The Epistemic Foundations of German Biology, 1790—1802

In this dissertation, I investigate the development of the conceptual bases that underlie the beginnings of biology, taking Immanuel Kant's Kritik der Urteilskraft and Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus's Biologie, oder Philosophie des lebenden Natur für Naturforscher und Aerzte as bookends.

In Kant's work, published in 1790, he famously denies the possibility of a science of life with the apothegm that there could be "no Newton for the blade of grass." Yet, in his work published in 1802, Treviranus vigorously argues for what seems to be the exact opposite: that there must be a science of life and that science should be called "biology." (His usage of "biology" incidentally marks one of the first uses of this word in its modern meaning.) Though each of these thinkers thus appear to occupy contradictory positions, one asserting what the other denies, they were, in fact, both reacting and contributing to the emergence of a new phenomenon—the living organism as a distinct object of scientific inquiry.

The polyp (now known as a Hydra) made famous by Abraham Trembley in the 1740s
Trembley's famous polyp

In order to explicate this emergence, I focus on two concepts that were central to the work of philosophers and scientists in the 1790s: Lebenskraft and Organismus. Indeed, the concepts of life force and organism predominated in this period, witnessing an exponential increase in usage frequency and garnering an unprecedented amount of intellectual attention.

Kant and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach provide the epistemic foundations for the development of these concepts. By focusing on organism and Lebenskraft (in particular, Blumenbach's Bildungstrieb or formative drive), I aim to provide a much different interpretation of this period than has been given before. The first part of the dissertation focuses on these figures in three ways. First, I explicate the epistemology of Blumenbach's Bildungstrieb, looking back to historical precedents in natural philosophy and forward to certain affinities with contemporary model organism theory. Second, I reassess the intellectual relationship between Blumenbach and Kant, arguing that Blumenbach's influence on Kant has been underestimated. Finally, I underscore the strange consequences of the organism concept as devised by Kant and how it constitutes an anti-domain of biology.

Blumenbach used the Conferva fontinalis as experimental proof of the formative drive
Blumenbach's Conferva fontinalis

The second half of the dissertation looks at the dissemination of Kant's and Blumenbach's ideas through the works of Johann Friedrich Kielmeyer, Johann Christian Reil, F. W. J. Schelling, and Treviranus. As diverse as these thinkers are, with each maintaining a distinct position and offering something unique to the emergence of biology, they all principally concern themselves with the organism and Lebenskraft concepts, even if that engagement is overwhelmingly critical. Organism and Lebenskraft thus become the various bases upon which each of their systems are built.

I conclude by arguing that if biology has inherited these epistemic foundations, namely, that there are beings called organisms, distinct from inorganic beings, and that these organisms are constituted by unique forces, then it has also likely inherited—consciously and unconsciously—the problems and unresolved tensions endemic to those concepts. Despite the extraordinary advances made by biology in the last century, this means that the living organism, like Trembley's polyp, remains something of an enigma, waiting to be unraveled.

The title page of Treviranus's seminal work
The title page of Treviranus's seminal work