How would Kant have responded to Darwin? That is, how would Kant's theory on the individual as being comprised of a unity of consciousness (in his critique on pure reason), with the theory of Darwin's conception of man as a product of evolution?

update and clarification as instructed: Kant lays the individual as a unity of consciousness- what I have understood to be a synthesis of the senses, categories, making comprehensible the manifold of intuition. If I am the product of time and nature- as darwin would claim, and Kant would say the "i" is the unity of consciousness, how then are we to account for the sciences underlying the development of thinking? (if thinking/consciousness progressed, yet an individual strictly is a unity of consciousness). I am trying to square his epistemology with physical sciences.

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    Can you maybe explain why this is interesting to you, or where you'd expect difficulties? Don't they seem compatible to you, and if not, why? Why do you think that a conception of how it came to be can contradict a theory of consciousness? – iphigenie Dec 20 '13 at 15:35
  • Kant lays the individual as a unity of consciousness- what I have understood to be a synthesis of the senses, categories, making comprehensible the manifold of intuition. If I am the product of time and nature- as darwin would claim, and Kant would say the "i" is the unity of consciousness, how then are we to account for the sciences underlying the development of thinking? (if thinking/consciousness progressed, yet an individual strictly is a unity of consciousness). I am trying to square his epistemology with physical sciences. – patrick Dec 24 '13 at 7:14
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    You're supposed to edit your question and add whatever you think is useful to understand your question. Meanwhile you didn't answer my questions, you just elaborated on what you've already established in the first place. – iphigenie Dec 24 '13 at 10:06
  • its interesting to me because so much of philosophy is older and independent of scientific breakthroughs. When I read conceptual physics (which I do not do often), I see so many presocratic ideas. I think philosophy would benefit from tying in the ideas of science. Furthermore, I struggle to ground Kant's epistemology in something that is relevant and real and tangible for me. I am not sure if that responds to your inquiry. – patrick Jan 4 '14 at 20:33
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    I see no inconsistency between Kant and Darwin. It would not be 'individual' consciousness that is a unity but Consciousness-as-a-whole and the world-as-a-whole. Philosophy deals with problems that pre-date modern science because science has nothing to say about them and cannot help to solve them. Hence two disciplines with different names. I think you may be confusing Kant's thoughts about cosmological consciousness with your thoughts about human consciousness. – user20253 Dec 26 '17 at 11:43

I will answer this question with Kant's own words taken from (my personal favorite of his works) The Critique of the Power of Judgment. Specifically, I will be citing the Cambridge University Press 2nd Edition, edited by Paul Guyer and translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Please decide for yourself what you think Kant would think of Darwinian evolution.

"The agreement of so many genera of animals in a certain common schema, which seems to lie at the basis not only of their skeletal structure but also of the arrangement of their other parts, and by which an admirable simplicity of basic design has been able to produce such a great variety of species by the shortening of one part and the elongation of another, by the involution of this part and the evolution of another, allows the mind at least a weak ray of hope that something may be accomplished here with the principle of the mechanism of nature, without which there can be no natural science at all. This analogy of forms ... strengthens the suspicion of a real kinship among them in their generation from a common proto-mother, from the gradual approach of one animal genus to the other, from that in which the principle of ends seems best confirmed, namely human beings, down to polyps, and from this even further to mosses and lichens, and finally to the lowest level of nature that we can observe, that of raw matter: from which, and from its forces governed by mechanical laws (like those which are at work in its production of crystals), the entire technique of nature ... seems to derive."

(pg. 287; "Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment," Sec. 80)

In regards to how this squares with Kant's theory of humanity, I wish to point out that Kant maintains throughout his works (including the third Critique; see Sec. 83, 91) that human beings occupy a special place in the natural world. He establishes early in CPJ that there is Nature (which, for our purposes, could be renamed "instinct") and that there is Freedom (which, again, we might simplify to "free will"), and human beings are the only members of the animal kingdom which are free (i.e. they make their own laws: they are autonomous; they need not be beholden to "natural law" - or instinct). See the "Introduction" (not the "First Introduction") of CPJ for a discussion of Nature vs. Freedom, and check out Sec. 63 for a further discussion of the interconnectedness of nature as well as man's autonomy.

Edit: I googled "critique of the power of judgment" to see if there is an electronic copy of the Critique available on-line, and there does appear to be one in PDF form (it's even the same translation and edition as the one I cited). Just in case it's not legal, though, I'm not going to post a link.

Edit 2: Obelia's link in the comments to the excerpt from which I quoted is good reading if you are looking for additional context. In particular, Sec. 81 has a discussion of two opposing theories which Kant calls "the theory of evolution" and "epigenesis," but don't get confused: what Kant calls evolution is not what Darwin means by it. In fact, epigenesis is much more similar to Darwinian evolution, and Kant has several kind words to say about it.

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    +1 Nice answer. No harm in posting links. isnature.org/Events/2009/Summer/r/… – obelia Dec 21 '13 at 5:05
  • Thanks! To be fair, though, that link isn't nearly as sketchy as the Chinese website I found that has the entire book available to read in-browser. – Geoffrey Dec 21 '13 at 5:15
  • Unless you read into the "analogy of forms" I am not sure if this addresses my concerns. I think his recognition of humans as a special creature squares his thinking on the moral plain, but what are we to say about the human, which is a nexus or unity of experience, when the 'human' has not been able to perceive and intuit as we can now. This quote is certainly on the appropriate subject matter, but I am not sure if its responsive. Admittedly, I have had to read it a dozen times. – patrick Jan 4 '14 at 20:38
  • Perhaps I am having trouble understanding exactly what your concerns are, but based on what Kant writes in Sec. 63, 80, and 81, I think it is a safe bet that Kant would not only have no trouble buying into Darwinian evolution he would probably also be totally unsurprised by its success. Kant did a lot, but one of his most important contributions was addressing the philosophical ramifications of the apparently mechanistic universe which we were apparently left with in the wake of the tremendous success of Newton's laws of motion and theory of gravitation. (1 of 2) – Geoffrey Jan 4 '14 at 22:56
  • His response to Newton included (very prominently) what it means to be a part of this seemingly mechanical universe as an apparently physical human being. The quote I give is from his section on the teleology of nature (i.e. the "ends" of nature), and what he says is that from human beings (who seem to so clearly be the final ends of nature) all the way down to moss, nature strongly hints at the notion that all life is deeply connected (probably to a common ancestor or "proto-mother"). "And why not?" he says, "Why should humans be any less mechanical than crystals? We obey the same laws." 2/3 – Geoffrey Jan 4 '14 at 23:08

There are two things written by Kant that pretty much answer your question:

First, the famous quote “Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens above and the moral universe within” seems to indicate that Kant would put the beauty of the Universe on par with the beauty of the "unity of human consciousness".

Second, Kant was the first philosopher who asserted that the Universe formed naturally based on contemporary science.

Therefore Kant would most likely wholeheartedly accepted the scientific explanation for the origin of the human consciousness. Just as with the case of the "starry heavens", the natural origin of the human consciousness wouldn't bother him at all.


In Kant's 'critique of judgement' he shows a teleological argument which is unlike Darwin's theory of evolution in that it is not forceful intuitively upon our cognitive powers but a gentle flowing of nature. It expands on the former idea of taste to a closer look at nature a priori, the causal theory being rational. Of course by the very fact Darwin came after Kant and put a stamp on the empirical world makes Kant's theory phenomenological. Kant focuses away from empirical science known as the categorical and only with rational cognitive powers to understand why trees and their purposes serve. This theory goes back to the biblical idea creation was evented by god. However we are not given information as to how much religion influences Kant's philosophy. Whereas Kant's theory of the teleological aesthetic gives enjoyment to the senses in it's transitional and harmonious reasonIng; Darwin gives rise to the survival of fittest {compare to Mill where death is inevitable} and evolution a brutal understanding of nature's function. Kant's epistemology reflects his writing not only of his time, comparisons can be made to Schelling, it is still even today genuine, authentic, powerful, explanatory, genius and true because of it's gentle power. The problem is in line with the reality of an object say a cup before us as questionable philosophically: can you by specimen prove the existence of fossils when you have never seen the extinct creature live in nature? It is an aesthetic in nature compatible with Kantian significance. Does nature like this improve our understanding of the world in terms of knowledge? Because it is compatible with a Christian ethic to what purpose? Seems to me none. The celebration of Darwin's evolution is very convincing because the world seems to have adjusted according to his theory after the Ice Age. It has nothing to do with prehistory or creation and further, the survival of species is not just the individual psychology of survival of the fittest but an adaptation of the creature surviving against a environmentally changing world. Now taking this theory in the Hindu perspective. What of reincarnation and new adapted species to the world? There is no answer. Yet Hinduism is a religion and philosophy compatible and in synchronicity with nature. Nature plays a part in religion and faith spiritually.

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    Kant explicitely argues against his position being read as creationalist. He basically writes that we humans as we are constituted cannot but lay the principle of purposefulness (in German, the literal meaning is rather "purposeaccordingness", see Ak. 5:180-1) into nature, i.e. we view nature as if it would - (only!) in its totality, see ibid - be purposefully made. That is exactly why it a) is only a maxim and b) does not constitute knowledge. The tree does not actually serve purposes! That is a severe misunderstanding and plainly runs against his arguments, as seen e.g. in §79). – Philip Klöcking May 3 '17 at 10:24

I think that's not the point in question. The problem is how fossils proving biological evolution fits in Kant's conception of reality as a mere interpretation created in base of categories, etc. In this regard, fossils are a subjective creation, just phenomena of an unknowable true reality (noumenon), thus biological evolution and the entire story of universe is just a trivial human story.

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    Reality is NOT a mere interpretation in Kant. It has room for error, as it should, but it definitely could be said that there is (intersubjective) reality that can be perceived by us as by any being with similar interaction between senses and understanding (finite rational beings). And one of the main arguments in contemporary readings is that the noumena are in no sense "more real" or "objective" at all, see Ak. 21:75 and here. – Philip Klöcking Feb 5 '17 at 20:54
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    The big problem with this answer is the addition of the word mere in the phrase "Kant's conception of reality as a mere interpretation..." Good luck finding that idea in Kant. Kant's idea is that human knowledge is of objects which he believes we do render through categories of the understanding and forms of sensibility, but that doesn't mean he thinks the results are arbitrary and that we don't get access to reality through this. – virmaior Feb 6 '17 at 0:43

The quote from Kant above seems to be thinking that life forms have emerged on a basic plan, but in natural selection there is no plan just random variation and pressures to do with survival and re-producing. This doesn't mean any life form has to survive, or reproduce, so this isn't a plan anything must follow. It's just that if they either don't survive or reproduce, then neither they nor their offspring will be about.

It seems strange to me to suppose Kant could agree with Darwin because Darwin points out how life forms, including human's, vary, but Kant is supposed to think certain aspects of the mind are necessary a-priori, so they don't vary, in humans. Then again, Kant thinks that reality as experienced by humans depends on the way sensation is organised and synthesized by a-priori faculties of the human mind, but Darwin's view leads towards the conclusion that reality produced humans and the human mind, and does not depend on it.

Evolution through natural selection also seems to find a world that is itself sufficient to produce the evolution of life forms. This is how it does away with the need for a grand designer God. Since the world is itself sufficient, the supposition that there is a god doing any designing is superfluous. But similarly, if we can find the world itself sufficient to produce anything, then there is no need to think any of this depends on 'our understanding' (as Kant supposes), because, if it did, it would itself be sufficient.

  • I made some edits which you may roll back or further edit. You can see the versions by clicking the "edited" link above. Welcome! – Frank Hubeny Sep 12 '18 at 15:39
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    Your argumentation indicates a very superficial understanding of Kant. E.g. why should there be any conflict between the perception of reality being shaped by human conceptual representation and reality not being itself dependent on them? Kant points out that while we (have to) think of things being "according to a plan", i.e. teleological, they do not themselves have to follow our subjective maxim of the power of judgement. Therefore, it would be helpful to refer your thoughts to more elaborated positions on that matter. – Philip Klöcking Sep 12 '18 at 17:49

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