Kant and the “Old formula of the schools”

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Philosophical Explorations


In this essay I offer a new interpretation of Kant’s discussion of “the old formula of the schools” in the Critique of Practical Reason – “nihil appetimus, nisi sub ratione boni; nihil aversamur, nisi sub ratione mali [We desire nothing except under the guise of the good; nothing is avoided except under the guise of the bad]” (KPV 5: 59). This “old formula,” referred to in recent years as “the guise of the good thesis,” has been endorsed by a number of prominent Western philosophers over the centuries – e.g. Socrates, Aristotle, and Aquinas, to name only a few. Indeed, it is commonly taken to be the dominant position within the history of Western philosophy. Accordingly, most commentators have also claimed that Kant too endorses the old formula. I argue, in opposition to the received view, that Kant is by no means a wholehearted and unqualified supporter of the old formula. He does not hold that the good is necessarily that which every rational agent desires.