Kant and the Laws of Nature

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 view on laws of nature has 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:

  • 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);
  • 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);
  • 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?).

Most of the research activity in this flourishing area has so far been conducted in the US and Germany. The network will provide an interdisciplinary platform for the exploration of research questions (i)-(iii), and will make of the UK an international forum for the investigation of these research questions, in collaboration with high profile international partners.


Project team: 

Principal Investigator: Prof Michela Massimi

Network Facilitator: Dr James Collins

International Network Members: Dr Angela Breitenbach (Cambridge); Prof Michael Friedman (Stanford); Prof Frank James (Royal Institution of Great Britain); Prof Anja Jauernig (Pittsburgh); Prof Peter McLaughlin (Heidelberg); Prof Eric Watkins (California, San Diego); Prof Catherine Wilson (York)

Funded by a Leverhulme Trust International Networks Grant (c. £105K)