maanantai 29. elokuuta 2011

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on the capacities of the human understanding and their correct use in knowing truth (1712)

I have already mentioned how Christian Wolff had discovered how to make profit in academia by writing text books. Wolff had also apparently invented how to make a succesful brand of his creations, a long time before the notion of brand had been formulated. And indeed, if one nowadays knows that most of the hard cash paid for a Harry Potter -book goes to the pockets of J. K. Rowling, the 18th century Germans knew that a book with a title beginning with the words ”Vernünftige Gedancken von...” would be the handiwork of the philosophical Jack-of-all-trades Christian Wolff, no matter what the issue investigated was. Unfortunately Wolff did not have the chance to sell the filming rights to his series.

I have translated ”Vernünftige Gedancken” as reasonable thoughts, but one could also speak of reasoned thoughts, because what supposedly makes Wolff's thoughts so reasonable or makes them accord with reason is that these thoughts are presented in the already familiar axiomatic form of reasoning from evident basic truths and definitions to further truths. Thus, it is just logical that Wolff would present this form and in general the methodology of philosophy in the first published work of the series, Vernünftige Gedancken von den Kräfften des menschlichen Verstandes und ihrem richtigen Gebrauche in Erkäntniss der Wahrheit.

From modern perspective it probably appears rather strange that Wolff would actually call a book on methodology logical. This perplexity is instigated by the Kantian tradition where logic is seen as a mere canon for rejecting the obviously impossible statements. But before this Kantian novelty, logic had been usually described as the organon of or a tool for a philosophical or scientific investigation, and indeed, one of Aristotle's logical works, the Posterior analytics, was similarly a study of the scientific method.

I shall investigate the Wolffian methodology in more detail in later texts. Now I am interested in the moment of philosophical self-reflection at the beginning of the book, where Wolff defines what philosophy is and then divides it into different disciplines. More precisely, Wolff does not speak of philosophy, but uses his own invention, Weltweisheit, that is, worldy and not divine wisdom.I shall reverse Wolff's own schema and start from the individual parts of philosophy and thwn progress towards the definition of the whole philosophy.

Philosophers have been very keen to classify different philosophical disciplines in a rigorous manner. Perhaps the most influential has been the Stoic division of philosophy into logic, physics and ethics: similarly Descartes compared logic and metaphysics with the roots of a tree, physics with its trunk and ethics as one of its fruits, while Hegelian classification of philosophy into logic, philosophy of nature and philosophy of spirit clearly resembles its Stoic predecessor.

Compared with this classical division, Wolff's classification appears rather haphazard. Wolff begins with the discipline he is studying in the current book, that is, logic or ”the art of reason”. Wolff clearly means it to be the first part of philosophy, because one must first learn the method before using it. The second part of philosophy considers then the supposed ultimate explanation of all other things or creatures, namely God, who is investigated in natural theology or study of God.

The third part, which considers the creatures or things other than God, Wolff leaves unnamed, but divides it further into pneumatology or study of spirits and physics or study of nature. Fourthly, Wolff notes that in addition to reason or understanding, human soul has also the faculty of will, which is an issue of yet another unnamed discipline that contains such subdisciplines as the natural right, ethics and politics. Finally, Wolff notes that we must also have a discipline investigating the common characteristics of all things, that is, ontology or fundamental science.

Wolff's sixfold division seems a failure from a systematising viewpoint, because it is not obvious why philosophy is to be divided into these particular subdisciplines. Especially unsatisfactory is that some of Wolff's suggested disciplines have no name, but consist of even further subdisciplines. The unclarity is even furthered by Wolff's remark that the natural theology, study of creatures and ontology together form yet another discipline called metaphysics. One might think that Wolff should have divided philosophy just into three parts – logic, metaphysics and the nameless discipline considering human will – or then raise ethics, politics and other subdisciplines of the philosophy of will into the status of independent disciplines.

Somewhat more intruiging is then Wolff's definition of what philosophy in general is: it is a science of all the possible things, considering how and why they are possible. The mention of possibilities is particularly interesting. Indeed, philosophers have always had a knack for discovering hitherto unimagined possibilities. This knack is extremely evident in the habit of using thought experiments as crucial links in arguments. This is a procedure common especially in modern analytic philosophy – witness for instance Gettier's problems of epistemology or the Twin Earth thought experiment.

Yet, this knack or art of finding possibilities is probably a quite recent candidate in the competition for the essence of philosophising. Wolff himself speaks of philosophy as a science instead of a mere art. By science Wolff means a capacity to deduce things from incontrovertible grounds, and he explicitly states that scientific knowledge is more certain than mere art where particular examples might be confused with general rules. In effect, Wolff is still committed to the old idea of philosophy as an axiomatic system.

What is then the distinguishing characteristic of a science of possibilities, and even more importantly, from what other sciences philosophy is to be differentiated from? There surely cannot be any separate science of impossibilities, or more precisely, it would be identical with the science of possibilities: as Aristotle already said, one and the same science deals with opposite concepts, because in order to know what is e.g. impossible and what is not, you must also know what is possible and what is not.

I suppose that the proper point of comparison for philosophy as a science of possibilities would be a science of actualities, that is, a system based on incontrovertible grounds that would tell what there is and why there are such things. Now, it seems evident, and Wolff would probably agree, that such a science of actualities is beyond human capacities. Humans can usually at most observe what is actual, that is, when it comes to actualities, they are capable only of history in the original sense of the word. From human perspective, then, philosophy just equals science.

One last question then is how a philosopher should go about proving that something is possible. The answer is already familiar from the study of what real definitions mean for Wolff. We know when something is possible, according to Wolff, when we know how this thing is generated and especially when we can ourselves generate such a thing. In effect, science at its best becomes almost like technology or handicraft.

Thus, if reason is defined as an insight into the relations between truths, the possibility of reason is shown when we demonstrate how a person can have such an insight through his or her own capacities. This is the task of the rest of Wolff's book, and we shall see how well he handles it in later blog texts.

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