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.