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  • Kant and the Concept of Life
  • Eduardo Molina (bio)

Along with the analysis of aesthetic judgment, one of the most interesting contributions of Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment is his conception of living beings—or organisms—as natural ends. However, the connection between these two topics presented in the last of Kant's Critiques is not straightforward. The intention of this paper is not to resolve this problem directly, but to show an eventual association between the comprehension of living beings on the one hand, and the analysis of aesthetic experience on the other. The starting point for this study is the different uses of Kant's concept of life (Leben) and its derivative terms, with special attention to his notion of animation (Belebung), insofar as this notion is crucial to his consideration of aesthetic judgment. I am interested in distinguishing three Kantian uses of the concept of life: first, a canonical or practical use, which refers essentially to human life and its ability to act voluntarily; second, a biological use, related to the way Kant describes life on a primary level, that is, as organisms; third, an aesthetic use, in which Kant deals with the feeling [End Page 21] of animation experienced when facing beautiful objects. Finally, near the end of this paper I briefly allude to a special case of body animation, which, insofar as it is a kind of feeling of health or well-being characteristic of the human animal itself, will allow me to connect Kant with Epicurus.

In a remarkable passage of §65 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment, a passage that contains some of this work's central concepts, Kant emphasizes—within the context of his theory of teleology in nature—the peculiarity of living beings and their significant attributes, such as the capacity for reproduction, growth, and regeneration. Importantly, the perspective Kant takes on the peculiarity of living beings in the Critique of the Power of Judgment can be neither completely nor easily subjected to the mechanical explanation of nature that Kant gave in the Critique of the Pure Reason. In a way not easily accommodated to the early text, in the Third Critique Kant holds that

One says far too little about nature and its capacity in organized products [organisirten Produkten] if one calls this an analogue of art: for in that case one conceives of the artist (a rational being) outside of it. . . . Perhaps one comes closer to this inscrutable property [unerforschlichen Eigenschaft] if one calls it an analogue of life: but then one must either endow matter as mere matter with a property (hylozoism) that contradicts its essence, or else associate with it an alien principle standing in communion with it (a soul), in which case, however, if such a product is to be a product of nature, organized matter as an instrument of that soul is already presupposed, and thus makes that product not the least more comprehensible, or else the soul is made into an artificer of this structure, and the product must be withdrawn from (corporeal) nature. Strictly speaking, the organization of nature is therefore not analogous with any causality that we know.

(2000, 246)

I would like to highlight the special use that Kant makes in this passage of the notion of life. Why does Kant distinguish between the "inscrutable property" of organized beings on the one hand, and "life" on the other? Why does he not assume—as we usually do, and as Kant himself does in other passages of the Third Critique—that to speak about organized beings is to speak precisely about living beings? This passage reveals an interesting internal [End Page 22] tension between two uses of the concept of life, which, although Kant uses them indistinctly in his work, ought to be distinguished carefully.

The canonical use of the concept of life in critical philosophy (and this is the first meaning of life I want to distinguish here) is the one that is defined with complete accuracy in the Critique of Practical Reason, where life is related to the faculty of desire. Kant states:

Life is the faculty of a being to act in accordance with...


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