Kant and the laws of nature.
Lessons from the physical and the life sciences of the eighteenth century.

What is the origin and nature of laws in physics and biology? In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant gave remarkable answers to this question by drawing on the physical and life sciences of his time. Kant argued that the laws of nature, marvellously revealed by the sciences of his time (from Newtonian mechanics to the chemistry of Boerhaave; from the electrical experiments of Hauksbee to the hydrodynamics of Bernoulli; from natural history to the life sciences) were, in part, the result of our mind ‘projecting’, so to speak, an order onto nature.

This is a new, flourishing area of research in the otherwise crowded Kantian scholarship, and it has increasingly attracted the attention of historians and philosophers of science over the last decade or so. Kant’s views on laws of nature have sparked debates about:

(i) the nature of laws (e.g. to what extent can they be ‘read off’ from nature, as opposed to being ‘projected’ onto it by the human mind?);

(ii) their role in scientific explanation (e.g. was Kant right in thinking that the laws of Newtonian mechanics play a ‘constitutive’ / foundational role in the explanation of planetary motions, yet wrong in providing a priori grounding for them?);

(iii) the possible unification of physical and life sciences (e.g. how to reconcile the laws of physics, with their apparent necessity and determinism, with the laws of biology, characterised by teleological considerations about living organisms?).

These research questions have prompted:

(a) Kantian scholars to take a closer look at how Kant’s philosophy of nature plays a central role within his theoretical and moral philosophy (with debates about free will and nature’s determinism);

(b) Historians to investigate the scientific and philosophical context behind Kant’s view on laws of nature (e.g. the influence of both Leibniz’s metaphysics and Newtonian physics, as well as the growing experimental sciences of his time);

(c) Philosophers of science to investigate the extent to which Kant’s view may still be relevant to contemporary debates (e.g. what lessons can be drawn from Kant to address the issue as to whether physical and life sciences fall under a unified account, without yet being reducible to one another?).

The Role of the Kant and Laws Network

Most of the research activity in this flourishing area has so far been conducted in the US and Germany. The network brings together high profile partners from eight national and international institutions and provides an interdisciplinary platform for the investigation of research questions (i)-(iii); offering, for the first time in the UK, a systematic exploration of Immanuel Kant’s views on the laws of nature, by integrating Kant’s reflections on the physical and the life sciences.  The network seeks to offer a new perspective on two crucial questions at the very centre of Kant’s philosophy: (1) whether Kant’s project successfully grounds the lawful unity of nature; and (2) whether the laws of the physical and life sciences fall under a unified account, without yet being reducible to one another.  This is a key juncture at which Kantian epistemology can contribute to cutting-edge debates in philosophy of science on laws, explanation, reductionism, and the unity of science.  Our distinctive methodology is to combine an analysis of Kant’s philosophical project, with an investigation of both its origins in the scientific and philosophical context of the time, and its implications for contemporary philosophy of science.

The Structure of the Project

The network is structured around the following three main objectives, each a year long:

Year One.  Kant and the lawfulness of nature.

The first research objective is to offer an in-depth investigation of Kant’s view on the lawfulness of nature, providing the essential groundwork for the more specific questions examined in the following two years.

Year Two.  Constitutive laws: Newtonian Mechanics and the experimental sciences.

The second research objective involves a more focussed critical examination of the epistemological ramifications of Kant’s view for the laws in the physical sciences.

Year Three.  Regulative principles: teleology, mechanism and vitalism.

The third research phase will explore Kant’s conception of the laws in the life sciences.