Christian Wolff (philosopher)

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Christian Wolff (less correctly Wolf) (January 24, 1679 - April 9, 1754), German philosopher.



Christian Wolff is the most eminent German philosopher between Leibniz and Kant. His main achievement is a complete oeuvre on about any scholarly subject of his time, displayed and unfolded according to his demonstrative-deductive, mathematical method, which perhaps represents the peak of Enlightenment rationality in Germany. Wolff is also the creator of German as the language of scholarly instruction and research, although he published likewise in Latin, so that an international audience could, and did, read him. A founding father of, i.a., economics and public administration as academic disciplines, he concentrated especially in these fields on advice, on practical matters for government people, and on the professional nature of university education. Although a quintessentially Continental European thinker both in form and content, his work is said to have had a strong impact even on the American Declaration of Independence.


Christian Wolff was born in Breslau, Silesia. Coming from a modest background, he studied first mathematics and physics at the University of Jena, to which he soon added philosophy. In 1703 he qualified as Privatdozent in the University of Leipzig, where he lectured till 1706, when he was called as professor of mathematics and natural philosophy to Halle. Before this time. he had made the acquaintance of Leibniz, of whose philosophy his own system is a modification. In Halle Wolff limited himself at first to mathematics, but on the departure of a colleague he added physics, and presently included all the main philosophical disciplines.

But the claims which Wolff advanced on behalf of the philosophic reason appeared impious to his theological colleagues. Halle was the headquarters of Pietism, which, after a long struggle against Lutheran dogmatism, had itself assumed the characteristics of a new orthodoxy. Wolff's professed ideal was to base theological truths on evidence of mathematical certitude, and 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" (Eng. tr. 1750), 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.

As a consequence, in 1723, Wolff was ousted from his first chair at Halle in one of the most celebrated academic dramas of the 18th century. His enemies had gained the ear of the king Frederick William I and represented to him that, if Wolff's determinism were recognized, no soldier who deserted could be punished, since he would only have acted as it was necessarily 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. The same day Wolff passed into Saxony, and presently proceeded to Marburg in Hesse-Kassel, to whose university he had received a call even before this crisis, which was now renewed. The Landgrave of Hesse received him with every mark of distinction, and the circumstances of his expulsion drew universal attention to his philosophy. It was everywhere discussed, and over two hundred books and pamphlets appeared for or against it before 1737, not reckoning the systematic treatises of Wolff and his followers.

At the University of Marburg, as one of the most popular and fashionable university teachers in Europe, he increased matriculation figures within five years by about 50%. In 1740 Frederick William, died, and one of the first acts of his son and successor, Frederick the Great, an admirer of Wolff, was to recall him to Halle. His entry into the town on December 6 1740 partook of the nature of a triumphal procession. In 1743, he became chancellor of the university, and in 1745 he received the title of Freiherr (Baron) from the Elector of Bavaria. But his matter was no longer fashionable, he had outlived his power of attracting students, and his class-rooms remained, while not empty, then certainly emptier than they had been during his heydays in Marburg.

When Wolff died on 9 April 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 and probably the first scholar to have been created hereditary Baron of the Holy Roman Empire on the basis of his academic work. His school, the Wolffians, the first school in our sense a German philosopher had at all dominated Germany until the rise of Kantianism.


The Wolffian philosophy held almost undisputed sway in Germany till it was displaced by the Kantian revolution - although it should be remembered that in his own philosophy lectures at the University of Königsberg, Immanuel Kant himself often used textbooks by Wolff. Wolff's philosophy has, until a reevaluation set in in the 1960s, often been held to be a common-sense adaptation or watering-down of the Leibnizian system; or, more friendlity, Wolff was said to have methodized and "reduced" to dogmatic form the thoughts of his great predecessor. Since his philosophy disappeared before the influx of new ideas and the appearance of more speculative minds, it has been customary to dwell almost exclusively on its defects--the want of depth or freshness of insight, and the aridity of its neo-scholastic formalism, which tends to relapse into verbose platitudes.

But this is to do injustice to Wolff's real merits. These are mainly his comprehensive view of philosophy, as embracing in its survey the whole field of human knowledge, his insistence everywhere on clear and methodic exposition, and his confidence in the power of reason to reduce all subjects to this form. To these must be added that he was practically the first to "teach philosophy to speak German." The Wolffian system retains the determinism and optimism of Leibniz, but the monadology recedes into the background, the monads falling asunder into souls or conscious beings on the one hand and mere atoms on the other. The doctrine of the pre-established harmony also loses its metaphysical significance - while remaining an important heuristic device -, and the principle of sufficient reason introduced by Leibniz is once more discarded in favor of the principle of contradiction which Wolff seeks to make the fundamental principle of philosophy.

Philosophy is defined by him as the science of the possible, and divided, according to the two faculties of the human individual, 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 treatment of them 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. It is perhaps the combination of Enlightenment optimism and worldly realism that made Wolff so successful and popular as a teacher of future states- and businessmen.

Works by Wolff

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, since over 40 years, 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.

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 edn., Hamburg: Meiner, 1986, is a good collection of recent philosophical work on Wolff.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. (Author, Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison), but is heavily revised Wolff sk:Christian Wolff


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