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


By Jennifer Mensch

In the Spring of 2002, Phillip Sloan, an expert on the history of the eighteenth-century life sciences—and on the French naturalist Georges Buffon in particular—published a paper on Kant in the Journal of the History of Philosophy.[1] As an historian, Sloan was interested in fitting together various statements scattered across Kant’s works that seemed to be making use of vocabulary borrowed from the life sciences. There were a number of candidates for investigation, but in this paper Sloan focused especially on three areas: on Kant’s use of Keim and Anlage in his anthropological writings, on his appeal to ‘generic preformation’ for understanding species fixity in the third Critique, and most significantly for our purposes here, on his use of the terms epigenesis, generatio aequivoca, and preformation in the reworked centrepiece discussion of the second edition Critique of Pure Reason (1787), namely the ‘Transcendental Deduction of the Pure Concepts of the Understanding’.

In his piece, Sloan carefully laid out the historical background necessary for appreciating the different generation theories in play during Kant’s day. After gathering the evidence, he concluded that Kant’s theory of cognition demonstrated “a strongly limited version of epigenetic theory”, according to which the categories, while not “individually specific and implanted at the creation by an external deity”, were nonetheless significantly constrained. When Kant identified his own account with epigenesis, Sloan argued, he never intended to endorse a “a full-blown epigenetic thesis of some kind that overtly rejected the theory of preformed Keime and Anlagen”, because this sort of thesis would “mean that there would be no a priori structuring of the course of development, and all developing properties would be only as determined by a dynamic, plastic, vital force. This would undermine the fixity and determinate character of the categories and the stability of the species” (all citations 2002:245).

Generic preformation and epigenesis

Sloan’s rationale for this interpretation importantly relied on his sense that Kant’s appreciation for ‘generic preformation’—a term that was used interchangeably by Kant with ‘epigenesis’, when introducing Blumenbach as the author of just such a theory for understanding species fixity in nature—would have to be integrated into any account of Kant’s use of epigenesis, that indeed it should serve as the interpretive lens for viewing epigenesis in the case of cognition.[2] The key textual evidence for Sloan in support of this came from a passage introducing the ‘Analytic of Concepts’ in the first Critique. In this section, Kant announces that he will be attempting to dissect the understanding itself

in order to research the possibility of a priori concepts by seeking them only in the understanding as their birthplace and analyzing its pure use in general; for this is the proper business of a transcendental philosophy; the rest is the logical treatment of concepts in philosophy in general. We will therefore pursue the pure concepts into their first seeds and predispositions [Keimen und Anlagen] in the human understanding, where they lie ready, until with the opportunity of experience they are finally developend [entwickelt] […]. (A66/B90–1)

Now it is not entirely clear how much use would have been made of Sloan’s paper given the relatively few scholars looking at the use of biological language in Kant at the time. There was an excellent paper on the topic by Günter Zöller that had come out—unnoticed, so far as I can tell—in 1988, and in 2001 Claude Piché had discussed the epigenesis of experience in a collection of essays put together by Tom Rockmore, but these were two of only a dozen or so pieces explicitly concerned with the issue.[3]

But then, fate intervened for Sloan’s interpretation. For in the years prior to Sloan’s piece there was a great deal of work on Kant being done by another excellent historian of science, John Zammito. And for Zammito, the question of an integrated approach to Kant’s biological vocabulary had remained long unsettled. When Sloan’s essay appeared in 2002, it seemed to have resolved the issue for him, however, and from that point on, in paper after paper, Zammito endorsed Sloan’s interpretation. And as my commentator here, Hein van den Berg, makes clear, he too is a dedicated fan. In the last few years, Zammito has in fact revised his own endorsement; as he put it in his reader’s report on Kant’s Organicism for the University of Chicago Press in the Fall of 2011: “I can still cling to my view that Kant was never quite comfortable with epigenesis, but as a theory of nature, while I will concede with alacrity that he may well have been far more enamoured of it as a basis for metaphysics than I had conceived.”

Generic preformation versus epigenesis

The key to understanding this concession is to recognise Zammito’s new acknowledgement of the need to separate Kant’s discussion of epigenesis as a kind of generic preformation at work in nature from the use Kant makes of it when formulating his theory of cognition. By 1765, Kant understood that any significant rehabilitation and defence of metaphysics would require its complete reformulation. The grounds for this reformulation centred on Kant’s developing theory of cognition, a theory that would need to be capable of not only avoiding the spectre of subreption, but also meeting the great challenge that had been laid down by Hume. This is the epistemic context within which Kant began to formalise his theoretical programme in the 1760s, and it was against the backdrop provided by his first real attempt at such a theory, his Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, that Kant became ready to identify his own position with epigenesis as a position against the preformation system he took to be endorsed by Leibniz.

Sloan is thus quite right to see that Kant would never have endorsed the strong preformation theories held by von Haller or Bonnet. But when it came to cognition, Kant was not interested in a weaker version of preformation either so long as that entailed even a mild recourse to innatism. Sloan’s worry that without this we “undermine the fixity and determinate character of the categories”, is thus misjudged. To make this clear we need only turn once more to the key passage for Sloan’s interpretation, which I quoted above. As Sloan reads this passage, the language of A66 yields a “preformationist appeal to the grounding of the categories on inborn Keime and Anlagen” (Sloan 2002:245). Does it? At A66/B90–1, Kant tells us that he will locate the birthplace of the categories in their first seeds and predispositions. What seeds are these? Sloan doesn’t speculate, but we actually don’t need to guess at all since the answer is provided by Kant in the very next section, namely ‘The Clue to the Discovery of All Pure Concepts of the Understanding’.

In this section and what follows, Kant is clear regarding the manner by which the table of judgement grounds the table of the categories; it is indeed only because of this that the former can serve as a ‘clue’ in the first place, but it is also for this reason that we can do away with Sloan’s worry over the determinate character of the categories. The proper focus for Sloan’s interpretation should thus be on whether Kant takes the laws for logical subordination to be inborn. Sloan would have to say ‘yes’, given that he believes that Kant’s reference to the epigenesis of reason at B167 must still somehow accommodate a weak version of preformation theory. Here though, the textual evidence works against Sloan’s interpretation.

For Kant is relatively clear when it comes to the relationship between the faculties. He is clear that the understanding, for all its spectacular success when it comes to the construction of a coherent field of appearances, is nonetheless dependent upon Reason. To be specific, it is ‘dependent’ upon Reason in two significant ways: as is well known, Reason provides the principles which can alone unify and guide empirical investigations, but Reason is also taken by Kant to encompass the understanding and thus to serve as its seat. Although van den Berg does not seem to have made much sense of it, I do lay out a rather lengthy argument for this in Chapter 7 of my book, where I focus on Kant’s account of transcendental affinity as the key to understanding the precise manner by which an epigenetic Reason is ultimately necessary for the success of the Transcendental Deduction.

Because van den Berg has followed Sloan’s (and thus Zammito’s) interpretation so fully, I have found it best to focus my response on the original piece. To put the whole matter in brief: the historians of science need to detach Kant’s treatment of generic preformation in nature from the use he makes of epigenesis with respect to cognition. The primary textual resources for the latter stem primarily from the 1770s—the so-called ‘silent decade’—and they are gathered from Kant’s letters, his lectures, his notes, and the marginal notations he made alongside the textbooks he used for his classes. Many scholars such as Wolfgang Carl, Paul Guyer, Beatrice Longuenesse, Patricia Kitcher, have relied on these materials for making sense of Kant’s theoretical programme during the silent decade. For researchers interested in Kant’s biological vocabulary, however, attention during this decade has gone instead to Kant’s published essays on race.

Kant’s epistemic programme in relief

By the end of the 1790s, that is, with the Critical system plainly in view, there are a number of published remarks pointing us toward the importance Kant placed on an organic approach toward Reason. It is helpful, nonetheless, to see the consistent manner in which Kant aligned his position with epigenesis in the Nachlass leading up to the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781. Indeed these notes indicate a separate problem for the interpretive approach taken by Sloan and his followers, and that is their failure to recognise the epistemic context within which epigenesis initially became attractive as a model for Kant theory of cognition in the first place. Kant left the 1760s determined to reorient metaphysics by way of attention to a new theory of mind. Central to this was Kant’s sense that scepticism could only be avoided so long as the theories under attack by Hume—those held by the innatists and the empiricists in their various stripes—were also avoided. It was at precisely this juncture in Kant’s development that epigenesis became a theory which seemed to offer an entirely different account of the generation of concepts.

This story regarding Kant’s intellectual development—Kant’s negotiation between rationalism and empiricism—is standard fare in any undergraduate course on the history of Modern philosophy, and it is so because it fits: it makes sense of Kant’s work in the 1760s and 70s to formulate an epistemological programme, and it makes both the goals and the achievement of transcendental idealism all the more clear. Reading Kant’s notes during the 1770s, it thus makes sense to see that even despite the seeming intrusion of biological vocabulary amidst the worries over logical subordination or the tasks allocated to the various faculties, Kant is consistent whenever it comes to the cast of characters he’s up against: Plato, Leibniz, and sometimes Malebranche, grouped together by Kant as mystics, preformationists, supporters of involution, and believers in intellectual intuition; Aristotle, Locke, and Crusius on the other side, supporting ‘physical influx’ or generatio aequivoca; and Kant’s own position in the middle, as an epigenesist. The ‘real principle of reason’, as Kant puts it early on, rests ‘on the basis of epigenesis from the use of the natural laws of reason’ (Refl., 17:492, cf. 17:554, 18:8, 18:12, 18:273–75).


[1] P. R. 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] Taking Kant’s attitude toward epigenesis in biological organisms as the key to interpreting his account of the epigenesis of reason is the approach taken by the majority of commentators. This is certainly true of John Zammito’s several discussions indebted to Sloan’s interpretation on this point, including most notably his article ‘”This inscrutable principle of an original organization”: epigenesis and “looseness of fit” in Kant’s philosophy of science’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 34 (2003): 73–109, also referenced by Hein van den Berg in his commentary. Marcel Quarfood reaches different conclusions than Sloan and Zammito regarding Kant’s supposed attitude toward preformation, but he follows the approach starting with Kant’s biological discussions when considering the epigenesis of reason; see his Transcendental Idealism and the Organism. Essays on Kant (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2004). This is also the case in Helmut Müller-Sievers’s discussion of Kant in Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy and Literature around 1800 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), and in François Duchesneau, ‘Épigenèse de la raison pure et analogies biologiques’, in Duchesneau et al (eds) Kant Actuel. Homage à Pierre Laberge (Montreal: Bellarmine, 2000): 233–56.

[3] Compared to many of the issues surrounding Kant’s theoretical philosophy, there has not been a great deal of work on Kant’s appeal to epigenesis in the Critique of Pure Reason. The best short essays remain Günter Zöller, ‘Kant on the Generation of Metaphysical Knowledge’, in H. Obererer and G. Seel (eds) Kant: Analysen-Probleme-Kritik (Wurzburg: Königshausen and Neumann, 1988), pp. 71–90, and Claude Piché, ‘The Precritical Use of the Metaphor of Epigenesis’, in T. Rockmore (ed.) New Essays on the Precritical Kant (NY: Humanity Books, 2001), pp. 182–200. Hans Ingensiep’s discussion in ‘Die biologischen Analogien und die erkenntnistheoretischen Alternativen in Kants Kritik der reinen Vernunft B §27’, Kant-Studien 85,4 (1994): 381–93, to which both Breitenbach and van den Berg refer, is significant for its attention to the distinctive philosophical requirements of the transcendental account. Here we should also note Ingensiep’s response to the Sloan-Zammito interpretation: ‘Organism, Epigenesis, and Life in Kant’s Thinking’, Annals of the History and Philosophy of Biology 11 (2006): 59–84, esp. pp. 70–3. An older essay offering definitions of the biological vocabulary used by Kant in the B-Deduction is provided by J. Wubnig, ‘The Epigenesis of Pure Reason. A Note on the Critique of Pure Reason, B, sec. 27, 165–168’, Kant-Studien 60,2 (1969): 147–52. A. C. Genova, also referenced by van den Berg, focuses on the epigenesis of reason in the B-Deduction, but primarily through the lens of Kant’s later remarks regarding the epigenesis of organisms in the Critique of Judgement; see his ‘Kant’s Epigenesis of Pure Reason’, Kant-Studien 65,3 (1974): 259–73.

© 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.


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Précis of Kant’s Organicism

Critique by Angela Breitenbach

Reply to Angela Breitenbach

Critique by Hein van den Berg