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.

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