Research

General Interests and Orientation

The primary motivation for my research is an interest in transcendental philosophy as it relates to the natural sciences and to reflective consideration of the aims and limits of scientific naturalism. Kant’s theoretical philosophy provides ample resources for addressing these issues, especially when it is approached through historical and systematic consideration of the particular positions and claims involved in his Transcendental Idealism. I understand and explicate positions taken in Kant’s major works through attention to details of the structure and aims of these works themselves, to the particular positions of his predecessors and contemporaries, and to positions Kant takes in his lesser-known works before and after the publication of the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1781). This approach leads me to understand Kant’s Critical philosophy in ways that diverge significantly from epistemologically focused interpretations, while also posing challenges for some attempts to explicate his works through a focus on the aims of practical reason.

My work thus far has focused on aspects of Kant’s systematic thinking that bear on theoretical questions in metaphysics, the philosophy of religion, and the history and philosophy of the natural and social sciences. The methods I use allow me to appreciate Kant’s tendency to articulate advantages for his own theoretical philosophy by reference to the coherence it allows us to think between the presuppositions of natural science and those of practical agency. They also reveal that these are only some of the many advantages he claims for particular positions and that the priority of practical reason is, for Kant, quite a bit more local and context dependent than it is sometimes made to appear.

The research program on Kant’s theoretical philosphy that my work contributes to exists in dialogue with projects that stem from various intellectual traditions and that reflect a diversity of interests. This allows my findings to complement those of other Kant scholars, historians of philosophy, and historically minded philosophers of science. It also enables me to engage with contemporary philosophers who draw on Kant’s practical philosophy and with people working within contemporary philosophical traditions—such as hermeneutics, pragmatism, phenomenology and existential philosophy, and critical theory—that have genealogical relations to Kant and to Kantian thought.

Narrative of Work Completed and Publications to Date

Kant’s Theoretical Philosophy

My M.A. thesis1 and my first published article2 both address Kant’s contribution to early modern discussions of modality and of the relation of ontology to philosophical theism and theistic metaphysics. Kant’s famous rejection of the scientific status of rational theology in the first Critique involves a general line of thinking concerning God’s absolute necessity that he had already articulated to some extent in previous works and that he continues to adhere to in many ways, both in the first Critique itself and in his later writings and lectures. My aim was to identify the crucial differences between his earlier theistic position in metaphysics and his claims concerning the status of theistic metaphysics found in the ‘Transcendental Dialectic’. In my thesis, I reached the conclusion that the major difference was one concerning the transcendental psychology Kant introduces in the first Critique. The distinction between the understanding and reason, as concerns their respective modes of representation and rules for employment within natural philosophy, brings with it a new set of claims concerning the regulative status of reason’s ideas in general, and of the Transcendental Ideal (i.e., the theoretical idea of a unique being that is necessary in itself and in in relation to the possibility and existence of all other beings).

With help from my thesis advisor, I came to realize that I did not yet have adequate answers to some central questions concerning Kant’s justification for his controversial claims concerning the regulative status of reason’s ideas. Assigning our intellectual powers a regulative role with respect to natural scientific inquiry would not have been a contested move among many of the German philosophers to whom he offers the argument of the Critique. The burden of proof in this context falls to Kant to establish the further claim that we are not equally justified in treating reason’s ideas also as principles that are constitutive of the real possibility of the things themselves we think in theoretical philosophy and, thus also, of the well-grounded phenomena we investigate in the natural sciences. From the standpoint of someone likely to accept Kant’s earlier treatment of modal concepts and ontology, it is not clear that the first Critique provides clearly compelling reasons for abandoning that project altogether. Accordingly, there are aspects of continuity between pre-Kantian and post-Kantian Idealism in Germany that really should not be as surprising as some historical and philosophical narratives make them out to be.

My doctoral dissertation3 , and the two articles45 I have published so far from the work I did for it, address the role of transcendental philosophy in relation to the characteristically modern project of a theoretically unified scientific approach to order in the natural world. From a certain perspective, Kant’s interest in the issues he addresses in the third Critique can appear to have arisen during the 1780s in the form of challenges to the generally Newtonian view of natural science he works to ground in the first Critique and the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. However, Kant spends quite a bit of his energies between 1755 and 1790 focusing on areas of natural philosophy that, understandably, do not receive much direct attention in the first Critique or, correlatively, in the literature devoted to the argument of that work and its relation to the history and philosophy of the exact sciences. Closer inspection of his corpus as a whole, however, reveals that natural beauty and sublimity; organization, functioning, and adaptation of natural bodies of specific kinds; epistemic challenges for general and particular natural history; and the scientific status of appeals to final causality are issues that occupy Kant throughout his long academic career.

The central claims that emerge from my work in this area can be summarized in two general findings, which have further implications for historical and philosophical reconstructions of Kant’s Critical philosophy:

  1. Kant maintains an overall view of metaphysics and natural philosophy in his Critical writings that is more Aristotelian and Leibnizean than is generally recognized. The third Critique provides an argument for some of the key ontological claims of his Transcendental Idealism that turns on a philosophical account of how we are capable of thinking the material grounds of possibility for corporeal nature as a real whole that grounds the lawfully produced phenomena characteristic of both organized and non-organized natural bodies. My interpretation challenges the views of some leading contemporary Kant scholars concerning: Kant’s general orientation towards the problems presented by organized nature; his specific motives for addressing these problems in the third Critique; and the relative emphasis given to purely practical over more traditionally theoretical considerations in motivating arguments for Transcendental Idealism.
  2. Kant is neither a passive observer, nor a self-appointed judge, in relation to debates in plant and animal physiology and natural history in the eighteenth century. His contribution to the discourse is clearly marked by his training and interests as a metaphysician; however, his engagement with the work of practicing naturalists has him working out a largely original path for understanding the unity amidst diversity in nature that is at least as promising as are other eighteenth-century trends that we commonly associate with the rise of biological thinking. His work on this path, moreover, is an important factor in the development of his Critical philosophy.

In Kant’s Explanatory Natural History and Metaphysics and Physiology I bring my reading of Kant’s pre-Critical essays, and the projects in metaphysics, natural history, and physiology that he addresses there, to bear on questions of interpretation concerning the position he takes in the Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment. I argue that Kant develops a particular way of conceiving of epigenetic accounts of the generation of individual organized bodies as dependent on the presupposition of a preformationist account of the active natural principles of these processes of generation. This view is key to understanding the particular ways in which Kant discusses theories of natural order in the third Critique. It is also central for understanding the significance of Kant’s way of distinguishing between species concepts, reason’s idea of an organized being, and the phenomenal characteristics according to which we identify particular organized bodies and classify them as members of a given natural species.

Public Philosophy

The article I completed most recently6 takes some of my provisional thoughts on the practical implications of my interpretation of Kant’s theory of organized nature in the direction of an historical and philosophical articulation of the motivating spirit and the guiding hope of the Public Philosophy Journal. This Mellon-funded experimental project, co-founded by Christopher P. Long and myself, explores possibilities for the digitally networked production, development, distribution, and peer evaluation of informed and informative work on issues of pressing public concern.

Work in Progress and Plans for Publication

Articles

There are at least three aspects of the view I worked out in the dissertation that still deserve to be revisited, shared more broadly, and turned into publications. Two of these concern further substantiation for the thesis concerning the history and philosophy of biology and Kant’s Critical philosophy (thesis 2 above). I am working on these in two articles currently in the drafting stage that I plan to present at conferences and submit for publication over the course of the next eight to ten months: “Natural History and the Development of Transcendental Idealism” and “Natural History, Immateriality, and Immortality in Kant’s Reaction to Herder’s Ideas”.

The third aspect of the view deals with my more ambitious, and more contentious, thesis concerning Kant’s overall views on metaphysics and natural philosophy and the relationship between Kant’s Transcendental Idealism and other generally Leibnizean idealisms (thesis 1 above). This will demand quite a bit more attention than I will be able to give it in the immediate future, but I have an increasingly clear grasp of what some of the intermediate stages between now and the eventual production of a monograph devoted to that thesis will have to look like. The two articles mentioned above are part of that process, as is a third article that improves on details of presentation and justification for my view of the argumentative structure and the systematic role of the Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment.

Book Project

The most substantive and challenging of the intermediate stages I currently have mapped out is the completion of a book-length manuscript on the significance of the Only Possible Argument in the development of the view of pure reason that Kant introduces in the Critique of Pure Reason.

This book project grows out of a return to the core ideas I worked on in my MA thesis, in light of my own further work and other work that has been done more recently on Kant’s Only Possible Argument. The project began as a paper accepted for presentation at the 2013 UK Kant Society Annual Conference “Kant’s Philosophy of Religion”, with the working title “The Sole Possible Proving Ground for a Demonstration of God’s Existence in the Development of the Critique of Pure Reason”. It amounts to a critical questioning of some common ways of framing Kant’s attitude towards theistic proofs and an interpretive suggestion concerning the continuities between the Only Possible Argument and the first Critique. The real benefit of the alternative focus of this project, as I see it, is related specifically to philosophical questions concerning the motivations and justifications for generally theistic beliefs. Recent work focused on questions concerning the change in Kant’s views concerning the possibility of a demonstration of God’s existence remains quite relevant, but I am equally convinced of the complementary relevance of exploring philosophically significant commonalities in his understanding of the relative necessity of (i.e., need for) such a demonstration.  

The main thesis of the project is that Kant’s Critical philosophy offers a generally overlooked philosophical justification for theism that is both relatively independent of any particular view concerning a theoretical demonstration of God’s existence and motivated by considerations other than those that are identified with the interests of practical reason. By tracing the development of Kant’s mature view of pure reason from the 1763 Only Possible Argument to the 1781 edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, I shed light on some of the more puzzling details of Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, including its claim about the possibility and necessity of thinking things-in-themselves, and the real significance of its denial of a scientific status to rational theology.

Publications Citing My Work

Kant on the Material Ground of Possibility

  • Kerslake, C. (2009). Immanence and the Vertigo of Philosophy: From Kant to Deleuze. Edinburgh University Press.
  • Chignell, A. (2012). Kant, Real Possibility, and the Threat of Spinoza. Mind,121(483), 635-675.
  • Nachtomy, O. (2012). Leibniz and Kant on Possibility and Existence. British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 20(5), 953-972.
  • Gottlieb, M. (2011). Faith and freedom: Moses Mendelssohn’s theological-political thought. Oxford University Press.
  • Insole, C. J. (2013). Kant and the creation of freedom: a theological problem. Oxford University Press.
  • Insole, C. (2011). Intellectualism, Relational Properties and the Divine Mind in Kant’s Pre-Critical Philosophy. Kantian Review, 16(03), 399-427.
  • Boehm, O. (2014). Kant’s critique of Spinoza. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Newlands, S. (2013). Leibniz and the Ground of Possibility. Philosophical Review, 122(2), 155-187.
  • Pollok, K. (2014). From the clarity of ideas to the validity of judgments: Kant’s farewell to epistemic perfectionism. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 44(1), 18-35.
  • Leech, J. F. (2011). The varieties of modality: Kantian prospects for a relativist account.
  • Yong, P. (2014). God, Totality and Possibility in Kant’s Only Possible Argument.Kantian Review, 19(01), 27-51.
  • Sdrolia, C. (2014). Signifying nature: semeiosis as the foundation of post-critical cosmology in Charles S. Peirce (Doctoral dissertation).
  • Rukgaber, M. (2014). Kant’s Criticisms of Ontological and Onto-theological Arguments for the Existence of God.
  • Abaci, U. (2014). Kant’s Only Possible Argument and Chignell’s Real Harmony.Kantian Review, 19(01), 1-25.
  • Adams, R. M. (2000). God, Possibility, and Kant. Faith and Philosophy, 17(4), 425-440.
  • Schönfeld, M. (2000). The philosophy of the young Kant. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kant’s Explanatory Natural History

  • Ameriks, K. (2012). Kant’s Elliptical Path. Oxford University Press.
  • Mensch, J. (2013). Kant’s organicism: epigenesis and the development of critical philosophy. University of Chicago Press.
  • Huneman, P. (2014). Purposiveness, necessity, and contingency. Kant’s philosophy of biology. de Gruyter, Berlin, 185-202.
  • Gambarotto, A. (2014). Vital forces and organization: Philosophy of nature and biology in Karl Friedrich Kielmeyer. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 48, 12-20.
  • Fisher, M. (2014). Metaphysics and Physiology in Kant’s Attitude towards Theories of Preformation. Kant’s Theory of Biology, 25.
  • Zammito, J. (2011). Should Kant have Abandoned the “Daring Adventure of Reason”? The Interest of Contemporary Naturalism in the Historicization of Nature in Kant and Idealist Naturphilosophie. Philosophie und Wissenschaft/Philosophy and Science:[Print+ Online], 8, 130.
  • Mensch, J. (2014). Kant and the problem of form: theories of animal generation, theories of mind. Estudos Kantianos [EK], 2(02).

Organisms and Teleology in Kant’s Natural Philosophy

  • Watkins, E. (2009). The antinomy of teleological judgment. Kant yearbook,1(2009), 197-221.
  • Watkins, E., & Goy, I. (2014). Kant’s Theory of Biology.

  1. “Kant’s Critical Attitude toward the Only Possible Argument” 

  2. Fisher, Mark and Watkins, Eric (1998) Kant on the Material Ground of Possibility: From ”The Only Possible Argument” to the “Critique of Pure Reason”. Review of Metaphysics, 52, 369-395. 

  3. Fisher, M. (2008). Organisms and teleology in kant’s natural philosophy. (Order No. 3310253, Emory University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 507. 

  4. Fisher, M. (2014) “Metaphysics and Physiology in Kant’s Attitude Towards Theories of Preformation.” in Goy, Ina (Ed.) and Eric Watkins (Ed.). Kant’s Theory of Biology. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2014 

  5. Fisher, M. (2007) “Kant’s Explanatory Natural History: Generation and Classification of Organisms in Kant’s Natural Philosophy” in Huneman, P., ed. Understanding purpose: Kant and the philosophy of biology. Rochester, NY [u.a.: University of Rochester Press. 

  6. “Public Philosophy and Philosophical Publics”, with Christopher P Long, Kris Klotz, and Andre de Avilez, accepted for publication in The Good Society 

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