sunnuntai 26. huhtikuuta 2015

Hoffmann: Study of reason - The powers of understanding

In the Wolffian tradition, and generally also in German idealism, understanding refers to a certain part of human cognition. Hoffmann, on the other hand, follows another tradition and by understanding means generally whole cognitive side of human mind. More particularly, Hoffmann defines understanding as the power of spirit to determine itself in such a manner that ideas can exist or be generated in it.

Hoffmann takes a strikingly original stance and suggests that all animals are capable of ideas and thus they must have understanding. Of course, there are different grades of understanding. Some animals have only a passive cognition or sensation, in which external objects decide what ideas the animal will have. Then again, some animals have also an activity – memory – that lets them retain their vividness for a while. Yet, no non-human animal has the ability to know truth – this would require what Hoffmann calls reason, which is peculiar only for humans.

It is evident then that human understanding has various powers or capacities. In a sense, the most basic of these is sensation (Empfindung) or the capacity to be passively determined by some external object in such a manner that an idea is generated. Sensation is the basis of cognition, because it is our only route to existence. Hoffmann states quite strongly that humans do not have any pure understanding that could know existence of something without any help from sensation. Indeed, he even advises using concrete examples for highly abstract rules, in order to ease understanding them.

Yet, sensation does have its limits, Hoffmann admits. We cannot sense any simple objects, but everything we sense consists of smaller entities. We can also sense only individual objects and no abstractions. Thus, we can never directly sense essences of things, which would consist of forces abstracted from individual things.

Just like Wolffians, Hoffmann also thinks that sensation comes in two kinds, as external and as internal sensation. What makes it more interesting is that Hoffmann actually seems to have quite a developed theory of inner sensation. While external sensation is caused by objects completely external to human soul, the ultimate causes of inner sensations lies within the soul, namely, it is the very activities of human understanding or at least their effects we view with inner sensation. There is empirical evidence, Hoffmann thinks, that this activity does not straightaway move to the inner sensation – there is a clear temporal gap between a mental activity and awareness of such an activity. Thus, the activities we see with inner sensation first cause some changes in some part of our body – Hoffmann mentions the notion of animal spirits – and it is the animal spirit which then affects inner sensation.

In addition to describing the various faculties of human understanding, Hoffmann is also interested to describe various defects these faculties might have and to suggest several cures for these defects – perhaps this is influence of his mentor, Andreas Rüdiger, who did study medicine. Thus, one could have too strong inner sensation so that external events could pass by without one taking any notice – someone might be too entwined in her own thoughts so that she couldn't even witness an army marching by her. Then again, inner sensation might also be too weak, because of an imbalance in the relation of the activities of understanding and the animal spirits – such weakness would then cause wavering in certainty, since, Hoffmann says, one need to have a clear view of what one is thinking in order to be convinced of it.

In Wolffian scheme, sensation is then followed by imagination, which is generally the capacity to represent something that is not present. Hoffmann does not recognise such general capacity of imagination, but instead distinguishes two subcapacities of Wolffian imagination into independent capacities. First of these is memory or the capacity to retain ideas of things no longer present still vividly in our mind. Hoffmann doesn't have that much of interest to say about memory, although he does speculate that the memorised ideas must be still present somehow unconsciously in the soul, so that it can then view them when needed. Memory is more important to Hoffmann as a presupposition of making judgements – one has to keep subject still in mind, when connecting it with predicate. Weak memory is then obviously a hindrance to a philosopher, but so is also too good memory – one dependent on book learning, instead of good judgement, is prone to just believing in authorities.

Besides memory, Hoffmann discusses also ingenuity, which he defines as the capacity to move from an idea to another, to which the first one is somehow connected. These two ideas are not distinguished in any manner, so this movement involves no proper judgement, but is more like an immediate association of one idea with another. Although not yet a judgement, ingenuity might provide some material for more philosophical thinking by highlighting on some interesting and deep connection between things. Yet, ingenuity may obviously follow some quite random or oratorical associations, which might thus be of hindrance to good judgement.

The fourth power of understanding, for Hoffmann, is then judgement – it is also the most important power in logic, because only with judgements it makes sense to speak of truth. Indeed, Hoffmann defines judgement as the capacity to connect ideas formed out of material from the three other faculties in such a manner that an inner sensation of these combinations produces a conviction of truth. As Hoffmann already noted, judgement does not just connect ideas, but also distinguishes them from one another – this power of abstraction is then an essential ingredient in judgement (note how Hoffmann here anticipates the idea of both Hegel and Hölderlin that judgement is more a making of distinctions than combination of previously existing concepts).

Hoffmann's discussion of judgement requires then at first a discussion of abstraction – we shall do that in more detail in later posts, but some preliminaries can already be indicated. Abstraction begins always from some sensed or remembered individual event or object and then starts to divide the idea of this individual into pieces. In case of processual events, the abstraction is causal – we separate causes from effects and means from ends. In case of stable things, the abstraction is existential. In that case we might, firstly, in quantitative abstraction ignore the individuality of the original idea – instead of this triangle, we might think of triangles in general. Secondly, we might in metaphysical abstraction think of the properties of the original individual, as separated from any subject that might have it – instead of a human being, we might think of humanity. Thirdly, we might in qualitative abstraction differentiate the various properties of the original individual from one another.

Hoffmann doesn't really go into great detail in how the abstraction works. He does point out that often in case of causal abstraction we must be thinking of events (distant or hidden causes) we have never actually witnessed. Similarly, when thinking highly abstract and indeterminate existential abstractions we must think of ideas that we cannot literally see (the famous triangle that is no specific type of triangle). Hoffmann merely notes that the judgement or abstraction must be able to somehow supply what these ideas lack in themselves and complete them.

While in case of other faculties, too great use of them might hinder judgement, in case of judgement itself this is obviously not possible. Then again, Hoffmann notes that judgement might be too weak. The weakness of judgement leads then to obvious defects: one might have confused notions, be susceptible to unfounded presuppositions and follow all types of paralogisms.

This is then the general outline of Hoffmann's theory of mental faculties. Next time I shall start speaking about their effects or ideas.

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