torstai 23. helmikuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts of human acting and letting others act upon you (1720)

After showing his skill in metaphysics, Wolff moved on to publish a book called Vernünftige Gedancken von der Menschen Thun und Lassen. Considering that the new work was of the same length as the previous, I assume that Wolff must have worked with the two texts side by side.

The topic of the new book is Menschen Thun und Lassen, where Thun straightforwardly means doing something. The word Lassen is a bit more difficult to translate, but it is a counterpart of Thun and refers probably to someone being an object of an action. The issue of the book is then what human beings should do and what allow others to do to them – that is, it is a work of ethics we are dealing with.

Nowadays no book on ethics woud dare to ignore Hume's guillotine, but Wolff's work has grown in a more primeval climate, where no one had had the audacity to suppose that the is and the ought should be somehow separated. Thus, Wolff is not afraid to base ethics straightforwardly on metaphysics. Wolff had actually used normative notions like perfection already in his ontology. That is, according to Wolff, there are values which are independent of all actual inclinations of any subject, even God.

Characteristically Wolff adds that these values are not just embedded in the ontological structure of all there is, but they also determine the action of human beings – we all do what is good and avoid doing what is evil, provided we know clearly what is good and what is evil. The statement seems not so radical, if we remember that human beings are for Wolff always impure knowers, who must base everything on confused experiences.

Because true goodness lies in Wolff's opinion in perfection, he suggests as the primary principle of ethics ”make yourself and others more perfect”. One might wonder how Wolff makes the leap from the definition of goodness and the fact of human motivation to a commandment. Yet, Wolff has actually made such leaps even in mathematics – in postulates and problems Wolff has turned statements of the sort ”if A is done, B is the result” into rules of the sort ”if you want to make B happen, do A”.

True, Wolff's primary ethical principle appears to lack the condition inherent in the postulates and the problems. Yet, this condition is actually implicit in the fact of human motivation for good: because all people try to achieve goodness, they should perfect themselves and others. Wolffian ethical principle is then what Kant would later call a hypothetical imperative.

What appears more perplexing is why the perfection of other peoples should matter – surely desire for goodness would imply a motivation for only one's own perfection? But we must remember that for Wolff pleasure arises from mere inscpection of something perfect. Hence, the more the perfection for the world in general is acheived, the more joyful and merry will a rational person be.

This abstract enjoyment of perfection is the only inherent reward for good actions. But because God desires also good actions and the growth of perfection, He will reward the good people with further happiness (Glückseligkeit), Wolff states. Once again, Wolff does not naively think that good people would have all the luck (Glück) in the world – luck is something that varies very much from one context to another. Instead, he means by happiness a more permanent position – an unwavering state of serenity untouched by any external influences.

The story of Wolffian ethics will continue with a text on the capacity of grasping ethical truths.

maanantai 13. helmikuuta 2012

The man of monads

When I was just beginning the blog, I was suggested to include Leibniz. In the very first post I strictly stated that I would skip him altogether, but I also said I might do some backtracking – and when I learned even Leibniz had written some German texts, I started to reconsider my stance. I still won't do a detailed analysis of all the works of Leibniz – that would set back my progress with another decade. Instead, I shall make one special article on his philosophy. Luckily I received as a PhD gift from Markku Roinila, one of the leading Leibniz-scholars of Finland, a recent Finnish translation of a number of Leibnizian texts, so suitable material was readily available.

I shall probably have to say something about the translation itself. It is a collection of writings of very diverse sort, containing in addition to more philosophical writings also religious texts, physical investigations, papers on logic and even a plan for making money with science. The only connecting element, in addition to the author, is the relative shortness of the texts. Thus, the collection includes mere excerpts of such larger writings as Theodicy and New essays of human understanding. As I don't know the originals, I cannot really say whether the translations are faithful to them, but I am at least convinced that the translating team has consisted of capable persons.

What becomes quite clear after reading this mixed bunch of writings is the multifariousness of Leibniz's talents and the variety of his interests – when Leibniz is not engaged in a philosophical or scientific discussion with other luminaries of the time or busy with yet another system of logic, he is probably spending his free time for the unification of all Christian churches. A good example of the ingenuity of Leibniz is the attempt to wed science with money, where the philosopher suggests a sort of scientific circus in which innovations are used as an entertainment – and which includes also a casino using the theory of probability for making profit (all the money is, of course, meant for further scientific endeavours).

What interests us here is the more metaphysical part of the Leibnizian ouvre and especially its connection to Wolff's metaphysics that we have just finished. I am sure that most of you know at least some rudiments of Leibnizian theory of monads – and those who don't can surely find some text book to study – so I will just skip the details of this theory. What is really fascinating is that Leibnizian philosophy can blend the new scientific innovations of the 18th century with the traditional religious world view – observations of the microscopic world become evidence for the capacity of God to create an infinite abundance of life.

Many of the details of the Wolffian metaphysics we have investigated derive obviously from Leibniz: the two principles of contradiction and sufficient reason, the division of the substances into simple and complex, the division of concepts according to the different levels of clarity, the relational theory of space and time, the pre-established harmony and the choice of the best possible world by God. That is not to say that Wolff himself wasn't original. Yet, the originality lies more in details than in the big picture, and some innovations of Wolff were far from true improvements: witness, for instance, Wolff's attempt to base the principle of sufficient reason on the principle of contradiction.

The most substantial difference between the two philosophers lies in the difference of Wolffian elements and Leibnizian monads: while former are units of force, latter are units of perception. Yet, here Wolff is actually preferring earlier works of Leibniz to his monadology. That is, Leibniz does suggest in some texts that the ultimate elements of world are essentially forces, but in later works the more famous idea of monads as perspectives to the whole world becomes more apparent.

Still, the true novelty in the Wolffian philosophy was its systematic form, which was the ideal that many philosophers of the time tried to achieve – and which haunted even the later German idealists. Of course, this systematicity was also the reason why Wolff became so scorned by later philosophers- it is easy to see the gaps in the argumentation and unwarranted presuppositions, when the ideas are at least presented in the form of an axiomatic system. Similar faults in Leibniz are more difficult to uncover, due to the fractured nature of his philosophy – although they do surface in his letters to other philosophers, such as Samuel Clarke, who dare to question the ultimate presuppositions of Leibnizian philosophy.

Still, it is probably this fragmentary character that has kept the name of Leibniz alive through the ages – everyone can find something to appreciate in his philosophy. In the days of German enlightenment he was seen as a mediator between atheistic materialism and irrational fideism. Although Kant was against traditional metaphysics, he still appreciated Leibnizian ideas on the capacities and limits of human knowledge. German idealists became fascinated by his insistence on life and consciousness constituting the fundamental essence of the world. Although Russell bewared grandiose philosophical theories, he could still praise Leibniz's logical works. And if philosophy for philosophy's sake loses the remnants of its former glory, I am sure someone will get excited of the idea of scientific circus.

So much for the digression on Leibniz. In next post, the regular schedule will continue with yet another book of Wolff, this time on ethics.

perjantai 10. helmikuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on God, world, and human soul, furthermore, of all things in general - The ultimate thing

When one for the first time hears Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason, it seems quite obvious and self-evident: of course, everything happens for a reason. But as Samuel Clarke was quick to notice, the innocent appearing principle could be used for smuggling substantial presuppositions behind our backs. For instance, Leibniz himself used the principle to justify the more uncertain principle of the identity of indiscernibles: God could not have created two exactly similar things, because God would have no ground for choosing the situations of the two things.

Wolff begins the chapter on natural theology by a similar abuse of the principle of sufficient reason. Theology itself is probably a familiar term to everyone, but what makes it natural? The answer is that natural theology is supposedly based on mere human reason, while the other type of theology – that is, revealed – is based on supposed divine revelation.

Wolff thus supposes that a sufficient reason is only such that requires no reason beyond itself. In effect, Wolff has not been demanding just an explanation, but a full explanation of everything, ending with a final term that is self-explanatory. And as we might remember from previous texts, Wolffian ground/reason is not just any explanation, but a causal agent actualising things. The principle of the sufficient reason is hence suddenly turned into a commitment for the existence of a final instigator of causal things. That is, to a commitment that while normal possible things require some external force to overcome the opposite possibility of their non-existence, there is a thing that has enough force in itself for self-actualisation.

It takes no theologian to guess that this self-actualising thing, which cannot fail to exist, is meant to be the traditional God: a transcendent being beyond both the physical world and the realm of human souls. One might still wonder why Wolff accepts only a single self-actualising thing. After all, the causal chains in the world might have more than one beginning, that is, there might well be more than one God.

Although Wolff does not directly answer this problem, he does try to argue against the identification of humans and God on the basis of the possible multiplicity of human souls. Wolff notes that when one accepts the existence of the world, it is easy to see that the human soul as dependent on the world cannot be God. Idealists, who deny the existence of the world, and even what Wolff calls egoists and what we would call solipsists, that is, philosophers admitting only their own existence, admit at least that there are many possible human souls. Yet, just this plurality of souls makes it impossible that the humans would be Gods. Plurality of possible Gods is apparently against the necessity of the supposed God: if a thing might be otherwise and still a God, it would require a further ground why the thing then is like it actually is, thus, it surely couldn't be self-actualising and self-explaining.

When it comes to God's characteristics, Wolff follows tradition: God is, for instance, capable of intuiting all things immediately, thus, requires no symbolic knowledge; he is wise, that is, capable of planning the relationships between the things in the most perfect manner possible; he also lives in the highest possible bliss, because he sees the perfection of the world. But what interests us most is the relationship between the God and the world.

Until now, the status of the possibilities or essences in Wolffian philosophy has been rather unclear: on the one hand, essences are said to be eternal and thus existing, on the other hand, they are not actualised. Wolff suggests that it is the understanding of God that sustains all the various possibilities: they exist in a sense, because God is continuously thinking all of them.

Although God thinks all the possibilities and especially all possible worlds, this does not still make them actual. Instead, actuality is received through a force, which is external, if the actualised thing is not God, and ultimately, through God’s will.

Interestingly, this characterisation is connected to Wolff’s notion of philosophy as a science of possibilities. Although the understanding of humans is not as pure as God’s – that is, it is confused or sensous – we can at least partially follow what is going on in God’s understanding, because the content of his understanding is necessary: that is, there can be no other possibilities. Then again, what is actual depends on God’s choice and the motives behind it. Thus, we can know generally that God has chosen the best possible world, but we cannot with certainty say that a particular chain of events would belong to the best possible world – in other words, there cannot be any true science of actualities.


Because I have finally reached the end of Wolff’s German Magnum Opus, this is a great opportunity to evaluate the whole book. The historical worth of Wolff’s German metaphysics is unquestionable. Although there had been philosophical books written in German, Wolff’s book was still the most systematic treatment of all the major topics of traditional metaphysics, and as we shall most likely see in the distant future, its influence can still be felt in Kant’s writings. That said, we might still question the originality of his work in a wider perspective of the Europian philosophy in 18th century: I shall say a little bit about this topic in the next post.

Does German metaphysics then hold any interest for a modern philosopher? As we have witnessed, the book is full of gaps in argumentation, unwarranted presuppositions and plain sophisms. Still, one must appreciate at least the architectural design of the book, where in the ontology the classification into three main types of things – complex or material things and especially the world, simle, but finite things and especially souls, and the infinite thing or God – is introduced and where the final chapter ties all the knots by showing how both the material world and the souls are dependent on the God.

Wolff's German metaphysics has finally ended. I have been rather longwinded on the topic, but I have felt this has been necessary, because of the historical importance of the book. Next time, I shall make a short detour on an earlier philosopher: we shall meet the supposed predecessor of Wolff.