The Kantian Critical Turn, From Taxonomies to Dynamic Systems

Posted: June 15, 2017 in Uncategorized

Judgment, for Kant, is the mental capacity not to add anything new to our basic stock of knowledge, but rather simply the drive to gather, or ‘subsume’, discrete particulars into larger dynamic wholes. For Kant, what separates biology from mere physics or chemistry is the logically necessary, and deeply felt aesthetic need to consider the whole as prior to the parts.

The scientific systems of the 18th century, of which there were many, are compositional systems. They were built out of arranging details according to a determinate positive term. Moral systems set out with a practical goal in mind (such as universal literacy) and then set up a series of steps to arrive at it. Natural systems posit some fundamental principle behind all the operations of nature (like gravity in Newton, impressionability in Locke, sympathy in Diderot, or irritability in Haller) and then they attempt to explain everything visible in Nature exclusively in terms in terms of that unique principle. In other words, systems of this sort are “reductive”. The infinite diversity of the world can be reduced to nothing but various expressions of that same cause.

For example, in a system (such as that of Diderot’s colleague La Mettrie [click]) which posits motion to be the basic attribute of living matter, each species would be classified according to the way it moves. Such a system would strive to develop as complete a taxomony as possible, one which would separate creatures with feet, from those with flippers, as well as those with fins, those with wings, those which wriggle, and gastropods, which sort of ooze forward on their stomachs.

Specola Bird Taxonomy

Such as taxomony which try to lay out, in analytic fashion, the complete and unbroken range of “characteristics”, in this case the possible forms of locomotion, believing Nature to abhor a gap as much as a vacuum. And so we isolate a type of creature, the butterfly, and then go out in search for an instance of every possible shape and color pattern of wing. Some varieties will be more numerous than others, true. But Nature, to be complete, must produce at least one instance of every possible form. This is why in “D’Alembert’s Dream” Diderot is so nonchalant about human deformities, or “monsters”. Of course such things should exists. If they didn’t Nature would be incomplete. And the job of science, or Natural History as it was called then, is to collect and display, each instance of Life’s diversity within a total Order of Nature. This fantasy of seeing all of Nature arranged in perfect order, by the way, is the precise Desire which Drives all the butterfly collecting we associate with learned gentlemen.

The same is true of botanists. (By the way, for you Humanities people, the entire field of Genre Theory in literature, art and film, is based on this very same notion. And this understanding will go a long way toward helping you see why I teach Art History the way I do, in terms of complex textual and historical causes, and not simply in terms of a lengthy slide show presenting the development and crucial characteristics of various styles.) The 18th-century Swedish botanist Linneas invented the scientific naming system, based on genus and species, which we still use today. He considered not motion but reproduction to the single function, or trait, to which all plants could be reduced. And so he classified the entire world of botanical exclusively in terms of flower, which as we all know are the sex organs of plants.

Now, this sort of reductive thinking is exactly what Kant wants to eliminate. Because he sees it is a hopelessly simplistic. And this is especially the case insofar as all these systems have a far too simplistic notion of what a “cause” might be. For Kant, it is not gravity, or an urge to reproduce which causes a plant to take the form it does. Rather, it is an entire complex of conditions which determine the form and function of a plant, which is not simply a function but rather a sophisticated organism surviving within a highly specific environment.

Kant does not want to posit first principles and then construct explanatory systems out of them. Rather, he wants principally to develop an aesthetic sensibility which will allow the scientist to discover systems which already exist in Nature. This marks a radical shift from various systems to a general theory of Systematicity. Kant’s theory “systematicity” does not posit any specific single force or cause behind the order of Nature, but instead investigates systems “as if” there were caused and held together by an unnameable cause internal to the system itself. In other words, to anticipate the famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (younger brother of Wilhelm), this is the beginning of thinking in terms of Eco-Systems.


We can never say what the cause of a given system is, only that the system, by its very regularity, functions “as if” some force were working within it. At least that’s what Kant in doing in the 3rd Critique, the Critique of Judgement (1790). Prior to this, in the Critique of Pure Reason (1780), Kant is striving to eliminate the positive grounds of all these various systems, all the metaphysical absolutes, or “realities” which supposedly justify the reduction of the complexity of the world to (mindless) simplicity.

But what precisely are these metaphysical absolutes? The following:
1) a Supreme Being
2) a limit to Time and Space
3) divisible or discrete substance, Matter
4) the human Soul
5) human Freedom

The task of the 1st Critique will be to prove definitely that all these “realities” are mere illusions, or at best only hypotheses completely incapable of being either proved or refuted. Again, for Kant, it’s not that any of these metaphysical realities are true of false. Rather, Kant shows that because of the very nature of the human mind, it is absolutely impossible for us to decide on these issues. And so science has no right to base a system of the world on any of them.

About that which it cannot speak with authority, science must remain silent.

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The Critique of Judgment—the third and final work in Kant’s critical system—laid the groundwork of modern aesthetics when it appeared in 1790. Eli Friedlander’s reappraisal of this seminal accomplishment reformulates and elucidates Kant’s thought in order to reveal the inner unity of the Third Critique.

Expressions of Judgment emphasizes the internal connection of judgment and meaning in Kant’s aesthetics, showing how the pleasure in judging is intimately related to our capacity to draw meaning from our encounter with beauty. Although the meaningfulness of aesthetic judgment is most evident in the response to art, the appreciation of nature’s beauty has an equal share in the significant experience of our world. Friedlander’s attention to fundamental dualities underlying the Third Critique—such as that of art and nature—underscores how its themes are subordinated systematically to the central task Kant sets himself: that of devising a philosophical blueprint for the mediation between the realms of nature and freedom.

This understanding of the mediating function of judgment guides Friedlander in articulating the dimensions of the field of the aesthetic that opens between art and nature, the subject and the object, knowledge and the will, as well as between the individual and the communal. Expressions of Judgment illuminates the distinctness as well as the continuity of this important late phase in Kant’s critical enterprise, providing insights for experienced scholars as well as new students of philosophy.

— Harvard University Press (2015)

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