On the Old Saw

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

Immanuel Kant
Translated by E. B. Ashton
Introduction by George Miller
Copyright Date: 1974
Pages: 88
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  • Book Info
    On the Old Saw
    Book Description:

    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."

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0949-5
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-8)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. 9-12)
    John R. Silber

    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 work in practice.” Fully appreciative of the enervating and pernicious influence of this nostrum, Kant published in 1793 the most rigorous and sustained critique that it or any other cliché has ever received.

    Kant’s essay, addressed to a broad intellectual audience, is one of the most...

  4. Introduction
    (pp. 13-38)
    George Miller

    “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 aesthetics. This distinction may suggest that the popular essays are only of historical interest, dealing with problems unique to the 18th Century. But if one considers the issues discussed—freedom of the press, the need for world government, the limits of political...

  5. On the Old Saw:: That May Be Right in Theory But It Won’t Work in Practice
    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 39-44)

      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 follow certain generally conceived principles of procedure.

      However complete the theory may be, it is obvious that between theory and practice there must be a link, a connection and transition from one to the other. To the intellectual concept that contains the rule,...

    • I. On the Relation of Theory to Practice in Morality in General (in reply to some exceptions taken by Professor Garve)
      (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 Garve’s notion of it, to see beforehand whether we understand each other.

      A. Provisionally, by way of introduction, I had defined ethics as a science that teaches, not how we are to achieve happiness, but how we are to become worthy of happiness.** My definition, as I had not failed to note, does not mean that in matters of...

    • II. On the Relation of Theory to Practice in Constitutional Law (contra Hobbes)
      (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 essentially different from the rest, however, in the principle of what it founds (constitutionis civilis). The union of many people for some common end which they all have is found in all social contracts. But their union as an end in itself—as the...

    • III. On the Relation of Theory to Practice in International Law—A General-Philanthropic, i.e., Cosmopolitan View (contra Mendelssohn)
      (pp. 75-83)
      I. Kant

      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 question. Are there tendencies in human nature which allow us to infer that the species will always progress toward the better, and that the evil of present and past times will be lost in the good of the future? If so, we could...

  6. Back Matter
    (pp. 84-84)