perjantai 29. elokuuta 2014

Empirical psychology (1732)

After cosmology, Wolff turns his attention once again to human soul, and just like in his German metaphysics, he divides the topic into two parts. The book I now reading, or Psychologia empirica, concerns, as the title says, empirical psychology, which is meant to provide us with the experiential information that any theory of human soul or consciousness should be able to explain. Second part, or rational psychology, is then supposed to present the theory used for explaining the propositions of empirical psychology.

Psychology is so for Wolff an empirical science, and it is through experience that we must ascertain the existence of the very topic of psychological investigations, that is, the human soul. Wolff can finally apply the Cartesian strategy, with which he had started the German metaphysics. He begins from the rather indubitable fact that we are aware of things external to us. Note that we need not confirm that there are things outside us, just that there is this state of being conscious of them. Now, it is easy to conclude that there must also be someone who is conscious, or the ”I”.

Wolff declares that the starting point of the deduction or the state of consciousness of external things is so indubitable that psychology has as certain beginning as mathematics. Clearly, he once again does not want to say that the existence of external things is certain, but only that our consciousness of them is. Wolff thus suggests that the consciousness of external things is dependent on the possibility of being conscious of ourselves. Later on, Kant tried in his refutation of idealism, as it were, to reverse this line of thought and show that our self-consciousness is dependent on our consciousness of external things.

Wolff then defines soul as that which is conscious of itself and external things. One might wonder if Wolff is here moving to the perilous area of Kantian paralogisms. Yet, one must remember that at the stage of empirical psychology Wolff merely describes what can be experienced without committing himself to any theories explaining these experiences. Thus, Wolff can certainly assume that there is both consciousness of things and consciousness of this consciousness and that these two states of consciousness are part of same stream of consciousness. He might even have the right to call this stream soul, if he just refrains from saying that the soul is e.g. immortal and independent substance – it would be just a different name for human mind or consciousness.

A more difficult problem lies in the question about the relationship of soul and body. Like a good Cartesian, Wolff notes that soul is known before body, that is, while we can be quite certain of the existence of our soul, the existence of our body is more doubtful. One might think that this assumption relies on Kant's fourth paralogism about the supposed relationship of soul and body. Yet, when it comes to empirical psychology, Wolff even here remains within the limits of what Kant could accept. Even Kant doesn't deny that ”I am and I think I am” is far more certain that the statement ”I am a bodily being”. It is only when from these facts conclusions like ”I am not a bodily being” are drawn that philosophers stray from a safe path.

Wolff's empirical psychology is then not full of paralogisms – if these are anywhere to be found, it will be in rational psychology, where Wolff will try to explain the empirical facts of our mental life. Even so, we still have to ask whether Wolff's methodology in empirical psychology is acceptable, as even I have voiced some skepticism about it.

Now, the aim of empirical psychology, according to Wolff, lies in cognition of our own soul: cognition is here defined as nothing else but awareness or consciousness of something. The cognition of ourselves, Wolff continues, we receive through our capacity of apperception. The word ”apperception” was introduced by Leibniz, because he wanted to separate consciousness of external things (perception as such) from consciousness of oneself. Wolff follows this lead in a rather unimaginative fashion. Perception, he says, is simply representation of something, while apperception is then perception of ourselves. All perceptions involve the possibility of apperception, that is, when we observe, for instance, an apple, we can also note that we are observing this apple. Wolff just takes it for granted that this self-observation is unproblematic, without considering in Kantian manner how this self-observation takes place. Yet, despite these methodological problems, we might still accept the results of such a self-observation, just as long as we do not make any problematic inferences from them – that is, just as long as we remain at the level of empirical psychology and note, for instance, that we have memories, without stepping to the field of rational psychology by trying to explain why we can remember things.

Before moving onward to a more substantial account of capacities of human mind, I shall make a note of the structure of the book. Wolff uses the trusted notion that human mind has a cognitive and volitional part, basing even the division of the book on that presupposition. Within each major part, Wolff then differentiates between less and more clear faculties – sensory perceptions from understanding, sensuous impulses from free will. Next time, we shall be looking at the book in more detail, starting from sensation or perceptions.

maanantai 25. elokuuta 2014

Such a perfect world

Wolff has attached every entity with an essence, which, as it were, contains the kernel of a thing or its central characteristics, from which all features of the thing, or at least their possibility, can be explained. Every thing, whether just possible or actual, has also an essence, or else it wouldn't be a thing. Thus, even world must have such an essence or nature, and the nature of the world (or simply nature) means for Wolff the sum of all principles of mutation inherent in the world, that is, the sum of all active forces in the world.

Now, by natural Wolff simply means something belonging to the nature of any topic. In case of world, natural then means something being or happening in accordance with the forces and laws governing motion. Events that do not happen according to these forces and laws are then supernatural events or miracles. Furthermore, there is an intricate relation between the miracles and laws of motion. Wolff admits that laws of motion are not necessary and that events we would call miraculous are completely possible events of another world. Yet, Wolff goes even further and suggests that miracles can in a sense happen even during the normal course of events – this doesn't imply contradiction, Wolff says, but only the incompleteness of the world we live in. If world is a clockwork, miracle is like a finger entering the works and doing something clock itself wouldn't be able to do. Miracle changes the world, and to do that, it must have adjusted the inner workings of the elements of the world, because elements can exist only in a single world. In order that the world would remain the same world, another miracle will have to follow that changes everything back to how it was.

Laws of motion then define the nature of the world, but they also contribute to its perfection. Perfection in general Wolff defined in his ontology as arising from the unification of a multiplicity under some rules. In case of world, this unification must take the form of a spatio-temporal whole, and the rules governing it are clearly the laws of motion. Thus, when we become aware of the laws governing physical world or the order of nature, we are not just becoming more informed, but also able to appreciate the perfection of the world. Due to the incompleteness of human cognitive capacities, Wolff thinks we can never know the perfection of the world completely – a clever way for Wolff to avoid the possible objection that world does not appear perfect.

Before I completely move away from Wolff's cosmology, I would like to point out how misleading is the Kantian account of what cosmology is about when it comes to Wolff. As it is well known, Kant uses especially his idea of antinomies to undermine the traditional cosmology – reason faces insurmountable dilemmas in its most important questions. Now, ironically the four problems Kant mentions are not treated by Wolff in his cosmology. Problems about human freedom and possible creation of the world are respectively psychological and theological for Wolff, and the questions of the spatiotemporal limits of world and of the divisibility of matter are never comprehensively discussed by Wolff, as far as I can see.

Next time we'll turn to Wolff's empirical psychology.

torstai 21. elokuuta 2014

Matter and forces

An important feature of world, according to Wolff, is that it is a composite, that is, it consists of parts. Some of these parts are familiar to us from experience. Wolff points out that none of these experienced parts are indivisible, but consist of further parts – we might call them in a modern philosophical vocabulary middle-sized objects.

As composites, Wolff continues, everyday worldly objects must be such that can be completely explained through the structure and mutual relations of these parts – in effect, they are machines similar to the world itself. Because of the dependence, one need just change parts of a middle-sized object in order to change the object itself. In fact, this is the only way to truly have some effect on these objects.

All the changes on the bodies require then moving some stuff from them or moving some stuff in them – that is, movement or motion and direct physical contact is an essential element in changes of the worldly objects. It is then no wonder that a huge part of Wolff's cosmology is dedicated to determining the so-called laws of motion – mostly descriptions of what happens when several bodies collide with one another, depending on their size, mass, velocity and cohesion. Although determining what the correct laws of motion were was an ongoing philosophical and scientific theme at least from the time of Descartes' Principia philosophiae, I won't go into any further details here, besides one exception.

The one interesting element in the laws of motion is the notion that a resting body will not by itself start to move and that a moving body will not by itself change its velocity or direction. This property, known nowadays as inertia, is called by Wolff a passive force of a body, and according to him, should be taken as defining what is called matter, which he takes to be the extension of passive force. With just matter, bodies would then just have stayed in the same place for all eternity. The movement must have then been generated by something else, that is, by an active force, which is then transferred from one body to another in various collisions. Matter and active forces are then what one requires for explaining the constitution of our world and they might be taken as substances in what we observe of the world.

Yet, matter and active forces are not the whole story. As I've mentioned in a previous text, beyond the level of material bodies exists the level of elements of bodies, because as composite entities material bodies must ultimately consist of some simple entities. As simple, these elements cannot have any extension and are therefore indivisible. They are not like atoms are thought to be, Wolff says, because atoms are supposed to have no true distinguishing qualities, which would contradict the ontological principle that no two entities can have exactly same qualities.

The differentiating principle of the elements, Wolff suggests, should be their conatus, that is, the basic force containing in nuce all the changes that will happen to a particular element. In effect, elements are differentiated by their whole life history. Because an essential part of a life history of an element consists of its interactions with other elements and these interactions are essential part of a nexus forming a world, an element cannot exist except in a single world, that is, by changing world you must change also its elements and vice versa.

The actual relation of elements to bodies is rather confusing in Wolffian philosophy. What is clear is that elements constitute the realm of bodies we observe. This means that many features we appear to observe in bodies must be deceptive. For instance, bodies appear to consist of continuous masses of such types of stuff as water. Yet, because all matter and even water must consist of individual, indivisible and completely distinct elements, they must actually be discontinuous. What is unclear is how this phenomenal realm of continuities is supposed to arise from true realm of discontinuities. The question is muddled even more by corpuscles, which Wolff introduces as constituting a level between observed bodies and elements. The behaviour of bodies Wolff explains as constituted by the corpuscles, parts of body, which still are divisible. Yet, no explanation is given how corpuscles are generated from the level of elements, and number of confusing questions remain. For instance, should a corpuscle consist of an infinity of elements?

This enigma is a point where we must leave the Wolffian concept of microcosm. Next time I still have something to say about the order and perfection of the world in Wolff's cosmology.

tiistai 19. elokuuta 2014

General cosmology (1731)

After Wolff's huge works on logic and ontology, his Cosmologia generalis feels refreshingly short with its under five hundred pages. The shortness of the book might also reflect its lack of importance in the purely philosophical part of Wolffian system. Wolff's cosmology works mostly as an introduction to general natural science or physics and is thus firmly connected with Wolff's more empirical studies. Then again, of other parts of metaphysics only theology is essentially said to be based on cosmology, because Wolff argues for the existence of God from the existence of a certain type of universe.

The topic of Wolffian cosmology is then world or universe and general types of objects in it. The very existence of universe is not so much proven by pure reasoning, but assumed – or at least the existence of a universe is justified by certain empirical observations we have. What we actually perceive or observe are certain things – rocks, trees, houses and such. Now, all of these entities are finite, that is, their existence requires a number of other entities, either existing at the same time (like trunk supports branches) or existing before them (like rain requires gathering of clouds).

As they say, no smoke without fire.

The entities we observe are then connected to various other entities in space and time through causal influences. These intricate relations form a kind of web or nexus, in which one thing can be connected to any other thing of the nexus through a string of causal relations. A totality of such interconnected spatio-temporal things is then a world or a universe. There might be different possible universes, because a number of possible strings of events might have occurred, but only one of them truly has occurred, that is, the string of events constituting the history of our world.

I have investigated the nature of this Wolffian universe in quite a detail earlier, but there's no harm in going through it all again. World is a composite of things, and as a composite, its nature is dictated by the nature of its parts. Thus, Wolff concludes, if we replaced just one peck of sand, the world would be completely different, because its identity is determined by the very entities constituting it.

Now, in the actual universe, all things we happen to observe are composite substances, that is, they consist of other things and what they are or their essence is determined by their constituents. If we then want to change these substances, we must essentially change their constitution, that is, remove some parts or add other (for instance, if we want to make blackened metal objects shiny, we must remove all the grime on the surface of the objects), or then we can change the way they happen to move at the moment. All these changes require then direct contact with the object to be changed: you cannot pluck something out, if you are not close enough. In effect, this means that world and all the composite objects that we observe can be changed only through motion that comes in contact with what is to be changed. Wolff can thus add that the world is like a machine or a perfect watch which remains in action, even if its creator fails to wind it.

As we have mentioned number of times, Wolff does not think that his account of world could be called necessary in the strict sense of the word. Indeed, it is easy to see that even if we could explain all the events of a current day, we would be forced to explain them by referring all of them to past events, which would then be completely unexplained and required a new explanation. At the end, these events would be necessary in the strict sense, only if no other series of events would be even conceivable, which is clearly not so.

Then again, Wolff also claims that worldy events are not completely inexplicable facts. Indeed, this non-explicability of some facts should be contradicted even by the principle of sufficient reason, which states that all contingent things and events arise out of some more primary things and events. In case of universe, these primary things and events are movements of material bodies, which with machine-like predictability leads to further things and events. This deterministic view of universe does not completely cancel the non-necessity of the worldly events, because a deterministic series as a whole is not necessitated by anything,

This is enough for the Wolffian scheme of macrocosmos, next time I'll take a look of what he has to say on microcosmos, that is, bodies and their parts.

lauantai 16. elokuuta 2014

Attempt at a critical art of poetry (1730)

We have already witnessed an uprising of a Wolffian school, particularly in the guise of two followers of Wolff, Thümmig and Bilfinger, but now a second generation of Wolffians starts to appear on the scene of German philosophy. Johann Christoph Gottsched had already studied Thümmig's summarised rendering of Wolff's ideas and would himself write another text book of philosophy later in 1730s. Yet, his primary achievements on the field of philosophy was the introduction of aesthetical questions to German philosophy in the shape of a widely distributed book, Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst.

Gottsched (1700-1766)

As the name of the work reveals, its topic is the art of poetry and particularly the possibility of evaluating poetic works through philosophical principles. As we shall see again when considering Gottsched's text book on general philosophy, he was quite fond of beginning with historical discussions and especially with speculations on times before reliable written histories. Thus, he suggests that poetry is the second eldest art, preceded only by music, which also was a natural ingredient in the first works of poetry, which were sang and not read.

At first poems were made quite freely, Gottsched continues, but experience made it clear that even poetry must have some rules – he explicitly mentions Aristotle and Horace as masters in this field. Every art, Gottsched suggests, strives to imitate nature – painting does it with images and music with sounds, but poetry can use full field of all sensations, or at least our mental recollections of such sensations. Just like every other art, poetry must then strive for naturalness, Gottsched concludes.

Mere description of natural entities is still not poetry, according to Gottsched, or at least it occupies only the lowest rung. A slightly more adequate type imitates the speech patterns of certain persons – this is especially true of dramatic works. Yet, the real meat of poetry lies in fables or story telling – a good poem tells of activities of people, either of the common folk, as in comedies, or of the noble and mighty, as in tragedies or in epics, which Gottsched evaluates as the highest form of poetry, recounting an event important to the fate of a whole nation. It is clear without saying that Gottsched insists each story to have a moral – the aim of poetry is to make people better.

Gottsched accepts the Wolffian idea that stories present, as it were, events in other possible worlds and thus might not follow rules of the actual world – a story might have, for instance, talking animals as characters. Still, naturalness is an important standard for good poetry: improbable events usually hinder the enjoyment of a poem, Gottsched says. Of course, what seems probable depends on the level of education. We cannot therefore disparage Greeks for using divinities and other mythical entities as characters, but in the modern world any use of magical effects would seem incredible, Gottsched concludes.

Even if Gottsched strives for naturalism, when it comes to stories, he does not insist on using a natural style in poems. Indeed, he goes even so far as to suggest that too naturalist style might turn into banalities, which are against morality. In fact, poetic style is characterised by certain wittiness, which combines seemingly distant ideas in a manner that is rare in a straightforward historical telling of events: thus, while a historical work describing a battle would just recount all the events, a poem about the same battle might e.g. use some suggestive similes making more philosophical points about the nature of warfare.

A good poet is then one who can discover new and surprising connections between apparently quite disparate topics. Yet, this is still not enough, Gottsched says. An uneducated natural poet does not know about the rules of good poetry and therefore might well fail to have a proper taste and be lured by bad novels. Even if she manages to gain skills required for good poetry, she might still lack the basic ethical education, which is an essential requirement for educational poetry.

Judging just by these general directives, one might concur with Egon Friedell that Gottsched was a bit uptight in his aesthetic views. This impression is amply confirmed by his actual reviews of certain well known poets. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has some delightful moments, Gottsched admits, but it has one great fault – the events of the play last longer than one day, which makes the whole thing seem quite improbable, as what audience sees happens only within few hours (I believe Gottsched is just one of those persons with no ability for suspension of disbelief). And Molière is also witty author, but he sometimes uses characters reminiscent of commedia dell'arte and especially that awfully unbelievable magical trickster, the Harlequin. Besides, many of his plays fail to have a proper moral.

But truly vehement criticism Gottsched lays upon opera, which he calls the most absurd invention of human understanding. This form of art Gottsched considers to follow the sad tendency of modern forms of poetry that they let the music control the substance of the poem too much. Indeed, even the very notion of opera shows its absurdity, because the idea of people singing all the time is just too incredible to believe. True, the music can be divine, but the stories used are from the worst kinds of books, featuring all sorts of unlikely events, magic and wondrous things, making it all seem like a tale out of another planet. But what is definitely worst is the complete absence of morals that operas appear to endorse. As a life-long fan of Wagner I cannot but wonder what Gottsched would have had to say about the overtly mythological story of Nibelungen.

GOTTSCHED: Dragons? No way!

It is not that Gottsched sees no justification for the existence of opera – it can serve as an amusement of princes and nobles, serving to ease their life of constant toil over state welfare. Even here Gottsched recommends replacing opera with ballet, which at least reveals the gentle grace of human anatomy. After all these remarks, one cannot fail to see the irony that a person attempting to find universal rules of good poetry can epitomise so well the essential relativism of aesthetic judgements.

So much for Gottsched's aesthetics, next I shall return to Wolff with yet another part of his Latin works.