Naturalising purpose: From comparative anatomy to the ‘adventures of reason’

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hunean, philippe
preprint description
Kant’s analysis of the concept of natural purpose in the Critique of judgment captured several features of organisms that he argued warranted making them the objects of a special field of study, in need of a special regulative teleological principle. By showing that organisms have to be conceived as self-organizing wholes, epigenetically built according to the idea of a whole that we must presuppose, Kant accounted for three features of organisms conflated in the biological sciences of the period: adaptation, functionality and conservation of forms..Kant’s unitary concept of natural purpose was subsequently split in two directions: first by Cuvier’s comparative anatomy, that would draw on the idea of adaptative functions as a regulative principle for understanding in reconstituting and classifying organisms; and then by Goethe’s and Geoffroy’s morphology, a science of the general transformations of living forms. However, such general transformations in nature, objects of an alleged ‘archaeology of nature’, were thought impossible by Kant in the §80 of the Critique of judgment. Goethe made this ‘adventure of reason’ possible by changing the sense of ‘explanation’: scientific explanation was shifted from the investigation of the mechanical processes of generation of individual organisms to the unveiling of some ideal transformations of types instantiated by those organisms.