Voluntarism and Conventionalism in Hobbes and Kant

in Hobbes Studies
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Kant’s relation to Hobbesian voluntarism has recently become a source of controversy for the interpretation of Kant’s practical philosophy. Realist interpreters, most prominently Karl Ameriks, have attacked the genealogies of Kantian autonomy suggested by J. B. Schneewind and Christine Korsgaard as misleadingly voluntarist and unacceptably anti-realist. In this debate, however, there has been no real discussion of Kant’s own views about Hobbes. By examining the relation of Hobbes’ voluntarism to a kind of conventionalism, and through a reading of Kant’s most explicit discussion of Hobbes, in “Theory and Practice,”1 I argue that Kant’s criticism of Hobbes is much more limited than it might first appear. Rather than rejecting Hobbes’ voluntarism and conventionalism entirely, Kant ends up criticizing only Hobbes’ understanding of the relation between these doctrines. The essay thus defends Schneewind’s and Korsgaard’s histories of modern moral philosophy, and raises doubts about realist readings of Kant’s practical philosophy.

Voluntarism and Conventionalism in Hobbes and Kant

in Hobbes Studies




I. Kant“On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory, But It Is of No Use in Practice,” in Practical Philosophytrans. M. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1996) 279-309 [8:275-313]. Hereafter abbreviated as TP. Throughout the essay unbracketed page numbers for Kant refer to this translation of Gregor; bracketed page numbers refer to the edition of the Prussian Academy.


J. B. Schneewind“Natural Law, Skepticism, and Methods of Ethics,” Journal of the History of Ideas52 (1991) 289-308; “Kant and Natural Law Ethics” Ethics 104 (1993) 53-74; The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997).


C. KorsgaardThe Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1996).


KorsgaardThe Sources of Normativity21-27.


K. Ameriks“On Two Non-Realist Interpretations of Kant’s Ethics,” in Interpreting Kant’s Critiques (Oxford: Oxford University Press2003) 263-282.


K. AmeriksKant and the Fate of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2000).


K. Ameriks“On Schneewind and Kant’s Method in Ethics,” Ideas y Valores102 (1996) 28-53; this earlier essay was the source of the discussion of Schneewind in “On Two Non-Realist Interpretations of Kant’s Ethics.”


P. Kain“Self-Legislation in Kant’s Moral Philosophy,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie86 (2004) 257-306; “Realism and Anti-Realism in Kant’s Second CritiquePhilosophy Compass 1 (2006) 449-465.


H. WilliamsKant’s Critique of Hobbes (Cardiff: University of Wales Press2003); see especially the claims on p. 19.


RousseauDiscourse on the Origin of Inequality48-51.


 See Ameriks“Kant on the Good Will,” in Interpreting Kant’s “Critiques” 193-211.


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