Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved July 23, 2024, from

13. Design and autonomy

Kant’s critique of teleological judgment in the second half of the Critique of Judgment has an even more complicated agenda than his aesthetic theory. The work has roots in both eighteenth-century biology - which began the debate, lasting until the twentieth century, whether organisms could be understood on purely mechanical principles - and natural theology - that is, the great debate over the argument from design that culminated in Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. Yet again Kant’s motive is to show that even our understanding of nature ultimately drives us to a recognition of our own autonomy.

The work is divided into three main sections: an examination of the necessary conditions for our comprehension of individual organisms; an examination of the conditions under which we can see nature as a whole as a single system; and a restatement of Kant’s moral theology. First, Kant argues that an organism is a system of whole and parts manifesting both ‘regressive’ and ‘progressive’ causality: the whole is the product of the parts, but the parts in turn depend upon the whole for their own proper functioning and existence (5: 372, 376). But our conception of mechanical efficient causation includes only progressive causation, in which the state of any system depends upon the prior state of its parts (see Causation). The only way we can understand the regressive causation of the whole with respect to its parts is by analogy to intelligent design, in which an antecedent conception of the object as a whole determines the production of the parts which in turn determine the character of the resultant whole. However, Kant insists, we have absolutely no justification for adopting a ‘constitutive concept’ of natural organisms as a product of actual design; we are only entitled to use an analogy between natural organisms and products of design as ‘a regulative concept for reflective judgment to conduct research into objects in a remote analogy with our own causality in accordance with purposes’ (5: 375). In other words, seeing organisms as products of intelligent design is a purely heuristic strategy.

However, Kant next argues that if it is natural for us to investigate organisms as if they were products of intelligent design, then it will also be natural for us to try to see nature as a whole as manifesting a purposive design (5: 380–1); and only by seeing the whole of nature as a product of intelligent design - of course, only regulatively - can we satisfy our craving to transform every particularity of nature, which must always be left contingent by our own general concepts, into something that seems necessary (5: 405–7). However, from a merely naturalistic viewpoint the ultimate purpose of nature as a system must remain indeterminate - grass might exist to feed cows, or cows exist to fertilize the grass (4: 426). Nature can be seen as a determinate system only if it can be seen as collectively serving an ultimate end that is itself an intrinsic end, that is, an end with absolute value. This can only be humanity itself (4: 427) - but not humanity merely as a part of nature, seeking happiness, which is neither a determinate end nor one particularly favoured by nature (4: 430), but only humanity as the subject of morality, able to cultivate its freedom (5: 435–6). Thus the urge to see nature as a systematic whole, an inevitable concomitant of our research into the complexities of organic life, can only be satisfied from the moral point of view in which human autonomy is the ultimate value.

Kant is still careful to remind us that this doctrine is regulative, furnishing us with a principle for our own cognitive and practical activity, not constitutive, pretending to metaphysical insight into the nature of reality independent from us. It is therefore particularly noteworthy that the last part of the critique of teleological judgment is a restatement of Kant’s moral theology, the argument for belief in the existence of God as a postulate of practical reason. This restatement within a general theory of reflective judgment, the principles of which are meant above all else to guide our own activity, confirms the view that in the end the theory of practical postulates is not meant to support any form of dogma but only to serve as another expression of our own autonomy.

Citing this article:
Guyer, Paul. Design and autonomy. Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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