Wolff, Christian

views updated Jun 08 2018

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: http://www.mode.com.

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, http://www.allmusic.com (March 19, 2001).

Mode Records, http://www.mode.com (March 19, 2001).

Other Minds, http://www.otherminds.org (March 19, 2001).

Laura Hightower

Wolff, Christian (1679–1754)

views updated Jun 08 2018


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

Wolff, Christian

views updated May 08 2018


German philosopher and mathematician, name sometimes spelled Wolf (Lat. Wolfius), best known for his systematization of scholastic philosophy; b. Breslau, Jan. 24, 1679; d. Halle, April 9, 1754. His father, a tanner, hoped that Christian would enter the ministry, and his early studies at the Magdalenen Gymnasium were so directed. In 1699 he entered the University of Jena where mathematics, physics, and philosophy became his predominant interests. He qualified as a Privatdocent at the University of Leipzig in 1703 with a treatise entitled De philosophia practica universali methodo mathematica conscripta. The title of this work indicated what was to become his lifelong goal, i.e., the attainment of certitude and the reorganization of knowledge by means of the mathematical method.

Academic Career. Upon the recommendation of leibniz in 1706, he was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Halle. During the ensuing years his lecturing and writing, including numerous articles in Acta Eruditorum, Germany's first learned journal, gained him an ever-broadening reputation as a scholar. However, his increasing involvement with philosophical and moral issues brought him into conflict with the pietistic movement centered in Halle. The Lutheran theologians, led by Joachim Lange, accused him of teaching determinism and of making excessive claims for the abilities of reason in moral matters. In 1721 the dispute reached a climax with Wolff's lecture De Sinarum philosophia practica in which he concluded that the maxims of Confucius prove the power of unaided reason in the attainment of the good moral life. The argument became famous with hundreds of pamphlets and challenges for debate issued by many people on both sides. Finally Frederick William I was persuaded that Wolff's teachings were dangerous, and on Nov. 8, 1723, a royal proclamation ordered Wolff to leave Halle within 48 hours under pain of death.

Sympathy for his cause and respect for his reputation brought Wolff many attractive academic offers, and he finally settled in Marburg under the protection of the landgrave of Hesse. His years at Marburg were very productive, adding considerably to his already wide reknown. To reach a broader audience he began to write his major treatises in Latin rather than German. By the late 1730s the atmosphere in Prussia had changed but Wolff was unwilling to return. However, in 1740 Frederick the Great, a patron of learning and a friend of scholars, succeeded his authoritarian father, and one of his first acts was to invite Wolff back to Halle as vice-chancellor of the university. Wolff returned in triumph. In 1743 he became chancellor and in 1745 was made a baron. During these last years he wrote primarily on moral and political philosophy, but his popularity as a lecturer gradually began to decline.

Major Writings. Wolff was an unusually prolific writer, and only his major works can be indicated here. Most of his more important mathematical and physical treatises are collected together under the title Elementa matheseos universae, 4 volumes. Between 1713 and 1725 he published a series of seven works, the title of each beginning with the expression Vernünfftige Gedanken von, which are devoted to philosophy, morality, and physics. Of this group the Vernünfftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele der Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt (1719) is a basic presentation of his metaphysics and methodology. The volumes of his Latin series in systematic philosophy include (abridged titles): Philosophia rationalis sive logica (1728) to which is prefaced the Discursus praeliminaris de philosophia in genere, Philosophia prima sive ontologia (1730); Cosmologia generalis (1731); Psychologia empirica (1732); Psychologia rationalis (1734); Theologia naturalis (Pars prior, 1736; Pars posterior, 1737); and Philosophia practica (Pars prior, 1738; Pars posterior, 1739). The second Halle period produced Jus naturae (8 v., 174048), Jus gentium (1749), Institutiones juris naturae et gentium (1750), and Philosophia moralis sive ethica (5 v., 175053).

Nature and Division of Philosophy. Wolff's chief contribution to the history of thought has often been characterized as the introduction of the spirit of thoroughness and detailed organization into German philosophy. Not an unusually original thinker himself, he was heavily influenced by Leibniz, and in many ways he helped prepare the atmosphere from which kant broke in the late 1760s. But as Wolff himself insisted, his philosophy is not simply a systematization of the ideas of Leibniz. Rather in Wolff one finds the meeting ground and attempted reconciliation of three earlier and often opposing traditions: (1) Cartesian-Leibnizian rationalism with its stress on clear ideas and the power of reason, (2) Newtonian science with its foundations in experience and experimentation, and (3) the Aristotelian-scholastic school tradition which emphasized the primacy of metaphysics. Wolff's synthesis was based on a rigorous application of the mathematico-deductive method to all the sciences, tempered by an inductive appeal to the facts of experience. As a result he organized each science into a strict, deductive pattern and then placed all the sciences into a hierarchical order built on the same principles.

Classification of the Sciences. His influential theory of the division of the sciences constituted the details of this program. All natural human knowledge falls under one of three headings: (1) history (knowledge of facts),(2) philosophy (knowledge of the reason of the facts), and (3) mathematics (knowledge of quantity). Philosophy receives its experiential foundation from history and its fullness of certitude from mathematical method. He distinguished the parts of philosophy on the basis of differences in subject matter. Theoretical philosophy was divided into ontology (being in general), natural theology (God), rational psychology (human souls), general cosmology (world in general), and dogmatic physics (material bodies). The first four taken together constitute metaphysics. Ontology was given the top position in the deductive hierarchy of the sciences. Because of the wealth and complexity of the factual information relating to man and the physical world, Wolff added the special disciplines of empirical psychology and experimental physics as inductive preparations for the principles in these areas. Practical philosophy followed the traditional divisions into cognitive, appetitive, and productive branches.

First Principles. Philosophy, defined as the science of the possibles insofar as they can be, was ultimately governed by the two great principles of contradiction and sufficient reason, with the latter derived from the former. These two principles provided the starting points

for the mathematically-modeled structuring of philosophy. The component elements (essentialia ) of a possible must be mutually compatible. This consistency is regulated and judged by the principle of contradiction. But to be possible is not to be in act. Hence an explanation must be provided, according to Wolff, as to why the particular objects and events of the given world are actual in preference to the myriad of other possible objects and events. This explanation is what is demanded by the principle of sufficient reason, understanding by "sufficient reason" that which explains why something is. The Wolffian ontology developed from these principles was thoroughly essentialistic, with existence being defined as the final complement in the order of possibility. In natural theology Wolff looked upon god as the sufficient reason of both His own existence and the existence of the contingent world. The possibles were ultimately grounded in the Divine Intellect, but the sufficient reasons motivating the Divine Will to create remain inscrutably hidden from human knowledge.

Man and the State. Wolff's conception of man shows an unmistakable debt to descartes and Leibniz. Our consciousness of ourselves and of external things provides the foundation for his argument for the existence of the soul, with the Cartesian cogito ergo sum cast into syllogistic format. For Wolff the soul is an independent substance distinct from the body, and he shows little awareness of the Aristotelian doctrine of the soul and the body as incomplete principles of one substantial unity. As a result he was burdened with the soul-body dualism of classical rationalism. Although there must be a natural sufficient reason for the harmonious cooperation of soul and body, Wolff was unable to find it, and he concluded that Leibniz's doctrine of preestablished harmony is the most probable of the available hypotheses relating to the soul-body problem.

Wolff also held a representational theory of knowledge (see knowledge, theories of). Perception is an unconscious mechanical process which produces our ideas. When apperception or consciousness arising from within the soul is brought to bear on our ideas, then knowledge results. What we know are our ideas as representative of external objects. Thus he defined the soul as consisting in the force of representing the universe (vis repraesentativa universi ), which is reminiscent of Leibniz's view of the monad as a mirror of the world.

The moral ideal for Wolff was the attainment of selfperfection. This goal involved for him a complicated balance between the internal needs and demands of human nature, a proper and sufficient disposition of material goods, and involvement in social and political life. He stresses the values of education in producing a clear notion of these elements and their interrelations in the moral life.

Wolff's views on political theory were progressive for the 18th century. He argued that many duties, and therefore rights, are innate to human nature, and in this respect all men are by nature equal. No man can usurp the freedom of action of another. However to obtain a wider range of good and protection than the individual can attain by himself, the state is formed by implicit or explicit contract. The function of the state is to promote the common welfare with a minimum of interference with personal freedom. Thus the root of governmental power is the consent of the people, although they may transfer this power to a monarch. But an absolute ruler may never dictate anything contrary to the laws of nature and society. Relations between nations are similar to relations between individuals. Hence Wolff advocated the development of a jus voluntarium, i.e., a society of nations formed by mutual consent devoted to the promotion and protection of the welfare of mankind in general.

Wolffian School. Because of their strict deductive format, the writings of Wolff appear dry, rigorous, and unimaginative to the modern reader. However, this was not the reaction of many of his contemporaries. During his own lifetime Wolff and his writings became very popular, and his teachings were widely adopted in the universities, especially in Germany. A Wolffian school of considerable influence soon developed, the members of which published numerous reformulations, compendia, and abridgments of the works of Wolff designed for use as textbooks. Notable among these supporters of Wolff were L. Thümmig, G. Bilfinger, J. Gottsched, A. Baumgarten, G. Maier, M. Knutzen (a teacher of Kant), and F. Baumeister. But Wolff was not without his critics, especially J. Lange, C. Crusius, and A. Ruediger. By the middle of the 18th century the Wolffian system predominated at the German universities, and it was in this atmosphere that Kant spent his early days as a student and teacher.

Another significant consequence of the work of Wolff was its effect on the development of scholastic philosophy. His theory of the division of the sciences and his emphasis on the principle of sufficient reason were the chief doctrines incorporated gradually into the scholastic manual tradition, and traces of these influences can still be seen in many 20th century textbooks of scholastic philosophy.

The first volume (Ontologia ) of a 20-volume reprint of the works of Wolff, edited by J. Ecole and H. Arndt, was published in 1962 by Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, Hildesheim.

See Also: dynamism; scholasticism; ontology; theodicy.

Bibliography: c. wolff, Jus gentium methodo scientifica pertractum, 2 v. text and tr. j. h. drake (Classics of International Law 13; Oxford 1934); Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy in General, tr. r. blackwell (New York 1963). Secondary studies. m. campo, Cristiano Wolff e il razionalismo precritico, 2 v. (Milan 1939). h. pichler, Über Christian Wolffs Ontologie (Leipzig 1910). m. wundt, Die deutsche Schulphilosophie im Zeitalter der Aufklärung (Tübingen 1945). j. gurr, The Principle of Sufficient Reason in Some Scholastic Systems, 17501900 (Milwaukee 1959).

[r. j. blackwell]

Wolff, Christian

views updated May 17 2018


WOLFF, CHRISTIAN (16791754), rationalist philosopher of the German Enlightenment. Born in Breslau, Wolff was educated there and at the University of Jena. Though he had studied theology and philosophy, Wolff's main interest while at the university was in mathematics. Wolff earned his master's degree from the University of Leipzig in 1703; in 1707, with the help of a recommendation from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, he was appointed professor of mathematics and natural sciences at the relatively new University of Halle, where he taught until 1723. In that year he moved to the University of Marburg, subsequently returning in 1740 to Halle, where he remained until his death.

Wolff's education familiarized him with Lutheran, Calvinist, and Roman Catholic viewpoints in theology, with Aristotelian and Cartesian school traditions in philosophy, and with emerging empirical methods in Newtonian science. The most important single influence on Wolff's thought was Leibniz, but it is too simple to say that Wolff merely systematized the views of his great predecessor.

Wolff began lecturing on philosophy in 1709. In 1713 he published his first major work in the field, a German logic. Later German works dealt with metaphysics (1720), ethics (1720), politics (1721), physics (1723), teleology (1724), and physiology (1725).

In 1728 Wolff turned his attention beyond the borders of Germany to the larger intellectual world. This new international audience was addressed in Latin in a series of works that are larger, more extensive in scope, and some would say more "objective" or "scholastic" in character than their German predecessors. They include treatises on logic (1728), ontology (1729), cosmology (1731), empirical and rational psychology (1732 and 1734), natural theology (2 vols., 17361737), universal practical philosophy (2 vols., 17381739), natural law (8 vols., 17401748), jus gentium (1749), and ethics (5 vols., 17501753).

Two aspects of Wolff's life and thought are perhaps most significant for the history and development of religious thought. The first of these is his clash with Pietist theologians at Halle. Wolff's commitment to rational method, the content of his metaphysics, his success with students, and an abrasive personal style soon generated criticism. Among the issues at stake were Wolff's acceptance of the Leibnizian doctrine of preestablished harmony and his emphasis on God's intellect as the controlling framework for divine freedom and power. Wolff was accused of idealism, fatalism, determinism, Spinozism, and atheismall fairly standard charges at the time, though in this case not without some basis in fact. When their efforts to alter his views or to limit his influence within the academic world did not succeed, some of Wolff's opponents made an external appeal to political authority. The result, in 1723, was an order from King Frederick William Iissued without a hearingthat removed Wolff from his professorship and banned him from Prussia within forty-eight hours on pain of death. This was perhaps a more serious escalation than even Wolff's enemies might have desired, with ominous implications for academic freedom. In fact, another post was immediately available at Marburg in Hesse-Cassel, and exile only heightened Wolff's popularity. Moreover, upon the accession of Frederick the Great to the Prussian throne in 1740, Wolff was recalled in triumph to Halle. In the meantime, he had switched from German to Latin in his writing and had published an eloquent essay on the freedom to philosophize in his "Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy in General" (1728).

The second issue worth noting is Wolff's commitment to natural theology. Wolff saw his philosophy as a support rather than a hindrance to religion. His account of God's existence and attributes was meant to lay the basis for a secure theology and ethics. This is in keeping with his goal to achieve through philosophy both a science and a wisdom. In retrospect, what Wolff has given posterity is the epitome of a rationalist tradition in philosophical theology. His demonstrations of the existence of God, for example, include both a priori and a posteriori proofs, forms of the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments. Their exposition presented Kant with a ready-made target for his well-known critique.

In both his teaching and early writings, Wolff made a major contribution toward establishing the German language as an accepted instrument for scientific work. The common opening phrase in the titles of his central German works ("Rational thoughts on ") and the equally common subtitle of his Latin volumes ("Treated according to the scientific method") mark Wolff's abiding concerns for method, order, and system. Wolff divided human knowledge into three parts: history (knowledge of the fact), philosophy (knowledge of the reason for the fact), and mathematics (knowledge of the quantity of things). He subdivided philosophy into metaphysics, physics, and practical philosophy; further divided metaphysics into ontology, cosmology, psychology, and natural theology; and popularized the distinction between empirical and rational modes of knowing. These divisions are implemented in both his German and Latin writings, which themselves enjoyed a huge success, often appearing in multiple editions right up to the time of his death. Wolff's views soon dominated the academic scene in Germany; his students filled key posts in institutions of higher education, and his prestige was immense. Kant called Wolff "the greatest of all the dogmatic philosophers." Despite contemporary adversities and relative obscurity today, Wolff was undoubtedly the most influential philosopher in Germany between the death of Leibniz in 1716 and the publication of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in 1781.


A new edition of Wolff's Gesammelte Werke is well under way (Hildesheim, 1962) in three series: (1) German works, (2) Latin works, and (3) related materials and documents. The Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy in General is available in an English translation by Richard A. Blackwell (Indianapolis, 1963). The only comprehensive study of Wolff's thought is Mariano Campo's Cristiano Wolff e il razionalismo precritico, 2 vols. (Milan, 1939); reprinted in Gesammelte Werke, series 3, vol. 9. For historical context, see Lewis White Beck's Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (Cambridge, Mass., 1969) and my article "Christian Wolff and Leibniz," Journal of the History of Ideas 36 (1975): 241262. For his metaphysics, see Le métaphysique de Christian Wolff (1990; Gesammelte Werke, series 3, vol. 12.1 & 12.2) by Jean École, the editor of Wolff's Latin metaphysics volumes. École has also edited a collection of essays by experts on Wolff's philosophy, Christian Wolff: Autour de la philosophie Wolfienne (2001; Gesammelte Werke, series 3, vol. 65). For Wolff's philosophical theology, see James D. Collins's God in Modern Philosophy (1959; reprint, Westport, Conn., 1978), pp. 133143; Anton Bissinger's Die Struktur der Gotteserkenntnis: Studien zur Philosophie Christian Wolffs (Bonn, 1970); my article "The Existence of God, Natural Theology, and Christian Wolff," International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4 (1973): 105118; and two articles by Jean École, "De la démonstration a posteriori de l'existence et des attributs de Dieu, ou la Theologia naturalis, Pars I de Christian Wolff," Giornale di metafisica 28 (1973): 363388, 537560, and "De la démonstration a priori de l'existence et des attributs de Dieu, et des erreurs sur Dieu, ou la Theologia naturalis, Pars II de Christian Wolff," Giornale di metafisica 32 (1977): 85109, 237272.

Charles A. Corr (1987 and 2005)

Wolff, Christian

views updated May 29 2018


(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

Wolff, Christian

views updated May 23 2018

Wolff, Christian

Wolff, Christian, French-born American composer and teacher; b. Nice, March 8,1934. He went to the U.S. in 1941 and became a naturalized American citizen in 1946. He studied piano with Grete Sultan (1949-51) and composition with John Cage (1950-51), and then pursued training in classical languages at Harvard Univ. (B.A., 1955). After studying Italian literature and classics at the Univ. of Florence (1955-56), he returned to Harvard (Ph.D. in comparative literature, 1963). From 1962 to 1970 he taught classics at Harvard. In 1971 he joined the faculty of Dartmouth Coll. to teach classics, comparative literature, and music, and was made prof, of music and of classics in 1978. He also was a guest lecturer at various institutions of higher learning, and contributed articles on literature and music to many publications. He evolved a curiously static method of composition, using drastically restricted numbers of pitches. His only structural resources became arithmetical progressions of rhythmic values and the expressive use of rests. He used 3 different pitches in his Duo for Violin and Piano; 4 different pitches in the Trio for Flute, Cello, and Trumpet (1951); 9 in a piano piece called For Piano I. Beginning in 1957 he introduced into his works various degrees of free choice; sometimes the players are required to react to the musical activities of their partners according to spontaneous and unanticipated cues.


Trio for Flute, Trumpet, and Cello (1951); Summer for String Quartet (1961); For 5 or 10 Players for Any Instruments (1962); In Between Pieces for 3 Players Using Any Sound Sources (1963); For 1, 2 or 3 People for Any Sound-producing Means (1964); Septet for Any 7 Players and Conductor (1964); Pairs for Any 2, 4, 6, or 8 Players (1968); Prose Collection for Variable Numbers of Players, Found and Constructed Materials, Instruments, and Voices (1968-71); Lines for String Quartet (1972); Changing the System for 8 or More Instruments, Voices, and Percussion (1972-73); Wobbly Music for Chorus, Keyboard, Guitars, and at Least 2 Melody Instruments (1975-76); Braverman Music for Chamber Ensemble (1978); Rock About, Instrumental, Starving to Death on a Government Claim for Violin and Viola (1979-80); Isn’t This a Time for Any Saxophone or Multiple Reeds (1982); Peace March 1 for Flute (1983-84), 2 for Flute, Clarinet, Cello, Percussion, and Piano (1984), and 3 for Flute, Cello, and Percussion (1984); Leaning Forward for Soprano, Britone, Clarinet, and Cello (1988); Emma for Viola, Cello, and Piano (1989); Rosas for Piano and Percussion (1990); For Si for Chamber Ensemble (1990-91); Aina Gonna Study War No More for Timpani and Marimbaphone (1993); Memory for Chamber Ensemble (1994); Spring for Chamber Orch. (1995); Bratislava for Chamber Ensemble (1995).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

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