"In and of itself" is a phrase I find myself using all the time. But in and of itself, the phrase "in and of itself" has no meaning. That is, the individual words don't seem to contribute to the whole meaning of the phrase.

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    You mean, the phrase "in and of itself" has no meaning in and of itself?
    – mmyers
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 18:10
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    Oops. Reading comprehension failure.
    – mmyers
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 18:14
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    In and of itself always reminds me of In no way, shape or form. Pointless expansion intended primarily to prevent your hearer from interrupting before you've thought of something more meaningful to add. Commented May 9, 2011 at 17:26
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    Perhaps you simply don't understand the word intrinsically. "In" means pertaining to the thing, "and" means "and", "of" means inherit from, and "itself" means "itself". An equivalent formulation is "in its own capacity". Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 1:27
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    A good exposition over here: dailywritingtips.com/in-and-of-itself
    – Pacerier
    Commented Jan 29, 2017 at 13:16

5 Answers 5


The <thing>, in and of itself, ...

means the same as

The <thing> qua <thing> ...

"In and of itself" is very old, and the usages of in and of from which it springs are very rare now (in itself is merely rare on the ground; of itself seems to be nearly extinct in those meanings), but if it helps you can expand it to "in its essence and of its nature".

Words and phrases often hang on long after the things they originated from have vanished. You may know a few people who are ruthless, for instance, but when was the last time you described anyone as ruthfull?

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    I don't think it's all that rare though. I use it myself all the time, and I see others use it reasonably often as well. In contrast, I've never seen the word "ruthfull" anywhere. +1. Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 16:15
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    @Billy: It's not that "in and of itself" is rare, but that "in itself" alone and "of itself" alone are rather rare these days. "In and of itself" is a sort of extra-strength version of either of the others.
    – bye
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 16:24
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    Ah, that makes sense :) Here, have a green right angle thingy. Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 20:36
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    "of itself" is rare enough, but "in itself" is pretty common. I've also heard "by itself"..
    – Pacerier
    Commented Oct 1, 2015 at 16:53
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    @Pacerier - Ruth is an long-obsolete word meaning much the same thing as mercy; it only hangs on in the negative modifiers ruthless and ruthlessly. And if in itself is "common enough" for you, you're reading a much higher proportion of academic writing than most people.
    – bye
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 3:38

It's a very stylish turn of phrase when used correctly. It's a way of showing a delicate relationship between things. For instance:

  1. The necktie was not, in and of itself, the cause of his strangulation.

Compare with:

  1. The necktie was not the cause of his strangulation.

In the first example, the tie is being acknowledged as being a factor in the event, but not a major or causative agent. In the second example, the tie is being completely ruled out. It has a slight nuance of removing blame from the item in question.

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    I don't think this answers the question. The question is not asking what the meaning of the phrase is. Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 15:57
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    Au contraire - the person asking the question said, "the phrase has no meaning." It was appropriate to state the meaning and usage of the term.
    – The Raven
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 16:25
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    No, I meant the "individual words in the phrase have no meaning" -- I obviously think the phrase itself has meaning given that I used it correctly in the question ;) Commented Feb 22, 2011 at 18:14
  • @TheRaven, Do you have any more contrasting examples besides the one you listed?
    – Pacerier
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 13:09
  • @Pacerier I always found the fact that "awesome" (some awe) means great, whereas "awful" (full of awe) means terrible. Not quite comparable, since both are still in common use, but your comment reminded me of it. Edit: See also english.stackexchange.com/questions/6802/awesome-vs-awful
    – Dan
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 13:24

I would challenge the premise of the question, as well as parts of the proferred answers.

Taken separately, the elements of “in and of itself” can be pictured as having their meanings borrowed from examples like the following:

  • The clock stopped of its own accord. (vs. of itself)

  • The work was complete in some respects. (vs. complete in itself; that is, did not require or depend on additions).

The combination of the two seems merely to serve as intensifier, as in the similar stock phrase, part and parcel.

As for etymology, my guess is that the phrase originated in a calque from the Latin per se, which means the same thing. For a long time English grammarians loved to emulate Latin, and in itself, of itself, or by itself may have been popularized as a sort of direct translation. Though intrinsically may be simpler and more elegant and easier to pronounce to modern English ears than the stuffy sounding in and of itself, there is surely no simper way of saying per se in Latin than per se. This may explain the longevity of in and of itself up to the time when the well-educated stopped automatically learning Latin as part of their education.

Finally, contrary to @bye,

The thing, in and of itself, . . .

has quite a different meaning than

The thing qua thing . . .

Qua means “in the role of” or “under the aspect of”, as in this quote from dictionary.com:

This might be thought a decisive objection to a federal judge’s writing about this subject even if the judge writes qua academic rather than qua judge. ―Richard A. Posner, An Affair of State

To take an “X qua X” example, one might say,

A Clockwork Orange works much better as a book qua storyline-for-a-movie than as a book qua book.

Or, as someone else in this forum quoted,

Bobby was the first pig I had met qua pig, not qua pork.

Finally, to truly come full circle, per se has seemed to slip from its original meaning of in itself / by itself (that is, separated from its context) and now just flabbily refers to a kind of lack of clarity. “I don’t agree with him per se” is now used to mean “I don’t especially agree with him, but I don’t especially disagree either.” The effect of this is to undermine the usefulness of the original phrase. Thus, the sentence “Guns are not bad per se; it’s what people do with them that is” can now be parsed two ways. It can either mean that guns are not intrinsically bad, or that they are not especially bad. As far as I can tell, there is no way to force the first meaning with falling back to some subtitute like intrinsically, or—you guessed it—in and of themselves.

  • Hm, Webster doesn't list your second definition of "per se"... merriam-webster.com/dictionary/per%20se
    – Pacerier
    Commented Oct 3, 2015 at 13:16
  • I momentarily edited "proferred" to "preferred" in my head, before realizing that this is english.stackexchange and you more likely meant to type "proffered".
    – Dan
    Commented May 16, 2017 at 13:27

It comes from phenomenological philosophy (think Heidegger) and existential philosophy (think Sartre), in which being "in itself" and being "of itself" or "for itself" have important distinct meanings. The contrast with "of itself" is more associated with Heidegger; the contrast with "for itself" with Sartre. Here is a good explication of Sartre's usage:

[Sartre's Being And Nothingness] begins by analyzing two distinct and irreducible categories or kinds of being: the in-itself (en-soi) and the for-itself (pour-soi), roughly the nonconscious and consciousness respectively, adding a third, the for-others (pour-autrui), later in the book.


Being-in-itself and being-for-itself have mutually exclusive characteristics and yet we (human reality) are entities that combine both, which is the ontological root of our ambiguity. The in-itself is solid, self-identical, passive and inert. It simply “is.” The for-itself is fluid, nonself-identical, and dynamic. It is the internal negation or “nihilation” of the in-itself, on which it depends. Viewed more concretely, this duality is cast as “facticity” and “transcendence.”


You can also find information here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Being_in_itself

That is why the phrase seems like such a fussy and erudite phrase: it is originally associated with academics wishing to emphasise something in its existential totality, both in itself (physical) and of / for itself (metaphysical).

  • A+ historical context
    – psitae
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 23:41

There is no reasoning behind and of, which is redundant. It is perfectly sufficient to say in itself. It does not even have the near assonance of each and every. The expression implies that there are usually additional factors to be considered. Incidentally, I wonder whether the full expression is in fact that old in English. It looks like a translation of the German an und für sich.

  • I really don't think this answer adds anything not already stated by other answers on this question more than 2 years ago. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 2:49

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