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.