Christian Wolff (philosopher)

Orfeas Katsoulis | Dec 3, 2023

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Christian Wolff, from 1745 Baron von Wolff († April 9, 1754 in Halle) was a German polymath, jurist and mathematician as well as one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment between Leibniz and Kant. The Enlightenment philosopher is one of the most important exponents of natural law and is considered the actual founder of conceptual jurisprudence in the 19th century. German philosophy owes its terminological foundation to him; many terms defined by him, such as consciousness, meaning, attention, or an sich, were later adopted in everyday language. Wolff also had a decisive influence on Prussian legislation.

Christian Wolff was born in 1679 in Breslau, the second of six children of the tanner Christoph Wolff and his wife Anna Gillerin. His father, who had himself enjoyed a grammar school education but had been prevented from studying by his parents, encouraged his son's education and undertook the initial training himself, including Latin lessons. At the age of eight, Christian Wolff, himself a Lutheran, entered the Maria Magdalenen Gymnasium in Breslau. The religiously tolerant (both Lutheran-Protestant and Catholic) character of the city left its mark on the student. According to his own statements, he also followed Catholic services and discussed philosophical and theological issues with the Jesuit students of Breslau. The rector of the Gymnasium at that time was Christian Gryphius, a son of the poet Andreas Gryphius from Glogau. One of his most important teachers was Caspar Neumann, who strongly influenced his career.

From 1699, Wolff studied theology in Jena, but above all physics and mathematics. He habilitated in 1702 and from 1703 lectured privately at the University of Leipzig, where he also partly worked as a preacher.

In 1706 he became professor of mathematics and philosophy at the University of Halle. In 1710 Christian Wolff was appointed a member of the London Royal Society and in 1711 of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. In the same year Wolff encountered the classics of Chinese philosophy in the Latin translation by Father François Noël (1651-1729). The intensive reading of the works of Confucius and Mencius inspired Wolff to write his "Speech on the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese" at the University of Halle in 1721. In this speech, Confucius and the Confucian tradition served as living proof of an ethic that had shaped an advanced civilization for millennia, independent of the Christian faith. His pietist opponents subsequently accused Wolff of atheism; they caused him to resign his post in 1723 and to leave the city of Halle within 48 hours by order of the Prussian King Frederick William I (banishment). However, Wolff studied the Chinese classics in Noël's translation until his death in 1754, and his entire work is permeated with quotations and allusions to this reading, which can be considered a testimony to the most fruitful encounter between Western and Chinese philosophy.

He went to Hesse in 1723, where he taught at the University of Marburg with great success until 1740. In 1732 and 1739 he also acted there as the university's prorector. One of his students was Johann Adam von Ickstatt, another Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, whose name is now borne by Lomonosov University in Moscow. Empress Catherine I (Russia) appointed him an honorary member of the Saint Petersburg Academy in 1725, and in 1733 he also became an external member of the Académie des sciences in Paris. Frederick II of Prussia called him back to Halle in 1740, and in 1743 he became chancellor at the university there. Two years later, the Bavarian duke and elector Maximilian Joseph nobilized him in his function as imperial vicar.

Wolff died in Halle on April 9, 1754; the whereabouts of his grave have not been fully clarified to this day.

Wolff had married Katharina Maria Brandis, the daughter of the Stiftamtmann, in 1716. Of several children, only his son Ferdinand, born in 1722, survived him.

The scientific investigation of the biography of the philosopher Wolff is a desideratum of research. Apart from individual studies, only the works of Baumeister (1738), Gottsched (1755) and Wuttke (1841) are available. Autographs of the philosopher are kept, among others, in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library.

The first German schooling in philosophy emanated from Wolff's work. "Wolffians," followers of the philosopher, existed in almost all universities of the Holy Roman Empire. Their influence in teaching and scientific research dominated for decades. Wolff also had followers outside the academic sphere. Noblemen, such as Ernst Christoph von Manteuffel, Frederick II of Prussia in his crown prince days, and Luise Dorothea of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, were among his followers, as were French Protestant religious refugees in Prussia, such as Jean Henri Samuel Formey and Jean Deschamps. Large segments of Wolff's followers were networked in societies and through correspondence in the 1730s and 1740s and successfully propagated the philosopher's work and ideas.

Wolff's philosophy is a systematic expression of rationalism, drawing from various sources, Leibniz, Descartes, the scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas, and Francisco Suarez. Wolff has long been primarily credited with "systematizing" the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, although differences between Wolff and Leibniz, such as in the monadology (Monadenlehre) that emerged at the beginning of the 18th century, should not be overlooked; these differences were already emphasized by Wolff himself and have been increasingly elaborated by more recent research. The mathematical way of teaching propagated by Wolff and his followers aimed at a strict systematic approach to the composition of a text. Thus, in the most favorable case, every single thought should appear with a corresponding explicitly defined propositional category. With this method, also called "demonstrative", an optimal comprehensibility of the train of thought should be achieved.

Wolff is both defender of a congruent complement of reason and revelation (Theologia naturalis, 2 vols., 1736

Wolff postulates three main types of knowledge in his work "Introductory Treatise on Philosophy in General":

However, Wolff also had great significance for the private law of the Enlightenment. In his capacity as a legal scholar, Wolff's ideas were based on the concepts of Hugo Grotius and, in turn, on those of Samuel von Pufendorf. In addition to the late scholastics of Jena, Wolff had already become involved with Pufendorf's teachings during his student days. In essence, the two pioneering thinkers had freed themselves from the attachment of civil jurisprudence to Roman law and set out in search of a secularized natural law that would ultimately establish a new discipline of jurisprudence as the law of reason. Wolff not only appropriated these approaches, he used them to organize a comprehensive system of legal propositions, a system that, in his view, had to be derived from superior dogmas. In 1740 his monumental work Jus naturae methodo scientifica pertractatum (scientifically treated natural law) was published. The work was deeply grounded in private law doctrine and strove to present a model case for a complete codification of civil law. In merging Roman law with the natural law approach, he turned away from the views of his predecessors, most notably Christian Thomasius. Within the framework of the Positivity Controversy that characterized the time, he championed his codification efforts. In particular, he opposed Thomasius' view that duties based on ethical principles of conscience should not be mixed with legal duties. By extension, he also overturned Thomasius's separation of law and morality, which had never gone unchallenged.

Wolff's return to Grotius and Pufendorf was not limited to restoring their moral philosophical approach. Rather, he presupposed it, for his main concern was to be able to formulate and implement an independent doctrine of state and law for the age of enlightened absolutism that surrounded him. Even the existing common law - despite Wolff's always preferred application of Roman law - sometimes acquired a natural law character, a prerequisite in turn for giving Wolff's system a holistic habitus. Positive and rational law attained great intersections, and values of attitude from a natural morality flowed into it. On the one hand, this resulted in a high practical benefit for legal practice. On the other hand, a social image soon emerged that was later to find its way into Prussian land law. Wolff's students, above all Daniel Nettelbladt, carried on his ideas. In his tradition, legal thought developed long-distance effects that reached into Pandectism; ultimately, he was to help shape the Civil Code.

Since Wolff had studied philosophy and mathematics just as conscientiously, he developed a deduction technique (mathematical way of teaching) on the methodology of these disciplines, which made him one of the main representatives of the mos geometricus. In this method, from initially abstract principles of law, the concrete and increasingly specific sets of rules are obtained.

Posthumous issues



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  1. Christian Wolff (philosopher)
  2. Christian Wolff (Aufklärer)
  3. ^ Guyer, Paul; Horstmann, Rolf-Peter (30 August 2015). "Idealism". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford, California: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  4. ^ a b Robert Theis, Alexander Aichele (eds.), Handbuch Christian Wolff, Springer-Verlag, 2017, p. 442.
  5. ^ a b c d Brady Bowman, Hegel and the Metaphysics of Absolute Negativity, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 66.
  6. Wolff-Denkmal in Halle feierlich enthüllt (Mitteldeutsche Zeitung), abgerufen am 8. November 2022
  7. Jean-Louis Dumas, Histoire de la Pensée Tome 2 : Renaissance et Siècle des Lumières, Tallandier 1990 p. 342
  8. Jean Ecole, La Métaphysique de Christian Wolff, volume I, éd. Georg Olms, 1990
  9. Thèse de Favaretti Camposampiero, intitulée Conoscenza simbolica, parue en tant que tome 119 de la troisième section des Gesammelte Werke de Wolff, éd. Georg Olms
  10. «Christian, baron von Wolff; German philosopher». Encyclopedia Britannica (en inglés). Consultado el 13 de enero de 2018.
  11. Schopenhauer, Arthur (2009). Parerga y paralipómena Escritos filosóficos sobre diversos temas (primera edición). Madrid: Valdemar. p. 52. ISBN 978-84-7702-631-0.
  12. Philosophia moralis sive Ethica. Halle. 1750-53. «5 vol. »
  13. «Mons Wolff». Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature (en inglés). Flagstaff: USGS Astrogeology Research Program. OCLC 44396779.

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