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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.2 (2002) 229-253

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Preforming the Categories:
Eighteenth-Century Generation Theory and the Biological Roots of Kant's A Priori

Phillip R. Sloan

Situating Kant's philosophical project in relation to the natural sciences of his day has been of concern to several scholars from both the history of science and the history of philosophy. Historians of philosophy have displayed an expanded awareness of, and interest in, the importance of the scientific context of the period in which Kant carried out his "Copernican" revolution. Most commonly among philosophers, this interest has been analyzed in relation to Kant's concerns with the foundations of mechanics, matter theory, and the epistemology of Newtonian science, with the central text of interest being the Metaphysische Anfangsgründe. 1

On the other hand, historians of philosophy and historians of science, interested in the issues of the third Critique and in the several papers of Kant dealing with biological and anthropological issues, have emphasized the unified nature of Kant's inquiries into the natural sciences, and the importance of his continued interest in the life and human sciences alongside his interests in the foundations of the physical sciences. 2 The effort to understand the unity of Kant's project in the sciences from the 1770s through the Opus Posthumum is a project now of interest to several Kant scholars. 3 [End Page 229]

My concern in this paper is to extend and deepen the understanding of Kant's encounter with the life sciences of his period, and through this to illuminate the importance of this context for understanding the formulation of Kant's mature philosophical program. It is my claim that close attention to the interplay of late eighteenth-century biological thought with Kant's philosophical program as it developed in the 1760s, '70s, and '80s, clarifies several otherwise puzzling dimensions of Kant's thought, and illuminates the issue of the foundation and necessity of the categories and the status of the a priori. I argue that attention to this context supplies a clarification of the much-debated issue surrounding the "nativist" dimensions of Kant's epistemology. 4 It also supplies a novel basis for tracing changes in Kant's mature philosophy, as this underlying theoretical framework seems to have altered in the late 1780s.

To situate these issues, I commence with a passage from the first (1781) edition of Kant's Kritik der reinen Vernunft (KrV) that was repeated without alteration in the second edition of the KrV of 1787. This is the passage at A 66 opening the discussion of the Transcendental Analytic explicating the "Analytic of Concepts" (Analytik der Begriffes), where Kant most explicitly addresses the issue of the actual source or foundation of the categories:

I understand by the analytic of concepts not the analysis of these concepts nor the customary procedure in philosophical investigations, which presents them as concepts, in order to dissect out their content, and make them distinct, but the still little investigated dissection of the capacity of the Understanding itself, in order thereby to investigate the possibility of a priori concepts, seeking them out in the Understanding alone, as their place of birth, and analyzing them in their pure general use; this then is the peculiar business of a transcendental philosophy. The remainder is the logical treatment of concepts in philosophy generally. We shall therefore follow the pure concepts up to their first germs and predispositions in the human understanding, in which they lie prepared, until finally, on the occasion of experience, they are developed and through exactly the same Understanding are displayed in their purity, freed from their attending empirical conditions. 5 [End Page 230]

I highlight two issues in this quotation. The first is that we see Kant asserting that the dissection of the Understanding itself traces the Begriffe to their birthplace (Geburtsorte) within the faculty of the understanding itself, where they are grounded in what he terms "ihren ersten Keimen und Anlagen." Secondly, on the occasion of...