JENNIFER MENSCH | Kant’s Organicism: Epigenesis and the Development of the Critical Philosophy | University of Chicago Press 2013


By Angela Breitenbach

Jennifer Mensch’s book Kant’s Organicism is a study of the influence that natural history of Kant’s time had on his theoretical philosophy. Recent years have seen a growing interest in Kant’s more empirical work such as his philosophy of the physical and biological sciences and its connections with his metaphysics and epistemology. Kant’s Organicism takes this venture a step further, by asking how Kant’s attention to theories of organic development shaped his account of cognition. This is an intriguing question to which Mensch offers a stimulating answer.

Mensch presents much detail of historical interest that I shall have to leave aside in my comments. I begin with some general remarks on the overall claim of the book, before raising a few more specific questions on how the organicism that Mensch attributes to Kant is to be interpreted.

Organicism as key to Kant’s theoretical philosophy

Mensch proposes the bold claim that “Kant should be fitted into a framework […] that can be called […] ‘organicism’” (Mensch, p. 1). Organicism is the view that nature is a living organism and that natural processes are irreducible to mechanical operations. Mensch understands this view in tandem with the embryological theory of epigenesis. According to epigenesis, living beings gradually develop from preformed germs or seeds. Epigenesis contrasts with eighteenth century creationism, the theory that the development of organisms consists in the unfolding of miniature, fully formed beings. On Mensch’s proposal, however, fitting Kant into an organicist framework does not mean portraying him as a defender of epigenesis as a biological theory. It means understanding Kant’s non-biological work, in particular his theory of cognition, against the background of an organicist-epigeneticist conception of nature. Mensch thus aims to establish the thesis that core arguments of Kant’s theoretical philosophy, including the transcendental deduction of the categories, must be read in light of his engagement with natural history.

Mensch spells out key parallels between the development of organisms and that of reason and cognition. On the epigeneticist account, organisms are generated according to a “two-step model” (Mensch, p. 81), first, by the pre-formation of capacities and, second, by spontaneous development in accordance with those capacities. Mensch argues that in the same way cognition is achieved on Kant’s account, first, on the basis of innate laws and, second, by the spontaneous development of concepts in accordance with those laws. Moreover, on the epigeneticist account, organisms do not evolve mechanically but, given certain original capacities, generate themselves. Mensch claims that, similarly, reason for Kant determines itself in accordance with its own laws. It is in this sense, she argues, that we should understand Kant’s notion of the ‘self-birth’ of reason: reason has an epigenetic beginning, operating in line with a “reflexive or organic logic according to which its unity must be viewed as both cause and effect of itself” (Mensch, p. 9).

On Mensch’s account, the organicist framework is crucial for distinguishing Kant’s theory of cognition from competitor theories. By presenting concepts as generated in accordance with innate laws, Kant’s theory of cognition provides an alternative, on the one hand, to Leibniz’ appeal to a supernatural or preformationist origin of intellectual ideas and, on the other hand, to Locke’s insistence on the sensible basis of all ideas. Mensch thus argues that eighteenth century debates in the life sciences hold the key to understanding Kant’s theoretical philosophy.

In highlighting the intimate connection between Kant’s natural philosophy and his theory of cognition, Mensch has identified a fascinating and potentially fruitful perspective on Kant’s theoretical philosophy. Although she is by no means the first to comment on Kant’s notion of the “epigenesis of pure reason” (CPR, B167),[1] the distinctive feature of her approach is the focus on the intellectual and scientific historical context that culminated in Kant’s epigeneticist theory of cognition. To this end, her short book manages to weave together a diverse and compelling collection of historical material. I would have been interested in a more detailed discussion of the implications of Mensch’s historically motivated thesis for philosophical debates in the current Kant literature. What does the organicist framework mean, for example, for Kant’s rejection of nativism, the associated normativity of cognition, and the unity of practical and theoretical reason? However, contributing to such debates is not the aim of the book. In my view, Mensch’s proposal should therefore be read, in line with the author’s own introduction of her thesis, as a general framework for interpretation rather than a fully developed reading of Kant’s theoretical philosophy. My focus in the following remarks will be on the question of how exactly to construe this framework.

The epigeneticist model

According to Mensch, Kant employs the theory of epigenesis as a “model” for reason and cognition (e.g. Mensch, p. 9 and p. 53). What is the status of this model?

A first and, I think, compelling answer is to construe it as having metaphorical or analogical import. The development of reason and cognition, on this reading, is understood by analogy with the epigenesis of a living being. This analogical interpretation would be in line with Kant’s presentation of reason in the introduction to the first Critique (CPR, B XXII ff.) and the ‘Architectonic of Pure Reason’ (CPR, A832/B860). There, Kant offers an analogy between reason and organism by drawing parallels between the systematic and purposive relation of the capacities of reason and the arrangement of the parts in “an animal body” (CPR, A833/B861). Following this, one might understand Mensch’s suggestion in a similar manner as the proposal that the development of reason, its concepts and judgements, should be understood on the epigeneticist model as having analogical or metaphorical status. And yet, Mensch maintains that epigenesis has not “merely a metaphorical appeal” (Mensch, p. 144), for “Kant would take the epigenesis of reason to be real” (Mensch, p. 124). What, then, is implied by construing the epigeneticist model as real rather than metaphorical?

In response to this question, one might offer a second interpretation of the epigeneticist model as spelling out a naturalistic conception of reason. On this reading, just as organisms develop through organic processes from preformed germs, in the same way reason is the result of an entirely natural process of development. Organisms as well as reason are part of nature and governed by its laws. This naturalistic account would fit less well with Kant’s contrast between the natural and the rational and with his conception of reason as free from determination of the laws of nature. Mensch consequently rejects this interpretation. In her discussion of empirical psychology in Tetens and Kant, she argues that it is Tetens, by contrast with Kant, who construes the epigenesis of the human intellect naturalistically. Only Tetens, not Kant, gives a thoroughly naturalistic account of human reason along organicist lines.

If, then, the epigeneticist model is to be understood on Mensch’s account as neither analogical nor naturalistic, how should we understand it? In what sense can the model be a real representation of reason without portraying reason as a natural entity? According to Mensch, Kant understands “the epigenesis of reason to be real […] only in a metaphysical sense” (Mensch, p. 124, her italics). My worry is that this metaphysical sense, a third interpretation of the epigeneticist model, is not sufficiently explored. If ‘metaphysical’ in the Kantian context is to be understood as relating to “the science of the extents and limits of knowledge” (Mensch, pp. 8, 53), as the author also tells us, then saying that the epigeneticist model is real in a metaphysical sense tells us only that epigenesis is real as a model for the investigation of the extents and limits of knowledge. But Mensch seems to imply more. In particular, on her account the epigeneticist model of reason refers to a nonnatural reality. As she puts it, “Kant […] was in the end a metaphysician, and his own species of organicism would therefore have to be nonnaturalistic when it came to reason and the processes of cognition” (Mensch, p. 124).

The character of this non-naturalistic species of organicism might be clarified by specifying the conception of spontaneity on which Mensch relies for her interpretation. In the introduction, she promises the reader an interpretation of Kant’s organicism that would present the unity of reason and the origin of cognition as “neither supernatural nor empirical but spontaneous” (Mensch, p. 12). Mensch thus contrasts the spontaneity of reason with the supernatural origin of cognition. As she points out, cognition for Kant does not rely on concepts preformed and implanted into the human mind by God, but on concepts that are generated by reason out of its own capacity. If Kant’s species of organicism is, on Mensch’s account, to be of a non-naturalistic kind, however, then we should expect the spontaneity that grounds reason’s self-development to consist in a nonnatural capacity itself. I am not entirely sure whether Mensch intends to draw a distinction between a nonnatural and a supernatural capacity. A more specified notion of spontaneity would here have been illuminating.

In particular, I wonder whether Mensch conceives of the spontaneity required for cognition as a distinctly theoretical capacity, or whether she wants to identify it with the free causality of practical reason. Is the spontaneity of reason a theoretical, that is, cognitive spontaneity, realised in the original synthesis of sensory input? If so, I worry that this capacity would not, or not obviously, be sufficient to ground the ‘self-birth’ of reason that is so central to Mensch’s interpretation. Or is the spontaneity of reason a practical spontaneity that, perhaps more in line with the metaphysical context of Mensch’s interpretation, consists in a free and end-directed causality? If so, this would give a more robust account of the self-determining and self-developing character of reason, but it would rely on the strong and more controversial claim that cognition depends on practical reason.

However one may construe the precise nature of spontaneity, it is uncontroversial that the idea of reason as spontaneous and as endowed with free causality has a central place in Kant’s theoretical philosophy. Insofar as these capacities are nonnatural, however, it is hard to see how the embryological theory of epigenesis could provide a realistic model for them. The appeal of Kant’s organicist imagery seems rather to offer an indirect, analogical way of representing such non-empirical ideas of reason as those of spontaneity and free causality.

As Kant argues in the Critique of Judgement, analogies are the only means of representing concepts that cannot be represented directly, that is, by means of examples or schemata. Symbolic representation is made possible, Kant explains, by judgement performing “a double task, first applying the concept to the object of a sensible intuition, and then, second, applying the mere rule of reflection on that intuition to an entirely different object, of which the first is only the symbol” (CJ, 5: 352). By applying the concept of systematic organisation to an empirical object, such as an organism for example, we can transfer the way we think about organisms to our conception of reason, an object that cannot itself be given in experience. In contrast with Mensch, I find this analogical or metaphorical reading of the epigeneticist model compelling. I believe it is a model Kant employs to portray reason, its unity and development, in the only terms in which non-empirical ideas can be intuitively presented on his account, namely by analogy with empirical objects.

Organicism and the organism

Towards the end of the book, Mensch briefly addresses the connections of Kant’s organicist framework with his philosophy of biology. As she points out, Kant denied the epigeneticist model “determinate efficacy in the physical world of organisms” (Mensch, p. 144). This is because the systematic organisation and end-directed development of living beings, on Kant’s account, cannot be explained according to the theory of epigenesis; we cannot cognise teleological, spontaneous, self-propagating processes in the natural world. Instead, Mensch argues, organisms can only be regarded by analogy with the free causality of reason. As an account of Kant’s organicism this may be somewhat surprising. Rather than understanding reason and cognition on the model of the organism, Kant conceives of organisms on the model of reason.

Even if this may be an unexpected turn of Kant’s organicism, I believe Mensch is right to ascribe it to Kant. She points out, in my view correctly, that on Kant’s account our analogical conception of organisms “had to rely on reason and the kind of demonstration of free causality that it provided in the moral sphere” (Mensch, p. 143). According to Kant’s ‘Critique of Teleological Judgment’, we can only conceive of living beings by reading ideas of reason into our experience of living nature.[2]

This does not imply, however, that Kant cannot also employ the analogy between reason and organism in order to give a sensory and symbolic representation of the unity and development of reason. Kant’s explicit parallels between reason and organisms in the first Critique seem to have precisely this role. They are meant to illustrate an idea of the systematic unity of reason by reference to empirically accessible objects. Even if we cannot conceive of living beings without projecting teleological ideas on to them, such beings may nevertheless provide an indirect symbolic representation of those ideas. Read in this way, Kant’s organicist framework would be an organicism that played a role for Kant’s thinking about reason as well as organic nature.

Jennifer Mensch aptly draws our attention to a fascinating question. How are we to understand the connections between Kant’s engagement with the natural history of his day and the structure and character of his theoretical philosophy? The organicist formulation Mensch offers us, while in my view not definitive, is a provocative answer to this question.


[1] See for example W. Waxman, Kant’s Model of the Mind (Oxford University Press, 1991); H. Ingensiep, ‘Die biologischen Analogien und die erkenntnistheoretischen Alternativen in Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft B §27’, Kant-Studien 85 (1994), 381–93; S. Meld Shell, The Embodiment of Reason (Chicago University Press, 1996); and P. Sloan, ‘Preforming the Categories: Eighteenth-Century Generation Theory and the Biological Roots of Kant’s A Priori’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 40 (2002), 229–53.

[2] I argue for this thesis in A. Breitenbach, Die Analogie von Vernunft und Natur  (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), and A. Breitenbach, ‘Teleology in Biology: A Kantian Perspective’, Kant Yearbook 1 (2009), 31–56.


© 2014, Angela Breitenbach

Angela Breitenbach is a University Lecturer and a Fellow in Philosophy at King’s College, Cambridge, UK. Her research focuses on Kant, the history of modern philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of biology, and aesthetics. In 2009 she published Die Analogie von Vernunft und Natur: Eine Umweltphilosophie nach Kant (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter).


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