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Immanuel Kant's Description of the Organism

Christoph Hueck

„An organism is both cause and effect of itself.”

(Immanuel Kant)

Since the turn of the millennium, the question of what an organism is has once again been the subject of intense debate in biology.[1] For many biologists and philosophers, the reductionist view that living organisms are complex machines and products of chance evolution has lost its power of persuasion. For example, the eminent microbiologist Carl Woese wrote in a brilliant essay entitled ‘A New Biology for a New Century’ that reductionist biology, although being able to “read notes in the score, it couldn’t hear the music.”[2] “While a machine is a mere collection of parts, some sort of ‘sense of the whole’ inheres in the organism.”[3]

In the philosophy of biology, reference is often made to Immanuel Kant's ‘Critique of Judgment’ of 1790. Kant is seen as a pioneer of organismic biology[4], as he described the causal structure of the organism very clearly in contrast to a mechanism. 

According to Kant, a tree generates and preserves itself “now as effect, now as cause, continually generated from itself and likewise generating itself. … It develops itself by means of a material which, in its composite character, is its own product. … [And the] tree also generates itself in such a way that the preservation of one part is reciprocally dependent on the preservation of the other parts. … The leaves are certainly products of the tree, but they also maintain it in turn, and its growth is dependent upon the action of the leaves on the trunk.” (p. 371[5])

“In such a natural product every part is thought as owing its presence to the agency of all the remaining parts, and also as existing for the sake of the others and of the whole, that is as an instrument, or organ. … The part [is] an organ producing the other parts - each, consequently, reciprocally producing the others. … Only under these conditions and upon these terms can such a product be an organized and self-organized being, and, as such, be called a natural end.“ (p. 374)

Therefore, in a natural end or purpose, the „parts, both as to their existence and form, are only possible by their relation to the whole“ (p. 373). Although the latter is also the case with machines, an organism, in contrast, is „both cause and effect of itself“ (p. 370).

“An organized being is, therefore, not a mere machine. For a machine has solely motive power, whereas an organized being possesses inherent formative power, and such, moreover, as it can impart to material devoid of it - material which it organizes. This, therefore, is a self-propagating formative power, which cannot be explained by the capacity of movement alone, that is to say, by mechanism.” (p. 374)

In contrast to a mechanical cause of action, which as „a series, namely of causes and effects, that is invariably progressive“, a (teleological) link according to final causes is one that „if regarded as a series, would involve regressive as well as progressive dependency. It would be one in which the thing that for the moment is designated effect deserves none the less, if we take the series regressively, to be called the cause of the thing of which it was said to be the effect.“ (p. 372)

The whole of the organism is now also the guiding concept of a new, holistic biology. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, a 'system', i.e. a complex interrelationship of interdependent parts and processes that generates and maintains itself. Autopoiesis (self-creation), autonomy (self-determination) and agency (ability to act) are the guiding concepts of this new understanding of organisms and their evolution.[1, 6]


[1] For an up-to-date summary of the discussion and for a detailed description of those properties of living things that cannot be explained mechanistically, see Rosslenbroich (2023).

[2] Woese (2004), p. 175.

[3] Ibid., p. 176.

[4] See e.g. Weber & Varela (2002) or Gambarotto & Nahas (2022).

[5] Kant (2008).

[6] Mossio (2024).


Gambarotto, Andrea; Nahas, Auguste: Teleology and the organism: Kant's controversial legacy for contemporary biology. In: Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 93/2022, 47–56.

Kant, Immanuel: Critique of judgement. Edited by Nicholas Walker. Translated by James Creed Meredith, Oxford World's Classics Rev. ed. Oxford, Toronto 2008.

Mossio, Matteo (ed.): Organization in Biology. Cham 2024.

Rosslenbroich, Bernd: Properties of life. Toward a theory of organismic biology, Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology Series Cambridge 2023.

Weber, Andreas; Varela, Francisco J.: Life after Kant: Natural purposes and the autopoietic foundations of biological individuality. In: Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 1, 2/2002, 97–125.

Woese, Carl R.: A new biology for a new century. In: Microbiology and molecular biology reviews : MMBR 68, 2/2004, 173–186.

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