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Lewis White Beck on Reasons and Causes

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 63, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 539-545 | 10.1353/jhi.2002.0023

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Journal of the History of Ideas 63.3 (2002) 539-545

Essays by Lewis White Beck: Five Decades as a Philosopher. Edited by Predag Cicovacki. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1998. Pp. xxxii, 244.

This volume reissues twelve previously uncollected pieces by the late Lewis White Beck (1913-1997) and also includes a reminiscence by a former colleague, an introduction by the editor, and a bibliography of Beck's work. Beck was of course the most distinguished American Kant scholar of his time, who made enduring contributions to scholarship with his translations of Kant's writings in moral philosophy, originally published in Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy (Chicago, 1949); his trenchant articles on the analytic-synthetic distinction from the early 1950s, collected in his Studies in the Philosophy of Kant (Indianapolis, 1965); his unsurpassed A Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason (Chicago, 1960); his monumental Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (Cambridge, Mass., 1969); his various articles on Kant's treatment of causation, collected in Essays on Kant and Hume (New Haven, 1978); and in his independent philosophical work, The Actor and the Spectator (New Haven, 1975). The present volume, edited by a student from Beck's last years at the University of Rochester, where he spent most of his career, includes articles on a variety of subjects published between 1939 and 1984, and it might seem to be little more than an act of piety toward a now departed but still revered teacher. But a core group of these articles are intimately connected with Beck's central scholarly and philosophical concerns and are well worth republication and renewed study.

The articles included in the volume are three early pieces on several central issues in the philosophical debates of the time, "The Synoptic Method" (1939), "The Formal Properties of Ethical Wholes" (1941), and "The Principle of Parsimony in Empirical Science" (1943); an early piece on aesthetics, "Judgments of Meaning in Art" (1944); two pieces on the tensions between causal explanations and rational evaluations of human behavior, "Psychology and the Norms of Knowledge" (1954) and "Conscious and Unconscious Motives" (1966); Beck's 1971 Presidential Address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, a skeptical discussion of "Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life"; an overview of philosophies of time, "World Enough, and Time" (1979); a piece on styles of philosophical writing called "Philosophy As Literature" (1980); and then three pieces on Kant, published after the second of Beck's two earlier anthologies of his articles on Kant: "Kant on the Uniformity of Nature" (1981), "Five Concepts of Freedom in Kant" (1987), and "What Have We Learned from Kant?" (1984). With the last paper, the editor departs from the strictly chronological order he has previously employed, presumably in order to end the volume on a suitably general and retrospective note.

I will focus my comments on the two systematic papers on psychological explanation and rational evaluation as well as on the first two Kant papers, all of which touch upon the issues that were central to Beck in his philosophically most important works, the 1960 Commentary on Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and the 1975 The Actor and the Spectator, and which point toward what was Beck's leading idea in both his philosophical and interpretative work: it concerns the idea that the causal explanation of human behavior as a subset of natural events and the rational explanation and justification of human actions are two entirely separate perspectives on the same subject-matter that can be rendered compatible only by the thought that each, causal explanation of behavior on the one hand and rational assessment of actions on the other, is only a regulative ideal for our conduct of inquiry and thus that neither represents a metaphysically privileged point of view. This was an approach that Beck claimed to have been foreshadowed in Kant's resolution of the "Antinomy of Teleological Judgment" in his last great critique, the Critique of the Power of Judgment of 1790, and one that, in Beck's view, represented a radical revision of Kant's earlier resolution of the antinomy between freedom and determinism in the Critique of Pure Reason...

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