Sittlichkeit and Thought.

Michael Rosen has a review of the terrifyingly gargantuan The Impact of Idealism: The Legacy of Post-Kantian German Thought (four volumes, 1,690pp., £240/$365) in the Oct. 17 TLS (illustrated with a cropped version of this fetching image of Hegel lecturing), and I was struck by a couple of linguistic tidbits. This is hilarious (whether or not it’s true I leave to Hegelians):

“Thought”, for Hegel, is a technical term used to refer to the content of his own philosophy. So when he writes that something can be “justified in thought”, that means that it is justifiable from the standpoint of that philosophy.

And here’s a claim of untranslatableness I’m curious about:

From which it follows that law and authority must be understood as embedded within a concrete ethical life – Sittlichkeit, to use Hegel’s own, untranslatable, German word.

Anyone want to take a crack at explaining the subtle nuances of Sittlichkeit?

Comments

  1. According to Charles Taylor, sittlich:

    “Hegelian term of art designates the morality which holds of us in virtue of being members of a self-subsistent community, to which we owe allegiance as an embodiment of the universal”

    from his book, Hegel.

    I know this doesn’t explain its untranslatability but thought it might help.

  2. Walter Kaufmann, in his Nietzsche translations, renders it as “morality”–which it seems to be a calque of, Sitte meaning basically custom/convention. Nietzsche makes a lot of this etymology, but that’s probably just Nietzsche being Nietzsche. Not a native speaker, so I can’t really comment further, but it seems like Rosen is just exoticizing.

  3. Stefan Holm says:

    Duden gives this about Sittlichkeit:

    Sittlichkeit Worttrennung: Sitt|lich|keit Sitte, Moral sittliches Empfinden, Verhalten eines Einzelnen, einer Gruppe; Moral, Moralität Synonyme zu Sittlichkeit Anstand , Moral, Werte; (gehoben) Schicklichkeit ; (veraltend) Dehors ; (bildungssprachlich veraltend) Dekorum Moral , Tugend , Tugendhaftigkeit ; (bildungssprachlich) Ethik , Ethos , Moralität Sitte, (2) Moral (1a) Beispiel die öffentliche Sittlichkeit gefährden sittliches (2) Empfinden, Verhalten eines Einzelnen, einer Gruppe; Moral (1b) , Moralität (1) Beispiel ein Mensch ohne, von hoher Sittlichkeit

    It’s all about the moral and ethic responsibility or decency of the individual towards the collective. It is so very much Hegel: The world is inevitably heading for the fulfillment of a higher idea (whatever that might be). The individual has to understand and obey to this by acting morally, ethically and decently – i.e. according to Sittlichkeit.

    Karl Marx, who was inspired by Hegel’s analytical method, turned this upside down and – as his follower Bertolt Brecht recently was quoted on this blog put it: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.

  4. J. W. Brewer says:

    Google translate simply renders Sittlichkeit as “morality.” So that ought to be good enough for us, right? The rub seems to be that Hegel contrasted Sittlichkeit with Moralitaet in his schema, but so what? It’s not unusual for philosophers and suchlike folk trying to create elaborate systems to use words that are synonyms or at least have substantially overlapping meanings in common usage as if they had precise and contrasting meanings with no actual overlap. I guess scientists can do this to, as in the specialized and non-overlapping meanings assigned in physicists’ jargon to common words like “energy,” “power,” and “work.” Physics is useful enough that I assume a wide variety of languages have come up with words (possibly specialized meanings of pre-existing common words) to translate the precise physics-class meaning of e.g. “work.” The need to talk about Hegelianism is perhaps not so pressing for as large a segment of the population, and thus using Sittlichkeit as a loanword in English may be the simplest solution.

  5. Stefan Holm says:

    I think you could add ‘adaptability’ or ‘conformity’ as English interpretations of the value of sittlichkeit – if my sensibilty for German philosophy and modern English hasn’t got me aboard a Wayward Bus.

  6. I don’t know either German or Hegel and is not a native English speaker to boot, but I have a suggestion moral duty. Go ahead, shoot it down.

  7. Social ethics (as opposed to individual morality)?

  8. Trond Engen says:

    “Decency”?

  9. Sittlichkeit and Moralität are both terms of art in Hegel’s philosophy, so, while Sittlichkeit might be normally translated as “morality,” and might in ordinary usage be not strongly distinct from Moralität, whatever the translator of Hegel chooses will have to indicate both its likeness and its difference. That’s not the same as saying it’s untranslatable, but it is peculiarly pinched.

  10. That’s sort of what I figured, which is why I was hoping for the kind of elucidation that Stefan Holm (especially) provided.

  11. J.W. Brewer: The rub seems to be that Hegel contrasted Sittlichkeit with Moralitaet in his schema, but so what? It’s not unusual for philosophers and suchlike folk trying to create elaborate systems to use words that are synonyms or at least have substantially overlapping meanings in common usage as if they had precise and contrasting meanings with no actual overlap.

    Greg: Sittlichkeit and Moralität are both terms of art in Hegel’s philosophy, so, while Sittlichkeit might be normally translated as “morality,” and might in ordinary usage be not strongly distinct from Moralität, whatever the translator of Hegel chooses will have to indicate both its likeness and its difference. That’s not the same as saying it’s untranslatable, but it is peculiarly pinched.

    I agree with this.

    Individual words referring to something abstract are not necessarily explicable (in the same language), or translatable (in a different language) “by themselves”. Their meaning is locked into a context of the meanings of other words. That’s why efforts to translate a motormouth like Hegel – into an intelligible result – involves much, much more than the sum of work on “translating” individual words. You have to convey a coherent context of words/concepts.

    The reviewer claims that Sittlichkeit is “untranslatable”. Is he volunteering his own opinion (and if so, why ?), or is he passing on an opinion of the editors or contributors of the book ? The article is useless as a review, because it tells us nothing about the book.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    it seems like Rosen is just exoticizing

    Not so much Rosen as Hegel. Hegel was really, really big on turning fairly ordinary words into extremely precise technical terms, causing readers to stumble from misunderstanding to misunderstanding; without studying his work, I can’t say what exactly he meant and did not mean by Sittlichkeit or any other term.

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    Example: “aufheben”

  14. Which was discussed here back in 2005.

  15. Stefan Holm says:

    Aufheben is ‘up’ + ‘heave’ with basic meaning raise or lift. Another English cognate is ‘heavy’, indicating that it’s not small things that are to be ‘heaved’ (or in OE past participle hafen). The Swedish cognate is häva, basically meaning to make a heavy lift.

    It’s believed to be the origin of the pan-Scandinavian word for ‘sea’: hav, OE hæf, reflecting the power of the ocean, which heaves whatever it likes to heave as long as the object follows Archimedes’ principle:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes%27_principle

    From unknown reasons German ‘aufheben’ just like its Swedish calque ‘upphäva’ can also mean ‘repeal, annul, withdraw’.

    What Hegel meant God only knows but it probably has something to do with his belief in history as an irreversible ‘upheave’ towards the fulfillment of the sacrosanct ‘idea’.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    From unknown reasons German ‘aufheben’ just like its Swedish calque ‘upphäva’ can also mean ‘repeal, annul, withdraw’.

    Compare to lift a ban.

  17. Yes, that’s why I thought “lift” was such a good translation in that earlier thread.

  18. Oliver Neukum says:

    Decency comes close. Walking naked through the city would be “unsittlich” not “unmoralisch”. The distinction between “Sitte” and “Moral” is also made in normal colloquial speech. Kant is not alone in that. “Sitte” as such would be “custom” or “tradition”, but it has a moral connotation. There is also “Brauch” which designates a tradition without moral connotation.

  19. Thanks, that’s very helpful.

  20. The usual Chinese translation seems to be 倫理 lúnlǐ which is just the word for ‘ethics’. That’s what it’s called in the standard (only?) Chinese translation of the Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts.

    That translation is from 1959; the bulk of Hegel’s work (though not the Grundlinien or the System der Sittlichkeit) was translated by He Lin 賀鱗 starting in the 30s maybe. Some Hegel had been translated/explained in Chinese by Cai Yuanpei 蔡元培 Chinese as early as 1910 and I guess that’s where Mao read the Hegel he said he read. Can’t tell if any translation of Sittlichkeit occurs in those early versions.

    In his youth, Mao did read other German philosophy channelled by Cai Yuanpei, famously Cai’s 10k character version of Friedrich Paulsen’s System der Ethik, on his (borrowed) copy of which he scribbled 12k characters of notes.

  21. Just ran across an ambiguity in Latin perfectly parallel to that of aufheben. Cicero said of Octavian: “laudandum adulescentem, ornandum, tollendum,” which could mean “the young fellow must be praised, rewarded, and raised up” or “…disposed of.”

Speak Your Mind

*