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
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"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