Article ID: CBB625286946

Kant’s Epigenesis: Specificity and Developmental Constraints (2017)


In this paper, I argue that Kant adopted, throughout his career, a position that is much more akin to classical accounts of epigenesis, although he does reject the more radical forms of epigenesis proposed in his own time, and does make use of preformationist sounding terms. I argue that this is because Kant (1) thinks of what is pre-formed as a species, not an individual or a part of an individual; (2) has no qualm with the idea of a specific, teleological principle or force underlying generation, and conceives of germs and predispositions as specific constraints on such a principle or force. Neither of these conceptions of what is “preformed”, I argue, is in strict opposition to classical epigenesis. I further suggest that Kant’s lingering use of preformationist terminology is due to (1) his belief that this is required to account for the specificity of the specific generative force; (2) his resistance towards the unrestricted plasticity of the generative force in radical epigenesis, which violates species-fixism; and (3) his insistence on the internal, organic basis of developmental plasticity and variation within species. I conclude by suggesting that this terminological and interpretative peculiarity is partly due to a larger shift in the natural philosophical concerns surrounding the debate on epigenesis and preformation. Specifically, it is a sign that the original reasons for resisting epigenesis, namely its use of specific, teleological principles and its commitment to the natural production of biological structure, became less of a concern, whereas unrestricted plasticity and its undermining of fixism became a real issue, thereby also becoming the focal point of the debate.

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Authors & Contributors
Zammito, John H.
Wellmann, Janina
Porter, Charlotte M.
Monti, Maria Teresa
Robert, Jason Scott
Cohen, Alix A.
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Archives of Natural History
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Science in Context
Cambridge University Press
Wallstein Verlag
University of Chicago Press
Developmental biology
Kant, Immanuel
Wolff, Caspar Friedrich
Haller, Albrecht von
Blumenbach, Johann Friedrich
Latrobe, Benjamin Henry
Girtanner, Christoph
Time Periods
18th century
19th century
17th century
20th century
North America: United States; Canada
Université de Montpellier
Académie Royale des Sciences (France)

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