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The Eighteenth-Century Theory of Epigenesis Epigenesis was a theory of generation giving expression to the fundamental eighteenth-century intuition of hylozoism. All the impasses of discourse in the linked spheres of metaphysics, physical theory, biology, and anthropology came to be bound up in the problem of hylozoism.

That is: what properties could intelligibly be ascribed to matter, and how would this explain such questions as the causal relations of distinct substances, the principles of action at a distance, chemical attraction, electricity and heat, the mysteries of biological generation, and the mind-body relation? Eighteenthcentury natural science pursued the most speculative hypotheses Newton felt prepared to interject into later editions of his Opticks, centered around the properties that could legitimately be considered inherent in particulate matter.

Above all, it imputed to nature a vastly grander dynamism, spontaneity, and mutability.


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There were three decisive frontiers of inquiry, three breaking points in the continuum of general scientific theory. He made the simple point that since we could know nothing of real essences, we were not entitled to debar the possibility that God could endow matter with the power of thought. Through it, as well, they proposed to explain the continuity of animal and man using comparative anatomy to access comparative physiology. The debate between preformation and epigenesis in the eighteenth century is well known to have occasioned both metaphysical and methodological controversies over the relation of mechanism to animism.

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Generation ceased to be a scientific problem. Preformation signified avoidance of science, a stipulative denial of the very possibility of a life science. But preformation nevertheless faced serious empirical anomalies. Not only could it not comfortably explain inheritance of traits from both parents, or monstrous births, or hybrid species, but 54 Zammito it also implied empirical verification of its postulated animalcula under the increasingly effective gaze of embryological microscopy.

For the formative faculty. Spontaneity and systematicity were thus central features. Crucially, Harvey and his early eighteenth-century successors, Maupertuis and Buffon, believed that epigenesis could be assimilated to a materialist approach to science and that it utilized mechanisms, even if it could not be reduced to mechanism. Buffon and Maupertuis launched the eighteenth-century revolt against preformation by reasserting epigenesis.

Ironically enough, the path-breaking work on irritability and sensibility of the leading preformationist, Albrecht von Haller, contributed substantially to the very methodology that he found unacceptable when called on in support of epigenesis.

Kant and the Concept of Community

His vis essentialis was conceived as a Newtonian force that induced through certain chemical processes the production of organic matter out of inorganic matter in accordance with regular and empirically demonstrable patterns. Reflexivity, finally, has to do with the self-regulating, self-forming dimension as a persistent feature of life-forms, over and above the question of their emergence de novo. Each of these elements poses decisive challenges, methodologically and metaphysically, to a physical science on the sort of Newtonian foundations Kant preferred.

At the metaphysical end of this spectrum lie the problems of radical novelty in a model that stresses systematic causal determination and, conversely, of the persistent determinacy of specific life forms: why there is so much regularity in a context of apparently radical freedom. Kant had metaphysical positions to defend: the traditional notion of a transcendent, intelligent Deity who created the world ex nihilo, and the notion of individual moral responsibility, which in his view required man to have at least noumenal freedom.

There were few ideas Kant struggled to keep divided more than life and matter. First, he wished to secure the distinction of organic life from the inorganic, affirming the uniqueness and mystery of organisms as phenomena of empirical nature, and upholding the utter inexplicability of the origins of life. The only power capable of self-determination, Kant emphasized, was intelligent will. Intelligent will could never be found in phenomena; it was not part of nature. It was a noumenal property. This categorical separation motivated Kant to insist on the irrevocable fixity of all species and even of human races.

In a series of writings from to Kant struggled to secure natural science against what he took to be wildly speculative notions proliferating in the emergent sciences that we now call chemistry and biology. Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, written in the summer of , articulated these concerns: first, it asserted categorically the distinction of life from matter; second, it developed a restrictive formulation of Newtonian force; but, above all, it prescribed limits for scientific investigation according to what Kant viewed as sound Newtonian method.

But in the latter case we must, if such a product is to be a natural product, either presuppose organized matter as the instrument of that soul, which does not make the soul a whit more comprehensible, or regard the soul as artificer of this structure, and so remove the product from corporeal nature. It maintains that growth is quantitative growth of preexisting parts. We will therefore follow the pure concepts up to their first germs and capacities [Keimen und Anlagen] in the human understanding, in which they lie predisposed, until they finally, on the occasion of experience, develop and through exactly the same understanding are displayed in their purity, freed from their attending empirical conditions.

Moreover, Kant meant to suggest an element in the analogy would be central to his thinking throughout, namely, that just as Keime and Anlagen were inaccessible to ultimate derivation, so too the concepts of the understanding were 58 Zammito simply givens behind which we could not seek. The clearest formulation is in the revised version of the first Critique: This peculiarity of our understanding, that it can produce a priori unity of apperception solely by means of the categories, and only such and so many, is as little capable of further explanation as why we have just these and no other functions of judgment, or why space and time are the only forms of our possible intuition.

He wishes to reject the system of evolution on the one hand, but also the purely mechanical influence of external causes on the other, as worthless explanations. He assumes that the cause of such differences is the vital principle [Lebensprinzip] which modifies itself from within in accordance with variations in external circumstances, and in a manner appropriate to these.

The reviewer is fully in agreement with him here, but with this reservation: if the cause which organizes from within were limited by its nature to only a certain number and degree of differences in the development of the creature which it organizes so that, once these differences were exhausted, it would no longer be free to work from another archetype [Typus] under altered circumstances , one could well describe this natural development of formative nature in terms of germs [Keime] or original dispositions [Anlagen], without thereby regarding the differences in question as originally implanted and only occasionally activated mechanisms or buds [Knospen] as in the system of evolution ; on the contrary, such differences should be regarded simply as limitations imposed on a self-determining power, limitations which are inexplicable as the power itself is incapable of being explained or rendered comprehensible.

In his second essay on race in , Kant reiterated his fundamental principles, making even more explicit his commitment to the fixity of species. I for my part adopt it as a fundamental principle to recognize no power. All organic form had to be fundamentally distinguished from mere matter. Therefore we must see such developments which appear accidental according to them, as predetermined [vorgebildet]. The first answer is that Kant appropriated the term from Herder. All that required was a two-step process.

Thereafter, the organized principles within the natural world could proceed on adaptive mechanical lines. Even so, this seemed to postulate the objective actuality of these forces for natural science. In his Metaphysics Lectures Kant left us some crucial evidence regarding how he conceived the juxtaposition of preformation and epigenesis. First, Kant found the contrast of educt and product crucial for his conceptualization.

Kant saw this as a mode of thought already established in chemistry and he clearly saw the theories of generation in the life sciences as variants of the same method of conceptualization. Thus there were, for him, only two theoretical possibilities for the generation of bodies or souls , namely, preformation the educt-theory and epigenesis the product-theory. Kant presented epigenesis in both sets of notes as a hypothetical, not an assertoric judgment: if we have grounds for assuming the epigenesis theory, then.

That Kant found it appropriate to draw an analogy of his own transcendental method in philosophy to epigenesis in embryology suggests that something very central was involved for him in this issue in the life sciences. But we must be sensitive to the uses of analogy that Kant was prepared to acknowledge, as Hans Ingensiep has argued. How exactly did Kant employ this analogy of transcendental philosophy to epigenesis at B of the first Critique?

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Since Kant stipulated that we already knew that the categories had to be a priori, only the second option was really available. In the B Deduction, he drew a new analogy to generatio aequivoca—spontaneous generation—already an exploded idea in the natural science of the day. That bond could be achieved only if it were self-formed, not endowed, even by God. But that still does not resolve the problem. What could Kant possibly have been thinking at B? Why, for the first time, would he have put preformation in a negative context and epigenesis in a remarkably and unprecedentedly positive one?

That is, the metaphysical issue with epigenesis was still hylozoism. Was there something that Kant now saw in the idea of epigenesis that could help him to elucidate the peculiar and essential spontaneity of the understanding in his transcendental deduction? Kant wanted to stress the difference between a Leibnizian sense of the innate capacities of mind and a Cartesian sense of innate ideas. That is, it had to be a real cause of knowledge , though a cause in a sense different from what would be asserted within specific empirical judgments regarding sensible intuition.

If epigenesis needs to be understood on the model of a product, what were the necessary preconditions for immanent emergence? We have reason to suspect that Kant—however clear he may have been about what he wanted to accomplish in the transcendental deduction—may not have grasped clearly what he was playing with in the analogy to epigenesis. Stealing it from Herder may have gratified him; it may even have led him to an increased clarity about the sort of spontaneity he needed for the origination and systematicity of his categories.

But how was he to square his reservations with the revolution in thinking about epigenesis inaugurated by Blumenbach in ? Kant referred to Blumenbach in a footnote, invoking the first edition of the Handbuch der Naturgeschichte , which Kant owned. In that new work, Blumenbach strongly repudiated any sense of germs [Keime]. Most tellingly, he persisted in his use of Keime.


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What bound them most together was their commitment to the fixity of species. But how could the transmutationist implications of epigenesis be contained within the limits of the fixity of species? But it was not simply a methodological issue, however dire. There was also an essential metaphysical component: hylozoism.

Perhaps most prominent was an explicit Newtonian analogy. One indication, as Phillip Sloan has noted, was that Kant suppressed any mention of Keime in that work, though it still thronged with the term Anlage. It is important to distinguish two quite distinct 64 Zammito sets of discriminations in the Critique of Judgment that both point back to B but have different implications. The contrast, however, is not to epigenesis or to preformation, but rather to generatio univoca, which Kant further subdivides into generatio homonyma and generatio heteronyma. While spontaneous generation was once again dismissed as contradictory, Kant asserted that transmutation of species generatio heteronyma was not contradictory, only unfound in experience.

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Thus, the issue at stake in this discrimination is the principle of the persistence of species. Here, Kant postulated that we must think of organisms on the analogy of an intelligent creation and that when we do so we face alternatives that can best be grasped in terms drawn from metaphysics i. The categories Kant offered were occasionalism and prestabilism. First, it is apparent that Kant reconfigured his whole conceptualization under the aegis of preformation.

That suggests that a different point is being made in the latter distinction, and indeed this point has to do with the character of the causality that must be employed in conceptualizing organic forms altogether, namely, the inadequacy not merely of mechanism but above all of materialism. But what is also clear, as Sloan has argued, is that Kant had still not come to terms with the implications for his analogy between epigenesis and transcendental philosophy.

He is actually claiming that living processes must be viewed in terms of the idea of a free cause. He craved, above all, a universe sharply categorized and classified and tied up in orderly parcels.

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All translations of Kant are by the author. Heimann and J. Hermann E.

Kant's Ethics

Boedeker et al. Otto Dann et al.