Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Kant's distinction I had missed – or subconsciously suppressed?

Yesterday I came across Kant’s distinction between Sache and Ding, both of which my Collins German Dictionary translates as ‘thing’. In the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant says: Die Wesen (Beings), deren Dasein zwar nicht auf unserm Willen, sondern der Natur Beruht (whose existence does not depend on our will, but on nature), haben dennoch, wenn sie vernunftlose Wesen sind, nur einen relativen Wert, als Mittel (have nevertheless, when they are without reason, only relative value, as means), und heissen daher Sachen (and are therefore called things), dagegen vernünftige Wesen Personen genannt werden (whereas beings endowed with reason are called persons), weil ihre Natur sie schon als Zwecke an sich selbst, d.i. als etwas, das nicht bloss als Mittel gebraucht werden darf, auszeichnet (for their nature marks them as ends in themselves, that is as something that cannot be used merely as a means) … Dies sind also nicht bloss subjektive Zwecke (These aren’t then mere subjective ends), deren Existenz (whose existence), als Wirkung unserer Handlung (as an effect of our activity), für uns einen Wert hat (has a value for us), sondern objektive Zwecke (but objective ends), d.i. Dinge [my italics] (that is things), deren Dasein an sich selbst Zweck ist (whose existence is an end in itself). (Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, p. 59)

The translation is mine, for I do not have any English translation of this text. I should greatly appreciate it, if one of the English Kantian scholars, whom I am inviting to my ‘Three days in Prague devoted to philosophy’, would inform me and my readers of how English translators attempt to solve the Sache/Ding problem.

Luckily, I have an older Wildhagen’s German-English dictionary, which may shed some light on Kant’s distinction. Wildhagen begins with a historical and out-dated meaning, Ding designating Volksversamlung, Gericht, i.e. ‘judicial assembly, legislative council’. Then he gives such expressions as guter Dinge sein, ‘to be quite all right, to be in good spirits’. Finally, he gives such expressions as ein dummes, junges Ding, ‘a silly young thing’, die kleine Dinger (sc. Kinder), ‘the little tots’.

It is obviously very important to have in mind the distinction between Sache and Ding, for it has a bearing on Kant’s pivotal concept of ‘thing in itself’, Ding an sich. And so I was struck by the fact that I read it yesterday as something completely new to me. Czech language, just as English language, has no two concepts of ‘thing’, which would correspond to the Sache/ Ding distinction. How could I have forgotten all about it?

I must have read the Grundlegung in the early 1960s in Prague. For in the second half of the 1960s, when I was teaching a course on the history of philosophy at the Philosophic Faculty of Charles University, I opened my lectures by stating that philosophy is all about promoting intellectual capacity, and that university is an institution that has been established to foster intellectual excellence: ‘This means that I must try my best to enable you to be as good as me in this subject. And when you become better than me, my duty will be to give my place over to you. My realization of this duty will make me work really hard, so that, if possible, I remain always ahead of you. Your task is to chase me, and if you can, to overtake me.’ This was my attempt to view the situation of a university teacher from the vantage point of Kant’s categorical imperative.

And so it seems to me that I must have subconsciously suppressed the passage. I was seventeen when I got under the spell of Tolstoy’s concept of non-violent resistance to evil; the rejection of the killing of animals for food was part of that concept, and so I became a vegetarian. When I was subsequently imprisoned for refusing military service, I remained vegetarian during the whole of my stay in prison (altogether 15 months), although I decided to renege on Tolstoy during my second imprisonment under the influence of Marx. But when I was released from prison, the first thing I remember doing was going to a pub and having a goulash. Still, Kant’s viewing animals as mere Sachen, mere means that are here for our benefit, must have jarred on me when I read the Grundlegung, especially since my enjoyment of meat belonged to the same category.

My words ‘I decided to renege on Tolstoy under the influence of Marx’ might lead to a mistaken notion that prisons in the communist Czechoslovakia were institutions that tried to educate prisoners and make them into Marxists. Nothing would be further from the truth. In prison, I decided to study Marx’ Capital, for I believed Marxism to be the foundation of all evil in my country; I was painfully aware that I knew nothing about it. I obtained a privilege of visiting the prison library – it was surprisingly good, with many old books; the prison was built under the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa; I got there a book that was refuting Marxism as an economic theory as well as anything by Lenin I wanted, but no Capital. I insisted on obtaining it. A senior officer came and shouted at me: ‘You cannot read and understand Marx’ Capital!’ But he took me to the Head of the prison, who lent me his own – pristine – copy.

I have that Head of the prison in good memory. During the last fortnight of my first imprisonment (I was imprisoned twice, my first imprisonment lasted three months, the second a year) I was put into an open cell. On a Sunday I organized a cultural event in the biggest cell. Who could sing, was singing, who could dance, was dancing. Suddenly the door was shut (once shut, the door could not be opened from inside). I was summoned to the Head of the prison, charged with an attempt to organize a prison-uprising. I suggested to the Head that it should not be me, but the prison itself that should organize such activities. The Head did not have time to adopt my suggestion, for he was imprisoned soon afterwards, allegedly for some mismanagement.

I have always thought that his lending me his copy of Marx’ Capital, and similar ‘misdeeds’, might have had something to do with his imprisonment. My original sentence was 6 months in prison; I appealed. At the Appeal Court I defended myself ‘with Marx in my hand’, so to speak. The result was surprising; my sentence was halved. The Head must have appeared to the higher authorities dangerously lenient. The prison doctor ordered for me a daily portion of milk, because of my vegetarianism. The official prison doctor had as his help Dr Krčméry, a staunch Catholic, imprisoned by that time for some eight years. I first got in contact with the two of them a day after my imprisonment, which I began with a hunger-strike in protest against my imprisonment. I was force-fed; Dr Krčméry did the force-feeding. I remember him pushing a hose through my nose, then the funny feeling of warmth filling my tummy. My nose was sore and bleeding; I stopped the hunger-strike. Then the prison doctor several times summoned me to his office, and the three of us had long discussions. After they learnt about my admiration for Russian language and literature, Dr Krčméry gave me as a present his own copy of the Selected works of I. P. Pavlov in Russian. (My interest in neurophysiology dates from that time.)

1 comment:

  1. Alberto Vanzo’s comment
    I am not sure about Kant's practical philosophy, but within his theoretical philosophy, I don't think that there is any systematic distinction between his use of the terms "Sache" and "Ding". I believe that there isn't a systematic distinction between Kant's use of "Objekt" (or "Object") and "Gegenstand" either. Generally speaking, Kant's terminological usage is not very precise. He sometimes states that he will employ a term in a specific sense and, just a few pages later, uses it in a different or broader sense.