Issue #64 August 2023

Kant on the Problem of the Organism

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "The Four Elements: Earth", (ca.1566)

Kant tackles the problem of the organism in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. What is the problem of the organism, as Kant construes it? He sees it as veritable enough to inaugurate a new antinomy on the basis of it, the Antinomy of the Power of Judgment. To put it simply and initially before undertaking a closer examination, the problem of the organism is that in the organism the mechanical order of explanation (explanation in terms of efficient causation) breaks down, and we are seemingly left with nothing but a recourse to a ‘spooky’ kind of causation, that in terms of ends and purposes (final causation). This emerges from organisms being structured (well, organized) in such a way that our ordinary order of explanation fails to grasp them.

I hope to show here that the problem of the organism is still very much alive, and that Kant’s discussion of it shouldn’t be seen as lacking our subsequent insights into biological mechanisms. Kant’s solution to the antinomy seems to be to affirm the mere methodological nature of our needing to summon an extra ‘spooky’ causation, based on our cognitive limitations. But this opens up a curious insight that I’ll explore briefly at the end. But first we need to see what Kant’s troubles consist in.


Transcendental laws vs empirical laws, necessary vs contingent

What’s Kant up to in the Critique of the Power of Judgment? One way of reading it is that Kant is trying to work out how to make sense, and how we make sense, of the myriad empirical laws we find in experience.1placeholder This makes it a logical continuation of the Critique of Pure Reason, but also radically inverted to it in aims. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant was interested in uncovering transcendental laws. These are laws that govern any and all experience, just insofar as it is a possible experience for beings constituted in the way that we are. So, if there is an experience, it is necessary (a priori) that it be spatially and temporarily extended (pure a priori forms of sensibility), and if an object is given in that experience, any object whatsoever, then it is necessary that it is related to other objects in a causal nexus, that it is either one or many, and so on (a priori categories of the understanding). These structures of experience define or demarcate, in a very broad way, what is a possible object of experience for us (and, thus, what is impossible to verify via any experience; hence the ‘critique’ of reason). Any posited objects that stand outside of these strictures, (god, noumena, etc), are relegated to a merely problematic status: perhaps useful, even indispensable, in guiding the mind and our investigations, but not something that can be asserted as known, or as existing once and for all.

But this is a very broad mesh: only what is possible in a transcendental sense. It is also a fact that in experience we find a world of myriad and diverse things that, of course all obey the broad transcendental conditions of entry, but, furthermore, also seem to obey particular laws which we can’t determine a priori merely by meditating on the structure of how we experience things generally. For example, some substances are soluble in water, others are not, but which ones are and which ones aren’t isn’t fixed by the rules governing experience generally, because the world could behave differently and we’d still be experiencing it. Thus, the monumental wealth of empirical research, though it must conform in general to the transcendental conditions outlined in the Critique of Pure Reason, must still be painstakingly extracted from experience itself.

Now, there is a tension here. In order for us to know an empirical law, we must comprehend it as necessarily acting, otherwise it would not be a law, and our science would just be a table of observations. But this necessity is not something we can derive a priori from the structures of our constitution, the way the general categories of experience were derived, because we need to make observations of the world to discover these laws. This means that despite us requiring necessity in the grasping of these laws, they are woven through with contingency: any particular empirical law could have been different, this is why we need to make observations, to find out how things stand precisely because there are so many possible ways for them to stand. For observation and description to graduate to explanation, ultimately these particular, contingent laws that govern particular, contingent phenomena, must be grounded in something necessary, and a priori. But the only things we can seemingly ground in this way are the broad structures of possibility of experience, not the fine grained, particular structures of actual empirical experiences.

This is the one of the general problematics of the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Kant turns to the faculty of judgment, as opposed to the understanding (with its necessary a priori concepts) to see if he can leverage, in the manner in which we judge phenomena, the kind of a priori necessity we need to unravel the above tension, and ground the myriad laws of nature, which seemingly could have been different in a solid, necessary foundation. Kant states the problem, and a tentative sketch of the solution in a passage within the extensive introduction, which is worth going through slowly:

“[W]e first find in the grounds of the possibility of an experience something necessary, namely the universal laws without which nature in general (as object of the senses) could not be conceived; and these rest on the categories, applied to the formal conditions of all intuition that is possible for us, insofar as it is likewise given to us a priori. E.g., the understanding says: All alteration has its cause (universal law of nature) … Now for nature in general (as the object of possible experience) that law is cognized as absolutely necessary.” (Kant, CJ, 5:183)

The understanding places the necessary formal conditions of all experience that is possible for us, so from it we can derive certain a priori necessary precepts: “Everything has a cause”, etc. Of course we can say that it is necessary that nature as we can know it always abides by this law. But this is too general to tell us about what is going on with particular phenomena, particular causes that we may be interested in.

“Now, however, the objects of empirical cognition are still determined or, as far as one can judge a priori, determinable in so many ways apart from that formal time-condition that specifically distinct natures, besides what they have in common as belonging to nature in general, can still be causes in infinitely many ways; and each of these ways must (in accordance with the concept of a cause in general) have its rule, which is a law, and hence brings necessity with it, although given the constitution and the limits of our faculties of cognition we have no insight at all into this necessity.” (ibid.)

That is to say, the phenomena we find in experience permit of a possible infinity of potential causes. From the necessary rule that “everything has a cause” we can’t derive the particular causes of particular phenomena necessarily, so they exist contingently. But since whatever causes phenomena happen to have must be conceived in terms of rules (to be true causes of phenomena at all), they are necessary; if we can’t grasp that necessity, then we can’t explain the rule that governs the cause. And, furthermore, to the question of “why these rules and not others?” they also appear contingent – we can’t answer that question a priori. Therefore, the ground of these empirical rules seems likewise contingent. Kant continues:

“Thus we must think of there being in nature, with regard to its merely empirical laws, a possibility of infinitely manifold empirical laws, which as far as our insight goes are nevertheless contingent (cannot be cognized a priori); and with regard to them we judge the unity of nature in accordance with empirical laws and the possibility of the unity of experience (as a system in accordance with empirical laws) as contingent.” (ibid.)

So, what goes for the part goes for the whole: the nature we find in experience hangs together in a systematic unity. It appears rule governed, our experience of it unified. But this unity, then, is just as contingent as the particular laws that govern particular phenomena, because, again, it cannot be derived from the form of experience, because a different set of laws, and thus a different unity, is possible in line with them, as well as the possibility of an incommensurability between sets of laws (think here of the ‘gap’ between quantum theory and relativity). But if contingency is to run through the whole package, what hope do we have to uncover laws which are by definition necessary?

“But since such a unity must still necessarily be presupposed and assumed, for otherwise no thoroughgoing interconnection of empirical cognitions into a whole of experience would take place, … the power of judgment must thus assume it as an a priori principle for its own use that what is contingent for human insight in the particular (empirical) laws of nature nevertheless contains a lawful unity, not fathomable by us but still thinkable, in the combination of its manifold into one experience possible in itself.” (ibid.)

Here the power of judgment comes to the rescue, by possessing its own a priori principle: in order to judge at all, to compare, to recognize, to explain, it is necessary that we assume that there is such an intelligible, law-like order within nature undergirding our judgments, otherwise we couldn’t investigate it at all. Since the faculty of judgment is the faculty whereby we not only subsume particulars under general or universal concepts, but also the faculty whereby we discover general concepts through an examination and comparison of particulars,2placeholder its activity presupposes that it operate under the axiom that there are general concepts (such as empirical laws) to be found instantiated or expressed in the particulars (Kant, CJ, 20:210).

But the sour twist is that this doesn’t mean that thereby we can know that there is a necessary order in the heart of the natural world, in which all of the particular empirical laws will bottom out into ever more fundamental ones, and all of the diversity of the world will be seen as the necessary consequence of some fundamental order, some grand unifying theory. Rather, all we can say is that the assumption that precisely this is the case undergirds all of our inquiries into the natural world. In that sense it is a necessary axiom, but not thereby asserted as true.3placeholder That is, we must soldier on with, say, the search for a grand unifying theory of physics as a necessary requirement to doing physics at all, but not thereby assert that one must necessarily exist (or, rather, that the laws described by such a theory must necessarily exist). For Kant, this ultimate ground of “lawful unity” is “not fathomable by us” (ibid.), despite still being thinkable. In fact, the thought of it is a necessary presupposition for thought concerning the nature of the world as such.4placeholder This relegates it to the status of the problematic (those propositions that are vital to assume in order to progress, but do not permit any possible verification).

So, contained within our power of judgment itself is a kind of a priori principle that governs how it is to work, but not thereby making premature claims about how the world is. In order for this to gain a continuity with the transcendental conditions that govern the possibility of experience in general, which do say things about how the world must appear to us, judgment needs to stick fast to the category of causation – here meaning efficient (mechanical) causation. In fact, for us, this is ultimately what it means to explain as such. To explain a phenomenon, to grasp its particular rule, is to show how it is the necessary effect of the interaction between its parts, and thus a particular example of the more general, a priori category of causation.

“We can and should be concerned to investigate nature, so far as lies within our capacity, in experience, in its causal connection in accordance with merely mechanical laws: for in these lie the true physical grounds of explanation, the interconnection of which constitutes scientific cognition of nature through reason.” (Kant, CJ, 20:235)

“It is of infinite importance to reason that it not allow the mechanism of nature in its productions to drop out of sight and be bypassed in its explanations; for without this no insight into the nature of things can be attained.” (Kant, CJ, 5:410)

Mechanical explanation seems vital because it goes in the right direction on the road to ever more fundamental laws, which garner more and more consistency within the diversity: phenomena as effects of parts, and parts as effects of their own parts, and so on, all in line with the basic and general category of causation that all phenomena should be apprehended as being both the effect of prior things and the cause of latter things, in an iron tight, unbroken nexus.

“The causal nexus, insofar as it is conceived merely by the understanding, is a connection that constitutes a series (of causes and effects) that is always descending; and the things themselves, which as effects presuppose others as their causes, cannot conversely be the causes of these at the same time. This causal nexus is called that of efficient causes (nexus effectivus).” (Kant, CJ, 5:372)

The power of judgment assumes a total order, or hierarchy, of mechanical laws, even if from the perspective of the understanding, and the broad conditions of merely possible experience, particular empirical laws appear contingent, could have been otherwise, yet nevertheless from this assumed total order, the particular laws now become necessary from the perspective of judgment. For example, from the standard of the mere conditions of possibility for experience, any experience, in general, the four fundamental forces of physics appear contingent. Why these forces, at these intensities, and not others? But from the assumption that the four fundamental forces seamlessly give rise to further dynamics, and are themselves instances of even fewer, more fundamental forces (which perhaps we would never be able to grasp, prove, or disprove empirically) then the four forces being what they are is absolutely necessary relative to this wider structure – they are a necessary consequence of more elementary structures, and are the a priori condition for higher-level, particular phenomena.

So, reason hopes to know the world, the understanding places bounds on what an intelligible inquiry into the world must conform to (mechanical causation, necessary laws), and judgment uses the mandate of reason and the conditions of the understanding to form its own a priori principle to govern its activity in the uncovering of the myriad of empirical laws through observation/reflection. We can further characterize it thus: understanding, through the categories furnishes experience with a field of consistency, reason demands that this plane be extended infinitely, judgment, then, in grappling with a diverse multiplicity or manifold (look at these thermodynamics, look at these chemical processes, look at these astronomical orbits) accepts its mandate to explain, but in hoping not to perturb either of the a priori faculties, operates a priori that they should not be disturbed or contradicted: each particular, idiosyncratic law discovered is cognized alongside a promissory note that it will be integrated seamlessly into a system of deeper laws – all forming a total system of nature which, unfortunately, is probably beyond its (our) ability to grasp (insofar as runs much deeper than empirical investigation allows).

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "The Four Elements: Air", (ca.1566)

The problem of the organism

However, things begin to get rocky when Kant turns to investigating organisms. Here are objects out there in the world, part of the manifold of things in nature, which of course we would want to inquire into as to the laws that govern them, but immediately judgment runs into an issue: we cannot even begin to grasp these things in terms of mechanical explanation, because from the vantage of mechanical explanation, they appear contingent. The very dynamic that converted the contingency of physical laws into necessary parts of a total and seamless mechanical system now backfires – it cannot extend to organized matter without this organized matter now itself appearing contingent. It is only from the perspective of ends, or final causes, that any part of the organism, or even the whole organism itself, and its species, can appear necessary. Mechanical (efficient) causation cannot grasp this necessity, despite how it helped us before find necessity in seemingly contingent physical laws. Why?

Kant gives us a nice example, in the anatomy of a bird:

“For if one adduces, e.g., the structure of a bird, the hollowness of its bones, the placement of its wings for movement and of its tail for steering, etc., one says that given the mere nexus effectivus [nexus of efficient causes] in nature, without the help of a special kind of causality, namely that of ends (nexus finalis [nexus of final causes]), this is all in the highest degree contingent: i.e., that nature, considered as a mere mechanism, could have formed itself in a thousand different ways without hitting precisely upon the unity in accordance with such a rule, and that it is therefore only outside the concept of nature, not within it, that one could have even the least ground a priori for hoping to find such a principle.” (Kant, CJ, 5:360)

First, it is useful for our purposes to note how Kant identifies the nexus of efficient causes with nature itself, insofar as the ‘therefore’ derives that the principle (or law) of an organism must be found outside of the concept of nature, from the fact that from the perspective of the nexus of efficient causes the structure of the organism can only be seen as contingent (thus permitting of no law). But why should an organism appear contingent when seen purely from the mechanical total structure which the power of judgment has been using to derive necessity thus far?

Kant seems to be repeating the structure from before: given the laws of mechanism, the bird could have been structured in a thousand different ways, much the same way that the transcendental laws of possible experience permitted of countless possible networks of causal relations, so cannot determine the actual ones we discover through empirical investigation. In like fashion, the laws of mechanism are too broad to explain why this bird is structured like this, and not in some other way (even just as a lump of carbon sitting in a puddle). If this is all Kant meant, then he is open to the response that we can tell a straightforward (though incredibly long) causal story about a lineage of creatures, stretching back to a primordial sludge, reproducing and dodging death, occasionally mutating – a lineage of successful reproducers who ran the gamut of life and managed against all odds to pass the torch before they were snuffed out. If that story, that near infinite chain of efficient causes outlining countless individual events in the full family history of the specific bird, were read out, then it would appear as necessary that this bird, here, should be flitting around on that tree right now, looking just the way it does (very much like the daughter of its two parents).

But this is not all Kant meant (that efficient, mechanical causation is too broad to capture the necessity of a particular bird), instead it is a mere consequence of what he’s driving at. With the description of the bird’s parts he’s hoping to emphasise that the bird is a structure of heterogenous elements. These elements come together in such a way that the bird can live and hop and fly and digest and sing and so on; the myriad mechanical processes going on in, and on, and through, the bird seem to be directed in service of these ends, and coordinated in their disparate registers towards these ends.

There needn’t be anything super-spooky going on here, in the genre of ‘intelligent designers crafting organisms for purposes’, Kant militates against precisely this kind of explanation as vacuous.5placeholder Rather, there is just something a little spooky going on: when we come to study the anatomy of the bird, and discover its bones are hollow, for example, and wonder why, we can give a bio-chemical explanation for how the proteins and calcium and so on all conflagrated to generate this hollow physical structure, but in a sense this explanation misses something vital: the link between hollow bones and flight. And it is not that the bird’s bones have been hollowed out by so much flight in its past (efficient causation), but that the bones are hollow in order that the bird may fly (final causation), in coordination with its wings, and its heart, and almost every other part of the bird. We can give bio-chemical explanations for all of these bird bits, but as we tirelessly enumerate so many chemical interactions the bird, in its flight, disappears from view, and now it is unclear what we are explaining, and how this mess of chemicals forms into any kind of singular structure worthy of singular inquiry. From the mechanical vantage, the bird vanishes.

“Now if we consider a material whole, as far as its form is concerned, as a product of the parts and of their forces and their capacity to combine by themselves (including as parts other materials that they add to themselves), we represent a mechanical kind of generation. But from this there arises no concept of a whole as an end, whose internal possibility presupposes throughout the idea of a whole on which even the constitution and mode of action of the parts depends, which is just how we must represent an organized body.” (Kant, CJ, 5:408)

That is to say, we can represent an organism in no other way (in our everyday judging as well as in our scientific inquiries) than as being a sort of basic thing or element – but once we do this, an explication of the myriad mechanical processes occurring in it does not quite add up to the whole, because we can only understand the ground of these processes (why they are occurring here, just like this, at this time) through the whole of which they are the parts. To give up on that representation is to give up on the very idea of an organized body, a particular schematic, structural, plan that we were hoping to explain in the first place, leaving us with a blurry sludge of chemical processes that we can no longer ground in anything in regards to their present actuality, and thus they fall into contingency.

However, these same chemical processes when read through the total structural plan of the bird become grounded in a necessity, required by our search for laws: the bones grew hollow because they’re the bones of a thing that flies. When related to a what-is-it-for, we can now answer satisfactorily the question of ‘why’. But, this, then, is introducing a final causation working in the opposite direction from the mechanical causation preferred by the understanding. All the same, in order to understand organized beings, it is indispensable to see them as organized wholes coordinating and engendering their parts just at the same time as the parts engender the whole.

So, the problem is that organisms cannot be seen, as mechanism requires, as merely a bundle of purely external relations or interactions between parts, the effect of which is the whole, because we need to, in addition, reference the whole to explain the parts. A bird is not just what you get when a couple of wings bang onto a torso filled with a random assortment of organs – a bird is a particular ‘body plan’ which necessarily entails wings and torso and organs being just as they are, precisely where they are, and able to mechanically interact as they do. The problem of the organism is this reciprocal conditioning between, on the one hand, interacting parts creating the whole (the unity, the complete organism), while simultaneously, on the other hand, the whole causing the parts to develop and emerge.

“For a body, therefore, which is to be judged as a natural end in itself and in accordance with its internal possibility, it is required that its parts reciprocally produce each other, as far as both their form and their combination is concerned, and thus produce a whole out of their own causality, the concept of which, conversely, is in turn the cause … of it in accordance with a principle; consequently the connection of efficient causes could at the same time be judged as an effect through final causes.” (Kant, CJ, 5:373)


Natural ends/Internal purposiveness

Kant calls this strange reciprocal causation variously the concept of a “natural end” and “internal purposiveness”. Ends and purposes are firmly in the realm of teleology and final causation, but Kant is careful here to distinguish this kind of purposiveness which we are drawn to ascribe to organisms from the kinds of final causation, or means and ends talk, that suffice in our explanation of artefacts and human behaviour:

“Strictly speaking, the organization of nature is therefore not analogous with any causality that we know.” (Kant, CJ, 5:375)

So, what is this unique form of causality? It does operate in accordance with a kind of purposiveness, but this is an internal purposiveness, as opposed to external purposiveness. To say that something exhibits an external purposiveness is to say that its purpose is to be found outside of it – in something or someone that would use it for some or other ends. So, for example, a tool exhibits purposiveness, but we only grasp this by considering a person who made it for some ends, and would use it as means to those ends. Throughout nature we also find this kind of external purposiveness, when we, for example, think about the favourable role a river delta plays for myriad species and even nascent human civilizations. However, we don’t thereby become trapped in thinking of these things as though they came to be purely for the benefit of what they make possible – it is just a manner of speaking. Even in the example of a tool, we can regard it purely as fashioned matter, as an object, and disengage our perspective on it in terms of purposes, without thereby losing sight of it.

But in the case of organisms, who exhibit an internal purposiveness, it seems impossible for us to shake the idea that, say, the parts of the rabbit really do come to be in order to make a rabbit, that the overall structure of the rabbit is self-propagating through the generation (and healing, and nourishing) of its parts, that a rabbit is thing for making more rabbits, etc. This internal purposiveness presses us to see that the rabbit is its own purpose, its activity is purposeful not for, or to, or in, another, but to its own continued existence as a whole, from its broad anatomical schema, right down to the molecular processes churning away in each of its cells. We can’t shake off this perspective, like we could in the case of the tool, without thereby losing the rabbit qua rabbit, which then undermines what we’re trying to explain with this examination of these molecular processes. There’s no worthwhile science of rabbit shoulder blades – the shoulder blade of a rabbit is only worth studying in the context of the skeleton of a rabbit (which in turn is worth studying because of the anatomy of the rabbit, which in turn is a thing to be studied because we have rabbits). Contrast this with calcium, which is a perfectly interesting object to study in its own right (in regards to its possible external relations with other elements, and so on), whether or not it happened to be utilized in the skeletons of organisms.

From the perspective of this novel form of causality, of parts and wholes reciprocally causing each other, we can now grasp the rules that govern the organism, and its parts, as necessary as opposed to contingent, by seeing how they emerge from wider wholes. Predation and forward-facing eyes, wings for flight, a heart needs lungs, etc. Evolutionary explanation is indeed just in this vein, where we explain the parts of an organism, and its overall structural scheme, in terms of its wider environment, and its inner purposiveness in surviving and reproducing itself. In a sense we have to explain organisms in this non-mechanical way: insofar as the particular organization of these beings is the thing to be explained, we need to grasp them as organized, which is to summon this curious reciprocal causality between parts and wholes. A curious world of self-propagating structures, transforming matter into themselves. Indeed, we can’t even look at a bird, qua bird (as opposed to a bag of chemicals and minerals) without seeing it through the lens of this internal purposiveness, or as a natural end.

Furthermore, it’s only in these terms that we can even grasp categories like ‘mutation’, ‘adaptation’ or ‘pathological’. Mechanically speaking, a two headed rabbit is no aberration, insofar as there are no doubt precise chemical and physical causes for it being the way that it is. Likewise with raging cancer cells, or a three-legged dog, or a particularly advantageous adaptation. The particularity and significance of these phenomena is completely lost through the lens of mechanism; we need to reference some unity that is active in relation to the generation of its parts, and attempting through the generation of these parts to preserve and further itself as unity, to even understand these ‘pathological’ or ‘mutated’ or ‘advantageous’ instances.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, "The Four Elements: Water", (ca.1566)

The antinomy

This raises a serious issue for our work of investigating the world and apprehending its particular laws. On the one hand, as we saw at the beginning, the whole world as it is found to be appears contingent for the understanding, for the transcendental conditions of possible experience in general. But its lawlike regularity could be assumed insofar as it issued from the ground of the unified field of experience, via the universal application of mechanical principles, and the promise that these laws would form a total system. In the context of this assumption, empirical laws could be grounded in necessity. A clockwork universe, with a grand unifying theory of matter at the base of it. On the other hand, though, in the living world are myriad beings that, at least in our way of understanding them, are structures of matter that appear utterly contingent from a mechanical point of view. In order to discover the law governing these particular, organized, configurations of matter it becomes necessary to invoke a special kind of non-mechanical causation. This leads to the Antinomy of the Power of Judgment:

“The first maxim of the power of judgment is the thesis: All generation of material things and their forms must be judged as possible in accordance with merely mechanical laws.

The second maxim is the antithesis: Some products of material nature cannot be judged as possible according to merely mechanical laws (judging them requires an entirely different law of causality, namely that of final causes).” (Kant, CJ, 5:387)

That is, judgment has two contradictory maxims, or axioms, with which to proceed in its search for laws. On the one hand, mechanical explanation is the rule to proceed by in all cases, on the other, some things require the rule to be broken and a new one used in its stead, that of explaining things in terms of final causation (in the sense of this special causation of inner purposiveness described above). But if the solution to the key problematic of the Critique of the Power Judgment was that a contingent empirical law could become necessary if related to a total system, then we seemingly can’t just alternate systems as we move from the physics department to the biology department without undermining both of them. A prickly problem.

There’s much debate over what Kant’s intends his solution to be.6placeholder On a surface level, he denies there is a true antinomy here, because both principles are merely regulative maxims, they make no comment on how things really stand, but only about how it is prudent to proceed. Therefore, we can switch them as we switch objects of inquiry, or as differing interrogative strategies. So, we can hold to the priority of mechanical explanation, while admitting it is occasionally useful to think of organisms as natural ends to help us uncover potential novel lines for further mechanical explanation. Inner purposiveness becomes a kind of shorthand, or brain storming tool, in service of a mechanical vision of the world. Seen as merely regulative principles, then, there is perhaps no contradiction.

Yet, at the same time, we need to remember that we can’t even grasp an organism but as a kind of self-organizing structure in terms of inner purposiveness. The tension seems real, insofar as it is true that we feel compelled to explain things in the mechanical order (wholes as effects of the interaction between parts) in order to have anything worthy of the name ‘explanation’ at all, yet organisms complicate this procedure: they’re not even ‘visible’ when moving within the mechanical order.

This is perhaps why Kant continues on at length, despite seemingly writing off the antinomy as just two differing strategies on inquiring into objects. In proper Kantian fashion, he argues that the most we can say about this unhappy tension, without saying things we’re not justified in saying, is that it is an unhappy tension for beings like us. This leaves open the possibility for differently constituted beings for whom this tension doesn’t exist: perhaps because they can fully grasp how purposive structure can emerge from blind mechanism necessarily, or perhaps they are able to grasp a unifying principle that unites both forms of causality as a necessary consequence of one more fundamental. Seeing ourselves in comparison to such an intelligence, we can understand something of our own contingency: a poor understanding that can only comprehend the world in the downward direction of mechanism, of parts causing wholes, not in the ‘upward’ direction of finality, of wholes causing their parts.

“Now, however, we can also conceive of an understanding which, since it is not discursive like ours but is intuitive, goes from the synthetically universal (of the intuition of a whole as such) to the particular, i.e., from the whole to the parts … In accordance with the constitution of our understanding, by contrast, a real whole of nature is to be regarded only as the effect of the concurrent moving forces of the parts.” (Kant, CJ, 5:407)

“it is merely a consequence of the particular constitution of our understanding that we represent products of nature as possible only in accordance with another kind of causality than that of the natural laws of matter, namely only in accordance with that of ends and final causes, and that this principle does not pertain to the possibility of such things themselves (even considered as phenomena) in accordance with this sort of generation, but pertains only to the judging of them that is possible for our understanding. From this we at the same time understand why in natural science we are far from being satisfied with an explanation of the products of nature by means of causality in accordance with ends, since here we are required to judge the generation of nature as is appropriate for our faculty for judging them.” (Kant, CJ, 5:408)

So, being as we are, we must live with this tension, which all the same is not quite a contradiction, because we don’t know what fundamental structures the world possesses that give rise to the myriad of things we find in experience, both living and unliving: such foundations are beyond the horizon of what we can interrogate into, what we can hope to prove or disprove, given the very way that we are. That we have this tension does not mean there’s a contradiction deep down in the world (or, Kant will remind us, a bug in the transcendental philosophy). But, this means that each and every organism, every sparrow and blade of grass, is something that represents something of a glitch in an otherwise unified field. This glitch is the thing that points us to something more fundamental, something ‘outside’ our mode of cognizing the world. We can see this in the tortured and paradox riddled way we are forced to just formulate the novel causality of inner purposiveness:

[the parts causing the whole, while at the same time the whole causes the parts, but not in two sequential causal lines, but one reciprocal bi-directional cause, which we have to express as travelling in two directions, but is in fact just one process.]

The formulation of this novel causality has the character of having more caveats than positive terms, as though the way we must represent organisms when we grasp them can only be negative, a ‘like this but not quite, but not quite that either’. A real sense that we’re scratching at the limits of the representable world, and the bounds of the possibility of experience set by the understanding. Of course, we can just retreat to mechanism, and pretend birds qua birds don’t really exist, that there is just an undulating field of contingent and mechanical material interactions over there, focussing on how hollow bones form rather than why they form. And with such a move we are firmly within the bounds set by the understanding. But, it’s not really possible to maintain this perspective for long. The bird squawks, and there it is, sitting there, turning its head, half within the limits of possible experience, as a blob of coloured matter, but half just beyond them, as a strange process turning matter into colourful birds.

This can mean that the common dramatization of ‘brute’ matter, and blind mechanism, as being the powerful antagonist and ultimate executioner of the living, as the never-ending desert that grinds all life inevitably to sand and dust, perhaps is unwarranted. It is the living that undermines matter, antagonizes it, endlessly consumes it and exudes it through its own forms. It is the glitch which exposes the gaps in the quiet material field and points beyond it, to somewhere we can’t grasp but only dimly, in the figure of an owl, a plum, a pine, a toad.

John C. Brady is doing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Sydney. He is also a co-editor of this magazine, for full disclosure.


There are other ways of narrating the third Critique. For example, the astute reader will notice that I don’t even touch on the beautiful or sublime, the two most famous concepts from the work. My reading here is trying to find a ‘shortest route’ to the antinomy of judgment, and the problem of the organism, that makes up the Analytic of the Teleological Power of Judgment section.


Think inductive reasoning.


This class of principles (necessary axioms that permit of no verification one way or the other) is what Kant refers to as a ‘problematic’ principle.


One can thus see the Kantian origins of the ‘anthropic principle’ in physics: to the question of “why just these fundamental forces, just as they are, and not others?” we have the reply “because if not them, and in just the way that they are, you wouldn’t be here to ask that question (because the universe would not have formed in such a way that planets or life would be possible)”. So, we don’t get a necessity within the fundamental observable laws, but instead a necessity based on our position of judging, except for with Kant this dialectic operates in every act of judgment, not merely when we ask the question that the anthropic principle is a reply to.


Though the picture here is a little more complex for Kant. It seems to me he works very hard to try to preserve some form of the teleological argument for the existence of god, but not in the dogmatic mode (where we use organization of organisms to posit the existence of an super-sensible entity) but now in the critical mode (where we acknowledge that because of the limitations of our cognitive abilities we need to provisionally operate as though things have been intentionally designed by an intelligent creator as a theoretical expedient). There’s a sense where his sympathies for the argument press him on a project to see if he can find some safe haven for it in his critical system. However, this is mainly a biographical question of what Kant happened to believe and where his sympathies lay, rather than a philosophical question of what Kant’s arguments establish. Of course, I’m sure this might be a controversial view.


For a good overview of the interpretive debate, see Watkins (2019) “Kant on Laws”, Cambridge University Press, Chapter 7 (The Antinomy of Teleological Judgment).


August 2023


On The Validity of Normative Life: Habermas’ Discourse Ethics

by Rowan Anderson

Between Historical Reduction & Metaphysical Construction: Critiques of Representation in Foucault and Deleuze

by Turner Roth

Kant on the Problem of the Organism

by John C. Brady

Popular and Generational Shifts in Cultural Capital

by Diego Galán