torstai 25. syyskuuta 2014

The height of cognition

When I look at the massive collection of Wolff's combined works, I get the impression he might have been a keen business man: after all, it requires a good sales pitch to get one's writings sold numerous times after the first print. Furthermore, it is not just the huge amount of reprints, which makes me consider the possibility, but also the fact that Wolff essentially made duplicated copies of his works in German and Latin. The most astonishing example is still Wolff's logic. The German version of logic was one of Wolff's first publications, but so fond of the topic Wolff was that he essentially summarised the main ideas of the book in his German metaphysics and especially in psychological chapters (after all, cognition is part and parcel of human mental life) and then years later in his book on morals (naturally, a moral person has a duty to find out as reliable information as possible). It is once again the point coinciding with logic I have now hit on Wolff's Latin psychology. Since I have so recently went through Wolff's Latin logic in quite a detail, I shall just do a quick summary of Wolff's ideas of intellect and cognition, especially from a psychological point of view.

Last time I described Wolff's notion of intellect as a faculty of distinct ideas. Although one can have distinct ideas of individual objects, it is especially universalities Wolff is interested here, because universalities are an essential ingredient in the more complex forms of intellectual cognition, that is, making judgements and reasoning on basis of judgements. I also noted Wolff's distinction between intuitive cognition based on direct observation of ideas and symbolic cognition based on language and generally signs and their manipulation. Wolff notes that this duality continues throughout all levels of cognition. Thus, we can have direct awareness of a universal feature shared by a number of entities or we can just refer to this feature with a general word, we can note a connection between certain ideas of universal features of we can express this connection with a string of words and we can use the connections we have observed to deduce more connections or we can use formal rules of syllogism and mechanically calculate consequences of certain linguistic expressions.

The capacity to draw inferences Wolff calls reasoning, and it is closely related to the faculty of reason, which is just the capacity to view a whole system of universal truths and their interconnections. The more pure a reason is, the less external material it has to use, and pure reason would observe a system based only on definitions and self-evident axioms – note that Wolff does not indicate what sciences actually belong to pure reason, but one would assume that at least mathematics is a part of it.

Pure reasoning is then expectedly a form of a priori cognition. In Latin logic Wolff made it clear that actually all cognition uses reasoning a priori, that is, also deductions based on experiences. Here Wolff also explains that all cognition based on experiences is a posteriori, thus making it possible that cognition is both a priori and a posteriori – this is what Wolff calls mixed cognition. Wolff is thus beginning to approach a position in which a priori and a posteriori refer to components and not types of cognition. We might also note that Wolff divides experiences and says that a posteriori cognition can be based on active experiments and passive observations, which includes in addition to sensuous perceptions also apperceptions, thus making psychology explicitly not part of pure reason.

We might finally point out that Wolff introduces the notion of an analogy of reason, which was especially important to Wolff's followers, such as Baumgarten. Wolff's idea appears to be that as the ideal of reason is a system of interconnected truths, we might expect that world conforms to this system in the sense that it is also a system of interconnected entities. Thus, if some part of nature is known to be structurised in a certain manner, we have a justification to assume that some similar part of nature is also structurised in the same manner.

So much for theoretical part of the soul, next time we'll start to tackle the practical side of our nature.

sunnuntai 14. syyskuuta 2014

Reflecting on intellect

I have pointed out a number of times that although sensation as such belongs in Wolff's psychology to the less clear side of faculties, even sensations can be more or less clear. Just consider a common enough experience, such as perceiving a bicycle. When we notice a lone bicycle, the actual sensory data received by human mind contains a lot more than just the bicycle, for instance, balcony above the bicycle and bricks on the wall that the bicycle is leaning against. Then again, what we are clearly aware of includes only a fraction of this data, namely, just the bicycle, while the wall, the balcony and others recede into a murky background. This effect can be very pointed, as shown by the famous example of people counting how many scores a player makes in a basketball match not noticing a guy in a monkey suit dancing on the field. This difference in the levels of clarity Wolff considers under the concept of attention. We might say that if human consciousness is like a light, only some objects can be in its focus.

The effects of the faculty of attention seem not completely positive, because the necessity of focusing one's attention on a part of sensory data prevents the possibility of considering more than one thing at a time. This is especially lamentable in case of sensations, which are easily disturbed by other sensations. Thus, it is not easy to concentrate one's attention on some particular sensation for a long period of time, because other sensations constantly demand our attention too.

Yet, although attention itself has a limited range and might thus not show all facets of a thing, we can also systematically move our attention from one facet of a thing to another and thus ultimately go through it all – this method Wolff calls reflection. We can also imagine the various parts of the thing as separate from the whole – this is what is called abstraction. When we then reflect how the various abstracted parts combine into a totality, the result is a more detailed view of the structure of a thing, which is not just clearer, but also more distinct, due to us having discerned the various parts of the thing and their interrelations and retaining all of this in memory.

Now, this stage of representing things distinctly is already intellect, Wolff defines, thus further confusing the lines between sensational and intellectual faculties – looking at a particular bicycle and seeing how all its parts combine to form a complex machinery that will move the one riding forward is already work of intellect. In fact, this is also an instance of intuitive cognition, by which Wolff means cognition generated immediately by examining our ideas – such cognition can be confused, if we don't know anything about the structure of what we examine, but through reflection it becomes more distinct. Thus, Wolffian psychology allows for the possibility of intuitive intellect, although this notion has a completely different meaning than with Kant (I assume the awareness of the mechanics of a bicycle wouldn't be something Kant would call intuitive intellect).

Note that the use of intellect is not restricted to mere universalities, but intellect could be applied individual things, like bicycles. Still universals are a topic studied by intellect – we can not just reflect on parts of a thing, but also on similarities and differences between different things, thus becoming aware of universals or features shared by many things. Moving to universalities usually requires the use of words that can be used to symbolise individual things and especially universalities – the use of words is then properly called symbolic cognition. Although symbolic cognition thus makes it easier to reflect on universal features of things and might help us to invent new things (especially through some Leibnizian ars characteristica) and is especially useful in communication of ideas, we can always refrain from using it and remain on the level intuitive cognition, Wolff assures us.

While the level of intellect as such is already achieved, once we have distinct ideas, it is of course possible to have more distinct ideas (e.g. to know what the parts of the bicycle are made of). This possibility implies a final level of highest intelligence that has nothing but distinct ideas of everything (note that this would essentially require an infinity of ideas, because the things that we perceive are infinitely divisible). A notion distinct from the idea of a highest intelligence is that of a pure intelligence. Pure intelligence does not so much know everything perfectly, but is undisturbed by various sensations and uncontrolled imaginations that distract human attention so easily.

So much for a general look on reflection and intellect, next time I shall look more closely at the use of intellect.

maanantai 8. syyskuuta 2014

Phantastic faculties

I have studied Wolff's idea of imagination in an earlier post quite extensively, but I still feel there's some possibility for clarifying the role of this faculty in more detail. Especially I shall have to emphasise its role as still officially one of the lower faculties, but even so, on a higher level than mere sensation as such.

Imagination, then, is supposed to be the faculty that reproduces ideas of certain individuals, even if they are absent. The reproduced ideas created by imagination Wolff calls phantasms. They are thus to be distinguished from sensuous ideas, which could not be produced without the presence of some concrete thing corresponding to these ideas. Still, there could be no phantasms without any sensations. That is, Wolff ascribes to Lockean principle that mind without experience would be like a blank slate without anything written on it.

I have already noted about the similarity of Wolffian distinction between sensations and phantasms and Humean distinction between impressions and ideas. Like Hume, Wolff also notes that phantasms or products of imagination are less vivid and have fewer details. Then again, this is actually positive according to Wolff and speaks in favour of phantasms. The vividness of sensations makes it difficult to concentrate on them: if we try to look at a beautiful painting, a sudden honk from car horns outside the window can ruin our aesthetic experience. The lack of unnecessary details in phantasms, on the other hand, helps to make them clearer, which is a requirement e.g. for mathematical thinking. True, phantasms can also be confused by sensations, and a honking car horn will make it difficult to follow mathematical constructions imagined in your head. Yet, even this obstacle can be circumvented, as soon as one finds a dark room isolated from all external stimuli.

The lack of sensations thus helps us to concentrate on our phantasms. Indeed, when all sensations have been cut out, phantasms become more vivid, which explains, according to Wolff, the seeming substantiality of our dreams. Like all experiences, dreams come with different levels of clarity, starting from a completely dreamless sleep and ending with lucid dreams, in which we are aware that we are dreaming.

Imagination as a faculty of producing phantasms is thus important for its own sake, but it also provides materials for other faculties, Wolff continues. Firstly, phantasms are more in our control than sensations are. In fact, a given phantasm can be, as it were, divided into its constituent phantasms – we can imagine a human head, independently of its body. Furthermore, we can also combine different phantasms, attaching a human head onto a body of a horse, thus creating the phantasm of a centaur. This is the work of what Wolff calls inventive faculty, which is responsible, among other things, all the works of fiction.

Secondly, we can use phantasms as indicators for something we have sensed or in general experienced at some past point of time. This is the task of memory, which Wolff clearly says not to be any container of images or memories. Instead, memory is actually a name common to various interacting faculties, which, for instance, recognise a sensation or phantasm as resembling something that we have witnessed, or produce phantasms of things we have witnessed.

Imagination, together with its related faculties, forms then a second level in the hierarchy of faculties in Wolffian psychology of cognition. Together with sensation, they form the lower level of cognition, in which imagination appears clearer than the multifarious and uncontrollable sensations. This does not mean that sensations could not be basis of clear and even distinct experiences, as becomes clear in the next post, where I will move to consider the higher levels of cognition.

keskiviikko 3. syyskuuta 2014

Sensational cognition

After proving that soul or consciousness exists and that we can in some measure study it, Wolff begins to discuss the theoretical or cognitive part of soul. I might notice, by the way, that this is a rather common ordering, and indeed, I have never seen a philosophical study of consciousness begin with volition. The custom goes all the way back to Aristotle's De Anima, and presumably every philosopher has just copied his predecessors in this matter.

Before actually beginning to study any cognitive faculties, Wolff defines certain notions common to all of them, starting from the concept of faculty itself. Scholars of German philosophy are often so ingrained in the language of faculties that they fail to ask even what is meant by a faculty. Wolff actually defined the term already in his ontology, where it was explicated as any active potentiality, that is, any possibility to do something that was actually engaged with actualising this possibility. In other words, faculties of soul or mind are just capacities of mind to do something, but also not passive. Instead, they are active or actually use what they can do.

After faculty, Wolff continues by describing what is meant by clarity and distinctness of perceptions or representations. The notions themselves I have explicated quite sufficiently for a number of times: clarity means for Wolff ability to distinguish a perception, while distinctness means ability to recognise partial perceptions that help to distinguish the whole perception. I could still note one more time that these concepts should not be read as forming a strict division to e.g. clear and unclear perceptions. Instead, they work more as defining a scale of clarity and distinctness: we can distinguish an object with various accuracy in different situations, and analysis required for distinctness might reveal further characteristic marks. This notion is further backed up by the fact that Wolff calls clarity of perception light of soul – light does not form a clear division with darkness, but between light and total darkness there are many shadows and gray areas.

These very same perceptions can also be called ideas, although Wolff prefers defining idea as a representation, in which we are especially interested of the object represented: that is, when we talk of perceptions, we talk of an act of subject, but when we talk of ideas, we talk of individual objects. Concepts, on the other hand, are representations of general characteristics of things, of genera and species. Cognition, then, means acquiring ideas and concepts of various things, that is, conceiving what things and their characteristics are. Cognition can then have various levels of clarity, but Wolff places the most important distinction on whether the ideas and concepts involved are distinct, that is, analysed into further ideas and concepts. Cognition with distinct ideas and concepts is in Wolffian psychology on a level higher than cognition with obscure and confused ideas and concepts, that is, one should aim at analysing one's ideas and concepts.

Wolff begins the study of cognition from faculties of lower level. Wolff's choice reflects a natural development – we begin with confused and even obscure ideas, which little by little become clearer and more distinct. Thus, it is no wonder that Wolff begins with sensations, which presumably are the beginning of all cognition. Sensations are also the link of human cognition to the external physical world. An important element of this world is our own body that appears constantly attached to us and seems to be in continuous correspondence with certain perceptions (note how Wolff avoids the question whether this correspondence is explained by actual interaction between body and human mind or whether there is no interaction between them – such questions will be tackled in rational psychology). Sensation, then, is defined by the special correspondence between human mind and sensory organs of the body, that is, sensation is a perception that can be understood by basis of changes in these organs (even if they are not caused by these changes).

Because sensation is studied by Wolff in a part dedicated to the lower part of human cognition, it becomes natural to ask if Wolff completely discarded sensation as without any value and completely obscure. Yet, the idea of clarity and distinctness as a scale instead of division makes it possible that sensation could rise in clarity and even gain some distinctness. This is especially shown to be true by Wolff's investigation of attention and reflection, but even sensations themselves contain levels of clarity – a stronger sensation is also clearer than a weaker sensation. A further value of sensations lies in their relative freedom from arbitrary whims of human mind. Thus, if one is looking at some spot, one cannot just choose what one is seeing. The only way to control what one senses is to move to another spot or at least look to somewhere else.

So much for sensations, next time I shall turn to imagination.