Saturday, June 14, 2008

From the Newtonian Universe to Organicism in Kant

Very nice things can be had if you struggle through Kant's writings, in this case through the introduction to the "Critique of Judgment". Organicism, the idea that nature forms a coherent organic whole and functions like an organism, was one of the fundamental features of 19th century philosophy, eventually mutating into vitalism, the belief in a sort of elan vital or vital force behind things that animated the organism of the world. But how exactly did philosophy and science (in the form of Darwin's theory of Evolution) move from a sort of clock work world to that of an organism? Kant provides a clue.

In the intro to the Critique of Judgment, Kant pursues what he's been pursuing in all of his critiques: laws that we perceive to be exterior to our psychology that can be argued to instead stem from the way that our brains are set up. He makes the case that the idea of a Newtonian clock work world that operates according to a series of empirical laws is one of those concepts. But if this idea of a scientifically constructed world really comes from inside of us instead of from the world itself then how exactly does this manifest?

According to Kant our ideas of an exterior world composed of empirical laws that have the capability to explain all of nature necessitate the idea that the laws interlock and form a coherent system. It's this concept of an interlocking system that our psychology adds to its perception of the world. We don't completely make things up but impose psychologically given lenses on the material from the outside world. The world of interloking laws can be said to make up an organic whole even if we don't have the complete knowledge of the world that would allow us to construct a coherent system like that. The concept of an organic whole is what our attempts to understand the outside world is ultimately tending to.

Because the idea is contained within us, according to Kant there's no real difference between a theoretical attitude towards the world that it makes up an organic whole of interlocking laws and an attitude towards explaining the world that's based on putting together particular laws that we've empirically discovered. Therefore it's permissible to assume that an organic whole is present at the beginning of our investigations even if we have no empirical evidence for it.

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