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Source: Preface to Kant's The Philosophy of Law: An Exposition of the Fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence as the Science of Right, trans. W. Hastie (Edinburgh: Clark, 1887).
Kant’sScience of Right is a complete exposition of the Philosophy of Law, viewed as a rational investigation of the fundamental Principles of Jurisprudence. It was published in 1796, as the First Part of his Metaphysic of Morals, the promised sequel and completion of the Foundation for a Metaphysic of Morals, published in 1785. The importance and value of the great thinker’s exposition of the Science of Right, both as regards the fundamental Principles of his own Practical Philosophy and the general interest of the Philosophy of Law, were at once recognised. A second Edition, enlarged by an Appendix, containing Supplementary Explanations of the Principles of Right, appeared in 1798. The work has since then been several times reproduced by itself, as well as incorporated in all the complete editions of Kant’s Works. It was immediately rendered into Latin by Born in 1798, and again by König in 1800. It was translated into French by Professor Tissot in 1837, of which translation a second revised Edition has appeared. It was again translated into French by M. Barni, preceded by an elaborate analytical introduction, in 1853. With the exception of the Preface and Introductions, the work now appears translated into English for the first time.
Kant’s Science of Right was his last great work of an independent kind in the department of pure Philosophy, and with it he virtually brought his activity as a master of thought to a close. It fittingly crowned the rich practical period of his later philosophical teaching, and he shed into it the last effort of his energy of thought. Full of years and honours he was then deliberately engaged, in the calm of undisturbed and unwearied reflection, in gathering the finally matured fruit of all the meditation and learning of his life. His three immortal Critiques of the Pure Reason (1781), the Practical Reason (1788), and the Judgment (1790), had unfolded all the theoretical Principles of his Critical Philosophy, and established his claim to be recognised as at once the most profound and the most original thinker of the modern world. And as the experience of life deepened around and within him, towards the sunset, his interest had been more and more absorbed and concentrated in the Practical. For to him, as to all great and comprehensive thinkers, Philosophy has only its beginning in the theoretical explanation of things; its chief end is the rational organization and animation and guidance of the higher life in which all things culminate. Kant had carried with him through all his struggle and toil of thought, the cardinal faith in God, Freedom, and Immortality, as an inalienable possession of Reason, and he had beheld the human Personality transfigured and glorified in the Divine radiance of the primal Ideas. But he had further to contemplate the common life of Humanity in its varied ongoings and activities, rising with the innate right of mastery from the bosom of Nature and asserting its lordship in the arena of the mighty world that it incessantly struggles to appropriate and subdue to itself. In the natural chaos and conflict of the social life of man, as presented in the multitudinous and ever-changing mass of the historic organism, he had also to search out the Principles of order and form, to vindicate the rationality of the ineradicable belief in human Causation, and to quicken anew the lively hope of a higher issue of History. The age of the Revolution called and inspired him to his task. With keen vision he saw a new world suddenly born before him, as the blood-stained product of a motion long toiling in the gloom, and all old things thus passing away; and he knew that it was only the pure and the practical Reason, in that inmost union which constitutes the birthright of Freedom, that could regulate and harmonize the future order of this strongest offspring of time. And if it was not given to him to work out the whole cycle of the new rational ideas, he at least touched upon them all, and he has embodied the cardinal Principle of the System in his Science of Right as the philosophical Magna Charta of the age of political Reason and the permanent foundation of all true Philosophy of Law.
Thus produced, Kant’s Science of Right constituted an epoch in jural speculation, and it has commanded the homage of the greatest thinkers since. Fichte, with characteristic ardour and with eagle vision, threw his whole energy of soul into the rational problem of Right, and if not without a glance of scorn at the sober limitations of the ‘old Lectures’ of the aged professor, he yet acknowledges in his own more aerial flight the initial safety of this more practical guidance. In those early days of eager search and high aspiration, Hegel, stirred to the depths by Kant, and Fichte, and Schelling, wrote his profound and powerful essay on the Philosophy of Right, laden with an Atlantean burden of thought and strained to intolerable rigidity and severity of form, but his own highest achievement only aimed at a completer integration of the Principles differentiated by Kant. It was impossible that the rational evangel of universal freedom and the seer-like vision of a world, hitherto groaning and travailing in pain but now struggling into the perfection of Eternal Peace and Good-will, should find a sympathetic response in Schopenhauer, notwithstanding all his admiration of Kant; but the racy cynicism of the great Pessimist rather subsides before him into mild lamentation than seeks the usual refuge from its own vacancy and despair in the wilful caustic of scorching invective and reproach. Schleiermacher, the greatest theologian and moralist of the Century, early discerned the limitations of the à priori formalism, and supplemented it by the comprehensive conceptions of the primal dominion and the new order of creation, but he owed his critical and dialectical ethicality mainly to Kant. Krause, the leader of the latest and largest thought in this sphere—at once intuitive, radical, and productive in his faculty, analytic, synthetic, and organic in his method, and real, ideal, and historic in his product—caught again the archetypal perfectibility of the human reflection of the Divine, and the living conditions of the true progress of humanity. The dawn of the thought of the new age in Kant rises above the horizon to the clear day, full-orbed and vital, in Krause. All the continental thinkers and schools of the century in this sphere of Jurisprudence, whatever be their distinctive characteristics or tendencies, have owned or manifested their obligations to the great master of the Critical Philosophy.
The influence of the Kantian Doctrine of Right has thus been vitally operative in all the subsequent progress of jural and political science. Kant, here as in every other department of Philosophy, summed up the fragmentary and critical movement of the Eighteenth Century, and not only spoke its last word, but inaugurated a method which was to guide and stimulate the highest thought of the future. With an unwonted blending of speculative insight and practical knowledge, an ideal universality of conception and a sure grasp of the reality of experience, his effort, in its inner depth, vitality, and concentration, contrasts almost strangely with the trivial formalities of the Leibnitzio-Wolffian Rationalists on the one hand, and with the pedantic tediousness of the Empiricists of the School of Grotius on the other. Thomasius and his School, the expounders of the Doctrine of Right as an independent Science, were the direct precursors of the formal method of Kant’s System. Its firm and clear outline implies the substance of many an operose and now almost unreadable tome; and it is alive throughout with the quick, keen spirit of the modern world. Kant’s unrivalled genius for distinct division and systematic form, found full and appropriate scope in this sphere of thought. He had now all his technical art as an expounder of Philosophy in perfect control, and after the hot rush through the first great Critique he had learned to take his time. His exposition thus became simplified, systematized, and clarified throughout to utmost intelligibility. Here, too, the cardinal aim of his Method was to wed speculative thought and empirical fact, to harmonize the abstract universality of Reason with the concrete particularities of Right, and to reconcile the free individuality of the citizen with the regulated organism of the State. And the least that can be said of his execution is, that he has rescued the essential principle of Right from the debasement of the antinomian naturalism and arbitrary politicality of Hobbes as well as from the extravagance of the lawless and destructive individualism of Rousseau, while conceding and even adopting what is substantially true in the antagonistic theories of these epochal thinkers; and he has thereby given the birthright of Freedom again, full-reasoned and certiorated, as ‘a possession for ever’ to modern scientific thought. With widest and furthest vision, and with a wisdom incomparably superior to the reactionary excitement of the great English Orator, he looked calmly beyond ‘the red fool-fury of the Seine’ and all the storm and stress of the time, to the sure realization of the one increasing purpose that runs through the ages. The burden of years chilled none of his sympathies nor dimmed any of his hopes for humanity; nor did any pessimistic shadow or murmur becloud his strong poetic thought, or disturb ‘the mystical lore’ of his eventide. And thus at the close of all his thinking, he made the Science of Right the very corner-stone of the social building of the race, and the practical culmination of all Religion and all Philosophy.
It is not meant that everything presented here by Kant is perfect or final. On the contrary, there is probably nothing at all in his whole System of Philosophy—whose predominant characteristics are criticism, initiation, movement — that could be intelligently so regarded; and the admitted progress of subsequent theories of Right, as briefly indicated above, may be considered as conceding so much. It must be further admitted of Kant’s Science of Right that it presents everywhere abundant opening and even provocation for ‘Metacriticism’ and historical anticriticism, which have certainly not been overlooked or neglected. But it is meant withal that the Philosophy of Jurisprudence has really flourished in the Nineteenth Century only where Kant’s influence has been effective, and that the higher altitudes of jural science have only come into sight where he has been taken as a guide. The great critical thinker set the problem of Right anew to the pure Speculative Reason, and thus accomplished an intellectual transformation of juridical thought corresponding to the revolutionary enthusiasm of liberty in the practical sphere. It is only from this point of view that we can rightly appreciate or estimate his influence and significance. The all-embracing problem of the modern metamorphosis of the institutions of Society in the free State, lies implicitly in his apprehension. And in spite of his negative aspect, which has sometimes entirely misled superficial students, his solution, although betimes tentative and hesitating, is in the main faithful to the highest ideal of humanity, being foundationed on the eternity of Right and crowned by the universal security and peace of the gradually realized Freedom of mankind. As Kant saved the distracted and confused thought of his time from utter scepticism and despair, and set it again with renewed youth and enthusiasm on its way, so his spirit seems to be rising again upon us in this our hour of need, with fresh healing in his wings. Our Jurists must therefore also join the ever increasing throng of contemporary thinkers in the now general return to Kant. Their principles are even more conspicuously at hazard than any others, and the whole method of their science, long dying of intellectual inanition and asphyxia, must seek the conditions of a complete renovation. It is only thus, too, that the practical Politician will find the guidance of real principle in this agitated and troubled age in which the foundations of Government as well as of Right are so daringly scrutinised and so manifestly imperilled, and in which he is driven by the inherent necessary implication of local politics to face the inevitable issue of world-wide complications and the universal problem of human solidarity. And thus only, as it now appears, will it be possible to find a Principle that will at once be true to the most liberal tendency of the time, and yet do justice to its most conservative necessities.
Of criticism and comment, blind adulation and unjust depreciation of Kant’s system of Right, there has been, as already hinted, abundance and even more than enough. Every philosophical Jurist has had to define more or less explicitly his attitude towards the Kantian standpoint. The original thinkers of the dogmatic Schools—Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Krause, —have made it the starting-point of their special efforts, and have elaborated their own conceptions by positive or negative reference to it. The recent Theological School of Stahl and Baader, De Maistre and Bonald, representing the Protestant and Papal reaction from the modern autonomy of Reason, has yet left the Kantian principle unshaken, and has at the best only formulated its doctrine of a universal Divine order in more specific Christian terms. The Historical School of Hugo and Savigny and Puchta, —which is also that of Bentham, Austin and Buckle, Sir George C. Lewis and Sir Henry Sumner Maine, and Herbert Spencer, — with all its apparent antagonism, has only so far supplemented the rational universality of Kant by the necessary counterpart of an historical Phenomenology of the rise and development of the positive legal institutions, as the natural evolution and verification in experience of the juridical conceptions. The conspicuous want of a criterion of Right in the application of the mere historical Method to the manifold, contingent, and variable institutions of human society, has been often signalized; and the representatives of the School have been driven again, especially in their advocacy of political liberalism, upon the rational principles of Freedom.
The Civil Jurists who have carried the unreasoning admiration of the Roman Law almost to the idolatry of its letter, and who are too apt to ignore the movement of two thousand years and all the aspirations of the modern Reason, could not be expected to be found in sympathy with the Rational Method of Kant. Their multiplied objections to the details of his exposition, from Schmitthenner to the present day, are, however, founded upon an entire misapprehension of the purpose of his form. For while Kant rightly recognised the Roman Law as the highest embodiment of the juridical Reason of the ancient world, and therefore expounded his own conceptions by constant reference to it, he clearly discerned its relativity and its limitations; and he accordingly aims at unfolding everywhere through its categories the juridical idea in its ultimate purity. In Kant the juridical Idea first attains its essential self-realization and productivity, and his system of Private Right is at once freer and more concrete than the Systems of Hobbes and Rousseau, because it involves the ancient civil system, corrected and modernized by regard to its rational and universal principles. This consideration alone will meet a host of petty objections, and guard the student against expecting to find in this most philosophical exposition of the Principles of Right a mere elementary text-book of the Roman Law.
In England, Kant’s Science of Right seems as yet to have been little studied, and it has certainly exerted but little influence on English Juridical Science. This has no doubt been mainly due to the traditional habit of the national mind, and the complete ascendancy during the present century of the Utilitarian School of Bentham. The criterion of Utility found a ready application to the more pressing interests of Political and Legal Reform, and thus responding to the practical legislative spirit of the time, its popular plausibilities completely obscured or superseded all higher rational speculation. By Austin the system was methodically applied to the positive determination of the juridical conceptions; under aid of the resources of the German Historical School, with the result that Right was made the mere ‘creature’ of positive law, and the whole Rational Method pretentiously condemned as irrational ‘jargon.’ In Austin we have only the positive outcome of Hobbes and Hume and Bentham. The later forms of this legal positivism have not been fruitful in scientific result, and the superficiality and infutility of the standpoint are becoming more and more apparent. Nor does the Utilitarian Principle, with all its seeming justice and humanity, appear capable of longer satisfying the popular mind with its deepening Consciousness of Right, or of resolving the more fundamental political problems that are again coming into view. In this connection we may quote and apply the authority of Sir Henry Sumner Maine when he says: ‘There is such widespread dissatisfaction with existing theories of jurisprudence, and so general a conviction that they do not really solve the questions they pretend to dispose of, as to justify the suspicion that some line of inquiry necessary to a perfect result has been incompletely followed, or altogether omitted by their authors.’ The present unsatisfactory condition of the Science of Right in England—if not in Scotland —could not be better indicated.
In these circumstances, no other alternative is left for us but a renewed and deepened appeal to the universal principle of Reason, as the essential condition of all true progress and certainty. And in the present dearth of philosophical origination and the presence of the unassimilated products of well-nigh a century of thought, it seems as if the prosecution of this Method of all methods can only now be fruitfully carried on by a return to Kant and advance through his System. Enough has perhaps already been said to indicate the recognised importance of the Kantian standpoint, and even to point to the rich fields of thought and inquiry that open everywhere around it to the student. Into these fields it was the original intention of the translator to attempt to furnish some more definite guidance by illustrative comment and historical reference in detail, but this intention must be abandoned meanwhile, and all the more readily as it must be reckoned at the most but a duty of subordinate obligation and of secondary importance. The Translation is therefore sent forth by itself in reliance upon its intelligibility as a faithful rendering of the original, and in the hope that it will prove at once a help to the Students and an auxiliary to the Masters of our present juridical science.
And every reader and student should be ready to apply the Horatian rule here too:
- ‘Sunt delicta tamen, quibus ignovisse velimus.’
- ‘Verum ubi plura nitent . . . non ego paucis
- Offendar maculis, quas aut incuria fudit
- Aut humana parum cavit natura.’