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The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy First Paperback Edition Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0521479387
ISBN-10: 052147938X
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Editorial Reviews Review

At the beginning of The Invention of Autonomy, J.B. Schneewind modestly explains that he began work on the book "because there were many aspects of Kant's moral philosophy I could not understand," and he therefore sought to understand Kant's remarkable contribution to moral theory by considering it in its historical context. By the time one finishes reading the book, over 500 pages later, it's reasonable to question if there's anything about modern moral philosophy that Schneewind fails to understand.

The Invention of Autonomy is divided into four main parts. In the first part, Schneewind discusses the natural-law theory of morality, as classically expounded by St. Thomas Aquinas, and traces its rise and fall by considering the works of Luther, Calvin, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Charron, Suarez, Grotius, Hobbes, Cumberland, Pufendorf, Locke, and Thomasius. The second part deals with perfectionist approaches, as exemplified by Herbert of Cherbury, Descartes, the Cambridge Platonists, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz. The third part looks at moral philosophers who, by and large, are inclined to regard morality as independent of God's ongoing cooperation. Most of the canonical British moralists, from Shaftesbury, Clarke, and Mandeville to Hume, Reid, and Bentham, are included. Finally, in the fourth part, Schneewind examines anticipations of Kant's invention (or, perhaps, discovery) of autonomy in the works of Wolff, Crusius, the French philosophes, and Rousseau. He then skillfully relates Kant's moral thought to the rich tradition preceding it.

In comprehensiveness, authoritativeness, insightfulness, and accessibility, there is simply no work in English on the history of modern ethics that rivals The Invention of Autonomy. Nobody interested in moral philosophy or its history can afford to ignore it. --Glenn Branch


"The Invention of Autonomy is a remarkable work." New Series

"The author successfully aims at clarity, accuracy, and conciseness in telling the history as it was understood by those who made it -- in their own words and with a full conciousness of the religious and sociopolitical contexts. As a contribution to scholarship, Schneewind's book brings together a great deal of material from many sources. Its encylclopedic character makes it primarirly useful as a work of reference for specialists -- both professors and graduate students -- in modern ethical theory and the history of modern philosophy." John A. Gueguen, Perspectives on Political Science

"...this book is a major scholarly achievement." Terence Penelhum, Ethics

"The book is in part appropriate for upper-level undergraduate courses concerned with the history of ethics and practical philosophy, including aspects of political philosophy....scholars will find it to offer a strong antidote to anachronistic interpretation from the limited perspective of twentieth century ethics. Schneewind's scholarship is uniformly of the very highest caliber. Schneewind shows what can be done by someone with complete command over the currents of an entire epoch." Review of Metaphysics

"This book is valuable in a great many ways...Schneewind has done a remarkable job of placing Kant in the context of historical issues...This is among the very most complete and insightful histories of ethics available today." Ethics and Medicine

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 650 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; First Paperback Edition edition (December 13, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 052147938X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521479387
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #745,655 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

After a life-time of writing books and articles on the history of moral philosophy, J. B. Schneewind is now retired. His major works, on Sidgwick and his times and on the development of ethics up to Kant, are circled by many essays now reprinted in his Essays on the History of Moral Philosophy.

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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Peel on January 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
I would encourage anyone who is interested in modern morality, and moral philosophy specifically, to read this judicious and profound history. Many contemporary moral problems simply aren't understandable without understanding the historical context from which they arise. A principal virtue of this book is that it is the first text - to my knowledge - which deals with the history of modern moral philosphy using the texts of moral philosophers themselves, and thereby staying away from unphilosophical forms of historicism. Also, the text makes understandable some of the problems to which "autonomy" as a current moral value is intended to address, and so helps one understand why that value has become so important in contemporary culture discourse. Deceptively readably, the proundness of this book is a tesitmony to the importance of an intellectual movement its author help to establish - that ideas themselves are important to explaining human progress, but that they need to be placed within the intellectual context from which they come. Simply put, it is that rare book - difficult to find in the current academic world - that represents the achievement of a life time of thought and teaching about modern moral philosophy, by someone who is himself a philosopher, and who those of us that know him admire.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By John S. Ryan on December 14, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Jerome Schneewind has tackled a big job in this massively erudite volume and done it remarkably well.
This book is a thorough history of modern moral philosophy, from roughly Thomas Aquinas to Immanuel Kant. What it traces is the development of the ideal of self-governance (the "autonomy" of the title).
And wow, is it good. It's well-written, it's scholarly without being inaccessible, and it treats the thought of every major ethical theorist (and some minor ones) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
It's divided into four blocks. The first treats the subject of natural law, which was in philosophical fashion at the time our story opens. The second covers the "perfectionist" ethics that followed the movement away from natural law. The third treats philosophers who began to sever ethics from theology altogether and develop a "naturalized" morality. The fourth covers the last steps up to the philosophy of Kant, including his immediate forebears and the development of Kant's own concept of "autonomy".
The five-hundred-odd-page text never bogs down, either. Schneewind is a crisp and clear writer who keeps things both interesting and moving. (I especially like his half-chapter on Spinoza.)
This is somewhere between history of philosophy and philosophy of history. On the one hand, Schneewind is just reporting the historical development of ethical philosophy; on the other hand, he's also describing the philosophical arc from natural law to Kant in a way that sheds Kant's light backward onto two centuries' worth of his predecessors.
If you're interested in ethics and its history, you'll want to read this. It's hard to understand where we are and where we're going without knowing where we've been.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 12, 2007
Format: Paperback
This outstanding and remarkably learned book is a history of moral philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Schneewind's primary theme is that thought about morality evolved from an emphasis on obedience to God and was dominated by theologians to an emphasis on autonomy and thought dominated by philosophers. In a broad sense, this book is a description of the transition in moral thinking from Aquinas to Kant. While most of this book is careful description and analysis of the writing of the many contributors to the evolution of modern moral thought, Schneewind in careful to identify the birth of modern moral philosophy in the intellectual crisis that accompanied the Reformation and the great religious conflicts of the early modern period. Schneewind makes the further point that developments in moral philosophy can only be understood properly as being at least partial responses to problems of each writer's time.

Schneewind begins with the historic natural law formulations of Aquinas and some criticisms of him by later Medieval theologians. This sets the stage for the emergence of modern natural law thinkers in the early modern period. These thinkers would tend to emphasize a considerable amount of human capacity to develop moral systems. Schneewind points out that this emphasis on human capacities was to some extent prefigured and led by Machiavelli and Montaigne, both of whom, though in very different ways, pointed to independent human powers of judgement. The section on natural law theorists is followed by the rationalists and perfectionists of the 17th century, many of whom, and again in different ways, would emphasize the human capacity for reason and the possibility of human self-improvement.
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