sunnuntai 29. maaliskuuta 2015

Christian Wolff: Natural theology, prior part – God and the world

In the beginning, God might have created heaven and earth, but it is hard to explain what God did in this supposed creation. First there was no world and then there was one, but because we cannot do such things, these words do not convey any clear meaning. It appears that in case of creation, whether there was such thing or not, we are always incapable of truly understanding what it is all about.

Christian Wolff tries to shed some light on the topic. World is dependent on its elements, so in creating the world, God must have used the elements. Because elements, on the other hand, are dependent on the very world they should constitute, God cannot have used elements as a construction matter, but he must have begun his labourious efforts by creating the elements out of nothing. At the same time as he created elements, God ordered them to various structures constituting the world itself. On top of all this, he also created finite souls to think this world.

Now, Wolff believed that space and time are relational, that is, that there would be no space and time without any spatial and temporal things. Thus, space and time did not exist before creation, but both began to exist in the creation.

Since Wolffian God is supposed to exist beyond time, it seems hard to decide whether the world is supposed to be finite in its history or whether God created it as having existed for an infinity. Here, on the other hand, Wolff is willing to accept that there is a first state of the world. Because this beginning is not explained by anything in the world, it must be miraculous, Wolff concludes. This appears to be actually the first time when Wolff explicitly admits time has a first moment – it might be that he is trying to prove his non-Spinozism by this move.

God is then capable of doing the miracle of bringing truly new things into existence, while no other thing can do this, but is only restricted to modifying what is already given. Indeed, nothing else would even exist without God, because he is also preserving world. Of course, Wolff notes, since God is atemporal, his act of preservation is the same as his act of creation.

Wolff's God is still not just a creator and upholder of the world, but just like in Christian tradition usually, he has designed the world down to its last details. Indeed, God is a moral being who has wisely set up the machinery of the universe in such a manner that it serves some higher end, which obviously must be good – God is providential, which can be seen in the fact that all things in the world are of use to one another.

Especially in case of rational beings, like humans, God has set up some goals, which they should strive to obtain – God gives human an opportunity to perfect some part of the world. Of course, God doesn't force anyone to follows his councils, but merely creates an obligation that we should follow them. It is then up to an individual whether she wants to follow God, but in the end it would be in her best interests to follow them, since God's rules should be of benefit to anyone.

All in all, Wolff appears to know quite a lot of what God is like, what he has done, and what he wants of us. On a closer look, Wolff admits that we know not very much about this God. We know that God is the final ground of everything, but this is about as much as we can say. Many of the supposed divine attributes are mere negations – final ground of world is not material, but he isn't also any human soul. Then again, the supposed positive attributes of God are only eminent, that is, they are somehow similar as some of our own attributes, but in reality quite incomprehensible, because we do not know e.g. what an infinite understanding would be like. When people of Kantian leanings thus accuse Wolff of a philosophical arrogance and of an attempt to base substantial knowledge of God on mere concepts, these accusations do not hit the mark – our knowledge of what God is, is rather meager.

So much for the first past of Wolff's theology, onward to second!

keskiviikko 25. maaliskuuta 2015

Christian Wolff: Natural theology, prior part – Good and powerful

Wolffian God is not satisfied with mere contemplation of possibilities, but decides to actualise one of the possible worlds. In order to do this, he needs to have the capacity to actualise anyone of them. Indeed, God could make anything happen that is possible and only impossibilities are limits to his capacities – in effect, God is omnipotent, Wolff says.

What God requires for this use of his capacity is mere act of will. This is of course completely different from what human beings do – in us, decision and actualisation of a plan are two completely distinct events. In fact, there is an even further difference, Wolff says. Human beings usually start by contemplating all the possibilities and only after careful consideration make their choice. With God, these two events are connected in one act – God chooses even in contemplating possibilities.

Now, when God chose to actualise this world, he knew exactly what would happen in this world, because he knows everything that would happen in any possible world. This appears to lead to the famous problem of divine prescience – how could our choices be completely free, if God already knows what we are going to choose beforehand. The answer to this problem is also quite traditional – knowing something does not cause it, thus, even if God knows what Obama will do tomorrow, he did not choose it for Obama's sake. Of course, this line of reasoning has the striking weakness that God does choose the world that is to be actualised and seems so responsible of everything that happens in the world.

What is more important is that God must have had some reason for picking this particular world – as we know already, Wolff thinks it is because the actual world is the most perfect of all worlds. The Leibnizian story of a necessary evil which all worlds must have and which God doesn't cause, but only allows should be familiar by now. Wolff also emphasises God's wisdom and goodness. God is wise or he knows the best means for actualising his ends, thus, the world and its laws are the most efficient there can be and allow, for instance, human beings to actualise their ends. Indeed, God has given humans liberty, because he is good and hopes they will of their own choice make good decisions – and even if they don't and end up doing evil things, in the end, even this serves the final good.

God's wisdom is then for the most part incomprehensible to human beings – we simply cannot see all the strings that should turn evil actions into good effects. Yet, God can reveal us information that goes over what we can directly know through experience – Wolff's take on the idea of divine revelation. This is also a good place to stop, because in next post I will finally think of the ways God effects other things, that is, nature and spirits.

sunnuntai 22. maaliskuuta 2015

Christian Wolff: Natural theology, prior part (1736)

Wolff's Latin series of metaphysical works is finished by his Theologia naturalis. While from the modern perspective this must be the least interesting part of Wolff's system, it is, on the contrary, largest of all the Latin metaphysical works, and indeed, was published in two volumes. The first volume begins with a brief explanation of what natural theology is all about, but is especially characterised by an a posteriori method – that is, Wolff attempts to use experience to determine the existence and properties of God. The second volume should then obviously use an a priori method – a novelty in Wolffian system, and we shall see how it fits in with the more established part of his theology.

Wolff's primary route for God's existence has always been through what Kant would later call a cosmologial proof. Wolff begins by admitting the existence of reader's own soul – if nothing else exists then I at least exist. Then Wolff notes that there must be a complete grounding of the existence of this soul. Complete ground or reason can then be only something which does not require any further explanation or anything external for its own existence. It is clear this proof has a number of weak points. What is this grounding supposed to mean? If it is just a nickname for a mental demand of human consciousness that all things must be fully grounded, then we clearly need not take it seriously as an ontological principle – even if I'd have to insist on God's existence, this would not necessitate God's actual existence. Then again, it appears unreasonable to suppose that the complete ground in an ontological sense couldn't be an infinite series of past events, especially if one believed that such a series would be necessary.

Whatever the case, the rest of the book sets out to discover further characteristics of this final explanation of everything. The most straightforward feature is that while God, like all entities, must have some force, it must be a force that requires nothing external for activating it. In effect, if there is no inherent contradiction in the structure of God, it will, as it were, actualise itself, no matter what – we shall return to this idea, when we are dealing with the second book on natural theology. Figuratively one can say that God existed before anything else and God will exist after anything else.

God's necessity and self-sufficiency reveal at least what God cannot be. God cannot have been generated in a literal sense of the term and he definitely cannot be destroyed – thus, he cannot be material. Then again, because human souls are essentially dependent on the world they represent, God cannot be a human soul. Still, God has chosen to create a particular world and so must have some mental activities or be spirit. In fact, by thinking what sort of spiritual activities are required in an act of creation, one can try to determine what God is like.

Now, in order that God can choose a world to create, he must have first checked out all the possibilities from which to choose the world to be created – in effect, God must have considered all the possible worlds. This means that God must have some cognitive activities, yet, they are of quite different type than human cognition. For starters, God does not have any passive faculties, because he is constantly acting or cognising things. Furthermore, God does not need to move from one aspect of a world to another, but he comprehends immediately everything that would happen in one possible world. Because possible worlds contain all that there might be, God is definitely omniscient.

If God then knows all things perfectly well, can he also know what we know, as we know it? Well, God cannot fail to have a perfect knowledge, thus, he cannot force himself into a mode in which he would have only human type of knowledge of world and cannot therefore have any firsthand experience on the condition of human consciousness. Still, God can know that some other person has a more imperfect view of the world.

Because God can at once see all the past, present and future events, he has complete historical knowledge of all individual things. This does not mean that God could not have universal or philosophical knowledge also. Indeed, God can intuitively know whether certain feature of things is universally connected to another feature, so making him the greatest scientist of all times. Of course, even in universal knowledge God is not restricted to any use of symbols, although he does see that humans usually require such aids for universal knowledge.

Before moving onto more active side of divine attributes, it is good to note in passing that Wolff also used considerable number of pages for determining whether Bible got it right – that is, whether e.g. Bible is correct, if it says that God sees something, or whether it must be using symbolic language. It is a bold move, especially considering accusations of atheism against Wolff and the recent schism with the Wertheimer Bible, that Wolff even considers such questions, even if these questions feel rather dated nowadays. Next time more about the divine will.

perjantai 20. maaliskuuta 2015

Joachim Lange: Philosophical mockery of religion; Hoffman: Proofs of such basic truths of all religion and morality, which are denied by opposites found in Wolffian philosophy and which have been confounded (1736)

In 1735, a translation of the five books of Moses was published in the town of Wertheim by the bookbinder J. G. Nehr. In itself this might sound a harmless event, but the translation was quite controversial. Theologians of the time were quick to point out that the book was rather unorthodox. For instance, it appeared to avoid all references to Godhood containing more persons than one, thus being in complete opposition to the dogma of trinity.

Wolff's opponontes were quick to connect this translation with Wolffian philosophy, although the reason behind this connection seems quite murky – perhaps it was just a case of putting all your enemies into one group. Lange's Der Philosophische Religions-Spötter was more concerned with attacking the Wertheim translation through a heavy exegetical artillery, but it also contained a linking of this translation with Wolff. Lange is quick to point out that the infamous translation reeks of mechanistic philosophy, the supporters of which tend to raise their own understanding above Bible.

While Lange's attack has then little of philosophical value Hoffman's Beweisthümer dererjenigen Grund-Wahrheiten aller Religion und Moralität, welche durch die in der Wolffischen Philosophie befindlichen Gegensätze haben geleugnet, und über den Haufen geworfen werden wollen is once again more satisfying work. True, Hoffman does dedicate the last few pages to attacking the translation, but his main criticism is once again left for Wolff's philosophy.

Even the introduction, usually the least interesting part in the books of this period, has many lovely moments, for instance, when Hoffman declares that there is one thing he disagrees with Lange, who thought that he saw something good in Wolff's philosophy, while Hoffman discerned nothing of value in it. Within few pages Hoffman argues that Wolff's works lack originality and that they are utterly without any practical value – here Hoffman makes fun of Wolff's tips about eating and drinking regularly, as such things must have been told everyone by their parents, and ends up with hinting that Wolff might have fared better with a career in interior decoration, since he appears to be so interested of the topic in his ethics.

This is all, of course, a bit of tomfoolery, but Hoffman soon moves onto more serious issues, for he sees a more alarming weakness in Wolff's philosophy, namely, its incapacity of giving proper foundations to philosophy. True, Wolff does boast of a mathematical method, but by this he means mere syllogisms, which cannot reveal anything new. Hoffman accuses Wolffian logic of containing no logic of probability – and at this point I must wonder, whether he had read Wolff's Latin logic at all, because it does contain some rudimentary work on probabilities.

Problems of Hoffman's interpretation of Wolff increase in the main body of the text, where it comes increasingly clear that Hoffman reads Wolff through pietist specitacles – so full of passages, in which Wolff is seen as a mechanistic Spinozan and immoral atheist, is Hoffman's text. The most Hoffman acknowledges is the possibility that he and his companions just haven't understood Wolff' points, but this is then Wolff's fault, for surely competently learned men should have no difficulties in understanding – a rather naive view, I'd say.

But the most interesting part of the whole work comes when Hoffman drops criticism and tries to argue for the theses that Wolff's philosophy supposedly denies. Of an utmost importance if Hoffman's attack against the principle of sufficient reason. He is quick to point out that he is not speaking for complete randomness of all occurrences. Indeed, the Leibnizian principle works just fine in the realm of passive entities, which cannot determine themselves to anything new, such as material things. If a state of, say, a rock is nor completely explained by its previous state (e.g. if the rock has diverted from its trajectory), then the reason for this change must be found outside the rock.

Case is completely different, Hoffman insists, with entities that can actively make things happen, which are not completely determined by previous states of affairs. Hoffman assures us that this does not mean things coming out of thin air, or even worse, vacuum – there must be something, before something else can arise. What Hoffman wants to argue for is the possibility of events occurring without being completely determined by previous events. There was nothing to say that e.g. God should have created this, or indeed, any world, at this particular moment of time, because it was a completely spontaneous choice on his part.

The non-universality of the principle of sufficient reason is not meant to help only in theological questions, but especially when it comes to freedom of will. Human will is not completely free, Hoffman accepts, because it, for instance, habituates itself to various practices it just follows blindly. Yet, it does occasionally make choices that are completely unpredictable and even chooses things it apparently does not want to do and avoids things it wants.

Hoffman's notion is important as a precursor of Kant's later idea of free will and its spontaneity being somehow against the causality principle. Yet, we might doubt if it really worked as a criticism of Wolff's philosophy. We have seen reasons to suggest that Wolff did not think motives worked like causes do, but perhaps left some room for true choices. In any case, Wolff's principle of sufficient reason is far more complicated than Hoffman realised.

Considering that this post was about Wolff's opponents reading some theological notions to Wolff's works, it will be quite appropriate to begin next time with Wolff's own theological works.

maanantai 16. maaliskuuta 2015

Baumgarten: Chorographic dissertation, evolving notions of superior and inferior, ascending and descending, which occur in sacred chorography and Uninsignificant philosophical meditations concerning poems (1735)

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, 1714 - 1762

When Wolff left his post in Halle because of the atheism controversy, a philosophical vacuum was all that left. Around the end of 1730s this vacuum was finally filled by a new eminent figure, Alexander Baumgarten. It is two early pieces of Baumgarten I am looking at in this post.

The first of these works, Dissertatio chorographica, Notiones superi et inferi, indeque adscensus et descensus, in chorographiis sacris occurentes, evolvens does not deserve a careful study, because it is mainly of historical worth as Baumgarten's dissertation. It is not so much a philosophical, but a theological study of the presence of notions like superior and inferior or ascend and descend in the Bible. Baumgarten's main point is that while the words have a literal meaning of higher and lower or moving to a higher place and moving to a lower place, the words are also used in a figurative sense: superior is not just physically higher place, but better, just like Heaven is superior to Earth and Earth superior to Hell.

Somewhat more interesting is Baumgarten's work on poetry, Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus, especially as Baumgarten was later known as the instigator of aesthetical studies – indeed, the word aesthetics itself is already used in this early work. Baumgarten shows his clear Wolffian heritage especially in his manner of carefully defining all the terms he uses in his discussion. Thus, we hear that oration, for instance, is a series of sounds which are connected with some significance – ”Peter picked a pickled penny” is so an oration, because it consists of certain combinations of sounds that have a meaning. As these combinations or words have representations as their significance, orations reveal certain connections between representations.

In poetry, then, the words signify usually sensuous representations, that is, representations belonging to what in Wolffian psychology is taken as an inferior faculty of representation. Of course, even quite prosaic sentences fall under that description – ”Cat is sitting on a mat” is not a true poem, but it still refers to sensitive representations of things like cat, Poetry is differentiated from such sensitive representations by being more perfect – perfection means here especially that poems reveal more connections between various sensuous representations.

This rather summarised ideal of a poem leads then to various principles of a good poem – these principles or rules then constitute poetics. Poems themselves, like all orations, contain three distinct features: the words themselves as mere sounds, the significance of the words or representations and their connections. Starting with the first feature, the words as mere sounds are important only as producing sensuous pleasure – thus, poems are expected to have pleasing rhythm and soothing melody.

Most of Baumgarten's rules concern representations or their connections. Thus, we hear Baumgarten pronouncing that representations occasioned by poems must be more vivid than other orations. Thus, these representations must feature as many aspects of the topic of the poem as possible. Indeed, the height of poetic perfection is to characterise a complete, living individual in her full personality.

A somewhat striking consequence of the demand of vivacity or clarity of representations occasioned by poetry is that an attempt to go too much into the realm of fantasy leads to less poetic verses – after all, mere imaginations seem less vivid than things that we could actually sense. Mere utopias and impossibilities are not poetic at all, although internal consistency and coherence might help (thus, Tolkien's well structured world might still deserve the name of poetry). Instead of fantasy, the kernel of poetic lies according to Baumgarten in metaphors, which show deep and unnoticable connections between different representations.

So much for Baumgarten's first writings. Next time I'll return to Wolff's opponents.

perjantai 13. maaliskuuta 2015

Gottsched: First grounds of whole worldly wisdom, second part (1734?)

As you might notice from the question mark, I am not completely certain about the publication year of the second part of Gottsched's Erste Gründe der gesammten Weltweisheit. All the external sources I've studied indicate only a publication year for the first book, and because I've seen only later editions of the book, I haven't had the chance to verify this from the original source. Luckily, in the later editions Gottsched added as a preface his own life story, in which he clearly tells that he finished the second part in 1734. Whether the book was also published in the same year I do not know, but it at least seems likely.

In the same preface Gottsched also notes that his philosophical textbooks had been accused of being mere copies of Thümmig's Latin textbooks. Gottsched of course denies the accusation, but one must admit that some influences especially in the ordering of different topics appears indubitable. For instance, in the case of this second part, concentrating on practical philosophy, Gottsched does not follow Wolff's double division of practical philosophy into ethics and politics, but divides first the whole practical philosophy in the same manner as Thümmig, according to levels of generality: the books begins with general account of practical philosophy, moves to natural law and only at the next level introduces the distinction to ethics and politics.

One particular point I forgot to mention when discussing the first part of the book was Gottsched'd definition of philosophy, which differs interestingly from Wolffian definition: for Gottsched, philosophy is a science for obtaining happiness. It is clear then that Gottsched holds practical philosophy to be of primary importance in comparison with theoretical philosophy, which merely serves as a presupposition of practical philosophy – one must know e.g. ontological truths about good and bad and pneumatological truths about human behaviour to get anywhere in practical philosophy.

An important assumption in practical philosophy is that human beings are in some sense free, because practical philosophy is for Gottsched all about free actions – you cannot make evaluations out of reflexes. Freedom, on the other hand, is dependent on us understanding the situation and choosing what to do in that situation – a person with seriously weak understanding, such as a child, cannot then be deemed free and therefore cannot be blamed for his actions.

Gottsched's practical philosophy is thus rather intellectual. Even conscience is for him, just like for Wolff, a faculty for making judgements and involves always syllogistic reasoning: a person has a principle of action (in such and such a situation do this), analyses the situation (this is such an such a situation) and then just follows the conclusion of the deduction. Gottsched also suggests that we could use a sort of reverse reasoning out of their actions in certain situations what their moral principles must be. He notices the possibility of someone faking his behaviour, but has an amusing solution: just make him drunk enough and he will soon reveal his true colours.

Gottsched's rules for evaluating the actions are consequentialist: a principle of action cannot be good, if it won't lead to good consequences. He goes even so far as to suggest that because all actions will ultimately lead to either good or bad results, all actions are either good or bad. It remains rather unclear how long the causal chain starting from an action should be followed to determine its worth – if taken to its utmost extreme of following the consequences to final end of the world, it appears humanly impossible to say anything about the goodness and badness of actions.

Then again, worth of a human being cannot be seen in one action, but more in the general disposition appearing in a number of actions. Furthermore, even the most virtuous person might occasionally have relapses to vicious behaviour because of human weaknesses. Highest good for human beings is then more like a constant attempt to improve one's behaviour and make it more and more virtuous – this is an idea that will reoccur e.g. in writing's of Fichte.

In a very Wolffian fashion Gottsched suggests that the ultimate principle of action should be the demand to make everyone perfect, oneself and others. The care for oneself leads obviously to one's happiness, but it is more difficult to say in Wolffian case how the care for others can be deduced from the assumption of one's own perfection as an end. Gottsched avoids the paradox by noting that God has bound all human beings into a republic ruled by God, which makes it our business to care for citizens of all the universe. Furthermore, Gottsched also points out the Wolffian answer that even intuiting perfection makes one happy, thus making helping one's fellow beings a reasonably prudent choice.

It is this striving towards universal perfection that summarises the content of the law of nature in Gottsched. This law of nature is in a sense backed up by God, in the sense that he has decreed all the causal laws leading from certain actions to certain consequences – vicious action is such that leads to unhappy life, and the connection of the two was the creation of God. Then again, all these causal regularities exist within the world and can be read out of it through a correct use of reason – in other words, we do not need any supernatural revelation to know what is good and what is bad, and even atheists could be convinced of the law of nature.

Gottdched goes then on to further specific features of the law of nature, which is divided, firstly, into duties belonging to all human beings, no matter what their status (and these are classified familiarly into duties towards God, oneself and other human beings), and secondly, to duties pertaining to certain social roles in e.g. a household or a commonwealth. While the law of nature with all its subduties contains then the general principles for all actions, concrete guidance to correct action is provided by the science of ethics and politics. These fields of philosophical investigation tell us how to motivate people to follow the duties implied in the law of nature. Furthermore, they try to give suggestions how following the law of nature becomes easier – one should e.g. educate oneself and tame one's affects and similarly states should provide for both intellectual and moral upbringing of its citizens. The shape of this system has rather Wolffian air, but in small details there are certain differences – for instance, Gottsched seems more willing than Wolff to allow for people helping one another, e.g. with alms.


This is also a good place to consider Gottsched as a philosopher in general, since I've now read most of his important writings. He did write a book on rhetoric and he also published a lot of of new editions on his earlier books – especially in his book on poetry he modified the text and added further material as times went by. And undoubtedly a complete picture of Gottsched would have to take into account his poetic achievement. Still, these three books are quite enough to see what is essential particularly in his philosophy.

One can firstly appreciate the role of Gottsched in popularising and summarising central tenets of Wolffian philosophy, as he quite astoundingly manages to make out of five long books (logic, metaphysics, physics, ethics and politics) two books, which still feel complete and full works. One must also appreciate Gottsched's willingness to not follow Leibniz or Wolff slavishly: he adds new material from other writers especially in the matter of natural sciences and even distances himself from some key Leibnizian tenets, like pre-established harmony. Still, one feels that none of this makes Gottsched a very original thinker, but a mere compiler.

The most influential part of Gottsched's ouvre is undoubtedly his poetic, but even here one feels that it is more due to historical reasons of Gottsched just doing in German-speaking world what no one had done before. The book does have an original flair, even if much of the topics have been borrowed from Aristotle, Horace and modern French writers. The same moralising and rule preaching attitude that can be glimpsed in Gottsched's work on practical philosophy shows its full sway in his adherence to rigid rules and in his condemnation of whole genres of poetry. No wonder then that the rising new generation of writers didn't follow Gottsched's instructions.

But this is getting too much ahead of the progress of times. While we now said adieu to Gottsched, next time we will meet a rising star in German school philosophy.