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Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant's Practical Philosophy Paperback – 26 Jan 1990

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Product details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (26 Jan. 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521388163
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521388160
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.5 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,184,431 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


"This collection of essays contains some of the most significant work on Kant's practical philosophy to have appeared in recent years. The essays are often speculative and sometimes sketchy (as the title indicates, they are explorations), but they are suggestive in helpful and constructive ways, and they contain many insightful discussions and developments of Kant's approach." Ethics

"Constructions of Reason is rewarding reading." Review of Metaphysics

Book Description

Two centuries after publication, Kant's ethical writings are as much admired and imitated as they have ever been, yet serious and long-standing accusations of internal incoherence remain unresolved. This book traces the alleged incoherences to attempts to assimilate Kant's ethical writings to modern conceptions of rationality, actions and rights.

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The book arrived in time in a very good condition. A difficult book to read digest but very well written
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kant's public construction of reason 6 July 2011
By W. Ulrich - Published on
Format: Paperback
Kant's revolutionary view of reason, according to his well-known "Copernican" hypothesis, is that reason must construct the world after a plan of its own. More than that, it also must construct itself: to provide itself with the legitimacy and authority that no external force can give it, reason has no choice but to define its own principles and to constitute its own critical tribunal, as a way to make sure it lives up to these principles. To these two well-known challenges of Kant's undertaking of a "Critique of Reason," Onora O'Neill adds a third, less well-known challenge: because reason, according to its own principles, must not rely on any external authority, it needs to construct not only its own cognitive order (or constitution) but also some just political order, a basic social constitution that allows the free use of reason by human inquirers and agents. The two problems of constructing cognitive and political order are interdependent; neither can be solved without the other. As O'Neill (p. 16) explains, Kant "sees the problems of cognitive and political order as arising in one and the same context. In either case we have a plurality of agents or voices (perhaps potential agents or voices) and no transcendent or preestablished authority. Authority has in either case to be constructed."

To put it differently, in Kant's thinking reason and justice originate in the same, ultimately political source (p. 16). Neither reason nor justice is given naturally to mankind; both require for their development and preservation constructive acts of interpersonal cooperation and (self-) legislation. Both also respond to the existential need of human agents to coordinate their views and interests in ways that promote collaboration and peace rather than disorder and discordance. Just as the human zoon politicon (Aristotle) depends for survival and welfare on the constitution of some societal and political union with others, each plurality of human agents or inquirers depends for their free and peaceful coordination on that peculiar force which we call "reason." In Kant's view, therefore, reason had to emerge in the natural and cultural history of mankind as the only entirely non-coercive force that can coordinate human agents or inquirers in freedom. Or, in O'Neill's beautiful words, reason is the one force that allows us to "share a possible world," that is, to establish and maintain both cognitive order and political order:

"Reason and justice are two aspects to the solution of the problems that arise when an uncoordinated plurality of agents is to share a possible world. Hence political imagery can illuminate the nature of cognitive order and disorientation, just as the vocabulary of reason can be used to characterize social and political order and disorientation." (p. 15f, similarly pp. 20-23)

In my own words: reason and justice are inseparable because at bottom, mankind's never-ending quest for knowledge and understanding - How can we master the world we live in? - shares its roots with the equally unending quest for conviviality: How can we live together well and peacefully? The common condition for solving both tasks consists in the political task of securing the personal freedom of all humans to use their reason and to express their free will publicly; the common promise, in releasing the cooperative potential of mankind, that is, its capability of dealing peacefully with matters of collective concern, based on principles of reason rather than just the law of the stronger.

If reason is to help us realize this cooperative potential, it must adhere to argumentative principles and standards of both truth and rightness that can be shared. Or, as O'Neill (p. 56) puts it, reason must limit itself to "principles that do not fail even if used universally and reflexively." Otherwise both its integrity (the quest for cognitive order) and its cooperative potential (the quest for political order) are at peril. By its own insight, reason is therefore impelled to reject all strategies of argumentation that risk turning its public use into merely private use or which may undermine the possibilities of cooperation in other ways.

The most fundamental principle of reason must therefore be to rely on principles of thought and action that can be shared. But of course, the community of those who may want to share is never known with certainty in advance. Hence, to make sure our personal maxims or subjective principles of thought and action are sufficiently shareable, Kant requires them to be generalizable, shareable with anyone actually or potentially concerned. This is the case, as Kant puts it, if the maxims in question can be conceived to constitute "universal laws" (of cognitive and political order, that is) without either undermining the possibility of peaceful cooperation or leading into argumentative contradictions, thereby damaging reason's own integrity and credibility. Reason's fundamental principle of self-discipline, as I am tempted to call it, accordingly reads:

"The possibility of sharing principles is to be left open.... The fundamental principle of all reasoning and acting ... is to base action and thought only on maxims through which one can at the same time will that they be universal laws." (p. 22f)

One may, but need not, read the reference to "universal laws" as intending the categorical imperative. More in line with the present discussion is to read it as standing for shareable principles of thought and action in general, that is, as a fundamental principle of both theoretical and practical reason. What, then, does it mean to say that good reasoning should aim at propositions or proposals that can be shared? O'Neill (p. 25f) refers to Kant's well-known maxims of enlightenment:

- "Think for yourself!"
- "Think from the standpoint of everyone else!"
- "Always think consistently!"

These are powerful rules of sound reasoning, to be sure; but the constructivist perspective that O'Neill proposes reaches further. It is at its best when it comes to grounding rather than just applying reason as Kant understands it; that is, when our interest is in reason's ultimate source of authority rather than its methods of proper thought and justification. As O'Neill's book made me appreciate more than any other exploration of Kant's thought that I have encountered before, this ultimate source lies in what Kant calls the public use of reason. Kant constructs reason on the fundament of public scrutiny! He does not say it in these words, to be sure, nor does O'Neill. The phrase Kant and O'Neill (p. 17) use is a negative one: reason must reject its merely "private" use. Reason is merely "private" when it is deprived of public scrutiny and therefore risks being impoverished, partial, lacking the credibility and authority that only its public use can give it. Kant's construction of reason builds on the public use of reason as the antidote to its merely private use. In both its theoretical and its practical employment, reason consequently aims at relying on principles of thought and action that can be defended publicly. This is the case to the extent we can share the maxims (subjective principles) that underlie our claims and actions with everyone actually or potentially concerned, universally.

This is the "positive" application of Kant's construction of reason, or as Kant scholars say more traditionally: of Kant's principle of universalization. The principle is often associated with the "categorical imperative" only, that is, with Kant's moral theory, but O'Neill's constructivist reading of Kant highlights its role as a constitutive principle of reason in general. We thus gain a new, helpful understanding of the abstract and somewhat bloodless idea of (moral) "universalization": universalization is really about ensuring the public use of reason, as the only guarantee there is against its merely private use, its becoming deprived and partial rather than complete and universal. It is by making sure that our propositions and proposals can be shared with everyone else that we know we can at all times argue them, that is, support them by good reasons. This is what universalization means, and why the public use of reason is Kant's major construction principle as it were. By contrast, a merely private use of reason instrumentalizes it for particular purposes that cannot be shared; such private agendas deprive reason of its true potential (of enabling cooperation) as well as of its ultimate source of authority (its relying on principles of thought and action that can be shared).

The "negative" application is no less important: the public use of reason and its instrumentalization for merely private agendas do not go together well. Hence, whenever some merely private use of reason threatens to dominate what counts as rational thought and action, it is always a relevant idea to put ourselves in the place of Kant and ask ourselves how he might have seen the situation, and whether from his perspective we could still think and argue consistently. Kant's concept of reason then becomes a standard of critique that examines whether a proposition or proposal can be shared, that is, relies on principles that we would find ourselves able to defend publicly. It is always a relevant idea, for example, to examine claims to expertise and rightness - our own ones as well as those of others, whoever raises them - as to whether they can be argumentatively shared with all those potentially concerned. Without adhering to this minimal standard, reason risks losing both its integrity (impartiality, non-partisanship) and its authority (credibility, arguability) and thereby its solidity as a basis on which we can rely in constructing a world to share.

Another implication that I would like to point out here, although O'Neill does not discuss it particularly, is that theoretical and practical reason are much more closely intertwined than our contemporary concepts of rationality assume. Since claims to (empirical) truth as well as claims to (moral) rightness depend for their credibility on their being shareable, treating everyone's possible concerns or objections with equal respect and care is indispensable - a deeply moral core of rationality. It follows that both in its theoretical and in its practical employment, the authority and force of reason resides in its impartiality, its not taking side with any private agenda, its refraining from any partisanship except for its own integrity.

This, in short, is the essence of what I think this book has helped me to understand better than I did before. To be sure, putting it this way simplifies O'Neill's detailed and nuanced account considerably; it even simplifies my own reading experience considerably. But simplification is imperative in this case, given the richness and scholarly ambition of the book. I can only try to do some justice to it by explaining what I found most inspiring and relevant in it. This also explains why this review has focused on the first and, in my opinion, most original and insightful part of the book, titled "reason and critique." There are two more parts, dedicated to discussions of Kant's concepts of "maxims" and "obligations" (Part 2) and of Kant's ethics (Part 3); but they move on more traditional and familiar grounds and have not had a comparable impact on my understanding of Kant.

Finally, you may wonder, to whom do I recommend the book? Basically, to everyone interested in a modern understanding of Kant's conception of reason; more particularly, to all readers who (like myself) are interested in recovering the lost practical dimension of reason, that is, its normative core. I would not, however, recommend reading this book without some previous familiarity with Kant's critical philosophy, at least at an introductory level. Without such preparation the book will hardly "speak" to its readers. Some readers might also find it useful first to have a look at Hans Saner's (1973) book on "Kant's Political Thought," as a way to familiarize themselves with the political roots of Kant's concept of reason. I have found Saner's book a useful "propaedeutic" reading (see my separate review of this book). Further, potential readers might want to be aware of the circumstance that O'Neill's book assembles twelve essays that have been written over a number of years and which for this reason do not, taken together, offer a concisely developed argument beginning with an introduction and ending with a conclusion. Rather, as the book's subtitle points out quite accurately, O'Neill offers "explorations" that come in plural forms, go into different directions and occasionally tend to be somewhat repetitious. But these "explorations" nevertheless move at a high level of insight and scholarship, and they reward the reader with some of those precious moments of Aha! in which the scales fall from your eyes and you suddenly realize how much Kant still has to tell us today.

Source: adapted from W. Ulrich (2011): "What is good professional practice? Part 2: The quest for practical reason." Ulrich's Bimonthly, May-June 2011.
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