Traces of the Sachverhalt concept are discoverable by hindsight already in Aristotle, above all in those passages where Aristotle speaks of the pragma as that on which the truth of the logos depends.(4) Aquinas, too, takes the ‘disposition of things’ as the cause of the truth of a judgment,(5) and similar views are present in the later middle ages, for example in the doctrine of the complexe significabile – of that which can be signified only as a complex – defended by Wodeham, Crathorn and Gregory of Rimini.(6)
Etymologically speaking, however, both ‘Sachverhalt‘ and ‘state of affairs’ derive not from these sources but from juridical uses of the term ‘status’ in the sense of status rerum (state or constitution of things), as contrasted with the status hominum or state of a man (as slave, free, etc.). Thus the O.E.D. speaks of a ‘state of things’ or ‘state of affairs’ as ‘the way in which events or circumstances stand disposed (at a particular time or within a particular sphere).’
The term ‘status rerum‘ is rooted especially in that branch of rhetorical theory which relates to the conduct of a trial. Here status is defined as the question which grows out of a given legal conflict. Thus for example Quintilian writes: ‘What I call status is called by others constitution, by others question, and by others that which one can infer from the question.’(7) ‘Status’ in this connection signifies also in an extended sense ‘the way things stand, the condition or peculiarity of a thing in regard to its circumstances, position, order’.(8) An important role seems to have been played here by Goclenius, who draws a clear opposition between ‘status’ and ‘propositio‘ from the point of view of the science of law. The status is, he says, ‘the fulcrum about which turn both the representations of the prosecution and those of the defence.’(9) The court’s job is to determine which of these conflicting representations is true; in other words, it has to determine how things stand in regard to the matters raised therein.
The term ‘Sachverhalt‘ makes its first technical appearance in the German philosophical literature in a work published in 1879 entitled General Logic by Julius Bergmann, a philosopher close to Hermann Lotze, who defended a doctrine referred to as ‘objective idealism’. The more usual sort of idealism current in Germany at the time when Bergmann was writing conceives the objects of experience and knowledge as being quite literally located ‘in the mind’ of the knowing subject. Windelband, for example, can define idealism in this sense as ‘the dissolution of being into processes of consciousness’.(10)
As far as judgment is concerned, the idealists embraced the so-called ‘combination theory’, according to which the process of judging is a process of combining or separating concepts or presentations. Positive judging is the putting together of a complex of concepts, usually a pair consisting of subject and predicate. Before the rise of idealism, it had been assumed as a matter of course that the resultant conceptual complex may reflect an exactly parallel combination of truth-making objects in the world. Ever since Aristotle it had been assumed also that the phenomenon of judgment could be properly understood only within a framework within which this wider background of ontology is taken into account. The idealists, however, broke with both of these assumptions and substituted instead the thesis that the process of judging is to be understood entirely from the perspective of what takes place within the consciousness of the judging subject.
The combination-theory, which had once been accepted by idealists but indeed by almost all philosophers,(11) shows its most positive side in Leibniz’s experiments in the direction of a combinatorial logic. Towards the end of the 19th century, however, in part as a result of its association with the immanentistic views of the idealists, the theory began to be recognised as problematic. Above all, it appeared to be incapable of coping with existential and impersonal judgments like ‘cheetahs exist’, ‘it’s raining’, and so on, in relation to which, because the judgments in question seem to have only one single member, combination or unification is excluded. Moreover, even in those cases where judging might be held to involve a combination of concepts or presentations, the need was felt for some further moment of affirmation or conviction – some ‘consciousness of validity’ in the idealists’ terminology, or ‘assertive force’ in the language of Frege – in order that the theory should be able to cope with hypothetical and other logically compound judgments in which complex concepts or presentations seem to be present as proper parts without themselves being judged.
At the same time, however, it began to become clear that to do justice to the truth of judgments it would be necessary to recognise once more some objective standard, transcendent to the judgment, against which its truth could be measured. If judging involves a combination of concepts, then it must involve also the conviction that there is some transcendent something on the side of the object corresponding to the conceptual unity thereby produced. Moreover, the truth of a judgment must involve there actually being some transcendent something of this sort. Attempts were therefore made to come to terms with such objectual correlates, to establish what, exactly, the objectual something is, which gets ‘posited as a unity’ in our acts of judging.
The objective idealism of Lotze and Bergmann, now, is part of this move to break out of the confines of immanentistic idealism and to free logic from its bondage to the mental. Bergmann’s Sachverhalt has precisely the role of the objective component, the res, with which the intellectus has to stand in adaequatio. Knowledge he conceives as that thinking ‘whose thought content is in harmony with the Sachverhalt, and is therefore true’.(12) Bergmann’s usage of ‘Sachverhalt‘ finds a partial echo in Lotze’s own Logic of 1880, where Lotze introduces his treatment of judgment by distinguishing, in addition to purely immanent relations between presentations also ‘material relations’ (‘sachliche Verhältnisse’) between what he calls the ‘contents’ of presentations. It is only ‘because one already presupposes such a material relation as obtaining,’ Lotze writes, ‘that one can picture it in a sentence [in einem Satze abbilden].’(13)
Both Lotze and Bergmann are here feeling their way towards a view of the objective standard or target of judgment as transcendent to the mind of the judging subject. In Lotze himself this culminates in a Platonistic view of the objects of judgment along lines more familiar from the work of Bolzano and Frege. (The latter, we might say, make a Platonic object out of the conceptual complex of the idealists.) But it was not only by Frege that Lotzean ideas on the objects of judgment were developed. Lotze’s lectures were attended also by the two Brentanists Carl Stumpf and Anton Marty, both of whom will have a role to play in the story that follows. It was in fact Stumpf’s employment of the term ‘Sachverhalt‘ in his logic lectures of 1888 which sparked the various Sachverhalt-ontologies put forward by the followers of Brentano around the turn of the century.
Barry Smith, Logic and the Sachverhalt