Spontaneous generation

The fantasy of the birth of concepts in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

RP 179 () / Article

In the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, at the end of the transcendental deduction of the categories, Kant distinguishes the doctrine of transcendental idealism from competing theories of knowledge – or, more specifically, theories of the relation between concepts and experience – by characterizing them in terms of various theories of biological generation. Transcendental idealism, he writes there, is ‘a system of the epigenesis of pure reason’, while empiricism is akin to generatio aequivoca (what we now call ‘spontaneous generation’). If there is a ‘middle way’ between these – Cartesian innatism, perhaps – it is ‘a kind of preformation-system of pure reason’.1

Attempts to explain the enigmatic idea of an ‘epigenesis of pure reason’ have tended to seek illumination from what is known of Kant’s theoretical commitments in and contributions to the natural sciences – specifically, theories of generation and embryological development – from which the metaphor is drawn. No one pretends that this is straightforward, not least because Kant’s position (especially during the period of the two editions of the Critique of Pure Reason) is difficult to pin down, and commentators have come to very different conclusions. Further, it is not simply a question of determining where Kant stood in relation to the competing theories in order to read that position back into the metaphor in the Critique of Pure Reason. For aspects of Kant’s philosophy were influential in biological theory itself. In particular, Kant’s explication and defence of the necessity of the regulative idea of purposiveness in the study of natural organisms in the ‘Critique of Teleological Judgment’ chimed with, and was further taken up in, some of the most important work in biology in Germany at that time.2 Connected with this, remarks in the Transcendental Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason show how Kant understood the essential regulative function of the ideas of pure reason in the field of natural history, concerning, specifically, the classification of nature, including classifications of ‘race’. Indeed, Kant’s own theory of race – a bio-geographical anthropology of human diversity – is both based on and suggests further developments in the theory of human generation.3

The Kant literature has recently become increasingly interested in his contributions to the natural, social and human sciences (particularly geography and anthropology) and their possible relations to the canonical philosophical works. Discussions of the metaphor of epigenesis in relation to eighteenth-century German biology are part of this trend and as such are intrinsically interesting. Furthermore, there is no other way into the metaphor of epigenesis than via these theories of biological generation, for they supply the frame of reference within which the metaphor works. However, the limitation of this approach is that it explains precisely nothing about transcendental idealism that we did not already know. Treating the biological theories, including Kant’s own contributions to those theories, as a neutral basis for explanation, commentators who take this approach attempt to produce some accommodation between the biological theory of epigenesis and the doctrine of transcendental idealism, to lay out the terms of an analogy between them, but they do not ask, further, what the ground of the affinity between them might be. In a sense, these are interpretations of the metaphor devoid of all suspicion. But there is something very suspicious about the metaphor of epigenesis in the Critique of Pure Reason, not least its exceedingly ill-fitting relation to the doctrine of transcendental idealism. These are also interpretations devoid of all criticism, both of the biological theories at issue and of Kant’s philosophy.

In what follows I will locate the metaphor, as one must, within the field of eighteenth-century theories of generation, but also view it textually, in the context of the larger set of metaphors of generation, birth and biological ancestry in the Critique of Pure Reason. For although this is the only reference to epigenesis in the Critique of Pure Reason, other biological metaphors and metaphors of generation permeate the book, most particularly and perhaps most unexpectedly where the characterization of the pure concepts of the understanding – ‘the ancestral concepts [Stammbegriffe] that comprise the pure cognition’4 – are concerned. Following this textual lead, I will suggest a …