Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy

WolffGerman Popular Philosophy

Section Two: Period of the Thinking Understanding
Chapter I. — The Metaphysics of the Understanding

The philosophy of Wolff is directly connected with that of Leibnitz, for really it is a pedantic systematization of the latter, for which reason it is likewise called the Leibnitz-Wolffian system of philosophy. Wolff attained to great distinction in mathematics and made himself famous by his philosophy as well; the latter was for long predominant in Germany. In Wolff, as a teacher dealing with the understanding, we find a systematic exposition of the philosophic element present in human conceptions as a whole. As regards his connection with German culture generally, great and immortal praise is more especially due to him; before all others he may be termed the teacher of the Germans. We may indeed say that Wolff was the first to naturalize philosophy in Germany. Tschirnhausen and Thomasius likewise participated in this honour, for the special reason that they wrote upon Philosophy in the German language. In regard to the matter of the philosophy of Tschirnhausen and Thomasius we have not much to say; it is so-called healthy reason - there is in it the superficial character and the empty universality always to be found where a beginning is made with thought. In this case the universality of thought satisfies us because every thing is present there, just as it is present in a moral maxim which has, however, no determinate content in its universality. Wolff, then, was the first to make, not exactly Philosophy, but thoughts in the form of thought, into a general possession, and he substituted this in Germany for mere talk originating from feeling, from sensuous perception, and from the ordinary conception. This is most important from the point of view of culture, and yet it does not really concern us here, excepting in so far as the content in this form of thought has caused itself to be recognized as Philosophy. This philosophy, as a philosophy of the understanding, became the ordinary culture of the day; in it, determinate, intelligent thought is the fundamental principle, and it extends over the whole circle of objects which fall within the region of knowledge. Wolff defined the world of consciousness for Germany, and for the world in general, in the same wide sense in which we may say that this was done by Aristotle. What distinguishes him from Aristotle is that in so doing the point of view that he adopted was that of the understanding merely, while Aristotle treated the subject speculatively. The philosophy of Wolff is hence no doubt built on foundations laid by Leibnitz, but yet in such a manner that the speculative interest is quite eliminated from it. The spiritual philosophy, substantial in a higher sense, which we found emerging first in Boehme, though still in a peculiar and barbarous form, has been quite lost sight of, and has disappeared without leaving any traces or effects in Germany; his very language was forgotten.

The principal events in Christian Wolff's life are these: He was the son of a baker, and was born at Breslau in 1679. He first studied Theology and then Philosophy, and in 1707 he became Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy at Halle. Here the pietistic theologians, and more especially Lange, treated him in the basest manner. Piety did not trust this understanding; for piety, if it is true, embodies a content which is speculative in nature, and which passes beyond the understanding. As his opponents could make no headway by their writings, they resorted to intrigues. They caused it to be conveyed to King Frederick William I., the father of Frederick II., a rough man who took an interest in nothing but soldiers, that according to the determinism of Wolff, free will was impossible, and that soldiers could not hence desert of their own free will, but by a special disposition of God (pre-established harmony) a doctrine which, if disseminated amongst the military, would be extremely dangerous. The king, much enraged by this, immediately issued a decree that within forty-eight hours Wolff should leave Halle and the Prussian States, under penalty of the halter. Wolff thus left Halle on the 23rd of November, 1723. The theologians added to all this the scandal of preaching against Wolff and his philosophy, and the pious Franke thanked God on his knees in church for the removal of Wolff. But the rejoicings did not last long. Wolff went to Cassel, was there immediately installed first professor in the philosophic faculty at Marburg, and at the same time made a member of the Academies of Science of London, Paris, and Stockholm. By Peter the First of Russia he was made Vice-President of the newly instituted Academy in St. Petersburg. Wolff was also summoned to Russia, but this invitation he declined; he received, however, an honorary post, he was made a Baron by the Elector of Bavaria, and, in short, loaded with public honours which, more especially at that time, though even now it is the case, were very much thought of by the general public, and which were too great not to make a profound sensation in Berlin. In Berlin a commission was appointed to pass judgment on the Wolffian philosophy - for this it had not been possible to eradicate - and it declared the same to be harmless, that is to say, free from all danger to state and religion; it also forbade the theologians to make it a subject of dispute, and altogether put an end to their clamour. Frederick William now issued a recall in very respectful terms to Wolff, who, however, hesitated to comply with it owing to his lack of confidence in its sincerity. On the accession of Frederick II. in 1740 he was again recalled in terms of the highest honour (Lange had meanwhile died), and only then did be comply. Wolff became Vice-Chancellor of the University, but he outlived his repute, and his lectures at the end were very poorly attended. He died in 1754.(1)

Like Tschirnhausen and Thomasius, Wolff wrote a great part of his works in his mother tongue, while Leibnitz for the most part wrote only in Latin or French. This is an important matter, for, as we have already noticed (pp. 114 and 150), it is only when a nation possesses a science in its own language that it can really be said to belong to it; and in Philosophy most of all this is requisite. For thought has in it this very moment of pertaining to self-consciousness or of being absolutely its own; when one's own language is the vehicle of expression, as when we talk of "Bestimmtheit" instead of "Determination," and "Wesen" instead of "Essenz," it is immediately present to our consciousness that the conceptions are absolutely its own; it has to deal with these at all times, and they are in no way foreign to it. The Latin language has a phraseology, a definite sphere and range of conception; it is at once taken for granted that when men write in Latin they are at liberty to be dull; it is impossible to read or write what men permit themselves to say in Latin. The titles of Wolff's philosophic works are perpetually of this nature: "Rational thoughts on the powers of the human understanding and their right uses in the knowledge of the truth," Halle, 1712, 8vo; "Rational thoughts on God, the world, and the soul of man, likewise on all things generally," Frankfort and Leipzig, 1719; "On the action and conduct of men," Halle, 1720; "On Social Life," Halle, 1720; "On the operations of Nature," Halle, 1723, and so on. Wolff wrote German and Latin quartos on every department of Philosophy, even on economics - twenty-three thick volumes of Latin, or about forty quartos altogether. His mathematical works make a good many more quartos. He brought into general use the differential and integral calculus of Leibnitz.

It is only in its general content and taken as a whole that Wolff's philosophy is the philosophy of Leibnitz, that is to say, only in relation to the fundamental determinations of monads and to the theodicy - to these he remained faithful; any other content is empiric, derived from our feelings and desires. Wolff likewise accepted in their entirety all the Cartesian and other definitions of general ideas. Hence we find in him abstract propositions and their proofs mingled with experiences, on the indubitable truth of which he builds a large part of his propositions; and he must so build and derive his foundations if a content is to result at all. With Spinoza, on the contrary, no content is to be found excepting absolute substance and a perpetual return into the same. The greatness of Wolff's services to the culture of Germany, which now, appeared quite independently and without any connection with an earlier and profounder metaphysical standpoint (supra, p. 350), are in proportion to the barrenness and inward contentless condition into which Philosophy had sunk. This he divided into its formal disciplines, spinning it out, into determinations of the understanding with a pedantic application of geometric methods; and, contemporaneously with the English philosophers, he made the dogmatism of the metaphysics of the understanding fashionable, that is a, philosophizing which determines the absolute and rational by means of self-exclusive thought-determinations and relationships (such as one and many, simple and compound, finite and infinite, causal connection, &c.). Wolff entirely displaced the Aristotelian philosophy of the schools, and made Philosophy into an ordinary science pertaining to the German nation. But besides this he gave Philosophy that systematic and requisite division into sections which has down to the present day served as a sort of standard.

In theoretic philosophy Wolff first treats of Logic purified from scholastic interpretations or deductions; it is the logic of the understanding which he has systematized. The second stage is Metaphysics, which contains four parts: first there is Ontology, the treatment of abstract and quite general philosophic categories, such as Being and its being the One and Good; in this abstract metaphysic there further comes accident, substance, cause and effect, the phenomenon, &c. Next in order is Cosmology, a general doctrine of body, the doctrine of the world; here we have abstract metaphysical propositions respecting the world, that there is no chance, no leaps or bounds in nature - the law of continuity. Wolff excludes natural science and natural history. The third part of the metaphysic is rational psychology or pneumatology, the philosophy of the soul, which deals with the simplicity, immortality, immateriality of the soul. Finally, the fourth is natural theology, which sets forth the proofs of the existence of God.(2) Wolff also inserts (chap. iii.) an empirical psychology. Practical philosophy he divides into the Rights of Nature, Morality, the Rights of Nations or Politics, and Economics.

The whole is propounded in geometric forms such as definitions, axioms, theorems, scholia, corollaries, &c. In mathematics the understanding is in its proper place, for the triangle must remain the triangle. Wolff on the one hand started upon a large range of investigation, and one quite indefinite in character, and on the other, held to a strictly methodical manner with regard to propositions and their proofs. The method is really similar to that of Spinoza, only it is more wooden and lifeless than his. Wolff applied the same methods to every sort of content - even to that which is altogether empirical, such as his so-called applied mathematics, into which he introduces many useful arts, bringing the most ordinary reflections and directions into the geometric form. In many cases this undoubtedly gives his work a most pedantic aspect, especially when the content directly justifies itself to our conception without this form at all. For Wolff proceeds by first laying down certain definitions, which really rest upon our ordinary conceptions, since these he translated into the empty form of determinations of the understanding. Hence the definitions are merely nominal definitions, and we know whether they are correct only by seeing whether they correspond to conceptions which are referred to their simple thoughts. The syllogism is the form of real importance in this mode of reasoning, and with Wolff it often attains to its extreme of rigidity and formalism.

Under mathematics, which is the subject of four small volumes, Wolff also treats of architecture and military science. One of the propositions in Architecture is this: "Windows must be wide enough for two persons." The making of a door is also propounded as a task, and the solution thereof given. The next best example comes from the art of warfare. The "Fourth proposition. The approach to the fortress must always be harder for the enemy the nearer he comes to it." Instead of saying because the danger is greater, which would be trivial, there follows the "Proof. The nearer the enemy comes to the fortress, the greater the danger. But the greater the danger the greater the resistance that must be offered in order to defy the attacks, and, so far as may be, avert the danger. Hence the nearer the enemy is to the fort the harder must the approach be made for him. Q.E.D."(3) Since the increase of the danger is given as the reason, the whole is false, and the contrary may be said with equal truth. For if at the beginning all possible resistance is offered to the enemy, he cannot get nearer the fortress at all, and thus the danger cannot become greater. The greater resistance has a real cause, and not this foolish one - namely, that because the garrison is now at closer quarters, and consequently operates in a narrow field, it can offer a greater resistance. In this most trivial way Wolff proceeds with every sort of content. This barbarism of pedantry, or this pedantry of barbarism, represented as it is in its whole breadth and extent, necessarily brought itself into disrepute; and without there being a definite consciousness of the reason why the geometric method is not the only and ultimate method of knowledge, instinct and an immediate consciousness of the foolishness of its applications caused this method to be set aside.


Popular philosophy flatters our ordinary consciousness, makes it the ultimate standard. Although with Spinoza we begin with pre-supposed definitions, the content is still profoundly speculative in nature, and it is not derived from the ordinary consciousness. In Spinoza thinking is not merely the form, for the content belongs to thinking itself; it is the content of thought in itself. In the speculative content the instinct of reason satisfies itself on its own account, because this content, as a totality which integrates itself within itself, at once in itself justifies itself to thought. The content in Spinoza is only without ground in so far as it has no external ground, but is a ground in itself. But if the content is finite, a demand for an external ground is indicated, since in such a case we desire to have a ground other than this finite. In its matter the philosophy of Wolff is indeed a popular philosophy, even if in form it still makes thought authoritative. Until the time of Kant the philosophy of Wolff was thus pre-eminent, Baumgarten, Crusius, and Moses Mendelssohn worked each of them independently on the same lines as Wolff; the philosophy of the last-mentioned was popular and graceful in form. The Wolffian philosophy was thus carried on, although it had cast off its pedantic methods: no further progress was however made. The question dealt with was how perfection could be attained - what it is possible to think and what not; metaphysic was reduced to its slightest consistency and to its completest vacuity, so that in its texture not a single thread remained secure. Mendelssohn considered himself, and was considered, the greatest of philosophers, and was lauded as such by his friends. In his "Morgenstunden" we really find a dry Wolffian philosophy, however much these gentlemen endeavoured to give their dull abstractions a bright Platonic form.

The forms of Philosophy which we have considered bear the character which pertains specially to metaphysics, of proceeding from general determinations of the understanding, but of combining therewith experience and observation, or the empiric method in general. One side of this metaphysic is that the opposites of thought are brought into consciousness, and that attention is directed upon the solution of this contradiction. Thought and Being or extension, God and the world, good and evil, the power and prescience of God on the one side, and the evil in the world and human freedom on the other: these contradictions, the opposites of soul and spirit, things conceived and things material, and their mutual relation, have occupied all men's attention. The solution of these opposites and contradictions has still to be given, and God is set forth as the One in whom all these contradictions are solved. This is what is common to all these philosophies as far as their main elements are concerned. Yet we must likewise remark that these contradictions are not solved in themselves, i.e. that the nullity of the supposition is not demonstrated in itself, and thereby a true concrete solution has not come to pass. Even if God is recognised as solving all contradictions, God as the solution of these contradictions is a matter of words rather than something conceived and comprehended. If God is comprehended in His qualities, and prescience, omnipresence, omniscience, power, wisdom, goodness, justice, &c., are considered as qualities of God Himself, they simply lead to contradictions; and these contradictions, Leibnitz (supra, p. 348) sought to remove by saying that the qualities temper one another, i.e. that they are combined in such a way that one annuls the other. This, however, is no real comprehension of such contradiction.

This metaphysic contrasts greatly with the old philosophy of a Plato or an Aristotle. To the old philosophy we can always turn again and admit its truth; it is satisfying in the stage of development it has reached - a concrete centre-point which meets all the problems set by thought as these are comprehended. In this modern metaphysic, however, the opposites are merely developed into absolute contradictions. God is indeed given as their absolute solution, but only as an abstract solution, as a Beyond; on this side all contradictions are, as regards their content, unsolved and unexplained. God is not comprehended as the One in whom these contradictions are eternally resolved; He is not comprehended as Spirit, as the Trinity. It is in Him alone as Spirit, and as Spirit which is Three in One, that this opposition of Himself and His Other, the Son, is contained, and with it the resolution of the same; this concrete Idea of God as reason, has not as yet found an entrance into Philosophy.

In order that we may now cast a retrospective glance over the philosophic efforts of other nations, we shall apply ourselves to the further progress of Philosophy. Once more we see Scepticism making its way into this and philosophy of the understanding. But this time it is, properly speaking, in the form of Idealism, or the determinations are subjective determinations of self-consciousness. In the place of thought we consequently find the Notion now making its appearance. Just as with the Stoics determinateness is held to be an object of thought, we have in modern times this same manifestation of thought as the unmoved form of simplicity. Only here the image or inner consciousness of totality is present, the absolute spirit which the world has before it as its truth and to whose Notion it makes its way - this is another inward principle, another implicitude of mind which, it endeavours to bring forth from itself and for itself, so that reason is a comprehension of the same, or has the certitude of being all reality. With the ancients reason, as the implicit and explicit Being of consciousness, had only an ethereal and formal existence as language, but here it has certainty as existent substance. Hence with Descartes there is the unity of the Notion and Being, and with Spinoza the universal reality. The first commencement of the Notion of the movement of fixed thoughts in themselves is found in this, that the movement which, as method, simply falls outside its object, comes within it, or that self-consciousness comes within thought. Thought is implicitude without explicitude, an objective mode bearing no resemblance to a sensuous thing; and yet it is quite different from the actuality of self-consciousness. This Notion which we now find entering into thought, has the three kinds of form which we still have to consider; in the first place it has that of individual self-consciousness or the formal conception generally; secondly, that of universal self-consciousness, which applies itself to all objects whether they be objects of thought, determinate conceptions, or have the form of actuality - that is to say it applies itself to what is established in thought, to the intellectual world with the riches of its determinations and looked on as a Beyond, or to the intellectual world in as far as it is its realisation, the world here and around us. It is in those two ways, and in those ways alone, that the actual Notion is present in the succeeding chapter; for not as yet is it in the third place to be found as taken back into thought, or as the self-thinking or thought of Notion. While that universal self-consciousness is, on the whole, a thought which grasps and comprehends, this third kind of thought is the Notion itself recognised as constituting reality in its essence, that is to say as Idealism. These three aspects again divide themselves as before into the three nations which alone count in the civilised world. The empirical and perfectly finite form of Notion pertains to the English; to the French belongs its form as making an attempt at everything, as establishing itself in its reality, abolishing all determination, and therefore being universal, unlimited, pure self-consciousness; and, lastly, to the German pertains the entering into itself of this implicitude, the thought of the absolute Notion.


1. Buhle: Geschichte der neuern Philosoph., Vol. IV. Sec. II., pp. 571-582; Tiedemann; Geist der speculativen Philos., Vol. VI. pp. 511-518; Rixner: Handbuch der Geschichte der Philosophie, Vol. III. 79, pp. 195, 196.
2. Wolf's Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen (Halle, 1741), Pt. I. chap. ii. 114, 120, pp. 59, 60, 62, 63; chap. vi. 575-581, 686, pp. 352-359, 425; chap. v. 742, p. 463; 926, p. 573; chap. vi. 928, p. 574, seq.
3. Wolff's Anfangsgründe aller mathematischen Wissenschaften, Pt. I.: Anfangsgründe der Baukunst, Pt. II. Prop. 8, p. 414; Problem 22, pp. 452, 453; Pt. II.: Anfangsgründe der Fortification, Pt. I. p. 570.

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