torstai 19. huhtikuuta 2012

Georg Bernhard Bilfinger: The three types of cognition – historical, philosophical and mathematical – articulated (1722)

Although my blog has been dedicated to the task of expounding the story of classic German philosophy in general, the field has been thus far ruled by Christian Wolff, with the exception of few pietists, who will become fierce enemies of Wolff. It is time to introduce a new minor figure, this time from the Wolffian side of the game: Georg Bernhard Bilfinger with his dissertation De triplicium rerum cognitione, historica, philosophica et mathematica, articulos.

I called Bilfinger a minor figure, and judging by his influence, he truly is such. The main point of importance in Bilfinger's career is that he introduced Germans to Chinese philosophy and especially to Confucianism – even in the dissertation he mentions these themes in passing.

We have already have the opportunity to familiarise ourselves with the dissertations of the time when we looked at Wolff's first publication, which combined elementary mathematics with rather strong philosophical conclusions without any clear connecting link. Bilfinger's dissertation is rather less ambitious and is mostly a discussion of the ideas of Wolff and his teacher Tschirnhaus.

The main purpose of Bilfinger's thesis is to classify and define different types of cognition or science. Bilfinger starts by determining various meanings of the term philosophy by comparing it with mathematics (well, actually he just follows his two predecessors, as he does in the whole book). When you learn mathematics, you might learn various definitions of mathematical objects. Similarly, philosophy if often restricted to mere verbal bickering, where the fight is all about the meaning of words. This is the lowest type of philosophy: although it is important to make one's meaning clear, it is not worth to start arguing for the meaning of a word.

Secondly, we could be taught who was the person who discovered some important theorems. This corresponds with merely historical study of philosophers, philosophical schools and their opinions. Beyond the verbal explanation of mathematical and philosophical terms and the historical description of mathematics and philosophers, there's still the real mathematics, and corresponding to it, real philosophy. What do these consist then?

To answer this question, Bilfinger presents another division, this time between different moments of cognition. Cognition should begin with a historical phase, where history has the traditional sense: we observe and experiment. The results of this historical phase are then to be used by philosophy as a material for discovering the first principles of cognition. These principles are then to be used finally in mathematics for deriving new truths.

The three types of cognition, historical, philosophical and mathematical, form then a sequence based on experience, but ending with a system of knowledge founded on indubitable experiences: note the balance between empiricism and rationalism that Wolff had already endorsed. If the sequence would form a cycle, we would be very close to the later hypothetico-deductive account of science, where theories are tested against observations.Yet, Bilfinger imagines that the creation of theories involves more than mere guess work, and indeed, is what real philosophy is all about.

It seems amazing, but this is the whole content of Bilfinger's dissertation: two divisions borrowed from other philosophers. Next time, we shall return to Wolff and to another set of reasonable thoughts.

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