Monday, August 17, 2015

A remark on Alberto Vanzo’s comment

In ‘A Kant's distinction I had missed’, posted on August 2, I wrote: ‘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)’

I noted: ‘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.’ Alberto Vanzo commented: ‘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 quickly realized that I overstated the distinction between Sache and Ding, for I soon came across a passage in the Grundlegung (Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals) in which Kant uses the term Ding to signify the same things as he the things denoted by the term Sache on p. 59. But I still believed that the different account of these two terms in Wildhagen’s German-English dictionary may shed some light on Kant use of “Sache”. For “Sache” in Wildhagen signifies only lifeless things, whereas “Ding” historically designated Volksversamlung, Gericht, i.e. ‘judicial assembly, legislative council’, and is used in such expressions as guter Dinge sein, ‘to be quite all right, to be in good spirits’, ein dummes, junges Ding, ‘a silly young thing’, die kleine Dinger (sc. Kinder), ‘the little tots’.

And so I thought that Alberto’s comment – ‘I don't think that there is any systematic distinction between Kant’s use of the terms "Sache" and "Ding"’ – is not to the point concerning Kant’s use of “Sache” in the Grundlegung. I wrote to Alberto that the Grundlegung passage puts a uniquely strong emphasis on Sachen (‘things’) that are mere means, and Personen (‘persons’) that must always be viewed as ends, not mere means. In other words, his distinction there is between Sachen and Personen, not between Sache and Ding.

At that point I did not think that Kant could ever use the term Sache  to signify the ‘thing in itself’, Ding an sich. Kant proved me wrong and Alberto right; towards the end of the Grundlegung Kant says: was aber zur blossen Erscheinung gehőrt, wird von der Vernunft notwendig der Beschaffenheit der Sache an sich selbst untergeordnet’ (Kant’s italics, p. 97)(‘but what belongs to mere appearance is necessarily subordinated by reason to the character of the thing in itself’, tr. H. J. Paton).

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