The Critique of Practical Reason: 1788: Immanuel Kant

by Julia Evans on January 1, 1788


Author: Immanuel Kant

Translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, probably 1947

Publication as an eBook prepared by Matthew Stapleton in 2002

Published by, here

Available here


“Suppose that someone says his lust is irresistible when the desired object and opportunity are present. Ask him whether he would not control his passion if, in front of the house where he has this opportunity, a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust. We do not have to guess very long what his answer would be” (pg. 30). 
(Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason [trans. Lewis White Beck], New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1993)

References to Kant by Jacques Lacan:

1)  Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: 1959-1960

Translated with notes by Dennis Porter

Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller

Published by Routledge: 1992

1a) Seminar VII: On the Moral Law: December 23rd 1959

Sub-headings: The critique of practical reason; Philosophy in the boudoir; The ten commandments; The epistle to the Romans

Chapter VI: op.cit

P 76: If at the summit of the ethical imperative something ends up being articulated in a way that is as strange or even scandalous for some people as “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” this is because it is the law of the relation of the subject to himself that he make himself his own neighbour, as far as his relationship to his desire is concerned.

My thesis is that the moral law is articulated with relation to the real as such, to the real insofar as it can be the guarantee of the Thing. That is why I invite you to take an interest in what I have called the high point of the crisis in ethics, and that I have designated from the beginning as linked to the moment when ‘The Critique of Practical Reason’ appears.

Section 2

Kantian ethics appears at the moment when the disorienting effect of Newtonian physics is felt, a physics that has reached a point of independence relative to das Ding,  to the human Ding.

It was Newtonian physics that forced Kant to revise radically the function of reason in its pure form. And it is also in connection with the questions raised by science that a form of morality has come to engage us; it is a morality whose precise structure could not have been perceived until then – one that detaches itself purposefully from all reference to any object of affection, from all reference to what Kant called the pathologisches Objekt,  a pathological objet, which simply means the object of any passion whatsoever.

No Wohl, whether it be our own or that of our neighbour, must enter into the finality of moral action. The only definition of moral action possible is that which was expressed in Kant’s well-known formula: “Act in such a way that the maxim of your action may be accepted as a universal maxim.” Thus action is moral only when it is dictated by the motive that is articulated in the maxim alone. To translate allgemaine as ‘universal” is not quite right, since it is closer to “common.” Kant contrsts “general” with “universal,” which he takes up in its Latin form. All of which proves that something here is left in an undetermined state. Handle so, dass die Maxime deines Willens jederzeit zugleich als Prinzip einer allgemeinen Gesetzgebung gelten könne. “Act so that the maxim of your will may always be taken as the principle of laws that are valid for all.”

That formula, which is, as you know, the central formula of Kant’s ethics, is pursued by him to the limit of its consequences. His radicalism even leads to the paradox that in the last analysis the gute Wille, good will, is posited as distinct from any beneficial action. In truth, I believe that the achievement of a form of subjectivity that deserve the name of contemporary, that belongs to a man of our time, who is lucky enough to be born now, cannot ignore this text. I simply emphasize it as we continue on our merry way, for one can, in fact, get by with very little – the person to our right and the person to our left are nowadays, if not neighbours, then at the very least people who, from the point of view of volume, are close enough to prevent us from falling down. But one must have submitted oneself to the test of reading this text in order to measure the extreme, almost insane character of the corner that we have backed into by something that is after all present in history, namely, the existence, indeed the insistence, of science.

If, of course, no one has ever been able to put such a moral axiom into practice – even Kant himself did not believe it possible – it is nevertheless useful to see how far things have gone. In truth, we have built another bridge in our relation to reality. For some time transcendental aesthetics itself – I am referring to that which is designated as such in The Critique of Pure Reason – is open to challenge, at the very least on the level of that play of writing where theoretical physics is currently registering a hit. Henceforth, given the point we have reached in the light of our science, a renewal or updating of the Kantian imperative might be expressed in the following way, with the help of the language of electronics and automation: “Never act except in such a way that your action may be programmed.” All of which takes us a step further in the direction of an even greater, if no the greatest, detachment from what is known as a Sovereign Good.

Let us be clear about this: when we reflect on the maxim that guides our action, Kant is inviting us to consider for an instant as the law of a nature in which we are called upon to live. That is where one finds the apparatus that would have us reject in horror some maxim or other that our instincts would gladly lead us to. In this connection he gives us examples that are worth taking note of in a concrete sense, for however obvious thy may seem, they perhaps suggest, at least to the analyst, a line of reflection. But note that he affirms the laws of nature, not of society.  It is only too clear that not only do societies live very well by reference to laws that are far from promoting their universal application, but even more remarkably, as I suggested last time, these societies prosper as a result of the transgression of these maxims.

It is a matter then of a mental reference to a nature that is organized according to the laws of an object constructed at the moment when we raise the question of our rule of conduct.

So as to produce the kind of shock or eye-opening effect that seems to me necessary if we are to make progress, I simply want to draw your attention to this: if The Critique of Practical Reason appeared in 1788, seven years after the first edition of  The Critique of Pure Reason,  there is another work which came out six years after  The Critique of Practical Reason,  a little after Thermidor in 1795, and which is called Philosophy in the Boudoir.

P79: … [Sade]:” Let us take as the universal maxim of our conduct the right to enjoy any other person whatsoever as the instrument of our pleasure.”

Sade demonstrated with great consistency that, once universalized, this law, although it gives libertines complete power over all women indifferently, whether they like it or not, conversely also liberates those same women from all the duties civilised society imposes on them in their conjugal, matrimonial and other relations. This conception opens wide the flood gates that in imagination he proposes as the horizen of our desire; everyone is invited to puruse to the limit the demands of his lust, and to realize them.

If the same opening is given to all, one will be able to see what a natural society is like. Our repugnance may be legitimately related to that which Kant himself claims to eliminate from the criteria of the moral law, namely to the realm of sentiment.

If one eliminates from morality every element of sentiment, if one removes or invalidates all guidance to be found in sentiments, then in the final analysis the Sadian world is conceivable – even if it is its inversion, its caricature – as one of the possible forms of the world governed by a radical ethics, by the Kantian ethics as elaborated in 1788

1b) Seminar VII: January 20th 1960: The object and the thing:

Sub-headings: The psychology of affects; The Kleinian myth of the Mother; Kantian fables; Sublimation and perversion; The fable of Jacques Prévert, collector

Chapter VIII: op. cit.

From p 107: The problem of sublimation is there, of sublimation insofar as it creates a certain number of forms, among which art is not alone – and we will concentrate on one art in particular, literary art, which is so close to the domain of ethics. It is after all as a function of the problem of ethics that we have to judge sublimation; it creates socially recognized values.

In order to refocus our discussion onto the level of ethics, one could hardly do better than to refer to that which, however paradoxical it may seem, has proved pivotal, namely, the Kantian perspective on the field.

Alongside das Ding, however much we may hope that its weight will be felt on the good side, we find in opposition the Kantian formula of duty. That is another way of making own’s weight felt. Kant invokes the universally applicable rule of conduce or, in other words, the weight of reason. Of course, one still has to prove how reason may make its weight felt. …

P 108: The striking point is that the power of proof is here left to reality – to the real behaviour of the individual, I mean. It is in the real that Kant asks us to examine the impact of the weight of reality, which he identifies here with the weight of duty.

To follow him onto this ground is to discover that he misses something. It is after all not impossible that under certain conditions the subject of the first scenario will not so much offer himself up to be executed – at no point is the fable taken to this point – but will at least consider doing so. …

P 109: All of which leads to the conclusion that it is not impossible for a man to sleep with a woman knowing full well that he is to be bumped off on his way out, by the gallows or anything else (all this, of course, is located under the rubric of passionate excesses, a rubric that raises a lot of other question); it is not impossible that this man coolly accepts such an eventuality on his leaving – for the pleasure of cutting up the lady concerned in small pieces, for exmaple.

The latter is the other case that one can envisage, and the annals of criminalogy furnish a great many cases of the type. It is something that obviously changes the facts of the situation, and at the very least the demonstrative value of Kant’s example.

I have outlined then two cases that Kant doesn’t envisage, two forms of transgression beyond the limits normally assigned to the pleasure principle in opposition to the reality principle given as a criterion, namely, excessive object sublimation and what is commonly known as perversion.

1c)  Seminar VII: March 20th 1960: Love of one’s neighbour:

Sub-headings: A special god; Fool and knave; The Truth about truth; Why jouissance is evil (Le mal in French includes the ideas both of “evil” and of “suffering”); Saint Martin; Kantian tales

Chapter XIV: op. cit

P 188: Before I take up the question next time, I would like to end today by making you sense this in connection with a contemporary example, namely, Kant’s, which I have already devoted some time to – and it’s not for nothing that it is contemporary with Sade.

In the example in question Kant claims to prove the weight of the Law, formulated by him as practical reason, as something that imposes itself in purely reasonable terms, that is to say, divorced from all pathological affect, as he puts it, which means with no motive that appeals to the subject’s interest. This is a critical exercise that will bring us back to the very centre of the problem we are addressing today. …

P189: In other words, it is enough for jouissance to be a form of evil, for the whole thing to change its character completely, and for the meaning of the moral law itself to be completely changed. Anyone can see that if the moral law is, in effect, capable of playing some role here, it is precisely as a support for the jouissance involved; it is so that the sin becomes what saint Paul calls inordinately sinful. That’s what Kant on this occasion simply ignores.

Then there is the other example, whose little errors of logic should not, between ourselves, be overlooked. …

In the first case, pleasure and pain are presented as a single packet to take or leave, in consideration of which one avoids the risk and gives up jouissance.  In the second case there is pleasure or pain. …

P190: What’s at issue here? That I attack the rights of another who is my fellow man in that statement of the universal rule, or is it a question of the false witness as such?

And I who stand here right now and bear witness to the idea that there is no law of the good except in evil and through evil, should I bear such witness?

This Law makes my neighbour’s jouissance the point on which, in bearing witness in this case, the meaning of my duty is balanced. Must I go toward my duty of truth insofar as it preserves the authentic place of my jouissance rbrn ig iy id empty? Or must I resign myself to this lie, which, by making the substitute forcefully the good for the principle of my jouissance,  commands me to blow alternatively hot and cole? Either I refrain from betraying my neighbour so as to spare my fellow man or I shelter behind my fellow man so as to give up my jouissance.

2)  Seminar XX: Encore: 1972-1973

For details of availability, see here

2a) Seminar XX: December 19th 1972:

To Jakobson: Sub-headings: Linguistricks; The sign that one is changing discourses; Signifierness by the bucketful; The stupidity of the signifier; The enjoying substance

Quote: … In order to situate my signifier before leaving you today, I will ask you to consider what was inscribed at the beginning of my first sentence last time – “enjoying a body” (jouir d’un corps), a body that symbolizes the Other – as it perhaps involves something that can help us focus on another form of substance, enjoying substance (la substance jouissante).

Isn’t that precisely what psychanalytic experience presupposes? – the substance of the body, on the condition that it is defined only as that which enjoys itself (se jouit). That is, no doubt, a property of the living body, but we don’t know what it means to be alive except for the following fact, that a body is something that enjoys itself (cela se jouit).

I t enjoys itself only by “corporizing” (corporiser) the body in a signifying way. That implies something other than the partes extra partes of extended substance. As is emphasised admirably by the kind of Kantian that Sade was, one can only enjoy a part of the Other’s body, for the simple reason that one has never seen a body completely wrap itself around the Other’s body, to the point of surrounding and phagocytizing it. That is why we must confine ourselves to simply giving it a little squeeze, like that, taking a forearm or anything else – ouch!

Enjoying (jouir) has the fundamental property that it is, ultimately, one person’s body that enjoys a part of the Other’s body. But that part also enjoys – the Other likes it more or less, but it is a fact that the Other cannot remain indifferent to it.

2b) Seminar XX: March 13th 1973

A love letter (une lettre d’âmour): Sub-headings: Coalescence and scission of a and S(A); The beyondsex; Speaking to no avail; Psychoanalysis is not a cosmology; Knowledge of Jouissance.

Quote: There is a morality – that is the consequence – of sexual behaviour. The morality of sexual behaviour is what is implicit in (sous-entendu) everything that has been said about the Good.

But endlessly saying good things leads to Kant where morality shows its true colours. That is what I felt I needed to lay out in an article, “Kant with Sade” – morality admits that it is Sade.

You can write Sade however you like: either with a capital S, to render homage to the poor idiot who gave us interminable writings on that subject – or with a lower-case s, for, in the final analysis, that’s morality’s way of being agreeable, and in old French, that is what that means – or, still better, you can write it as çade, since one must, after all, say that morality ends at the level of the id (ça), which doesn’t go very far. Stated differently, the point is that love is impossible and the sexual relationship drops into the abyss of nonsense, which doesn’t in any way diminish the interest we must have in the Other.

What we want to know – in what constitutes feminine jouissance insofar as it is not wholly occupied with man, and even insofar, I will say, as it is not, as such, at all occupied with him – what we want to know is the status of the Other’s knowledge (son savoir).

2c)  Seminar XX: April 10th 1973

Knowledge and truth: Sub-headings: Hateloving (L’hainamoration); Knowledge about truth; Contingency of the phallic function; Freud’s charity; Getting off on knowledge; The unconscious and woman

Quote: … The goal is that jouissance be avowed, precisely insofar as it may be unavowable. The truth sought is the one that is unavowable with respect to the law that regulates jouissance.

It is also in that sense that, in Kant’s terms, the problem is raised of what a free man should do when one proposes to him all the jouissances if he denounces the enemy who the tyrant fears is disputing his jouissance. From the imperative that nothing pathetic should dictate testimony, must we deduce that a free man ought to tell the tyrant the truth, even if that means delivering the enemy or rival into the tyrant’s hands by his truthfulness? The reservations sparked in all of us by Kant’s answer, which is affirmative, stem from the fact that the shole truth is what cannot be told. It is what can only be told on the condition that one doesn’t push it to the edge, that one only half-tells (mi-dire) it.

Yet another thing restrains (ligote) us regarding the status of truth: the fact that jouissance is a limit. …

Other references:

A)  p107 of Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics: By Terry Eagleton: Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell: 2009 available here

B)  On the Idea of a Critique of Pure Practical Reason in Kant, Lacan, and Deleuze. : 2006: Andrew Cutrofello : Symposium 10 (1):p91-102: Published on-line by PhilPapers here  & Available here

C)  The ‘TRUTH’ of Kant’s moral law : Fantasy and the Limits of Enjoyment  by Jean-Louis Gault on October 1, 2003 and available here