Teleology Beyond Regrets: On the Role of Schelling’s Organicism in Treviranus’ Biology

Di Andrea Gambarotto

In: The Notion of Organism. Historical and Conceptual Approaches XLIII , No. 1-4 ( 2014 )

Sezione Saggi / Articles


In his seminal monograph on teleology and mechanics in nineteenth German biology Timothy Lenoir considers his study of the “Kantian” teleomechanistic tradition as an answer to those who wrongly believe that early nineteenth-century German biology was dominated by Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. My goal is to argue that this is an arbitrary assumption based on a historiographical bias and that Schelling’s organicism played a pivotal role in the formulation of a conceptual framework aimed at accounting for biological organization. The formalization of biology as an autonomous science at the beginning of the nineteenth century implied in fact the shift from a regulative to a constitutive understanding of teleology, a shift most strongly endorsed in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. I first take into account two aspects that Treviranus draws directly from Schelling: the relationship between mechanism and teleology and the continuity between nature and spirit. I then show how Treviranus reinterprets the Schellingian framework with a peculiar emphasis on ecology, stressing the important interaction between organisms and environment. On this basis, I suggest that he was the first naturalist in the German speaking world to sketch the outline of a theory concerned with the historical transformation of living forms.