Wolff’s Science of Teleology and Kant’s Critique

Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 6 (2019)
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This essay examines Wolff’s science of teleology, which has historically been dismissed as a crude physico-theology resting on a simple confusion between uses and purposes. Focusing especially on his two German volumes (German Teleology, 1723, and German Physiology, 1725), I argue that, first, Wolff never intended teleology to be a self-standing theology; and second, that teleology, as a part of physics, is primarily an applied or practical discipline. In its theological function, teleology presupposes the ontological and cosmological arguments for the being and attributes of God rendered in rational theology. As a part of physics, meanwhile, teleology presupposes the inert-mechanical view of nature which had emerged in the seventeenth century, and builds upon mechanistic physics by providing a perspective on nature as consisting of relations of benefit and advantage. The physiological part of teleology, or the study of plant and animal bodies, occupies a special place, for which Wolff deploys notions of health and sickness consistent with the mechanistic physics he accepts. With this in view, I argue that Wolff’s teleology could not be the proper target of Kant’s critique of physico-theology. Yet, there remain deeper differences between Wolff and Kant on the topic, which have to do with the sources and limits of teleological reasoning in general.

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Nabeel Hamid
Concordia University


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