keskiviikko 30. toukokuuta 2012

Ludwig Philipp Th'ummig: Varied essays and rare arguments, collected in one volume (1727)

When we speak of a Wolffian school, it is not just Christian Wolff himself we are thinking of, but a whole parade of more minor figures who in some sense continued the work of their masters. The 1720s appear to be the earliest point at which we can speak of Wolffians as a recognizable philosophical movement. I have already discussed a dissertation of one Wolffian, Bilfinger, that appeared 1722, and the topic of the current post, Meletemata varii et rarioris argumenti in unum volumen collecta, contains dissertations and essays published during 1720s.

Although the name does not reveal it, the continuous references to the works of the illustrious Wolff suggest that the writers are hard core Wolffians. Most of the contributors are quite minor names in the school and apparently did not even publish anything after their dissertation, so I'll skip introducing them. The only exception is the editor of the collection, Ludvig Philip Thümmig, a faithful follower of Wolff.

What I am mostly interested in this collection is the range of different topics discussed, which reflects well the multifarious nature of Wolff's philosophy. A considerable number of the essays concern natural or mathematical sciences, which was the original research field of Wolff and which he still continued to study even when he had already started his famous series on reasonable thoughts on nearly everything – even at this time Wolff published a series called Allerhand nützliche Versuche (All sorts of useful studies), which dealt with such important problems as how we can weigh objects or use a thermometer. The pupils of Wolff appear to have been interested at least of biology (there's an essay on how to study leaves), but especially of astronomy and ”things happening up in the sky”, like propagation of light.

It is not just physics that interested pupils of Wolff, but there are also more philosophical essays that concern all the four Rational thoughts we have encountered thus far. There's a logical discourse on the necessary and contingent concepts, which also has ontological consequences – the writer argues how Wolffian distinction between absolute and conditional necessity discredits Spinoza's idea that the world is necessary, because the existence of the world is not impossible, but depends on the free choice of God. This writing is the first sign thus far of the looming threat of Spinozan pantheism – we have more to say on the matter in a couple of decades.

Furthermore, the collection contains a metaphysical study of the immortality of soul – or more likely, it is an advertisement of the Wolffian proof, which is based on the simplicity of the soul and the supposed impossibility of a material basis of thinking. The only novelty in the essay appears to be the author's idea that the life of soul consists of a clarification of its ideas: the newborn child has only confused ideas, but the soul of a dead person sees everything distinctly. Despite its unoriginality, the essay shows well the appreciation of Wolff's rational psychology in contemporary Germany. Indeed, I think that Kant's theory of paralogisms is primarily targeted towards Wolffian ideas.

Morality is also topic of an essay, which analyses the notion of sincerity. A considerable portion of the essay is dedicated to defending Wolff's ideas of China as an atheist and still a moral nation – an issue that will surface often in the writings of 1720s.

Wolffian politics is not forgotten, although this essasy covers also architectural ideas. The author follows Wolff's suggestion that the needs of a comunnity determine what is good art. The outcome of the argument is that the Wolffian writings on architecture fulfill this criterion of good art perfectly.

It is this final tendency of subjugating art to the moral upbringing of people that will be the topic of my next post, where I'll discuss my first piece of fiction.

torstai 24. toukokuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on the social life of men and especially on the community - The enlightened despot

The origin of households in the Wolffian system is the desire for intercourse, together with the obligation to care for the possible outcome of the intercourse, that is, children. Now, Wolff suggests that household by itself cannot satisfy all needs of a human being. At most, a life constricted to a household can satisfy only basic needs, but this would be only animal and not human life – the households could not provide for the future nor would they be able to care for higher needs like science and arts. Wolff even invokes the Hobbesian argument that a life without a community of men would be a life of fear, because anyone could be killed by other people.

A community or a state is then created by households entering into a mutual contract that aims at the general well-being of all of them – note that it is the head of the houshold that gets to decide the loalty of everyone in his family. Wolff obediently notes all the six classical possibilities with the traditional names derived from Aristotle: the good constitutions or monarchy, aristocracy and polity and their corrupted variants or tyranny, oligarchy and democracy. Wolff then does allow the possibility of ”polities” or republics ruled by majority votes, although he notes that they are often hindered by party politics. Still, the rest of the book is clearly meant for absolute or constitutional monarchies, where the king has all or at least majority of power in his hands. Wolff's task is to enlighten the German despots and make their minds accessible to reforms their states required.

Wolffian ideal of society contains some characteristics that justify calling him an enlightenment philosopher. For instance, Wolff encourages kings to found schools, colleges and universities for educating people in sciences and handicrafts, to build hospitals and apothecaries for serving the sick and to make the cities beautiful for all senses by filling them with works of art and by making sure that nothing stinks. Then again, the main interest of Wolff in politics is the upholding of public morality, which gives Wolff's suggestions a moralizing tone. Thus, Wolff suggests that only art that teaches morals is to be accepted and that a state should be filled with buildings for public moral preaching. The most extreme suggestion from modern standpoint is that all punishments should happen in public in order that potential criminals would think twice of their immoral intentions.

The idea of places for public moral preaching is interesting as a not so veiled attempt to promote churches as necessary for the well-being of the state – the attempt becomes even more apparent, when Wolff notes that belief in God is almost a prerequisite for a moral society. True, Wolff has admitted that morality is possible without religion. Wolff even goes so far as to accept China as an atheist state that has one of the best constitutions in the world – as we shall see, this admission will be fatal to Wolff's carrieer. Still, Wolff is convinced that majority of atheists will be scoundrels incapable of living in community with other people.

Wolffian politics is then not so much interested of the welfare of the people, but of their morality – although bodily and mental welfare is, of course, part of moral perfection in Wolffian system. Thus, it is just natural that in Wolff's opinion laws of a state should be based on the law introduced already in Wolff's moral writings, that is, the natural law. Wolff does allow some changes to be made to the natural law in case when following it would be extremely difficult. For instance, natural law determines that a child should become independent, when she has all the necessary skills for taking care of herself. Yet, because it is often hard to determine the exact time when a person has become mature in his actions, state must make a concession and determine some fixed age at which everyone is to be considered an adult.

Natural law is for Wolff even a higher authority than state. Usually one must obey the rulers of one's state, but if the rulers break the natural law, people are not committed to obeying them. Thus, if a king tries to murder someone, the attemped victim has the right to defend herself. Yet, Wolff advices people to resist the ruler's will only in the cases where one's own well-being is threatened or where one is commanded to do immoral things. Hence, if a despot threatens to kill your neighbours, you have no obligation to help them – unless you happen to be the soldier who is to pull the trigger.

Wolffian system of politics appears then to have no true stopgap for tyrants and dictators. True, Wolff does advise kings to limit their own power and become as symbolic rulers as king of Sweden or queen of England are nowadays. Wolff even justifies this adivce through a comparison with the universal monarch or God, who leaves the actual government of the world to humans. Yet, there is no guarantee that a tyrant would follow Wolff's advice. Indeed, Wolff can only hope that religion and the fear of God would stop kings from tyrannical behaviour – a rather poor hope when Wolff has just congratulated God of not meddling in human affairs.

The individual states are then related like individual persons to one another, and just like persons ideally act like self-enclosed monads, so should states have no concern for the international community. Positive in this isolationism is that Wolff thinks all warfare to be evil and justifiable only as a self-defence – although Wolff does accept also reasonable suspicision of evil intentions as a reason for self-defence, somewhat like American head of state before the attack to Iraq. But Wolff appears to be blind to the invisible economic battle that his mercantilist tendencies generate – Wolff advices states to horde as much money as possible, which in effect make economic co-operation impossible in international level.

So much then for Wolffian politics. Next time I'll have something to say about the generation of Wolffian school.

torstai 3. toukokuuta 2012

Christian Wolff: Reasonable thoughts on the social life of men and especially on the community (1721)

It is clear that Wolff must have already had made preparations for the Vernünfftige Gedancken von dem gesellschafftlichen Leben der Menschen und insonderheit dem geimeinen Wesen, when he published the previous title in the ”Reasonable thoughts” -series. Wolff's German ethics concentrated on the individual in abstraction from his social surroundings, but the current book promises to correct this mistake.

Wolff accepts the tradition of contractual origin of societies, which emphasises the essentialy individual nature of human beings and which was later criticised by Hegel. The story begins from an imagined point where individuals have not yet formed any societies. If human beings could provide for themselves, the story would also end here, but they have various needs for which they require the help of others. Thus arises the need for contracts, where one person offers what the other desires. Some of these contracts call for the persons involved to live together as a unit, and such units and the interpersonal relations within them are what Wolff is describing in the book.

The origin story provides Wolff already with some general principles that are valid of all societies. Every society has been generated for the purpose of promoting the well-being of its occupants – hence, the end of the society lies in the individuals and their common good. When the society strives to do something for the good of its members, it is morally mound by the same natural laws as the individuals themselves. If the society breaches those laws, individuals have then no duty to remain within that society. Finally, all of these societies can be regarded as individuals in their own right, and every society should be independent of other societies of the same sort.

Wolff calls the study of these societies politics, but the first half of the book is actually dedicated to what was traditionally known as economics after a pseudo-Aristotelian book of the same name. This was not economics in the modern sense – a study of e.g. commerce – but study of oikos or household, while politics was restricted to a study of polis or community. Wolff's book quickly turns into a description and justification of the customs of his own culture, the 18th century Germany. Thus, we hear that a household contains three types of relations: those between a husband and a wife, those between parents and children and those between masters and servants.

The traditionality of the book can be seen in Wolff's definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of conceiving and educating children. Wolff's justification of the tradition of marriage betrays a common ambivalent relation to sexuality. Wolff admits that the desire for sex is natural as the necessary means for the reproduction of human species – even a person in an ideal state of knowledge would want to have sex. Thus, having sex is even a duty: once you are capable, just go and do it.

Then again, Wolff thinks sex is good only as a means for reproduction. Especially the pleasure connected to sex exists only for the sake of hinting that conception of children is good. Hence, any sex that cannot lead to the birth of children is by definition forbidden. Wolff explicitly mentions e.g. bestiality, prostitution and homosexuality, but refrains from describing all possible sexual vices in order to avoid giving any bad influences. And who is the worse sinner, the prostitute or the client? Wolff's definite answer is the prostitute: while the client is governed by his sexual impulses, the prostitute could use reason, but chooses to make sin for the sake of money.

Often the defenders of traditional marriage shy away from the unwanted consequences of their premisses. Wolff takes his premisses seriously and denies even all heterosexual sex that cannot lead to conception. Thus, sex and marriage with an elderly and generally with an infertile person is forbidden. Still, Wolff does allow marriage continue throughout the life time of the married persons, so that they can take care of one another in their old age.

Mere conception of children is not enough, but one is duty-bound to take care of the children until they can take care of themselves. Hence, the need for marriage. Because one is committed only to raise one's own children, women should not have many partners, Wolff says – otherwise, we could not determine who the father is. In principle men could have many wives, but children of one wife are enough for one man to provide for – shortage of cash is the only reason for dismissing polygyny.

Husband and wife must then take care of their children. Here Wolff can conveniently just copy what he has said in his ethical writings, because duties for the welfare of others coincide with the duties for oneself: one must feed and cloth the child, and especially one must educate him or her, both in intelligence and will. Wolff shows some progressiveness, when he urges the parents to depend more on the children's intelligence than on beating and punishments – that is, when the children start to understand things better. When the children can finally provide for themselves, the duty of the parents stops, but the children are for the rest of their lives committed to respecting their parents for their kind deeds.

If the parents work for the good of the children, the servants are hired to work for their masters. Although the masters thus appear to be more in need, it is actually the servants who have the worse position: servants cannot provide for themselves and so they must sell their services for their living. What servants are to do is mostly decided by the contract made with the master – they just have to do it obediently and the master has to see that the servants are not overtasked. Wolff even allows the possibility that servants (or slaves) would be owned by the master, who could then also sell them to others. Wolff restricts slavery only to persons whose happiness essentially requires external governance. We immediately recognise a common excuse for the enslavement of Africans: they just couldn't manage themselves.

Wolff lived in an age when social relations were for the most part hierarchic. Thus, even in household there must be one person leading others. Children are still not fully rational and so are to obey their parents, while the servants are bound by the contract to obey their masters. When it comes to mixing children and servants, Wolff expressly instructs to avoid it. Children might disturb the work of the servants, but the true reason for Wolff's command appears to be the fear of corrupting influence that servants as persons of lower status might have on children.

The case of husband and wife is more interesting. The result is, of course, determined by the gender roles of the time. Husband or the lord of the house is to be the final master over the household, while the lady of the house is relegated into the position of a trusted advisor, who knows the affairs of the household best, and a representative of the lord, whom the other occupants must obey. Yet, Wolff admits that in principle men and women are not that different. Women are just more bound to the children, and it is customarily the men who have to provide for their families. Hence, the men know more about the ways of the world and should therefore rule the household. Although Wolff's argument is meant to uphold the status quo, it leaves open the option that under different customs women might have the opportunity to educate themselves and become as capable of taking care of the household as men are.

Wolffian economics shows then barely a hint of progression from the traditional trappings. We shall see if things fare better with the actual politics.