They're both objects that can be talked about but are not specified. Can I use Kant's "thing-in-itself" to describe them?

I'm currently writing an essay about ethics, now I'm thinking whether I should describe "concept" as "thing-in-itself" so that I can further explain what a concept is. In the essay, I may need to address that a concept itself is a thing-in-itself so that people need to specify it when they want to use concepts to form conclusions. I hope this extended definition of "concept" may somewhat make my essay clearer ;)

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    Not specified where? Are you talking about Kant's use of "concept", "moral theory" and "thing-in-itself" or some use "in general"? Either way, nothing is ever fully specified, but specified enough to know that "apples" are not interchangeable with "oranges" even in casual talk.
    – Conifold
    Oct 14 '20 at 8:40
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    Welcome to SE Philosophy! Please be aware that questions are subject to editing and closure, and that reflects the site's policies on acceptable questions and NOT a personal attack. What to avoid in questions. Questions, including those that are closed, can be edited to bring them within guidelines. Keeping questions on-topic. Additional clarification at the meta site.
    – J D
    Oct 18 '20 at 22:40

Just a gentle hint: the 'thing in itself' is rooted in Kantian metaphysics and I cannot see how it can support your thinking about the 'concept' of 'morality'. Here's why.

It is true that in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant refers to things-in-themselves but not in any way that will help you. He writes:

... one must concede and assume behind the appearances [of objects] something else that is not an appearance, namely the things in themselves; even if - since they can never become known to us, but only ever how they affect us - we of ourselves rest content with being unable to get any closer to them or ever know what they are in themselves' (G: 4:451: Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, rev. ed., tr. M. Gregor & Jens Timmermann, Cambridge: CUP, 2012: 60.)

Or more crisply :

... we can achieve only cognition of appearances, never of things in themselves (ibid.)

So if a concept or morality were a thing in itself, you could ex hypothesi not know what it was. This seems an unpromising start for an analysis or characterisation of the nature of either concepts or morality. A more fruitful exercise would be, if you want to approach your essay from a Kantian angle, to consider what Kant understood morality to be - i.e. what was his concept of morality. He identified 'The autonomy of the will as the supreme principle of morality' (4: 440: Gregor & Timmermanns: 51) and connected morality with reason in such a way that on his account the moral law is one of the principles of (practical) reason. Morality binds all rational beings as such (4: 408: Gregor & Timmermanns: 23). Your essay could elaborate this bare indication. The Stanford philosophy website should help here - or any of the standard commentaries - Onora O'Neill, Christine Korsgaard, Scruton. Roger Scruton's succinct but excellent, Kant: A Very Short Introduction, is probably the clearest and most straightforward place to start.


C. Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends, Cambridge: CUP, 1996: Part 1. ISBN 10: 0521499623 / ISBN 13: 9780521499620

O. O'Neill, Constructions of Reason, Cambridge: CUP, ch. 4 & 5. ISBN 10: 0521388163 / ISBN 13: 9780521388160

R. Scruton, Kant: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: OUP, 2001. ISBN 10: 0192801996 / ISBN 13: 9780192801999


They can be talked about and specified (you can find diverse perspectives on both just by googling).

The fact that they can't be specified doesn't make them things-in-itself. It is the fact that something can't be known but affects our understanding by means of the senses in any form that would make something a thing-in-itself.

Concepts of reason are created in a mediatic manner (not immediate), the intermediary being our senses. The thing in-itself, or noumena, would be the unknowable element that affects our senses.

Neither concept or moral theory would then be things-in-itself. They could be part of the being (man), the subject of knowledge.


Das Ding-an-sich applies to the dichotomy between our representation through our senses and the "actual" object independent of our subjective experience. Thus, it applies to physical objects, not abstract ones (if one accepts Cartesian duality). Some positions, like mereological nihilism reject things existing at all. Related to the quotation that "[t]he territory is not the map.". Kant devised the term noumenon in contradistinction to phenomenon to refer to the objectively independent object. Also related to the concept of intersubjectivity.

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