Nominalist philosopher Jean Buridan is nowadays best remembered from the infamous ass that was placed at equal distance from food and drink and starved to death, because it couldn't decide which it should choose first. In effect, the story of the ass involves a question on how the capacity of deciding and willing works: if the ass has a capacity to make a spontaneous and completely arbitrary choice, it can avoid the trouble quite easily. The dilemma of Buridan's ass has a long history, but now we are interested in Wolff's manner of solving it.
Wolff defines willing (Willen) as an inclination towards something that is taken as good. Somewhat confusingly he defines unwilling (nicht Willen) as the inclination to avoid something that is taken as bad: I shall ignore this complication and treat Wolffian unwilling as a mere modification of willing. What is important is that Wolffian willing always requires a preceding notion of what is good and bad: this notion is a motive (Bewegungs-Gründe) for the act of willing.
Wolff seems then step right into the trap of Buridan's ass: if one cannot act without any reason, then one cannot just choose one form of sustenance over another. Yet, here the Leibnizian notion of inobservable effects on human soul becomes important. Wolff can assume in earnest that the case of Buridan's ass can never truly happen, because there will always be some small detail that will subconsciously make us inclined us to choose one possibility over the other.
Wolffian notion of subconsious motives implies that the process of human willing can never be completely transparent to the subject of willing. In other words, although a person would have a clear idea of what was good for her (such as not smoking cigarettes), an affect could still tempt her to act against her better interests. This is the idea of the enslavement of human will to the affects that was a common subject at the time of Wolff.
The problem of Buridan's ass is often connected with the question whether humans have a free will. In my opinion, the supposed connection is spurious: Buridan's ass could circumvent its dilemma through a simple flip of a coin or some quantum mechanical randomiser forcing the ass to act, but such a mechanism is not really free will. Now, Wolff appears to agree with me: if willing always requires a motive, a purely arbitrary choice is still not willing.
One might criticise Wolff for making human free will deterministic: if one would know all the motives of a person, one would know what she would choose in a particular situation. Yet, I find, firstly, that this possibility is just something that is commonly accepted: if one knows my likes and dislikes, one can immediately say that I will always choose a keylime pie over a chocolate cake, and in general, if a person's character is known, her actions can be predicted in some measure. The question of predictability of human willing cannot decide the question of the freedom of the will: chaotic phenomena like weather are practically unpredictable and quantum mechanical phenomena are unpredictable even in principle, but they cannot be called free actions.
Furthermore, the whole setup of knowing all the motives of a person is rather unbelievable, especially as the person interacts all the time with her environment and might gain new, previously unknown motives. For instance, if I heard two persons betting over whether I will eat keylime pie or chocolate cake, I might choose the cake just for the sake of upsetting the gentlemen. Thus, the existence of motives for all human actions does not even rule out the unpredictability of these actions.
Wolff himself notes that the deterministic theory of human mind confuses the analogy between motives and causes. Both are types of reasons or grounds, but they are still essentially different. For instance, scales require some cause to move them out of the state of equilibrium, but they cannot be motivated to do something as humans are.
Wolff himself places the freedom of human will in the capacity of self-determination. This does not mean that a human being could arbitrarily choose what it wills, because Wolff thinks such a notion would lead to a vicious circle. Instead, Wolff emphasises the fact that a free action is caused by the human being itself, according to its own notion of what it would be good to do in the current situation. Hence, Wolff can present a sort of evaluation of actions: the more a person knows about what is truly good for him, the more freedom his actions show. On the other hand, freedom cannot be forced on anyone, because a forced freedom would be just externally determined self-determination – a contradiction in terms.
With this text, the chapter on empirical psychology in Wolff's German metaphysics is closed. Well, Wolff does remark that the processes of human soul appear to be related to processes in our body, but this unification of soul and body will be dealt in more detail, when we come to rational psychology.
In the next post I shall begin the study of Wolffian cosmology, but I would still like to make some comments on empirical psychology in general and especially its Wolffian version. Later German philosophers were not really enthusiastic about this discipline. Hegel's criticism is still rather mild: empirical psychology is just disorganised observation of whatever capacities we happen to find within ourselves and does not reveal the nature of consciousness, of which all these capacities are mere modifications. Hegel's description is rather accurate, especially in case of Wolff, who has merely moved from one faculty of soul to another, still, a bit unfair: the nature of the soul Wolff intends to reveal in another chapter, dealing with rational psychology. Analogically, one should not disregard natural history just because it does not offer any general theory of nature, but mere empirical observations on individual natural phenomena.
Kant's objections against empirical psychology in his Metaphysical foundations of natural science are more severe: science of psychology based on empirical observation is an impossibility, because a) all true science, such as physics, must use mathematics, b) all mathematics requires constructing concepts in a priori intuition, c) the a priori intuition corresponding to the object of psychology or soul is time and d) time as one-dimensional cannot be used for constructions.
Kant's argument is rather convoluted, especially as we are still far from Kant's main works and concepts like ”a priori intuition” and ”construction” in their Kantian sense are to be defined only much later in my blog. Yet, we may for now note one important link in the argument: psychological notions cannot be quantified. Indeed, if by science is meant something like physics, science aims largely to discover relations between various quantities.
Now, Wolff appears actually to uphold the ideal of mathematized science, as befits a mathematician. In fact, he points out that many human faculties come in grades, that is, have a quantity that is analogical to numbers and sizes. For instance, a person can have a better or worse memory and one might even improve one's memory or enlarge its grade.
Of course, the existence of quantities of mental faculties does not still mean that these quantities could be measured, which is a condition for truly quantifying phenomena. Yet, in case of some mental faculties this seems rather easy. For example, we could well measure the grade of our memory e.g. by measuring how many words I could remember after a certain time of practice: the relation between the time and the number of the words might then be used as describing the grade of one's memory.