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


By Jennifer Mensch

I want to thank Angela Breitenbach for taking the time to read and review my book Kant’s Organicism. I found her remarks insightful and indeed helpful for honing in on the central challenge facing any epigenesist reading of Kant’s theory of mind. As Breitenbach rightly asks at the outset of Section 2 of her commentary, “what is the status of this [epigenetic] model” for Kant? If it is functioning as something other than an analogy for him, how should we understand it? Apart from this question regarding the status of epigenesis as a model for Kant’s theory of cognition, Breitenbach is also worried that I have “not sufficiently explored” or developed enough my claim that the epigenesis of reason is metaphysically but not biologically real according to Kant. Regarding this latter point, I think that Breitenbach is in fact right, and so I appreciate the opportunity here to better lay out the problem as I saw it when I was writing the book.

Kant’s anti-nativism

Lets begin by clearing up the issues surrounding the status of the biological model since this will take us to the more general concern. There have been a number of writers over the years to worry about what this particular model might have meant for Kant. Most are of course aware that Kant urged epistemic caution regarding the various speculative hypotheses coming out of the life sciences at that time, so the immediate problem is to ask how it is that Kant—who was ready to dismiss the claims being made by generation theorists in the 1760s as not only uncertain, but unlikely—could nonetheless have been ready to repeatedly identify his own developing theory of cognition with epigenesis during the 1770s?

The fullest answer has a number of parts, even stages, in terms of Kant’s developing system and that is why I laid out the central argument of Kant’s Organicism as I did (the main work and citations for what follows lie in Chapters 4–6). For the purposes of this exchange I am going to have to be brief and so will just say that we can do away with one possible interpretive line from the start. For it is certainly not the case that Kant took himself to be investigating an empirical claim about our physical brains (hence Kant’s dismissal of Tetens’ position regarding this; see Kant’s Organicism, Ch. 6). In making this point it is important to remember the epistemic context within which Kant’s investigation was operating, and the significance, therefore, of the fact that he typically juxtaposed his own epigenetic theory with the ‘preformation’ system proposed by Leibniz and Crusius, on the one hand, and the ‘physical influx’ position advanced by sensationalists like Locke, on the other (Ch. 4 and also Ch. 5, p. 109). Once we remember that this is indeed the context within which epigenesis became an interesting third option between innatism and empiricism for Kant, we can begin to address Breitenbach’s point.

To raise the issue again: isn’t it the case that Kant was really just interested in the ‘metaphorical or analogical’ value of the model, using it only for heuristic purposes when it came to his developing theory of cognition? This seems true given not only Kant’s anti-nativism (Ch. 6), but his general scepticism regarding the explanatory power of the biological sciences (Ch. 3). I am, however, hesitant to say that this conclusion entirely resolves the issue regarding the status of the model for Kant. Explaining this hesitance should get me back to Breitenbach’s request for greater clarity regarding the metaphysical status of the epigenesis of reason in Kant’s works.

Kant did not believe that we could make positive claims regarding the various ‘fibers and oscillating nerves’ thought by Tetens to be at work within the brain. When searching for an account of the conditions for the possibility of thought, therefore, Kant rejected the approach taken by ‘physiologists’ who sought to trace the lineage of our simple ideas back to their origin in the senses (Ch. 6). But what about the origin of our intellectual ideas or even of the mind itself? Kant had devoted considerable energy to thinking about the issues surrounding cosmological origin, and he was also familiar with biological theories of origin (Ch. 3). It is no surprise, therefore, to discover that in the late 1760s Kant was working hard to reorient metaphysical discussions by way of attention to the question of the origin of our ideas. By the time that Kant wrote his Inaugural Dissertation in 1770 his theory of mind already had many of the parts that, with some significant rearranging, would go into the mature account in 1781. One feature of the Dissertation stands out in particular, however, with respect to the question of origin. This is Kant’s account of the means by which the mind actively generates its own intellectual concepts. Kant described this process in terms of the ‘original acquisition’ of such concepts by way of the mind’s laws for logical subordination (Ch. 4).

Kant’s appeal to epigenesis

It is possible for us to track the manner by which epigenesis became increasingly comprehensive in Kant’s approach toward cognition as he worked on precisely this issue of “original acquisition”, but before describing this I want to first just briefly rehearse three interrelated characterizations of epigenesis that are especially important for understanding the use Kant would make of the theory for his own purposes. The first characterization comes from a 17th-century English physician named William Harvey. Harvey was interested in distinguishing the radical transformations taking place during ‘metamorphosis’ from the more gradual series of transformations that occurred during ‘epigenesis’. In the latter case, Harvey tracked the manner by which a chick embryo developed, describing the process as the embryo’s transition from an initially homogeneous state to one that was increasingly heterogeneous with respect to its parts.

The second, though related, characterization of epigenesis concentrated on the capacity of organic structures to be self-organizing during their development, growth, and repair. Although this capacity was oftentimes linked to either spontaneous generation or vitalism, there was in fact no consensus position regarding the nature of either the origin or the self-organisation of organisms. In the early decades of the 18th century the vitalist Peter Stahl, for example, attributed formation to an anima but distinguished his mechanistic conception from Leibniz’s panorganic entelechy. In the 1760s, Casper Wolff understood epigenetic growth in terms of the organism’s transition from liquid secretions to solidified parts, a vegetative process that was driven in some manner by a life force or vis essentialis. And by the 1780s, epigenesis had come to be identified with Blumenbach’s Bildungstrieb, although Wolff was highly critical of this later iteration, insisting that force was in and of itself incapable of supplying also form.

The third characterization of epigenesis that would appear in Kant’s writings understood epigenesis as a theory regarding the ‘generic preformation’ of form or species types in nature. In the 1780s, generic preformation was identified with Blumenbach’s position insofar as the Bildungstrieb was said to be responsible for the realization of an ideal or generic form in the living, organic individual. Kant had in fact already envisioned a version of this in 1763 (The Only Possible Proof of the Existence of God), for as he saw it, generic preformation offered the most satisfying theoretical approach to the problem of understanding not only individual generation but the organizing principles at work within natural history as a whole. When speculating on the matter Kant thought that the generic forms had to be supernatural in origin, but he also found it preferable to believe that once this initial organization of nature into types had been accomplished, divine interference was at end: nature was expected to be actively involved in the generation of individuals—in their erzeugen as opposed to their mere auswickeln—an involvement which alone could explain the existence of variation within nature.

These separate though related characterizations of epigenesis were applied differently by Kant depending upon whether he was thinking about cognition or biological organisms. For the most part, commentators have begun with Kant’s statements regarding generic preformation—comments found alongside an endorsement of Blumenbach in the Critique of Judgement—and have sought to read Kant’s theory of cognition and the epigenesis of reason through them. But while Kant’s comments in 1790 demonstrate an underlying continuity in his thoughts regarding biological organisms since the 1760s, they do not in fact add anything to our understanding of what he meant by the epigenesis of reason. To really understand the distinctive role played by epigenesis for Kant’s theory of cognition, therefore, we need to detach “generic preformation” from the other two characterizations of epigenesis that were in play for Kant.

The epigenesis of reason

In order to discover the internal grounds for this detachment we need only remember again the specific epistemic context within which Kant’s work on cognition began: his overriding desire to reorient, and thereby protect, metaphysics from the Humean challenge. Though initially conceived in terms of overcoming the problem of ‘subreptive axioms’, Kant had soon realized that the real task was instead to provide an account of cognition that could avoid scepticism without recourse to innatism. It was at this point that epigenesis provided ‘a theory by which to work’ for Kant. This was not epigenesis as generic preformation; that theory relied on supernatural forms to keep the species lines intact and was thus akin, for Kant, to both the ‘mysticism’ of Plato and the ‘preformationism’ of Leibniz.

In 1770, Kant wasn’t entirely sure what to use as a replacement, but he was sure about one thing: innatism had to be rejected and so the original generation of the intellectual concepts would have to be emphasized instead. In the Dissertation, Kant relied on the mental laws for logical subordination as the basis for this generative work, while also leaving the origin of these laws unspecified. In 1781, Kant relied on these laws again, with the “Metaphysical Deduction” serving as the updated version of the older account’s description of the “real use” or means by which concepts could be generated. In the Critique, Kant explained that the logical table of judgement served as the metaphysical ‘clue’ for understanding the origin of the intellectual concepts because the latter were in fact those same judgements, only applied now to sensible intuitions. Having announced the isomorphic connection between the forms of judgement and the categories of experience, by 1781 Kant was also ready to be specific regarding the question of origin. Like all the heterogeneous faculties which together make-up the so-called ‘transcendental apparatus’, logic too had its origin in Reason. And Reason? Reason, as Kant explained in both the Transcendental Deduction and the Architectonic, was itself epigenetic or ‘self-born’ (see Kant’s Organicism, Ch. 7).

This might sound radical, but before we get distracted by that, lets focus on the main point. Kant has a specific epistemic goal, the avoidance of scepticism and the achievement, thereby, of some kind of experiential certainty in the physical (if not the biological) sciences. Transcendental idealism, with empirical realism as its special yield, accomplishes precisely that. But it does so on the basis of a story that is being told about the formative control enjoyed by the mind in the case of experience. The transcendental conditions for the possibility of experience rely on the central faculties—reason, understanding, judgement—and their accomplishment of particular tasks. Kantians, on the whole, are not prepared to entertain questions regarding the ontological status of these mental faculties; if pushed, they might remember to quote Kant’s line that ‘the proud name of an ontology […] must give way to the modest one of mere analytic of the pure understanding’ (B303/A247). They will, moreover, emphatically reject a nativist reading of the faculties, even if they feel less confident in rejecting a supernatural origin altogether given the kinds of passing remarks one finds in the Religion. The safest interpretive route, most feel, is to just stick with Kant’s agnosticism on the point.

In my own treatment of the matter, I described Kant as a ‘metaphysician’ in order to distance him from the consequences of identifying him as a nativist. I also said that he took the epigenesis of reason to be ‘metaphysically real’ in order to make it clear that he was not providing a biological account of the brain. But there is more to this assessment than a simple contrast. Kant takes the mind to be whole. As in Harvey’s model, however, this original unity becomes increasingly heterogeneous, as logically distinct faculties emerge or become realized in the face of the various cognitive tasks required of it (Kant’s Organicism, Ch. 7). As for Reason itself, the word Kant used for describing it is in a class of its own within his works: spontaneity. There is neither textual conflict nor indeed controversy regarding spontaneity as a basic definition of Reason, for Kant was clear in the Critique of Practical Reason regarding the ontological identity between reason in either its theoretical or practical guise (Ch. 7), and if, by the end of the Critique of Judgement, he seemed to have relegated speculative reason to a lesser position in comparison to the free causality of practical reason, it was only because moral teleology had by then displaced the investigatory aims of physico-theology for Kant, making the clearer formulation of rational faith all the more pressing.

Reason, as Breitenbach nicely puts it for me, is “self-determining and self-developing” and it is only as such that it could ground both the certainty of cognition within the sensible realm and our duties and character in the moral realm. And so it is in light of all this that I am hesitant to say that the biological theory of epigenesis functioned merely as an analogy for Kant. For after reviewing all the evidence surrounding Kant’s use of epigenesis in cognition, he seems, in the end, to have thought of Reason as something that was in fact spontaneous and free, a self-born activity that was both cause and effect of itself. Despite the radicality of Kant’s claim, it is easy to see that only such a claim could guarantee both morals and certainty against the threat of scepticism so far as Kant understood the stakes of Hume’s challenge. Indeed, it was not the autochthonous status of Reason that Hegel criticized in Kant—it was the checks Kant put in place on Reason’s power (Kant’s Organicism, Ch. 7, n.282).

In closing, let me just thank Angela Breitenbach once more for her review. I have not had the opportunity to read her book, Die Analogie von Vernunft und Natur, but given the interesting suggestion at the end of her commentary regarding the role of the symbol for thinking more clearly about the relationship between reason and nature, I am certain that I will profit from a careful reading of it. Finally, in light of Breitenbach’s interest “in a more detailed discussion of the implications of [the book’s] historically motivated thesis for current debates”, I will just mention a recent set of remarks made by Robert Hanna in a review essay dedicated to my book.[1] Although Hanna does begin by briefly outlining the main points in my Kant’s Organicism, the bulk of his essay is devoted to issues that are perhaps closer to Breitenbach’s own interests here.


[1] R. Hanna, ‘Kant’s Anti-Mechanism and Kantian Anti-Mechanism’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (2014), in press.

© 2014, Jennifer Mensch

Jennifer Mensch is a Senior Lecturer at the Pennsylvania State University. Mensch specialises in, and publishes on, the intersection between philosophy and the sciences of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.


Links to related postings:

Précis of Kant’s Organicism

Critique by Angela Breitenbach

Critique by Hein van den Berg

Reply to Hein van den Berg