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Yes We Kant: A Philosopher's Guide To New Year’s Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions are still freshly made, but how long will we stick to them? Here's what legendary German thinker Immanuel Kant has to say about them.

A high resolution photo
A high resolution photo
Michael Pilz

BERLIN — People have been making New Year's resolutions since long before we had health insurance premiums to help calculate them or magazines to tell us what they should be. In Ancient Rome, citizens renewed their vow of loyalty to the emperor and the gods with a New Year's procession honoring Janus, the two-faced god of the home and family, who looks both forward and backwards. Everyone reflected on their own character and promised to better themselves.

New Year's resolutions experienced a renaissance during the Reformation, which did away with the rite of confession. Calvinists, Puritans and Pietists sought forgiveness after 365 sinful days. But what could they know? What should they do? And what might they hope for? The answers to these three questions about moral behavior were to be found, at least partly, in the New Testament. They were elaborated in more detail a couple of centuries later in the writings of Immanuel Kant, through his Protestant philosophy and, more exhaustively, in his 1788 work Critique of Practical Reason.

After publishingCritique of Pure Reasonin 1781, Kant turned his attention to practical, everyday reason: "I have learned from the critique of pure reason that philosophy is not the study of ideas and concepts, but the study of man, his attitudes, thoughts and behavior."

Between what is and what should be ...

Every person lives in the space between what is and what should be. He is free to decide whether he does something or refrains from doing it at all costs. He must use his reason to decide. That, Kant admits, is never easy. It is quite hard, even: "The rule for judging, under the laws of purely practical reason, is this: ask yourself whether you could wish this action that you are planning to be a universal law of nature that everyone should obey."

With that question, Kant gives us a framework for establishing ethical maxims and makes a clear distinction between the objective and the subjective. He distinguishes the quantity from the quality, distinguishes the universal laws that apply to everyone from the usual demands of conscience.

Photo: Helen Melissakis

There are always both external and internal reasons to behave in the right way. God and society are external reasons, while the internal reasons are the healthy or, as Kant calls it, "common" human understanding and feelings. These make up practical reason.

So, before making a resolution, we should ask ourselves: Is what is good for me also good for others? That is how we establish "rules for acting or refraining from action."

As we have long known, Kant himself was not entirely free from questionable views and bad habits. In the 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he issued a strong warning against placing oneself above other people and their burdens. Thus according to Kant, who argued that each individual knows best what is reasonable for him or herself, we all know how likely we are to stick to our resolutions over the next twelve months.

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Shame On The García Márquez Heirs — Cashing In On The "Scraps" Of A Legend

A decision to publish a sketchy manuscript as a posthumous novel by the late Gabriel García Márquez would have horrified Colombia's Nobel laureate, given his painstaking devotion to the precision of the written word.

Photo of a window with a sticker of the face of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with butterfly notes at Guadalajara's International Book Fair.

Poster of Gabriel Garcia Marquez at Guadalajara's International Book Fair.

Juan David Torres Duarte


BOGOTÁ — When a writer dies, there are several ways of administering the literary estate, depending on the ambitions of the heirs. One is to exercise a millimetric check on any use or edition of the author's works, in the manner of James Joyce's nephew, Stephen, who inherited his literary rights. He refused to let even academic papers quote from Joyce's landmark novel, Ulysses.

Or, you continue to publish the works, making small additions to their corpus, as with Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett and Clarice Lispector, or none at all, which will probably happen with Milan Kundera and Cormac McCarthy.

Another way is to seek out every scrap of paper the author left and every little word that was jotted down — on a piece of cloth, say — and drip-feed them to publishers every two to three years with great pomp and publicity, to revive the writer's renown.

This has happened with the Argentine Julio Cortázar (who seems to have sold more books dead than alive), the French author Albert Camus (now with 200 volumes of personal and unfinished works) and with the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The latter's posthumous oeuvre is so abundant I am starting to wonder if his heirs haven't hired a ghost writer — typing and smoking away in some bedsit in Barcelona — to churn out "newly discovered" works.

Which group, I wonder, will our late, great novelist Gabriel García Márquez fit into?

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