Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

Rand v. Wolff


Recommended Posts

Rand v. Wolff

Christian Wolff (1679–1754) was the most important German philosopher between Leibniz and Kant. His was the dominant philosophy in German lands to the middle of the eighteenth century, and his disciples continued his influence through the time of Kant, whose system cleared the Wolffian edifice away in the last decade of Kant’s life.

For Wolff “philosophy is the science of all possible things, together with the manner and reason of their possibility.”[1] Possibility is most basic, existence being among things possible: the entirely determinate possibilities.[2] “That is impossible which contains something contradictory within it such as, for instance, an iron wood. From which one sees further that that is possible which contains nothing contradictory within it, that is, which not only can obtain along with other things which are or can be, but which also contains only that within it which can obtain together such as, for instance, a wooden plate. For to be a plate and to be made of wood do not conflict with each other but rather both can be at once.”[3]

Possibility for Wolff was freedom from contradiction, and this was something obtaining in the world. Even were Wolff taking possibilities to be potentials subject to physical principles, it is still a marked difference from Rand for whom concrete actualities are the existents upon which all else, such as possibilities, must be framed. “Leaving aside the man-made, nothing is possible except what is actual.”[4] The possible, I say, should be in contrast to the actual. I should therefore amend that Peikoff remark a bit on the side of Objectivism: nothing is possible except what are potentials (co-potentials) of actuals. And potentials, like actuals, are existents. I submit that my amendment is consonant with Rand’s philosophy and with what Peikoff was getting at in that remark.[5]

One big difference between the metaphysics of Wolff and of Rand is that for Rand existence is most basic. Another big difference, akin to the first, is that for Wolff essences of things are metaphysical and eternal, independently of their occasions in existents. “There is nothing that can be can thought of a thing prior to how it is possible, since it is only on account of the fact that it is possible that it is a thing in the first place. Therefore, essence of a thing is its possibility, and whoever knows the way and manner in which something is possible, understands the essence.”[6]

Wolff set out in his German Logic: “By Science, I understand, that habit of the understanding, whereby, in a manner not to be refuted, we establish our assertions on irrefragable {indisputable} grounds or principles. . . .”[7] Wolff’s rules for attaining such a science were to formulate sound axioms and real definitions appropriate to the science, thereon to make intuitive judgments, and make inferences from those by syllogisms, arriving at new propositions that can then be taken into additional syllogisms.[8] Wolff thought that was the way the science of geometry works perfectly and the way needed by metaphysics as a science, which he had provided in the metaphysics he was setting forth. It is in truth not our method of proof in Euclidean geometry nor should it be, and we do not need such a thing as metaphysics as a science.

Wolff: “Ontology or first philosophy is the science of being in general, or insofar as it is being.” “By sufficient reason, we understand that from which it is understood why something is.”[9] One difference between mathematics and metaphysics, in Wolff’s view, is that the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) is sensible and productive in the latter, but not appropriate in the former. By setting results of empirical experience in the context of sufficient reason for them, we comprehend them, as de Boer notes, “in view of the rationally ordered totality of which they are part.”[10] Wolff: “Denial of the principle of sufficient ground changes the true world into a fantasy world, in which the human will takes the place of the ground of that which occurs.”[11] Wolff took PNC and PSR to be rules of thought by which we can be objective, that is, cognize the world. He argued that PSR, and empirical knowledge as well, are grounded in PNC.[12] His arguments for the rules PNC and PSR are along the lines that without them we could not think coherently.[13]

Additionally, Wolff rests our knowledge of PNC and its certainty on our pickup from a particular syllogism: “Whoever is conscious, exists. / We are conscious. / Therefore, we exist.”[14] To the contrary, Aristotle rests the rightness of syllogistic on our assent to any syllogism of first-figure form, whatever the specific terms in its premises and conclusion, and on sure reducibility of all other valid syllogistic forms to that one.[15] In turn, Rand’s metaphysics and conception of the place of logic in identification should rest the rightness of that particular form of syllogism, most basic for Aristotle, on the fact “existence is identity.” Wolff was attempting to impute assurance of the rightness of that particular form of syllogism, thence all other forms, from Descartes’s cogito.

Rand did not defend her axioms and axiomatic corollaries in the Wolffian way. Rather, Rand specified and elucidated them as staying true to fundamental character of existence, the latter being the guiding ubiquitous nature for right cognition. Need for coherence that is lost by denial of those fundamental rules is not the source of their objective validity, only a showing of their correctness everywhere for keeping thought tuned to reality. Character of the world commending these rules is to be shown by illustrative empirical cases: “A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time.” Rand’s law of identity entails that objects come in some exclusive kinds. Leaf and stone are kinds that are exclusive with respect to each other. Objects may be also of kinds that are not exclusive of each other: a leaf is a kind of plant part, it is a kind of light catcher, and it is a kind of drain clogger. Saying that an object is a leaf and a stone violates identity in Rand’s rich sense; it is a contradiction. But to say that an object is a leaf and a drain clogger is no contradiction. Objects come in some exclusive kinds, and it is sensitivity to these sets of kinds that is written into Rand’s conception of noncontradiction concerning the kind-identity of an object.[16]

Unlike Wolff, Rand did not base her metaphysics on PNC, rather, on the fact of Existence and the completely general condition that existence is identity.[17] Rand took consciousness to be most fundamentally identification of existents. This bears a surface likeness to Wolff, who took the essence of the soul to be the power to represent the world. Unlike Wolff, Rand did not take her metaphysics to be a mathematical-deductive sort of discipline.

Rand rejected PSR in its Wolffian scope. That means that Rand should have other ways of distinguishing metaphysics from mathematics. Rand’s way of making that distinction was not worked out. Rand, I should note, does not need the distinction by way of justifying metaphysics “as a science.” Unlike Wolff and his successors, for Rand the distinctive function of metaphysics does not rely on prying actualities from possibilities by joining possibilities with a notion of what is most perfect among a collection of possibilities and relying on the idea that the actual world is the best, most perfect world.

For Rand, rightly I’d say: PSR in the form “For every existent, there is a reason why it exists, rather than not” can apply at most to constituents or proper parts of Existence, not to that comprehensive standing Existence, the all, the whole comprising all actuals and their potentials, all those concrete objects and their concrete actions, attributes, and relationships.[18] PSR in the form “Nothing happens without a reason” applies only within Existence, not to that all-of-alls Existence, which is not a “happening.” PSR in the form “There must be a sufficient reason for every truth of fact” does not apply to the bare truth Existence exists. There is the reality of the fact that that truth acknowledges; there is nothing begetting that fact. Rand’s curtailment of PSR did not diminish one bit the intelligibility of Existence by human reason, I should mention.

Wolff’s 1730 statement of the Principle of Sufficient Ground: “Nothing is without a sufficient ground {reason} why it is rather than not; i.e., if something is posited as being, there will also be posited something from which it is understood why this thing is rather than is not.”[19] Wolff gives an argument for this which maintains that to claim an exception to PSR is to reify a nothing from which the thing is. This argument is circular, for Wolff begins with the premise “were something to be or take place without a reason why it should occur being met with either in that thing itself or something else, then it would come to be from nothing.”[20]

Rather than join PSR to her principle of Identity to further extend her general metaphysics, Rand in 1957 had identity as applied to the existent that is action as giving the necessity of identity, for all existents, to a principle of causality. “The law of causality is the law of identity applied to action. . . . The nature of an action is caused and determined by the nature of the things that act; a thing cannot act in contradiction to its nature. An action not caused by an entity [a thing with identity] would be caused by a zero. . . . [which means] the non-existent ruling the existent.”[21]

Rand’s law of causality is quite like PSR in her 1973 statement of it here: “All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe—from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life—are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved.”[22]

I notice that having taken identity, rather than PNC, as deepest base of causality in widest generality, Rand could (but apparently did not notice she could) distinguish metaphysics from mathematics by taking identity (not only PNC) as basis of mathematics; and mathematics, which has not essentially to do with action (only with morphisms and other interrelations of formal objects), has not to do with causality. That is, in contrast to Wolff, she requires no PSR as distinguishing note between mathematics and metaphysics. She can instead take causality as that distinguishing note. Action and causality are not under the subject matter of mathematics as such. Then too, passage of time is not under that subject matter. Rand could say that not only is there the law of identity applied to action. In a thinner sense of identity (genidentity), there is the law of identity applied to things simply existing through time. Application of the law of identity to action and to mere passage in time goes a significant way for distinction of metaphysics, which deals with those applications, in most general form, and mathematics, which does not deal with those applications.

Notes

[1] Wolff, Christian 1713. Vernünftige Gedanken von den Kräften des menschlichen Verstandes und ihrem richtigen Gebrauch in der Erkenntnis der Wahrheit, §1. Rational Thoughts on the Powers of the Human Understanding and Its Proper Use in the Cognition of Truth. London: L. Hawes, W. Clarke, and R. Collins, (1770). This work is commonly known as Wolff’s German Logic, and it is available online https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000003010372&view=1up&seq=15.

[2] Hettche, Matt, and Corey Dyck 2019. “Christian Wolff,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Wolff, Christian 1720. Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt, §12. Rational Thoughts concerning God, the World, and the Human Soul, and also All Things in General, In Early Modern German Philosophy (1690–1750), Corey W. Dyck, ed. and trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2019), 99. This work is commonly known as Wolff’s German Metaphysics.

[4] Peikoff, Leonard, 1991. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, 28. New York: Dutton.

[5] Rand, Ayn, c. 1970. Appendix – Transcription from Seminar. In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded 2nd edition (1990), 286. Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, eds. New York: Meridian.

[6] Wolff, Christian 1720. German Metaphysics, §35, In Corey W. Dyck, ed. and trans., Early Modern German Philosophy (1690–1750). Oxford: Oxford University Press (2019).

[7] “Preliminary Discourse,” §II, in German Logic.

[8] Wolff, German Logic, in Dyck 2019, 99–134.

[9] Wolff, Christian 1730. Philosophia Prima Sive Ontology (1730), First Philosophy, or Ontology, Frankfurt), §§1, 56. Passages I quote from this work are translations of Courtney D. Fugate and John Hymers.

[10] De Boer, Karin 2020. Kant’s Reform of Metaphysics, 30. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[11] Wolff, Ontology, §77.

[12] R. Lanier Anderson, “The Wolffian Paradigm and Its Discontents: Kant’s Containment Definition of Analyticity in Historical Context.” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 87, no. S (2005), 22–74.

[13] Wolff, Ontology, §§27–30.

[14] Wolff, German Logic, §6.

[15] Lear, Jonathan 1980. Aristotle and Logical Theory, 1–14, 34–53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Malink, Marko 2013. Aristotle’s Modal Syllogistic, 86–97. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[16] Cf. Plato, Sophist 252e–54b. Nicholas P. White, translator. In Plato – Complete Works, John M. Cooper, editor. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

[17] I capitalize existence when I mean not only existence per se, but additionally, existence as a whole, existence in its entirety.

[18] Rand, Ayn 1973, “The Metaphysical versus the Man-Made” In Philosophy: Who Needs It, New York: Signet, 1982, 25.

[19] Wolff, Ontology, §70.

[20] Wolff, German Metaphysics, §30.

[21] Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1037.

[22] Rand, “Metaphysical,” 25.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"Existence exists, but there has to be a reason why it does; it's not sufficient to just state that it does. Existence must exist for a reason."*   –EC

Reasons presuppose possibilities presuppose potentials and actions presuppose existents, parts of Existence. Reasons presuppose Existence (by which latter, I mean not only existence per se and some existents, but as well, the totality of existents).

From preceding post: 

"For Rand, rightly I’d say: PSR [Principle of Sufficient Reason] in the form “For every existent, there is a reason why it exists, rather than not” can apply at most to constituents or proper parts of Existence, not to that comprehensive standing Existence, the all, the whole comprising all actuals and their potentials, all those concrete objects and their concrete actions, attributes, and relationships.[18] PSR in the form “Nothing happens without a reason” applies only within Existence, not to that all-of-alls Existence, which is not a “happening.” PSR in the form “There must be a sufficient reason for every truth of fact” does not apply to the bare truth Existence exists. There is the reality of the fact that that truth acknowledges; there is nothing begetting that fact. Rand’s curtailment of PSR did not diminish one bit the intelligibility of Existence by human reason, I should mention."

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wolff was a Lutheran, though an unusual one running full stride with reason: We should “give ear to our reason; namely our own Perfection, from which the Glory of God . . . cannot well be separated” (German Logic, 10.VI). Wolff defended the Leibnizian pre-established harmony, and together with Wolff’s wide scope of PSR, this could be stretched by others to support fatalism and removal of penalties for breaches of law, such as penalties for desertion from the Prussian military. Pietist faculty got the King to bar Wolff from university teaching, and Wolff was banished from Prussia in 1723 (if he was not gone within 48 hours, he would be hanged), which cemented Wolff’s status as intellectual celebrity of the Enlightenment throughout Europe.

The serious Pietist philosopher Christian August Crusius (1715–75) rejected the full scope of Wolff’s PSR. Crusius was particularly concerned that PSR not overrun human free will, the truly originative agency of humans free to have chosen otherwise in a particular choice-circumstance. Crusius took it that humans are not subject to a PSR so strong as: nothing can be otherwise than it is (Sketch of the Necessary Truths of Reason, 1745, §84). Rand and Peikoff explicated Rand’s principle of causality (“All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements in the universe—from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life—are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved.") such that some human action can be freely chosen.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...