In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kant and the Laws of Nature

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Teleological Explanation versus Mechanical Explanation

Philosophy Kant and the Laws of Nature
Michela Massimi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0315


Immanuel Kant’s complex and nuanced view on the laws of nature has been at the center of renewed attention among Kant scholars since the late 20th century. Kant’s view is one of the best examples in the Early Modern period of the philosophical view of nature as “ordered” and “lawful” that emerged with the scientific advancements of the 17th and 18th centuries. Building on the extraordinary success of Isaac Newton’s mechanics and optics, but also on the burgeoning chemistry of Stephen Hales in England and Herman Boerhaave and Pieter van Musschenbroek in the Netherlands, among many others, Kant’s lifelong engagement with the natural sciences (broadly construed) influenced and fed into his mature Critical-period philosophy. Explaining why laws of nature seemingly govern the natural world (as much as the moral law regulates the realm of human freedom and choice) is key to Kant’s transcendental philosophy. Kant seems to embrace a coherent account of what it is to be a law, in moral philosophy and in theoretical philosophy. When it comes to theoretical philosophy (and in particular, to Kant’s philosophy of nature, which is our topic), the main question is how it is possible for us to come to know nature as ordered and lawful. Where does the lawfulness of nature come from? In the Critique of Pure Reason and in the Prolegomena, Kant held the view that our faculty of understanding is the primary source of nature’s lawfulness because the a priori categories of the understanding “prescribe laws to nature”—that is, they play the role of constitutive a priori principles for our experience of nature. Yet, already in the first Critique, and even more so in Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant stressed the importance of the faculty of reason, first, and the faculty of reflective judgment, second—with their regulative principles—in offering a system of laws necessary for our knowledge of nature. The crucial distinction between constitutive principles of the understanding versus regulative principles of reason and reflective judgment leads, in turn, to a series of further distinctions in Kant’s philosophy. For example, it leads to the different status of laws in the physical sciences and in the life sciences, which in turn became the battleground for the debate concerning mechanical explanations versus teleological explanations.

General Overviews

Friedman 1992 and Friedman 2013 offer a very influential view in this debate (especially with the author’s latest interpretation of Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations). Guyer 2005 provides an authoritative reading of systematicity in Kant’s work (both in moral philosophy and in theoretical philosophy), and Kitcher 1986 is a classic take on Kant’s systematicity, by a leading philosopher of science. Massimi 2014 charts the historical roots of Kant’s view back to Isaac Newton. Warren 2001 provides an insightful metaphysical take on Kant’s philosophy of nature. Watkins 2001 and Watkins 2005 are a must for anyone approaching the debate for the first time, by a world’s leading Kant scholar. Watkins and Stan 2014 is an excellent online entry for a detailed overview on Kant’s philosophy of science (from the Pre-Critical to the Critical periods).

  • Friedman, Michael. “Causal Laws and the Foundations of Natural Science.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Edited by Paul Guyer, 161–199. Cambridge Companions to Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521365872.006

    A now-classic article in the field, laying out Friedman’s influential reading of Kant on causality and laws.

  • Friedman, Michael. Kant’s Construction of Nature: A Reading of the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139014083

    This is Friedman’s latest comprehensive study of Kant’s mature view on nature. Advanced reading for an expert audience. The introduction is accessible to a wider audience.

  • Guyer, Paul. Kant’s System of Nature and Freedom: Selected Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199273461.001.0001

    Authoritative collection of essays on Kant’s view on systematicity at work in freedom and nature, with a clear discussion of core issues.

  • Kitcher, Philip. “Projecting the Order of Nature.” In Kant’s Philosophy of Physical Science: Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft, 1786–1986. Edited by Robert E. Butts, 201–235. University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science 33. Boston: Reidel, 1986.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-4730-6_7

    A classic article in the field—recommended for beginners with an interest in Kantian legacy in philosophy of science.

  • Massimi, Michela. “Prescribing Laws to Nature, Part I: Newton, the Pre-Critical Kant, and Three Problems about the Lawfulness of Nature.” Kant-Studien 105.4 (2014): 491–508.

    DOI: 10.1515/kant-2014-0023

    A historically oriented article on the cultural milieu and open problems behind Kant’s view on the lawfulness of nature.

  • Warren, Daniel. Reality and Impenetrability in Kant’s Philosophy of Nature. Studies in Philosophy. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

    Short, clear, and pioneering book in advancing a metaphysical reading of Kant’s philosophy of nature in terms of causal powers.

  • Watkins, Eric. Kant and the Metaphysics of Causality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    This is Watkins’s influential monograph on some of the core metaphysical issues surrounding causality and causal laws in Kant’s philosophy (with their historical sources).

  • Watkins, Eric, ed. Kant and the Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    An accessible, first-class, edited collection covering a comprehensive range of topics within Kant’s philosophy of nature. Recommended for advanced undergraduate and graduate seminars.

  • Watkins, Eric, and Marius Stan. “Kant’s Philosophy of Science.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    A comprehensive introductory essay on metaphysical and epistemological aspects of Kant’s philosophy of science, with a particular focus on the philosophy of the physical sciences. First published in 2003.

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