Kant’s Teleology, the Concept of the Organism, and the Context of Contemporary Biology

Toepfer, Georg
For Kant, the main aim of teleology in nature is to identify or to segregate as a particular class of objects certain types of causal systems, specifically, systems of interdependent parts. With the development of physiology as a distinct science at the beginning of the 18th century, the idea of interdependence or reciprocity of parts in a system was well-established as a fundamental principle for the specification of organisms. Kant combined the ideas of teleology and causal reciprocity in his systems-theoretical foundation of organized beings in nature. In the analysis of such systems teleological thinking, i.e. the focus on end states or outcomes, is prevalent because the outcome of each process is relevant for the perpetuation of the system as a whole. Teleological thinking thus plays a methodological role in Kant’s philosophy of nature. Its status is merely reflective, in that it neither postulates a separate ontological category for living beings nor does it constrain mechanical explanations. But at the same time, teleology is constitutive for a particular class of objects and their scientific study.