tiistai 13. elokuuta 2013

Thoughts over philosophical bigotry, whereby at the same time is sufficiently answered what the so-called J. F. Müller from Württemberg or more likely Mr. Court Counsillor Wolff in the published writing True medium etc. etc. has argued against author's Eleatic graves, and against his system new and incontrovertible doubts are made (1727)

I have literally no idea who the current author, Johann Gottfried Walther, is supposed to be: the only person with that name from the 18th century I have managed to discover was a musician. Of course, it could be possible that an organist might want to dabble with philosophy in his spare time, but it still feels rather peculiar.

As far as I know, Walther published only two philosophical texts, first one in 1724, titled Eleatische Gräber, oder Gründliche Untersuchung der Leibnitsischen und Wolffischen Gründe der Welt-Weißheit, which was meant to, as the title indicates, criticize Wolffian philosophy. This work had the pleasure of awakening the interest of J. F. Müller, a minor Wolffian, who wrote a defense of Wolff against it. Finally, Walther answered Müller with Gedancken über die philosophische Bigotterie, wobey zugleich auf dasjenige, was der so genante J. F. Müller aus Würtemberg, oder vielmerh der Herr Hof-Rath Wolff in der herausgegebenen Schrift Wahres Mittel etc. etc. wider dessen Eleatische Gräber eingewandt, zureichend geantwortet wird, und wider dessen Systema neue und umstößige Zweiffel gemachet werden.

The reason why I chose to write about this rather obscure work is that it shows much better style and philosophical acumen than other critiques of Wolffian philosophy I have met thus far. The nominal topic of the essay is bigotry: Walther portrays Wolffians as philosophical zealots, mindlessly following their leader who has contaminated their head with mumbo-jumbo.

In a truly original manner Walther compares Wolff's philosophy with Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. A superficial reason for this comparison lies in the supposition that both works combine factual statements with pure fiction. Yet, Walther has a more substantial analogue in his mind. Walther thinks that Crusoe's deserted island where the castaway manages to live by his own is as convincing as the solitary state of a human soul supposedly cut away from any real connection with other souls. And just like the interaction of Crusoe and Friday is at first made impossible by a language barrier, so is the interaction of soul and body denied apparently by Wolff.

Walther did understand that Wolff later downplayed the idea of pre-established harmony, but this just made him more convinced that Wolff was a devious fraud wanting to deceive his followers. It is remarkable that Walther found only this single issue not to his tastes and would have admitted the whole of Wolffian philosophy otherwise. He was also singularly aware of the reason why Wolffians adopted the pre-established harmony, namely, because laws of mechanics appeared to deny change of motion coming out of thin air. Walther understood the reason, but couldn't care less: if the interaction between soul and body contradict with laws of mechanics, so much worse for the laws.

Furthermore, Walther was not just satisfied with showing his disgust, but also had a good argument against Wolffian position. It is a reasonable assumption that the incapacity of human soul to control its body lies in the essence of the soul: spiritual beings just cannot have causal interactions with material beings. Then again, Wolff's system relies on God as the creator of everything there is, including the material world. Yet, God is obviously spiritual being also and thus essentially incapable of doing anything for the material objects, let alone creating them.

Walther's argument appeared already in the Eleatische Gräber, and it was answered in turn by Müller. The answer relies clearly on Christian assumptions. Müller suggests that there is nothing essential in spiritual substances that would prevent them from controlling material substances. Then again, in this particular world human souls appear to have no effect on bodies, so this must be just an accidental thing: current world is just built in such a manner that souls cannot interfere with it.

Müller's answer feels unconvincing, if you don't buy in the idea of creation or don't believe in afterlife. Yet, it has its own difficulties, even if you do. Walther points out that Müller's suggestion would make human souls in their current condition unfree, because they would be prevented of doing something that they would naturally be capable of. Thus, God would have made human unfree, when he created the world – a rather peculiar result in a Christian setting.

Next time we shall see another critic of Wolffian philosophy.

tiistai 6. elokuuta 2013

Speech about Chinese practical philosophy, recited in solemn panegyric (1726) and New anatomy or analytical idea of Wolffian metaphysical system (1726)

I have already mentioned the lecture ofChinese philosophy held by Christian Wolff and explained the rather drastic consequences of this lecture, namely, the accusations of atheism and the expulsion from hisposition. What is still left is to actually describe the lecture itself. While it was held in 1721, written versions of it appeared only few years afterwards. I am especially interested of a version that was published in 1726, called simply Oratio de sinarum philosophia practica, in solemni panegyri recitata, because in this version Wolff had annotated his original speech and thus explained his ideas further.

The lecture itself holds no surprises after reading Bilfinger's more detailed presentation of the topic. Wolff notes that while form of the Confucianism differs from modern moral philosophy – Confucius uses examples, where Europeans would have preferred deductions, and rituals form a large part of moral education – but essentially emphasizes the commonalities. For instance, Confucius divided human being into two parts – sensuousness and reason – and advised one to subjugate senses to guidance of reason, because this is what made human beings perfect and led to tranquility, just like states were happier if governed by wise men. Furthermore, Confucius suggested we should use external glory as an incentive for moral progression: one had more motive to be e.g. kind to other people, if kindness was something that the community thought worthwhile and commendable.

What especially the annotations show is Wolff's wish to downplay the possible atheist leanings in Chinese philosophy. As I have already mentioned in a previous post, it is rather difficult to say whether Confucianism endorsed the idea of a personal god or merely just the existence of an impersonal force. Wolff appears to speak for the more theist interpretation of Confucius or at least he attempts to argue for its plausibility.

A completely opposite view of Confucianism is suggested in Lange's Nova anatome, seu idea analytica systematis metaphysici Wolfiani. The work is actually a collection of Lange's texts, and a large part of it contains a more summarized version of Lange's earlier works attacking Wolffianism. Thus, we see Lange again criticizing Wolff for combining ridiculous idealism with at least equally ridiculous materialism through the Leibnizian notion of pre-established harmony. Lange has clearly just ignored Wolff's many explanations of these questions, so the result is a somewhat skewed view of them. Lange has still read at least Bilfinger's summary of Wolffian metaphysics: for instance, he dismisses Bilfinger's notion of hypothetical necessity, as far too deterministic to form any getaway road.

While these parts of the work feel hence fairly repetitive, Lange also takes some time to attack Wolff's lecture with its annotations. Some of the criticism is rather amusing, for instance, Lange attacks the legends meant to justify the longevity of Chinese wisdom by noting that some of the people involved apparently lived, when the world and China with it was covered by deluge according to the biblical story.

Lange's main complaint about Confucianism is rather predictable. He is convinced that Chinese have no divinity and at times appears to identify Confucianism even with the dreaded Spinozism. No wonder he is outraged when Wolff casually compares Confucius and Mohammed with Moses and even Jesus – a known atheist and a heretic put on the same level with a holy prophet, and even worse, with the son of God.

All in all, there's only one serious piece of criticism against the ethical theories of Confucius and Wolff, namely, that both use glory and ambition as an incentive for moral behaviour. Even here, Lange's argument misses the point. True, it is not truly ethical to do good deeds only because you desire the fame and reputation of a benevolent person – after all, this would leave the possibility that you acted mischievously in cases where no one could ever know. Still, glory and ambition might well be used as tools for educating moral behaviour, and indeed, this is what we do when we thank and praise children for their good behaviour.

So much for Confucius, next time we shall see how Wolff's metaphysics resembles the tale of Robinson Crusoe.

sunnuntai 4. elokuuta 2013

Philosophical commentary on the origin and acceptance of evil, especially moral evil (1724)

A considerable problem for most theistic systems is presented by the question of theodicy. God is usually portrayed as infinitely benevolent person who wishes good for everyone. Furthermore, he is also thought to be omnipotent or capable of anything possible. Given these premises, it would seem a necessity that God would eradicate world of all evil. Yet, the world is clearly full of evil things, and not just minor evils, like the pain that I got when my toe hit a stone, but also evil of major proportions, such as earthquakes and wars. These considerations thus present a challenge for anyone accepting the existence of omnipotent and benevolent deity.

Bilfinger considers the problem in the section of Dilucidationes concerning natural theology, but he had also dedicated for it earlier a whole treatise, De origine et permissione mali, praecipue moralis, commentatio philosophica. While apparently only about this particular question, Bilfinger takes considerable time defining and explicating all concepts involved in the problem and thus goes through a significant portion of other metaphysical issues. Thus, it is no wonder that central concepts for solving this problem are actually physical or psychological: causation and letting things happen.

Of the two concepts, causation appears easier to understand: if A does something that makes B happen, then A has caused B, that is, if my pressing the trigger leads to the death of the person, the pressing was the cause of the death and I am thus to be blamed. Being a cause of something then requires a) that the cause was active in causing something and b) that without this activity that which was caused wouldn't have happened.

Letting or allowing things to happen is then, in a sense, a concept contrasting with the concept of causation. The crucial difference lies in the clause a), which in this case would say that the allowing factor was in a sense passive or did not act in some manner. Furthermore, the clause b) would be otherwise identical, but instead of activity, the lack of activity is the crucial element required for the event. Thus, if I don't push a person away when she is about to be hit by a rock, I could be said to have allowed the rock to hit the person.

Now, it is clear that the notion of allowing something to happen is meaningful only from the perspective of conscious agents, who can be said to have considered whether to act or not. Thus, we wouldn't say that an immovable stone allowed a robbery to happen by not dropping onto the head of the robber, because stones usually don't have any say in how they happen to be moved.

An intriguing question, especially from the viewpoint of ethics and justice, is whether allowing something to happen should have the same status as causation. In one sense, causation is something more: I am punished by law, if I actively make bad things happen, but not if I allow them to happen with my own passivity. Thus, it is no wonder that Bilfinger adopts this distinction as a partial explanation of the problem of evil. That is, he argues that we couldn't blame God for all the evil in the world, because he hasn't really caused it, but merely admitted it within the world.

Bilfinger's justification might still not completely satisfy us. After all, we do sometimes reproach people also for not doing things, especially if they are very powerful and would have had the capacity to prevent some extreme evil to happen: politicians who do nothing for things such as pollution and poverty fall to this category. It appears preposterous to suppose that God Almighty could get away from all guilt merely by saying that he had nothing to do with the evil in the world, he just watched it unfold.

Bilfinger thus must also have recourse to the Leibnizian idea that God has chosen the optimally good of all possible worlds. Whatever evil there is, it should be just a necessary ingredient of and condition for ultimate goodness – and if we could see things from God's viewpoint, we could immediately see how all the seeming evil falls into a greater pattern of goodness.

What then is the real cause of evil, if not God? Ultimately, Bilfinger says, it all comes down to the finiteness or imperfection of the world and its denizens: only God can be perfect, so all things outside him might possibly lead to some evil consequences. God cannot be faulted for their imperfections, because imperfection is in their nature. Instead, God merely gave these finite substances actuality, which is positive in itself.

A particular source of evil Bilfinger emphasizes is free will: because humans and other conscious beings are imperfect, but free to choose their own fates, they might e.g. make their egoistic desires into maxims guiding their action. Evil following from perverted use of free will Bilfinger calls moral, distinguishing it from general metaphysical evil associated with finity and from physical evil.

The most problematic is Bilfinger's account of physical evil: if a stone falls on my head and kills me, I cannot blame the stone, because it had no choice in the matter. Some responsibility obviously lies with free agents: if I get angry to a person and drop a stone on him, it is my fault and not stone's. In these cases physical evil is just a consequence of moral evil, but it appears that a fair portion of physical evil is not of this kind: witness, for instance, earth quakes. True, we could suppose that there is an evil supernatural entity behind all such phenomena, but this seems overly complicated. Bilfinger himself adopts a different defense: physical evil that has not been caused by actions of a morally evil person is probably God's punishment for immoral life. Although this notion is consistent, I find it rather barbaric that a God would have to unleash earthquakes and volcanoes for punishing criminals.

So much for Bilfinger, next time I shall return to the beginning of the atheism controversy, that is, Wolff's lectures on Chinese philosophy.

perjantai 2. elokuuta 2013

Intuitive and symbolic cognition

Both Leibniz and Wolff divided cognition into two kinds: intuitive and symbolic. I've had some difficulties clarifying to myself how these two relate to the progression from sensations through imagination and memory to intellectual faculties of understanding and reason, so it feels a bit helpful to see what Bilfinger has to say about the issue.

The basic definitions deriving from Leibniz are pretty straightforward: intuitive cognition is caused by attending the nature of things directly, while symbolic cognition is connected to things only via mediation of signs. Leibniz then had supposed that composite concepts are usually cognized symbolically: after all, analysis of concepts into its constituents happens usually through signs, e.g. if I define square as a rectangle with all sides equal, the definition would be expressed verbally. Primitive concepts, on the other hand, might be cognized either intuitively or symbolically: e.g. point could be defined either by looking at points or by saying what one means when speaking of a point.

Furthermore, all distinct concepts – that is, concepts that can be analysed into clear concepts or into concepts through which we can distinguish objects – must be based on intuitive concepts. In other words, if we had an analysed concept, in which we would know all the constituent concepts only through further linguistic explications, somewhere along the line we would have to use a circular explication, which clearly wouldn't help to distinguish any objects. Thus, an analysis or explication that is successful should at some point meet some cognitions which are directly connected to things. Intuitive cognition is therefore a necessary ingredient of good cognition: if our cognition is not grounded on things, it might well deteriorate into a shamble of contradictions and meaningless expressions.

From the perspective on what Leibniz has to say, intuitive cognition is essential to well-founded science. What good is symbolic cognition then? Bilfinger answers by turning into Wolff's account. While symbolic cognition cannot by itself be a source of true cognition, it can be used in inferring truths from known truths. In particular, symbolic cognition is required whenever we want to move to general truths about classes of objects: we cannot literally be effected by any class of objects, because classes are not real entities. Thus, symbolic cognition makes it also possible that the Leibnizian ideal of an algebraic art of thinking could be one day found. In addition, symbolic cognition is also useful in transmitting cognition from one person to another: we cannot share intuitions, but we can share signs and symbols.

Interesting here is how the division of cognition into intuitive and symbolic kinds corresponds better with Kantian division of sensibility/intuition vs. spontaneity/understanding than Wolff's own division of sensations and concepts. Indeed, Kant's famous statement that intuition without understanding is blind, while understanding without intuition is empty, could be easily translated into the Leibnizian-Wolffian statement that intuitive understanding by itself is blind, because it cannot be generalized, while symbolic understanding by itself is empty, because it fails to connect cognition with actual things. Of course, Kant doesn't call his intuitions and concepts alone cognitions, but reserves this name only for the result of the interplay of the two.

So much for Bilfinger's take on Wolffian psychology, next time I'll discuss his notes on Wolffian natural theology and especially the problem of evil.