Steiner on life (part I) – The organism as a natural purpose.

In this post, I want to start delving into Steiner’s views on life. So to cut to the chase I’m basically posing the philosophical question: “What is life?”. I’ll try to look at Steiner’s theory of life from different angles. My idea is to start with Kant’s thoughts about living organisms in Critique of Judgment and go on to discuss the relation of those ideas to Goethe’s view of organisms. Then I’ll look at Goethe’s views in relation to Steiner’s. This will give us a picture of the philosophical foundation of Steiner’s views.

The next step will be to look at Steiner’s view in relation to the current scientific views and at that point I’ll try to show how they are compatible views. I might also get into the problem of underdetermination, which I think would show quite clearly why Steiner’s position can’t simply be disqualified from a philosophical perspective.

In this first post, I’m going to cover how Kant thinks that organisms are distinct from inorganic objects and what Kant thinks we can know about organisms. In my previous posts (here and here) I’ve already covered how Steiner’s dispute with the Kantian epistemology. Steiner is going to build on, but also criticize, Kant’s distinction between the inorganic and the organic. He is also going to disagree with Kant that the makeup of organisms are there for a purpose: for instance the idea that our heart exists in order to pump blood.

Kant argues that plants and animals are instances of natural purpose because the parts and their organization all serve a purpose. This is similar to what we find in a watch since the parts and organizations of watches also serve a concrete purpose. The way they differ from each other, according to Kant, is that whereas watches obviously have designers, organisms spring out of nature. The reason why Kant thinks this is so is because plants and animals are both causes and effects of themselves. He uses the example of a tree to exemplify this:

  1. The tree causes itself as far as its species is concerned. 
    A tree is capable of reproduction through which it is the cause of itself.
  2. The tree preserves itself through nourishment.
    Here the tree again causes the inorganic material to make up part of its own organism.
  3. The various parts of the tree mutually preserve each other.
    The leaves are a product (effect) of the tree as a whole, but the leaves also work to maintain (cause) the trunk and the roots of the tree.

Additionally, Kant mentions that in order for anything to be purposeful (this applies to all products of design), the parts are only possible through their relation to the whole. These three features distinguish living organisms from other products of design. Kant points out that in a watch we also find that the parts are only possible through their relation to the whole: take out a gear and it ceases its activity. But unlike an organism a watch can’t reproduce itself, it can’t nourish itself, and the parts don’t work to preserve/replace each other.

This interesting understanding of living organisms leads to the question of how something can determine itself in a universe in which everything is causally determined. On the one hand we want to describe everything in mechanical terms, but on the other hand, there are phenomena that one the face of it can’t be explained in mechanical terms.

Kant supposes that the need to see organisms as natural purposes and not as mechanisms is a peculiarity of human nature. He suggests that viewing organisms as instances of a natural purpose is a regulatory principle and not a constitutive principle. This means that organisms are not necessarily instances of a natural purpose, but they must be seen as such in order to be made sense of.

Now the question arises how we can understand something as having a purpose without having a purpose. This question arises because if something seems to be a product of design, as living organisms do, but on the other hand doesn’t work according to a set plan, then it has in a sense a purpose without a purpose.

Kant solves this difficulty by saying that there are two kinds of understanding, a discursive and an intuitive. Human understanding is discursive, which means it forms general concepts that are common to many objects, but at the exclusion of the ways in which they differ. A concept of a tree contains everything which is common to all trees but excludes the ways in which they differ. The second kind, an intuitive understanding, is an understanding that sees no distinction between mechanism and purpose. More about this in the next post.

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