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Wolff, Christian

Christian Wolff

Composer, pianist

Thoughts on Teaching


Minimalism and the Avant-Gardc

Selected discography

Selected compositions


French-born American composer Christian Wolff helped establish a movement in contemporary classical music collectively known as the New York School. Comprised of composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and pianist David Tudor in addition to Wolff, the group lived on the edge of the classical world. And like many pioneering artists throughout history, the New York School composers were often scorned by their peers and critics, only receiving appreciation for their work decades later. Wolffs explorations into indeterminacy in the late-1950s and early-1960s, for example, served as an apparent inspiration for John Zorn and other avant-garde musicians in the years that followed. He also gained prominence in the later 1990s through an expanding discography, as well as major commissions, most notably John, David, Wolffs first large-scale orchestral piece.

Wolff studied briefly with Cage during a six-week period and derived inspiration from his New York peers at the onset of his composing career, but he quickly uncovered his own identity and considers himself largely a self-taught composer. He created intricate systems for his compositions; rather than employing standard notation, Wolff instead provided musicians with symbols, guiding them through each piece and allowing players to interpret for themselves. In fact, personal interpretation and the freedom of flexibility, for the listener as well as the performer, has always remained of particular interest to Wolff. He refuses to undermine the performers creativity by loading his pieces with too many directionssuch as changes in tempo, dynamics, or articulationsand avoids emotional manipulation or rhetoric.

In a career spanning 50 years and counting, Wolff, while holding to his original ideas about composing, has undergone many transformations. Beginning with minimalism, he moved on to explore indeterminacy, open form, and works connected to popular music and political issues. His compositionsperformed throughout the world, especially in Europe and the United Statesinclude works for piano and keyboards, instrumental solos, chamber and other unspecified groups, choruses, and orchestras that appeal to a varied audience. Merce Cunningham and his dance company as well as dancer Lucinda Childs implemented several of Wolffs pieces, while the influential post-punk band Sonic Youth tapped Wolff to perform two of his compositions on their 1999 album Goodbye 20th Century. Earlier that same year, Wolff appeared at San Franciscos Other Minds Festival alongside luminaries from both inside and outside the New York scene. Such participants included Gordon Mumma, Bob Ostertag, and percussionist William Winant.

Although Wolff witnessed a renewed critical and public interest in his musical work later in life, he spent much of his energy on academic pursuits. Almost as soon as he established himself as a member of the New York movement, he left the city in 1951 after graduating from high school in order to study classics and comparative literature at Harvard University; he earned bachelors, masters, and doctorate degrees from the school. He then taught classics at Harvard for a number of years and, since 1971, taught classics, comparative literature, and music at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Thoughts on Teaching

As an instructor teaching a new generation about music and composition, Wolff allows his students the freedom to express themselves in any way they see fit. He recalls that in his own experiences as a student, Cage had done the same for him. What he did for me was to make a spaceyou dont have to write like X or like Y, you dont have to derive your work from this tradition or that tradition, just do what you think you have to do, Wolff said to Jason Gross in an interview for Perfect Sound Forever. He did that at a time when most people thought I was crazy and that I wasnt doing music. So I try to instill that kind of attitude in my students. I basically try to get the students to find what they need to do.

Wolff was born on March 8, 1934, in Nice, France. His father, Kurt Wolff, was a well-known publisher in Germany whose authors included Franz Kafka. With the rise of the Nazis, however, he moved the family to New York City in 1941. Wolff has lived mainly in the United

For the Record

Born on March 8, 1934, in Nice, France; son of book publishers. Education: Bachelors degree, 1955, masters degree, 1957, Ph.D., 1963, all from Harvard University; studied piano with Grete Sultan and composition with John Cage.

Held various academic positions including instructor of classics, Harvard University, 1962-65; assistant professor, Harvard University, 1965-71; associate professor of classics, comparative literature, and music, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1971-78; professor of classics and music, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1978-80; Strauss professor of music and classics, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, 1980-. Other career-related appointments include visiting composer, Deutsche Akademischer Austauscdient, Berlin, 1974; member of the Akademie der Kuenste, Berlin, 1999.

Awards: Loeb bequest grantee, Harvard University, 1967-68; fellow, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, D.C., 1970-71; Music Award from the American Academy and National Institute for Arts and Letters, 1974; Asian Cultural Council Grant, 1987; John Cage Award for Music, 1996.

Addresses: Office Department of Classics, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755. Record company Mode Records, P.O. Box 1026, New York, NY 10116, phone: (212) 979-1027, website:

States since and became an American citizen in 1946. Continuing to work in the publishing business, Wolffs parents, in the 1950s, ran Pantheon Books and also operated an outfit called the Bollingen series dedicated to producing the works of Jungian writers, and Wolff grew up in an artistic environment centered around the Washington Square area of New York. Some of the Wolffs neighbors and friends included writer and editor Joseph Campbell, dancer and choreographer Jean Erdman, and poet e.e. cummings.

Wolffs parents also enjoyed connections with musiciansmost of whom were the traditional type. Thus, when Wolff took up the piano as a child, he concentrated on classical music. However, Wolffs interests began to broaden when he reached adolescence. Aside from music, he discovered a talent for drawing and poetry writing. I got very interested in contemporary poetry and the whole notion of modernism, in a very simple, unreflective wayrealizing that there was a way to do things other than the way the traditionalist does them, recalled the composer in an interview with David Patterson for Perspectives of New Music.

Subsequently, Wolff, around the age of 14 or 15, decided to try composing music. At first, he tried to imitate traditional composers like Bach, but gave up, realizing such a feat both impossible and unnecessary. So, after a period of rest, Wolff attempted composition again. This time, he concluded to try something new. He drew inspiration from studying back issues provided by a friend of the publication New Music, which introduced him to the work of John Cage, William Russell, and others. Like them, Wolff desired to develop music that truly reflected its own identity. I had this programmatic notion of making it different, he explained to Patterson. Whatever I was going to do, it wasnt going to be like anything that anybody else was doing as far as I could make out.

As time passed, Wolff grew more interested in composing than practicing piano and regularly brought self-written pieces to his lessons with Grete Sultan, a traditional pianist who later became a noted performer of Cages music. Though she probably knew little about Cages music at the time, Sultan thought Cage might be interested in Wolffs work and arranged for the two to meet. And after becoming acquainted, Cage, who Wolff calls his first and only teacher in composition, agreed to take the 16-year-old on as a studentfree of chargeat a time when he accepted few. Because Wolff knew little about the technical aspects of composing, he felt open to a myriad of possibilities when he initiated his studies with the composer in the spring of 1950. As a result of Cages influence, Wolffs first compositions from the early 1950s, including Serenade for flute, clarinet, and violin and For Piano I, piano, were thoroughly written out and implemented few pitches and periods of silence.


Then, during the mid-to late-1950s, Wolff developed an interest in the role of chance in music, an occurrence he prefers to call indeterminacy. Cage, too, became intrigued with the music of chance around the same time, but Wolffs use of it was distinctly individual. From a practical point of view, Cage was initially interested in using chance as a compositional device, explained Wolff to the Wires Andy Hamilton. Once he had used it, he had made a composition which was then performed the way it was written; it was fixed. I have very occasionally used chance in this way. But what I became interested in introducing wasnt even chance so much any more, but the element of what we called indeterminacynot at the point of composition but at the point of performance. So my scores might be made without using any chance procedures at all, but they were made in such a way that when performers used them, unpredictable events would take place. In other words, Wolff describes the results of his approach, as opposed to Cages, as working actively with contingencies.

Minimalism and the Avant-Gardc

During the 1960s and early 1970s, aspects of minimalism again affected Wolffs work. Important sets from this period include the Tilbury pieces composed in 1969-70, dedicated to British pianist John Tilbury, and Exercises 1-14 from 1973-74. In the 1970s, Wolff also began writing more politically and idealistically engaged music. Examples of his political works include Changing the System and Accompaniments, the latter written in 1972 for piano and voice with a text relating to the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Although he soon abandoned composing within an explicit political context, Wolff continued to draw material from political folk and popular music for a number of years. String Quartet Exercises Out of Songs (1974-76), as well as Exercise 21 (1981), illustrate the composers connection to less politicized issues. Another example of Wolffs move away from music with a direct social message includes For Morty. Completed in 1987, it was composed for vibraphone, glockenspiel, and piano in memory of close friend and colleague Morton Feldman, who died in September of 1987. The personal tribute further utilized instrumentsand the sense of fragilityparticular to Feldmans work. Wolff also wrote a piece for mentor John Cages seventy-sixth birthday, entitled Digger Song, in 1988.

Wolff also made forays outside the world of strict composition. In 1967-68 while staying in London, Wolff joined the avant-garde group AMMfeaturing Cornelius Cardew on celloon electric bass and other miscellaneous instruments. At the time, he had no prior experience with jazz or free improvisation. That was my first experience of it, Wolff told Hamilton. It was sort of quietly exhilarating, learning and experiencing making music without the mediation of scores, explanations, rehearsals, etc. Especially with musicians whove centrally always done thatKeith Rowe, Eddie Prevost, Lou Gare. Youre simultaneously entirely on your own and entirely part of a collective activity. Inspired by his participation in AMM, Wolff composed Edges and Burdocks (1970-71); both pieces contained improvisational components and are featured on Sonic Youths Goodbye 20th Century.

Selected discography

For Prepared Piano (1951), hatHUT, 1993.

For Ruth Crawford, hatHUT, 1995.

Bread and Roses, Mode, 1998.

Exercises, hatHUT, 1998.

Like to Think of Harriet Tubman, Mode, 1998.

Tilbury Pieces (Complete)/Snowdrop, Mode, 1998.

Selected compositions


Burdocks (1 or more orchestral groups), 1970-71.

Exercise 23/24 (J.C.s Bread and Roses) (chamberorchestra), 1983-86.

Exercise 25 (Liyashizwa), 1986.

John, David, 1998.


Duo (2 violins), 1950.

For Prepared Piano, 1951.

Trio1 (flute, trumpet, cello), 1951.

For Piano I, 1952.

For Piano II, 1952.

For Piano with Preparations, 1955.

Music for Merce Cunningham (violin, viola, trumpet, trombone, piano, double bass), 1959. Summer (string quartet), 1961.

TrioII (piano duet, percussion), 1961.

InBetween Pieces, 1963.

ElectricSpring I (horn, contrabassoon, electric guitar, electric double bass), 1966-70.

ElectricSpring II (violin, horn, electric guitar, electric double bass), 1966-70.

ElectricSpring III (violin, horn, electric guitar, electric double bass), 1967.

Edges (unspecified instrumentation), 1968.

Toss (8 or more players), 1968.

ProseCollection (unspecified instrumentation), 1968-69.

Tilbury (unspecified instrumentation), 1969.

Tilbury 2 and 3 (unspecified number of amplified instruments), 1969.

Accompaniments (unspecified instrumentation), 1972.

Variations (Extracts) on the Carmens Whistle Variations of Byrd (keyboard or other instruments), 1972.

Changing the System (unspecified instrumentation), 1972-73.

Exercises 1-14 (any 3 or more instruments), 1973-74.

String Quartet Exercises Out of Songs, 1974-76.

Bread and Roses (piano), 1976.

Dark as a Dungeon (clarinet; also for trombone, double bass), 1977.

The Death of Mother Jones (violin), 1977.

Braverman Music (instrumental ensemble), 1977.

CelloSong Variations, 1978.

Hay una mujer desaporscida (piano; after Near), 1979.

StardustPieces (cello, piano), 1979.

ThreePieces: Rock About, Instrumental, Starving to Death on a Government Claim (violin, viola), 1979-80.

Exercises19 (Harmonic Tremors) and 20 (Acres of Clams) (2 pianos), 1980.

Preludes 1-11 (piano), 1980-81.

Exercise21 (piano-4 hands), 1981.

PianoSong (I Am a Dangerous Woman), 1983.

Peace March 1 (Stop Using Uranium) (flute), 1983-84.

Peace March 2 (flute, clarinet, cello, percussion, piano), 1984.

Peace March 3 (The Sun Is Burning) (flute, cello, percussion), 1984.

Bowery Preludes (flute/alto, flute/piccolo, trombone, percussion, piano), 1986.

Black Song Organ Preludes, 1987.

Long Peace March (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, bassoon/contrabassoon, alto saxophone, horn, trombone, percussion, viola), 1987.

For Morty (2 percussion, piano), 1987.

Digger Song (For John Cages 76th Birthday) (violin, cello, piano), 1988.

27/28 (percussion), 1988.

Emma (viola, cello, piano), 1989.

Rosas (piano, percussion), 1990.


Songs (unison voices), 1973-74.

Wobbly Music (mixed chorus, instruments, World War I texts), 1975-76.

I Like to Think of Harriet Tubman (female voice, any treble instrument, any alto instrument, any bass instrument), 1984.

LeaningForward (soprano, baritone, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello; Paley), 1988.


For Magnetic Tape, 1952.



Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. 4, Norton/Grove, 1986.

Morton, Brian and Pamela Collins, editors, Contemporary Composers, St. James Press, 1992.

The Complete Marquis Whos Who, Marquis Whos Who, 1999.


American Music, Fall 1995, p. 389.

Down Beat, May 1995, p. 58.

PerfectSound Forever, April 1998.

Perspectivesof New Music, Summer 1994, p. 54.

Wire, December 2000, p. 22.


Christian Wolff, All Music Guide, (March 19, 2001).

Mode Records, (March 19, 2001).

Other Minds, (March 19, 2001).

Laura Hightower

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Wolff, Christian


(b. Breslau, Silesia [now Wrocław, Poland], 24 January 1679; d. Halle, Germany, 9 April 1754)


During his school years at Breslau, Wolff became acquainted with Cartesian ideas, although he concentrated at first on the writings of the Scholastics. He then became interested in logic, which ultimately left him dissatisfied because it lacked any sustained account of an “art of discovery.” This view of logic, together with a lifelong search for certainty in matters scientific and philosophical, led to his interest in mathematics, not for its own sake but for its methodological implications. After three years at Jena, Wolff received the master’s degree from Leipzig in 1702, becoming first a lecturer in mathematics and then, in 1706, professor of mathematics and natural science at the University of Halle. He was recommended for the latter post by Leibniz, with whom he had established a correspondence and whose philosophical ideas, although somewhat modified and vulgarized, subsequently became the cornerstone of his own philosophical writings.

At Halle, Wolff lectured on mathematics and algebra, building and fortification, as well as experimental and theoretical physics; a glimpse of the kind of courses given may be obtained from one of the earliest writings of this period, his popular handbook Anfangsgründe alter mathematischen Wissenschaften (1710). Gradually the interest in logic supervened, leading in 1713 to publication of Vernüftige Gedanken von den Kräften des menschlichen Verstandes (the so-called “German Logic”); and by 1719 his philosophical lecturing, which had become the focus of his university activities, found its first full expression in Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen . . . (the “German Metaphysics”), which testifies to the leading influence of Leibniz. Although the form of these works is characteristically Scholastic, the importance of their publication in German, rather than Latin, cannot be overrated; by creating a German philosophical vocabulary, it led to a great spread of philosophical interest in eighteenth-century Germany that reinforced the general movement toward deism, determinism, and free thought incipient in these writings.

Indeed, Wolff’s deterministic tendencies led to his dismissal from Halle in 1723, after which he taught at the University of Marburg, where he published another set of writings, this time in Latin, many of them corresponding to the earlier German versions but more formal and Scholastic in appearance and with an impressive complex of definitions, theorems, and demonstrations, as instanced in the important volumes on ontology and general cosmology. As Wolff’s fame spread, he received invitations to return to Prussia and to go to Berlin; but he finally settled again at Halle, where he continued to write on law, moral philosophy, and related subjects.

Wolff was essentially a popularizer and (to some extent inspired by Leibniz) sought to effect a formal synthesis between Scholasticism, the new mathematical methods, and more recent scientific conceptions. From Leibniz he also inherited the emphasis on certain philosophical ideas, such as the principles of contradiction and of sufficient reason, as well as the central attention given to the notion of possibility in their metaphysical writings. Round these conceptions Wolff organized a vast philosophical system; if it was not original, and was rather eclectic, it nevertheless set the tone and produced the form in which questions were to be debated by contemporaries and successors down to the time of Kant. The tone is that of a seeming rationalism that nevertheless tries to incorporate the empirical and theoretical results of recent scientific and mathematical innovations. Indeed, it was Wolff’s respect for the mathematical method, as he understood it, that inspired the form of his writing, with its strict definitions and syllogistic development.

Limiting ourselves here to aspects of Wolff’s philosophy of physical science, we find one of his basic models, both in ontology and in methodology, to be analysis and synthesis. Analysis yields the set of irreducible predicates of a thing which provide the ground or reason for its possibility; that there must be a ground is postulated by the principle of sufficient reason. This principle in turn falls under the principle of contradiction, since it would be self-contradictory (Wolff holds) to posit anything without a sufficient reason. He thus fails to distinguish in principle between logical and empirical possibility. Although mere possibility of finite things does not entail their existence, existence is stated to be merely “the complement of possibility,” God being the ground of both actuality and possibility. To know that something exists, however, requires recourse to experience, both direct and inferential, through the giving of reasons; the reference to reason again permits a convenient slide from ratio cognoscendi to ratio essendi; and from logical to real possibility.

These doctrines quite naturally lead to Wolff’s deterministic formulations of his cosmological principles, which emphasize the rational connections between things, given as sequences or co existences; these formal themes were later directly echoed in Kant’s writings. The visible world is a machine, operating in accordance with the laws of motion: almost one-third of the Cosmologia generalis treats these laws. In his physics Wolff is an outspoken corpuscularian, although the ultimate elements, the atomi naturae, are neither extended nor divisible. All that can be said a priori is that the properties of composites derive from their elementary constituents; empirical knowledge is limited to the properties of the composites. Thus the a priori Part evidently provides no more than the mechanist-determinist theme, although modified by the Leibnizian idea of a competing teleological explanation of things.

Wolff’s doctrine of space as the order of things existing simultaneously, although having some resemblance to Leibniz’s theories, is more uncompromisingly kinetic. Space is mere phenomenon, both in the sense that it is secondary and ontologically derivative from coexisting substances, and in that it is perceived only “confusedly,” Also, since the notion of substances as coexisting presupposes their mutual interaction, it is the latter conception that is ontologically basic. Wolff’s bodily substances, being essentially centers of action, are also more uncompromisingly purely physical than Leibniz’s monads; in all this, Wolff’ views foreshadow the basic positions taken by Kant in his early writings down to about 1760. Similarly, Wolff’s theory of times makes time reducible to the order of successive things in a continuous series; time is not given without the latter, he states expressly.


I. Original Works. The latest standard edition of Wolff’s works is Christian Wolff, Gesammelte Werke, J. Ecole, J. E. Hofmann, M. Thomann, and H. W. Arndt, eds. (Hildesheim, 1962-), German writings in 11 vols., Latin writings in 35 vols., containing major bibliographies of and on Wolff’s writings.

Wolff’s chief writings bearing on mathematics and the methodology and philosophy of science include the following in German:Vernünftige Gedanken von den Kräften des menschlichen Verstandes (Halle, 1713); Auszug aus den Anfangsgrunden alter mathematischen Wissenchaften (Halle, 1717); Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele der Menschen . . . (Frankfurt-Leipzig, 1720); Vernünftige Gedanken von den Wirkungen der Natur (Halle, 1723); Vernünftige Gedanken von den Absichten der natünftige Dinge (Frankfurt, 1724); and Vernünftige Gedanken von dem Gebrauch der Theile in Menschen, Tieren und Pflanzen (Frankfurt, 1725).

Latin works are Philosophia rationalis sine logica (Frankfurt-Leipzig, 1728); Philosophia prima, sive ontologia (Frankfurt, 1729); and Cosmologia generalis (Frankfurt, 1731).

An English trans. is Discursus preliminaris de philosophia in genere, translated by R. J. Blackwell (Indianapolis, 1963).

II. Secondary Literature. The following, listed chronologically, concern Wolff’s scientific and methodological ideas; J. E. Erdmann, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, II (Berlin, 1866), §290, 187–196; E. Kohlmeyer, Kosmos und Kosmogonie bei Christian Wolff (Göttingen, 1911); H. Lüthje, “Christian Wolffs Philosophiebegriff,” in Kant-Studien,30 (1923), 39–56; H. J. de Vleeschauwer, “La geneèse de la méthode mathématique de Wolff,” in Revue beige de philologie et d’histoire,11 (1931), 651–677; M. Campo, Christian Wollf e il razionalisno precritico, 2 vols. (Milan, 1939); H. Heimsoeth, “Christian Wolffs Ontologie und die Prinzipienforschung Immanuel Kants,” in Studien zur Philosophic Immanuel Kants,” supp. no. 71 (1956), 1–92; J. Ecole, “Un essai d’explication rationelle du monde ou la Cosmologie generalis de Christian Wolff,” in Giornale di metafisica,18 (1963), 622–650; and “Cosmologie wolffienne et dynamique leibnitienne,” in Etudes philosophiques, n.s.19 (1964), 3–9: J. V. Burns, Dynamism in the Cosmology of Christian Wolff (New York, 1966); L. W. Beck, Early German Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), ch. 11. 256–272; and Tore Frängsmyr, “Christian Wolff’s Mathematical Method,” in Journal of the History of Ideas,36 (1975), 653–668.

Gerd Buchdahl

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Wolff, Christian (1679–1754)


WOLFF, CHRISTIAN (16791754), German philosopher. Born on 24 January 1679 in predominantly Catholic Breslau, Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland), the son of a Lutheran tanner who wanted him to become a minister, Wolff soon developed an interest in philosophy. After receiving a solid grounding in Scholasticism and Cartesianism under Jesuit supervision at the local Gymnasium (college preparatory school), Wolff began to study theology, mathematics, and philosophy at the University of Jena. He eventually earned his master's degree from the University of Leipzig in 1703, where his interest had shifted increasingly toward mathematics and philosophy, both of which he regarded as useful disciplines to solve religious disputes. His dissertation, De philosophia practica universali methodo mathematica conscripta (1702; Practical philosophy according to mathematical methods), drew the attention of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), whose letter of recommendation helped Wolff secure a professorship in mathematics at the University of Halle in 1706.

Although officially a professor of mathematics, Wolff lectured on experimental and theoretical physics, metaphysics, moral philosophy, and logic. At Halle, he published his most important works in philosophy including Vernünfftige Gedancken von den Kräfften des menschlichen Verstandes (1713; Rational thoughts on the powers of human understanding), Vernünfftige Gedancken von Gott, der Welt, und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt (1720; Rational thoughts on God, the world, and the human soul, and all things in general), and Vernünfftige Gedancken von der Menschen Thun und Lassen, zu Beförderung ihrer Glückseeligkeit, den Liebhabern der Wahrheit mitgetheilet (1720; Rational thoughts on human conduct for the purpose of their happiness, told to those who love the truth), all of which were written in German. Ever since, Wolff has been regarded as the founder of a German philosophical language. His fame, however, did not save him from attacks by leading Pietist members of the theological faculty at Halle, such as Joachim Lange (16701744), who viewed Wolff as an advocate of a deterministic universe and as a potential danger to Christian dogma. The conflict escalated on the occasion of Wolff's public lecture, "De Sinarum philosophia practica" (1721; On the practical philosophy of the Chinese), which emphasized that revelation was not essential for arriving at sound moral principles. His opponents successfully appealed to King Frederick William I of Prussia (ruled 17131740), who issued an official warrant on 8 November 1723, demanding his departure from Halle within forty-eight hours under the threat of death by hanging. Wolff subsequently accepted a position as professor of philosophy at the University of Marburg until 1740, when the new King Frederick II of Prussia (ruled 17401786) invited him to return to Halle. At the time of his death on 9 April 1754, Wolff held the position of chancellor of the University of Halle and was privy councillor of Prussia, vice president of the Academy of St. Petersburg, and baron of the Holy Roman Empire.

Wolff's philosophical system builds on mathematical principles. He regarded the "mathematical method" as a guarantor for clarity because it connected premises and deductions into a chain of closely intertwined demonstrations. Although his philosophy was labeled as "Leibniz-Wolffian" as early as 1724probably by one of his students, Georg Bernhard Bilfinger (16931750)Wolff himself rejected this adjective without denying Leibniz's profound influence on him. He surpassed his famous predecessor by developing a more comprehensive system of philosophy, thereby linking all the individual disciplines with each other. He viewed philosophy as the science of all possible things. By possible Wolff meant anything that does not contain a logical contradiction, which is a lack of sufficient reason. In contrast to theology, which concerns itself with the supernatural, philosophy represents world wisdom. This marked a shift away from his predecessor Leibniz, who had always tried to prevent philosophy and theology from going their separate ways. Because, according to Wolff, attributes of the visible world proved God's existence, one branch of theology, the theologia naturalis ('natural theology') can, in accordance with the laws of reason, engage in determining God's qualities. Although he asserted that Christianity is based on the only true revelation, he nonetheless claimed that, at least in theory, certain standards must apply as well in order to distinguish it from false revelation. By making this suggestion, Wolff laid the foundation for a critical (rational) examination of revealed religion.

Christian Wolff was certainly the most important German philosopher between Leibniz and Immanuel Kant (17241804). In his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of pure reason), Kant praised him as the "founder of the spirit of thoroughness in Germany." Wolff was the first modern thinker to write extensively in German. The rigor and clarity of his methodology helped emancipate philosophy from theology as an independent discipline. Wolffian principles, such as his emphasis on sufficient reason, encouraged radical biblical critics such as Johann Lorenz Schmidt (17021749) and Hermann Samuel Reimarus (16941768) to examine and reject Christian revelation by subjecting Scripture to its rational principles. Nonetheless, one should not forget that Wolff's incorporation of Scholastic elements in his system and his conservative metaphysics made his philosophy equally appealing to Protestants and Catholics alike, both of whom viewed it as a useful defense against atheism and deism.

Wolff's influence reached even beyond the German territories. The concept of philosophy, as it appears in Diderot's and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, can almost be called a precise copy of his definition of philosophy from his Discursus praeliminaris de philosophia in genere (1728; Preliminary discourse on philosophy in general).

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Atheism ; Cartesianism ; Deism ; Descartes, René ; Diderot, Denis ; Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; Frederick II (Prussia) ; Frederick William I (Prussia) ; Kant, Immanuel ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Logic ; Mathematics ; Philosophy ; Physics ; Pietism ; Theology .


Primary Sources

Wolff, Christian. Gesammelte Werke. Edited by Jean École, et al. Hildesheim and New York, 1962.

. Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy in General. Translated by R. J. Blackwell. Indianapolis, 1963.

. "Reasonable Thoughts on the Actions of Men, for the Promotion of Their Happiness." In Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant, vol. 1, edited by J. B. Schneewind, pp. 333350. Cambridge, Mass., 1990.

Secondary Sources

Blackwell, Richard. "The Structure of Wolffian Philosophy." Modern Schoolman 38 (1961): 203218.

Carboncini, Sonia. Transzendentale Wahrheit und Traum: Christian Wolffs Antwort auf die Herausforderung durch den cartesianischen Zweifel. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt, 1991.

École, Jean. "Wolff était-il un Aufklärer?" In Aufklärung als praktische Philosophie, edited by Frank Gunert, et al., pp. 3144. Tübingen, 1998.

Frängsmyr, Tore. "Christian Wolff's Mathematical Method and Its Impact on the Eighteenth Century." Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975): 653668.

Morrison, J. C. "Christian Wolff's Criticism of Spinoza." Journal of the History of Philosophy 31 (1993): 182213.

Saine, Thomas P. The Problem of Being Modern, or, the German Pursuit of Enlightenment from Leibniz to the French Revolution. Detroit, Mich., 1997.

Schneiders, Werner, ed. Christian Wolff, 16791754: Interpretationen zu seiner Philosophie und deren Wirkung. Hamburg, 1983.

Wundt, Max. Die Deutsche Schulphilosophie im Zeitalter der Aufklärung. Tübingen, 1945. Reprint, Hildesheim, 1964.

Ulrich Groetsch

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Wolff, Christian von

Christian von Wolff (krĬs´tyän fən vôlf), 1679–1754, German philosopher. One of the first to use the German language instead of Latin, he systematized and popularized the doctrines of Leibniz. Wolff studied at Jena and taught at Leipzig before going to a professorship at Halle (1706–23). His doctrines of apparent fatalism aroused the Pietists to secure his banishment, which he spent as professor at Marburg (1723–40). Recalled to Halle by Frederick the Great in 1740, he became chancellor of the university in 1743. One of Wolff's major works was Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt, und der Seele der Menschen [rational thoughts on God, the world, and the souls of men] (1719). The Leibnizian doctrine of preestablished harmony was more prominent than the monad theory in Wolff's presentation, though both were considerably moderated. He is chiefly remembered for his broad concept of philosophy, his insistence on clarity and precision, and his devotion to the power of reason and mathematics.

See study by J. V. Burns (1966).

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Wolf, Christian von

Christian von Wolf: see Wolff, Christian von.

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