The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy

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“The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy,” Mark Timmons (ed.) Essays on Kant’s Moral Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
The Final Form of Kant’s Practical Philosophy
Allen Wood

Yale University

By the year 1768, Kant claimed to be at work on a system of ethics, under the title “metaphysics of morals” (Ak 10:74).1 During the so-called ‘silent decade’ of the 1770s, when Kant was working on the Critique of Pure Reason, he promised repeatedly not only that he would soon finish that work but also that he would soon publish a “metaphysics of morals” (Ak 10:97, 132, 144).2 Yet it was not until four years after the first Critique that Kant finally wrote a work on ethics, and even then he merely laid the ground for a metaphysics of morals by identifying and establishing the supreme principle on which a system of duties would be based (G 4:392). Three years later, in the Critique of Practical Reason Kant once again dealt entirely with foundational questions in moral philosophy. Kantian ethics is primarily known, especially among English-speaking philosophers, through these two ethical works of the 1780s, neither of which contains anything like a ‘metaphysics of morals’.

Many of Kant’s chief works in the early 1790s are devoted to practical philosophy. The Critique of Judgment’s treatment of taste and teleology is concerned both with moral psychology and with the view of the world which a morally disposed person should take. Other works even deal with the application of Kantian principles to political and religious questions. Yet still there is still no systematic presentation of the practical philosophy which Kant had been promising for nearly three decades. It is not until 1797 that Kant published the first part of such a system, under the title “Doctrine of Right”, and it is only later in the year that the entire system, the long-promised Metaphysics of Morals, finally appears in print, among the very last of Kant’s published works.

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