torstai 2. maaliskuuta 2017

Baumgarten: Philosophical letters of Aletheophilus (1741)

Letters have been a medium of philosophical discourse at least since the Platonic letters, which were probably not written by Plato at all. Just like in case of these Platonic forgeries, philosophical letters have often been meant from the start for a wider audience, even if they have had a nominal addressee.

Such an audience was obviously meant for Baumgarten’s Philosophische Brieffe von Aletheophilus. As can be seen from the title, these letters were published under a penname, which suitably translates into the lover/friend of truth - not to mention it's also a clever pun on Baumgarten's names: Ale(xander) Theophilus (lover of God or Gottlieb in German). Aletheophilus isn’t the only writer, but there are occasional letters from the readers, and one letter contains a poem written by Museophilus (friend of muses). Despite this anonymity, we find interesting tidbits of Baumgarten’s own philosophical development. In the very first letter, he mentions that for a long time he had merely identified Spinoza’s and Wolff’s philosophies, but then to his surprise he was finally branded as a Wolffian, because he had used the formalities of Wolffian textbooks and relied on ontological truth of God’s existence (which ironically was not that important to Wolff).

It is quite clear that Baumgarten is making an attempt of a lighter tone than in his text books. One letter even is a parody of a philosophical text book – it is divided into numbered paragraphs, where the first paragraph is explicitly marked as not containing the principle of contradiction, because the definition of letter requires it to be an address to the readers. In one letter he lets his supposed reader to ask that Aletheophilus wouldn’t write about metaphysics, but more about things in general vogue and especially about moral and aesthetic questions.

And Baumgarten truly attempts to fulfil this request. He studies the recently published Anti-Machiavelli and tries to strike peace between different religious factions (one shouldn’t call one’s religious opponents enthusiasts, if they are not, and if they are, one should pity them, because that is just a sign of an understanding not capable of discerning lively imaginations from real experiences). Baumgarten deals also with moral questions and speaks for the right of the sensuous nature of human beings – even Stoics wanted merely to subdue it, not completely eradicate. Thus, he argues for allowing certain amount of frivolity in one’s life, because it is no great sin.

It is no wonder that Baumgarten has a number of things to say about aesthetics. Just like in his more formal works, Baumgarten contrasts it with logic – while the latter is a discipline for good use of understanding, the latter is a discipline for good use of sense, especially in matters concerning beauty. He also goes into the topical question of good poetry, first distinguishing it from mere oratory and then noticing that a good poem must strike a balance between lively thoughts and an ordered structure that only appears to be chaotic.

Between these more popular topics, Baumgarten does have time to enter more theoretical questions. It is somewhat striking that he even tries to present a sort of formal symbolism for logic – a peculiar choice for a series of popular letters. Somewhat more interesting for a common reader is a series of letters concerning truth. In these letters Baumgarten describes in vivid details that truth is like an abundant well of water, which also flows into various smaller streams (i.e. different kinds of applied truth). He continues by telling that different persons have need for different streams of truth and that different streams have different criteria for reliability – in some fields we must accept mere probabilities.

Baumgarten goes also into some specific metaphysical problems. The most general of these is, undoubtedly, the question of the unity of the world, where he again praises the Leibnizian notion of the principle of sufficient reason. By a daring and faulty leap, Baumgarten moves from the relatively humble supposition that all things are connected to something else through such links of reasons to the much more powerful statement that all things are connected to one another through such links (clearly, he seems to ignore the quite real possibility that there would be several universes with their own internal links).

More specific metaphysical questions handled by Baumgarten concern the nature of ensouled beings. Firstly, he sets for philosophy the task of proving the immortality of human soul, which shouldn’t be just assumed on basis of Bible, because instead, Baumgarten states, the truth of Bible should be justified from it. While Baumgarten doesn’t actually go into proving this statement and even says that no conclusive proof for either truth or falsity of it has been given, he does note that by immortality one could mean several things – for instance, that human soul couldn’t be broken to pieces, that it would continue to exist indefinitely or that it could continue with a memory of its previous existence.

Finally, Baumgarten considers also the partly metaphysical, partly moral question of the intelligence of animals – if animals were intelligent, they shouldn’t be slaughtered for food. Baumgarten makes first the quite obvious point that if animals are defined as non-intelligent living beings, no animal would be intelligent, but at the same time points out that this doesn’t tell whether there really are such animals. He then proceeds to argue that animals do exist, because in a perfect world there must be entities in all possible levels of existence. Of course, this statement doesn’t tell us yet, whether some particular living being is an animal or not, and Baumgarten appears to leave this question completely undecided.

Next time, we shall return to Wolff's tale of natural law.

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