Wolff, Christian (1679–1754)

views updated


Christian Wolff was a rationalist polymath and an influential leader of the early German Enlightenment. He was born in Breslau into an impoverished family of leather workers. In his academic career, he gained renown by teaching mathematics and became famous for systematizing and updating the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Wolff pioneered socio-economics, framed the idea of subsidiarity (the EU welfare model), and made lasting contributions to international law. He developed German into a philosophical language (e.g., coining Begriff ), created a terminology still in use in the twenty-first century (e.g., "monism" and "dualism"), and dominated continental thought before Immanuel Kant in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Southeast Europe, and Russia. In his philosophical work, he revived ontology as a systematic framework for the empirical sciences, and expanded the geometric method, a mathematical design for rational thought and conceptual reasoning. He advanced the first formal theory of evolution and defined the ecological and cosmological notion of a world as a network of worldlines (nexus rerum ). Like Leibniz, he sided with the Jesuit accommodation in the Rites Controversy (16101724). Unlike Leibniz, he openly declared himself a neo-Confucian in the textual tradition of Zhu Xi (11301200).

This bold move resulted in his exile in 1723 and spawned the Pietism Controversy 17231740. His Christian critics denounced him as a pagan, "Spinozist," and atheist, while Thomasius attacked him as a "new, insolent Confucian" in 1726. His pupils lost teaching posts in Prussia and Swabia; his texts were outlawed at Halle in 1723 and in Prussia in 1729. His opponents were Christian fundamentalists influenced by Martin Luther, Philipp Jakob Spener, and John Calvin. They relented in the 1730s, when it became undeniable that Wolff accommodated mainstream opinions and retracted his provocative metaphysical claims. But he never retracted his arguments for academic freedom, especially as a freedom from religious dogma. He was celebrated as "the teacher of Germany" (praeceptor Germaniae ) who yielded to his critics by choosing Sir Isaac Newton over Leibniz and Christ over Confucius, while preserving the unity of his system of ideas in a reformulated encyclopedic Latin oeuvre.

At Marburg, he served an enlightened Calvinist ruler, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. He was invited to join Utrecht University and to lead Russia's and Prussia's academies. After the coronation of Frederick II, he left for a royal welcome in Berlin in 1740. His return to Halle, which was condoned by the king, was seen as a cultural feat for Prussia and was a legal victory for reason. The elector of the Holy Roman Empire and founder of the Bavarian Academy elevated him to nobility. Baron Wolff died on his estate (Rittergut ) near Leipzig in 1754. He was the chief German thinker after Leibniz and before Kant.

Context, Work, and Impact

Wolff was born January 24, 1679, in the capital of Silesia (Breslau, present-day Wroclaw), in the Protestant northeast of Hapsburg, Austria (present-day Poland). He was the only survivor of six children by a tanner. Following his father's wishes, he attended Breslau's Lutheran School and majored in divinity at Jena in 1699. He changed his course of studies to mathematics and went to Leipzig to earn his magister degree in 1702. With a thesis on ethics according to the mathematical method, he won a magister legens in 1703, entitling him to teach. He taught mathematics as an adjunct professor at Leipzig and joined the staff of Acta Eruditorum, the first academic journal in Germany, published in Leipzig. For the Acta, he wrote as a specialist in mathematics but soon branched out to other fields, such as military architecture natural history, and natural philosophy. In 1706, for instance, Wolff reviewed the Optics (1704) by Newton (16421727) and the expanded True Physics (1705) by Newton's student John Keill (16711721). The Swedish invasion of Saxony in 1706 (Great Northern War 17001721) made Wolff leave Leipzig; Gottfried Wilhelm Baron von Leibniz (16461716) helped him to find employment at Halle University as a professor of mathematics. In 1709, he established himself as an expert in the quantitative dynamics of gases (with Aerometry ).

With these credentials in natural philosophy, Wolff taught logic (1709), next ontology, and eventually ethicsin violation of administrative rules, because philosophy classes had been the exclusive turf of the theology faculty. Despite resistance by the Pietist mayor August Hermann Francke (16631727) and the evangelical theologian Joachim Lange (16701744), Wolff taught outside his area until 1723. In 1709, he was elected to the Royal Society, and in 1711 to the Berlin Academy.

With the four-volume Foundations of All Exact Sciences (1710), Wolff made a name for himself as the leading author of up-to-date German textbooks on the new quantitative sciences. In 1711 he wrote an anonymous review of a handbook (1710) by François Noël on China's geography and astronomy and on Chinese measurements for Acta Eruditorum. In 1712 he anonymously contributed to Acta a review on Alexandre [sic: François] Noël's translation of six Confucian classics. He wrote the four-volume Elements of Universal Mathematics (17131715), the so-called German Logic (Rational Thoughts on the Forces of the Human Mind, 1713), and a Mathematical Dictionary (1716). Staying in Halle, he declined calls to Marburg (1714), Wittenberg (1715), Jena (1716), and Leipzig (1716). In 1715 he became court councilor (Hofrat ) and also professor of physics at Halle; Peter I (the Great, 16721725) asked him to serve as a tsarist advisor in St Petersburg. In 1718 he defended Confucian secular humanism and supported Chinese morals in Reason of Wolff's Classes in Mathematics and Global Philosophy (Ratio praelectionum Wolfianarum [in] mathesin & philosophiam universam).

In 1719 he published German Metaphysics (Rational Thoughts on God, World, Human Soul, and All Things in General ), his best-known work. It was read as a revolutionary and secular system; it was a best-seller and the program for a new philosophical network. His Swabian pupil Georg Bernhard Bilfinger (16931750) called the network the "Leibnizian-Wolffian School Philosophy."

Although this label irritated Wolff, Bilfinger was being honest. Leibniz was Wolff's most famous mentor, from whom he appropriated main ideas of the monadology and natural dynamics. He also followed Leibniz's rational theodicy. Later, however, Wolff's Leibnizian label turned into a misnomer. Spurred into action by the angry ideological critique of these subversive ideas, and their negative repercussions, Wolff spoke out against them and distanced himself from the deeper implications of ideas such as "monad" and "preestablished harmony." Most students who followed him in this moderation fared well nationally. Others, who resisted this about-face and insisted on the revolutionary significance of Leibniz's ideas in their Wolffian integration, found themselves marginalized (even by Wolff) or driven into exile. Bilfinger, exiled to Russia, was the most radical early interpreter who was not rejected by the later Wolff.

The Leibnizian-Wolffian School Philosophy grew to include female naturalists and free-thinkers, such as the karmic pantheist Johanna Charlotte Unzer (b. Ziegler 17251782); among its supporters abroad was the later Newtonian Gabrielle de Châtelet (17061749). Early continental feminists celebrated Wolff. Early (male, German) members were known as the textbook authors. The School Philosophy bred a new generation of Enlightenment thinkers, such as the poet and philosopher Johann Christoph Gottsched (17001766), and it culminated in the work of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (17141762). Baumgarten's Metaphysica (1739) was the definitive textbook (used by Kant), and his Aesthetica (1750) was the historic Wolffian basis of modern aesthetics.

In 1719 Halle University elected Wolff to serve as its provost (prorektor ). In 1721 he ended the two-year term with Speech on the Morals of the Chinese, a public address to an audience of more than a thousand. He refused to submit the text to the next provost (Lange) for religious scrutiny, which prompted the Pietists to conspire at the royal court. Around the same time, Wolff wrote German Ethics (1720), Politics (1721), Physics (1723), Teleology (1724), and Physiology (1725).

On November 8, 1723, King Frederick William I (r. 17131740) sentenced Wolff to death but granted his exile from Prussia if he left within two days. He fled to Marburg, called by Landgrave Charles I of Hesse (16541730). He took the mathematics and physics chair held by Denis Papin (1647c. 1712), who had co-invented the steam engine with Leibniz (1690). Tsarina Catherine (16841727, Empress 1725) offered Wolff the vice presidency of the Russian Academy (in 1723 and 1725). By 1728 his fame had vastly increased the student numbers at Marburg, but he remained a target of Pietists and Calvinists.

Wolff qualified his early liberal challenges in detailed replies to critics (Schutzschriften to Lange and Johann Budde in 1724; Notes to Tübingen Theology in 1725). He moderated his secular ontology with Comments to German Metaphysics in 1724, published his own edition of the speech on Confucius (Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica in 1726, with Bilfinger), and fought for academic freedom (Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy in 1728). In 1729 fundamentalists succeeded in having all his works declared illegal in Prussia.

While Wolff taught in Hesse, he was made honorary professor of the Russian Academy at St. Petersburg in 1725. Writing now for a wider European audience, he reformulated his views in a Latin series, with Rational Philosophy or Logic (1728; its preface is the Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy as Such, which he expanded into a separate work), followed by First Philosophy or Ontology in 1730, General Cosmology in 1731, Empirical Psychology in 1732, and Rational Psychology in 1734. Natural Theology (17361737) and Global Practical Philosophy (17381739) completed the group. The Latin series replaced the German textbooks, and the new set reveals his rejection of charges of paganism and "free-thinking." These works allowed Wolff's mainstream academic acceptance.

In 1733, the French Academy elected Wolff to one of its eight foreign members. Lobbied by a Wolffian (a warrior, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau 16761747), Frederick William I of Prussia certified Wolff at Marburg as a state counselor of Hesse, now ruled by Frederick I (16761751, king of Sweden since 1720; landgrave of Hesse since 1730). In 1734 Prussia rescinded the 1723 arrest warrant; Frankfurt at the Oder offered him a position; the Prussian Academy offered him the vice-presidency; and Halle University allowed his return. He stayed at Marburg until 1740, with students such as Mikhail Lomonossov (17111765), the founder of Moscow University (1755).

In 1740, Frederick II (the Great, 17121786) promoted Wolff to Prussian privy counselor, offered him the presidency of the Academy, and welcomed him back to Halle as an interdisciplinary professor of mathematics, law, and public policy. Meanwhile, the Leibnizian-Wolffian School Philosophy had evolved to the leading cultural movement of the German Age of Reason. With the foundation of debate clubs such as the Society of the Friends of Truth (1736, which coined the slogan sapere aude! dare to understand!) and the creation of a host of journals, the rational matrix of the early Enlightenment framed by Wolff had spread into the civil and public sphere of continental Europe. His students, driven from Prussia, taught in other parts of Germany, in Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Russia.

The 1740 coronation of Frederick II was a pivotal event in Wolff's lifetime. Frederick was an avowed agnostic, who had been imprisoned by his Pietist father Frederick William I. The coronation of the jailed "atheist" was a triumph for the Enlightenment. Frederick's alliance with Wolff was a cultural feat for Prussia and signaled the better protection of academic freedom, the first political harbinger of Germany's later division of church and state.

Back in Halle, Wolff served as the university chancellor in 1743. There he developed a system of natural law (Natural Law, 8 vol., 174048) and outlined a theory of international law (International Law, 1749), which he grounded on natural law (Principles of Natural and International Law, 1750). In 1752 he was elected to the Italian Academy in Bologna. His final works were Moral Philosophy (17501753) and Economics (17541755). This late series repeats his early praise for the Mandarin-run welfare state of China as an exemplary administrative framework and informed Prussian political economy until 1786, when Frederick's successor returned to more parochial Lutheran values. Political economy had been taught since the creation of cameral chairs by Frederick William I, for training Prussia's tax revenue administrators (a century before the field was read at Oxford).

On September 10, 1745, Wolff was made imperial baron of the Holy Roman Empire (Reichsfreiherr ) by his pupil Maximilian Joseph III (17271777), the enlightened Bavarian king (elector since 1745), who founded the Academy of Sciences at Munich, which later advanced stellar optics, helioscopy, and spectral analysis (e.g., Fraunhofer, 1814). Wolff acquired the feudal seat Klein-Dölzig in Saxony in 1748 and retired from teaching. He had single-handedly changed the German and East European landscape of legal, secular, and social thoughtthe thrust of his arguments had been so persuasive that they were seen as mainstream a mere generation after they had been first branded as extreme.

Baron Wolff died on his estate near Leipzig on April 9, 1754. His Leibnizian-Wolffian School, then the popular German philosophy, was already besieged by the critiques of the young Pietist theologian Christian August Crusius (17151775), whose philosophical tracts appeared in the 1740s. The Lisbon tsunami (November 1, 1755), the worst tectonic disaster in recorded European history, with 70,000 deaths, was internationally seen as a refutation of Leibniz's theodicy of the "best of all possible worlds" and turned Wolff's metaphysical framework, with its optimistic, anthropocentric outlook, into the butt of skeptical mockery.

Wolff advanced the continental Age of Reason and systematized early modern thought. Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel (17701831), Karl Marx (181883), and Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900) dismissed him as an obsolete thinker. Kant (17241804), who called him the greatest of all German philosophers, joined Wolff's metaphysical viewpoint to its logical opposite, Humean skepticism, as the dialectic field for the collective "critical path of reason" (1781). Wolff created the grammar for the social sciences, integrated law and economics, and built the foundation (partly with his work on architecture and design, and partly via Gottsched and Baumgarten) for the later discipline of aesthetics.

Influences on Wolff

The earliest influences informing Wolff's intellectual development were Christian theology and the literary Baroque. His father, Christoph Wolff, had intellectual aspirations, and his family followed the Lutheran faith. His birth place Breslau was multidenominational, a regional result of the settlements after the Thirty Years War (16181648). In this Protestant city, which involved western Calvinist and eastern Jewish communities, he attended the Lutheran gymnasium (senior high school or community college) and distinguished himself in debates with students from the Roman Catholic school run by the Jesuit order. Wolff's rector was the poet Gryphius (16161684), a Baroque student of Martin Opitz's earlier Book of German Poetry (1624). Gryphius worked for a linguistic and cultural renewal of Germany, devastated by the genocide. His critique of protestant Aristotelianism, as a reactionary paradigm, exposed Wolff to problems of scholastic authority and to intolerant flaws in the campus doctrine.

In Jena and Leipzig, Wolff reacted to Gryphius' critique by turning to the so-called renegades of his day, René Descartes (15961650), Ehrenfried Walter v. Tschirnhaus (16511708), and Leibniz. Wolff proposed settling neo-scholastic issues by constructing a new design of conceptual analysis and logical deduction, which he applied to formal, natural, and moral philosophy. In Jena, he studied the geometric method by Erhard Weigel (16251699) and a similar method proposed by Descartes. In Leipzig, he studied Tschirnhaus' art of invention (ars invenienda ), a version of the geometric method influenced by optical ideas of Baruch Spinoza (16321677) and by catoptrics and dioptrics, the calculus of mirror reflection and lens refraction. Tschirnhaus used his art of invention for the reverse chemical engineering of Chinese porcelain (1708). Wolff applied the geometric method to conceptual reasoning, sharing Tschirnhaus' and Spinoza's hope that the free-spirited rational quests for scientific discovery would create civil happiness.

In Leipzig and Halle, Wolff interpreted Leibniz's monadology as a system of reflective substances. These ultimate and indivisible points are nature's energetic sources of material arrays; twenty-first-century scholars might call such monads powerpoints. Wolff shared Leibniz's interest in Chinese ontology and understood this model of reality as a rational matrix of interactive objects. Yet Wolff was not sure about the depth of physical interaction, repeatedly changing his mind over whether the energetic reciprocity of nature extends to the free powerpoints in the foundational Leibnizian monadology.

In Marburg, he rejected Leibniz's preestablished harmony and studied physical influx, a model of causation proposed by the Spanish scholastic Francisco Suárez (15481617). In 1724 he argued that influxionist causal processes govern the natural elements, only to change his mind again and to become ultimately noncommittal about any rational account of natural causes.

In 1726 he appropriated the principle of decorum from his ex-colleague Christian Thomasius (16551728). For Thomasius, the decorum was the rational ground of any good legislation. Thomasius defined it as the form of fair distribution and equated it with the Golden Rule (using it for legal briefs against witch trials and in defense of free sexual liaisons). Wolff read the principle of decorum in a wider sense, as the basic way of civil progress and as a human mirror of cosmic development. He identified it with the convergent arrows of civilization and evolution that are tipped toward perfection. This near-mystical reading of the decorum Wolff claimed as his own, but he acknowledged its previous account in the Book of Rites (Li Ji ; especially Da Xue or "Great Learning" and Zhong Yong or "Doctrine of the Mean"). Wolff's principle of decorum (flat out rejected by Thomasius in 1726) was informed by Bilfinger and by the Jesuits Philippe Couplet, Athanasius Kircher, and Noël.

Wolff was also influenced by Lange, Hugo Grotius (15831645), and John Locke (16321704). Lange's attacks prompted him to retract some of his ontological claims for a metaphysical skepticism compatible with Lutheran doctrine. Wolff's caution was influenced by Newton's rules for philosophy (1687) and by Locke's empiricism. Locke was systematically used by the Pietists to shore up their fundamentalism against rationalist claims. Yielding to English and Saxon critics, Wolff rejected Leibniz's dynamics for Newton's mechanics, thus supporting the majority opinion of the day. But he did not entirely retract his earlier views. The theory of natural law, as developed above all by Grotius (see the subtitle of Wolff's Reason [1718; 2nd ed. 1735]), allowed him to make his rational point, while diplomatically avoiding farther and more controversial implications of the same ideas.

Mathematics and Logic

Wolff's initial series of mathematical works are systematic expositions of the scientific knowledge of the day, reflecting the state of the art in geometry, arithmetic, and algebra, as well as of the newly advanced calculus (following Leibniz, not Newton, as nineteenth-century mathematicians would do after Wolff as well). Wolff's mathematical works (17101716) do not give much space to statistics and stochastic. In part, this neglect had a historical reason. The revolutionary advances in the theory of probability (e.g., Jakob Bernoulli's Ars coniectandi, 1713) were made when part of this series was already in press. Moreover, the physical significance of probabilistic tools was shown later (e.g., by Daniel Bernoulli's Hydrodynamica, 1733), and only after Wolff had published his logics (1713 and 1728). While Johann Bernoulli (16671748) had written on waves, curves, and integrals earlier, Wolff apparently did not know what to make of it.

Wolff's methodological ideal is Euclidean geometry, an axiomatic and deductive system, which was to him the perfect science of nature. He trusted that all natural events, however vague, incoherent, or ambiguous they may seem, express invariant rational patterns, which one should be able to determine as clear and distinct truths. Probabilistic tools fail to reveal such geometric exactitude, and this is a sign of the limitation of the tools, and not the real limit of the events modeled by them. Wolff's nature is rationally ordered; its ways are logical; and science is "the art of demonstration" (Logic vii § 1).

Wolff's scientific works were without equal; they democratically addressed a general readership and popularized science in Germany. The Foundations, for instance, is a survey of mathematics, geography, mechanics, hydraulics, ballistics, war tactics, fortress design (Festungsbau ), and civil architecture. These textbooks were used in Germany for decades; in the Balkans, such as Romania, and in Eastern Europe, such as the Ukraine, these texts were taught well into the nineteenth century. Wolff pioneered the distinction of pure and applied research; he stressed their equal significance, and he saw in mathematics the common denominator of all science.

Wolff regards logic as a system of universal relations, in contrast to Thomasius, Locke, and Lange (who looked at logic either with Christian disdain or as synonymous with natural sense). Against Arnauld's Logic (1662), Wolff argued that conceptual organization is not just a mnemonic tool or a palais de mémoire for arranging and retrieving stores of knowledge, but also the mirror of the order of nature (1713). The function of Wolff's logic is the theoretical clarification of natural data and the practical enlightenment of secular reason.

The early Wolff discussed logic together with psychology (1713); later, he joined logic to ontology (1728). Wolff's logic involves concepts, propositions, and the map of syllogistic arguments. The logic of scientific discovery works with definitions, laws, and experience. Since the truth-content of propositions and their relations reflect the cosmos, truth is inseparable from the order of events in physical and ultimate reality. As science is the art of demonstration, logic is the art of invention (ars invenienda ) in scientific work. Propositions can serve as hypotheses that support deductive networks of explanations, and they are also testable. The value of hypotheses depends on experiments. As positive results make hypotheses probable, negative results call them into question; further data will have to determine whether a hypothesis is to be revised or dismissed.

Ontology and Metaphysics

Wolff described reality as the sum of observable things, whose actions and properties are ordered by small dynamic elements or substances (Metaphysics, 1719). The empirical structure is the world, defined as an interactive, developing web of things (nexus rerum ), whose natural basis is the ontological system of rationally accessible simple elements. The substantial basis and the objective superstructure are a coherent whole, the order of nature.

The order of nature is ruled by the principle of (the impossibility of) contradictionit is impossible for something to be and not to be at the same time; existential differences emerge only in time. The history of nature is the logical flow of its causal processes; their beginnings and ends differ, but transitions are lawfully harmonized. This causal logic obeys the principle of sufficient reason.

This order covers all reality. Its ontological basis is Leibniz's array of monads, organic, conscious, and indivisible force points, which function as Aristotelian entelechies, a primordial software of elementary action, material trade, and environmental fate. In the naturally evolving cosmos, all stuff, things, minds, and networks integrate in an ultimate harmonious and spiritual rule. Wolff's metaphysics combines ontology with a system of spirits (rational psychology or the "pneumatic of minds"), a system of nature (rational cosmology or the "world-doctrine"), and a system of divinity (rational theology or the "natural God-scholarship"). Being, minds, empirical reality, and supreme law are radically unified in an emphatically coherent, intelligible, and predictable order of nature.

Wolff framed this system as a rational reply to the scientific unifications by Nicolas Copernicus (14731543), Galileo (15641642), Johannes Kepler (15711630), and Descartes. This ontology is a conjectured "final theory" for all future research. Its problem is its unityif the divine law integrates in natural order, then "God" is at risk of becoming Spinoza's natura naturans or turning into a cosmic energy flow.

As God is at risk of being merged with the cosmos in Wolff's system, freedom is at risk of being dissolved in a divinely deterministic blueprint of creative processes. For Wolff, any effect results from a prior sufficient reason according to lawful and rational patterns. But if all that happens is in principle predictable, where will this leave spontaneity, or the causation of willful and free actions?

The standard answerfreedom has its seat in the souldoes not quite map onto Wolff's system because of his Leibnizian leanings. Souls are simple substances, and all such monads strive and reflect in an interplay the steps of which are harmoniously preestablished. Christian critics objected that all humans are sinners; that "sinning" means the buck stops with the blameworthy person; and that God, who created persons, gave them free will. But if all personal actions resulted from a preestablished arrangement by God at creation, God would be guilty of human evil, and persons would be wheels in a world-machine (Lange, Causa Dei, 1723). This Pietist objection to Wolff's metaphysics was construed as a political charge that soldiers going AWOL cannot be blamed for desertion, which led the Prussian king to look at Wolff as a traitor to be fired, punished, and exiled.

Wolff's revised causal ontology drops the preestablished harmony of elementary souls for the addition of real interactions on the level of monads (henceforth called only "simple substances"; Comments to German Metaphysics, 1724). Since substances are invested with a spontaneous power, they affect one another, and in this sense one soul can freely lead another soul into sin. Substances also affect things, like bodies, and hence souls can freely sin in their embodiments.

Paradoxically, the result of Wolff's revision is an even tighter rational order of the universeas empirical structures form a nexus rerum, their basis is to be explicated as a network of elements or nexus elementorum (Comments, 1724). Now everything is purposeful. Nature's order has a supreme and final regularity. Apparent flaws, like evil, are transient and local phenomena but are not integral parts of the design; the general thrust of the natural network mirrors a pervasive goal-directedness. For Wolff, the whole creation reflects its first cause, whose effects are always good to its creatures, particular to humans (German Teleology, 1724).

But this revision does not let Wolff's metaphysics off the Spinozist hook. For as nature is a lawfully evolving framework, things are always getting better, and there is no need for a meddling celestial God to perform miracles on Earth. Since miracles break the natural flow, the logic of the cosmic order reveals miracles as making a causal messso requiring more miracles (miraculum restitutionis ), ontological cleaning crews that restore the causal order broken by the initial miracle (German Metaphysics, 1719 and Cosmologia Generalis, 1731). The Christian notion of God, in its Catholic and Lutheran senses, does not "fit" the Wolffian reality of being, whereas a stipulated rational and dynamic wave-front, benevolently "naturing" nature, is its ontological consequence.

Wolff's identification of this dynamic ordering as the principle of decorum, which "waves" micro- and macroscopic worlds along their inexorable ways toward perfection (preface to Speech on Chinese, 1726), triggered another evangelical outcry and more charges of Spinozism, paganism, and atheism. Wolff replied by defining this power as "God" in the standard Lutheran sense (Detailed News, 1726).

Still, evangelicals objected to this metaphysics; they disliked Wolff's (qualified) embrace of Newton as early as 1719. (Pietists roundly rejected the content of Principia until midcentury.) That Wolff integrated the laws of motion, and included the technical concepts of mass and force (Ontology, 1729), made his world-idea seem all the more deterministic, material, and machinelike. As his critics reminded him (such as Lange in Brief Sketch of the Axioms in Wolff's Philosophy Harmful to Natural and Revealed Religion, 1736), the issue is over the elementary matrix of causal interplays. Just as Leibniz's preestablished harmony invites the problem of freedom vis-a-vis dogmas of sin, Wolff's interacting monads, the nexus elementorum of1724, draw this charge from another angle: If all was lawfully ordered, where would this leave room for surprises, or for human willfulness?

Wolff's final revisions amounted to a withdrawal from any causal claims and to a self-imposed silence on the issue of the behavior of elements. He vetoed identifying substances or souls with monads (General Cosmology, 1731 §182). The three possible metaphysical explanations of causal phenomenaphysical influx, occasionalism, and preestablished harmonyall have their pros and cons, but which one would really be right no one can say (Rational Psychology, 1734). Wolff's order of nature, no matter which logical moves he made, kept provoking political and clerical critique. In 1734, he gave up on first causes and on mind-body interactions.

Ethics and Aesthetics

Wolff's epistemological platform is the Cartesian cogito, the living being full of doubts, or the human power for reasoning things out. In reason, helped by experience and observation, one discovers the laws of nature in their present workings and in their evolutionary thrust toward a perfected state. In a historical sense, natural laws are the forms of progressive realization and organization, ultimately of nature itself. In a semantic sense, these laws, in their worked-out patterns, generate ever richer information or essential being, which is the best reality in perfection. In a practical sense, the laws of nature point to the final form of the natural good. Hence Wolff's practical law of nature is divinely inspired, aesthetically ideal, and morally binding.

If one wonders why beauty and the good should come about, Wolff argued, one will see that both are the clear and distinct ideas that prevail in the self-realization of nature's law. Why should a person be moral? By reason one knows "what the law of nature wants to get"; and "therefore a reasonable human being does not need any additional laws," for the progressively perfecting law of nature is humanity's law in light of reason. (Ethics § 23 1720; also Global Practical Philosophy § 268 1738).

Regardless of which metaphysical theory suits the causation of free actions best, the power of reason can shed light on the natural law and thus enlighten human choices. This law or decorum is the formal pattern of perfection. The idea of perfection is the declared source ("fons mea ") of Wolff's entire practical philosophy (as outlined in the preface of his Moral Philosophy, 1750).

Conceptually, perfection is the consensus of variety; Wolff defined consensus dynamically, as the interactive trend toward fair trade. Scientifically, in the twenty-first century, Wolff's idea of the naturally self-perfecting consensus is reflected in the ecological understanding of climax communities, environmental integrity, and biological diversity. Practically, for Wolff, perfection is the categorical duty and the moral imperativedo what makes the state of oneself and others more perfect; refrain from making it less perfect. Thus the natural law commands to work out the state of the art of the commerce of living forces, each of which freely wants to realize its material momentum in an ever more complex nature.

Accordingly, good and evil (just like beauty and ugliness) can be defined over their relative degree of systemic perfectionfrom the perspective of integrity and design, nasty and repugnant events are imperfect. The duty to realize well-ordered frames and a sustainable consensus, no matter its particular instantiation, has political and civil implications.

The enlightened sovereign regards the state like a house that needs to be built in the best way, through an efficient allocation of essential weights, for the sake of maximal strength of the whole. The ruler ought to order and maintain the best administrative design for the common good or the welfare of the people. The welfare state, whose revenues help weaker social groups for the sake of a tighter social contract, is Wolff's design (Principles of Natural Law, 1754 § 1022). It is inspired by the form of Mandarin administration under the neo-Confucian Qing rulers (since 1644). Wolff's take on the natural law is also shaped by Thomasius, Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf (163294). The political task of the ruler is formally equivalent to the aesthetic task of a designer or architect. Architecture is Wolff's ideal art (his focus would provoke later aestheticians to criticize Wolff for roundly neglecting poetics). As architecture points to material blueprints of well-ordered frames that efficiently distribute mass in elegant designs, Wolff's intellectual concern is to advance the art's form and make it more of a science (Universal Mathematics, 1713).

Wolff is the father of German aesthetics, but he did not develop a specific theory of art. Instead, he laid its consistent foundation in philosophical terms. He argued for two aspects of the mind, cognitive powers and sentient will, and derived knowledge from sensation. The impressed data are ordered by the mind, and this order reveals a formin the terms of Arthur Schopenhauer (17881860), the arena of appearances displays the handwriting of the natural force or will-to-life. The law of this form is the decorum; this law reveals geometrically and naturally elegant shapes. This design guides cosmic processes toward their historical unfolding into a final state of the art.

This metaphysical concept of perfection is a physically constant cosmological operation. In Wolff's reading, this operation is an evolutionary vector of material interplays toward complexity. Material interplays develop as progressive consensual grids, and the decorum is their entelechy: a rational, benevolent, substantial conatus. Wolff's principle (prima principia decori ) is binding for ethics, politics, economics, and social order. As the decorum is evident to the unbiased observer, specific religions can illustrate it, but theology, whatever its type, is not a privileged perspective. Theology is an "art," but playful arts contain superior information only if they evolve into science. Architecture is about the design of material structures. The perception of good design elicits pleasure. In this Wolffian sense, the good and the beautiful do not depend on God's arbitrary will but instead on the rational order of nature. Monotheistic revelation is not needed; reason is enough.


The paradox of Wolff's influence is that he was the most successful early modern German thinker while suffering the same fate as Newton, the leading scientist of the erahis declared ideas were so persuasive that they were not just academically successful but also soon perceived as oddly trivial. Progress after Wolff was made by critique, by integrating Wolff's ideas in larger models. But while Newton remains admired, Wolff was forgotten after two generations. Later thinkers, from Kant to Marx, regarded him as part of the establishment that needed to be overcome. As a result of their intellectual impact, Wolff was not taught in the twentieth century.

In the eighteenth century, Wolff completed the step from the early Enlightenment to the apex of the Age of Reason, an age that culminated in the split of church and state (1740) and in the American (1776) and French (1789) revolutions. At the start of the era, witches were burnt; priests, preachers, and feudal lords reigned supreme; and the commoners had little to say. Wolff's political legacy was the influence on the academies of the day of his philosophical reflections on rational design, on logical reasons, and on the civil merit in questioning authority. For Voltaire (16941778), Wolff defined the Enlightenment"Federico regnante, Wolfio docente (Frederick reigns; Wolff teaches)."

The integration of Wolff's liberal humanistic ideas in Prussian governance by Frederick the Great played no small part in Prussia's advancement to a world power. Wolff's system engaged Kant and Hegel, and thus ensured the continuity of continental thought from Spinoza to the present. During his lifetime, his followers were the Leibnizian-Wolffian school philosophers, who discussed German Metaphysics and organized an academic network. His system became the paradigm of German thought until the rise of Kant's star in the 1780s. Some students deserted to the Pietists and advanced in Halle. Daniel Strähler (16921750) criticized Wolff in his Examination of Wolff's Rational Thoughts (1723).

Other disciples, who stuck to their guns, were fired and driven out, such as Christian Gabriel Fischer (16861751) from Königsberg and all of Prussia (1725). Ludwig Philipp Thümmig (16971728) left with Wolff in 1723, went to Cassel (ruled by the Landgrave of Hesse), and published the first exegesis, Principles of Wolffian Philosophy (17251726). Wolffians gained nationwide appointments and ruled the intellectual field well into the 1770s. Bilfinger, the author of the Elucidations (1725), went to Tübingen. Johann Friedrich Stiebritz (17071772) taught at Gießen and Frankfurt, and wrote Wolffian Thought Condensed (17441745). Johann Franz Coing (17251792) went to Marburg in 1753 and wrote System of God, Human Soul, World, and the First Principles of Human Cognition (1765). The philologist, literary critic, and playwright Gottsched taught ontology at Leipzig and produced with First Principles of Human Cognition (1765), the most celebrated interpretation next to Baumgarten's. Johann Peter Reusch, who went to Jena in 1738, followed suit with Metaphysical System (1734).

The works by Friedrich Christian Baumeister (17091795) at Wittenberg and Görlitz, Elements of Rational Thought (1735) and Ontological Primer (1738), gained wide circulation. Andreas Böhm (17201790) at Gießen contributed to the debate with Metaphysics (1753). Johann Nikolaus Frobesius (17011756) at Helmstedt (whose poet laureate was the female Wolffian Unzer) supplied with Outline of Wolff's Metaphysics-System (1730) yet another perspective. Israel Gottlieb Canz (16901753) at Tübingen (after Bilfinger was fired on behest of the theologians) contributed to the Jewish reception that influenced Moses Mendelssohn (17291786) with The Use of Leibnizian-Wolffian Thought in Theology (1728), All Moral Disciplines (1739), Basics of Human Cognition (1741), and Elementary Philosophy (1744). The Pietist Martin Knutzen (17131751) at Königsberg contributed Elements of Rational and Logical Thought (1744) before parting ways with Wolff over the theological ramifications of causal patterns.

Johann (Jean) Henri Samuel Formey (17111797), secretary of the Berlin Academy, thought that Enlightenment should not be a male affair and trained female intellectuals with the six-volume La Belle Wolffienne (17411753). One result of Formey's work was to create a social space for Unzer, the female thinker of the age. Unzer learnt from the Wolffian Georg Friedrich Meier (17181777) and from the psychologists in her family at Halle. She wrote a phenomenology of embodiment based on Wolff and Spinoza (Outline of Philosophy for Females (1751; 2nd ed. 1767).

Wolff's influence culminated in Kant. Kant arrived on the scene with a critique of Wolff's Newtonian departure from Leibniz (1749). Later, he integrated Wolff's and Euler's ideas into predictions of Earth's rotational and environmental fate, as well as into the discoveries of the daily rhythm of coastal winds, the coriolis turn of trade winds, and the seasonal cycle of the monsoon (17541757). In his critical phase, he denounced Wolff as a "dogmatic philosopher" and regarded him as the polar opposite to Hume; the Critique (1781) ends with a proposed middle way (a la Bilfinger) between the two heuristic extremes. Wolff's challenge is the natural law, the decorum, or rite of nature. The effect of Wolff's early Aerometry on Kant's rational apercus of climate patterns remains provocative to the twenty-first century, in light of current information on global warming. In modern times, Wolff's impact on the socioeconomic shape of the European Union (Maastricht treaties) is recognized, but his views on natural frames or "houses" (oikos ), and on their internal dynamic interplays, are not topics of philosophical research.

See also Arnauld, Antoine; Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb; Bilfinger, Georg Bernhard; Calvin, John; Confucius; Copernicus, Nicolas; Cosmology; Crusius, Christian August; Descartes, René; Enlightenment; Galileo Galilei; Gottsched, Johann Christoph; Grotius, Hugo; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Kepler, Johannes; Knutzen, Martin; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Luther, Martin; Marx, Karl; Meier, Georg Friedrich; Mendelssohn, Moses; Monism and Pluralism; Newton, Isaac; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Ontology; Pietism; Schopenhauer, Arthur; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Suárez, Francisco; Thomasius, Christian; Thümmig, Ludwig Philipp; Tschirnhaus, Ehrenfried Walter von; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de; Women in the History of Philosophy; Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi).


works by christian wolff

Gesammelte Werke [Collected works]. Edited by J. École, H. W. Arndt, C. A. Corr, J. E. Hofmann, and M. Thomann. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1965ff. [1965ff.]

All of the following works are contained in Wolff's Gesammelte Werke. They were originally published at different times and in different cities throughout Germany, as reflected below, but have been gathered together in this modern reprint collection of Wolff's work. (GW = Gesammelte Werke ; Roman numerals refer to the German (I) or Latin (II) series in GW; Arabic numerals refer to the volumes in the individual series; a second Arabic numeral after volume number (e.g. 1.1.) refers to an individually released part of the volume.)

Aërometriae Elementa in quibus aliquot aëris vires ac proprietates iuxta methodum Geometrarum demonstrantur [Aerometry ]. Leipzig, 1709.

Anfangsgründe aller mathematischen Wissenschaften [Foundations of All Exact Sciences ]. 4 vols. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1710. In GW I: 1215.

Elementa matheseos Universae [Universal Mathematics ]. 1st ed. 2 vol.; 2nd ed. 4 vol. Halle, 17131715. In GW II: 2933.

Vernünftige Gedanken von den Kräften des menschlichen Verstandes und ihrem richtigen Gebrauche in der Erkenntnis der Wahrheit [German Logic ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1713. In GW I: 1.

Mathematisches Lexicon [Mathematical Dictionary ]. Leipzig, 1716. In GW I: 11.

Ratio praelectionum Wolfianarum [in] mathesin et philosophiam universam et opus Hugonis Grotii de jure belle et pacis [Reason of Wolff's Classes ]. Halle, 1718. In GW II: 36.

Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen auch allen Dingen überhaupt [German Metaphysics ]. Halle, 1719. In GW I: 2.

Vernünftige Gedanken von der Menschen Tun und Lassen zur Beförderung ihrer Glückseligkeit [German Ethics ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1720. In GW I: 4.

Vernünftige Gedanken von dem gesellschaftlichen Leben der Menschen und insbesondere dem Gemeinwesen zur Beförderung der Glückseligkeit des menschlichen Geschlechts [German Politics ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1721. In GW I: 5.

Vernünftige Gedanken von den Wirkungen der Natur [German Physics ]. Halle, 1723. In GW I: 6.

Vernünftige Gedanken von den Absichten der natürlichen Dinge [German Teleology ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1724. In GW I: 7.

Anmerkungen über die vernünftigen Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen auch allen Dingen überhaupt, zu besserem Verstande und bequemeren Gebrauche derselben [Comments to German Metaphysics ]. Frankfurt, 1724. In GW I: 3.

Vernünftige Gedanken von dem Gebrauch der Teile in Menschen, Tieren und Pflanzen [German Physiology ]. Leipzig, 1725. In GW I: 8.

Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica / Rede über die praktische Philosophie der Chinesen. Frankfurt, 1726. Edited and translated by Michael Albrecht as Speech on the Morals of the Chinese (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1985).

Ausführliche Nachricht von seinen eigenen Schriften, die er in deutscher Sprache von den verschiedenen Teilen der Weltweisheit herausgegeben, auf Verlangen ans Licht gestellt [Detailed News ]. Frankfurt, 1726. In GW I: 9.

Discursus praeliminaris de philosophia in genere [Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy ]. Frankfurt, 1728. In GW II: 1.1.

Philosophia rationalis sive Logica, methodo scientifica pertractata et ad usum scientiarum atque vitae aptata [Rational Philosophy or Logic ]. Frankfurt, 1728. In GW II: 1.23.

Philosophia prima, sive Ontologia, methodo scientifica pertractata qua omnis cognitiones humanae principia continentur [First Philosophy or Ontology ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1731. In GW II: 3.

Cosmologia generalis, methodo scientifica pertractata qua ad solidam, inprimis Dei atque naturae, cognitionem via sternitur [General Cosmology ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1731. In GW II: 4.

Psychologia empirica, methodo scientifica pertractata qua ea, quae de anima humana indubia experientiae fide constant, continentur et ad solidam universae philosophiae practicae ac theologiae naturalis tractationem via sternitur [Empirical Psychology ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1732. In GW II: 5.

Psychologia rationalis, methodo scientifica pertractata qua ea, quae de anima humana indubia experientiae fide innotescunt, per essentiam et naturam animae explicantur, et ad intimiorem naturae ejusque autoris cognitionem profutura proponuntur [Rational Psychology ]. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 1734. In GW II: 6.

Theologia naturalis, methodo scientifica pertractata [Natural Theology ]. 2 vols. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 17361737. In GW II: 7.17.2 and 8.

Philosophia practica universalis, methodo scientifica pertractata [Global Practical Philosophy ]. 2 vols. Frankfurt/Leipzig, 17381739. In GW II: 1011.

Jus Naturae, methodo scientifica pertractatum [Natural Law ]. 8 vols. Frankfurt/Leipzig/Halle, 17401748. In GW II: 1724.

Jus Gentium, methodo scientifica pertractatum in quo jus gentium naturale ab eo, quod voluntarii, pactitii et consuetudinarii est, accurate distinguitur [International Law ]. Halle, 1749. In GW II: 25.

Institutiones juris naturae et gentium in quibus ex ipsa hominis natura continuo nexu omnes obligationes et jura omnia de deducuntur [Principles of Natural and International Law ]. Halle, 1750. In GW II: 26.

Philosophia moralis sive Ethica, methodo scientifica pertractata [Moral Philosophy ]. 4 vols. Halle, 17501753. In GW II: 1216.

Oeconomica, methodo scientifica pertractata [Economics ] 2 vols. Halle, 17541755. In GW II: 2728.

works about christian wolff

Albrecht, Michael. "Einleitung." In Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica, edited by Michael Albrecht. Hamburg: Meiner, 1985.

Arndt, Hans Werner. "Rationalismus und Empirismus in der Erkenntnislehre Christian Wolffs." In Christian Wolff 16791754: Interpretationen zu seiner Philosophie und deren Wirkung, edited by Werner Schneiders, 3147. Hamburg: Meiner, 1983.

Backhaus, Jürgen, ed. Christian Wolff and Law & Economics: The Heilbronn Symposium. Hildesheim: Olms, 1998.

Backhaus, Jürgen. "Christian Wolff on Subsidiarity, the Division of Labor, and Social Welfare." European Journal of Law and Economics 4 (1997): 129146.

Beck, Lewis White. Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Biller, Gerhard. Wolff nach Kant: eine Bibliographie. Hildesheim: Olms, 2004.

Bissinger, Anton. "Zur metaphysischen Begründung der Wolffschen Ethik." In Christian Wolff 16791754: Interpretationen zu seiner Philosophie und deren Wirkung, edited by Werner Schneiders, 148160. Hamburg: Meiner, 1983.

Campo, Mariano. Cristiano Wolff e il razionalismo precritico (1939). 2 vols. Hildesheim: Olms, 1980.

Corr, Charles A. "Christian Wolff and Leibniz." Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975): 241262.

Corr, Charles A. "Introduction." In Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt [German Metaphysics ]. Halle, 1719. In GW I: 2.147.

Drechsler, Wolfgang. "Christian Wolff (16791754): A Biographical Essay." European Journal of Law and Economics 4 (1997): 111128.

École, Jean. "A propos du project de Wolff d'écrire une "Philosophie des Dames." Studia Leibnitiana 15 (1983): 4657.

École, Jean. "La critique wolffienne du spinozisme." Archives de Philosophie 46 (1983): 553567.

École, Jean. La Métaphysique de Christian Wolff. 2 vols. Hildesheim: Olms, 1990.

École, Jean. Nouvelles etudes et nouveaux documents photographiques sur Wolff. Hildesheim: Olms, 1997.

Heimsoeth, Heinz. "Christian Wolffs Ontologie und die Prinzipienforschung Immanuel Kants." In Studien zur Philosophie Immanuel Kants: Metaphysische Ursprünge und ontologische Grundlagen, edited by Heinz Heimsoeth. Kant-Studien Ergänzungsheft 71, Bonn: Bouvier, 1956.

Krause, Günter. "Christian Wolff and the Classics of Scientific Socialism." European Journal of Law and Economics 4 (1997): 285297.

Ludovici, Carl Gustav. Ausführlicher Entwurf einer vollständigen Historie der Wolffischen Philosophie. 3 vols. Leipzig, 17361737. In Werke III: 1. Hildesheim: Olms, 2003.

Philipp, Wolfgang. Das Werden der Aufklärung in theologiegeschichtlicher Sicht. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1957.

Reinert, Erik S., and Arno M. Daastøl. "Exploring the Genesis of Economic Innovations." European Journal of Law and Economics 4 (1997): 233283.

Rutherford, Donald. "Idealism Declined: Leibniz and Christian Wolff." In Leibniz and His Correspondents, edited by Paul Lodge, 214237. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Rudolph, Oliver-Pierre. "Mémoire, réflexion et conscience chez Christian Wolff." Revue philosophique 3 (2003): 351360.

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

Schönfeld, Martin. "Christian Wolff and Leibnizian Monads." Leibniz Society Review 11 (2002): 8190.

Schönfeld, Martin. "German Philosophy after Leibniz." In Companion to Early Modern Philosophy, edited by Steven Nadler, 545561 Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2002.

Schönfeld, Martin. The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Schönfeld, Martin. "The Tao of Königsberg." Florida Philosophical Review 3 (2003): 532.

Stolzenberg, Jürgen, and Oliver-Pierre Rudolph, eds. Christian Wolff und die Europäische Aufklärung. Akten des 1. Internationalen Christian-Wolff-Kongresses, Halle (Saale), 4.8. April 2004. Hildesheim: Olms, 2005.

Tonelli, Giorgio. "Der Streit über die Mathematische Methode in der Philosophie in der ersten Hälfte des 18. Jahrhunderts und die Entstehung von Kants Schrift über die 'Deutlichkeit.'" Archiv für Philosophie 9 (1959): 3766.

Tonelli, Giorgio. Elementi methodologici e metafisici in Kant dal 1747 al 1768. Turin: Edizione di Filosofia, 1959.

Tonelli, Giorgio. "Wolff, Christian." In Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards. 8 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Vleeschauwer, Herman Jean de. "La genèse de la méthode mathématique de Wolff." Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire 11 (1931): 651677.

Wundt, Wilhelm. Die deutsche Schulphilosophie im Zeitalter der Aufklärung. Tübingen: Mohr, 1924.

Zeller, Eduard, "Wolffs Vertreibung aus Halle." In Vorträge und Abhandlungen, edited by Eduard Zeller. 2 vols. Leipzig: Fues, 1865.

Martin Schönfeld (2005)

About this article

Wolff, Christian (1679–1754)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article