Benjamin Lee Whorf, the American linguist, made a puzzling observation which, for no patent reason, has held our fascination for nearly eighty years. Whorf wrote it briefly, in simple language:
'Around a storage of what are called 'gasoline (petrol) drums', behavior will tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called 'empty gasoline drums' it will tend to be different-careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the 'empty' drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor.'Whorf, I here suggest, had stumbled upon the core problem of the thing-in-itself, and with that, the core problem of the thinking of our entire Western civilisation. The interpretation of the thing-in-itself is not critical here. It is sufficient to understand it most simply as any 'object of inquiry'. Let us begin at the beginning.
First, the Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that all knowledge may be subdivided into relations of ideas on the one hand, and matters of fact on the other. That is, one begins with a handful of facts (which includes objects), and these facts stand in a certain relation to one another.
This view has remained engraved on metaphysicians' minds ever since. Generations later, Bertrand Russell wrote that many philosophers, following Immanuel Kant, have maintained that relations are the work of the mind, and that things-in-themselves have no relations. While this is not to say exactly the same, the thought is not far from Hume's.
A marble is a thing. A house is a thing. Even gravity, ideology, taxonomy are things (we call them constructs), which may in turn be related to other things. In a sense, even a unicorn is a 'thing', although one is unlikely ever to find one. Of course, our 'things' may not be exactly the same as we perceive them – but the point will be clear.
Things-in-themselves are not, of course, facts. They first need to be involved in what we call truth conditions – which is, they need to be inserted into statements. Then one may affirm or deny such statements, which is an essential condition of facts. For example, we insert the thing 'marble' into a statement: 'A marble sinks' – or the thing 'unicorn': 'The Scots keep unicorns.'
On the surface of it, our world is filled with such facts: 'There's a car,' 'A bird has wings,' or 'The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.'
But there is a mistake. There are no things, there are no objects, and therefore there are no facts. Hume got it wrong, and so did every philosopher since. One finds only relations. The mind is incapable of comprehending anything else. No mind can ever settle on a 'thing' alone.
Someone might object: 'But this is a coffee cup, and that's a fact!' But is it really? Take away the table on which the coffee cup rests, and what does one have? One has a coffee cup which rests on nothing. If we ever found such a thing, we would marvel that it exists. One would have scientists queuing up at the door to see it. Further, the table, on which the coffee cup rests, stands on the floor, and this in turn rests on the earth, and so on.
The same is true if we down-scale our thinking as it were. Supposing that we should say, 'This coffee cup has a handle.' The same applies. We have to have a mind for a whole world of relations to be able to speak of a handle.
We never worried about this much – before the publication of Samuel Johnson's great dictionary of 1755. But since then, our 'things' have been defined, and they have been defined (if implicitly) as things-in-themselves. But this they are not, as we have seen.
This now promises to explain Benjamin Whorf's puzzlement over the dangerous way in which people went about with empty petrol drums, and our continuing fascination with the same today. We have come to see petrol drums today as things-in-themselves, without the obvious relations in which they are involved.
One might wonder at the possible significance of it all. Quite simply, when we speak of the world today, our language causes us to view it as people viewed Whorf's petrol drums, namely, as a profusion of things-in-themselves. Yet we deal with things far more dangerous than petrol drums.