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.