torstai 29. joulukuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - All you need is love

The early modern philosophers were fascinated by the problem of human emotions that appeared to combine the imcombinable, that is, the material world of bodies and the spiritual world of human souls. For instance, anger is a conscious state, but also something you feel in your chest. They might be called passions or affects, but the task was still the same: to catalogue and define their seemingly endless variety.

It is thus no wonder that Wolff also spends a considerable number of paragraphs on the issue of affects. I already mentioned briefly in the previous post that Wolff had accepted the Leibnizian idea of imperceptible changes in the human soul. Thus, Wolff has to add a layer of sensuous or indistinct subconscious desires (Begierde) and aversions (Abscheu) that we do not consciously perceive, although they do affect us. It is only when such a desire or aversion – or a combination of several – becomes great enough that we experience a real affect.

It would be quite pointless to go through all the different affects in detail: the truly interested will find a short summary of the Wolffian definitions of them at the end of this text. I shall instead investigate one important affect – love – and its definitions in Descartes, Spinoza and Wolff.

Starting with Descartes, we find him defining love as an emotion that induces the human soul to desire joining with the object of its love. I might be reading more to the Cartesian definition than I should, but the mention of joining suggests the idea of matrimony or even the more physical joining in sex. Of course, love is used as an euphemism for sex – we do call sex making love, and when Janet Jackson speaks of loving someone under cover, we know what she is insinuating. Yet, Descartes would still have failed to characterise all types of non-sexual – e.g. parental – love.

Moving on to Spinoza, we find him criticising Descartes for confusing a certain consequence of love with love itself. Spinoza's himself defines love as a pleasure together with an idea of its cause. One might be wary of Spinoza's emphasis on pleasure: term ”lovesickness” tells rather well that love is not always just fun and games. Yet, Spinoza knows that pleasure of love is often mixed with various negative feelings, such as jealousy. Somewhat more disturbing is that Spinoza fails to specify humans as the object of love. True, we do speak of loving chocolate, detective stories or a sip of white wine, and Shirley Bassey sings of Mr. Goldfinger who loves only gold. Still, we usually feel that these are just secondary types of love or even mere likings compared to our love of fellow humans.

Wolff, finally, defines love as a preparedness to be noticeably delighted of the luck befallen on beloved. Compared with Descartes' and Spinoza's rather crude forms of love, Wolffian love is quite refined, altruistic and even saintly. This is the love that mystics spoke about and that Beatles made their song of: all you need is not sex nor gold, but love – respect and care for other living beings and their welfare. Yet, no matter how refined love of Wolffian definition is, it is also removed from the ordinary earthly love – tell a person that she should be glad of her spouse getting lucky and you will probably be thought a bit naive.

Descartes, Spinoza and Wolff have thus been able to define some aspects of love, embodied in the figures of Don Juan, Uncle Scrooge and Buddha, but none of them has truly captured the totality or essence of love. This just shows how complex a seemingly simple emotion like love can be – and indeed, we may wonder if ”love” or "Liebe" designates more than one emotion. Furthermore, this complexity might make us disbelieve that love would be something that could be pointed out in a brain scan: this man obviously loves, because that area is red, says the neuropsychologist, and we may ask what he means by loving – sexual infatuation of a playboy, miser's lust of money, mystical absorption into pantheistic unity or something else?

So much for affects and especially affection or love. Next time, we shall speak of will.

tiistai 27. joulukuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Anytime you feel the pain

Being a human is not just about sensing, imagining and reasoning, which all are relatively passive capacities. In addition, human beings are active and change the world around them. Yet, they do not just act haphazardly, but for reasons: they act, beacuse they feel that they should do something. In other words, they value different situations according to some standards.

Wolff introduces the human faculties of valuing out of the blue. We have seen him defining perfection as an objective value not dependent on any human being: if something is perfect, it is perfect, no matter what. Now Wolff suggests that human beings can intuit or perceive things as perfect or as imperfect. These perceptions he calls respectively Lust and Unlust, which could be translated perhaps as like and dislike. Note that the two feelings of like and dislike are not the only options: one can also perceive things as indifferent.

Like and dislike need not be connected with true perfection – we can like things that just appear to be perfect. In other words, knowing what is objectively good and bad – say, for our health – is completely different from feeling it in our guts that something is nice (candies) or disgusting (Brussels sprouts). Wolff also makes the suggestion that the difference between the two is only a matter of clarity and that by clarifying one's notions of good and bad, one could learn to like what is truly or invariably good. Yet, this suggestion seems somewhat implausible: although I know very well that candies are bad for my teeth, I still feel enjoyment when eating them.

Even more unsatisfying is Wolff's inability to distinguish like and dislike concerning bodily feelings from those concerning other things. We have already noted that Wolff has clear dualistic tendencies and that body is for him just some external thing that happens to be constantly connected with human soul. Now, just because the body is there always disturbing the clarity of our thoughts, we have to take a special care of its perfection.

At times, the body is somehow broken – Wolff speaks in a very literal manner of a cut in the continuity of a body, such as a wound is, but I think we need not follow him in this regard. Such a state of brokenness Wolff calls Schmertz, which would usually be translated as pain, but the word is truly unsuitable here: pain is a feeling, while Wolffian Schmertz is just a state of a body. Of course, this state is usually accompanied by a feeling of dislike, but only because the imperfection of the body is constantly there to remind us. If I had an ugly painting constantly in my field of vision, I would find the situation not just less uncomfortable, but also qualitatively different from a situation where I would be having a constant headache – the ugliness of painting would not concern me, but something external to me.

Wolff's account of pain has a further difficulty. If Wolff is right, I will always feel pain, when I am conscious of the imperfection of my body. Yet, there are cases where this is not true. For instance, I could know that I have a tumour somewhere in my body without having any pain to show for it. Wolff might answer to me by insisting that I would indeed have a sensation of pain in this case, but it would be of so small a magnitude that I would not be aware of it.

Still, Wolff's explanation fails to account for an experience familiar to all who have gone through dental surgery, that is, the anesthesia of one's mouth. When the anesthesia is working, you literally cannot feel any pain within your mouth – for instance, you might even bite your tongue accidentally, causing Wolffian pain, but feel nothing until the anesthesia stops working. In this example, the quantity of the supposed pain cannot just be very small, because then one would still have the possibility of enlarging the pain to a level of conscious awareness – but this very awareness of pain is prevented by the anesthesia.

So much for pain. Next time, we shall discuss affects.

maanantai 19. joulukuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - I just don't understand

I have already investigated Wolff's views on understanding in a series of texts based on his German logic. Hence, I shall ignore familiar details in Wolff's account of understanding in German metaphysics – such as the levels of clarity in concepts – and instead focus on presenting a general account of understanding in Wolff.

According to Wolff, the faculty of understanding is based on something more active than mere passive sensibility: the idea of an active understanding will be developed in more detail by Kant and the later German idealists. The particular activity Wolff is speaking of is the capacity of concentrating one's attention (Aufmerkung) to a certain thought: this thought will then become clearer than all the other current thoughts. In other words, we cannot decide that we are seeing a bunch of trees, a rock and an ant hill in front of us, but we can choose to ignore everything else and look at the anthill more carefully – or we can even forget all the information given to us by senses and recollect the football match of the previous night.

Through the capacity of changing and concentrating our attention, we can go through even an object with a complex and multifaceted structure (Wolff calls this ability überdenken). Then again, we can also recognise through our memory that a certain complex structure is something we have been earlier aware of. A thought of a general structure repeating itself in various situations is what Wolff calls concepts (Begriff). What Wolff is describing here is a process of abstraction: one compares different situations and notes they share some complex of characteristics and so one is able to think of the general notion of having such a complex.

As we might remember from Wolffian logic, distinct concepts are such that we can define, and when we think of something through a distinct concept, we understand it (verstehen): similarly, the capacity to think or cognise some possible thing through distinct concepts is understanding (Verstand). In other words, understanding uses the results of analysis in order to see what there might be. We may note in passing how this Wolffian notion of understanding as the capacity of using distinct concepts will be changed by later philosophers. For Kant, understanding becomes a source of certain concepts – namely, categories – while in Hegel, the understanding is finally the source for all concepts, that is, the very act of analysing and abstracting that creates all general concepts.

When the human understanding thinks or cognises a thing, it makes judgments. That is, the understanding represents the thing as having certain characteristics, although at the same time it is aware that the thing and its characteristics cannot be identified, because e.g. redness is something that is not restricted to berries. This rather awkward definition of judgement is essentially retained by later German philosophers.

Note how the capacity of judgment is here seen as a mere modification of the general capacity of understanding. Indeed, because the faculty of understanding is not the source, but the application of concepts with Wolff, it is natural to equate understanding with the capacity for making judgments. With Kant and the later German idealists the identification is not self-evident, because understanding is already a faculty for making concepts: in some cases they appear to follow Wolff, but in other cases they appear to distinguish judgement as a separate faculty.

The judgements are then mental processes, but they can also be translated into verbal form through use of words. Wolff undertakes an investigation of grammar that need not concern us. What is important, instead, is that Wolff distinguishes between what he calls intuitive (anschauende) and figurative (figürlich) cognition. This distinction is nearest Wolff comes to separating intuition and understanding. Still Wolffian distinction is not a distinction between constituents of experience, but more one between different types of experiences, in which different consituents preponderate.

In intuitive cognition one is thinking directly a thing appearing to our senses: this is what happens when we perceive or imagine things. Intuitive cognition is characteristically limited to individual things – we cannot see, for instance, a triangle in general, but only individiual triangles. In figurative cognition, on the other hand, we do not investigate things as such, but only signs referring to those things. The most common of these signs are probably words, but Wolff also recognises the importance of mathematical symbols. The figurative cognition is in a sense based on the intuitive knowledge, because the words and the symbols must refer to general characteristics of individual things. Yet, it is the figurative cognition that has more value for Wolff, because it allows us to cognise general structures.

The difference between sensation/intuitive cognition and understanding/figurative cognition is reproduced in a higher level in the difference between experience and reason (Vernunft), which were the two recognised sources of knowledge in the premodern philosophy. We have seen in an earlier text that Wolff was not a pure rationalist, and indeed, accepted as a valid source of knowledge the experience, that is, cognition based on perceptions and observation of mental processes (note that Wolff included both passive observations and active experiments under experiences). Experiences can tell us, Wolff suggests, that our concepts refer to possible structures (we know there can be flying machines, because we have seen them) and that certain connections between concepts or judgements are valid. Finally, because we can see that certain judgments are valid only in certain contexts where determinate conditions hold, experiences can provide information about causal connections.

The problem in taking experience as the only source of knowledge is that experience can only tell that something is the case. At best, experiences can be generalised through analogies of the sort ”this has happened before in these circumstances, hence, it must happen always in similar circumstances”. Yet, even such generalisations do not tell why something is the case. Explaining a truth means for Wolff connecting it to other truths in a systematic manner: we understand why e.g. apples fall toward Earth by seeing how it follows from more primordial truths of physics. Wolff begins the tradition of calling the capacity for such systematics reason – a tradition continued by Kant and the later German idealists.

Later German classics usually distinguished reason and understanding – either they thought, like Kant, that reason was emptier of content than understanding, or they disparaged understanding for its incapacity of reaching the level of reason, like Schelling. But for Wolff, reason is just another modification of understanding, just like capacity of judgment is. More precisely, reason is in Wolff a capacity for using formal deductions to connect judgements. Note that the connection between reason and reasoning or deduction is something German idealists also accepted, although the formalism of reason will be rather difficult to combine with the more substantial notion of reason in later German idealists. Hegel in fact went so far as to call the reason as formal reasoning the reason in the guise of understanding – we might call this a partial return to Wolff's original notion of reason as a species of understanding.

We might finally note that the reasoning in Wolff is not limited to mere Aristotelian syllogistic. One might remember from an earlier post that Wolff supposed judgements have different levels of certainty. Wolff also notes that reasoning might be applied not just to certain truths, but also to judgements of uncertain nature. Wolff is thus envisioning a logic of probabilities, whereby we could deduce e.g. from almost certain judgements other almost certain judgements.

The hierarchy of senses/intuition/perception, imagination and understanding/judgement/reason is something that is faithfully followed by later German philosophers and taken almost as a universal truth of human consciousness. Despite the seeming perfection of the threefold scheme, Wolff himself notes that the nature of the human soul might not be exhausted by it. Indeed, the scheme deals only with different types of thinking or consciousness. Then again, consciousness might be only an external criterion for recogning one as a human soul and it might not tell the whole story of the essence of the humans. Indeed, human affections, pleasures and pains are something that is not reducible to theoretical capacities of cognition. We shall investigate in next post what Wolff has to say about this other side of human soul.

keskiviikko 14. joulukuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Imagine all the people

Thus far Wolff has mentioned a capacity of thinking oneself and a capacity of thinking other things that happen to affect one's body – the latter capacity we might call sensation or perception. These two capacities concern things which are truly present, but human beings have also the capacity of thinking something that is not present. Wolff calls this capacity Einbildung – word which is usually translated as imagination.

Whereas we would nowadays think of creating something novel as an epitome of imagination, for the early modern philosophy imagination was particularly a capacity for representing something that had been perceived or generally thought earlier. Thus, Spinoza explains imagination through the example of Paul thinking his friend Peter, although Peter is currently somewhere else. Later on, Kant and his followers would call this capacity reproductive imagination and separate it from productive imagination, which was required for constituting experience itself.

It is then no wonder that Wolff also connects Einbildung with memory (Gedächtnis). Memory is not then, according to Wolff, a capacity for thinking things that once were thought – this is already covered by imagination. Instead, the memory is left only with the task of recognising that a certain thought is something that has been thought before. Note that neither imagination nor memory need to concern just earlier sensations, but they can also reproduce all sorts of thoughts or conscious states.

Still, Wolffian Einbildung also includes the possibility of thinking something that has not been thought before: if nowhere else, this happens at least in dreams. This is still no Kantian productive imagination, because Wolff admits that at least the materials of these imaginations must derive from perceptions, that is, that the imaginations are mere recombinations of previous thoughts. The imaginations in general are thus always dependent on perceptions. Furthermore, the products of imagination are also weaker than direct perceptions. Thus, the Wolffian difference between perceptions and imaginations shares some similarities with the Humean difference between impressions and ideas.

Wolff distinguishes two possibilities of imagining new thoughts. Firstly, the imagined recombination of previous thoughts might be groundless, that is, something that could not be generated. This is what Wolff calls an empty imagination and it is exemplified by mythical notions like centaur, but also by fantastic notions of different types of artists. Wolff would probably include the utopian Lennon song mentioned in the title among the products of an empty imagination.

Then again, the combination might be based on the principle of sufficient reason, or in other words, we might know how to produce it. In this case, Wolff maintains, the combination has truth, and as we've seen before, Wolff means by truth actually order: in other words, such a combination is regulated. This is the highest point of beauty for Wolff – creativity that is controlled by rules. It seems no wonder that Wolff is especially presenting architecture as an example of true beauty (I have examined Wolff's attitude towards architecture in an earlier post). Wolff is pleased of a roof protecting us from the weather, because it is something we can truly make to happen, unlike dreams of love and peace.

In addition to architecture, Wolff assumes the controlled, but creative imagination is used in mathematics: we might not have seen a particular sort of curve, but we still know how to construct one, because we know its equation. In Wolff's time all known curves were undoubtedly such that could be constructed so easily. Yet, nowadays we are familiar also with curves that cannot be completely constructed, but which can only be approximated through a series of constructible curves: the desired curve is then defined as the limit of such series. If Wolff were consistent, he would probably have to consider such curves results of an empty imagination.

In any case, Wolff appears to think that if creative imagination is to be fruitful, it requires external control. Although the control is not assigned to any particular faculty, it is probably understanding (Verstand) Wolff is thinking. I shall consider this faculty next time.

tiistai 13. joulukuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Observing oneself

After a short Cartesian detour on the certainty of our own existence, Wolffian metaphysics began from ontology – after all, one has to look at all things in general, before one can say something about any particular thing. While Wolff's choice of beginning appears almost inevitable, it is not as easy to decide where to continue. Even if one is to leave God last as the metaphysical object most remote from us, one must still determine whether to start from ourselves or from the world around us. Wolff's strategy is mixed: we do first start from ourselves, but then go on with the world and afterwards return to discuss our own nature. What is behind the reason to divide the treatment of human consciousness in two parts?

The study of human nature or soul – traditionally called psychology – was at the time of Christian Wolff actually divided into two subdisciplines, empirical and rational psychology. The subject matter of both disciplines was the same, but they were distinguished by the method used. Empirical psychology was based on experiences: it described e.g. what sort of capacities one could find through observing oneself. Rational psychology, on other hand, tried to go beyond experience by help of deductions. Wolff is apparently following this division: he is firstly listing all the characteristics of consciousness that are apparent from introspection, and only after a digression to the world does he discuss what we can deduce of human consciousness beyond mere experience.

The starting point of Wolff's empirical psychology is then the same Cartesian idea of thinking, with which the whole Wolffian metaphysics began. I have already remarked in an earlier post that by thinking Wolff refers to all processes in which human being is conscious of itself. Despite his Cartesian beginning, Wolff is quick to point out that human beings appear to be involved also in processes in which they are not conscious of themselves, in other words, that the human minds are not necessarily conscious all the time. A simple example is the state of dreamless sleep, where there is no trace of self-consciousness to be found at all.

Wolff makes quickly the distinction between two self-conscious states. In one type, we are conscious also of other things beyond ourselves. We have already seen that Wolff has characterised these other things as spatial and complex or as constituted by other things. Now Wolff adds that there is one particular thing that we are always conscious of, although it is spatial and complex – this is obviously our own body.

Wolff is thus at the outset accepting a dualism between consciousness and its body: body is something different from the consciousness, although consciousness is – at least according to our experience – constantly connected to it. The obvious problem in such a dualistic notion is that it ignores the centrality of the body for the consciousness and treats it like any material object whatsoever, although one we are constantly aware of. We shall see in a later text how this problem makes Wolff's theory of pleasure and pain difficult to accept.

The consciousness of external objects is in some cases connected to physical processes involving our body. For instance, when I hear the voice of a violin, vibrations produced by the playing of the violin reach my ear. Such a state of consciousness Wolff calls Empfindung, and as I have noted earlier, Wolff appears to include, in addition to sensations, also perceptions under this notion. Still, Wolff's Empfindung and the corresponding capacity of Sinnlichkeit are passive like the respective Kantian notions: consciousness cannot decide by itself what it will sense, when it looks upon something.

Wolff's apparent confusion is a fine example how unanalysed the pre-Kantian psychological notions seem when compared with Kantian classifications. Then again, while Kantian analyses might suggest the idea that e.g. we could have sensations that are not components in any perception, the seemingly careless style of Wolff never hides the necessary interconnectedness of such components – individual sensations are always just sensations of an object and thus components of perceptions.

In addition to other things, we are also conscious of ourselves. As confusing as Wolffian account of Empfindung is from a Kantian viewpoint, as confusing is his idea of self-consciousness. Kant himself divided our consciousness of ourselves into two aspects, roughly corresponding to aspects of our consciousness of other things. Firstly, we have an capacity of inner sense, which is like ”outer sense” in its passivity, and secondly, we have a more active transcendental apperception. Wolff, on the other hand, speaks simply of our self-consciousness without any consideration of a possible complexity of that notion.

What is more confusing is Wolff's reluctance to relate his account of self-consciousness to his notion of Empfindung. Wolffian sensation/perception is clearly connected to the human body, but a possibility of a similar relation between self-consciousness and body is not even mentioned. Undoubtedly Wolff's dualistic presuppositions are the primary reason preventing him of even conceiving this possibility, because he does not even try to argue against it.

Indeed, when Wolff himself accepts the idea that some sensations/perceptions might be so faint that we are not consciously aware of them, he could not have dismissed the corporeal nature of self-consciousness just on basis of not being aware of any bodily processes, when thinking ourselves. Furthermore, one might even argue with Hegel that internal processes of human being have in some cases clear bodily manifestations, for instance, in a headache we feel after a long spell of abstract thinking.

Wolff's incapability of explaining what observation of oneself involves is especially fatal, because the very possibility of empirical psychology is based on such a capacity of introspection. In fact, Wolff's study of empirical psychology consists of Wolff remarking how we can observe ourselves doing something and concluding that we have a capacity for doing such a thing. One might note, by the way, how this line of reasoning is dangerously close to interpreting the capacities as modules separable from the ”soul” having these capacities – something which Hegel was later to criticise.

No matter how dubious Wolff's method of empirical psychology then is, we should still investigate what capacities or faculties he finds within human mind: after all, the Wolffian psychological terminology will be shared by later German philosophers. I shall continue with this task in the next post, but for now I shall note an interesting point that Wolff appears to accept the possibility of quantifying the different faculties of human soul, somewhat like intelligence is nowadays quantified in the IQ score. Thus, Wolff speaks of several faculties having different grades: remember that by grade Wolff means a characteristic that is analogical to a spatial or numeric quantity (of course, these grades are not static, because a person can e.g. improve his capacity of remembering things). This possibility of quantifying human capacities will be important for Kant in an attempt to show why traditional proofs of the immortality of soul must fail – and later on Hegel will criticise the very same notion Kant uses.

tiistai 29. marraskuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Truth vs. dreams

At least since the days of Descartes the problem of the reality has perplexed philosophers. Is the world that we perceive truly real, and not a mere dream, hallusination, figment created by a powerful daemon or mere fiction fed into our brain by a mad scientist? Wolff himself notes the problem, but apparently fails to take it very seriously. Wolff simply decrees that in dreams all processes are less ordered than the truth. By order Wolff means the occurence of some similarity, that is, of a pattern or a rule, which the things follow. Ultimately the basic criterion is the principle of sufficient reason or causality: processes in dreams do not follow any causal laws.

Wolff's criterion is perhaps enough for distinguishing our usual dreams from what we happen to call reality. He is not interested of a possibility that a new, even more real world might be discovered beyond the world of experience. This might be a consequence of Wolff's pragmatic nature – after all, there has to be some limit for the demand of indubitability. Furthermore, Wolff could continue, if we some day discover that we have been dreaming all along, at least this discovery will be made through the very same criterion of the regularity of processses. Here Wolff is once again paving the way for German idealists, who also had some doubts about the need to find any ultimate reality beyond the world of experience.

In modern analytic philosophy one is accustomed to mean by truth a characteristic of propositions, beliefs etc., while here Wolff essentially refers by truth to the reality. Furthermore, he almost instantly extends the notion of truth to apply to all sorts of processes. Truth thus becomes a quantifiable characteristic: the more regular and law-governed a thing is, the truer it is.

Wolff also introduces the notion of perfection (Vollkommenheit), which he then immediately characterises as a coherence of a manifold, which is yet another form of regularity in addition to truth as a regularity of processes. The regularity in its various guises appears then to be the primary value characterising simple things: the goal the finite simple things try to acheive is the regularity both in their internal processes and in the system of things they causally engage with.

Like with truth, Wolff also suggests that perfection is a quantifiable characteristic. Indeed, he appears to suggest that there could be a calculus of perfections for counting from individual perfections the quantity of their combination. Yet, the value of this combination is not a simple sum of the perfections, because one must also take into account how well the perfections fit together. For instance, the perfection of a house is not to be determined by its beauty and its utility, but one must also consider how well the beauty and the utility serve one another.

A complex thing with several constituent perfections might not then be perfect as a whole, if the perfections clash with one another. Similarly, harmony of apparent imperfections can produce a greater total perfection. It takes no Leibniz-scholar too see where this line of reasoning is heading to – we might indeed live in the best possible world, although its individual elements might seem quite unpleasant.

Before moving to the next issue, I will shortly recapitulate what Wolff has to say about the division of things. We have essentially three possible types of entities. Firstly, there are the complex finite things, and we know from experience that they exist all around us. Indeed, the whole world is a complex of all finite things. Then there are the finite simple things, and we know that at least some of them must exist – otherwise we wouldn't have even complex things to discuss about. Furthermore, although we do not yet know it, our own soul will also probably be finite, but simple. Finally, there might be an infinite thing, although we do not yet know whether there is any actual infinite thing – if there is, it will play the traditional role of God. Thus, even in his ontology Wolff has preliminarily outlined the three other parts of metaphysics: cosmology, psychology and theology. Next time, we shall move to the more concrete parts of Wolffian metaphysics.

torstai 24. marraskuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Units of force

I have always found the concept of infinity, as used by many historical philosophers, to be rather confusing. This is probably due to my own background as a student in mathematics, where by infinity one means a number so great that all the regular numbers are way little in comparison. Because the infinities of which these philosophers speak – particularly God – are supposedly something beyond numbers, I have tried to avoid the ambiguous term. Indeed, one of my articles was once rejected, because the reviewer had something against me speaking of perfections, instead of infinities. Yet, I still feel that the two concepts are rather close. Infinite substance, for instance, is something ”way awesome”, superior in all relevant senses compared to a mere finite substance – shouldn't we then say that it is perfect in comparison with the finite substances?

Wolff describes infinity of a thing as a lack of all bounds (Schranke), and while he never explicitly defines what he means by these bounds, he in several occasions appears to relate them with how a thing is determined and classified. The identification of boundaries and determination resembles Hegel's statement that ”all determination is negation”; Hegel says that he borrowed the statement from Spinoza, and it would be interesting to know how widely it had circulated.

The identification of boundaries/negations and determinations may be difficult to understand. With Wolff, we should remember the notion of essence: a possible structure, which can be actualised in concrete things. Essence determines then at least some characteristics of an actual thing, but other characteristics might be determined by its relations to other things. These relations, then, are what bound the essence and divide it into different species: if the essence in question would be a hole in the wall, the windows and the doors would be differentiated by their differing relations to persons using them. The word ”boundary” is here used somewhat metaphorically: boundaries of a figure are also its relations to the things surrounding it. Essence and all the relations determine then an individual thing completely, because by knowing the essence of a thing and its relations to other things we know everything there is to know about the thing.

Infinite thing is then something that is not bounded, that is, it is determined only by its own essence and not by any relations to other things. In other words, an infinite thing cannot be distinguished from other infinite things. Instead, it is completely inclassifiable – it cannot be put into a same class with finite things, because their nature or essence is too dissimilar. Thus, all we can do to describe an infinite thing is to use meaningless superlatives – it is beyond anything we can imagine, or indeed, just ”way awesome”.

How does the division of infinite and finite things then relate to the earlied division of simple and complex things? Wolff notes that infinite things cannot really change, and by change he means specifically a change of the bounding relations: an essence of a thing cannot be changed, but at most one can replace a thing having one essence with another thing having a different essence. Infinite thing is then all that it is ”at once” and not by going through successive stages. Then again, a complex thing might change e.g. its spatial characteristics, which for Wolff are essentially relations to other things. Thus, an infinite thing, as atemporal, must be simple.

Complex and infinite things are then two classes with no common members, but are there any finite simple things? Well, all the complex things, says Wolff, must be founded on some simple things, the combination of which has generated the complex thing. Now, a combination of simple things is undoubtedly a relation of them, and furthermore, a relation which might change. Thus, the simple things that are the final constituents of complex things must be capable of change and therefore finite.

Boundaries of complex things can be spatial or relate to the number of things it consists of, but what about boundaries of a simple thing, which is not spatial and does not consist of other objects? Remember that by boundary Wolff refers to a non-essential classification caused by the relations of a thing to other things. He apparently seems to think that such a classification must at least be analogical with the relations of magnitudes. A good example of this sort of scale would be one consisting of temperatures: temperatures do not consist of smaller temperatures, although they can be related like one number relates to another. Wolff calls quantities of such scale grades: this concept was used later by Kant and Hegel.

Wolff shares with Kant and Hegel also the idea of relating grades to forces (Kraft). Indeed, beyond numeric and spatial magnitudes, it is rather difficult to imagine any quantities, but those which measure the effects of a thing. For instance, temperature can be quantified, because a certain grade of temperature has a clear effect on the size of certain substances. Thus, Hegel later suggested that all grade-scales are not just similarly structured as scales of numeric and spatial magnitudes, but also essentially connected to such.

Wolff's simple, but finite things are thus indivisible units of forces. In this Wolff appears to move beyond Leibnizian monadology, where the ontological units were characterised by perception, and towards the identification of activity as the most essential characteristic of true existence, which is a common theme in German idealists.

By a force, furthermore, Wolff does not mean a mere capacity, the activation of which is completely contingent. Instead, force is active and causes some effects, unless it is countered by a contrary force. Furthermore, the force of a finite thing is bounded or has a definite grade. In other words, the activity of a simple, finite thing is somehow limited. This limitation is not essential, and the simple, finite thing could well change it, which proves the possibility of applying temporal terms to these things.

Wolff does not stop here, but suggests that simple things are constantly striving towards changing their boundaries. Wolff's only justification for this statement appears to be the principle of contradiction: a thing cannot counteract its own actions. The justification appears once again
somewhat loose: although the thing itself cannot nullify its own force, other things might well affect the thing, that is, if the opposing force is strong enough, the simple thing becomes to a standstill or even starts to become weaker. Wolff also apparently thinks that static states of standstill are merely transitory phenomena, which cannot hinder the almost constant change of the strength of the forces.

We could thus picture a finite simple substance through a graph where every moment of time is connected with some grade in the scale measuring the quantity of the force. The graph goes up, when the force achieves its goals, and when it goes down, it is hindered by other forces. In the shadowy distance above, there is the infinity, unreachable by mere finite things.

Wolff does not say as much, but it appears reasonable to suppose that it is this infinity towards which the finite substances probably strive. The notion of infinity thus produces an objective criteria for making value judgements in the realm of finite substances: the more the finite things resemble the infinite thing, the better they are. We shall see next time what sort of value scale of things Wolff suggests.

sunnuntai 20. marraskuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Relational view of space and time

In the years 1715 and 1716 a philosophically significant correspondence occurred between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, a proponent of Isaac Newton. Particularly Leibniz attacked the Newtonian idea of an absolute space and an absolute time that exist independently of any things within them. Leibniz based his criticism on the principle of sufficient reason: if there would be an absolute space, God might have created world few meters away from its actual place in the absolute space, but since all the places in an absolute space are completely similar, He would have had no reason to create it in any particular place and would thus have been unable to create the world anywhere.

Instead of an absolute space and time, Leibniz suggested a relational view of them: space and time are nothing but orders of things – space an order of coexistent things and time an order of successive things. An important consequence of this view is that it becomes meaningless to speak of space and time without any things. (Note that this view is not relativistic: spatial and temporal magnitudes are still stable, despite the differences in the velocity or the effects of gravity.)

Leibniz's view was accepted by Wolff, and indeed, it appears to have been in favour throughout the German idealism. Kant, for instance, appears to take Leibniz's view more seriously than Newtonian absolute space: Kant attacks in Critique of pure reason the relational view more vigorously and also appears to apply a modified relational theory of space in his metaphysical foundations of natural science. Indeed, presupposing an absolute space and time adds to an ontological system two rather strange entities, which are not things as such, but also not based on things.

Now, if one would take Leibniz's description of relational view literally, one could instantly derive all sorts of absurdities. For instance, if space was nothing more than an order of things, space would change at once, when the order of things changes: space would become larger, if a thing went farther from all other things than any thing before. As Leibniz himself appears to have been aware, these problems could be avoided by defining space and time through possible, rather than actual order of things. Thus, space could continue beyond the actual positions of things, because the things have the capacity to or at least could be conceived to move further than they are.

Wolff, on the other hand, seems not to be aware of the possible problems and suggests that space and time could be defined as the actual order of things. Thus, he is able to say that even a single thing by itself would be non-spatial or that spatiality required at least two things and their actual relation.

Because Wolff's simple things should have no things as their constituents, their internal constitution could not be spatial, because it would involve no actual relation of several objects. As we noticed in the previous text, Wolffian notion of a simple thing is ambiguous, because it leaves out the possibility of Aristotle's potentially divisible and still actually unified substances. Similar problems arise with Wolff's notion of space. According to Wolff's definition, the Aristotelian divisible substance without any actual parts would be non-spatial, which is clearly absurd, when we think of e.g. a portion of water. Here we should obviously add some modalities to Wolffian account of space: Aristotelian substance is spatial, because it can be divided into parts that have spatial relations.

Even this correction might not be sufficient. Democritean atoms were supposedly indivisible substances, but still spatial. Wolff notes – consistently with his own definition of space – that this atomist notion is contradictory. Yet, it seems quite possible to imagine that a thing would be physically indivisible and still have some spatial magnitude: spatiality is here not connected to a capacity to divide a thing, but to a possibility of conceiving the division of a thing.

For Wolff, spatiality is something connected with the inner consitution of complex things. What sort of characteristics are then left for simple things? I shall return to this question in the next blog text.

perjantai 18. marraskuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Lego block view of the world

System builders do love to divide things into two classes (unless they are German idealists and probably more into threefold divisions). Wolff follows this tradition and distinguishes between simple and complex things. (By the way, one just has to appreciate German language for its capacity to make such important concepts easy to grasp. Simple things are ”einfache”, which could be translated as ”one-folded” - simple thing has but one part. Complex things, on the other hand, are ”zusammengesetzt” or ”put together” out of smaller things. English equivalents are less transparent.)

How does Wolff then justify his division? The existence of the complex or assembled objects he accepts as given in our experience: the things outside us can be seen to consist of smaller things. In addition to being assembled of other things, complex things have various other characteristic properties:

  • complex things have a magnitude (after all, they consist of many things)
  • complex things fill space and are shaped in some manner
  • complex things can be enlarged or diminished and the order of their parts can be varied without changing anything essential
  • complex things can be generated by putting things together, and they can be destroyed by separating the constituents
  • the existence of the complex things is always contingent
  • the generation of complex things takes time and is humanly intelligible

Simple things, on the other hand, cannot be found in the experience, Wolff says, so their existence must be deduced. Here Wolff invokes the principle of the sufficient reason: the existence of a complex thing cannot be explained completely, unless there is some final level of things from which the complex thing has been assembled. These simple things have then characteristics completely different from the complex things:

  • simple things do not have any magnitude
  • simple things do not fill space nor do they have any figure
  • simple things cannot change their internal constitution (because they do not have one)
  • simple things cannot be assembled from other things nor can they be disassembled; they can only be generated ”at a single blow” (einmahl)
  • simple things are either necessary or generated through something necessary
  • the generation of simple things is atemporal and non-intelligible to humans

Wolff's scheme reminds one probably of atomism, yet, atoms have usually not been described as non-spatial: in this Wolff's simple things resemble Leibnizian monads. Yet, if we ignore for now the nature of space, which I shall be discussing next time, we can discern a common pattern shared by atomism, Leibnizian monadology and Wolffian ontology of simple and complex things.

This pattern is based on the idea that world is like a game with legos. There are magnificient buildings and vehicles, but they are all made out of small objects – lego blocks – which in themselves cannot be broken down to smaller pieces. No complex of legos is necessary and you can even see the revealing lines that tell how to disassemble a ten-story castle into individual blocks. Indeed, in all the various combinations, lego blocks remain distinct individuals that just happen to be attached together.

The lego block view of the world is so common these days that it is difficult to remember other possibilities. It was different with Aristotle, who in his physical studies casually notes that substances might also be mixed, that is, combined in such a manner that the combined substance vanish and a new substance appears in their place. We may easily picture such a mix through an example of adding sugar to water: the powdery sugar vanishes, but also mere water, and in place of the two a sugary liquid appears.

One might oppose my example with the observation that the sugar and the water do not really vanish when mixed, but sugar molecules merely disperse among the water molecules. Yet, this observation itself is based on empirical studies and one could not decide a priori whether this particular case was a true mix or a mere assembling of lego blocks. In other words, the example shows that Aristotelian mixes are a conceivable possibility. Furthermore, it is also a possibility which we could well comprehend and imagine: we could model any Aristotelian mix through the picture of sugar combining with water.

Indeed, we need even not think of mixing two substances of different sorts. It suffices to picture a portion of water combining with another portion of water. The result is not two portions of water, but one bigger portion, or in other words, the original things have vanished in combination and been replaced by a new thing. This conceptual possibility is ingrained in the mass terms of some languages: things like water do not appear to behave like the lego block model, thus, we cannot e.g. speak meaningfully of several waters (we have to speak of many portions of water etc.)

If the possibility of an Aristotelian mix is admitted, Wolff's whole division of simple and complex things becomes somewhat suspect. The simple things should, on the one hand, be the ultimate constituents, which are required for explaining the existence of the complex objects: they should be the independent substances, while the complex substances are contingently assembled from them.

Then again, simple things should, on the other hand, be indivisible and they could not have been generated through a combination of other things. Yet, if a thing has been or at least could have been generated through an Aristotelian mix, it would not be simple in the second sense, while it well might be simple in the first sense, that is, an independent substance. In other words, a substance might be generated from other substances, but still not have any parts or constituents.

Wolff himself actually considers the possibility that a simple thing could just change into other simple things, somewhat like Aristotelian elements – fire, air, water and earth – can change into one another. Yet, he quickly disregards this possibility, because either it would be a miracle where one substance is instantly destroyed and another takes it place or then the apparently independent things are mere states of one thing. Only with the latter option, Wolff adds, does the previous state explain the latter state.

Wolff's denial of Aristotelian change of elements is itself unfounded. Even less convincing it is as a criticism of an Aristotelian mix. Although an apparent change of one thing to another thing should be interpreted as a mere change of state, an Aristotelian mix involves a combination of several things into one unified thing, and it feels rather awkward to call two separate things a mere state of their combination or vice versa.

The flaw in Wolff's division of things is important, because it suggests a similar flaw in Kant's second antinomy. The antinomy should consist of two equally convincing statements that could not hold at the same time: ”everything in the world consists of simple things” and ”there is nothing simple in the world”. The two statements could well be both true, if the simple things in the first statement meant final constituents of assembled things, but the simple things in the second statement meant indivisible substances. That is, the final constituents might have no parts, but they could be so manipulated that in place of a particular thing, many things would appear (this division is essentially a reverse of the Aristotelian mix, and indeed, Aristotle himself apparently thought divisions worked this way). We shall have to return to the issue when we get to Kant's Critiques (it will probably take twelve years).

Wolff's theory of simple and complex things has other problems as well. For instance, Wolff merely assumes that simple things cannot be observed. He does not mean that we could not imagine what simple substances would be like, and indeed, he admits that we perceive very small things as having no discernible parts. Yet, Wolff notes that magnifying glasses have proven that these apparently simple things are actually complex – but this empirical evidence does still not prove the general inobservability of simple things.

A more substantial reason for the unobservability of simple things is Wolff's conviction that simple things cannot be spatial, while all observable things are. But why simple things couldn't be spatial? This is a question I will consider next time, when I investigate Wolff's theories of space and time.

keskiviikko 9. marraskuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - Bubbles of possibility

Leibnizian philosophy was supposedly based on two principles: the principle of contradiction which states that contradictions cannot exist and which should be the foundation of all logical truths and the principle of sufficient reason which should be the principle of all non-logical truths and which states that all non-logical facts must have an explanation.

Wolff continues the Leibnizian tradition by placing these two principles at the beginning of his ontology. Yet, while the two principles were apparently indemonstrable for Leibniz, Wolff thought that he could deduce the principle of sufficient reason. As the only other axiom from which the principle of sufficient reason could be deduced is the principle of contradiction, Wolff has often been accused of making ontology a mere corollary of logic. I think it will be insightful to see whether this accusation holds.

Although Leibniz's principle speaks of reasons, Wolff's zureichende Grund could as well or even better be translated as a sufficient ground. Ground, then, is something in a thing A that explains why a thing B exists. A and B could be the same thing, but if they happen to be different, A can then be called the cause of B. Warmth of air could thus be a ground for wilting of the plants, while the warm air would be the cause of the same wilting. The principle of sufficient reason in its Wolffian version states thus that all things must have a sufficient ground, that is, something explaining completely how they could exist.

Wolff has two proofs for the principle of sufficent reason. Well, actually there is a third argument – Wolff states that the principle must be assumed if one is to separate a dream from a coherent experience – but this argument is clearly based on the presupposition that we can differentiate the two.

Wolff's main argument is rather simple. Suppose there is something without any ground explaining it. Then it must have been generated out of nothing (Nichts). But as nothing can come out of nothing, everything must have a sufficient ground.

At first sightWolff just appears to beg the question: the statement that something cannot arise out of nothing says just that all things must arise from some previous ground. Yet, we must be careful about how to interpret Wolff's terminology. Nothing, which Wolff speaks of, does not mean a mere state of there being no things. Indeed, Wolff admits that something can come out of a state of there being nothing, as long as it is a possibility that something could come out of this state. Instead, Wolff's nothing refers to something that cannot be or an impossibility: nothing can come out of nothing, because this ”nothing” is an impossibility that cannot ever be actualised.

We are now in the midst of Wolff's use of modal terminology. I should firstly clarify a possible misunderstanding. Nowadays, we are accustomed to speak of possibility and impossibility in connection with propositions: it is possible, for instance, that tomorrow it will rain. For Wolff, on the contrary, possibility is a characteristic of things. Indeed, thing (Ding) means, according to Wolff, something possible. Thus, there are no impossible things (like round squares), or at the most, they are only imagined to be things, although in fact they are mere ”nothings”.

Wolff also tells us that possbility is not by itself an actuality, but requires something to fill itself. This filling of the possibility appears then to be nothing else but the sufficient ground required for the existence of something. We may then picture the Wolffian structure of modalities through the following simile. The possible things are like bubbles in a soup of possibility, all trying to float upwards, to the free air of actuality: they are like forces striving towards actualisation. The possibilities have various chances for reaching the surface, but at least they do have the potential to get there, if a sufficient boost is given. Only the impossible residue at the bottom can never rise towards the actuality, because it lacks the necessary impetus even to strive towards actuality.

We may now return to Wolff's second argument. Wolff asks us to assume two essentially similar things A and B, that is, things that differ only by quantity and location. If the principle of sufficient ground would not hold, A could be changed in some manner that would not occur, if A was replaced with B. But this would contradict the assumption, because similarity is defined by the characteristic that two things could change their place without any essential difference.

Wolff's proof is essentially based on his notion that all things have an essence, that is, a kernel which determines all the other non-quantitative characteristics that the thing has. It is only the essence and characteristics based on it, through which the things can be differentiated. In other words, two completely similar objects must have the same essence.

Wolff's proof suggests that the essence of a thing determines then all the possible changes that can occur to this thing. If a thing would change in a manner not based on the essence of the thing, such a change would violate the essential identity of the thing.: this is the crux of Wolff's second proof. Particularly the essence determines the conditions in which a thing with such an essence can be actualised. In other words, essences are the object of the real definitions of Wolffian methodology.

The bubbles of possibilities in the picture above are then just the Wolffian essences. Note that at least at this point of his discourse Wolff appears to accept the possibility that one essence might have several actualisations distinguished only by their location or their quantity (as I have not yet completed the book, the situation might still change). Here Wolff seems to differ radically from Leibniz, who insisted that two different entities must be differentiated by some intrinsic properties.

Wolff also notes that essences are eternal and necessary. This does not mean that the essences themselves would necessarily have actualisation. He is merely pointing out that if we take possibilities of things as new things – essences – these things must exist. In effect, Wolff is stating that the realm of possibilities is fixed: no new essence could arise nor could any essence be destroyed, that is, neither any impossibility could become possible nor any possibility could become impossibility.

Wolff's framework of modalities undoubtedly can justify the principle of sufficient reason. Indeed, one might say that the principle is built into that framework. But a more doubtful question is how Wolff can justify this system of modalities. Even more confusing is that Wolff connects possibility with non-contradiction. The system of modalities expounded earlier is heavily ontological: possibility of a thing involves some conditions by which it can be actualised. A definition based on non-contradiction would appear to deontologicise the modalities.

The most probable explanation is that Wolff considered contradiction also to be an ontological proposition. Thus, in the previous picture of modality, we should think of all the essences as necessarily related to a counterpart – or all the essences that are not necessary or cannot by themselves be actualised. But the other essences form then pairs, only only one of which can be actualised at the time: the actualisation of one essence keeps its opposite unactualised. The possibilities are then not just forces, but forces combating and cancelling one another.

Even this explanation merely moves the problem a step forward. If Wolff has an ontological notion of contradiction, then the principle of contradiction becomes suddenly quite problematic. Especially the negative possibilities seem quite problematic: although there might be a force striving to generate horses, it seems ridiciluous to suggest that there is an opposite force acting to destroy horses.

As I mentioned previously, Wolff attempts to use the Cartesian starting point as a justification of the principle of contradiction. Wolff's idea is to show that even the Cartesian cogito is based on principle of contradiction: the principle is discovered through one occasion of its use, although once discovered it is self-evident. But it is far from clear that our knowledge of our own existence involves any ontological non-contradiction: I do not believe that I am haunted by a shadow of my non-existence trying to kill me which I would have to actively fight against.

Although Wolff's attempt to prove the principle of sufficient reason is then more complex than meets the eye, in the final reckoning it involves a simple failure. By the way, complex and simple things in general will be the issue next time.

lauantai 5. marraskuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general (1719)

In 1982 appeared a humorous scifi book bearing the lofty title, Life, the universe and everything. Wolff's Vernünfftige Gedancken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt attempts something similar, just replacing life with soul and adding God as a bonus. But the loftiness is in order, because a new era in German philosophy was about to begin: this is the first ever book on metaphysics in German language.

The words in the title of Wolff's book are not just flowery decoration, but tell quite explicitly what Wolff's book is all about. It investigates, firstly, God. This happens in a discipline that was traditionally called natural theology – that is, based on facts that could be known by a person in a state of nature, while revealed theology relied on Bible and church traditions. Secondly, Wolff's book investigates the physical world or contains a study on cosmology. Thirdly, it investigates human soul, based both on observations of human behaviour (in empirical psychology) and on indubitable reasoning (in rational psychology). Finally, it investigates characteristics shared by all things, that is, ontology. But before any of these discplines can begin, Wolff wants to find an indubitable starting point for his investigation.

In many periods in the philosophy of history, there has been a definitive Philosopher, who one must comment upon, if one is to do serious philosophy – one might not agree in everything with the Philosopher, but even this disagreement must be presented as a commentary on the Philosopher. In the medieval times the Philosopher was Aristotle, in German idealism, Kant, and in certain period of analytical philosophy, Wittgenstein.

In the early 18th century philosophy the Philosopher appears to be Descartes. We have seen how Lange followed closely in Descartes' footsteps in his description of the natural light of human reason and how Rüdiger took Descartes as one of his main opponents and as the paradigmatic representative of modern physical mechanism. Now we are about to see how Wolff begins philosophy in a Cartesian style.

Indeed, the first paragraphs of Wolff's German metaphysics start from the certainty of the existence of the metaphysical investigator: even if you doubt your own existence, you are at the same time confirming that it is you who is doubting. Even egoists cannot deny this reasoning – egoists being here those who later would be called solipsists, that is, philosophers believing ony in their own existence.

And like Descartes, Wolff uses the discovery of this incontrovertible starting point as an example of the correct methodology. But instead of Descartes' clear and distinct perceptions Wolff inserts his own methodology that we have discussed in earlier texts: our knowledge of our own existence is based on an incontrovertible experience – we are conscious of ourselves and of other things – on an analytical statement – what is conscious, exists – and on rules of syllogistic reasoning.

In fact, it is rather remarkable that according to Wolff, the Cartesian ”I think therefore I am” is a syllogism, when Descartes himself was convinced that it shouldn't be expressed as a syllogism: Cartesian sentence is immediately certain and convincing, while it supposed basis ”all that is conscious exists” is not. The difference reflects the difference in the attitudes of the two philosophers towards syllogistic: Descartes thinking it it an outdated model science and Wolff endorsing it as the true model of science.

Wolff's syllogistic interpretation of Cartesian meditations is interesting also for Kant-scholarship. As we will someday see, Kant expressed the arguments of rational psychology, such as Cartesian cogito, in a syllogistic form. If Kant's criticism would be explicitly targeted only towards Descartes, it would then at least partially miss its point. The existence of the Wolffian interpretation shows that there was a tradition of reading Cartesian sentence as a syllogism and that Kant was probably talking to representative of that tradition.

In addition to methodology, Wolff also uses his Cartesian starting point to ground his ontology, but this will be an issue I shall deal next time. Indeed, I shall probably be spending quite a while with the work: after all, the first German book on metaphysics deserves it.

torstai 27. lokakuuta 2011

Andreas Rüdiger: Divine physics, the correct road between superstition and atheism, which guides towards the natural and moral well-being of humans (1716)

Some readers might remember that I was rather charmed by Lange's habit of beginning the philosophy of history from biblical times. Well, the same trick does not work as well the second time, hence, I was somewhat dissapointed by the author's insistence that true physics could be found in Genesis and that the further development of philosophy mostly ruined this fabulous start.

The similarity is not accidental, because the obscure author of Physica divina, Andreas Rüdiger, belonged to the same loose circle of philosophers as Lange. Both Rüdiger and Lange were Thomasians, named by their affiliation to Christian Thomasius, first-ever philosopher to write in German. And like Lange, Rüdiger also spent a great deal of his time for criticising Wolff's philosophy, as we shall see in the future.

As the title indicates so well, Rüdiger's book is aimed against both superstition and atheism: superstition divinises the natural world and atheism gets rid of the divine altogether, and the task is to stick with God, but not confuse him with the natural world. True, the book also contains nowadays rather quaint sounding physical theories, which concern all the questions of contemporary natural science – the nature of space, time and motion, movements of planets and stars, basic elements and their combinations, meteorological phenomena, magnetism, plants and animals. But Rüdiger is not satisfied with expounding his own theories, but he also criticises theories of earlier philosophers and shows how his own ideas can help to refute both two extremes.

Most of Rüdiger's enemies are easy to guess: Aristotle and atomists. But the inclusion of Descartes as one of the enemies is somewhat surprising, considering Lange's appreciation of the French philosopher. Yet, Rüdiger's view on Descartes reveals that he understood the implications of Cartesian and generally the modern natural science. In a Cartesian world view, the material things move each other mechanically, through push and pull. The nearest explanation of an event involving material things is another event with other material things. No God is therefore needed, because the eternal movement of matter is enough for explaining the continuance of the movement of matter, and Cartesian physics opens in this way a door to atheism.

Rüdiger's views on Descartes bear a striking resemblance to Jacobi's idea of all modern, mechanistic philosophy leading to atheism, but even more interesting is Rüdiger's idea why Descartes had to fail. The main mistake Descartes made, Rüdiger suggests, is the overt mathematization of physics. Mathematics is a science of possibilities, Rüdiger states. This might be a quip against Wolff, who had stated that philosophy is the science of possibilities. For Rüdiger philosophy is instead the science of what there actually is.

Whereas possibilities meant for Wolff mainly the actual capacities for generating things – real definitions – the possibilities of Rüdiger refer mainly to mere nominal definitions, that is, to mere words which might have no actual reference. In mathematics we can just put together descriptions without any consideration as to whether they describe anything that could be actual. Indeed, mathematics, says Rüdiger, is at least partially false: nowadays we might say that mathematics idealises and hence abstracts from certain characteristics of the actual world. Just because mathematics is an idealised picture of the world, it cannot grasp the true physics.

Rüdiger's idea that mathematics and philosophy are two completely separate disciplines is something that the later German philosophers agreed with: for instance, Hegel made fun of philosophers who tried to use mathematical method, although it was completely unsuitable for philosophical purposes. Interestingly, Kant admits the difference of the two disciplines, but for almost completely opposite reasons than Rüdiger. For Kant, philosophy is the discipline that can only analyse the meanings of concepts, but it cannot construct them – that is, philosophy does not have the means to actualise its concepts, while mathematician can draw his figures at least in pure intuition.

Rüdiger also argues that mathematization of philosophy eventually makes Cartesian proofs for the existence of God futile: Descartes starts by assuming the nominal definition of God, which is completely ineffective in stating anything about what there actually is. Rüdiger's criticism is reminiscent of Kant's later comment that concept of God as such does not involve existence, although ontological proof attempts to deduce one from the other. Rüdiger's further comments that Cartesian mistake is repeated by Spinoza who just assumes the definition of substance as something completely independent of anything else – without noting that such definition might not make sense, because we cannot generate anything corresponding to it: a similar criticism against Spinozan definitions is later voiced by Hegel.

I think that this will suffice for Rüdiger's Physica. Even if I found it philosophically valuable to investigate his theories of air and aether as the basic elements, I would still be in a hurry to move beyond mere physics. That's right, next time I shall begin to do some serious philosophy and tackle the first ever German book on metaphysics.

lauantai 15. lokakuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Thoughts concerning the unusual phenomenon, which was seen at Halle 17th of March, 1716, in the evening after 7 o'clock (1716) and Discovery of the true cause of the wondrous increase of corn, by which at the same time the growth of trees and plants in general is explained (1718)

Having survived Lange's eight-hundred-page -magnum opus I did not want to proceed right away to yet another gigantopedia of a German obscurity. Thus, I decided to read two lighter, non-philosophical works by an old friend, Christian Wolff. Don't let the length of the titles intimidate you, because in these times, the shorter the work, the longer the title. The title was meant to work like an ingress to an article, luring potential readers to buy the latest thoughts ”concerning the unusual phenomenon” – this is the language of the mystery writers.

Indeed, the whole phenomenon at Halle feels like a cross between X-Files and Mythbusters. A strange light was seen at the sky after 7 o'clock in the evening at Halle, and the same phenomenon could be viewed all over the Europe, from London to Königsberg. ”Flying saucers!” would be the cry of modern UFO-enthusiasts; ”wrath of God” thought the religious enthusiasts or Schwärmereien of Wolff's time.

But then the consulting philosopher, C. Wolff arrives at the scene and deduces at once that the public has no need for alarm: such phenomena are not that unusual. The cause of the strange light has been a gaseous evaporation bursting into flame: predecessor of swamp gas, apparently. And was it God behind it all? Well, the Allmighty can use all sorts of natural phenomena as symbols for his messages, but because there is no mention of flaming gases in the Scripture, there is no need to assume any greater meaning behind the light.

(Of course, if Wolff would have taken the sign seriously, traveled to the easternmost point where the phenomenon was seen and waited for a couple of years, he would have witnesses the birth of a boy named Immanuel, who would have been the one to deliver philosophy from dogmaticism. A missed opportunity, indeed.)

The second text, then, is a somewhat more serious work, although agricultural studies are far from what modern philosophers usually spend their time with. But Wolff was not afraid to stain his hands with dirt and he even disapproved philosophers who failed to do anything useful. What is really remarkable in this short work is Wolff's ability to put his scientific methodology to real practice: we hear how Wolff studies previous agricultural works and does his own experiments in the garden, before finally concluding that planting seeds deep enough and far from one another might increase the yield.

Wolff's agricultural study was also apparently under a serious discussion. A year after the original work Wolff had to publish an elucidation answering some questions from an interested reader. Even more striking is that the work was translated to English, which is more than can be said for Wolff's philosophical works. One has the impression that Wolff truly was a notable botanist and not just an incompetent diletantte.

Wolff's achievements in both myth busting and agriculture are a good example of a remark C. D. Broad once made of major philosophers often having experience with some fields of science: just think of Descartes' books on analytic geometry, optics and mechanics, Leibniz's work on differential calculus and Kant's early works on physics. Even Hegel proudly stated at the frontispiece of his Phenomenology that he was a member of the German mineralogical society.

If we extend our focus from sciences to all fields of life beyond philosophy, we find statesmen, like Francis Bacon, philologists like Nietzsche, playwrights like Lessing or Sartre and psychoanalysts like Lacan. We might even suggest that a good philosopher needs such an anchor in something else beyond philosophy, so that her ideas and thoughts will have some substantial relevance. Indeed, the only philosopher Broad knew who could be called a pure philosopher was his mentor, McTaggart – and his metaphysical theory of a timeless reality of spirits perceiving one another is as far removed from practice as any philosophy can be.

Let this suffice for a detour. Next time, another obscurity waiting an examination.

sunnuntai 9. lokakuuta 2011

Joachim Lange: Mental medicine - Curing your mind through Descartes

Last time I gave a preliminary account of what philosophy and its negation, philomoria, were for J. J. Lange and how the two were supposed to be related. This time I shall say something about the concrete methodology of philosophy as Lange conceived it.

As we should remember from the previous text, for Lange philosophy was essentially striving towards wisdom, which was defined as a connection with God. This connection or harmony is actually what humans are intended to live in. Yet, in the current state of things humans are naturally disharmonious. The natural human being is disturbed by sense impressions, and while education can help a person to correct her original state, it might lead her to even worse things – like Aristotelianism.

It is this state of disharmony that Lange strives to cure in Medicina mentis. Although Lange mentions many methods of cure, such as conversation with other persons and prayer, philosophically most interesting is the use of lumen naturale, natural light or human cognitivie capacities.

As one might remember, Descartes was in addition to Socrates the only philosopher that Lange viewed in a completely positive light. For instance, Lange views Cartesian method of doubt as a sober form of skepticism, because it strives to find a reliable and indubitable ground, while an unhealthy skepticism, like the ancient Pyrrhonism, leads merely to turbulence of mind and eventually to libertine denial of all values.

Interestingly, Lange sees the core of unhealthy skepticism not in doubt, but in refusal to accept some facts. Thus, Lange regards both infamous atheists of the time, Spinoza and Hobbes, as partial skeptics, because they did not accept the validity of the Christian notion of God. This peculiarity is connected with Lange's definition of skepticism as the opposite of what he calls formal truth.

What then is a formal truth for Lange? First of all, a material truth is simply a validity of some fact: this is so and so. Formal truth, on the other hand, is a material truth that is in harmony with a mind. Thus, a material truth might not be a formal truth for some person, if that person fails to assent this truth. Then again, a material truth might not be a formal truth, if it is only a part of the whole picture or fails to describe anything essential to the mind involved. In other words, formal truth is an assent by mind of an essential material truth.

The bad form of skepticism, then, is the opposite of formal truth, because it involves a failure to assent to an essential material truth. Thus, atheism as a rejection of God's existence is by Lange's definitions this sort of skepticism. On the other hand, Descartes is not a skeptic in this sense, because ultimately Descartes doesn't reject e.g. God's existence.

In light of Lange's appreciation of the great French philosopher, it is no wonder that Lange's ideas of using the natural light of human reason derive largely from Descartes. Indeed, Lange even calls the use of natural light meditation, borrowing the name obviously from Cartesian Meditations. The meditation, Lange says, should begin from an indubitable starting point. Like Descartes, Lange affirms that this starting point is not demonstrated syllogistically. In fact, Lange goes a step further and says that it is indemonstrable in all senses, that is, an incontrovertible fact.

Lange's rejection of the demonstrability of the first truth is connected with another modification of Cartesian meditations. While Descartes begins from an indubitable proposition, ”I think, therefore I am”, Lange begins from a non-propositional self-consciousness, which he further defines as perception of mind by itself.

Similarly, Lange does not demonstrate other truths concerning mind from the fact of its existence, but says that these truths are just contained within the original self-consciousness. Indeed, he explicitly criticises Descartes for limiting the foundational notion of mind to cognition. Still, what Lange actually tells of mind has a Cartesian air: mind is a non-material substance, but intrinsically connected to a material body, through which it receives impressions of material things and which it can control.

Langian meditations continue in a Cartesian manner, although not through demonstrations: thinking about oneself leads one to think of God, through whom one can even find some certainty in thinking sense objects. Yet, the most important point for Lange is to point out that through self-consciousness one can discern also the limits of natural light and the need for a supernatural light of divine revelation: reason itself shows the need for antirationalism.

Lange's Cartesian inspired antirationalism has an interesting relation to Jacobi's later antirationalism. The purpose of both writers is the same: to move the attention from the mundane science to God as the true meaning of human life, and both also begin from some immediate, indemonstrable starting point: Lange from self-consciousness and Jacobi from Glauben or faith. Yet, for Jacobi it is not Descartes, but Hume, who offers the starting point.

Considering that Descartes was a stout believer, but Hume leaned more towards agnosticism or even atheism, Jacobi's position might seem awkward. But the tides of philosophy had changed from the days of Lange. For Lange, the immediate starting point was human self-consciousness, which immediately led to God as the ground of that consciousness. Self-consciousness was thus a justification for the existence of God, while God was the only thing giving value and stability to the sense world.

At the time of Jacobi, on the other hand, self-consciousness as the first principle was almost exclusively used by philosophers of Kantian inspiration. Now, one thing that philosophers like Fichte appeared to do was to downgrade the role of God in the trinity of self-consciouness, God and material things. Indeed, they seemingly tried to account for the existence of the material things in terms of mere self-consciousness.

Jacobi thought this strategy was ultimately nihilistic, because it destroyed the true source of values. Furthermore, it made it more difficult for Jacobi to use Lange's strategy of justifying the existence of God through self-consciousness: who needs God to account for the existence of material objects, if they can be accounted by the self-consciousness itself?

In this light Jacobi's endorsement of Hume becomes more understandable. Hume had argued that we couldn't really demonstrate the substantiality of the objects of experience through our mere self-consciousness, but that we had to just believe in their stable existence. This stability inhered then somewhere beyond self-consciousness, and Jacobi could then just assume that it inhered in God as the source of all values.

So much for Lange, for the time being. Next time, we shall see what happened 17th of March, 1716, around 7 PM, at Halle.