention in unexpected ways. The materiality of a specific
experiment wrote the inscription in a manner exterior to its authors intent; results
were produced that were outside the experimenters control, unanticipated and
unstable. Humboldt actually made the instability of experiments on organic matter
his reflective judgment that each experiment had a unique material specificity and
that each experimental intervention altered that material specificity so that no experiment could actually be reproduced into his definition of the organic as continual
Mischungsvera nderungen [alterations of combinations].16 The techniques which
Humboldt used in his experiments in the mid-1790s, those of new investigations in
physics and chemistry, had begun to destabilize the mechanical concepts that had

Lenoir (1998).
Rheinberger (1997), pp. 1058.
This expression is used throughout Humboldts publications on his galvanic experiments. See Humboldt (1796, 1797a,b,c,d).

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


dominated eighteenth-century sciences; Humboldts use of them to study organic

processes would contribute to a blurring of the boundary between the inorganic
and organic.
Although it is useful to borrow terms from current theorizing on experimentation
in attempting to make sense of experiments on organic bodies at the end of the
eighteenth century, the notion of experiment discussed in this paper is not intended
as a contribution to a general theory of experiment. As Galison argues, the meaning
of experiment is unstable and changing;17 clearly the reflections upon experimentation presented here are historically and culturally specific. These reflections are
also necessarily selective; they do not exhaust the practices and epistemology of
experiment in Germany at this time. Moreover, this paper makes no claim to provide
an exhaustive account of the influences, scientific or otherwise, upon Kants Kritik
der teleologischen Urteilskraft; perhaps its most glaring omission is a discussion of
the relationships between the two parts of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, the Kritik der
teleologischen Urteilskraft and the Kritik der a sthetischen Urteilskraft.
What this paper does argue is the importance of epistemological reflections upon
the problematics of experimentation on organic processes to Kants critique of judgment. The first part of the paper examines the investigations of the processes of
generation by Wolff and Blumenbach, both of whose works Kant knew, demonstrating how their experimental practices mediated reflectively between organic phenomena and their conceptualisation, acting as instruments of their judgments of these
processes. The second part of the paper reads Kants Kritik der teleologischen
Urteilskraft in light of these experimental investigations, arguing that Kants critique
of judgment highlights how the problematic relation between organic phenomena
and their conceptualisation manifested in such investigations is opened up as a space
for reflection, as an indeterminate space in which synthetic and reflective judgment
acts, thus making this action conscious, and even concrete. The third part of the
paper discusses the relation between Kants critiques of judgment in the Kritik der
Urteilskraft and the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, arguing that the indeterminate and
reflective character of judgment highlighted in the judgment of organic processes
draws to attention the problematic aspects of all judgments of natural phenomena,
by making explicit or conscious the synthetic process of judgment that is effected
by unconscious acts of the imagination in the first critique. The fourth and final
section of the paper examines Humboldts galvanic experiments, showing how they
were informed by Kants critical philosophy, but also how they contributed to the
blurring of the boundaries between the judgment of organic and inorganic processes.
Thus, if Kants Kritik der Urteilskraft forcefully articulated the epistemological problems encountered by new experimental investigations of organic processes, its reflections on judgment, thus stimulated, problematized rather than clarified Kants treatment of judgment in the first critique.


Galison (1997), pp. 57.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

1. Experiments on generation: Wolff and Blumenbach

In the years just prior to the publication of Kants Kritik der Urteilskraft, Wolff
and Blumenbach were the only individuals who experimentally investigated and proposed detailed theories of generation. Kant evidently knew Blumenbachs work on
generation since he cited it favourably in his Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft
and praised it in correspondence with Blumenbach. As Reinhard Lo w has argued,
there are also good reasons to suppose that Kant knew of Wolffs theory of generation, as he was knowledgeable of the debate between supporters of evolution or
preformation and of generation or epigenesis before the appearance of Blumenbachs
work.18 Wolffs work attained a high profile in this debate in the German lands due
to his dispute with Albrecht von Haller, the influential Professor of Medicine first
at Go ttingen and then Berne, who was an advocate of preformation. The problem
for both Wolff and Blumenbach in developing their theories of generation was to
find a means to represent how, from its absence, organization was generated in
organic matter, when there was no evident or determinate cause of this generative
activity. Their experiments on generation were used as instruments of judgment, as
tools for demonstrating generative processes in organic matter and for thinking
through how such processes occurred.
Wolff introduced his theory of generation in a dissertation defended at the University of Halle in 1759, Theoria generationis. Haller had published a study of chick
development, Sur la formation du coeur dans le poulet, shortly before Wolff completed his dissertation, and so Wolff sent him a copy of his dissertation, hoping to
convince him of his account. Hallers response was a critical review in the Go ttingensche Anzeigen, denying generation and advocating preformation. Haller and Wolff
engaged in a protracted dispute over the next fifteen years through private correspondence and published articles. In 1764 Wolff published a detailed response to the
criticisms of his theory, especially those of Haller, Theorie von der Generation in
zwo Abhandlungen erkla rt und bewiesen. Wolff also encountered opposition in
Berlin when he attempted to obtain a permanent position at the Collegium MedicoChirurgicum in 1763, notably from Johann Friedrich Meckel the elder, another influential proponent of preformation and a disciple of Haller. Finally, at the age of thirtythree, he received an appointment in 1766 as Professor of Anatomy and Physiology
at the Academy of Science in St. Petersburg, through the support of Lenhard Euler.
His interest in generation continued, and he used his position at the Academy to set
a prize question on the role of a nutritive force in generative or vegetative processes.
The winning essays by Blumenbach and Carl Friedrich Born were published together
in 1789 with an extended essay by Wolff.19
The theory of generation which Wolff presented in his publications had several
aspects. It involved, first of all, the claim that generation occurred, a claim that was
contentious at the time. Wolff defined the generation of an organic body specifically


Lo w (1980), pp. 1757.

Wolff (1896), Haller (1758, 1760) and Wolff (1764, 1789).

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


as the gradual genesis of its parts and its formation from these parts. But he included
in his concept of generation several vegetative processes the original development
of an organic body, and its continued growth and nutrition.20 Wolff argued further
that a theory of generation must not only describe these vegetative processes, but
also explain how they occur; it must provide not only historical knowledge, but
also what he termed philosophical knowledge of generation.21 Whereas an historical
account of generation merely recounts changes in appearances, a philosophical or
scientific theory of generation explains how the parts arise and in what connection,
and the grounds or causes of these formations. Famously, Wolff argued that the
sufficient cause of the generation of both plants and animals is a vis essentialis or
essential force, acting together with the solidification of nutritive juices. Wolff was
not, however, concerned with reflections on the nature of a special vital force, but
with the action the vis essentialis effected the distribution of nutritive juices
throughout the organic body, carving out and altering structures and adding new
materials. Although Wolff distinguished between the vis essentialis as a cause and
the action of the nutritive juices as its effect, in his texts the vis essentialis was not
represented beyond this action of the juices. Indeed, as he would argue in a 1789
essay, in response to what he regarded as misunderstandings of his introduction of
the vis essentialis:
One could thus have omitted it, and ascribed the movement of the juices to other
causes, as one wanted; or one could have accepted no cause for it, and left the
movement unexplained; still this movement of the juices would not itself be
denied; and the manner of the production and formation of parts, as the main
point of a theory of generation, would then always remain the same.22
Wolff did not provide a positive determination of the vis essentialis; he did not
speculate on its origin, or its relation to the first appearance of life. In his theory of
generation, it functioned primarily as a synthetic concept for the various actions of
the nutritive juices within organic bodies.
For Wolff a theory of generation must also be demonstrative. It must be demonstrative in the sense of determining the essence of generation, and deriving all vegetative phenomena from this essence. Wolff was particularly concerned to distinguish
the principal cause of generation, the movement and solidification of nutritive juices,
from accessory causes, such as warmth, or the action of the heart and irritability in
animals. It was this essential formative action that Wolff used to define an organic
body, as opposed to the mechanical structures that were its products. The heart distinguished animals from plants, but it was a product of generation the result of

Wolff (1896), Erklarung des Plans 131.

Wolff based this distinction on that between empirical and rational psychology. See Wolff (1986),
1011, and Wolff (1764), pp. 38. Kant made a similar distinction between a description of nature
[Naturbeschreibung] and a history of nature [Naturgeschichte] in his 1775 essay Von den verschiedenen
Racen der Menschen, in Kant (1912), p. 451n.
Wolff (1789), p. 50n.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

the specific qualities of the nutritive juices of animals, which led them to solidify
more slowly, and accordingly to more ramifying vessels being carved out by the
movement of the juices, thus necessitating a heart as their terminus.23 Wolff repeatedly insisted that it is the actions of the nutritive juices that demonstrate or explain
generation. But he also understood demonstrative to mean to demonstrate or display
experimentally.24 His texts were peppered with the claims that formative action is
proved with necessity from his experiments, that he will demonstrate ad oculos
this action, that it is proved from observations.25 He referred to the action of the
nutritive juices in carving out organic structure as the instrument of generation,26
an instrument he claimed to demonstrate with his experimental tools. Wolffs theory
of generation thus had three fundamental aspects the gradual formation of parts
and structures, the explanation of this formation as the action of the nutritive juices,
and the demonstration of this essential action experimentally. It was with the epistemological problem of demonstrating generative action that he was primarily concerned in developing his theory, rather than metaphysical speculations on the nature
of a vis essentialis.
It is difficult to determine how Wolff made these judgments regarding his theory
of generation, as little is known of the circumstances surrounding the production of
his dissertation Theoria Generationis, or its defence and publication.27 Although
Wolffs experimental investigations have been described, historians have attempted
to understand the development of his work by placing it in the context of contemporary metaphysical traditions, such as speculative debates over mechanism versus vitalism or preformation versus epigenesis, or the rational philosophies of Christian Wolff
and Benedictus Spinoza.28 Wolffs texts did refer to his contemporaries, but largely to
differentiate his theory of generation from their accounts. Proponents of preformation
theories, such as Haller and Charles Bonnet, deny generation and attribute the formation of organic structure to a divine creation rather than to natural processes. Even
proponents of generation such as William Harvey, Wolff argued, do not explain the
formative process but merely provide an historical or anatomical description of the
gradual appearance of structure. Thus neither approach provided a theory of generation. Similarly, John Tuberville Needhams account of the emergence [Entstehung]
of simple animalcules from organic matter under the action of expansive and resistant
forces, based on his infusion experiments, could not be considered a true theory of
generation since it did not explain the formation of the complex organization of
perfect animals, and did not demonstrate the action of the expansive force in this
process.29 Wolff did employ a model of explanation drawn from rational philosophies he used Christian Wolffs argument from a sufficient cause, and praised


Wolff (1896), 24153.

On the various senses of the term demonstrate, see Hankins and Silverman (1996), pp. 1112.
Wolff (1896), 21, 71 and 166.
Wolff (1764), pp. 1556.
Gassinowitsch (19567), pp. 214.
See, for example, Mocek (1995); Larson (1994), Ch. V; Roe (1981); and Gasking (1967), Ch. 8.
Wolff (1896), 23155; Wolff (1764), pp. 1434.

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


Rene Descartess exemplification of the proper form of an explanation, although he

rejected Descartess actual explanation of generation.30 But rather than forcing his
observations into the straightjacket of his deductive method,31 these philosophical
models led Wolff to the problem of demonstrating how the movement and solidification of nutritive juices caused the formation of organic structure. For Wolff such
demonstrations involved not only finding the essential cause of generation, but also
displaying the generative process experimentally. Significant portions of Wolffs
texts, and presumably his reasoning in developing his theory of generation, were
attempts to provide experimental demonstrations of this process, tracing the movement of the nutritive juices with his instruments, inscribing this action in the organic
matter, thinking with his tools. Although Wolff was aware of the various forces and
systems invoked by his contemporaries and predecessors to account for the development of organic bodies, he invoked the Newtonian rhetoric that had become a commonplace by the mid-eighteenth century to avoid speculations over the nature of the
force of generation: it is enough that we know that it is, and that we know it according to its effects.32 The vis essentialis, functioning as a synthetic concept for the
actions of the nutritive juices, was used by Wolff as an instrument for his judgments
on generation. The experimental investigation of those actions, those effects, was
also an important instrument of these judgments.
The demonstration of generation posed a problem for eighteenth-century experimental technologies, however, in that the slow process of the formation of structure
could not be made visible. But nor could supporters of preformation make visible
the structures they claimed pre-existed, even through a microscope. It is thus surprising that so much of the dispute between proponents of generation and preformation
took place in the arena of appearances. Haller criticized Wolff in his review of his
dissertation for basing his arguments on the principle that what one does not see,
is not there.33 Wolff was at pains to make clear that his argument was quite different.
He contended that organic structures were made of vessels and vesicles that were
visible before the structures themselves; that more complex structures were gradually
formed from simpler parts that appeared first.34 In his own impressive two-volume
study of the development of the chick, published in 1758, Haller contended that
development consisted of pre-existent parts becoming more solid and opaque, and
accordingly more visible. The action of the preformed heart, the essence of the animal form for Haller, acted as the primary cause of these alterations rather than as
their effect.35 Much of Wolffs dispute with Haller was over such visible appearances, each focusing his microscope ever more carefully on the contested structures,
especially the appearance of vessels and the heart in the area vasculosa and the


Wolff (1896), 23155; Wolff (1764), pp. 57.

Larson (1994), p. 145. See also Roe (1981), pp. 10220.
Wolff (1764), p. 160.
Haller (1760), p. 138.
Wolff (1896), 23640; Wolff (1764), pp. 67101.
Haller (1758).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

membranes around the yolk and embryos intestines.36 Both used similar microscopes, similar means of preparing specimens, similar staining techniques; their
points of contestation were not these technologies, which had been stable since the
seventeenth century, but the appearances made visible through them.37 But descriptions, however careful, of the gradual appearance of structures did not provide the
demonstration of the action of the nutritive juices that Wolff demanded of a theory
of generation. They provided only historical knowledge of generation, rather than
scientific knowledge of the causal action linking the sequence of appearances.
Wolff provided an experimental display of these actions in his dissertation, before
the dispute with Haller turned his attention to detailing apparent structures. The technique Wolff employed in the opening pages of his Theoria Generationis was to take
on the role of the action of the nutritive juices himself through the means of his
experimental instruments. Referring to a slice of a plant root or stem under the
microscope, he described the long vessels and small round drops of fluid visible
within them. He then showed how, with the help of an instrument such as a needle,
he could move the small drops back and forth, to indicate how the vis essentialis
distributed the fluid. Next, focusing on the vesicles, he showed how he could push
them around with his needle, to demonstrate how their form altered and how two
could be joined together. He described a similar experiment with the vessels. By
bringing the small drops of nutritive juice into motion with his needle, Wolff showed
how he could produce new vessels in different directions, as he purported the movement of the nutritive juices did.38 Inscribing in organic matter the action of the nutritive juices, the effects of the vis essentialis, using his experimental instruments, Wolff
demonstrated the process of generation. He asked rhetorically in 1764 in what kind
of way, through what kind of force, with what kind of instrument,39 generation
occurs. In making such judgments, an important instrument was his set of experimental tools through which he was able to display the action of the nutritive juices,
and thus the way in which generation occurred. His definition of organic bodies as
essentially formative activity and the role that the synthetic concept of the vis essentialis played in his theory of generation reflected these experimental acts.


For details of these disputes, see Larson (1994), pp. 14358, and Roe (1981), Ch. 3.
It should be borne in mind in considering the observations of Wolff and Haller that to prepare and
bring a particular structure to attention with the microscope required considerable skill. Expertise was
required not only to focus the rudimentary eighteenth-century microscopes, but also to adjust the light
source and to prepare the specimen. But the microscope was a stable technology after an active period
of development of the compound and single lens microscopes in the seventeenth century, no significant
changes in the optical quality of the microscope occurred until the nineteenth century. See Turner (1989,
1981). The techniques Wolff and Haller used to prepare their specimens derived from those used by
Marcello Malpighi in his studies of chick development at the end of the seventeenth century Haller
cut the embryo out of the egg and spread it on water, and Wolff spread it on a glass sphere. Both stained
their specimens with alcohol and vinegar, neither noting that purely artifactual structures often resulted.
(Adelmann, 1966; Haller, 1758, Vol. 1, pp. 278, 10423 and 122-3, and Vol. II, pp. 1368; Wolff,
1896, 188).
Wolff (1896), 124.
Wolff (1764), pp. 1556.

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In these displays Wolff was dependent upon narrative forms, literary technologies,
to bring witnesses to his experimental demonstrations.40 These narratives also acted
as an additional technology for demonstrating the action of the nutritive juices. Much
of Wolffs texts consisted of detailed accounts of the gradual formation of the parts
of plants and animals. These verbal representations were not depictions of static
appearances, but relations of continuous activity. As he held that the action of the
nutritive juices provided the link between the events in generation, so the story line
of Wolffs narrative linked the sequence of events leading to the formation of a
structure, enabling the reader to imagine processes that could not be made visible.
By relating how the nutritive juices flowed, pushed, carved, and so on, their
action in the formation of structure could be demonstrated, the verbs providing the
links between generative events that could not be made visible.41 It was Wolffs
narrative which reproduced the action of the nutritive juices, guiding the reader
through the dynamic change of form in generation verbally, in a manner similar to
that in which he guided the nutritive juices with his needle to reproduce their action;
both acted to inscribe the invisible process of generation, the concept of the vis
essentialis, in a material form.
Wolffs demonstrations of generative activity required interventions on his part.
Processes too slow to be seen could be made evident through experimental intermediations with his needle. Wolff also used experimental interventions to display how
the solidification of the nutritive juices completed the construction of the vessels and
vesicles forming the plant, by pressing a leaf under the microscope to discharge a
clear fluid, and observing it thicken and harden into a solid mass as water evaporated
from the fluid. He repeated these experiments with animal materials, employing heat
to hasten the process.42 Such experimental interventions were designed to reproduce
the normal course of generative activity. In the 1770s and 80s, Wolff also became
interested in variations in vegetative processes. In part this new interest was stimulated by his becoming curator of the anatomical cabinet at the Academy of Sciences
in St. Petersburg. The existence of bastards (hybrids), degeneration (variation) and
monstrosities had been used as arguments for generation in the mid-eighteenth century by Pierre-Louis Maupertuis and Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon.43
Georges Canguilhem has argued that monsters were an instrument of science in the
debates between proponents of preformation and epigenesis.44 For one committed to
a theory of generation, like Wolff, varieties and monstrosities allowed the exploration
of alterations or deviations of vegetative processes, indeed they allowed him to
experiment on those processes, not through his own interventions, but through interventions produced by nature in the ordinary course of generation. In his dissertation


On literary technologies and witnessing, see Shapin and Schaffer (1985), Ch. 2.
Gillian Beer argues that in the Origin of Species Darwin used verbal narratives in a similar manner,
to help the reader imagine the processes of evolution that were too slow to be perceived (Beer, 1986).
Wolff (1896), 249 and 1712.
Maupertuis (1745) and Buffon (17491804).
Canguilhem (1969), pp. 1789. Michael Hagner has applied this notion to Wolffs studies of monsters. See Hagner (1999), pp. 1916.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

Wolff contended that differences in the quality of the nutritive juices determined the
differences between plants and animals.45 In his work in the 1780s he gave increased
significance to these juices, what he came to call vegetable substance, in determining
vegetation.46 If the formative process remained the essence of the organic body,
Wolff now contended that the quality of the vegetable substance determined the
essence of each species of organic body. Varieties were due to the effects of external
conditions on organic structure, but left the vegetable substance unaffected; hence
the reversion to typical form when these varieties were returned to their typical
environment. Monsters, he argued, were the result of an excess quantity of vegetable
substance.47 These investigations allowed Wolff to examine the necessary constraints
as well as the capacity for spontaneous adaptation to these constraints in generative
activity. Nature provided Wolff with the alterations in environmental conditions and
in vegetable substance that he needed to examine regularities and deviations in the
ordinary course of vegetative processes, with the means to intervene experimentally
in these processes.
Wolff demanded of a theory of generation the demonstration of generation. Such
demonstrations required determining the essence of generation, its sufficient cause,
which Wolff argued was the action of the nutritive juices. He used the vis essentialis
as a synthetic concept, an instrument, to guide his judgments as to how these actions
formed the organic body. A demonstration of generation also required displaying
these formative actions. Wolff used experimental interventions as well as verbal
narrative to provide such a demonstrative display. Wolffs experiments on generative
processes displayed a high level of interaction with organic bodies. Interfering in
these processes, he prodded organic matter to expose the constraints on generation;
taking his tools in his hand, he prompted formative activity to display natures
capacity for spontaneity. These interactive experiments acted as instruments of judgment not only as tools for demonstrating formative action in organic matter, but
also as tools for thinking about how these actions occurred. Intervening in organic
processes, using his tools to intermediate in these processes, disrupting or hastening
ordinary generative action his inscriptions of formative activity in the organic
matter helped Wolff imagine, concretely, how these actions occurred. The demonstration of generation thus involved Wolff in a complex judgment, acting between
material phenomena and their theoretical representation.
In making his judgments on generation, Blumenbach was confronted with a similar
problematic. Like Wolff, his thinking was guided not only by debates regarding the
nature of development by his contemporaries and predecessors, but also by his own


Wolff (1896), 1712 and 215.

In his 1789 publication, the role of the vis essentialis was reduced to attraction and repulsion of
vegetable substance, whose specific actions at specific locations and moments were dependent upon the
specific qualities of that matter. The redefinition of the vis essentialis was in part to distinguish it from
the building forces postulated by others as the cause of generation, and with which Wolff maintained the
vis essentialis had been inappropriately identified. See Wolff (1789), especially pp. 65n66n.
On Wolffs investigations of varieties and monsters, see Hagner (1999), pp. 1917; Gassinovitch
(1990); Roe (1981), Ch. 5; and Raikov (1964).

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


experimental interventions in generative processes. His experiments acted in turn to

inscribe his conception of generation, not only in the organic material but also in
the minds of his contemporaries, much more effectively than Wolff through a series
of highly influential publications. A Professor of Medicine at Go ttingen, Blumenbach
had initially followed the lead of his influential predecessor, Haller, in supporting
preformation when he published his dissertation De generis humanii varietate nativa
in 1775. Blumenbach was following the exemplar of Buffon in introducing his works
on natural history with an account of development. By the publication of the first
edition of his Handbuch der Naturgeschichte in 1779, this introductory discussion,
although still beholden to Haller, also noted the arguments for epigenesis put forward
by Buffon, Wolff and others. In 1780 Blumenbach came forward with his own
account of generation in an essay published in the Go ttingsche Anzeigen, which was
ber den Bildungstrieb und das Zeugungsgeschreprinted in 1781 as a short treatise U
a fte. This work was extremely influential, going through several editions and being
widely cited; as his scientific reputation grew Blumenbach also promoted his account
of generation through his many publications on natural history and physiology.
Although Blumenbach distinguished his account from Wolffs, he also sought to
explain generation through the activity of organic matter and sought experimental
displays of this activity. But rather than attempting to display the gradual formation
of organic structure like Wolff, Blumenbach turned to experiments on regeneration
and variation of formative activity for his demonstrations of generation.
ber den Bildungstrieb, Blumenbach argued that the primary
In the first edition of U
principle of generation is a Bildungstrieb, a nisus formativus or formative impulse:
in all living creatures lies a special, innate, effective impulse, active lifelong, initially
to confer their definite form, then to preserve it, and if it is injured, where possible,
to reproduce it.48 Blumenbach was concerned to distinguish this formative impulse
from the chemical and mechanical forces of bodies in general and the other forces
characteristic of organized bodies in particular. He also sought to disassociate the
Bildungstrieb from the vis plastica that had been invoked so often in the past in
accounts of generation but, he argued, merely as an empty word, with no clear conception of it or clear account of its action in the phenomena of generation. He particularly emphasized the differences between the Bildungstrieb and Wolffs vis essentialis. Blumenbach, however, only specified the nature of these differences in his
ber den Bildungstrieb, from 1789: the vis essentialis is
subsequent editions of U
merely a power for distributing nutritive substance in plants and young animals,
something necessary to the operation of the Bildungstrieb but distinct from its action;
the vis essentialis is manifest in even the most deformed excrescences of plants,
where no determinate Bildungstrieb acts; and finally the vis essentialis can be
deficient in organic bodies which are badly nourished, where the Bildungstrieb
remains unaffected.49 Wolff, in turn, used his 1789 essay Von der eigenthumlichen
und wesentlichen Kraft published together with the winning essays by Blumen-


Blumenbach (1971), p. 12.

Blumenbach (1791), pp. 3841.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

bach and Born to the prize question Wolff had set for the Academy of Science
to offer a critique of Blumenbachs account, suggesting that although Blumenbach
was to be praised for having identified phenomena that could not be explained by
known causes, by simply naming it a Bildungstrieb he had not explained this
phenomenon. An explanation, as Wolff argued, required showing how a force
specifically works with different concurrent causes and under different conditions
to produce specific parts of an organic body. Such a force, Wolff stressed, is not
Bildungskraft.50 But despite these perceived differences in their accounts of generation, there are evident similarities between the two. Both regarded a range of vegetative phenomena as variations of the same formative process nutrition, growth
and generation with Blumenbach adding an emphasis on reproduction or regeneration. And as Wolff represented the vis essentialis as the action of the nutritive juices,
so Blumenbach represented the Bildungstrieb as an impulse or action stimulated in
organic matter, in the combined seminal substances from both parents, which had
matured to achieve a particular quality and which subsequently produced organized
structure. Like Wolffs vis essentialis, Blumenbach employed the Bildungstrieb as
a synthetic concept for these actions, but left the nature of the Bildungstrieb indeterminate.
Blumenbach did make an attempt to demonstrate formative activity, in Wolffs
sense of the term. He argued that he knew no more sensible means for rendering
the existence and the activity of this impulse evident than the unprejudiced observation of the development and propagation of [simple] organized bodies through
the assistance of the microscope.51 In the 1781 edition of his text, he described his
observations of the generation of a simple water plant (coniferva sontinalis) in the
beginning of spring; in the 1789 edition he added an account of the generation of
animals by means of the polyp. The transpicuous, simple structure of these creatures
meant that nothing seems concealed or obscured to the eye of the observer. Blumenbach could see nothing like a germ in them, and hence no grounds for supporting
preformation.52 The rapid growth and transparent texture of both the water plant
and polyp offered a means to note easily not only their complete structure, but also
slight alterations within it. Blumenbach related how, in the water plant, he observed
shoots springing out from small round bodies, promoted merely by the parts of the
vesicular texture of these spheres, and how as the filament increased in length the
little round body decreased in magnitude and became smaller. In the polyp, he
described the gradual formation of a bud, from the first swelling to the shooting
out first of the cylindrical body and then tentacles of the young.53 Thus the activity
of the Bildungstrieb was made almost visible but only almost. These alterations
occurred over hours, if not days, and so could not be marked through continuous
observation. Like Wolff, Blumenbach employed a narrative to enable his reader to


Wolff (1789), pp. 65n67n.

Blumenbach (1791), pp. 823.
Blumenbach (1971), p. 53; Blumenbach (1791), pp. 859.
Blumenbach (1971), pp. 4753; Blumenbach (1791), pp. 829.

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


witness events, to represent verbally linkages between various stages of generation,

that could not be made present to the eye.
But Blumenbach found in the polyp a more striking demonstration of the action
of the Bildungstrieb, that of its reproductive or regenerative capacities. The polyp
had come to prominence through a remarkable set of experiments by Abraham Trembley, which he detailed in his 1744 Me mories, pour servir a` lhistoire dun genre
de polypes deau douce, a` bras en forme de cornes. Noting its reproductive
capacities, he determined to investigate their extent: he tried cutting the polyp in a
variety of ways, both transversely and longitudinally, and into increasingly small
fragments; he tried grafting two polyps together; and, in his most impressive experiment, he even managed to turn a polyp inside out. In each case he found fragments
were able to form again into whole polyps, and to continue to live, eat and propagate.54 This remarkable creature captured the imagination of educated Europeans,
and after Trembleys publication those promoting preformation had to imagine how
the regenerative capacities of the polyp could be included in their theory. Indeed,
the polyp prompted Haller to convert briefly to an epigenetic theory.55 But Trembley,
a naturalist, was concerned solely with the question of whether the polyp was a plant
or an animal, and he found that its regenerative capacities were only one of the
characteristics that made its classification problematic. Subsequent studies of the
polyp, also by naturalists, were similarly framed by this problem, and cited its extraordinary reproductive capacity as only one of its defining characteristics.56 Even
Blumenbachs experiments were initially those of a genteel naturalist, providing
some edifying entertainment for his guests. But during these playful displays, Blumenbach noted a significant phenomenon. The newly expanded polyps, although
amply fed, were always far smaller than before. A mutilated rump always diminished
in proportion very evidently, and seemed to become shorter and thinner, as it regenerated the lost parts.57 This occurrence seemed to have been overlooked by earlier
observers, Blumenbach suggested in a note, either through inattention or preoccupation with phenomena of greater magnitude in the history of this animal. But Blumenbach did not leave these observations over reproduction in polyps as simply
significant characteristics of its natural history. He related them to an observation
made immediately following his experiments with polyps. One of his patients had
caries in his lower femur, which produced a deep ulcer. Blumenbach was struck by
how, when the wound gradually healed, it left a broad but shallow indentation, the
same case mutatis mutandis as with my green polyps.58 It was after further experiments and reflection on these phenomena that, Blumenbach claimed, he was persuaded to reject the existence of pre-existent germs and conceive of generation in


Lenhoff and Lenhoff (1992). See also Dawson (1987).

Haller (1966).
See, for example, Scha ffer (1755a,b), Ro sel von Rosenhof (174661), Baker (1758) and Ellis (1767).
Even Blumenbach originally studied the polyp in this way (Blumenbach, 1780?).
Blumenbach (1971), p. 10.
Ibid., pp. 1011.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

terms of a Bildungstrieb the gradual formation of organization through the activity

of organic matter.
The study of reproduction of lost or mutilated parts gave Blumenbach a means
to intervene in generative processes and thus make them manifest. Blumenbach
regarded generation and reproduction as modifications of one and the same activity,
so what elucidates the one, elucidates the other. In the cutting up of polyps and in
wounds formative activity became evident in its restoration of organized form. That
the reproduced form was slightly altered from the original, smaller in size or disfigured in some way Blumenbach interpreted as manifestations of variations in the
Bildungstrieb. His experiments on reproduction set out to examine these variations
and determine the regularities of formative activity. Polyps were particularly suited
to such investigations. Blumenbach divided the polyp into fragments and observed
its growth into so many new ones; he brought two different kinds of polyps together
to form a monster; he split the body of a polyp longitudinally and observed it
reform into a whole polyp. He suggested that these experiments with polyps could
be supplemented with similar ones on simple worms or starfish. Experiments on
warm-blooded animals were more difficult, as their powers of reproduction are more
limited. But Blumenbach cited examples of a hare growing a bony stump after its
foot was shot off or nails growing on the stump of a finger or toe when the front
joint was amputated.59 In a treatise published in 1786, Geschichte und Beschreibung
der Knochen des menschlichen Ko rpers, he introduced bone regeneration and the
fixing of foreign inserted teeth into fresh holes as further instances of reproduction.60
He also became interested in monstrosities as displays of variation in the Bildungstriebs action, as well as the excrescences that often formed on plants through insect
injury and the callus that sometimes formed with the healing of bones. Blumenbachs
expertise in natural history led him to relate the variations in the action of the Bildungstrieb to variations of species and bastards or hybrids.61 Rather than passively
observing different stages of development, Blumenbach held that it was by intervening in generative processes, interacting with the Bildungstrieb, that it was made evident, inscribed in the organic material. Through investigating pathological conditions,
produced either through his own instruments or through the instrument of nature or
accidental injury, Blumenbach was able to experiment on formative activity, interacting with it and altering its action. Like Wolffs interventions in generative processes, his experiments demonstrated the material constraints on these processes as
well as their capacity to change spontaneously in response to altered conditions.
Blumenbach, however, engaged in a much greater range of such experimental inter-


Ibid., pp. 7484.

Others had investigated bone regeneration, as Blumenbach noted in his treatise. Duhamel, for
example, had drawn a parallel between the healing of bone fractures and the repair of broken trees, and
analogies had also frequently been drawn between the reproduction of polyps and plants. See Blumenbach
(1786), Tro hler and Maehle (1991) and Delaporte (1983). Blumenbach, however, related these diverse
observations and experiments in a general theory of generation, accounting for the propagation, nutrition
and reproduction of plants and animals under the action of the Bildungstrieb.
Blumenbach (1971), pp. 26, 5769.

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


ventions than Wolff, and eventually conceived laws of the regularities and variations
in the activities of the Bildungstrieb.62 These experiments acted as instruments of
judgement, guiding Blumenbach to his distinctive conception of generation through
the action of the Bildungstrieb.
Robert J. Richards reads Blumenbachs discussion of the Bildungstrieb as an argument for a teleological cause fully resident in nature, endowing the homogenous,
formless mixture of male and female semen with its most essential character
form, organization.63 He gives particular importance to Blumenbachs speculations
in his 1790 Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte as to how the Creator might have employed
natural forces such as the Bildungstrieb for the production of a new organic creation
after a general catastrophe. But this brief speculation made no assertion about the
capacity of the Bildungstrieb to produce life from inorganic matter, and indeed Blumenbach professed ignorance of how subsequent creations might have occurred, in
contrast to contemporary accounts that explicitly argued for the formation of living
beings from inorganic materials.64 Blumenbach left indeterminate the relationship
between the Bildungstrieb and the hand of God, between the Bildungstrieb and the
final cause of nature, between the Bildungstrieb and the origin of life, being concerned rather to demonstrate alterations in the action of the Bildungstrieb under the
hand of man or the hand of nature. The Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte was accordingly concerned with arguments for the mutability of the created world for variations of species under changed material conditions, for the extinction of species
under catastrophic changes in these conditions, for how changes in material conditions have effected variations in human beings, and for how men have effected
alterations in domestic plants and animals through alterations in their material conditions. Richards also emphasizes Blumenbachs introduction of comparisons of the
ber den
Bildungstrieb with Newtons attraction or gravity in the 1789 edition of U
Bildungstrieb and 1788 edition of Handbuch der Naturgeschichte, arguing that these
comparisons indicate that Blumenbach understood the Bildungstrieb as an actual
force.65 But prioritising such a metaphysical reading seems misplaced. The by then
standard Newtonian rhetoric provided authority precisely for avoiding such metaphysical speculations, Newtons wider unpublished reflections on the nature of gravity being largely unknown at the time. There is no evidence, as yet, that Blumenbach
engaged in such speculations on the nature of the Bildungstrieb he claimed it to
be only an impulse, an effect of some unknown cause, an activity of organic matter,
that generated organized bodies. Blumenbach, like Wolff, was introducing a concep-

ber den Bildungstrieb presents regularities in the action of the Bildungstrieb;

The first edition of U
see ibid., pp. 436 and 556. By 1789 these regularities are expanded and represented as laws; see
Blumenbach (1791), pp. 10116.
Richards (2000), p. 22.
As, for example, was found in Maupertuis (1945), La Mettrie (1745) or even Buffon (1778).
Richards (2000), pp. 1822. Richards is right to correct Lenoirs suggestion that the organic material
in which the Bildungstrieb is stimulated is already organized. But it should also be noted that Blumenbach
contended that the Bildungstrieb is only stimulated within generative material with its unique qualities.
See Lenoir (1982), pp. 1721; Larson (1994), pp. 913 and 15960; and McLaughlin (1982).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

tion of the organic that was distinct from that of both their predecessors and contemporaries, one based on his experimental interactions with generative and reproductive
processes. As his instrumental interventions inscribed these processes in the organic
matter, making its varied activities manifest by disrupting their course and marking
their reproduction, he reconceptualised organic bodies and their generation.
Blumenbach, like Wolff, was engaged in a complex process of judgment, moving
reflectively between material phenomena and their theoretical representation. His
experimental interventions, like Wolffs, acted as an instrument for such judgments,
inscribing, reproducing, representing, guiding his thinking, as he re-imagined organic
activity materially with his tools. Blumenbach employed the Bildungstrieb, as Wolff
did the vis essentialis, as a synthetic concept for organic activities, and as an instrument to guide further judgments of these activities and to guide further experimental
interactions with these activities. Prodding nature to tell its story with their tools,
they inscribed in organic matter their conceptions of the vis essentialis or Bildungstrieb, but they also found that the organic material responded to their interventions in ways not wholly under their control, a specific experiment producing
inscriptions generated by its material specificity rather than its authors intent. This
perceived capacity of organic matter to respond spontaneously to their interventions
became a central part of their theoretical understandings of formative activities, their
conceptions of the vis essentialis or Bildungstrieb. Both Wolff and Blumenbach left
the nature of the generative impulse or force indeterminate indeterminate in its
origin as well as indeterminate in its final end focusing on its capacity for spontaneous alterations in the face of material, necessary constraints. They were interested
in investigating the space between first origin and final end, between unorganised
organic matter and organized form, the space in which formative activity took place,
and in which they could demonstrate the activity of the vis essentialis and Bildungstrieb.

2. Kants Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft

Although Kant only directly cited Blumenbach in his Kritik der teleologischen
Urteilskraft, his knowledge of debates between preformationists and epigenesists
prior to the publication of Blumenbachs work and the high profile of Wolffs theory
of generation in those debates provide good evidence for Kants familiarity with
Wolffs arguments as well. What he found attractive in these theories of epigenesis
was their minimal appeal to metaphysical speculations, to the supernatural. Outside
the question of first creation, which they left indeterminate, they attributed the propagation and formation of organized bodies to natural processes; although they allowed
the possibility of a first cause beyond nature, they removed the problem of organized
bodies from the domain of theology. What Kant added to such theories was a critical
examination of the epistemological principles guiding investigations of the phenomena of generation. But although theories of the gradual formation of organized bodies
deal with natural processes, Kant contended that they cannot be a part of the domain

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


of natural science because it is not possible to provide a determinate judgment of

this formation in terms of a concept of mechanical causation. Accordingly, Kant
argued, the problem of organized bodies and their formation does not belong to any
doctrine, but only to critique the critique of reflective judgment (KU 4167, 422
4). Such a critique is concerned with examining how reflective judgment is possible,
and the sources and conditions of such judgments, and with making explicit the
process of reflective judgment and through it our conception of organized and selforganizing beings. The principles that Kant proposed in his Kritik der teleologischen
Urteilskraft as instruments to guide reflective judgment allowed for both mechanical
necessity and spontaneous action in the formation of organized bodies, much as
Wolff and Blumenbach had done. Indeed, in formulating his principle of judgment,
Kant not only attempted to produce a methodological guide for the further study of
organized bodies but explicitly referred to individuals like Blumenbach who he
deemed employed correct principles for their investigation. If Kant expressed those
principles in the terms of his critical philosophy, he was clearly influenced by the
epistemology of experiment guiding Wolffs and Blumenbachs investigations of the
phenomena of generation.
The extent to which Kant drew upon the work of anatomists, naturalists and physicians those who dissect and investigate plants and animals can be seen in his
characterization of organized bodies. An organized being such as a tree, Kant argued,
preserves itself as a species, both producing itself and being produced by itself ceaselessly. It also engenders itself as an individual through growth, which is a form of
generation, in that it involves assimilating material and giving that material the qualities and organization particular to that species of tree. Finally, a tree engenders itself
in that there is a mutual dependence between the preservation of one part and that
of the others the leaves are produced by the tree and in turn preserve it, and any
injury to one part will be compensated for or regenerated by the others (KU 371
2). To account for these capacities, Kant contended that an organized being must
have within itself a formative force [bildende Kraft], and a formative force that this
being imparts to the kinds of matter that lack it (thereby organizing them) (KU
374). This formative force thus propagates itself, thereby propagating the organized
being. Advocates of preformation appeal to an extrinsic cause denying a formative
force within organized beings, they attribute their organization directly to the hand
of the creator (KU 423). Kant argued, in contrast, that with regard to organized
bodies, natural products, nature must organize itself. Kant praised Blumenbach
specifically for discussing only a formative impulse present in organized matter and
its role in the propagation of that organization, rather than attempting to explain how
that organization or impulse first arose.66 The extent to which Kant was indebted to
See KU 424. Richards is right to emphasize that Kants attribution of the Bildungstrieb to organized
matter is a misreading of Blumenbachs work (Richards, 2000, p. 29). On the other hand, it is important
to recognize the extent to which the terms organized and organic were in flux around 1790. Organized
bodies were being reconceived as organic bodies, with both expressions in use at the time. Plants and
animals defined in terms of organized or anatomical structures were redefined in terms of organic Form
und Mischung [form and mixture] during the 1790s, as chemical concepts became more significant in the


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epigenetic theories, particularly Blumenbachs theory of generation and the Bildungstrieb, is evident in these arguments.
Kant, critically examining such theories, was concerned to emphasize the extent
to which organized beings are not conceivable or explicable within the terms of any
physical ability or causality known to us. Kant argued that an organized being
appears to be both cause and effect of itself, or what he termed a natural purpose
[Naturzweck]. It is purposive in that the possibility of its parts, as regards their
existence and form, must depend on their relation to the whole, so that the concept
or idea of the whole determines a priori everything within it. Yet, as a product of
nature, it must have reference to purposes within itself and its inner possibility without reference to an extrinsic cause, so that its parts combine into the unity of the
whole because they are reciprocally cause and effect of their form. Thus each part
exists not only as a result of all the rest, but also for the sake of all the rest (KU
373). Kants definition of a natural purpose as both an organized and a self-organizing being evidently drew upon the characterization of organized bodies that he took
from anatomists, naturalists and physicians such as Wolff and Blumenbach. But Kant
represented this definition critically as based upon a critique of how we judge
[urteilen] organized bodies. The judgment of an organized bodies as a natural purpose is drawn from the concept of nature, as it considers real and objective products
exhibited in nature, the products of natural causes rather than human or extrinsic
causes. Yet it is also drawn from the concept of reason, as it considers certain natural
things as if they were products of a cause whose causality could be determined only
by a representation [Vorstellung] of the object (KU 232), the product of final causes
rather than efficient or mechanical causes.67 Kant held that judgment moves reflectively between both, relating what can be known definitively through the understanding and what can be merely thought speculatively through reason, relating the concept
of nature and the concept of reason, relating natural necessity and purposiveness.
We cannot connect it with the mere concept of nature without regarding nature as
acting from a purpose [Zweck]; and even then, though we can think this causality,
we cannot grasp it (KU 3701). We cognise [erkennen] something as a natural
product and yet . . . estimate [beurteilen] it to be a purpose, and hence a natural
purpose (KU 370). Like Wolff and Blumenbach, in the Kritik der teleologischen
Urteilskraft Kant is not concerned with speculations on the nature of organized

study of life. One can see the beginnings of such reconceptualisations in the significance Wolff gave to
nutritive juices and vegetable substance in determining the nature of species, and in Blumenbachs argument that the Bildungstrieb is stimulated in seminal fluids, organic matter, after it is properly mixed
and prepared. Humboldt, discussed in Section 5 below, developed an idea of vital chemistry based on
Mischungsvera nderungen in organic materials.
See both the published Introduction to the Kritik der Urteilskraft, VIII, as well as the first unpublished Introduction, IX. The first Introduction is also translated in the Pluhar edition, with primed numbers indicating its pagination in Volume 20 of the Akademie edition. Pluhar translates Vorstellung as
presentation, but representation is more accurate. Beck renders Vorstellung as representation in his translation of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft. See Rudolphe Gasche on the difference between Vorstellung
[representation] and Darstellung [presentation] in Kant: Gasche (1991), pp. xixxx.

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bodies but with how we are to investigate and estimate their capacity for organization. It is this process of judgment that Kant opens up to critical examination.
This concept of a thing as a natural purpose is not a constitutive concept either
of understanding or reason, but a regulative concept for reflective judgment (KU
375). Kant argued in the Kritik der Urteilskraft that this reflective judgment of
organized bodies is distinct from the determinative judgment that he had developed
in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, through which the necessary concept of mechanical
causation is applied directly to natural phenomenon, and is constitutive of that
phenomenon. In a determinative judgment, concepts are given a priori and the
phenomena are subsumed under them, and judgment does not need its own principle
to guide its action (KU 17980, 1824, 385). But in the judgment of organized bodies
there is no a priori basis for the assumption of purposes that are not ours. Nor can
experience prove that there actually are such purposes although experience
prompts us to adopt the concept of natural purposes, this concept is needed to comprehend such experiences. Thus there is no objective ground for the concept of a
natural purpose (KU 35960, 376). Rather, reflective judgment, moving between
phenomena and their conceptualisation, must give itself a principle to guide its movement. This principle of reflective judgment is a transcendental principle: one by
which we think the universal a priori condition under which alone things can become
objects of our cognition in general (KU 181). The principle of purposiveness is thus
necessary for our estimation of organized beings. But it is not a universal law of
determinative judgment that applies to certain natural products and explains their
production objectively. Rather we must appeal to purposiveness in our estimation
of organized bodies because of the apparent contingency of their production. Kants
problem was that his conception of natural science was restricted to mechanical
causality. But nature, considered as mere mechanism, could have structured itself
differently in a thousand ways without arriving at the apparently purposive organization found in plants or animals (KU 360). On the other hand, to use the concept of
purposiveness as a law for determinative judgment, thus taking a concept of reason
as having objective application, is to treat it dogmatically, rather than critically in
relation to our cognitive powers and in relation to the subjective conditions under
which we think it (KU 395). Concepts of reason are only determinative for human
purposive action independently of phenomenological determination. The argument
of Kants critique of judgment was that judgment, moving reflectively between the
domains of phenomenological determination and reason but lacking a domain of its
own, must give itself a principle to regulate its action in synthesizing phenomena
and reason in the estimation of organized bodies. Lacking a determinative concept
for the territory in which it acts, reflective judgment must appeal to both the concepts
of nature and of reason to develop its concept of organized bodies; but the concept
of natural purpose it thus develops cannot determine the nature of organized bodies.
The concept of a natural purpose is thus a subjective principle which reflective judgment gives to itself as an instrument to guide its action, a regulative rather than a
constitutive principle for bringing natures appearances under rules and for guiding
further investigation of organized bodies.
Kant developed this argument that the principle of reflective judgment is a regulat-


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

ive and subjective rather than constitutive principle in the Dialectic of Teleological
Judgment of the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft. In the Dialectic Kant
presented two possible principles that investigators might use in their judgments of
natural products: the first is the maxim that all production of material things and
their forms must be judged to be possible in terms of merely mechanical laws; and
the second is the maxim that some products of material nature cannot be judged to
be possible in terms of merely mechanical laws. (Judging them requires a quite
different causal law viz., that of final causes) (KU 387). Kant emphasized that
as long as these maxims are principles to guide judgment in its reflections, as to
how natural products must be judged or cannot be judged, they are not in conflict.
It is only if they are misread as objective principles of determinate judgment, statements of how natural products are constituted, that are they contradictory. As in the
Transcendental Dialectic of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, the antinomy that would
then arise would be due to a conflict in the legislation of reason, a confusion of the
legislation through the concept of nature as performed by the understanding with
that through the concept of freedom as performed by reason, a confusion of the
domain of phenomenological determination with that of the free spontaneity of the
noumenal. But read as regulative principles of reflective judgment, as instruments
to relate the legislation of the understanding with that of reason in the judgment of
organized beings without confusing the one domain with that of the other, no contradiction between these two principles arises. Kant proposed that those investigating
organized bodies should simply follow the first maxim as far as possible, judging
them as to their possibility in terms of mechanical laws, but having recourse to the
second maxim when the phenomena of organic life defy mechanical explication, and
then judging them as to their possibility in terms of final causes.
Kants representation of the antinomy of judgment can be read as contending that
both maxims, the principle of the mechanism of nature and the principle of final
causes, are regulative principles. Such a contention contrasts with the Kritik der
reinen Vernunft, in which Kant claimed to prove that the category of causality, which
he conceived in the terms of the mechanical causality of Newtonian physics, universally determines phenomena, that it is constitutive of all natural products, that
material things must be understood as due to the operation of mechanical laws. The
investigation of organized bodies has problematized that claim. Indeed, in the Kritik
der teleologischen Urteilskraft Kant contended that mechanical causality could no
longer be applied determinately to all natural products; rather we must estimate
which natural products can be explained through mechanical causality. In other
words, even the judgment to apply the concept of mechanical causality to certain
phenomena becomes a question of reflective judgment.68
McFarland notes this point, but underplays its significance. He argues that even in the first critique
Kant allowed chemical phenomena to be investigated by different principles from the mechanical. Kant
argued in both the Kritik der reinen Vernunft and the Metaphysische Anfangsgru nde der Naturwissenschaft, however, that chemical phenomena are explicable mechanically in principle, which is different from
his argument here (KrV A6456/B6734; Kant, 190813, Vol. 5, p. 468 and 4701). McFarland also
shifts the discussion to the system of nature, which Kant discussed in both the Dialectic of the Kritik der

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In the study of organized bodies, which principle is used to guide investigation

will affect the conception of organized bodies that results. Kant praised those who
employ the principle of mechanism in their investigation of organized bodies the
comparative anatomists who study the common structures amongst species as a
means to gain insight into their common mode of production, and the investigators
who study the relationships between the modes of production of crude matter such
as in crystallization and those of organic bodies (KU 41819). Yet Kant also noted
that those who investigate the structure of plants and animals effectively use the
principle of final causes to gain insights into the functions of those structures (KU
377). The consequences of these disparate directions of investigation can be represented teleologically. Depending upon what means are used to investigate
organized bodies, different conceptions will result. These results feed back into those
investigations, guiding them further in a particular direction. Thus, depending upon
whether mechanical or final causality is used as a principle, as an instrument, to
guide investigation, diverging representations of organized bodies are produced, are
inscribed in the plants and animals investigated. In this sense, Kants claim in the
Kritik der Urteilskraft that nature is purposive for our intellect might be seen simply
as a product of the investigators designs. But Kant did not contend that the estimation of which principle should direct investigation is strictly rationally ascertained.
There were also material constraints to such judgments some organic phenomena
defying comprehension through mechanical causality. His arguments here are very
similar to those of Wolff and Blumenbach they found that organic material
responded to their experimental interventions in ways not wholly under their control.
The question of which principle should guide specific investigations of organized
bodies, Kant concluded, was one for reflective judgment.
To help make comprehensible how the principle of final causes can be used to
guide the investigation of organized bodies Kant drew an analogy between such
natural products and artistic products or human technics.
We adduce a teleological basis when we attribute to the concept of an object . . .
a causality concerning [the production of] an object, or, rather, when we conceive
of the objects possibility by analogy with such a causality (which we find in
ourselves) and so think of nature as technical in what it itself can do (KU 360).
In a natural technic, as in a human technic, the production of an organized entity
seems possible only in terms of final causes. In a natural technic, as in a human
technic, the structure of the object is of such a character that our judgment must
base its possibility on an idea, on a design, that directs production. To regard nature
as proceeding technically, proceeding as in artistic production, when its products are
organized systems is to employ a technical rule for judging that . . . object in terms
reinen Vernunft and the Introduction of the Kritik der Urteilskraft. But the introduction of reflective
judgment for the investigation of nature as a system is different from its introduction for the investigation
of particular natural products as Kant suggested in the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft (McFarland,
1970, pp. 11920). Lo w, in contrast, gives this point particular emphasis (Lo w, 1980, pp. 20615).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

of subjective principles for reflection on [such an] object (KU 21718). This analogy with artistic production provides a subjective principle for reflective judgment,
a technical rule or an instrument aiding our technique of judgment. Investigators
such as Wolff and Blumenbach similarly attempted to make evident the formation
of organized bodies through experimental interventions, through attempting to reproduce with their experimental instruments the production of plants and animals. These
experimental interventions were techniques, instruments for judging generative processes, means to inscribe in organic matter their conceptions of how these processes
occurred, reproducing organized bodies according to their design. Kant similarly
suggested that the production of organized bodies might be estimated through the
instrument of human production, as if they were produced analogously. Kant
stressed, however, an important difference between a natural technic and a human
technic. A human technic has an extrinsic cause. A natural technic has intrinsic
capacities for self-propagation, self-generation and regeneration. Thus human technics could only be used as instruments to aid reflective judgments of natural technics,
but not to determine their nature, just as Wolff and Blumenbach could only regard
their inscriptions in organic matter as instruments of judgment and not as natures
actual process of generation. Natural technics organize themselves independently of
human hands or designs.
Kant allowed that it would be possible to reconcile the mechanical and teleological
principles by which we judge organized bodies, by positing a further principle in
something that lies beyond both (and hence also beyond any possible empirical
[representation] of nature), but that nonetheless contains the basis of nature, namely
bersinnliche], to which we must refer both
we can posit it in the supersensible [U
kinds of explanation (KU 412). But Kants distinction of a natural technic from a
human technic on the basis of its intrinsic productive cause, his critique of preformation theories for their appeal to the hand of God directly in the formation of
organized bodies, and his praise of epigenetic theories for suggesting intrinsic formative forces such as Blumenbachs Bildungstrieb, made clear that he was not positing
a divine formation of organized bodies by reference to the supersensible. Kant
characterized the supersensible, of which he warned we can only form an indeterminate concept, in terms not of a supersensible being or cause but of a supersensible
intellect. Kant did examine speculations regarding the role of a divine being in the
first formation of life. He allowed that reason may think the first origin of organized
bodies in a free, noumenal act outside our conceptions of mechanical causality, giving them their capacity for spontaneous alterations, much as Blumenbach had
allowed in his Beytrage zur Naturgeschichte. But like Blumenbach Kant was concerned with self-organizing capacities of natural products rather than the first origin
of life, and specifically criticized physico-theological arguments that attempted to
prove the existence of God from the organization found in nature (KU 43543). He
also examined speculations regarding the possible origins of the diverse forms of
life from an original progenitor through natures mechanisms. But he emphasized
that such a speculation remained a noumenal idea with no possible intuitive fulfilment, and not potential phenomenal knowledge. Indeed, Kant critically represented
such speculations as daring adventure[s] of reason, as following the inferences of

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reason to where our insight cannot reach (KU 420n, 3912). Kant contended that it
is the nature of our understanding from its limited Copernican perspective of the
rotating earth that it may hypothesize the first origins of organized bodies in a
divine or mechanistic creation, and it may also hypothesize the ultimate ends of
nature as a whole, but its judgments of organized bodies are restricted to the phenomena lying in the space between first origin and ultimate ends, to the natural necessity
and spontaneity apparent in living beings.69
Indeed, Kant held that the principle of reflective judgment, the principle of final
causality, is arrived at most clearly not by thinking about how organized bodies
might be produced but by thinking about how they might be comprehended by an
intuitive or archetypal intellect, and by comparing that intuitive understanding to our
limited understanding. Kant contended that it is a peculiarity of human understanding
that it must distinguish between the possibility and actuality of things. In our judgment of organized bodies in particular, there is a contingency in the harmony of the
parts with the whole, for our understanding must start from parts as the basis for
different possible wholes. It is thus the nature of our understanding that we must
consider organized bodies as possible only as having been produced intentionally and
as purposive. Kant argued, however, that it is only by presupposing the possibility of
an understanding different from the human one that we can say that it is due to the
special nature of our intellect that we must consider these natural products thus. It
is possible for us to posit a different understanding not restricted to the subjective
conditions of the human understanding, an intuitive intellect in which there are no
objects but actual ones, and in which there is no contingency in the combination of
parts to make the determination of the whole possible. Yet if we try to represent the
possibility of the parts as dependent upon the whole in their character and their
combination, as in an intuitive intellect, we cannot do so by having the whole contain
the basis that makes the connection of the parts possible; rather we can only do so
by having the representation of the whole contain that basis. The principle of final
causes is thus, for human understanding, a causality on the basis of a representation.
But Kants argument here is epistemological rather than metaphysical. Kant was not
suggesting the possibility of a supersensible being that might produce organized
bodies on the basis of such a representation, as would a divine artist or creator, but
explicitly distinguished his arguments from such contentions. Indeed, he held that
an intellect different from human understanding might be able to determine how
organized bodies are formed on the basis of the mechanisms of nature. Rather, Kants
argument was in keeping with the strictures of critical philosophy; he simply con-

This interpretation differs from that of Helmut Mu ller-Sievers, who argues that the parallel regarding
free spontaneity between epigenetic theories and Kants Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft lies in the
free spontaneity of the first origin. His elaboration of this point is unclear, however. Regarding Wolff,
he acknowledges that Wolff leaves unanswered questions about the specificity of the vis essentialis, yet
argues that Kant would have called Wolffs theory a dogmatism of pure reason as it postulates a
beginning on the basis of freedom within the all-encompassing determinism of the laws of nature. Regarding Blumenbach, he cites Kant praising Blumenbach for not determining anything regarding the first
beginning (Mu ller-Sievers, 1997, pp. 53, 55 and 612).


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tended that it is the peculiarity of our understanding that we can find a principle by
which to judge organized bodies only by thinking of an intellect in which the representation of a thing is that thing. He even emphasized that he does not claim here
that there is such an intellect, only that we must use the idea of such an intellect as
a principle of judgment, as a regulative principle to guide our judgments of organized
beings (KU 40115).70
Kant argued that in our judgment of organized bodies, because of the contingency
of the relation of material parts and their form, because of their separation of the
actuality and possibility, we are led to reflect upon the process of judgment, thus
making the technique of judgment in synthesizing phenomena and their conceptualisation reflexively evident. A principle is needed as a technical rule or instrument to
guide this process of judgment, but it is a subjective principle that judgment gives
to itself through its reflective activity since it lacks a determinative concept to judge
organized bodies objectively. But whether we use a principle of mechanism or a
principle of purposiveness in our estimation of organized bodies is itself a problem
for reflective judgment, a judgment that influences the direction of further research.
Although an analogy with human technics assists in the development of techniques
for judging natural technics, Kants concern was with self-organizing beings. Indeed,
Kant made explicit that his appeal to a principle of purposiveness was not an argument for the production of life according to an extrinsic design. As Wolff and Blumenbach introduced sophisticated reflections upon the problems of experimental
judgments using their experimental instruments for inscribing their conceptions
of generation in organic material to guide concretely their judgments of these processes, rather than claiming to determine the actual cause of the production of organic
processes so Kants critique of the judgment of organized bodies makes conscious
the process of conceptualising organic phenomena using the principle of reflective
judgment as a technical rule or instrument to guide this judgment concretely, whilst
leaving the concept of the cause of such phenomena as well as the best principle for
judging them indeterminate. In both instances, judgment moves reflectively between
phenomena and their conceptualisation, but lacks a determinate foundation for its

3. The problem of judgment in Kants critical philosophy

In the Introduction to the Kritik der Urteilskraft Kant set out the cognitive terrain
underlying a system of pure philosophy, the system of higher cognitive powers
which lies at the basis of philosophy.71 His third critique was to complete the critiques of understanding and reason by giving a critique of judgment. The significance
of judgment in this division of philosophy is that it mediates the connection of
McFarland is misleading on this point, characterizing Kants appeal to the supersensible as an appeal
to a supersensible intelligent cause, although rightly emphasizing that such an appeal is made only as a
regulative principle (McFarland, 1970, pp. 12134).
This is in fact the title of III of the first Introduction to the Kritik der Urteilskraft.

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understanding and reason; judgment makes possible the transition from the domain
of the concept of nature to that of the domain of the concept of freedom (KU
202, 196). In the Kritik der Urteilskraft reflective judgments were represented as
problematic acts of synthesis, each acting as an instrument of mediation between
phenomena and their conceptualisation; whereas determinative judgments were represented as immediate acts of subsumption of phenomena under given a priori concepts (KU 179, 385). But this representation of determinative judgment in the Kritik
der Urteilskraft was a simplification of the complex examination of judgment in the
Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Judgment formed the heart of the first critique, with all
acts of understanding being represented as judging (KrV A69/B94). Judgment in the
Kritik der reinen Vernunft also has a synthetic role, bringing a priori concepts to
bear on phenomena so as to make objective and determinative knowledge possible.
These pure concepts, the categories of understanding, in turn depend upon the functions of judgment. Moreover, all judgments are dependent upon the unconscious
activity of the transcendental imagination, making even determinative judgment a
less certain, more problematic process than the account in the Kritik der Urteilskraft
suggested. Martin Heidegger has provided a cogent study of how these unconscious
acts of the transcendental imagination have no determinate place in Kants architectonic of reason, and even elude critical examination.72 This section develops Heideggers study, arguing that Kants reflections on judgment in the Kritik der Urteilskraft,
especially as stimulated by new investigations of organic phenomena, cast a new light
on these synthetic aspects of judgment, and especially the role of the transcendental
imagination, in the first critique, drawing attention to what remains obscure yet essential to Kants arguments. The detailed examination of the role of the transcendental
imagination in judgment in the following discussion of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft,
made in the light of Kants treatment of reflective judgment, is used to argue that
the difference between determinative and reflective judgment is best understood
through the contrast between unconscious and reflective synthetic activity of the
In the Transcendental Analytic of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft Kant introduced
judgment as the act of putting different representations together, and of grasping
what is manifold in them in one [act of] knowledge (KrV A77/B103), thus highlighting the synthetic, rather than subsumptive, function of judgment. The Kritik der
reinen Vernunft started, famously, from the distinction between sensory intuition and
understanding, between the passive, receptive affections by impressions and the
active, spontaneous functions of thought, with Kant arguing that only a union of
both results in knowledge. In the Transcendental Analytic Kant drew attention to
the a priori elements of knowledge that structure our sensible [sinnliche] perceptions
to give them meaning [Sinn], the concepts that are necessary for awareness of an
object and that make possible knowledge of an object. Kant called the rules of the
pure thought of an object, the form of understanding abstracted from modes of
knowledge which have material or empirical content, a transcendental logic. But a


Heidegger (1973).


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transcendental logic, in contrast to a general logic, also treats the origin of these
rules of thought through which we have knowledge of objects, if only insofar as
that origin cannot be attributed to objects (KrV A556/B7980). Kant argued that
the pure concepts of understanding, the categories, have their origin in the functions
of thought in judgment. This so-called metaphysical deduction of the categories has
faced frequently rehearsed criticisms concerning its formal emphasis, the lack of
explication of the principle behind the table of the functions of judgment and the
lack of clarity in the presentation of the details of this table, and the limits of the
logic Kant drew upon and thus the limited range of categories presented, what one
might better describe as the historical specificity of Kants tables of judgment and
categories. More serious is the lack of a clear connection between the categories and
the basic forms of judgment. His argument, for example, that the category of substance, as the substratum of something that underlies individuals and that persists as
they come to be and pass away, is derived from categorical judgment is dubious,
and indeed his characterization of substance suggests that Kant had not distanced
himself as far from the traditional metaphysics of his time as he claimed.73 What is
interesting, however, is his claim that it is pure synthesis, represented in its most
general aspect, [which] gives us the pure concept of the understanding (KrV
A78/B104). This claim is central to the chapter The Clue to the Discovery of all
Pure Concepts of the Understanding: Judgments are functions of unity among our
representations, spontaneous acts of bringing various representations under one
common representation or concept (KrV A689/B934). It is this synthetic function
of thought that constitutes the pure concepts of understanding or the categories.74
But although in the Transcendental Analytic Kant focused upon the a priori synthetic
activity of thought, the forms of judgments and pure conceptual elements of knowledge, given the arguments for the finitude of human knowledge in the Kritik der
reinen Vernunft even this a priori activity of thought remains dependent on intuition.
Heidegger has argued that whilst Kants analysis of human reason brings to light its
structure, the isolation of the elements of knowledge remains an artifice and merely
a starting point for this study, behind which lies concealed the essential unity of
knowledge. Indeed, for Kant it is the synthesis of the manifold of intuition that
constitutes the categories, but this original unifying act remains unconscious, an act
of the transcendental imagination.75
Synthesis in general, as we shall hereafter see, is the mere result of the power of
the imagination, a blind but indispensable function of the soul, without which we

For an overview of these problems, see Young (1995), pp. 10510 and 1179. Young argues that
Kant remains indebted to Leibnizian metaphysics even as he moves away from it in important respects.
On the import of the notion of synthesis in The Clue to the Discovery of all Pure Concepts of the
Understanding, see Young (1992), pp. 1045, and Heidegger (1973), pp. 5265.
Heidegger (1973), pp. 5265. Kant discussed the synthesis of the manifold of pure intuition in the
Transcendental Analytic, itself dependent on the synthesis of the manifold of appearances in intuition as
detailed in the Transcendental Aesthetic. Heidegger gives particular emphasis to time, the pure intuition
of inner sense.

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should have no knowledge whatsoever, but of which we are scarcely ever conscious. To bring this synthesis to concepts is a function which belongs to the
understanding, and it is through this function of the understanding that we first
obtain knowledge properly called (KrV A78/B103).
Thus in the first chapter of the Transcendental Analytic, in his presentation of the
table of categories necessary to knowledge, Kant set out the central problematic of
the critique of reason, the relation of intuition and intellect, and the role of the
unconscious activity of the transcendental imagination in effecting that relation.
The categories, as a priori conditions of a possible experience in general[,] are
at the same time conditions of the possibility of objects of experience . . . They are
the fundamental concepts by which we think objects in general for appearances, and
have therefore a priori objective validity (KrV A111). That objective validity
should be found in the subjective sources which form the a priori foundation of the
possibility of experience (KrV A97) might seem an extraordinary claim. But Kants
argument was that these transcendental elements are necessary for the notion of
objectivity, for our awareness of an object as an object. A representation in itself
does not produce its object in so far as existence is concerned. None the less, the
representation is a priori determinant of the object, as only through the representation
is it possible to know anything as an object (KrV A92/B125). These categories are
also necessary, according to Kant, since they follow from the nature of our rationality. In the Transcendental Deduction of the Pure Concepts of the Understanding
Kant set out to justify this claim. Heidegger draws attention to the legal language
with which Kant introduced this justification in the Transcendental Deduction. Jurists are concerned with the question of right (quid juris) (KrV A84/B116), with
the exhibiting of what, as underlying authority [als begru ndete Befugnis], continues
to be legally valid (quid juris), and with overruling unwarranted claims, rather than
logical validity.76 The critique of pure reason, as the highest tribunal of all the rights
and claims of speculation (KrV A669/ B697), put traditional metaphysics and its
excesses on trial. But the validation of the possibility of the a priori ability of the
pure concepts to refer to objects cannot come from experience. The legislative power
of concepts cannot come from experience, but only a priori (KU 174), and hence their
legitimation requires a transcendental deduction. For Kant this deduction involved
demonstrating that the determinative legislation of the categories as principles of the
possibility of experience follows from the original synthetic unity of apperception.
But Heidegger argues that it is the transcendental imagination that provides their
underlying authority.
Kants argument in the Transcendental Deduction was that the condition necessary
for knowledge of an object, a concept or rule that represents in any given appearances the necessary reproduction of their manifold, and thereby the synthetic unity
of our consciousness of them, must have its transcendental ground in the transcendental apperception, a consciousness of the necessary numerical identity of the self


Ibid., p. 82.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

throughout its varied representations (KrV A1067). The necessary consciousness

of the identity of the self is thus at the same time a consciousness of an equally
necessary unity of the synthesis of all appearances according to concepts (KrV
A108); the a priori rules that are the conditions of the transcendental unity of apperception are the a priori rules necessary for the cognition of objects.77 The arguments
of the Transcendental Deduction are notoriously difficult and problematic.78 It is all
too easy to read these complex passages as hypostatising the aspects of the self
providing the necessary conditions of the synthesis of appearances.79 But although
Kant allowed that we can think of a transcendental subject as the entity founding
the unity of transcendental apperception, he insisted we can have no knowledge of
it and thus cannot appeal to it as the basis for the deduction of the categories. And
although Kant distinguished the unity of pure apperception from the act of synthesis
uniting appearances according to concepts, he held that the unity of pure apperception
is the product of that synthetic act the consciousness of the identity of the self
in all our representations functions only to give us consciousness of the necessary
unity of these synthetic acts. Kant did suggest, however, that not only is the transcendental unity of apperception a necessary condition for knowledge of conceptualisable,
phenomenal objectivity, but that it is also a sufficient condition that it validates
the claim that these phenomena are bound together by objective laws, that it not
only make[s] them necessarily reproducible but also in so doing determine[s] an
object for their intuition, that is, the concept of something in which they are necessarily interconnected(KrV A108).80 But the argument that pure concepts are necessary
for our knowledge of objects as objects is distinct from the claim that these pure
concepts apply necessarily to objects. In the second-edition Deduction Kant did distinguish the objective unity of consciousness, which he held was based necessarily
upon the transcendental unity of apperception, from a subjective unity, determined
by the inner sense empirically and contingently (KrV B13941), but he did not note
that self-consciousness is involved in both. J. N. Findlay, highly critical of Kants
arguments in the Transcendental Deduction, has argued that Kant did, however, make
clear in the Analytic of Principles that conscious experience is a two-sided, subjectobject affair, in which we must be able to distinguish what is objective by its
invariant necessity of connection; whereas what is subjective is distinguished by its
Beliebigkeit, its free arbitrariness. The possibility of both objective and subjective
syntheses is actually necessary to self-consciousness, for it is through the power to
be affected or unaffected by objective connections that subjective connections reveal
both the objective connections in question and their own presence. Findlay argues

This summative statement of the Transcendental Deduction is indebted to Guyer (1992), p. 137. An
examination of the differences between the first and second edition of the Transcendental Deduction,
analyzed by Guyer, is beyond the scope of this paper.
Kant himself noted the obscurity of his treatment, and rewrote the entire section for the second,
1787 edition of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft. See also Kants note to the Preface of his Metaphysische
Anfangsgru nde der Naturwissenschaft (Kant, 190813, Vol. 5, pp. 474n476n).
On this point, see Cassirer (1955), p. 6872.
See also the arguments in the B Deduction, KrV B 1369.

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


that for Kant the thought of a transcendental object is requisite here, that it is the
transcendental object that prevents us from thinking of the object as we please, brings
into our thought an element of necessitation, and compels us to synthesize what we
think in a given manner.81 But accepting Kants restriction to what we can know,
and thus placing finitude at the point of departure for the transcendent, Heidegger
emphasizes that the object of representation [Gegenstandes der Vorstellungen] is
not the thought of a transcendental object but that which stands opposed [entgegensteht] to us in the act of knowledge, the object perceived in intuition. Nevertheless,
these intuited objects offer constraints that the understanding represents as necessary.82 This emphasis allows Heidegger to interpret the Transcendental Deduction
as concerned with pure thought, but in its transcendental relations with pure intuition.
The significance of the transcendental imagination can now be made clear. Heidegger emphasizes that the underlying authority [Befugnis] that gives validity to the
Transcendental Deduction is the elucidation of the categories as essentially dependent
upon the pure synthesis effected by the transcendental imagination. The opposed
elements of knowledge, pure intuition and pure thought, indicate seams or hinges
[Fugen] which point in advance to having been joined together [Ineinandergefu gtes];
the synthesis effected by the transcendental imagination is what fits [fu gt] these
element together.83 Heideggers principal interest is in reading the Kritik der reinen
Vernunft as providing a laying of the ground for metaphysics, as unveiling the
essence of ontology, the original, essential constitution of humankind, which he interprets as rooted in the transcendental imagination as the ground of the originary synthesis, Kants common, unknown root (KrV A15/B29, A835/B863), of sensibility
and understanding.84 But his highlighting of the central role of the transcendental
imagination in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, and its synthetic and unconscious
action in judgment, is of utmost import for the interests of this paper. It is the transcendental imagination that enacts the synthesis of the manifold of intuition, prior


Findlay (1981), pp. 143, 1469, 153 and 161. See in particular in the second edition of the Kritik
der reinen Vernunft the Note in the Preface, KrV xxxixxli, the General Note on the Systems of Principles,
KrV B28894, and the Refutation of Idealism, KrV B2749.
Heidegger (1973), pp. 6581, especially pp. 6971; and KrV A104. Smiths translation of the Kritik
der reinen Vernunft obscures these subtleties. Contrasting the Objekt of the infinite knowledge of an
absolute intuition, which in intuiting lets the object come into being and knows it in itself, with the
Gegenstand of the finite knowledge of human intuition, which is dependent upon an object distinct or
opposed to it, Heidegger emphasizes that they are not two different kinds of object but the objects of
two different kinds of knowing. On this point, see also Buchdahl (1992), Part I.
Heidegger (1973), pp. 58 and 823. See also KrV B1578. Findlay argues that Kant used the notion
of externality ambiguously, to cover both phenomenal outsideness to self consciousness and transcendental
outsideness of transcendental objects external to the transcendental self (Findlay, 1981, p. 185).
Heidegger (1973), pp. 335, 1306 and 155. Heidegger does not just intend here that pure intuition
and pure concepts are synthetically united through the transcendental imagination, indicating their original
unity. He also claims that both pure intuition and pure understanding are rooted in the transcendental
imagination. His arguments regarding understanding follow from his emphasis on the finitude of knowledge, as has been indicated above in the discussion of the Transcendental Deduction. Heidegger also
argues that the synopsis of the intuited in pure intuition is only possible through the transcendental
imagination (ibid., pp. 13640).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

to apperception, producing a unified representation of appearances for reflective consciousness (KrV A98100). The recognition of this synthesis in a concept is the
awareness of the pattern or rule of this unity, apperception being added to pure
imagination to render its functions intelligent (KrV A1036).85 Although in the
second-edition Transcendental Deduction Kant foregrounded the role of understanding, he could not eliminate the synthesizing activity of the transcendental imagination. The synthesis that the imagination effects, now entitled a figural synthesis, is
contrasted with the thought of this synthesis in a category, or intelligent synthesis
(KrV B15152). Thus the important distinction between the unconscious synthetic
activity of the imagination and the conscious conceptualisation of this synthesis
The transcendental imagination also plays a central role in the determination of
intuitions through concepts in judgments. Judgment has the problem of relating pure
concepts to intuitions when they are in fact quite heterogeneous to one another. Thus
there must be some third thing [ein Drittes], which is homogenous on the one hand
with the category, and on the other hand with the appearance, and which thus makes
the application of the former to the latter possible (KrV A138/B177). Kant called
this third thing a transcendental schema, an amphibious orientation that is neither
purely conceptual nor purely intuitive, but both at once. Schemata are the transcendental products of the unconscious activity of the imagination, mediating between
intellect and intuition and thus preparing the ground for judgment; they represent
the procedures by which our pure intuitions are determined to accord with concepts,
and thus enable the application of categories to phenomena in space and time, the
forms of our sensibility, which alone gives them meaning. Although explicit rules
or principles can be introduced by the understanding as instruments to guide this
process, schematicism remains an art concealed in the depths of the human soul,
and judgment a particular talent of the mother-wit [Mutterwitz], a natural gift
[Naturgabe] that cannot be learned but only practised (KrV A141/B180, A133
4/B1723). Thus the categories are not logical structures pre-existent in the mind
but reflective articulations of syntheses enacted by the transcendental imagination,
and their application to intuitions in judgments is not an automatic or logical procedure but again a synthetic process mediated by the transcendental imagination.86
Kant called the transcendental imagination the productive imagination. He did not
mean by this expression that the imagination was a creative power, responsible for
the existence of the objects of knowledge, or that its products were imaginary. Rather,
it was productive of the relations between intuition and intellect necessary for the
formation of knowledge of objects. But as its activities were unconscious and imaginative, rather than conscious and logical, it is difficult to explicate them through reasoned analysis. Kant did employ images to help us imagine these unconscious synthetic acts. Thus in the second-edition Transcendental Deduction he appealed to the

See also KrV A11825.

Besides Heidegger, Findlay (1981) gives particular emphasis to the transcendental imagination in
the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, and Sarah Gibbons (1994) offers an analysis of the imagination in all
three critiques.

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


image of a line to aid in imagining the act of synthesis of the manifold of the pure
intuition of the inner sense or time:
Even time itself we cannot represent, save in so far as we attend, in the drawing
of a straight line (which has to serve as the outer figurative representation of
time), merely to the act of the synthesis of the manifold whereby we successively
determine inner sense, and in so doing attend to the succession of this determination in inner sense (KrV B154).
As Wolff took a needle in hand as a stylus to inscribe his imaginings of the formative
process in organic matter, an activity that in itself could not be made manifest, so
Kant described the act of inscribing a line through a sensory manifold as an instrument to aid our comprehension of the synthetic activity of the productive imagination, again an activity that could not be made manifest.87 He also allowed the empirical imagination to aid the transcendental imagination in its mediations between
intuition and intellect. In the first-edition Transcendental Deduction, Kant acknowledged that empirical acts of synthesis of which we are aware, such as running through
a succession of impressions in time, or the reproduction of past successions in memory to enable their association, are necessary for experiential knowledge. But he also
noted that such syntheses are dependent upon transcendental acts of synthesis outside
our awareness by the productive imagination (KrV A98103). In the Analytic of
Principles, Kant acknowledged a role for images produced by the empirical faculty
of the reproductive imagination. But he also noted that no image is adequate to a
concept, and the relation of an image to a concept needed the mediation of a schema
produced by the transcendental imagination. Moreover, it is only through and in
accordance with the schema of sensible concepts that images become possible. This
schema is not itself an image, but only a readiness to form images, to illustrate the
concept by intuitively given matters.88 And the schema of a pure concept of the
understanding can never be brought into any image whatsoever (KrV A142/B181).
The result is, however, that at the heart of Kants critical enterprise lurks the image
of a dark spot eluding the clear light of reason. In every part of the Transcendental
Analytic the Clue to the Discovery of all Pure Concepts of the Understanding,
the Transcendental Deduction, and the Analytic of Principles is found the problem
of the relation of intuition to intellect, and the unconscious synthetic activity of
transcendental imagination effecting that relation. As a third faculty between the
faculties of sensibility and understanding, underlying the functions or faculty of judgment, the transcendental imagination is the faculty [Vermo gen] that is able [vermag]
to enact the synthesis that makes knowledge possible [mo glich].89 Yet it itself is
unconscious and unknown. And in contrast to sensibility and understanding, which
Kant characterized as the two fundamental sources of the mind from which knowl87
Johann Gottlieb Fichte found this image particularly helpful in representing the synthetic act constituting knowledge, and the self, in his Wissenschaftslehre.
See Findlay (1981), pp. 1589.
Again, the word play is Heideggers (Heidegger, 1973, p. 133).


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edge springs (KrV A51/B74), and which have their respective treatments in the
Transcendental Aesthetic and Transcendental Logic, the transcendental imagination
has no defined place in the Kantian architectonic. Although pervading every part of
the Transcendental Analytic, and constituting the ground of the unity between
intuition and intellect, it remains homeless. Heidegger calls the transcendental
imagination an abyss [Abgrund] at the heart of the critique of reason.90
Heidegger argues that Kant shrank back [zuru ckgewichen] from the transcendental
imagination, finding this unknown root, this abyss, too disquieting. Indeed, Heidegger argues that in the second-edition Kritik der reinen Vernunft the imagination
as it came to light in the impassioned course of the first edition was thrust aside
and reinterpreted in favour of the understanding. The imagination remaining in name
only, the understanding now assumes the role of origin for all syntheses. Heidegger
attributes this retreat not only to fright before the unknown, however, but also to
the seduction of pure reason as reason. Kants critique of reason had now led him
to moral philosophy. Here Kant opposed what he viewed as the superficial empiricism of the predominant moral philosophy, and tried to solidify the rational character
of pure knowledge and action. Heidegger argues that Kant now sought finitude in
the pure, rational creature itself, and not primarily in the fact that it is determined
through sensibility. As a result, all synthesis must, as spontaneity, fall to the faculty
that is actually free, the acting reason [handelnden Vernunft].91
The explicit and purely rational analyses of Kants 1786 Metaphysische Anfangsgru nde der Naturwissenschaft would seem, at first, to support Heideggers claims.
The metaphysical constructions Kant presented in this text to demonstrate the possibility of Newtonian science parallel the arguments in the Transcendental Analytic
of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, but at a different level of analysis. Kant clearly
articulated the relationship, and difference, between transcendental and metaphysical
principles in the introduction to the Kritik der Urteilskraft:
A transcendental principle is one by which we think the universal a priori condition under which alone things can become objects of our cognition in general;
on the other hand, a principle is called metaphysical if it is one [by] which [we]
think the a priori condition under which alone objects whose concept must be
given empirically can be further determined a priori (KU 181).
As in the case of the categories, Kant argued that the notion of lawlikeness or necessity in Newtons laws of motion is injected by reason, a priori. But these arguments
are quite distinct from the claim that Newtons laws are necessary or follow necessarily from transcendental principles, as some have argued. Indeed, Kants metaphysical
constructions of those laws in the Metaphysische Anfangsgru nde, if guided by the
table of categories and concerned with a priori reasoning, are dependent upon the
injection of empirical concepts and contemporary empirical science. The concept of


Ibid., pp. 131 and 162.

Ibid., pp. 15563.

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


matter, for example, which takes a central place in Kants construction of Newtonian
physics the science of the laws of motion of matter is an empirical concept. The
aim of such metaphysical constructions is to allow the application of a mathematical
construction to the result of the analysis and, since mathematical constructions of
concepts are based upon the presence of an object in intuition, to explicate the real
possibility of a mechanical science concerning determinate natural things. As such,
they are opposed to a purely speculative philosophy of nature.92 The a priori conditions of these analyses are thus balanced explicitly by empirical considerations, as
the a priori conditions of transcendental synthesis forming the categories are balanced, albeit less explicitly, by intuitions. Kants Metaphysische Anfangsgru nde did
not depend upon defined essences, as in traditional metaphysics, but upon empirical
concepts, in accordance with the finitude of human cognition. Indeed, Gerd Buchdahl
argues that the dependence of Kants metaphysical constructions upon empirical concepts and the empirical science of his day made them tentative rather than certain,
creative rather than deductive. The injection of a categorical principle such as causality cannot bestow deductive validity upon the law of inertia, for example. It can
only show that the causal principle happens to be part of the structure of that law
it is part of the explication of its possibility, not a proof of its necessity or truth.93
Thus, whilst the metaphysical constructions of the Metaphysische Anfangsgru nde
may be more explicit than the unconscious transcendental syntheses in the Kritik
der reinen Vernunft, they still require a creative construction or productive act bringing the empirical or intuitive into a relationship with the a priori. Rather than displacing the problem of the synthesis of the two roots of human knowledge, the empirical
and the rational, they re-enact it at a different level.
Reason, Kant contended, has an interest in systematic unity as well as in determinateness (KrV A654/B682). In the Dialectic of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft Kant
turned directly to the seductions of pure reason as reason. Here he represented
reason in its purely transcendent use, as passing beyond the limits of possible experience, and concerning itself not with intuitions but only with concepts or rules of
understanding. In inference reason endeavors to reduce the varied and manifold
knowledge obtained through the understanding to the smallest number of principles
(universal conditions) and thereby achieve in it the highest possible unity (KrV
A305/B361). Transcendental principles Kant argued for three fundamental principles, those of homogeneity, specification and continuity of forms act as necessary rules of pure reason, in analogy to the rules of understanding, yet no transcendental deduction of them is possible. Reason presupposes the systematic unity of
nature as objectively valid and necessary, and the pursuit of this unity is a necessary
law of reason, following from its natural impulse; yet the transcendental principles
of systematic unity have only indeterminate validity, being unable to determine anything regarding objects, and are only subjective, regulative principles, being derived
from the interests of reason rather than from the constitution of objects (KrV A663


Kant (190813), Vol. 5, pp. 46970.

Buchdahl (1992), p. 326, 2225 and 2315. Compare Friedman (1992).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

7/B6915). The concepts of reason yielded from the forms of rational inference,
such as the absolute unity of the series of the conditions of appearances or idea of
the world as a whole, as transcendental ideas, act as foci imaginarius of unity for
the concepts of understanding, outside the bounds of finite knowledge (KrV
A644/B672). As the Antinomy of Pure Reason made clear, the concepts of reason
have legislative authority only for the metempirical domain.
In the Introduction of the Kritik der Urteilskraft, however, Kant represented the
systematic unity of knowledge and the relation between understanding and reason
differently. Here Kant discussed the system of nature as a problem for reflective
judgment rather than as a product of rational inference. Granted, the particular problem addressed in the Introduction of the third critique was that of the unity of particular empirical laws, rather than the unity of concepts and judgments of understanding as a whole as in the Dialectic of the first critique. But Kants argument was that
reflective judgment is only able to produce a conception of the unity of nature in
its empirical laws by effecting a relation between understanding and reason, between
the concept of nature and the concept of freedom. Given the endless possible diversity of empirical laws, the unity of nature appears contingent; yet for our empirical
cognition to cohere into a whole, this unity must be presupposed. Reflective judgment, moving between the experience of the diversity of particular laws and the
thought of the unity of nature, gives itself a principle as an instrument of mediation,
that nature with regard to these empirical laws is purposive for our cognitive powers
(KU 1834). The problem of resolving the diversity of empirical laws into a unity
of nature was thus but a part of the more ambitious task of the Introduction to the
Kritik der Urteilskraft, that of presenting a complete system of the cognitive powers
lying at the basis of philosophy. The critique of judgment was to examine the means
for connecting the two parts of philosophy, the critique of theoretical reason and the
critique of practical reason, into a whole. But whereas the concepts of the understanding and the concepts of reason have their respective domains of legislative authority,
judgment, in its reflection on the relation of understanding and reason, has none.
Judgment gives itself a transcendental principle of purposiveness to mediate between
the domains of the concept of nature and the concept of freedom. But whilst this
principle of purposiveness is necessary to effect a relation between these disparate
cognitive powers, it is only a subjective principle that judgment gives to itself for
its own use (KU 1769/2015). In effecting this mediation judgment acts technically or artistically, in terms of a principle that is universal yet indeterminate, rather
than schematically or determinately as it did under the laws of understanding in the
Kritik der reinen Vernunft (KU 21314). Indeed, with an eye to the Kritik der
a sthetischen Urteilskraft, Kant here described the mental power [Vermo gen des
Gemu ts] correspondent to the cognitive power [Erkenntnisvermo gen] of judgment as
the feeling of pleasure. Given that it is contingent that the order of nature should
be commensurate with our ability to grasp that order, a feeling of pleasure arises in
response to this harmony (KU 1958/1868). The only means for judgment to comprehend this feeling of harmony is through the principle that nature is purposive for
our cognitive powers, referring the order that the concept of nature cannot explain
to the uncognisable supersensible. But judgment is only able to use this principle

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


subjectively, as an instrument of its intermediation between understanding and reason, without objective reference or its own domain.
Hence an immense gulf [Kluft] is fixed between the domain of the concept of
nature, the sensible, and the domain of the concept of freedom, the supersensible,
. . . just as if they were two different worlds (KU 1756). Rather than shrinking
back from the abyss lurking at the heart of the critical philosophy, as Heidegger
contends, in the Kritik der Urteilskraft Kant fixed it directly in his sights and gave
it its own critique.94 But Kant now configured the abyss differently. In the Kritik
der reinen Vernunft, synthetic acts of judgment, as the basis of the categories of
understanding and as the application of those categories to phenomena, are dependent
upon the transcendental imagination mediating unconsciously between intuition and
intellect as their common unknown root. In the Kritik der Urteilskraft, the synthetic
acts of judgment, particularly as they relate the experience of organized bodies and
their conception, and empirical laws and the conception of their systematic unity,
and more generally as they relate understanding and reason, are effected reflectively
and consciously. But the basic problematic remains the same, if played out at different levels of cognitive processes synthetic acts of judgment require the mediation
of an abyss, the base of which eludes our cognitive powers (KU 176). In the first
critique, this problem was addressed only obscurely through the doctrine of the transcendental imagination, which remained marginal and homeless in the architectonic
of pure reason. If this problem was given a central place in the critique of judgment,
it nevertheless remains homeless, as judgment is given no domain of its own. But
Kant contended that if something [for the lack of a domain] cannot have a place
in the division of philosophy, it may still enter as a main part into the critique of
our pure cognitive power in general (KU 177).
It would be surprising if determinative judgments were not implicated in Kants
critique of judgment, for determinative as well as reflective judgments require
mediation of the gulf between intuition and intellect. In the Introduction to the Kritik
der Urteilskraft, Kant suggested that determinative judgments appear as unproblematic not simply because they are able to apply concepts given a priori to phenomena,
but also because they are unconscious and habitual. As discussed above, the necessity
Kant attributed to determinate judgments in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft applies
to pure concepts, which are necessary for our notion of objectivity and are necessary
constituents of our intellect. But it is the transcendental imagination that enacts the
relation between intuitions and intellect requisite for knowledge of objects, a relation


Heidegger made a conscious decision not to discuss the Kritik der Urteilskraft in his Kant und das
Problem der Metaphysik, no doubt thinking of it, as do most, strictly in terms of the Kritik der a sthetischen
Urteilskraft, in which the imagination plays a central role. In Findlays words: a new sort of Productive
imagination hovers over the whole phenomenal stage, not, like the old Productive Imagination, arranging
the stage and its properties before the curtain rises, but now presiding over the whole stage-action, and
regularly adding suggestive effects and lightings to the solid things and actions which it has put upon
the stage (Findlay, 1981, pp. 3278). In the Kritik der a sthetischen Urteilskraft Kant explicitly made the
imagination an instrument [Werkzeug] of reason (KU 269). The complex concerns of the Kritik der
a sthetischen Urteilskraft are, however, beyond the scope of this paper.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

that is thus established unconsciously and productively rather than with logical
necessity. Moreover, the categories themselves are based upon functions of judgment,
which in turn are products of the transcendental imagination, or, at least according
to some of Kants critics, simply reflections of the categorical prejudices of his time.
Thus determinative judgments appear certain and necessary because the synthetic
acts underlying them are unconscious, being effected by the transcendental imagination, and thus automatic. As Kant noted in the Introduction to the Kritik der
Urteilskraft, the concurrence of our percepts with the laws governed by universal
concepts in these judgments do not have the slightest effect upon our feeling of
pleasure, because the understanding proceeds here unintentionally. In reflective judgments, on the other hand, only the particular is given and judgment has to find the
universal for it (KU 179). They seem uncertain and contingent because these synthetic acts are effected only intentionally or reflexively, and so problematically; hence
the feeling of pleasure generated when these synthetic acts occur. Kant did note,
however, that this pleasure diminishes as a given reflective judgment becomes more
habitual and we no longer take notice of it (KU 187). These considerations make
clear that the difference between determinative and reflective judgment is best understood not through notions of logical certainty or necessity, but through the contrast
between unconscious and reflective productive syntheses.
Although few modern commentators read Kant thus, it was the way he was read
by two of his more competent contemporary readers, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. One of the central problems of Fichtes Wissenschaftslehre and Schellings System des transcendentalen Idealismus was the dialectic between unconscious imaginative syntheses and philosophical reflection.95 Their
ambition was to find a means of achieving intellectual awareness of the synthetic
acts of the productive imaginative. Intellectual intuition thus became an actual goal
for the human intellect rather than an ideal of pure thought, as it was for Kant.
Perhaps the reason Heidegger did not explore these connections was that he regarded
the imagination and understanding as distinct faculties. Fichte, in contrast, was highly
critical of his contemporaries who isolated the different faculties of Kants architectonic of reason, rather than seeing them as emphases within a dynamic of reason.96
The readings of Kant by Fichte and Schelling appear less radical if Kants critical
treatments of judgment in his first and third critiques are read against each other.
Few commentators, aside from Heidegger,97 have focused upon the unknown root
of intuition and intellect in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, the transcendental imagination, but it plays an essential role in all functions or acts of judgment, from the
constitution of the categories to determinate judgments of phenomena. The Kritik
der teleologischen Urteilskraft highlighted how in the judgment of organized bodies,
since no concepts are available a priori constituted from judgments on the basis
of unconscious acts of synthesis as in the case of the categories judgment must


Fichte (1964, 1992); Schelling (185661).

Fichte (1964), p. 260. See also Buchdahl (1992).
See also the treatment of the transcendental imagination in Findlay (1981) and Gibbons (1994).

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


reflexively produce a principle to guide its act of judgment. The Introduction to the
Kritik der Urteilskraft focused upon the immense gulf at the heart of critical philosophy, the lack of a domain for judgment. But in fact for Kant all acts of judgment
require the mediation of a problematic space that has no determinate ground. In some
cases, this mediation is conscious and reflexive, as in the judgment of organized
bodies or nature as a whole, or the judgment of the relation of the concept of reason
to the concept of understanding; in other cases, this mediation is unconscious, or
habitual, as in the judgment of mechanical bodies.
The judgments made regarding organized bodies and the reflections upon the
methods of their investigation at the end of the eighteenth century suggested similarities between Kants notions of determinative and reflective judgments. Kant
argued that in organized bodies, we are confronted with natural phenomena to which
we are not able unconsciously and automatically to apply a priori concepts, but
rather are forced to reflect upon which concepts are appropriate. Investigators such
as Blumenbach, through their experiments and through notions such as the Bildungstrieb, provided instruments assisting these reflective judgments, giving us
means for thinking concretely about how such natural products arise, imagining the
generative process by inscribing it in organic matter, without claiming that these
reflections are actually determinative of those products. Alexander von Humboldt
would add to these instruments for judging organic processes techniques from physics and chemistry. The conception of mechanical causality that Kant held determined
inorganic phenomena, constructed from the empirical sciences of his day, seemed
inadequate to account for the organic processes these instruments disclosed. But by
the end of the eighteenth century those mechanical sciences were being destabilized
by new studies in physics and chemistry, so that concepts that once seemed natural
and necessary were becoming the subject of critical reflections. Kant himself contended in Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft that it is a question for reflective
judgment which natural products can be explicated through mechanical causality,
thus acknowledging that mechanical causality cannot be applied determinately to all
natural products. The new studies of organic phenomena and their relations to inorganic phenomena, such as Humboldts, contributed to these reflections, and problematized a clear separation between mechanical and organic phenomena, and the
judgments appropriate to both.

4. Humboldts galvanic experiments

Humboldts galvanic experiments took place at the boundary between the organic
and inorganic. His studies of the phenomena of muscle contraction through the application of an electrical irritant led him beneath the galvanic appearances to an examination of all the alterations occurring in the components of excitable matter [erregbarer Materie] in which the expressions of life are grounded.98 He called his


Humboldt (1797); hereafter abbreviated as V (V 2: 52).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

investigation of the chemical alterations of combination [chemische Mischungsvera nderung] that occur during the vital functions in excitable matter a vital chemistry
[Vitale Chemie] (V 2: 41). In making his arguments for this important and new
branch of natural science, in clarifying its purpose, its principles and methods of
investigation, Humboldt referred to Kants texts relating his vital chemistry to
Kants definition of chemistry as an empirical rather than necessary science in the
Metaphysische Anfangsgru nde der Naturwissenschaft, as well as to Kants definition
of the living being in the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft, and keeping these
definitions within the strictures of critical philosophy as presented in the Kritik der
reinen Vernunft (V 1: 3768; 2: 4306, 4254). Although concerned specifically with
the alterations underlying muscle contraction, rather than with generation, Humboldt
was also familiar with Blumenbachs investigations of both normal and pathological
development (V 2: 148). Like Blumenbach, Humboldts understanding of the process
of muscle contraction and his conception of vital chemistry were developed through
his experimental investigations and his reflections upon the problematic of experimental investigation of organic processes. The extraordinary degree of interactivity
that he introduced in his experiments not only enabled him to demonstrate vividly
the phenomena in which he was interested, but also shaped his conception of organic
matter as continually active and under continuous stimulus.
When Humboldt began his experiments on stimulated muscle and nerve fibers in
1794, the problems and methods informing Hallers experiments from the 1750s still
dominated such inquiries in the German context. The primary questions posed by
Haller were as to which anatomical parts are irritable and which sensible, and
whether or not the nerves have a role in muscle contraction, and especially in the
action of the heart.99 One of the stimuli used by Haller in his experiments had been
electricity. The investigations in the early 1790s by Luigi Galvani, Professor of Anatomy and Obstetrics in Bologna, on the relationship of electricity to muscle contraction transformed the character of these inquiries. Galvani began by producing muscle
contractions in a prepared frogs leg with an exposed crural nerve by the application
of a metallic arc between the nerve and muscle. But Galvani then claimed that he
was able to produce muscle contractions without introducing any external source of
electricity, using a chain consisting solely of a nerve and muscle, arguing that he
had thus demonstrated the existence of a new form of electricity, animal electricity.
One of Galvanis most influential critics was Alessandro Volta, Professor of Physics
at Pavia and renowned investigator of electricity. He criticized Galvanis account of
the phenomena as requiring an implausible imbalance of electricity between the nerve
and muscle, and argued instead that only a chain of heterogeneous metals or other
substances could be a source of electricity. Voltas conclusions were countered by
a supporter of Galvani, Giovanni Aldini, a Professor of Physics in Bologna, in an
experiment with a purportedly homogeneous arc made of mercury.100 Galvanis work


Haller (1936, 175660).

Galvani (1953), Volta (1793, 1795), Pera (1992), Kipnis (1987) and Clarke and Jacyna (1987), pp.

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was debated in German journals as early as 1792.101 Humboldt began his own experiments on muscle contractions in frogs legs whilst Director of Mining for the Prussian
State, finding that the simple materials of these experiments allowed him to carry
out detailed investigations despite the extensive travelling his duties entailed. He
conceived his trials in terms of the controversies amongst physicists surrounding the
composition of the chain needed to produce the electrical stimulus for contractions,
rather than in terms of the debates stemming from Hallers experiments regarding
the role of nerves in muscle contraction. Accordingly, he paid particular attention
to the quality of the materials used in his experiments. During his travels he was
able to visit Volta in Cuomo in 1795, witnessing his experiments and learning his
technique of moistening the nerves with oleum tartari per deliquem to increase their
conducting force.102 Haller had sought to minimize pathological conditions and the
variation in irritability under changed conditions, being concerned to devise a technique to read the evidence for the irritability of a part clearly and thus to establish
a determinate and objective result. But in pharmacological-toxicological studies, discussed in the German journals from the 1780s, attention was directed to the effects
of chemical substances on organic bodies, and variations in these between different
species of animals and between humans and animals.103 Humboldt also drew upon
these studies, and examined in detail the effects of different chemical substances on
the reactions of his nerve-muscle preparations. A complex mixture of techniques
derived from physiology, physics and pharmacological chemistry thus informed
Humboldts galvanic experiments.
Humboldts experiments culminated in 1797 in an extraordinary work, Versuche
u ber die gereizte Muskel- und Nervenfaser, nebst Vermuthungen u ber den chemischen Prozess des Lebens in der Thier- und Pflanzenwelt 980 pages of detailed
descriptions of his experiments and ideas on vital chemistry. He began by attending
to the conditions of the inorganic materials used in his experiments; following Volta
and Aldini he altered the kinds and arrangements of the metals used in the arc
between the nerve and muscle, and examined how alterations in the qualities of the
metals affected their effectiveness. He found that breathing on or applying vaporizing
fluids to the surface of one of the connecting metals could turn an ineffective arc
into an effective one. He also explored how hitting, heating or rubbing the metals
affected their effectiveness (V 1: 7683, 1023, 23540).104 He then turned his attention to the condition of the organic materials, and how it affects their receptivity
to stimulus [Reizempfa nglichkeit], criticizing other investigators for overlooking this
factor. His Versuche described his many experiments varying the conditions of those
materials through the application of various chemicals, as well as heat, light and
magnetism. He found that he could increase the excitability of nerves through the
Initial reports were made in the Medicinisch-Chiriurgische Zeitung and Journal der Erfindungen in
1792. By the fall of that year, F. A. C. Gren devoted an entire issue of his influential Journal der Physik
to galvanic phenomena. On the introduction of galvanism into Germany, see Trumpler (1992).
See Humboldt (1796), pp. 17283.
Maehle (1992), pp. 3742.
See Humboldt (1795).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

application of alkalines and the excitability of muscles through acids, and thus chemically control the vitality of the nerve-muscle preparation (V 1:22). He also increasingly attended to the condition of the frogs used in his experiments. That some
specimens were more excitable than others was noted by many engaged in galvanic
experiments, and both Galvani and Volta recommended the choice of fresh and lively
frogs. But Humboldt made the quality of the specimens used a central condition for
an effective trial, and detailed the significance to the outcome of each trial of the
differences in ages, strength, health and sexes of the frogs used, the variations
between the parts of the frogs, and the influences of nutrition, climate and mating
season (V 1: 245, 34, 1356, 1734). Through attention to the natural excitability
of the organic parts, and by increasing their excitability artificially through the application of chemicals, Humboldt found that he could produce contractions in chains
others had declared ineffective. He was able to stimulate muscle movement with
chains of heterogeneous as well as homogeneous metals, and in chains consisting
solely of organic parts. He even repeated Galvanis experiment, producing contractions in a chain consisting solely of a nerve and muscle.
In Humboldts experiments there is no clear boundary between the experimental
instruments and their object. The experimental conditions affecting the outcome of
an experiment penetrate so deeply into the organic materials that it is difficult to
distinguish them from those materials. Humboldt actually came to see the electrical
activity stimulating muscle contraction as occurring within nerve-muscle preparations, thus removing the need for an extraneous stimulus, and as occurring in a
manner analogous to that occurring in apparatus generating electrical current. He
argued that a galvanic fluid flows from the nerve into the muscle to produce a contraction, with the influx of galvanic fluid back into the nerve stimulating it to this
action. It is the chain used in an experiment that affects the flow of the galvanic
fluid. If the immediate flow of fluid is hindered, and thus allowed to accumulate, on
finally breaking through the hindrance it produces a greater influx of fluid into the
nerve and muscle, and hence stronger contractions. The flow of galvanic fluid is
hindered more in chains with heterogeneous metals than with homogeneous metals,
explaining why the former stimulates the strongest contractions. The fluid moves
most easily through animal parts, explaining why purely organic chains produce only
weak contractions (V 1: 390400, 4178). Humboldt also contended that in a condition of heightened excitability his nerve-muscle preparation works as a highly
sensitive instrument, which could be used to measure the effects of chemicals on
animal organs or to announce to chemists which substances they will discover. It
could be used as a living Anthrascope to indicate the presence of coal (V 1: 184
93). It was an instrument that Humboldt could calibrate with astonishing accuracy
after his many experiments, by selecting his specimens with care and fine tuning
them through the application of appropriate chemicals.
Humboldts experimental instruments also penetrated deep into the experimental
subject in his striking self-experiments. The application of an artificially generated
electrical current to human sensory organs and other parts of the human body had
become common during the course of the eighteenth century as a part of a broad
interest in electrical phenomena, out of curiosity regarding the novel sensations and

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


spectacular effects produced, in the hope of medical treatments, and as extensions

of physiological experiments on animals.105 In his self-experiments Humboldt set
out to examine how his sensations of the effects produced by an electrical stimulus
compared with the signs he had read in his experiments on animals. To this end, he
had a wound prepared on his back, by forming and opening a blister, and different
galvanic chains applied. He noted which of his back muscles contracted, and also
the sensations of shocks, pain and burning, and how these varied with different
arrangements of metallic arcs. He also noted that the fluid in the wound changed
from a clear or white to a dark red colour, and inflamed the wound and the parts
of his back with which it came in contact. Humboldt then compared the effects
produced in himself to those of the experiments made on frogs, by laying a frog leg
in his back wound, galvanizing the wound, and having assistants observe the leg
hop at the same time as he felt shocks (V 1: 335, 30836). Humboldt even devised
a technique for including his whole body in the galvanic chain, by placing a zinc
disc in his mouth and a silver rod in his anus. This experiment produced the heftiest
stimulus for sensations and convulsions a pain in the abdomen, increasing
activity of the stomach and alterations of the excrement were seen to follow (V 2:
332). He also compared these experiments on himself with similar ones on animals.
By galvanizing a bird which had just stopped breathing, for example, by connecting
its anus and tongue in a chain, Humboldt was able to revive the signs of life, if only
briefly. In further variations of these self-experiments, Humboldt galvanized his eyes,
teeth and tongue, and linked his tongue and nose in a single chain, attempting to
use such experiments to distinguish different sensory and motor nerves. In all these
experiments, Humboldt carefully noted his sensations as well as the physiological
and chemical alterations of his body, making his body into both an instrument and
an object of observation.
What is particularly notable in Humboldts experiments is the extraordinary degree
of Humboldts interaction with the organic phenomena he was studying, going far
beyond the techniques of experimental intervention introduced by Wolff and Blumenbach. Humboldt did not just intervene in organic processes or prod the organic
material to demonstrate its activities, but used physical and chemical tools to penetrate into his nerve-muscle preparations and become a participant in generating
muscle contraction. In his self-experiments, he actually became part of the galvanic
chain, both as an instrument recording the effects of the experiment and as the
material affected. By attending to the various factors that affected muscle contraction,
he not only came to regard the nerve-muscle preparation as a highly sensitive instrument but also claimed that each stimulus, each application of physical or chemical
agents, indeed each experimental act, altered its receptivity to stimulus. He claimed
that the excitability of an organic part is continually changing through external stimuli, including experimental acts, so that no experiment can be repeated. As Humboldt
set up particular experiments, choosing and preparing his specimens carefully, and

See Pera (1992), pp. 325; Rowbottom and Susskind (1984); Schaffer (1992); Kipnis (1987), pp.
10911, 119.


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

selecting particular stimuli, he was able to inscribe in the organic matter his conception of its action. But he was also struck by how the organic matter eluded his
complete control, how it continually changed under the slightest alterations of conditions. Humboldts reflections upon the complex interactions between the experimenter, the experimental process and its instruments, and the object of the experiment led him to attend more carefully to his experimental techniques. They also led
him to conceive organic parts not merely as receptive to stimulus, but as uninterruptedly stimulated (V 2: 5960). Humboldt concluded that underlying phenomena such
as muscle contraction lie complex alterations of form and combination [Form- und
Mischungsvera nderungen], which are the common result of all components of
organic matter (V 2: 111), and which continually respond to extraneous stimuli.
Thus, as was the case with Wolff and Blumenbach, Humboldts experiments acted
not only as instruments to display the organic phenomena in which he was interested,
tools which shaped the vital processes manifested, but they also acted as instruments
of judgments, tools shaping his thinking about how those processes occurred.
Humboldts reflections upon his experimental techniques made him concerned
about the subjectivity of his judgments based upon them. In introducing his experiments upon himself, he cautioned that experiments on sensation must be made with
great care, for the fantasy and the expectant opinion with which one proceeds with
the experiment easily lead to deception (V 1: 307). He accordingly introduced techniques designed to reduce the subjectivity of these experiments. Witnesses to the
experiments on his back could testify to the alterations in the fluids in the wound
as well as the muscle contractions of the back muscles correspondent to Humboldts
sensations. To make judgments of the phenomena in a particular experiment more
universal, Humboldt had a wire run from the wound on his back over the tongue of
one or more persons. As Humboldt felt a hefty burning and throbbing in his back,
a second person claimed to taste acid (V 1: 168, 3326). But Humboldts techniques
of extending the instrumentality of his experiments deep into the organic material
study as well as into the experimental subject, although helping to materialize or
make more concrete his processes of judgment, did not make his judgments more
objective or determinate. His highly interactive experiments were instances of reflective judgments, reflective judgments whose subjective character was compounded
by the easily excited and continually altering material on which he experimented
and by the inclusion of the experimenter as both the subject and the object of his
Humboldt appealed directly to Kant in attempting to specify the principles underlying the science of the Mischungsvera nderungen occurring during vital functions
in excitable matter vital chemistry. He concurred with Kants arguments in the
Preface to the Metaphysische Anfangsgru nde der Naturwissenschaft that chemistry
is an empirical science, lacking the necessary or mathematical laws of mechanical
sciences (V 1: 3768). His conception of vital chemistry even lacked the precision
of the chemistry of his day, for Humboldt was adamant that his inquiries demonstrated that Form- und Mischungsvera nderungen of organic bodies could not be
reduced to the laws of affinity [Verwandschaft]. But he also circumscribed his
enquiries from considerations of how immaterial mental forces might affect organic

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


matter. Whilst not denying such effects, Humboldt restricted vital chemistry to
appearances and excluded speculations over transcendental objects, in accordance
with the strictures on knowledge that Kant set out in his Kritik der reinen Vernunft.
His experiments on nerve-muscle preparations of severed frogs legs were clearly
placed within these bounds (V 2: 4254). Vital chemistry, concerned with the Formund Mischungsvera nderungen of organic matter, was to be concerned with what lay
between the science of mechanics and the speculations of psychology. Whilst Humboldt used the term Lebenskraft in the Versuche, he did so similarly to Kants use
of the term Bildungstrieb, not as a single force responsible for vital effects, but as
a synthetic expression of the working together of material forces, of the perpetual
activity and exchange of materials underlying vital processes, the particulars of which
we are unable to know determinately. In concluding that living matter was to be
distinguished from nonliving matter precisely in this working together of elements
in Form- und Mischungsvera nderungen, Humboldt stated his support for Kants
arguments in the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft that in living beings each
part remains a whole, and all is reciprocally a means and an end (V 1: 435; 2: 134
6, 4306).106 But this definition of life and Humboldts definition of vital chemistry
were epistemological rather than metaphysical, critically based upon judgments
guided by his experiments. That he blurred the boundaries between the organic and
inorganic in his galvanic experiments was the result of his employing experimental
techniques or instruments derived from chemistry and physics as well as physiology.
If attempting to make his judgments of these processes precise through his extensive
experiments, Humboldt also acknowledged their subjective character. Interacting
with the phenomena, moving reflectively between appearances and their conception,
his instruments guided his judgments, but left them indeterminate.

5. Conclusion
There are many ways to read Kant, and the reading offered here is not presumed
to have a priority over others. What it does offer is a historical reading of the Kritik
der Urteilskraft in particular its Introduction and the Kritik der teleologischen
Urteilskraft as a contribution to reflections on the epistemology of experiment
generated by new investigations of organic processes around 1790. It also offers a
reading of the problem of judgment in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft in light of the
critique of judgment in the Kritik der Urteilskraft.
In this reading, those experimenting on organic processes in the late eighteenth
century encountered an epistemological problem similar to that critically examined
in Kants Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft. Investigators studying complex processes of generation and muscle contraction, such as Wolff, Blumenbach and Hum-


Humboldt contrasted this interpretation to that of his 1793 work in which he conceived the
Lebenskraft to be an actual, if unknown, cause which prevents elements from following their natural
attractive forces (V 2: 435). See Humboldt (1794).


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

boldt, encountered phenomena of which they lacked a determinate conception. Their

problem was that the organic and chemical alterations underlying successive stages
of these vital processes could not be made manifest. Their experimental interactions
with these phenomena acted as instruments to guide their judgments of them, by
inscribing in the organic matter their thinking of how these processes occurred, and
making their judgments more explicit and concrete, if still leaving them indeterminate. Concepts such as the vis essentialis, the Bildungstrieb or Lebenskraft represented synthetic statements of these organic and experimental acts, best understood
epistemologically rather than metaphysically. Kants critical reflections upon judgment in the Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft made the synthetic activity of
reflective judgment its indeterminate basis and the need for subjective principles
as instruments to guide its synthetic activity a conscious, explicit, concrete problem. Wolffs, Blumenbachs and Humboldts critical reflections upon the problematic
of experimentation on organic bodies contributed to, and drew upon, Kants critique
of the judgment of organized nature.
Judgment in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft as well as the Kritik der Urteilskraft
is a problem of a synthetic act that cannot be made logically certain and that lacks
a determinate basis. Kant introduced various instruments to aid judgments a principle of purposiveness, the Bildungstrieb, schemata, rules, even concrete images
but these instruments could not eliminate the problematic character of these synthetic
acts. Even determinative judgments, which bring a priori concepts to bear on
phenomena to make objective and determinate knowledge possible, are dependent
upon unconscious acts of the transcendental imagination to traverse the abyss
between intuition and intellect, the basis of which eludes our cognitive powers. Moreover, the pure concepts are themselves based upon the functions of judgment, and
thus also depend upon the transcendental imagination. In reflective judgments, in
which only particular phenomena are given and judgment has to find a concept for
them, the indeterminate basis and subjective character of these synthetic acts
becomes a problem for critical reflection. The primary difference between determinative and reflective judgment is thus that of reflexive as opposed to unconscious
synthetic acts. In effect, Kants considerations of reflective judgment, stimulated by
new experiments on organic processes, bring to attention the problematic synthetic
aspects of judgment that are not critically examined in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft,
but are left to some unknown, unconscious activity of the imagination.
How is Kants preoccupation with teleology in the Kritik der Urteilskraft to be
understood in the light of this reading of the critiques of judgment? Kants Copernican Revolution was prompted by the conviction that no progress in knowledge can
be made on the supposition that our concepts must conform to phenomena, and
suggested that better progress might be made on the supposition that phenomena
conform to our concepts, that reason only has insight into what it produces after a
plan of its own. Kant was making a reasonable argument that we can only know
what has meaning for our forms of cognition, but his language suggests a sense of
amazement that we can know anything at all, that phenomena and conception can
ever be brought into harmony. At the heart of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft is the
problem of the common, unknown root of our percepts and concepts; that the relation

J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131


of percepts and concepts depends upon an act of synthesis that is unconscious, an

act of the transcendental imagination, unknown and unknowable, does little to
remove this sense of amazement. In the Kritik der Urteilskraft Kant highlighted the
contingency of the harmony of phenomena and concepts in the judgment of
organized systems, the sense of amazement that such a harmony should exist and
the pleasure that it brings, and accordingly the apparent purposiveness of those systems for our intellect. Of course, if investigators were simply inscribing their concepts into natural phenomena, constraining nature to answer questions of their own
design, the purposiveness of those phenomena to their concepts would not be surprising, and would not require a higher reason. But in the experiments on organic processes described in this paper, the specific materiality of an experimental setup often
provided an inscription in the organic matter that was exterior to the experimenters
intention and control, unanticipated and unstable. Moreover, these experiments were
often purposively highly reflexive, designed not to constrain these processes into
predetermined patterns of development but to prod or stimulate them into spontaneous reactions. The interactive character of these experiments only made the judgment of these organic processes more problematic and indeterminate. Wolff, Blumenbach and Humboldt left indeterminate the relation of these processes to a
supersensible first origin or final end, restricting their investigations to phenomena
that could be known. But they also became increasingly convinced that the organic
processes they were studying could not be explicated in terms of the concepts of
eighteenth-century mechanical science. Indeed, by the 1790s the predominance of
mechanical categories was being destabilized by new experiments in physics and
chemistry, experiments that could also be applied to the study of organic processes
as Humboldts galvanic experiments indicate, thus blurring the boundary between
the organic and inorganic and of the judgments regarding them. Kants representation of the judgment of the purposiveness of organic bodies reflects the limitations
of the understanding of organic bodies at the end of the eighteenth century. That
the principle of purposiveness is a regulative principle of judgment and not constitutive of phenomena was repeatedly emphasized by Kant. It was conceived by reference
not to a supersensible cause but to a supersensible intellect, an intuitive intellect
in which phenomena simply are as they are thought. But for us, with our limited
understanding, from the partial perspective of the revolving earth in the Copernican
system, the relation between phenomena and their conception is perplexing, an indeterminate act of reflective judgment. The destabilization of the mechanical sciences
and their conceptual categories at the end of the eighteenth century would also make
the kinds of determinative judgments presented in the Kritik der reinen Vernunft less
automatic unconscious acts and also problems for reflection. As Kant acknowledged
in his Kritik der teleologischen Urteilskraft, the question of which natural products
can be explicated through mechanical causality is a problem for reflective judgment;
investigations of organic bodies led him to the conclusion that mechanical causality
cannot be applied determinately to all natural products. The reflective judgments and
experimental interactions concerned with organic bodies in the German context at
the close of the eighteenth century thus contributed to a problematization of prior
views of nature. If the resulting representations of organic processes did not simply


J. Steigerwald / Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 33 (2002) 79131

conform to the investigators designs, they were shaped by the new kinds of questions
being asked and the new methods used to ask them, and judgments made through
reflections upon them.

I am indebted to several colleagues and friends who have read this essay and
offered helpful advice: Ian Balfour, Lorraine Code, Ernie Hamm, Trevor Levere,
Bernie Lightman and Robert Richards. The research for this essay was done whilst
a Visiting Scholar at the Max-Planck-Institut fu r Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin
and at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of
Cambridge. I am grateful for the resources and intellectual stimulus provided by
both institutions. I would also like to thank the Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for the
financial support making the research and writing of this paper possible. Unless
otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

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