«Abstract. In his seminal monograph on teleology and mechanics in nineteenth German biology Timothy Lenoir considers his study of the “Kantian” ...»
TELEOLOGY BEYOND REGRETS:
ON THE ROLE OF SCHELLING’S ORGANICISM IN
by Andrea Gambarotto
Abstract. In his seminal monograph on teleology and mechanics in nineteenth German biology Timothy Lenoir considers his study of the “Kantian”
teleomechanistic tradition as an answer to those who wrongly believe that early
nineteenth-century German biology was dominated by Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. My goal is to argue that this is an arbitrary assumption based on a historiographical bias and that Schelling’s organicism played a pivotal role in the formulation of a conceptual framework aimed at accounting for biological organization. The formalization of biology as an autonomous science at the beginning of the nineteenth century implied in fact the shift from a regulative to a constitutive understanding of teleology, a shift most strongly endorsed in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. I first take into account two aspects that Treviranus draws directly from Schelling: the relationship between mechanism and teleology and the continuity between nature and spirit. I then show how Treviranus reinterprets the Schellingian framework with a peculiar emphasis on ecology, stressing the important interaction between organisms and environment. On this basis, I suggest that he was the first naturalist in the German speaking world to sketch the outline of a theory concerned with the historical transformation of living forms.
0. Introduction* The title of this paper refers to an old controversy in the history and philosophy of biology that originated in the scholarly work of Timothy Lenoir. In a paper entitled «Teleology without Many thanks to Giovanni Menegalle and Charles Wolfe for reviewing previous drafts of this paper.
Verifiche XLIII (1-4), 2014, pp. 137-153.
138 Andrea Gambarotto Articles regrets»1 Lenoir discusses the main features of the account he had elaborated in a series of papers on the same topic2, and which would soon converge in his seminal monograph on teleology and mechanics in nineteenth-century German biology3. According to the standard account, he maintains, the real beginnings of scientific biology are best exemplified by the efforts of the ʻ1847 groupʼ (Ludwig, Du Bois Reymond, Helmholtz and Brücke), who threw off the yoke of «vitalistic explanation» and swore allegiance to the cause of «mechanistic reductionism» (neither of these terms is given a clear definition). Vitalism and teleology had thereby been cast aside and the reign of mechanistic biology inaugurated4. Although, according to Lenoir, this account implies that the only consistent foundations of biology are those supplied by mechanistic reductionism, he argues that a coherent and welldeveloped research program guided the development of the life sciences in Germany from the 1790 through the mid-1850s. He defines this program as «teleomechanism» and analyzes it in terms of three different phases: «vital materialism» (Kant, Blumenbach, Reil, Kielmeyer), «developmental morphology» (Meckel, Döllinger, von Baer, Müller), and «functional morphology» (Schwann, Liebig, Bergmann, Leuckart).
In his attempt to analyze the first phase Lenoir employs the category of ʻGöttingen Schoolʼ. This category has the merit of stressing the existence of a unitary center characterized by intense institutional and intellectual relations among nearly three generations of physicians and naturalists. According to Lenoir, the distinctive approach practiced at Göttingen derived from ideas
T. LENOIR, Teleology without Regrets. The Transformation of Physiology in Germany:
1790-1847, «Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A», 12 (4), 1981, pp. 293-354.
2 T. LENOIR, Generational Factors at the Origin of “Romantische Naturphilosophie”, «Journal of the History of Biology», 11 (1), 1978, pp. 57-100; ID., Kant, Blumenbach and the Vital-Materialism in German Biology, «Isis», 70, 1980, pp. 77-108; ID., The Göttingen School and the Development of Transcendental Naturphilosophie in the Romantic Era, «Studies in the History of Biology», 5, 1981, pp. 111-205.
3 T. LENOIR, The Strategy of Life: Teleology and Mechanics in Eighteenth Century German Biology, Riedel, Dordrecht 1982.
4 T. LENOIR, Teleology without Regrets, cit., pp. 293-294.
Articles Teleology beyond Regrets 139 fashioned by Blumenbach, who synthesized some of the best elements of Enlightenment life sciences, especially Buffon, Linnaeus and Haller, in terms of a view of biological organization he found in the writings of Kant. Blumenbach graduated at Göttingen in 1776 and was appointed professor in 1778. His reputation was considerably enhanced by the publication of his Institutiones Physiologicae, a condensed, well-arranged view of the animal functions. His physiological theories established the foundations of the Göttingen School and were developed by his most distinguished students: Alexander von Humboldt, Johan Christian Reil, Carl Friedrich Kielmeyer, Heinrich Friedrich Link, Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus5.
William Bechtel has pointed out that the aim of Lenoir’s reconstruction was to identify a tradition in nineteenth-century German biology different both from vitalistic Naturphilosophie and reductionist materialism6. Released from its entanglement with vitalism, teleology could finally be considered in naturalized terms (i.e. without regrets), as a specific characteristic of organic processes marking the irreducibility of biological phenomena to physics and chemistry. Lenoir sees his study of the ʻKantianʼ teleomechanistic tradition as an answer to those who wrongly believe that early nineteenth-century German biology was dominated by Schelling’s Naturphilosophie and by its ʻvitalisticʼ conception of teleology. This reconstruction has been harshly criticized by Kenneth Caneva in a review entitled, ironically enough, «Teleology with Regrets», where Lenoir is accused of «many serious mistakes in historical analysis», «errors, misinterpretations, inconsistencies, unsupported claims and plain unclear writing»7. It is in fact odd to maintain that the «vital-materialism» developed at Göttingen rejected the vitalistic notion of purposive activity, given that Kant’s conception of teleology was intimately tied to a notion of purposiveness, as was Blumenbach’s Bildungstrieb8. MoreT. LENOIR, The Göttingen School, cit., pp. 115-119.
W. BECHTEL, Teleomechanism and the Strategy of Life, «Nature and System», 5, 1983, 181-187.
7 K. CANEVA, Teleology with Regrets, «Annals of Science», 47, 1990, pp. 291-300,
over, many of Lenoir’s ʻteleomechanistsʼ broke with a severe Kantian notion of teleology as a merely regulative concept of the understanding and instead conjured up a variety of vital forces more or less actively constitutive of the individual organism9. Stressing the heuristic value of teleological thinking in biology only inasmuch as it can be reduced to a mechanistic framework of explanation, Lenoir acknowledges a role for teleology but indeed he does so ʻwith regretsʼ.
I intend to argue that we are in need of a new general account going beyond those regrets. In fact, I will argue that that the formalization of biology as an autonomous science at the beginning of the nineteenth century implied the shift from a regulative to a constitutive understanding of teleology – a shift most strongly endorsed in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. Biology as a science became possible only once organization was considered as a constitutive character of living bodies which, as such, requires scientific explanation.
The term ʻbiologyʼ has traditionally been traced back to Lamarck and Treviranus, who first used it in significant fashion in 1802 in the Recherches sur l’organisation des corps vivants and in the Biologie, oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur für Naturforscher und Ärzte.
In fact, other authors had already used the term en passant slightly earlier, such as Georg August Roose in the Lehre von der Grundzüge der Lebenskraft (1797) and Karl Friedrich Burdach in his Propädeutik zum Studium der gesamnten Heilkunst (1800). As scholars have recently stressed, the word itself was used in the sense of ʻbiographyʼ even earlier, so that we may have to move the date of the first use of the term another thirty years. Michael Christoph Hanov, a minor disciple of Christian Wolff, published from 1762 to 1768 a four-volume Latin compendium entitled Philosophia naturalis sive physica dogmatica, whose third volume (1766) bore the subtitle: Geology, Biology, General Phytology and Dendrology, or the
Cf. R.J. RICHARDS, Kant and Blumenbach on the Bildungstrieb: A Historical Misunstrong>
derstanding, «Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences», 31 (1), 2000, pp. 11-32; J. ZAMMITO, The Lenoir Thesis revisited: Blumenbach and Kant, «Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences», 43 (1), 2012, pp. 120-132.
Articles Teleology beyond Regrets 141 Science of the Earth, of Living Things and of Vegetating Things in General, as well as of Trees. However, if one discounts the running heads, Hanov does not use the word ʻbiologyʼ in the text of the volume itself. There are even more minor Wolffians that could be taken into account, but «none of this really affects the more important question of the mechanisms of the historical development and institutionalization of the life sciences in the nineteenth century»10.
The grand baptism of the concept is still to be located in the writings by Treviranus and Lamarck. In this respect, if a lot has been said on Lamarck11, almost no word has been uttered about the other pioneering endeavor, in which the idea of a unified science of life is endorsed with the strongest arguments. The reason for this silence has two explanations. The first is almost certainly the magnitude of the opus, since a nine-book treatise divided into six volumes (each around five-hundred pages) poses an obvious challenge to scholarly work. Secondly, the over threethousand pages that compose this work are filled with references to countless eighteenth-century scientific literature and, even more importantly, with a language that can be properly understood only by being well acquainted with the jargon of eighteenth-century German life sciences.
Before I begin my analysis, it is useful to have in mind an overall sketch of the general division of the work. As mentioned, the Biologie is composed by nine books, divided into six volumes;
(1) The first volume includes a long introduction, where Treviranus defines the fundamental concepts and the theoretical framework of biology as a new scientific field, and the first book of what he refers to as «history of physical life» (Geschichte des physischen Leben), dedicated to the general «classification of living organisms»; (2) The second volume consists of the second book on the «organization of living nature», where Treviranus provides a detailed account of the distribution of living bodies on the
P. MCLAUGHLIN, Naming Biology, «Journal of the History of Biology», 35 (1),
pp. 1-4, p. 4.
G. BARSANTI, Dalla storia naturale alla storia della natura. Saggio su Lamarck, Feltrinelli, Milano 1979; P. CORSI, The Age of Lamarck. Evolutionay Theories in France: 1790-1830, University of California Press, Berkeley 1988; P. CORSI, J.
GAYON, J.G. GOHAU, S. TIRARD, Lamarck, philosophe de la nature, Puf, Paris 2006.
142 Andrea Gambarotto Articles different areas of the earth, depending on different environmental conditions; (3) The third volume contains the third and the fourth book of the history of physical life: the former is concerned with the revolutions that occurred to living nature over time, while the latter is dedicated to the exposition of Treviranus’ theory on «generation, growth and decrease of living bodies»; (4) The fourth volume is occupied by the fifth book and is concerned with the formulation of a general theory of nourishment;
(5) The fifth is concerned with physiological issues and entails three books (sixth, seventh, eighth) dedicated to «warmth, light, and electricity of living bodies», to the «automatic movement of living bodies», and the «functioning of the nervous system»
respectively; (6) The sixth is dedicated to the «connection of the physical with the intellectual world» and provides an outline of brain physiology in the animal kingdom.
The overall work provides perhaps the best example of the sedimentation of the conceptual framework elaborated at Göttingen and developed by Naturphilosophie. In this respect, to characterize the Biologie as a ʻground-breakingʼ work would probably be an overstatement. Nevertheless, despite its compilatory nature, this massive collection of materials is the final result of a conceptual course concerned with the endeavor of providing an adequate definition (and a corresponding explanatory framework) to the way living nature is capable of organizing itself. Roughly speaking, this course can be said to begin with the Haller-Wolff debate12 and culminates with Schelling’s idea of nature as a «universal organism», i.e. as a dynamical system capable of organizing and regulating itself. Despite its being defined as «dynamic evolution», this self-organization is understood by Schelling as a nontemporal process. The production of living forms is the result of the eternal tendency of nature to give exposition to the absolute, a task that, according to Schelling, can never be completely fulfilled.
Among German naturalists, Treviranus was the first author to place this process on a temporal plateau: this happens in the third book (entailed in the first part of the third volume), which, for this Cf. S.A. ROE, Matter, Life, Generation. Eighteenth-Century Embryology and the
reason, is the most relevant of all. As with Lamarck in France, Treviranus was the first author to endorse at once the scientific autonomy of biology and a consistent theory of tranformism.