Article ID: CBB068647714

Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Kant Problem’: metaphysics, science, and art (2020)


Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) has become famous, and perhaps infamous, for many reasons. Presently, he is probably most widely-known for his paintings of plants and animals in his very popular book, Art Forms in Nature, originally collected and published in 1904. However, in addition to Haeckel’s art, he is also well-known for his advocacy of Darwinism and Social Darwinism, for first coining the term ‘ecology,’ for having his work utilized by Nazi pseudo-scientists (Dombrowksi in Tech Commun Q 12:303–319, 2003), and for famously (perhaps fraudulently) producing drawings of animal and human embryos so as to confirm his biogenetic law (Gould in Nat Hist 109:44–45, 2000). Something Haeckel is not as well-known for today is the fact that he seemed to be both a strenuous critic of the metaphysical and moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and yet also something of an adherent to Kant’s aesthetic views. In terms of metaphysics and morality, Haeckel sought to exorcise Kant’s ideas as much as possible from twentieth century views on science, humanity, and nature; however, in terms of aesthetic theory, Haeckel seemed to embrace a distinctly Kantian approach to art and artworks. This essay proposes to: (1) carefully examine Haeckel’s refutations of some of Kant’s central metaphysical concepts, (2) explore some of the, arguably Kantian, assumptions underlying Haeckel’s approach to aesthetics and his artistic practice, and (3) combine these two lines of inquiry into a portrait of Haeckel’s mind as one that is conflicted about the role Kantian philosophy, and more specifically Kantian noumena, should play in twentieth century science and art. This unresolved tension in Haeckel’s mind regarding Kant’s noumenal realm is what I propose to call his ‘Kant Problem’.

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Authors & Contributors
Friedman, Michael L.
Allison, Henry E.
Weber, Heiko
Jahoda, Gustav
Kant, Immanuel
Halpern, Megan K.
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Medicina nei Secoli - Arte e Scienza
Cambridge University Press
Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung
University of Pittsburgh
Queen's University (Canada)
University of California, Santa Cruz
University of Chicago
Science and art
Philosophy of science
Kant, Immanuel
Haeckel, Ernst
Mach, Ernst
Ostwald, Wilhelm
Forel, August Henri
Carus, Paul
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
18th century
20th century, late
Vienna (Austria)

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