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On the Old Saw

That May be Right in Theory But It Won't Work in Practice

By Immanuel Kant. Translated by E. B. Ashton. Introduction by George Miller

Publication Year: 2013

In this famous essay, first published in 1793, Kant considers the alleged conflict between theory and practice in the conduct of human affairs in three widening contexts: those of the common person faced with a moral decision, of the politician and the citizen concerned with the extent and limits of political obligation, and, finally, of the citizen of the world whose actions have a bearing on war and peace among nations.

Unlike other animals, Kant reminds us, people must decide how they will live their lives. They therefore ask for a guide to action, a set of principles—a theory.

From the outset, Kant rejects the ancient claim that the practical possibilities of action cannot always be reconciled with moral demands. He offers his own moral theory, a theory starting out from the principle of the right as an unequivocal guide to action. In partial disagreement with the rival theories of Hobbes and Locke, he proposes that the only condition under which the individual can achieve true destiny as a person and a member of the human race is the civil state. Such a state can be secured only by law. Although "from such crooked wood as man is made of, nothing perfectly straight can be built," only the rule of law can bring about a stable society.

Last, Kant turns to the relation between theory and practice in international relations. "Nowhere," he writes, "does human nature appear less lovable than in the relation of whole nations to each other." But to hope for world peace on the basis of "the so-called balance of power is a mere chimera." There is no other remedy to international lawlessness and war than an international coercive law, and such law can grow only out of sound theory. "I put my trust in theory. At the same time, I trust in the nature of things, and also take account of human nature, which I cannot, or will not, consider so steeped in evil that in the end reason should not triumph."

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. 1-3


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pp. 3-3


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pp. 4-4


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pp. 7-7

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pp. 9-11

Few people are so ignorant that they will dispute the value of theory. Yet men commonly denounce proposals that apply theory in daily life. Many of the finest insights of science, medicine, agriculture, ethics, law, and politics have been summarily rejected with the ritualistic formula: "That may be right in theory, but it won't ...

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pp. 13-37

"On the Old Saw: That may be right in theory but it won't work in practice" was published in 1793 in the Berlinische Monatsschrift.1 Because of the issues it deals with, its style, and its place of publication, the essay is regarded as one of Kant's "popular works," as distinguished from his technical works on epistemology, ethics and ...

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On the Old Saw: That May Be Right in Theory But It Won't Work in Practice

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pp. 39-43

A set of rules, even practical rules, is called a theory if the rules are conceived as principles of a certain generality and are abstracted from a multitude of conditions which necessarily influence their application. Conversely, we do not give the name practice to every activity, only to that accomplishment of an end which is thought to ...

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I. On the Relation of Theory to Practice in Morality in General (in reply to some exceptions taken by Professor Garve)

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pp. 45-56

Before I come to the real point at issue-namely, what in the use of one and the same concept may be valid only in theory or only in practice-I must compare my theory, as set forth elsewhere, with Herr Carve's notion of it, to see beforehand whether we understand ...

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II. On the Relation of Theory to Practice in Constitutional Law (contra Hobbes)

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pp. 57-74

Among the contracts that enable groups of people to unite in a society (pactum sociale ), the one to found a civil constitution between them (pactum unionis civilis) is a special kind. As far as execution is concerned, it has much in common with any other contract aimed at the joint promotion of some purpose; it is ...

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III. On the Relation of Theory to Practice in International Law A General-Philanthropic, i.e., Cosmopolitan View (contra Mendelssohn)

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pp. 75-81

Are we to love the human race as a whole, or is it an object to be viewed with displeasure, an object that has our best wishes (lest we become misanthropic) but never our best expectations, and from which, therefore, we would rather avert our eyes? The answer to this question depends on our answer to another ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209495
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812210583

Page Count: 88
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 859161085
MUSE Marc Record: Download for On the Old Saw