You are on page 1of 20




ABSTRACT. This essay examines Kant's idea of organic teleology. The first two sections
are devoted to Kant's analysis and justification of teleological conceptions in biology.
Both the idea of teleology.arid Kant's anti-reductionism are derived from basic elements
of his 'critical' treatment of the human intellect. The third section discusses the limitations
Kant places on accounts of origins in the life world. It is argued that the limitations Kant
places on accounts of the origins of species do not follow from his idea of teleology. The
final section briefly outlines the fate of the Kantian formulation of teleology in the
nineteenth century.

In The History of Creation, the humbly titled systematic popularization

of a 'Darwinian' world view, Ernst Haeckel notes that the importance
of Darwin's theory is that it allows the extension of mechanical explanations to organic beings:
All that was done before Darwin to establish a natural mechanical conception of the
origin of animals and plants has been in vain, and until his time no theory gained a
general recognition. Darwin's theory first succeeded in doing this, and thus has rendered
an immense service. For the idea of the unity of organic and inorganic nature is now
firmly established; and that branch of natural science, which had longest and most
obstinately opposed mechanical conception and explanation, viz. the science of the
structure of animate forms, is launched onto identically the same road towards perfection
as that along which all the rest of the natural sciences are travelling. (Haeckel, I, p. 22)

For Haeckel, Darwin's discovery proved the non-existence of "purposes

in nature" for all but "those persons who observe phenomena in the
most superficial manner" (Haeckel, I, p. 19). A mere nine years after
the appearance of On the Origin of Species, Haeckel would insist that
Darwin's theory is not a hypothesis. It is as fundamental and certain
as Newton's concept of gravity (Haeckel, I, p. 27).
While this endorsement of the finality and completeness of the mechanical conquest of biological methodology might be expected from the
speculative and enthusiastic Haeckel, his was by no means an isolated
opinion. A wide variety of scientists shared his enthusiasm. In the eyes
of its German admirers, Darwinism allowed a completely mechanical
account of the origins and structures of organisms, eliminating once
Synthese 91: 9-28, 1992.
1992 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.




and for all appeals to non-mechanical forces in biology. Writing in

1869, H e r m a n n yon Helmholtz credits Darwin with having saved biology from two teleological mistakes:
Before the time of Darwin, only two theories concerning organic purposiveness were in
vogue, both of which pointed to the interference of free intelligence in the course of
natural processes. O n the one hand it was held - in accordance with vitalistic theory -

that the vital processes were continuously directed by a life soul; on the other, recourse
was had to belief in the act of supernatural intelligencein order to account for the origin
of every living species . . . . Darwin's theory contains an essentially new and fruitful line
of thought. It shows how adaptation in the structure of organisms can result from the
blind rule of a law of nature without any intervention of intelligence. (Helmholtz, 1971,
pp. 237-38)
The claims made by both Haeckel and Helmholtz regarding the
relation of Darwinism and teleology are interesting as much for what
they ignore as for what they propose. G e r m a n biology in the half
century preceding the publication of On the Origin of Species was rich
in discoveries in embryology, morphology, cell theory, etc., and largely
teleological in its basic explanatory concepts. For the British tradition,
teleology was concerned primarily with the utility of forms imposed on
organisms by the Creator. In contrast with the British, the G e r m a n
tradition had adopted an idea of teleology concerned with internal
powers of organization in organisms. A teleological framework served
as an integral component of biological investigation within which mechanical, chemical, and other non-teleological accounts could take place.
This tradition found its philosophical justification in the work of Immanuel Kant, a justification explicitly adopted by a significant segment of
the scientific community in Germany. ~ That Darwinism should have
swept aside teleological notions dominant in the G e r m a n tradition is
puzzling. Unlike the dominant British idea of teleology, it is not theological. It is a way of interpreting the interrelation of structures and
processes in organisms, not an explanation of how organisms originated.
T h e r e is no a priori reason that it must be incompatible with the kind
of account of species origination offered by Darwin.
In what follows I will detail Kant's idea of organic teleology. The
first two sections are devoted to Kant's analysis and justification of
teleological conceptions in biology. The third section discusses the limitations Kant places on accounts of origins in the life world. I argue that
the limitations Kant places on accounts of the origins of species do not




follow from his idea of teleology. The final section briefly outlines the
fate of the Kantian formulation of teleology in the nineteenth century.
The predominant idea of teleology in eighteenth-century Germany concerns the internal structures and forces which account for the unique
unity of living things. Following Leibniz and Wolff, this tradition accepted a universal mechanism of nature at the phenomenal level, but
rejected the atomic theory of matter as the ultimate explanation of the
unity of the material world. Instead, a dynamic theory in which the
mechanical aspects of matter are grounded in non-extended, vital centers of force, or 'monads', was advocated. In addition, much eighteenthcentury German biology is unashamedly vitalistic, focusing on differences rather than similarities between the organic and inorganic. 2
Kant's treatment of biology grew out of this tradition. He begins his
analysis of organisms by noting those features which seem to set them
apart from the inorganic realm. Organic entities are distinguished from
inorganic beings in two ways: first, according to the peculiar formative
activities of living things, and, second, according to the arrangement
of part and whole in an organism.
Living beings, according to Kant, have two distinct formative properties. First, they produce (i.e., reproduce) themselves in other members
of their own species (Kant, 1951, pp. 371/217). 3 Second, an organic
being produces itself as an individual member of its species according
to the plan of that species, i.e., it grows by incorporating matter into
its form according to the plan or 'idea' which guides its development
(Kant, 1951, pp. 372/218). The formative power is also apparent in
the healing power of plants and animals.
The formative powers of a living thing lead Kant to characterize its
unique formal characteristic as that of being both cause and effect of
itself (Kant, 1951, pp. 372/218). Its parts are maintained through their
mutual interaction. The whole of the organism produced by this interaction is the point of reference through which the activities of the parts
must be understood:
For a thing to be a natural purpose, in the first place it is necessary that its parts (as
regards their presence and their form) are possible only through their reference to the
whole, For the thing itself is a purpose, and so c o m p r e h e n d e d u n d e r a concept or an
idea which must determine a priori all that is contained in it . . . . F o r a body, then, which



is to be judged in itseff and its internal possibility as a natural purpose, it is requisite that
its parts mutually depend upon one another both as to their form and in their combination,
and so produce a whole by their own causality . . . . (Kant, 1951, pp. 373/219-20)

The guiding principle in judging organic form and processes is that

nothing in an organism is purposeless; everything is organically interrelated. The unity of organisms is understood by Kant teleologicaUy. The
processes and structures in organisms essentially require reference to
the goal or end that is achieved through them. This goal is the whole
organism which is either reproduced, produced, or maintained by the
structure or process.
I t is helpful here to contrast Kant's analysis of organic teleology with
his account of mechanical process in nature. A change is understood
mechanically if the state of affairs resulting from the change is seen to
be the result of the interaction of the parts and the external forces
acting on those parts:
If we consider a material whole, according to its form, as a product of the parts with
their powers and faculties of combining with one another (as well as bringing in foreign
material), we represent to ourselves a mechanical mode of explanation. (Kant, 1951, pp.

Changes through mechanical causation do not alter the nature of an

existing substance; they merely move what already exists. Mechanical
accounts of movement represent a change as determined through
grounds external to the thing moved. They do not appeal to the,internal
form of the object changed or make reference to the end of the process
as the cause of the change. Rather, they locate the cause of change in
events which precede the change:
Causal combination as thought merely by the understanding is a connection constituting
an ever progressive series (of causes and effects), and things which as effects presuppose
others as causes cannot be reciprocally at the same time causes of these. This sort of
causal combination is what we call that of effective causes. (Kant, 1951, pp. 3721219)

Teleological accounts of change, on the other hand, require reference

to a systematic conception of the whole which is both the result of the
change and the end of the process of change:
Experience leads our judgement to the concept of an objective and material purposiveness, i.e. the concept of a purpose of nature, only when we have to judge the relation
o f cause to effect which we find ourselves able to apprehend as legitimate only by
presupposing the idea of the effect of the causality as the fundamental condition, in the
cause, of the possibility of the effect. (Kant, 1951, pp. 408/212-13)



Explanations of purposive properties in organisms require both a systematic conception of a whole not found in mechanical explanations
and a reversal of the mechanical order of cause and effect.
Kant's account of the mode of production and type of form found in
organisms leads naturally to two sets of questions. First, why does he
think his analysis applies to anything? Could it not be that the entities
we take to be organically structured are really nothing more than
extraordinarily complex machines? Is the use of teleological explanations nothing more than a declaration of ignorance? Second, even if it
turns out that the organic unity of living things is irreducible, what does
this mean? How does this differ from a simple vitalism, the positing of
a set of forces unique to living beings alongside the mechanical forces
of nature? What role does the idea of organic unity in riving things play
in scientific investigation? What is the relationship between unique
organic aspects of plants and animals and chemical, electric, and mechanical processes through which they achieve various purposes?
These two sets of questions are obviously related. The first set demands a defense of teleology against reductionism. The second asks
for a closer specification of the idea of organic teleology itself. The
kind of defense against reductionism that Kant offers naturally depends
on the exact specification of his idea of organic teleology and its role
in our conception of living organisms. For Kant, however, the two
issues are less closely related than might be expected. Surprisingly, to
a large degree his argument against reductionism leaves open the question of the exact specification of organic teleology. His idea of teleology,
consequently, proves to be frustratingly difficult to pin down while, at
the same time, it turns out to be rich in offering suggestions of ways
in which teleological accounts of organisms might be construed. In
what follows we shall deal first with the reductionism issue.
Kant's response to the reductionist is complex. He notes that we
have no a priori knowledge of the existence of natural organisms. The
existence of purposes in nature is not necessary to the idea of nature
in general:
[T]hat the things of nature serve one another as means to purposes and that their
possibilityis onlycompletelyintelligiblethroughthis kind of causality- for this we have



absolutely no ground in the universal idea of nature, as the complex of objects of sense.
(Kant, 1951, pp. 360/205)

We can imagine a world entirely devoid of organisms. Furthermore,

the idea of an organism is not derived from experience:
[E]xperience itself cannot prove to us the actuality of this [organic unity]; there must
have preceded a rationalizing subtlety which only sportively introduces the concept of a
purpose into the nature of things, but which does not derive it from objects or from their
empirical cognition. (Kant, 1951, pp. 359/205)

We have no direct access to either special powers by which organisms

achieve their ends or unique 'inner' natures in which such powers
would reside. The notion of judging a natural object teleologically is
introduced by Kant in an almost apologetic tone:
[T]he teleological act of judgement is rightly brought to bear, at least problematically,
upon the investigation of nature, but only in order to bring it under principles of observation and inquiry according to the analogy with the causality of purpose, without any
pretense to explain it thereby. (Kant, 1951, pp. 360/206; Kant's emphasis)

The only way in which we can even remotely hope to gain an understanding of organic unity in nature is through our own experience of
purposive activity in our own mental and moral life. We have no reason
to assume that there really is anything like this mode of causality in
nature itself. A n y analogy between human art and organic teleology is
at best a crude one. In our own purposive activity we are incapable of
forming matter in any but an external manner. We can organize it
mechanically, but we cannot endow it with the productive capabilities
of organisms (Kant, 1951, pp. 375/221). We are able only to "guide
our investigation about objects of this kind by a distant analogy with our
own causality according to p u r p o s e s . . . " (Kant, 1951, pp. 375/222).
However, the human purpose which gives us the best idea of systematic
organic unity is not a craft or art involving the shaping of matter to fit
our purposes. Rather, it is the systematic use of reason in theory
construction (Kant, 1951, pp. 383-84/230-31).
Given the problematic nature of teleological judgments in biology,
one might wonder why Kant insists that we must make them. The
answer to that question turns our attention from nature, the object
judged, to the intellect, the faculty of judgment. The human intellect
for Kant is characterized by its lack of a direct intuitive faculty for
grasping the objects of its thought. 4 We achieve no insight into the




objects of nature merely by thinking. Our intellectual grasp of the

objects of nature is discursive. We must move from part to part as we
try to piece together a coherent picture of the whole of the object. Any
conception of a whole that emerges from our reflection on nature is
structured by the way that ideas hold together and thematize the movement of the intellect.
This general characterization of the predicament of the human intellect is for Kant the foundation of any interpretation of natural objects,
whether its fundamental structure is interpreted teleologically o r mechanically. In one sense all phenomena must be accounted for mechanically in tracing their origins:
According to the constitution of our understanding a real whole is regarded only as the
effect of the concurrent motive powers of the parts. (Kant, 1951, pp. 407/256)

This is because material objects must be given to us phenomenally. The

essential characteristic of mechanical accounts of matter, the externality
of the moving forces, is tied to this aspect of the way in which objects
are 'given'.
The transcendental idealist.., considers this matter and even its inner possibility to be
an appearance merely; and appearance, if separated from our sensibility is nothing.
Matter is with him, therefore, only a species of representations (intuition), which are
called external, not as in themselves external, but because they relate perception to space
in which all things are external to one another, while space itself is in us. (Kant, 1929,
A 370)

Because our intellect is not directly intuitive, we lack insight into any
'inner' nature of the objects of the senses. The very notion of an
absolutely inner nature of matter is a "mere phantom" (Kant, 1929,
B 333), and all explanations of change must be made provisionally in
terms of the motions of the parts of matter (Kant, 1970, pp. 543/105).
If the spatial dimension of matter is responsible for the external
relatedness of its 'parts', it is the temporal dimension of our consciousness of objects which is responsible for the order and direction of
mechanical ideas of causality. In order to determine that an event has
taken place, we must locate it in a series of events. We do this by
applying a rule which shows that the event in question is related to
earlier events in such a way that the series is irreversible. Events are
related to earlier events in such a way that it is understood to be a real
change in appearances rather than just a subjective series of perceptions
in us. 5



The determination that something has changed in the material world

does not explain why it happened. The phenomenal characteristics of
matter simply are not rich enough to allow the construction of mechanical explanations of change. Once an event has been located in the field
of appearances as an objective happening, it is still an open question
what sort of explanation ought to be offered for the event. Explanation
requires a principle which fixes the order of the series in the change as
necessary. In mechanical accounts, the explanatory principles are a set
of fundamental forces out of which matter is 'constructed'.
Contrary to much received opinion, Kant considers both the idea of
fundamental forces and the mechanical interpretations of phenomena
that rest on them to be problematical. Fundamental forces simply are
not phenomenal. They are the basic theoretical concepts which make
possible the construction of the phenomenal character of matter. Fundamental forces are not derived from experience:
The concept of matter is reduced to nothing but moving forces; this could not be expected
to be otherwise because in space no activity and no change can be thought of but mere
motion. But who claims to comprehend the possibility of fundamental forces? They can
only be assumed, if they, inevitably belong to a concept concerning which there can be
proved that it is a fundamental concept not derivable from any other . . . . (Kant, 1970,
pp. 524/78-79)

On the other hand, fundamental forces cannot be justified a priori since

we cannot a priori eliminate any of a number of theories about the
fundamental constitution of matter (Kant, 1970, pp. 523-35/77-94).
Such forces are assumed because they allow the mathematical construction of matter in ways most in accord with principles of parsimony and
rational coherence (Kant, 1970, pp. 498/42-43). Our only direct idea
of active forces comes from experience of purposes in our conscious
activity. The notion of fundamental natural forces is a creation of
The relatively fundamental powers [in nature] must in turn be compared with one another,
with a view to discovering their harmony, and so bring them nearer to a single, radical,
that is, absolutely fundamental power. But this unity of reason is purely hypothetical.
We do not assert that such a power should be met with, but we must seek it in the interests
of reason, that is, of establishing principles for the manifold rules which experience may
supply us. (Kant, 1929, B 677-78)

The idea of fundamental forces furthers our comprehension of the

systematic unity and coherence of nature. It provides a valuable guide

K A N T , T E L E O L O G Y , AND E V O L U T I O N


in theory construction and testing. Yet it must b e interpreted as an

ideal grounded in our rational activity and not as principle of nature
itself (Kant, 1929, B 699).
Kant's idealistic account of fundamental forces means that he is
unable to offer an a priori account of the scope and limits of mechanics.
If the unconditional validity of the laws of mechanics could be established, we would have to rule out the possibility of organic connections
in nature (Kant, 1951, pp. 412/260). However, since we lack insight
into the inner ground of the reality of nature, both the mechanical and
the organic are, from the point of view of our intellect, contingent.
Mechanical explanations are neither final nor complete:
The privilege of aiming at a merely mechanical method of explanation of all natural
products is in itself quite unlimited, but the faculty of attaining thereto is by the constitution of our understanding, so far as it has to do with things as natural purposes, not
only very limited, but also clearly bounded. (Kant, 1951, pp. 417/266)

No matter how far we succeed in finding mechanical accounts of events,

teleological accounts of the same events are still possible.
The same limitation of our intellect which is responsible for our
inability to determine the limits of mechanical causality is also the root
of the very idea of organic unity itself. The idea of organic purposiveness is 'occasioned' by experience, but it is not an empirical concept:
[I]t is merely a consequence of the particular constitution of our understanding that it
represents products of nature as possible according to a different kind of causality from
the laws of matter, namely purposes and final cause. (Kant, 1951, pp. 408/256)

If our intellect were intuitive rather than discursive, we would grasp

the arrangement of the parts in the objects through the unity of the
whole. The structure of nature would be understood to be necessary;
and we could draw no distinction between the teleological and mechanical connections in nature (Kant, 1951, pp. 404/252). Our ability to
understand the limitations of our own intellect implies that we have the
idea of an intellect which, unlike ours, is intuitive and for which the
structures of nature would be necessary (Kant, 1951, pp. 405/252). The
ideal of such a necessary unity of part and whole serves both as a guide
to our reflection on nature as a whole and as a model for the kind of
unity we find in organisms:
Suppose that we wish not to represent the possibility of the whole as dependent on that
of the parts (after the manner of our discursive understanding), but according to the



standard of the intuitive (original) understanding to represent the possibility of the parts
(according to their constitution and combination) as dependent on that of the whole.
Now such a whole would be the effect (product), the representation of which is regarded
as the cause of the possibility . . . . (Kant, 1951, pp. 407/256)

The idea of a thing completely determined through its idea, one in

which the parts, structure, and processes are completely determined by
the idea of the whole, is a necessary feature of our intellect. Consequently, alongside the idea of a mechanical order in nature we find the
idea of teleology available for interpreting the unity of phenomena
should the occasion for its use arise.
For Kant the idea of a teleologicalty ordered natural product is
derived from his account of the limits of mechanical explanations and
the nature and limitations of the human intellect. In its most general
form it is the idea of system, in which the whole and the parts mutually
interact for the development and maintenance of the whole. In such a
system the form of the whole asserts itself as best it can in the materials
at hand. Processes and organs involved in the organization and maintenance of such a natural form are understood teleologically in that the
whole organism is t he end goal for which the process or organ exists.
That there are such systems in nature is for Kant beyond a reasonable
The internal form of a mere blade of grass is sufficient to show, that, for our human
faculty of judgement, its origin is only possible according to the rule of purposes. (Kant,
1951, pp. 378/225)

This system property is observed in plants and animals and not in the
world of inanimate objects. Hence, teleological judgment is reserved
for use in investigating these natural products.
Kant's ultimate response to reductionism, then, rests on a dualism
of sources of knowledge of nature. The primacy of mechanical accounts
could be established only if we could achieve insight into the supersensible ground of nature. This is impossible for:
[W]e cannot arrive at the inner all-sufficient principle of the possibility of a nature (a
principle which lies in the supersensible.) (Kant, 1951, pp. 388/235)

We must, consequently, accept two irreducible sources of our knowledge. The intelligible order of events is a product of rational reconstruction. The limitations of our intellect leave us with two ideal types or
forms of unity through which we can articulate the unity of the series.




The relationship between these, however, lies beyond our experience

and can never be known:
It c a n n o t . . , in any way be explained h o w . . , nature (in its particular laws) constitutes
one system, which can be cognized as possible either by the principle of physical development or by that of final cause. (Kant, 1951, pp. 412-13/261)

We cannot know the ultimate ground of the unity of appearances. We

are left with the possibility that any series of phenomena may be
explained either teleologically or mechanically, and neither form of
explanation can have a priori precedence over the other.

The notion of teleology as it is analyzed and 'deduced' by Kant is
extremely general. It implies no commitment on his part to any theory
concerning either the ultimate origin of organisms or the kinds of
structure that will exhibit purposive organization. Teleological judgments are judgments about the general system properties of organisms,
not judgments about how thos e systems came about or the ways in
which the ends of the organism are achieved. Natural objects that
exhibit organic form require us to judge their form and processes teleologically regardless of whether they are instances of original organic
patterns or they emerged from an inorganic substrate. Likewise, it is
indifferent for the general idea of an organism whether or not the
organism exhibits vital energies or forces in addition to the purely
mechanical and chemical processes. The way in which organisms
achieve their purposes is an empirical question. A complete mechanical
account of the processes in an organism could exist side by side with a
set of teleological judgments about the system properties achieved
through those processes.
Kant himself does not accept this broad interpretation of his idea of
organic teleology. He does not think that we can a priori rule out
complete mechanical accounts of either the origins or structures and
processes in living things:
We can in no way prove the impossibility of the production of organized natural products
by the mere mechanism of nature, because we cannot see into the first inner ground of
the infinite multiplicity of the laws of nature . . . . (Kant, 1951, pp. 388/235)



Because of our cognitive limitations, however, we cannot hope to give

a complete mechanical account of the production of an organism:
Absolutely no human reason (in fact no finite reason like ours in quality, however much
it might surpass it in degree) can hope to understand the production of a blade of grass
by mere mechanical means. (Kant, 1951, pp. 409/258)

The prohibition against mechanical derivation of the organic extends

to the origins of the life world as a whole. Given the existence of living
things, it would be a logical impossibility to 'derive' them from the
inorganic, mechanical workings of matter. Kant praises the work of J.
F. Blumenbach for its recognition of this impossibility:
That crude matter should have originally formed itself according to mechanical laws, that
life should have sprung from the nature of what is lifeless, that matter should have
been able to dispose itself into the form of a self-maintaining purposiveness, this he
[Blumenbach] rightly declares to be contradictory to reason. (Kant, 1951, pp. 424/274)

Kant is not here claiming that an atemporal reductionism, that is the

identification of general system properties of organic beings with specific
material parts or processes, is impossible. Rather, he is claiming that
it is not possible to trace the origins of life to an inorganic source, to
treat life itself as an emergent property.
Kant's reluctance to accept this possibility seems to have derived
from the importance of reproduction for organisms in relation to the
constancy of types. Since the system properties exhibited by organisms
are acquired by each generation of organisms only from the preceding
generation of (like) organisms, the idea of tracing life back to a lifeless
origin runs counter to the organic processes we know in our experience:
[I]n the complete inner purposiveness of an organized being, the generation of its like is
very closely bound up with the condition of taking nothing up into the generative power
which does not belong, in such a system of purposes, to one of its original undeveloped
capacities. Indeed, if we depart from this principle, we cannot know with certainty
whether several parts of the form which is now apparent in a species have not a contingent
and unpurposive origin; and the principle of teleology, to judge nothing in an organism
as unpurposive which maintains it in its propagation, would be very unreliable in its
application . . . . (Kant, 1951, pp. 420/269)

Thus the application of the teleological principle to organisms is guided

by unity of type, and the typological features are closely associated for
us with the reproductive capacities of organisms. In contrast to Kant's
view, it should be noted that typological constancy is a feature 0f our
present experience, not an essential aspect of the very idea of an




organism. That organisms reproduce at all is an empirical, not an a

priori, feature of our idea of organisms. The question of the origins of
organisms, both proximate and ultimate, is an empirical question; and
no account of their origins can be ruled out a priori as incompatible
with the kind of system properties necessary for invoking teleological
Within the a priori limitations that Kant places on accounts of the
origins of purposive structures, he does allow for a wide latitude in
accounts of origins. Genealogical accounts of species may trace their
origins to more primitive or earlier types. 6 Yet, this is possible only
because there are found within more original species certain "seeds"
(Keime) which give the original stock certain organic "tendencies"
(Anlagen) (Kant, 1951, pp. 420/269). These internal dimensions of the
organism allow for the hypothesis of the development of species, but
only according to an original " c o m m o n archetype" (gemeinschaftlichen
Urbilde) (Kant, 1951, pp. 418/267-68):
[I]t is permissible for the archaeologist of nature to derive from the surviving traces of
its oldest revolutions, according to all its mechanism known or supposed by him, that

great family of creatures . . . . He can suppose the bosom of mother earth, as she passed
out of her chaotic state (like a great animal), to have given birth in the beginning to
creatures of less purposive form, that these again gave birth to others which formed
themselves with greater adaptation to their place of birth and their relations to each
other . . . . Only he must still in the end ascribe to this universal mother an organization
purposive in respect to all these creatures; otherwise it would not be possible to think
the possibility of the purposive form of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. (Kant, 1951,
pp. 419/268)
The ultimate explanation of the origin of species is the unity of type or
form contained in the original stock from which each species derives.
While the unity of type is pliable and adaptable to the conditions of life
and some changes in type are heritable, allowing for limited evolution of
species, changes are clearly bounded by the potentialities of the original
type. 7 For Kant, evolution must be purposive adaptation, not random
variation and selection.
By opting for unity of type over descent in his account of the origins
of organisms (on supposedly a priori grounds), Kant firmly ties the fate
of his idea of teleology to the fate of typological accounts of the unity



of the life world. Unlike the teleology of the design argument, however,
typological theories cannot be dismissed with purely theoretical arguments such as those offered against the design argument by Hume.
Typological theories can generate specific empirical predictions about
organic nature. If there are certain primitive forms or archetypes from
which contemporary organisms are derived, this should be reflected in
the fossil record both in the progression and the distribution of forms
of life. Comparative anatomy should uncover the significant structural
differences between basic types of organisms, while physiology and
embryology would exhibit the ways in which such structures develop
and maintain themselves. Ideally, these sciences would exhibit the internal properties of, and processes in, organisms which account for both
typological unity and limited variability. A sufficiently sophisticated
typological account of organic unity is capable of supporting a vigorous
biological research program.
The Kantian analysis of teleology and mechanism places only two
basic restrictions on the way in which such a research project can
proceed. First, it rules out both eliminative reductionism and naive
vitalism. Since we have no direct intuitions into the reality of organisms,
we cannot know the ultimate status of forces. Eliminative reductionism
fails because, while maintaining the absolute sufficiency of mechanical
laws, it is able to explain the fact of organic unity in the objects of
experience only by the chance confluence of mechanical process. If
chance is as far as we can go in explaining organisms, "[n]othing is
explained, not even the illusion in our teleological j u d g m e n t s . . . "
(Kant, 1951, pp. 3931240). On the other hand, vitalism leaves us with
a vicious circle. We assume vital forces on the evidence of organisms
and then use the same vital forces to explain the presence of organisms:
There must be a circle in the explanation if we wish to derive the purposiveness of nature
in organized beings from the life of matter, and yet only know this life in organized
beings and can form no concept of its t~ossibility without experience of this kind. (Kant,
1951, pp. 394-95/242)

The inadequacy of vitalism leads to Kant's second restriction on biological methodology: mechanical accounts of organic processes must be
sought. The identification of, broadly speaking, mechanical processes,
i.e., chemical, electric, and mechanical processes, is necessary to determine the means by which organisms achieve their purposes. If we could
not identify these processes, we would have no idea that a purpose was




being achieved. The purposive function of, for example, an organ is

evident only in the usefulness it has for the rest of the organism. This
is determined by examining the mechanical processes that make its
function apparent.
Biologists such as J. F. Blumenbach, by whom Kant was influenced
and over whom he sought to influence, s identified a set of organic forces
existing alongside the mechanical forces in organisms. Such forces are
'assumed' or 'constructed' by the biologist when mechanical accounts
are insufficient to explain organic phenomena. Blumenbach concludes
that organisms possess a unique Bildungstrieb or nisus formativus (Blumenbach, 1794). Johann Reil, likewise, characterizes the 'life-force' as
arrived at by inference from the uniform phenomena of the organic
realm (Reil, 1795). The location of unique organic phenomena and the
assumption of unique organic forces is seen by Reil and Blumenbach
to impose on the biologist the duty of investigating the mechanisms
through which they achieve their effects. The result of such inquiries
was often the discovery that what was thought to be an original, unique
force is an emergent property of a system of mechanical and/or chemical
The Kantian notion of teleology provides the framework for a natural
dialectic in biology. It directs the investigator to locate unique organic
forces, and then attempt to reduce them. At the same time it provides
a fall-back, teleological position. What were originally conceived as
primitive forces turn out to be a functional property of a mechanicalchemical system. The direction and organization of these forces need
not be caused by another force, albeit a non-mechanical one; it can be
achieved by the unique arrangement of inorganic forces in organisms. In
the Kantian framework such a discovery does not invalidate teleological
judgments about the form and function of the organism; it merely alters
the understanding of how high-level system properties of the organism
were brought about by the parts of the organism.
The course of this dialectic is illustrated in developments in German
biology during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, especially
in the work of Karl Ernst von Baer and Johannes Mtiller. Both von
Baer and Mtiller assumed a teleological framework in which the whole
of the organism is given priority over the elements of its composition,
but the processes of the organism are approached through 'mechanical'
methods, such as rigorous chemical analysis. For von Baer and Mtiller
the reality of the organism is found in the relationship and systematic



balance of chemical and other forces rather than in a unique set of

organic forces. This provides the context for mechanical processes in
the organism and determines their direction. The organic form or type
of each organism is a result of the systematic relation of inorganic
forces, but the system itself regulates the processes and development
of the organism. According to yon Baer, the organism is from one
point of view nothing but a 'chemical laboratory'. Yet, when viewed
from the point of view of the whole, it is also a 'laboratory technician',
orchestrating the inorganic processes so that they form an organic
system according to the basic architecture of its type or Bauplan:
It is beyond doubt that the organism is a mechanical apparatus, a machine, which builds
itself. (Baer, 1978, II, p. 188)

For von Baer, the perspective of the builder and his plan make teleological accounts of organic structure inescapable.
During the 1830s and 1840s broad progress was made on a number
of fronts - embryology, physiology, neurology, and biochemistry - by
German biologists working in the teleological framework. Rather than
strengthening its fundamental teleological framework, success at exhibiting the mechanical-chemical basis of vital processes served to
undermine the conviction about the necessity of : ,t f,~,mework. Part
of the original attraction of the Kantian idea of teleology was its ability
to provide a rationale for rigorous physiological investigation of apparently irreducible organic phenomena. For many this was a much
stronger motive for the acceptance of the Kantian framework than was
a philosophical commitment to Kant's dualistic view of the life world.
The steady stream of successes at providing mechanical explanations
of organic processes led a number of leading German scientists to view
teleology as a sort of 'God of the Gaps', a confession of ignorance
which would ultimately be overcome by scientific progress. For others,
such as von Baer, whose teleological convictions stemmed from a philosophical kinship with the Kantian perspective, progress in mechanical
accounts of organic processes served only to strengthen belief in the
systematic, teleological, structure of organisms.
Differing attitudes towards teleology became clearly focused in reactions to Helmholtz's discovery of the conservation of force and his
extension of the law of conservation to the organic realm. In a series
of complex and Sophisticated experiments, Helmholtz demonstrated
more or less satisfactorily that the force involved in animal movement




could be entirely accounted for in terms of the heat and motion expended. 9 For those for whom teleology had come to represent an
embarrassing stopgap measure, the demonstration that processes in the
body involve no active or directive forces over and above the same
mechanical forces found in inorganic nature pointed inevitably to the
conclusion that teleology is superfluous. Helmholtz himself invariably
(and mistakenly) identifies teleology with vital forces. Thus, for him
the law of conservation of force establishes a unified set Of scientific
concepts for both the organic and inorganic (Helmholtz, 1971, pp. 12021). The advocates of eliminative reductionism take the extension of
the law of the conservation of force to the organic realm to pro'ee that
there is no scientific reason for considering the organic and inorganic
nature to be significantly different.
For the teleologist, however, this line of argument simply misses the
point. A complete account of the mechanisms by which an organism
achieves its systematic purposes, such as growth or healing, does not
account for the unique arrangement of mechanical processes in the
organism that gives it its high-level system properties. A complete
analysis of the mechanical and chemical processes of an organism does
not explain how such an apparently self-regulating set of processes
originated. The reductionist, using the tools of physics and chemistry,
could hope to develop a complete mechanical account of organic processes. However, this could not explain why such systems existed at
all, that is, how matter came to be organized into an organic system.
For teleologists, the origins of organic systems had to be traced back to
the basic unity of type or Bauplan from which the organism developed.
With the terms of the debate between reductionists and anti-reductionists so clearly and sharply focused, the appearance of On the Origin
of Species proved a crucial turning point. For those already committed
to reductionism the Origin filled in the last piece of the puzzle. I It
provided the key for attacking the last retreat of the teleologist, the
belief that in some way the unity of type was fundamental in any
account of organisms. If Darwin's account of the development of species
by means of random variation and natural selection is right, unity of
type is derived rather than fundamental. Although at the time of the
introduction of Darwin to Germany the evidence in favor of his theory
was far from decisive, the will to believe proved too strong for those
already committed to reductionism, such as Helmholtz and Haeckel,
to resist. Both present a simplified set of alternatives - simple vitalism,



creationism, Darwinism - in which the Darwinian account has no real

scientific competition and its establishment on a firm scientific footing
seems inevitable. For von Baer this is simply a faulty set of alternatives
(Baer, 1978, pp. 237-45). It not only ignores nearly a century of fruitful
research in the German-speaking world based on a teleological approach to the life world with the Kantian justification as its basis, but
also ignores such major problems with the Darwinian account as the
lack of clear confirmation in the fossil record and an account of the
mechanism of heritable variation. While von Baer's objections were
certainly valid, they were largely ignored. Biologists were not recruited
to the teleological point of view; and with the death of yon Baer the
tradition in German biology associated with Kant's ideas effectively
comes to an end.
In part, the end of this tradition represents the rejection on the part
of scientists of a priori limitations placed on the outcome of research
by a philosophical conception of nature. The typological account of
organic form championed by Kant may or may not be empirically borne
out by the evidence, but it cannot be established a priori. The promise
of a unified science which German biologists saw in Darwin's theory
seemed a more fertile area for research than the old fashioned pursuit
of Baupliine. At the same time, the rejection of teleology represents
the unwillingness of a generation less sympathetic than the previous
one to live with tensions inherent in a Kantian approach to nature.
Kant offers the biologist a competing set of ideals. On the one hand,
scientific investigation must be governed by standards of rational coherence: parsimony and completeness. On the other, his treatment of
teleology and mechanism leaves us with two irreducibly separate realms; each of which has its own principles for articulating the coherence
of a part of nature. The tension between the competing demands of
these ideals may be acceptable to one committed to a Kantian analysis
of human experience and the limitations of the human intellect. To
scientists with little concern for philosophy in general and less for
idealistic philosophical systems, it was wholly unacceptable.

1 See Lenoir (1982a, pp. 12-111; i982b, pp. 299-331) for detailed discussion of the early
stages of this program. In the discussion of developments of Germany biology, I am

K A N T , T E L E O L O G Y ~ AND E V O L U T I O N


largely following Lenoir. My analysis of Kant's idea of teleology and the limitations he
places on it differs significantly from Lenoir's.
2 See Lenoir (1981) for an account of the vitalistic tradition in eighteenth-century Germany and its influence in German biology.
3 References to Kant's work give the page number(s) from the Academy edition and
then the page number(s) from a translation used. The following are used: Critique of
Judgment (Academy edition Vol. V); and Metaphysical Foundation of Natural Science
(Academy edition, Vol. IV). References to Critique of Pure Reason are in the standard
'A' and 'B' pagination of the first and second editions.
4 Kant's only extended discussion of the limitations of the human intellect is found in
Sections 76-78 of the Critique of Judgment. For discussion of the relevance of these
sections to Kant's treatment of biology, see Zumbach (1984, pp. 87-100).
5 For more extensive treatment of the scope and limitations of Kant's analysis of causality,
see Buchdahl (1969, pp. 648-72; 1971, pp. 26-46). See Kolb (1988, pp. 123-44) for
discussion of the place of mechanical science in Kant's system.
6 Kant allows this as a purely theoretical possibility. Such generation (generatio
heteronyma) "so far as our empirical knowledge of nature extends, is nowhere to be
found" (Kant, 1951, pp. 420 note/268-69).
7 Kant discusses the idea of purposive variation of original types in a number of essays
focusing primarily on the causes of the differences in various races of the human species.
He argues that heritable qualities of race, such as skin color, are best accounted for as
purposive adaptations of a single original stock rather than the assumption of many
different stocks. He attempts to establish this conclusion by emphasizing the heuristic
principle of simplicity and the empirical fact of interracial fertility. See, On the Different
Races of Men (1775), II, pp. 427-44; On the Specification of the Concept of a Race of
Men (1785), VIII, pp. 89-106; On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy (1788),
VIII, pp. 157-84.
8 Blumenbach sent Kant his work on the Bildungstrieb while Kant was in the final stages
of composing the Critique of Judgment. In his response (5 August 1790), Kant praises
Blumenbach for showing him the way to unify mechanical and teleological ideas in the
investigation of organism and notes the influence that this had on the Critique of Judgment. Blumenbach is listed among the eight individuals for whom Kant requested rush
copies of the Critique of Judgment. Kant was apparently eager to get a favorable response
from Blumenbach. See, J. B. Jachmann to Kant, 14 October 1790.
9 Lenoir (1982a, pp. 197-245) examines Helmholtz's experiment and its effect on German
10 For an extensive discussion of the reception of Darwinism in Germany, see Kelly
(1989, chs. 1-5):

Baer, Karl Ernst yon: 1978, Reden Gehalten in wissenschaftlichen Versammlungen, Arno
Press, New York.
Blumenbach, J. F.: 1794, Elements of Physiology, trans. C. Caldwell, J. Dodson, Philadel'phia.



Buchdahl, Gerd: 1969, Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Buchdahl, Gerd: 1971, 'The Conception of Lawlikeness in Kant's Philosophy', Synthese
23, 26-46.
Haeckel, Ernst: 1868, History of Creation, trans. E. Lankester, Appleton Press, New
Helmholtz, Hermann von: 1971, Selected Writings of'Hermann yon Helmholtz, Weselyan
University Press, Middleton, Connecticut.
Kant, I.: 1902-, Gesammelte Schriften, German Academy of Sciences, Berlin.
Kant, I.: 1929, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, St. Martin's Press,
New York.
Kant, I.: 1951, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard, Hafner Press, New York.
Kant, I.: 1970, Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, trans. J. Ellington, BobbsMerrill, Indianapolis.
Kelly, A.: 1989, The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwin in Germany
1860-1914, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Kolb, D.: 1988, 'Matter and Mechanism in Kant's Critical System', Idealistic Studies 18,
Lenoir, T.: 198t, 'The G6ttingen School and the Development of Transcendental Naturphilosophie in the Romantic Era', Studies in the History of Biology 5, 111-205.
Lenoir, T.: 1982a, The Strategy of Life, D. Reidel, Dordrecht.
Lenoir, T.: 1982b, 'Teleology without Regrets', Studies in the History of and Philosophy
of Science 12, 293-353.
Reil, J. C.: 1795, 'Von der Lebenskraft', Archiv fiAr Physiologie, Vol. I.
Zumbach, C.: 1984, The Transcendent Science: Kant's Conception of Biological Methodology, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.
Dept. of Philosophy and Religion
Radford University
Radford, VA 24142