thing in itself

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The thing in itself is a term that in modern epistemology is essentially shaped by Immanuel Kant's dualistic philosophy, whereby it is used in numerous meanings, some of which are incompatible with one another, throughout his works. However, the term is mainly used as a generic term for so-called intelligible objects or for the possible entity of an intelligible cause, both of which are determined by the fact that they have no equivalent in pure, and consequently also not in sensual perception (experience).

Concept history

As a result of the introduction of the Aristotelian categories, a distinction is made in scholasticism between what belongs to a thing as an accidental property and what belongs to it “in itself”, i.e. as a necessary property, whereby “in itself” is the Greek kath'auto (from itself out) and corresponds to the Latin per se . So the human being is, necessarily, physical, but the body is not human per se . The scholastic discourse was still largely shaped by the so-called universality controversy about nominalism: the latter regarded the general terms solely as being in the name (word), i.e. as things of thought - for example "humanity", which exists as little as "equestrianism".

The almost Kantian meaning of the thing in itself , on the other hand , is found for the first time in Descartes , who differentiates between the appearance of things in the unity of spirit and understanding and external bodies in themselves, but of which he notes that they could possibly open up to knowledge: " It is sufficient if we note that the sensual perceptions only belong to that connection between the human body and the soul and usually tell us how far external bodies can use or harm it, but only occasionally and accidentally teach us what they are in themselves are themselves. "(Phil. Pr., II, 3)

Then the "thing in itself" became a widespread conception of French philosophy, by D'Alembert ( Élément de. Phil . § 19), Condillac ( Logique , 5), Bonnet ( Essay analytique , § 242) and Maupertuis ( Lettres , IV), whereby Schopenhauer's explanations led to the assumption that Kant had taken over the idea from Maupertuis (WWuV, II). But from France, the new philosophical buzzword soon found its way into German-language textbooks on metaphysics , so that even during Kant's student days it was a commonplace of philosophy in Königsberg.

The Kantian definitions

As with other terms that Kant adopts and redefines, the meaning of the thing in itself is by no means uniform. Due to the change in Kant's thought from the pre-critical to the critical period, the conceptual confusion in the reception even in specialist lexicons (e.g. Eisler) is intensified, so that the critique of pure reason must first be mentioned as a chronological limit of the definition , since Kant in the dissertation of 1770 ( Mund. Sens. ) Was convinced that the understanding concepts give things "as they are" (ibid., § 4), which is methodically rejected in the Transcendental Deduction of the major critical work. If the term is still essentially assessed as “problematic”, then in the course of the formulation of practical reason it acquires an increasingly affirmative character, which is also reflected in Kant's defense against the charge of idealism in the prolegomena .

In Kant's complete works, in which the formulation is used over a hundred times, at least the following connotations can be recognized, the precise definition of which is made even more difficult by the fact that these sub-terms are initially delimited from one another, but then occasionally as synonymous additions - for example in brackets without reference to the lemma, can be equated again.

  1. pure thought, intellect, noumenon
    1. Object that remains if one disregards all subjective conditions of perception and the laws of knowledge: imaginary object without spatial extension beyond time and causality, (KrV A 30; B 42; B 164; B 306)
    2. Objects of the sense world in “their nature in themselves”, beyond the “way in which we look at them”; other relation to the object, (KrV B 306; Convolut VII), unknown object behind the apparitions, also: " transcendental object" (KrV, A 191 / B 236)
  2. Transcendental object (also: "Transcendental object"), "Correlatum of the unit of apperception" (KrV, A 250), "Experience unit", (KrV A 108)
  3. causa sui , the “intelligible cause”, the cause out of freedom, in contrast to causality, as the determining characteristic of “things in themselves”, in this context also “things in themselves”, ( Prolegomena § 53; GMS BA 107; KrV B XXXI; B XXXVII f .; A 418; A 538-541 / B 566-569)
  4. Substance intended solely by the category (AA IV, KrV, p. 217)
  5. as an exception: real object in the conviction of empirical teachings, d. i. of a positivistic, undoubted existence of things (KrV B 164; A 130)

The determinations and thus the meanings within the critical thought are partly complementary, but partly they also differ quite considerably: in this way the noumena of the first meaning can be determined, but the transcendental object cannot. No predicate can therefore be assigned to the latter, but the Noumena can. These represent a “borderline concept” of the possibility of sensual knowledge, while the causa sui arises from a reasoning and concerns the recourse in the chain of causes. Thus it can only be decided in the respective context which of the meanings it is concerned with, whereby exegesis does not always lead to indisputable results. If the term “thing in itself” is regarded as a generic term de facto, if not explicitly treated in this way by Kant, then the common feature (dictum de omni et nullo) of the listed sub-terms is, with the exception (5), but as the impossibility of recognizing the pure, and therefore also the empirical, intuition of the object. Naturally , the meaning (5) of Kant is not set, but is used as apagogical proof for didactic purposes (i.e. if it were a thing in itself , then - argumentum - it cannot be such a thing.)

The following quote from the Critique of Pure Reason is indicative of the Kantian epistemology : “But if we could also say something synthetically about things in themselves through the pure understanding (which is nevertheless impossible), then this would not at all affect appearances, which not imagine things in yourself, can be drawn. In this latter case, then, in the transcendental reflection, I will always have to compare my concepts only under the conditions of sensuality, and so space and time will not be determinations of things in themselves, but of phenomena: what things in themselves may be knows I do not and do not need to know, because nothing can ever appear to me other than in its appearance. "

According to the fundamental statute of the Critique of Pure Reason , the limits of the possibility of an ontology , the meanings of the generic term and the listed sub-terms are defined and used in elementary theory as "problematic", therefore as mere possibilities for philosophical reflection. However, even in the theory of method and the anticipation there of practical reason, it is becoming apparent that Kant will not adhere to it, but will allow the affirmative connotation of the term, even if only to a degree, which is not only the necessity for the conception of the homo noumenon arises from the critique of practical reason , but also from that of delimiting transcendental thought from idealism in the sense of Berkeley.

In the Prolegomena , the commentary on the Critique of Pure Reason for academic teaching, the term is expressed in this sense: “Accordingly, I admit that there are bodies outside of us, that is, things that, although according to what they are in themselves may be ourselves, completely unknown to us, we know through the ideas which their influence on our sensuality gives us, and to which we give the name of a body; which word, then, signifies the appearance of that unknown, but none the less real, object. Can this be called idealism? It is exactly the opposite of it, "

In addition to the homo noumenon , the formulation of the “real object” is essentially the one with which Kant, by rejecting the critics of one side, challenged the other, since according to the transcendental doctrine, reality is a concept of the understanding and not applicable to things in themselves . But it also says there: "The principle that governs and determines my idealism throughout is, on the other hand, 'All knowledge of things from pure, understanding or pure reason is nothing but mere appearance, and truth is only in experience.'"

Reception and impact history


The "thing in itself" became a central subject of the criticism of Kant, in which the characteristic of being unrecognizable soon led to the rejection of the concept, beginning with the idealism accusation of the Göttingen review and followed by Gottlob Ernst Schulze ( Aenesidemus , 1792) who responded to Carl Leonhard Reinhold's letters on Kantian philosophy from 1786 to 1787. In the Critique of Pure Reason and the Prolegomena , Kant had shown that natural laws and causality do not apply to things in themselves. Just as the soul is not subject to the laws of nature, the thought thing, e.g. B. “the infinite being” cannot be thought in a causal time series or in time at all.

Nevertheless, Schulze chose the argument for his criticism that the category of causality should not be applied to the "thing in itself" as the "cause of the substance of empirical knowledge", although he did not refer directly to Kant, but to Reinhold: Is " If the principle of causality is invalid outside of our experience, it is an abuse of the laws of the understanding if one applies the concept of cause to something that is supposed to exist outside of our experience and completely independent of it. So even if critical philosophy does not exactly deny that there are things in themselves as causes of the substance of empirical knowledge, it must actually, by virtue of its own principles, assume such an obiective and transcendental cause of the substance of our empirical knowledge Knowledge deny all reality and truth, and according to its own principles, therefore, not only the origin of the substance of empirical knowledge, but also its whole reality, or its real relationship to something other than our ideas, is completely uncertain and for us = x. "

The objection was obvious that a thing in itself is never an appearance, but can nevertheless be the conceivable reason for it, and causality applies to the appearances, including one through freedom. Accordingly, the “causes of the substance of the empirical knowledge” themselves do not have to belong to the latter - just as free will as a cause for an event is neither subject to appearance nor to (necessary) causality. In this sense Kant differentiates the “cause in the appearance” (that is, the cause is part of the appearance) from the “cause of the appearance”.

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi also argued in the same direction as Schulze . According to him, one cannot get into the Kantian system without the thing-in-itself; one cannot remain in it with it.

The position of Hegel and Fichte

On the other hand, the concept of the intellectus intuitivus , which Kant declared to be impossible, i.e. a purely conceptual, intellectual view, was used as a possibility by Fichte , which Kant himself promoted - thus eliminating the problematic - that the ego became the principle of Exalting existence in itself ( Wissenschaftslehre , 1794, § 4), which helped usher in the romantic period of German philosophy.

Even Hegel explained Kant's thesis that the "thing in itself" is fundamentally not only to detect and symptoms can be detected, for a rejection of the truth claims of philosophy. The “thing in itself” remains “beyond thinking”. He replies that the thing that is in itself is a thought thing and as a “subjective condition of knowing” falls back into thinking (into the subject). He considers it a strange contradiction by Kant. The consequence would be a difference that cannot be further deduced. The ego thus always remains enclosed in its subjectivity and does not come to the “true content”. Hegel's philosophical thought endeavored to overcome precisely this problem. For Hegel, the truth of both moments ( subjectivity - objectivity ) is already contained in the knowledge of appearance . But Kant does not see this objective moment of appearance.

“Knowledge is indeed their unity; but in cognition, Kant always has the knowing subject as an individual in his sense. Knowing itself is the truth of both moments; what is known is only the appearance, knowledge falls back into the subject. (...) Because it contains (with Kant, note) things only in the form of the laws of intuition and sensuality. "

Basically he accuses Kant of not having carefully checked his terminology. Since the thing in itself is an abstraction from any content, nothing is easier than knowing the thing in itself. In the antinomies of the KrV (Critique of Pure Reason), Kant revealed the inherently contradicting nature of reason.

"The true and positive meaning of the antinomies consists in the fact that everything real contains opposing determinations and that thus knowing and understanding an object more closely means becoming aware of it as a concrete unity of opposing determinations."


Arthur Schopenhauer made use of the “thing in itself” which Kant would surely have rejected and based the world will on this conception. The comment on the so founded Kantian dualism was therefore euphoric: “Kant's greatest merit is the distinction between appearance and things in themselves, based on the demonstration that the intellect still stands between things and us, which is why it is not can be recognized according to what they may be in themselves. ”(Appendix to WWuV ). Admittedly, so Schopenhauer continued, Kant did not come to the realization "that the appearance is the world as representation and the thing in itself is the will."

Like Fichte and Hegel, Schopenhauer goes beyond the purely problematic use of the term in the Critique of Pure Reason and uses the “thing in itself” as an affirmative, i.e. existent, world ground: Kant, that's what it says in Die Welt as will and representation “Did not deduce the thing in itself in the right way, as I shall soon show, but rather by means of an inconsistency which he had to atone for by frequent and irresistible attacks on this main part of his teaching. He did not recognize the thing in itself directly in the will ”(ibid.). The philosophy of the will, to which Friedrich Nietzsche later referred , becomes methodically possible through the positing of the “thing in itself” of the cosmic principle.


Contrary to a doctrine that can still be found today, it was not the founder of Neo-Kantianism , Hermann Cohen , who rejected the concept of the “thing in itself”. In his main work on Kantian philosophy, Kant's theory of experience , he affirmed rather philologically correct that the “thing in itself” as the intelligible cause of phenomena can only be a “borderline concept” and stated: “The talk that Kant has knowledge limited to that of appearances, but the unknowable thing in itself has been left standing, this superficial talk will finally have to fall silent after a hundred years. But it cannot disappear otherwise than by arriving at the insight that the thing in itself is the expression of a thought which neither the thinking of the perception has to concede nor the latter has to give in to it. "

The claim that Cohen had interpreted the thing in itself, was first made in an anonymous review of the papers for literary entertainment , soon confirmed by A. Riehl.

In the zeitgeist of the positivist philosophies and the successes of the empirical sciences, the term was increasingly rejected, among others by Johannes Volkelt ( Immanuel Kant's epistemology , Leipzig 1879), Friedrich Harms (The philosophy since Kant, Berlin 1876), Eduard von Hartmann ( Critical Foundation des transcendental realism , Berlin 1875), Alfred Hölder ( presentation of the Kantian epistemology , Tübingen 1874), Ernst Laas ( Kant's analogies of experience , Berlin 1876), August Stadler ( the principles of pure epistemology in the Kantian philosophy , Leipzig 1876) and Alois Riehl ( Philosophical Criticism and its Significance for Positive Science , Leipzig 1876).

See also


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Metaphysica Alexandri Gottlieb Baumgarten , 1739, 1757, § 62
  2. ^ Kant, edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff, AA IV, 178
  3. ^ Kant, edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff, AA IV, 289
  4. ^ Kant, edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff, AA IV, 374
  5. ^ Kant, edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff, AA III, p. 17
  6. ^ Kant, edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff, AA VIII, p. 237
  7. Aenesidemus, Berlin, 1911 , page 232.
  8. ^ Kant, edition of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Berlin 1900ff, AA IV, p. 347
  9. GWF Hegel: Science of Logic . stw, Frankfurt am Main, p. 37. “In this renunciation of reason on itself, the concept of truth is lost; it is limited to knowing only subjective truth, only appearance, only something to which the nature of the thing itself corresponds; knowledge has reverted to opinion. ”Ibid., p. 38.
  10. ^ GWF Hegel: Lectures on the History of Philosophy III . stw, Frankfurt am Main, p. 338.
  11. GWF Hegel 's Science of Logic I . P. 26.
  12. ^ GWF Hegel: Lectures on the History of Philosophy III . P. 350 f.
  13. Hegel: Encyclopedia I , § 44, p. 121.
  14. GWF Hegel: Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences. § 48 (addition), p. 128.
  15. ^ Hermann Cohen: Kant's theory of experience , Berlin 1885, p. 507.
  16. ^ Hermann Cohen: Kant's theory of experience , Berlin 1885, p. 518.
  17. ^ Sheets for literary entertainment. 2c, May 15, 1873. p. 314
  18. A. Riehl, review of H. Cohen: Kant's theory of experience , p. 214 f.