Christian Wolff

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Christian Wolff

Christian Wolff (less correctly Wolf; also known as Wolfius) (January 24, 1679 - April 9, 1754) was the most eminent German philosopher between Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant. His oeuvre spans almost every scholarly subject of his time, each displayed and unfolded according to his demonstrative-deductive, mathematical method. This approach may represent the peak of Enlightenment rationality in Germany. Wolff was the key figure in establishing German as the language of scholarly instruction and research, though much of his work was in Latin for the sake of reaching an international audience.

While the popularity of his philosophy was short-lived (though this popularity was intense while it lasted), his views and approach were largely responsible for the form that Kant's critical philosophy would take.


The son of a tanner, Wolff was born in Breslau, Silesia. Both Protestants and Catholics populated the area, and Wolff studied scholastic philosophy and theology early on (in particular, the works of Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suárez). Though most of his family had been artisans, Wolff decided to pursue mathematics. He began his studies at the University of Jena in 1699, transferred to Leipzig in 1702, and was awarded a master's degree in 1702. The topic of his master's dissertation was the application of 'mathematical methods' to practical philosophy.

Until 1706, he taught mathematics at Leipzig as a privatdozent. During this time, he came to know Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. Tschirnhaus was a correspondent of both Baruch Spinoza and Leibniz, and it was through him that Wolff came into contact with Leibniz in 1704. Because of these connections, and his popularity as a teacher, when the Northern War threatened Saxony, Wolff was able to take up a professorship in Halle in 1707 (after completing a second dissertation). In addition to mathematics and natural science (which had no clear boundary at the time), Wolff soon began lecturing on philosophy. These early lectures were heavily influenced by Leibniz's philosophy, and were part of the reason Wolff came to be seen as a straightforward proponent of Leibniz's views (despite later denials from both Wolff and Leibniz that this was so).

But the claims which Wolff advanced on behalf of the philosophic reason appeared impious to his theological colleagues, including Thomasius. Halle was the headquarters of Pietism, which, after a long struggle against Lutheran dogmatism, had itself assumed the characteristics of a new orthodoxy. In what would become his principal work on metaphysics, Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Velt, der Seele des Menschen auch alle Dingen überhaupt of 1713 (often referred to as the German Metaphysics), laid out a thoroughly deterministic view of the universe as a pre-established harmony. The Pietists saw the doctrine as denying God an essential place in the universe and denying the possibility of sin (due to the impossibility of the soul acting on the body). Wolff publicly retracted the pre-established harmony in 1724, but there were doubts as to his sincerity. Strife with the Pietists broke out openly in 1721, when Wolff, on the occasion of laying down the office of pro-rector, delivered an oration On the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese (Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica), in which he praised the purity of the moral precepts of Confucius, pointing to them as an evidence of the power of human reason to attain by its own efforts to moral truth. The suggestion that pagans (lacking knowledge by divine revelation) were capable of reasoning and morality scandalized the Pietists. Wolff had already made enemies of many of Halle's philosophical and theological faculty, who jumped at the opportunity to call for censorship.

The eventual consequence was that on November 8, 1723, Wolff was expelled from Prussia in one of the most celebrated academic dramas of the eighteenth century. His enemies had gained the ear of the king Friedrich Wilhelm I and represented to him that if Wolff's pre-established harmony were recognized, no soldier who deserted could be punished, since he would only have acted as it was necessarily pre-established (and so predetermined) that he should. This so enraged the king that he at once deprived Wolff of his office, and commanded him to leave Prussian territory within 48 hours or be hanged. Wolff passed into Saxony, and presently proceeded to Marburg in Hesse-Cassel, to whose university he had received a call in 1714, which was now renewed. The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel received him with every mark of distinction, and the circumstances of his expulsion drew universal attention to his philosophy. It was everywhere discussed; over 280 pieces of writing appeared discussing the event and its implications for academic freedom.

At the University of Marburg, as one of the most popular and fashionable university teachers in Europe (despite some conflicts with the predominately Calvinist faculty), he increased matriculation figures within five years by about 50 percent. Wolff continued to write prolifically (largely in Latin now, with an eye towards a more international audience). His income was proportionate to his popularity and output, amounting to about four times the usual salary for a full, chaired professor. Friedrich Wilhelm came to regret his earlier action, and offered Wolff a Vice Chancellorship at Halle (which Wolff declined). In 1740 Friedrich Wilhelm I died, and one of the first acts of his son and successor, Frederick the Great, a longtime admirer of Wolff, was to convince Wolff to return to Prussia. He offered Wolff a position as head of the Academy in Berlin, but Wolff elected instead to return to Halle. His entry into the town on December 6, 1740, resembled a triumphal procession. In 1743, he became chancellor of the university, and in 1745 he received the title of Reichsfreiherr (Imperial Baron of the Holy Roman Empire) from the Elector of Bavaria. But his matter was no longer fashionable, he had outlived his power of attracting students, and his classrooms remained, while not empty, then certainly emptier than they had been during his heydays in Marburg.

When Wolff died of gout on April 9, 1754, he was a very wealthy man, almost entirely due to his income from lecture-fees, salaries, and royalties. He was also a member of many academies (including the Royal Society in London) and probably the first scholar to have been created hereditary Baron of the Holy Roman Empire solely on the basis of his academic work. His school, the Wolffians, was the first school a German philosopher had founded and dominated Germany until the rise of Kantianism.


The Wolffian philosophy held almost undisputed sway in Germany (though the criticisms of Crusius had some popularity) till it was displaced by the Kantian revolution, due partly to his distinctive habit of writing in both Latin and German. Wolff's philosophy has, until a reevaluation set in the 1960s, often been held to be a common-sense adaptation or watering-down of the Leibnizian system; or, more charitably, Wolff was said to have methodized and "reduced" to dogmatic form the thoughts of his great predecessor. It is now recognized that Wolff was not deeply familiar with Leibniz's philosophy (their correspondence mainly concerned issues in mathematics), and that he was largely influenced by other philosophers such as Aquinas.

Wolff defined philosophy as Weltweisheit (“world wisdom”). Few philosophers today would describe the discipline as having such scope, yet this was a direct consequence of Wolff's rationalism. Inspired by the methods of mathematics, Wolff saw philosophy as promising to show the logical connections between all facts through definitions and syllogisms. In one telling example, his Verünftige Gedanken von dem gesellschaftlichen Leben des Menschen, sets out a demonstrative proof that the coffee houses in Germany should be changed so as to be more similar to those in England.

While Wolff adhered to the principle of sufficient reason, he saw this principle as merely a consequence of the principle of non-contradiction. Philosophy, as he saw it, set out to explain the possibility of things, and the possibility of a thing (on Wolff's definition, which he contrasted with that of Spinoza) consists in its predicates' being non-contradictory. This approach naturally leads to an emphasis on definition (where definition spells out the predicates of a thing), and Wolff's work is filled (often to the point of absurdity) with definitions.

Philosophy is divided into a theoretical and a practical part. Logic, sometimes called philosophia rationales, forms the introduction or propaedeutic to both. Theoretical philosophy has for its parts ontology or philosophia prima, cosmology, rational psychology and natural theology; ontology treats of the existent in general, psychology of the soul as a simple non-extended substance, cosmology of the world as a whole, and rational theology of the existence and attributes of God. These are best known to philosophical students by Kant's criticism of them in the Dialectic in the Critique of Pure Reason. Practical philosophy is subdivided into ethics, economics and politics. Wolff's moral principle is the realization of human perfection - seen realistically as the kind of perfection the human person actually can achieve in the world in which we live.

Wolff retained some form of Leibniz's doctrine of pre-established harmony with respect to the relation between the mind and the body, yet saw material happenings as the genuine causal interaction of atoms (making his metaphysics amenable to the revolution in physics unleashed by the publication of Isaac Newton's Principia in 1687). The notion of pre-established harmony was the target of substantial criticism (the Pietists, for instance, saw it as incompatible with the notion of sin), and was rejected even by many of Wolff's disciples. A related aspect of Wolff's view, which was likewise the subject of much criticism, was his claim that the soul (essentially a Leibnizian monad) has a single power—vis repraesentativa—which is responsible for all of its modes. Ideas, sensations, volitions and feelings are then distinguished merely in terms of what they represent and their clarity and distinctness. Perceptions are confused ideas (as in the Cartesian system. A volition (or episode of willing) is simply the knowledge of a perfection that can be achieved by some action. Wolff's followers (such as Baumgarten) were fast to move away from such a simple picture, and it was this view that Kant had in mind when he cautioned against the 'intellectualizing' of appearances (see, for instance, the first footnote to §7 of Kant's Anthropology).

Wolff's ethics and political philosophy are essentially eudaimonistic and utilitarian. Human actions are directed at their own perfection. Society is based on contract with the aim of each person pursuing his own happiness, with the need for such a contract emerging out of the inability of individual households to adequately enjoy and sustain wealth. Moreover, neither ethical conduct nor the establishment of society requires knowledge of God (in Wolff's infamous 1721 speech, he pointed to Chinese society as an illustration of this fact). Never one to challenge his political supporters, Wolff held that the ideal form of government was an absolutist one (assuming, of course, that the ruler was sufficiently enlightened). Government has a duty to preserve general welfare, and has a right to limit individual freedom towards this end.

In contemporary discussions, Wolff is rarely mentioned as anything other than one of the rationalist metaphysicians against whom Kant directed his critical project. Yet Wolff also was responsible for other aspects of Kant's philosophy - in particular, Kant's optimism about systematic philosophy (as well as the actual distinctions Kant made in outlining the system). Through his voluminous writings, Wolff did much to make German a suitable language for philosophy.


Works in German and Latin

Wolff's most important works are as follows:

  • Anfangsgründe aller mathematischen Wissenschaften (1710; in Latin, Elementa malheseos universae, 1713-1715)
  • Vernünftige Gedanken von den Kraften des menschlichen Verstandes (1712; Eng. trans. 1770)
  • Vern. Ged. von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen (1719)
  • Vern. Ged. von der Menschen Thun und Lassen (1720)
  • Vern. Ged. von dem gesellschaftlichen Leben der Menschen (1721)
  • Vern. Ged. von den Wirkungen der Natur (1723)
  • Vern. Ged. von den Absichten der naturlichen Dinge (1724)
  • Vern. Ged. van dem Gebräuche der Theile in Menschen, Thieren und Pflanzen (1725); the last seven may briefly be described as treatises on logic, metaphysics, moral philosophy, political philosophy, theoretical physics, teleology, physiology
  • Philosophia rationalis, sive logica (1728)
  • Philosophia prima, sive Ontologia (1729)
  • Cosmologia generalis (1731)
  • Psychologia empirica (1732)
  • Psychologia rationalis (1734)
  • Theologia naturalis (1736-1737)
  • Kleine philosophische Schriften, collected and edited by G.F. Hagen (1736-1740).
  • Philosophia practica universalis (1738-1739)
  • Jus naturae and Jus Gentium (1740-1749)
  • Philosophia moralis (1750-1753).

Wolff's complete writings are being published in an annotated reprint collection, and thus easily accessible:

  • Gesammelte Werke, Jean École et al. (eds.), 3 series (German, Latin, and Materials), Hildesheim-[Zürich-]New York: Olms, 1962-.

This includes a volume that unites the three most important older biographies of Wolff.

An excellent modern edition of the famous Halle speech on Chinese philosophy is

  • Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica / Rede über die praktische Philosophie der Chinesen, Michael Albrecht (ed.), Hamburg: Meiner, 1985.

English Translations

Very little of Wolff's corpus has been translated into English.

  • Preliminary discourse on philosophy in general, Richard J. Blackwell, trans. (Indianapolis & New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1963). This is the translation of the introduction to Philosophia rationalis sive Logica (1728)
  • Jus Gentium Methodo Scientifica Pertractatum, Joseph Drake, trans. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934).
  • Part of the German Metaphysics (Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt, der Seele des Menschen auch allen Dingen überhaupt, 1719) is translated in 1966 Eighteenth Century Philosophy, Lewis White Beck, trans. and ed. (New York: The Free Press), 217-222.

Recent key works on Wolff

  • European Journal of Law and Economics 4(2) (Summer 1997), special issue on Christian Wolff, reprinted 1998 in the Gesammelte Werke, 3rd Ser. Note especially the essays by Jürgen G. Backhaus ("Christian Wolff on Subsidiarity, the Division of Labor, and Social Welfare"), Wolfgang Drechsler ("Christian Wolff (1679-1754): A Biographical Essay"), Erik S. Reinert and Arno Mong Daastøl ("Exploring the Genesis of Economic Innovations: The religious Gestalt-Switch and the Duty to Invent as Preconditions for Economic Growth"), and Peter R. Senn ("Christian Wolff in the Pre-History of the Social Sciences").
  • Goebel, Julius, "Christian Wolff and the Declaration of Independence," in Deutsch-Amerikanische Geschichtsblätter. Jahrbuch der Deutsch-Amerikanischen Gesellschaft von Illinois 18/19 (Jg. 1918/19), Chicago: Deutsch-Amerikanische Gesellschaft von Illinois, 1920, pp. 69-87, details Wolff's impact on the Declaration of Independence.
  • Schneiders, Werner (ed.), Christian Wolff, 1697-1754. Interpretationen zu seiner Philosophie und deren Wirkung. Mit einer Bibliographie der Wolff-Literatur, 2nd edition, Hamburg: Meiner, 1986, is a good collection of recent philosophical work on Wolff.
  • Beck, Lewis White (1996), Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (Thoemmes Press) (originally Cambridge, MA: The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1969).

External links

All links retrieved December 10, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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