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§5. A Note on the Practical Point of View

§5. A Note on the Practical Point of View

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sin? Answer this question yourself: perhaps not; and without considering

what you cannot know and what can give you no light, act according to

your duty, which you can know.”

I emphasize this point because it distinguishes the point of view of deliberation from that of physical science and social thought, which try to bring

the phenomena under a system of laws of nature. That there is this difference both Leibniz and Kant agree, though in Kant the difference has a much

larger role.

. But if Kant and Leibniz agree on this, they disagree on a different

matter of fundamental significance. Leibniz’s account of deliberation from

the practical point of view would appear to be the origin of Wolff ’s doctrine

of willing as such as opposed to Kant’s doctrine of the pure will. This contrast we considered in Kant :§. Now Wolff says in a letter to Leibniz (May

,  [Ariew and Garber:]):

The sensation of perfection excites a certain pleasure and the sensation

of imperfection a certain displeasure. And the emotions, by virtue of

which the mind is, in the end, inclined or disinclined, are modifications

of this pleasure and displeasure; I explain the origin of natural obligation in this way. As soon as the perfection toward which the action

tends, and which it indicates, is represented in the intellect, pleasure

arises, which causes us to cling more closely to the action we should

contemplate. And so, once the circumstances overflowing with good

for us or for others have been noticed, the pleasure is modified and is

transformed into an emotion by virtue of which the mind is at last

inclined toward appetition. . . . [F]rom this inborn disposition toward

obligation, I deduce all practical morals. . . . From this also comes the

general rule or law of nature that our actions ought to be directed

toward the highest perfection in ourselves and others.



While it would take a far longer discussion to make the point convincingly, I suggest that if we put statements of this kind together with Leibniz’s

account of reasoned deliberation in weighing competing considerations as

we try to identify the greatest apparent good, we see a doctrine of the kind

Kant aims to reject and to replace with the idea of a pure will relying on

pure practical reason alone.

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Groundwork: Preface and Part I



§. Introductory Comments

. I shall say very little about Kant’s life, which presents a striking contrast

with Hume’s. While Hume was precocious, conceiving the Treatise in his

teens and completing it before he was thirty, Kant’s major works, the three

Critiques of the s, matured slowly. Kant was born in April  and died

in February , a little before his eightieth birthday. When the first edition

of the Critique of Pure Reason was published in , following the decade

of the s in which he wrote very little, he was fifty-seven years old and

beginning to feel that time was short. The Critique of Practical Reason appeared in  and the Critique of Judgment in , with the second edition

of the first Critique in . This was not all in those years: the Prolegomena

to Any Future Metaphysics was published in , the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in , and the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science

in . In addition to all these, there were several essays important for his

political philosophy: “Idea for a Universal History” and “What Is Enlightenment” both in , and “What Is Orientation in Thinking” in , among

others. When the last Critique appeared, Kant was sixty-six and still going

strong. He had yet to bring out Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone

(), the Metaphysics of Morals (), and two important essays in political

philosophy, “On the Common Saying: ‘That may be true in theory, but it

does not apply in practice’ ” and “Perpetual Peace,” both in . In ,



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when his last work, The Contest of the Faculties, appeared, he was seventyfour.

Another contrast is that Hume was lowland Scottish gentry who had

no difficulty supporting himself, often staying at the family estate at

Ninewells and eventually becoming quite wealthy from his writings and

legacies to the tune of £, per annum, a substantial sum in those days.

Kant was a poor boy. His father was a harness maker; the family lived in

the working-class section of Koănigsberg. At the age of eight, he entered the

Pietist school the Fridericianum, which he grew to hate; for the rest of his

life he regarded his years there as time in prison. He had to struggle to

earn a living when he went to the university in  when he was sixteen;

and when he left the university in  he became a Hauslehrer, or tutor,

for well-to-do families near Koănigsberg for nearly ten years. When he returned to the university and began lecturing as Dozent in the fall of ,

to make ends meet he lectured twenty hours or more per week, which

seems to us quite incredible, on all kinds of subjects: logic, metaphysics,

ethics, theory of law, geography, anthropology, and more. He didn’t reach

a somewhat comfortable financial security until he became a professor ordinarius in .

. For all their differences, one of the remarkable things about Kant is

his deep respect and fondness for Hume. I say it is remarkable because it’s

not clear whence it arises. Almost certainly, Kant could not read English.

J. G. Sulzer translated Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding in

, and most likely Kant read this. He also owned a copy of some of

Hume’s essays (translated ) that included, besides the “Natural History

of Religion,” the essays “On the Passions,” “On Tragedy,” and the “Foundations of Taste.”1 Some think that it was not until , when Beattie’s Essay

on the Nature and Immutability of Truth was translated into German, that

Kant became aware of the depth of Hume’s criticism of the concept of

causality. This work included quotations from passages in the Treatise more

radical than anything in the Enquiry.2 Others surmise that Kant saw I:iv:

of the Treatise as translated by his friend Hamann before and say that

1. Karl Vorlaănder, Immanuel Kant: Der Mann und das Werk (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, ),

:n.

2. These passages are discussed in R. P. Wolff, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity (Cambridge,

Mass.: Harvard University Press, ), pp. –.



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this was enough for Kant to see the point of Hume’s critique of causation.3

Possibly it was in one of these ways that Kant was aroused from his alleged

“dogmatic slumbers” (Prolegomena [:]).4 In any case, he was pretty wide

awake by normal standards.

Whatever the source of Kant’s knowledge of Hume on causation, that

alone cannot, I think, account for the following extraordinary letter he

wrote to Herder in  (Briefwechsel [X:]) in which he says:

In the early unfolding of your [Herder’s] talents I foresee with great

pleasure the time when your fruitful spirit, no longer driven by the

warm impulse of youthful feeling, attains that serenity which is peaceful yet full of feeling, and is the contemplative life of the philosopher,

just the opposite of that dreamed of by the mystics. From what I know

of you, I confidently look forward to this epoch of your genius, of all

states of mind the most advantageous to its possessor and to the world,

one in which Montaigne occupies the lowest place, and Hume so far

as I know the highest.5



The letter is extraordinary not only in that Kant should write this to Herder

(then a young man to whom he had been close as a student) but also in

that he should say this of Hume. Not because it’s not true of Hume. But

how could Kant have formed such depth of appreciation? How did Kant

divine Hume’s character and sensibility expressed by what I have called his

fideism of nature—his happy acceptance, “peaceful yet full of feeling”? His

respect and fondness for Hume is a wonderful tribute to them both. (See

also KR B– for Kant’s discussion of Hume as a skeptic, with his feeling

for Hume expressed at B: perhaps the “most ingenious of all the skeptics”; “so acute and estimable a man.”)

3. See Guănther Gawlick and Lother Kreimendahl, Hume in der deutchen Aufklaărung (Stuttgart:

Frommann-Holzboog, ), p. . I am indebted to J. B. Schneewind for this reference.

4. Unless otherwise indicated, Kant’s works will be cited by volume and page of the Gesammelte

Schriften, usually called the Akademieausgabe. This edition was first published starting in  by the

Prussian Academy of Sciences. Citations to the Groundwork are by chapter and paragraph as well

as Akademie page of volume ; citations from the Critique of Pure Reason are in the customary first

and second edition pagination. [Ed.]

5. The letter can be found in Ernst Cassirer, Kant’s Life and Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, ), p. .



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§. Some Points about the Preface: Paragraphs –

. Today we begin our study of the first of the three topics into which our

survey of Kant’s moral philosophy will be divided. These three topics are

the moral law, the fact of reason, and a practical faith. We begin with the

Groundwork (as I shall call it following Paton), because even though it fails

to give an adequate view of Kant’s moral philosophy as a whole, it does

provide a reasonably full analytic account of the moral law. It does this by

elucidating the concept of morality, which Kant holds to be implicit in our

commonsense judgments concerning the moral worth of actions and of the

character they express.

Kant tells us in the Preface (Pref: []) that the sole aim of the Groundwork is “to seek out and establish the supreme principle of morality.” He

remarks that this inquiry “constitutes a whole and is to be separated off

from every other inquiry.” In contrast to Hume, he holds that looking for

this principle does not proceed as part of a larger science of human nature,

but begins analytically by elucidating the underlying principle(s) implicit in

our commonsense judgments of moral worth.

This inquiry is a separate one in the further sense that seeking and establishing the supreme principle of morality is preliminary to a critique of pure

practical reason, which Kant says he hopes to write in some future work,

and which he attempts on a small scale in regard to the objective reality

of the moral law in Gr III.

. Several points mentioned in Pref: are of great importance for Kant’s

view, although their full significance will not be clear until much later.

(a) One is Kant’s saying that a critique of (pure) practical reason cannot

be complete until we can show the unity of practical and theoretical reason

in a common principle. He believes that “in the end there can be only one

and the same reason” (Pref: []). Now there are, I believe, four connected

themes concerning reason in Kant’s moral philosophy. We can state these as:

(i) the supremacy of reason

(ii) the unity of reason

(iii) the equality of reason with the primacy of practical reason

in the overall constitution of reason (for this equality, see

KP :); and

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(iv) philosophy as defense, including a defense of the freedom

of reason, both theoretical and practical



Here I won’t try even to hint at what these themes mean, since they

are difficult and require considerable background to state. But we shall try

to understand them, and I hope their meaning and interconnections will

eventually be clear. Setting out moral law as the supreme principle of morality is, as Kant says, preparatory for everything else. That is why I shall leave

aside many questions about how to interpret the categorical imperative and

the relations among its three formulations. Provided that we get the main

essentials right, I don’t believe those questions make all that much difference. I shall note as we go on what is really essential and why.

(b) A second important point is this: Kant says (again in Pref: [])

that a critique of pure practical reason is less urgent in the case of practical

reason than in the case of theoretical reason. As he argues in the first Critique, theoretical reason tends to exceed its appropriate limits and thereby

to fall into a kind of high-blown emptiness, which is fortunately shown in

the antinomies. Were it not for those antinomies, we could easily think

that we were talking sense: here is Kant the anti-metaphysician. By contrast,

practical reason in matters of morality “is easily brought to a high degree

of accuracy and precision even in the most ordinary intelligence” (Pref:

[]). This is related to the following point.

(c) Kant says (still in Pref: []) that he plans to write a critique of pure

practical reason; but when this work appears, it is entitled simply Critique of

Practical Reason. What happened to the adjective “pure”? The full explanation of this must wait until later when we discuss the fact of reason; but

Kant’s thought is that whereas pure theoretical reason tends to transgress

its proper limits, in the case of practical reason it is empirical (not pure)

practical reason, prompted by our natural inclinations and desires, that

tends to transgress its appropriate sphere, especially when the moral law

and its basis in our person is not clear to us. Kant insists on the purity of

the moral law, that is, on the fact that it is an a priori principle that originates

in our free reason. He thinks that being fully conscious of the purity of the

law and of its origin in our person as free and autonomous is the surest

protection against our violating the moral law (see Gr Pref:– [–];

and II:n. []; n. []).

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