perjantai 28. helmikuuta 2014

Defining existence

I've already discussed the essentials of Wolff's theory of language when studying his German logic. What I especially emphasised at that point was the role of language in communication – since we cannot transmit our thoughts directly through telepathy, we have to use words that just suggest thoughts of certain concepts. In addition to this secondary role of being a surrogate of mental images, Wolff now also mentions a more substantial task of words as crucial for more abstract thought. Words are necessary for representing general terms that we cannot imagine, such as virtue, number or existence, and so, we might say, in these case words just are concepts.

The importance of words for abstract and general thoughts is especially clear in case of definitions, which often are the only way to produce certain abstract thoughts. Definition is for Wolff an essentially linguistic phenomenon, that is, it must be something either spoken or written. Definition should represent a certain concept, but not just any concept – it must be complete and determinate in the sense that through it we come to know enough characteristics for distinguishing and identifying the object of definition.

In effect, then, definition helps to make our concepts more clear and distinct. Before hearing the definition, we might have just an obscure idea of a concept referred to by a term to be defined. Definition then returns this originally obscure term to at least clear terms, that is, terms, the corresponding concept of which refers to objects we can distinguish from other objects. We might note how Wolff is here touching on the question known as the paradox of analysis: either an analysis of a term leads to an identical proposition or tautology and is thus useless or it leads to a non-identical proposition and is thus wrong. Wolff would admit that definitions are identical propositions, but would note that it is not the definition as such, but the whole process of defining and so clarifying our concepts that is important.

Definitions should then lead us to terms clearer than terms to be defined. This is actually one of the formal requirements of a good definition, according to Wolff. In addition, one should not use in definition the term to be defined or another term requiring the definable term for its own definition, because this would leave the original term as obscure as it was before.

Wolff also suggests that terms referring to modes of things cannot be used in definition: definition should be something that helps us discern things constantly, but modes are variable and therefore offer no reliable method for distinguishing things. For instance, suppose we have learned to identify a certain species of rabbits by the colour it has in summer. We still wouldn't be able to recognise it in the winter, if it happened to change its colour according to seasons. Instead, we would have to be able to recognise the rabbit through such properties it has constantly, that is, its essence and attributes. Note that these properties might be constant dispositions, provided that we can generate conditions in which these dispositions are activated. Thus, we can recognise different gemstones by the hues they present in certain lighting, because we can take the gem to be tested in the required lighting.

The ideal form of definition of a species of objects would, firstly, indicate the nearest genus to which the species belongs and then note how this particular species differs from other species belonging to that same genus. In essence, this is the classical mode of definition through genus and so-called specific difference, familiar especially from the traditional classification of animal species.

In speaking of definitions, Wolff of course mentions also the important difference between nominal and real definitions. What is important in this distinction is to note that Wolff did not uncritically assume that one could gain insightful theories just by putting words together: this would boil down to mere generation of nominal definitions, which do not imply anything about the actuality or even possibility of things so defined. Instead, one should aim to produce real definitions, which do allow us to say something about this and an important part of which is formed by genetic definitions telling how something can be generated.

So much for definitions, next time I shall be speaking of judgements.

perjantai 21. helmikuuta 2014

Classified concepts

Wolff's Latin logic makes the status of concepts or Begriff much clearer than its German counterpart just by using Idea as one possible translation of the term. It is obviously ideas of Locke Wolff has in mind, which suggests that Wolffian concepts are predominantly mental images of objects. In light of this imaginative character of many of Wolffian concepts, it is evident that the already familiar classification of concepts according to their levels of clarity and distinctness need not mean to indicate that it is all about how well defined our words are. Instead, it might be all about making our mental images more detailed: if we note the way the petals of a certain rose are formed, we have made our concept of it more perfect.

Wolff reveals that the levels of clarity are actually only one way to classify concepts. Particularly, they form only a formal classification, in the sense that their difference refers more to our cognition than to the things the concepts represent. It thus appears reasonable to suppose that there are also material classifications based on the represented things and not on cognition. Before I introduce such classifications, I will have to explain Wolff's use of some concepts borrowed from ontology.

The notion of essence should already be familiar from Wolff's German metaphysics. While there essence was defined through modal notions, here Wolff explains the concept simply as the constant kernel of immutable characteristics in certain object. Although the difference is rather obscure, Wolff supposes that not all immutable characteristics are part of the essence. In addition to the essence, there are attributes – a term of Cartesian origin – which are equally immutable, but determined by the essence: for instance, if the three points of a triangle define the essence of triangles, their attributes will include at least the existence of three angles. Essence is, as it were, the basic force regulating a thing, while attributes are necessary effects of that force.

While essence and attributes are immutable characteristics, modes – another Cartesian concept – are mutable characteristics, like a colour that can be painted over. Still, modes are at least inherent to the things and not just mere relations to other things, which form then the utmost level of inessentiality and corruptibility.

Now, if some feature is mutable, it clearly cannot be used as a reliable sign for the existence of something (a red ball can survive, even if we paint it over with black). Thus, only essence and attributes can serve as characteristic marks, used for differentiating e.g. animals from one another. Indeed, we might even construct a concept that would contain nothing else but these characteristics: Wolff calls such a concept simple. Complex concepts, on the contrary, contain an abundance of characteristics, some of which are not necessary for distinguishing it from other objects (note that these characteristics need not be just modes). It goes without saying that of all perceived and imagined things we have complex concepts. Then again, all distinct notions of genera contain only characteristic marks and are thus simple (again, obscure and confused notions of genera might be complex, because they might contain characteristics not necessary for identifying a genus).

Related to the notion of complexity is the notion of concreteness. Concrete notion represents all characteristics of a thing, whether they are essential characteristics, attributes, modes or even relations to other things. A concrete notion is clearly always complex and all perceptions at least are concrete (in imagination we do not represent e.g. all relations of an apple). Then again, not all complex concepts are concrete, as the case of a complex notion of a genus testifies. If a concept is not concrete, it is abstract or represents only some characteristics of a thing, abstracted or isolated from other characteristics.

As I have already remarked, Wolff has nominalistic tendencies and he especially considers all talk of genera to be mere simplified talk of a number of individual things. A group of things share only some characteristics in the Wolffian ontology – there's no two individuals with the exactly same characteristics. Thus, fictional genera contain only some characteristics determinately. Individuals, on the other hand, must be fully determined, which is then the distinguishing characteristic of individuals for Wolff (we shall return to this point more fully in Wolffian ontology).

Now, some concepts refer to a number of objects – these Wolff calls common concepts – while others, the so-called singular concepts, refer only to one individual. As it is easy to see, an individual concept is not necessarily concrete. For instance, when I am imagining Obama, my actual mental image is an amalgamation of the actual recordings and images of Obama, but drops out some details that make perception almost perfect: still, there's only one person my imaginations are all about. Furthermore, a simple concept might also be singular: just witness the inscription ”first black president of USA”, which uses words that clearly characterize the person in question, while their combination points to no other persons.

Next time I'll discuss some linguistic matters.

torstai 20. helmikuuta 2014

Natural logicians

Wolff defines logic as the discipline for guiding cognition to truth. That is, for Wolff logic is not just a canon or rule book for separating clear falsities from possible truths, but an organon or methodology for finding truths. Now, Wolff notes that such a discipline or science should properly be called an artificial logic and distinguishes it from what he calls natural logic. Such a natural logic might be an innate capacity for searching truths, but it might also be learned through education, like rules of thumb for solving some mathematical problems, just as long as we are still unclear about why such rules actually work.

Natural logic means for Wolff then just the usual workings of cognition, and its proper place of discussion would be psychology, on which logic then depends on. Natural logic forms in Wolff a process, stages of which are familiar already from Wolff's German writings and in which we begin with sensations or perceptions (as I've noticed before, Wolff does not distinguish these carefully). Some of the sensations are somehow connected to things that are external to the consciousness and that appear to make impressions on sense organs. Yet, Wolff also admits the existence of an inner sense, by which we come to know ourselves.

The sensations or perceptions form then the starting point of cognition for Wolff, although they are also its most rudimentary phase. While perceptions can only refer to things that are actually present, imagination helps us to e.g. recollect images of absent things that we have seen previously. Both perceived and imagined things can then be concentrated on and apprehended. Such an act of apprehension requires that we use the perception or the imagination as a representation of the real thing.

Suffice to say, this representation is what Wolff called in German Begriff (a concept), while in Latin version he uses words like Notio and Idea, which reveals the clear Lockean influences. While Kant was later to disparage Wolff for intellectualising appearances, he was actually doing quite the opposite and made at least some concepts into mental pictures. Thus, the image of the rose in front of me or of the one I remember seeing are all concepts for Wolff. True, we can also refer to these images and individuals represented with them by words, but this is secondary. Note that all the concepts at this point concern only individuals, since universalities cannot be perceived or imagined as such.

The mental images of past and present things can then be compared with one another. These comparisons might immediately instigate in us an awareness of e.g. certain similarities between different things. This awareness is the first instance of judgements, and like concepts, they have their own linguistic counterpart in propositions. Furthermore, it is through such judgements that universal concepts come to existence – when we think of whiteness and if we are not just thinking about the word ”white”, we must be thinking about several white things and the recognition of their similarity.

From judgements of similitude we form then notions of genera of things, which are nothing apart from the things and their similitude and the words we use for designating these spurious entities – we thus see Wolff here advocating nominalism. In addition to similarities, we also intuitively note dissimilarities between things and can thus divide genera into different species. Finally, we can extend the set of true judgements we can make by using our intuitive judgements as a basis on which we can build complex demonstrations.

Now, if all of this is natural logic, what task is then left for artificial logic anymore? That is, if one can do all this by instinct or at least learn it by following how others use their reason, why should we need an independent science of reasoning? Wolff himself doesn't consider the problem, but Hegel will have a convincing answer in an analogy. Surely our digestion, muscles etc. work by themselves, but we can still profit from learning anatomy and physiology, because we can then eat in a healthy manner, exercise properly etc. Similarly, we surely do think naturally, but logic teaches us how to think well.

Next time I shall say something about Wolff's classification of concepts.

perjantai 14. helmikuuta 2014

Rational philosophy or logic (1728)

I recently had the distinct displeasure of reading a rant of a would-be philosopher who disparaged a logician, because modern logical texts are like circuit diagrams – useful perhaps, but meant only for people with no literary taste and ultimately unphilosophical. Personally, I find logical texts of all sorts – whether they be ancient, modern, formal, informal, transcendental or even Hegelian – to be aesthetically pleasing in a way that a beautiful calculation or a brilliant game of chess is also: as delightful in their very existence as brightest of poems, no matter how useful they otherwise might be. And if someone complains about non-existent philosophical import of logic, I am always reminded of Hegel's clever quip about enthusiastic youth who are enamored by Plato's more vivid and lively dialogues and who later become very disappointed when they hit the abstract heights of Plato's Parmenides and its study of dry concepts like one and many. Thus, I am not afraid of the supposed dryness of next book in line, Wolff's Philosophia rationalis sive logica.

Is this all there is to logic?

As someone might remember, Wolff had already published a book on logic, the first in his famous series of reasonable thoughts. The current book, on the other hand, begins Wolff's philosophy anew, except this time in Latin. While the German series was meant mostly for domestic markets and especially his students, the publication of Latin versions of different parts of his philosophy served the purpose of making Wolff's work more known throughout Europe. Because of their more scholarly ambitions, Wolff's Latin books contain also more material than their German equivalents. Thus, while I first thought that Wolff's Latin logic would contain only about 300 pages and not be much longer than its German counterpart, I noticed quickly I had actually picked up a separately published compendium for Latin logic, containing just the table of contents for the actual book, which happened to be over 800 pages long.

Just like its German counterpart, Wolff's Latin logic contains much that would not be dealt in a logic course these days: it is more of a book of methodology. Thus, it is also meant to be the first book of Wolff's Latin philosophical works in the sense that reader should first grasp how philosophy works before actually reading some philosophy: the true first philosophy is then ontology, because all the other parts of the philosophy depend on it.

As starting points of series, both books begin with an account of what philosophy is all about. But the inflatedness of the Latin logic shows itself in the very start, with Wolff's novel discussion of three forms of cognition – well, it is actually novel only from the perspective of Wolff, because it is quite reminiscent of Bilfinger's disputation with this very topic. What is important in this beginning, is Wolff's clear commitment on empiricism: all cognition begins with a historical phase, where one can just learn facts through observation. The cognition could then develop into mathematical cognition, by quantifying the results of observation, or it could turn philosophical by attempting to find explanations for the facts (note that nothing speaks against cognition that is both philosophical and mathematical, especially if the quantification helps us to discern causal relations).

If philosophical cognition means finding explanations for observed facts, philosopher is then a person who can give such explanations – that is, an expert on some topic. Philosophy, on the other hand, is for Wolff not just any expertise. Just like in his German logic, Wolff defines philosophy as a science of what is possible. I already noted that this definition means actually just what science does: capacity to demonstrate assertions from indubitable premisses.

Whereas German logic left a rather rationalistic impression, in Latin logic Wolff admits that experiences and experiments can well give science its required premises, provided that they just are reliable. Indeed, although Wolff does equate philosophical and mathematical method, he does accept also the construction of hypotheses or reasonable, but unproved assumptions as an incentive to scientific development. Thus, completely axiomatic-deductive system is admitted to be a mere ideal that we can perhaps approach, but never completely satisfy. The ideal also instigates philosophers to remain moderately skeptical in dilemmas where none of the options can be proven indubitably.

Wolff also notes that philosophy might be cognized only historically, that is, we could just e.g. read Wolffian system and learn all its propositions. Such a historical knowledge of philosophy might be useful, but true philosophical cognition of philosophy is achieved only when we try to understand what philosophers say, for instance, by repeating the experiments described in a text book.

Just like in German logic, in Latin logic Wolff also presents a general division of philosophy. What is remarkable is that the new division is more detailed, especially as it comes to more empirical parts of Wolffian system. This no doubt reflects the fact that Wolff has now actually worked out his system in more detail and has especially realized how important empirical observations are to the development of science. In addition, Wolff also helpfully indicates how each part of his system depends on some parts and serves as a foundation for others.

I’ll be continuing for a while with my account of Latin logic, and next time I shall take a look at the difference between natural and artificial logic.

perjantai 7. helmikuuta 2014

Reasonable thoughts and judgements on eloquence: Of influence and use of imagination for improvement of taste or detailed study of all sorts of writings (1727)

We have finally reached a time, when Wolffians are not just content to explicate what their master said and defend his views from attacks, but also attempt to develop his ideas to their own direction. It was aesthetics, a matter that Wolff himself had left almost completely unnoticed, which was the first new field to be tackled by German philosophers.

Johann Jakob Bodmer's appreciation of Wolff is evident even from the name of his planned book series on poetry, Vernünfftige Gedancken und Urtheile von den Beredsamkeit. The series was meant to study the topic from various angles, and while the first book, Von dem Einfluss und Gebrauche der Einbildungs-Krafft; Zur Ausbesserung des Geschmackes: Oder Genaue Untersuchung Aller Arten Bescreihbungen, concentrated on imagination, the later books were meant to consider e.g. wit, taste and sublime. As far as I know, the first book of the projected series was also the only one ever written.

Bodmer in his old age

The Wolffian leanings of Bodmer are especially revealed by his attempt to situate aesthetics within the context of Wolffian cosmotheology. World was meant by God as something to be studied by rational entities, that is, human beings were meant to investigate the works of nature and thus see the glory of its Creator. The first means by which humans get in contact with world are senses, but with these we can merely come to know what is directly before us.

What is at least required for a more complex knowledge is the capacity of imagination, which at that time meant not just a capacity for creativity, but referred to all mental activities in which the object is not necessarily present to our senses – the object may then well be something that has existed and that we are only recollecting. Indeed, it is not complete fictions imagination should try to convey, but real things that do not happen to be present to our senses at the moment.

Art, for Bodmer, is then a matter of imitation – rather conservative view from modern perspective. Among the different types of artists, poet then ranks higher in Bodmer's view than painter or sculptor. While fine arts in general are based on visual sensations, to which in sculpture tactile sensations are added, poetic descriptions can use the whole range of sensations and emotions to convey the likeness of an object. Poet should even be master of all arts and skills, knowing everything from anything, Bodmer concludes.

Bodmer's criterion for good art and especially good poetry is then its capacity to evoke realistic ideas of things it describes. The majority of the book presents then examples of poetry, evaluated with this criterion. It seems clear that Bodmer is clearly wanting in decent German poetic works: when one has to elevate Brockes, rather repetitive writer of poems evoking teleological reasoning over and over again, as an example of what Germans can do at their best. Bodmer himself has to confess that while German language has evocative vocabulary for describing nature, in affairs of culture one must turn to Latin, Italian and French poets - especially Pierre Corneille appears to have been a favourite of Bodmer's.

While then especially many of the German works quoted by Bodmer feel rather artificial, Bodmer's own evaluations seem also rather misplaced. We might think it rather trite, if a writer compares lips of a woman to Red Sea, but it feels somewhat strange to condemn the lines containing this comparison, because Red Sea isn't actually red at all. Yet, it falls perfectly in line with Bodmer's naturalistic ideal of poetry. Thus, he is often disparaging unnecessary use of wit and prefers writings that reveal actual experience of things described. In case of human emotions, he praises writers who have clearly, for instance, suffered the sorrow of a lost wife.

Red Sea, not that red actually

When giving guide lines for poems describing human behaviour, Bodmer also touches on some quaint philosophical notions. Physiognomy or the idea of the character of a person showing through one's appearance is familiaralready from Wolff's writings and Bodmer himself mentions Wolff as a great source for future poets for finding good descriptions of the external effects of human emotions. Another rather old-fashioned idea is the notion of national characteristics determined partly by natural environment, partly by mores and customs of the nation – this is probably something that we will see in more detail with later German philosophers.

So much for Bodmerian aesthetics for now, next it is finally time to begin Wolff's Latin works.