The Cultural Embodiment of Biology: Naturphilosophie and Biological Knowledge Around 1800

Proceedings of the Xxii World Congress of Philosophy 44:53-61 (2008)
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Abstract

Biology, established around 1800 as the “science of life,” has developed as not only a specific scientific discipline but it has also continually served as a kind of social knowledge. Biological knowledge supported the modern order of the sexes and the two-sex model that it was structured along, as well as modern racism and multiple forms of social inequality articulated by dichotomizing the normal and abnormal. However, the fledgling discipline of biology alone was not capable of developing the epistemological as well as political-ethical competence necessary for attaining this central status in the order of knowledge; it was possible only because philosophy and the emerging social sciences gave biology a specific status. The paper outlines the closely connected, but different attitudes of Kant and Schelling towards biological knowledge. While focusing on their different epistemic strategies towards the new form of nature knowledge, I also point to their different political-ethical articulations of biological knowledge. I conclude that a critical analysis of philosophies of nature around 1800 contributes not onlyto an understanding of the symbolic power of biology in the modern order of knowledge but also to rethinking philosophy’s relation to scientific knowledge today.

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Susanne Lettow
Freie Universität Berlin

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