A science for gods, a science for humans: Kant on teleological speculations in natural history

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Kant's forthright rejection of rampant, ungrounded speculations in natural science, including in natural history, is well known. For instance, he dismisses the wild, unwarranted developmental histories of other early natural historians, such as Buffon and Herder, as “daring adventure[s] of reason.” However, as I show in this paper, Kant himself made use of teleological speculations in natural history, particularly in his three essays on race. I argue that, for Kant, speculations about nature's purposes are necessary to explain and to buttress the unification of organisms in real species, despite observable and heritable variations among members of these species. Without hypothesizing about nature's intentions, a mechanical, efficient-causal account of nature cannot appropriately ground the unity of species. Hence, I depict Kant's account of natural history as threading a needle between merely mechanical accounts of nature – which are incapable of achieving the goals of the science – and freewheeling, conjectural narratives about the origin and development of the Earth, life, and humanity. In the end, I conclude that my account reveals a substantive role for the faculty of reason in natural history, which dovetails with recent work on Kant's views on the non-physical sciences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-55
Number of pages9
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A
StatePublished - Aug 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
An early version of this argument was presented at the Kantian Rationality in Philosophy of Science conference hosted by the Kantian Rationality Lab at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, Kaliningrad, in October 2020. I thank the organizers – Nina Dmitrieva, Thomas Sturm, and Andrey Zilber – for the opportunity to flesh out these ideas and the workshop participants for their questions. A fragment of the argument also appeared in a colloquium presentation given at KU Leuven in February 2020, at which point I benefitted from discussion with Henny Blomme, Karin de Boer, and Stephen Howard. I am particularly grateful to William Marsolek and Jessica Williams each for their detailed feedback on an earlier draft of the paper. Finally, I greatly appreciate the trenchant, while sympathetic, comments from two anonymous referees.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 Elsevier Ltd


  • Kant
  • Natural history
  • Race
  • Reason
  • Species
  • Teleology

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Journal Article


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