By Matt Hettche

Matt Hettche, Auburn University


Christian Wolff is often identified by historians of philosophy as a minor figure who links the philosophical systems of Leibniz and Kant. He is typically recognized for systematizing the views of Leibniz from scattered papers and letters and for transforming metaphysics in Germany into a formal academic discipline. His theoretical philosophy, although praised by Kant for its order, clarity and strictness in proof, is judged in hindsight to be wrought with difficulty. A familiar complaint is that Wolff is preoccupied with conforming his philosophical ideas to a mathematical method and the result is an artificial system of dogmatic rationalism. Wolff’s philosophical contributions are often described as both marginal and unoriginal.

What is perhaps remarkable about this historical assessment of Wolff is how sharply it contrasts with the image and reputation that Wolff procured for himself during his own lifetime. His professional accomplishments, even by today’s standards, are truly remarkable. Internationally recognized, Wolff gained membership into all four major European scientific academies and his writings were widely translated into different languages during his life. He survived political persecution from a narrow-minded dictator (Prussia’s Frederick William I); and while living in exile for roughly two decades, Wolff became a symbolic leader for Europe’s intellectual community. Much of Wolff’s later writings in ethics and practical philosophy explore the very themes that have come to define Europe’s Enlightenment, such as religious tolerance, freedom of speech, the independence of ethics from theology, and the idea that there is progress in human history. Part of my focus in the present paper is to recast the philosophical image of Christian Wolff. Rather than seen as an eclectic metaphysician, or mere linchpin between Leibniz and Kant, Wolff’s most lasting contribution might best be seen in shaping the goals of Europe’s Enlightenment.

My primary focus will be to reconstruct and evaluate Wolff’s argument for academic freedom as it is presented in Chapter 6 of his Preliminary Discourse (1728).1 This work appeared shortly after Wolff was banished for heresy and it captures well his attitude of naïve optimism for intellectual discourse. During his lifetime, the social and political institutions of Europe were undergoing radical transformation. As I hope to show, Wolff’s philosophical agenda as well as the values he embraced for academic freedom should really be seen as a response to the uncertainty caused by shifting intellectual foundations.

Wolff’s argument for what he calls the “freedom to philosophize” in Chapter 6 of the Preliminary Discourse is grounded in two central claims. The first is that intellectual freedom is necessary for the discovery and guarantee of truth (§ 154). He argues that given there is an innate human desire to strive for and attain perfection, evidenced by our desire for knowledge, it is necessary that people are able to discuss and debate ideas and information. Wolff believes that both the fallibility of the human intellect and the incremental nature of scientific knowledge demand policies of tolerance and free speech. He maintains further that only the dictates of a “proper philosophical method” have the authority to censure a person’s research, not the Church or State. Wolff’s second claim for advocating academic freedom is based in the observed utility that tolerance has had for the advancement of science. After discussing such episodes as Galileo’s censure by the Catholic Church and the controversy between Leibniz and Newton over the discovery and invention of calculus, Wolff maintains that an atmosphere of openness and fair debate are necessary for the progress of human science. Here, Wolff essentially argues from the idea of historical human progress, and the likelihood that societal benefits will emerge from scientific advance, to the idea of free speech.

While Wolff’s argument is provocative and in many ways anticipates the type of defense for free speech that we find later in both Kant and Mill, it is subject to some serious philosophical objections. In what follows, after setting up the historical and intellectual context of Wolff’s argument, I will consider two objections that can be raised against him. The first calls into question what justification Wolff has for identifying the discovery and guarantee of truth as a reason for defending a policy of tolerance. The second objection, in turn, raises doubts about the purported connection between scientific discovery and societal benefit. In the concluding section of the paper, I will make some effort to answer these objections while indicating what I think is philosophically plausible about Wolff’s naïve optimism.

Some Historical Background

While historians of intellectual history often debate the precise beginning of the Enlightenment, and even dispute its propagation and impact in various territories, there is little disagreement about the type cultural forces that precipitated Europe’s great change.2 At the start of the eighteenth century, the religious, scientific, and political institutions of Europe were undergoing radical transformation. The Christian Reformation had simmered to a relative quiet, the ‘new science’ of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton was steadily gaining acceptance, and there was a growing economic middle class taking hold. And although it was clear that the old authorities were leaving their positions of power, there was genuine uncertainty about how the world would look once the newfound replacements came on board. In this climate of anticipation and uncertainty, intellectual discovery was met with both optimism and nervous suspicion.

Nowhere was the anxiety of cultural transformation more evident than in the Prussian court of Frederick William I. Known as the “Soldier King,” Frederick William’s authoritarian reign lasted from 1713 to 1740. His actions, both public and private, have been described in hindsight as single- minded, insensitive, severe and even brutal.3 Preoccupied with securing the forces of a strong military, he rescinded many of the programs of scientific research commissioned by his father and predecessor, Frederick I. He cut funding and support for the Prussian Academy Sciences as well as the Berlin Observatory; and he directed much of his regal power to enacting a government- controlled economy. Unlike his father’s court, where diplomatic and administrative posts were decided on merit, Frederick William appointed personal friends and allies. It is also reported that he was particularly harsh when his dealing with his heir, Frederick II (or Frederick the Great). There are numerous reports, for example, that Frederick William reacted violently to the suspicion of his son’s homosexuality.4 In one alleged incident, Frederick William had his son and his son’s close friend arrested on charges of desertion, after it was learned the two were planning an escape to England. As punishment, he ordered his son’s friend executed and then displayed the corpse outside his son’s residence.5 While undoubtedly brutal and disgusting, these actions typify in many ways the temperament of Prussia’s “Solider King.”

The events leading to Wolff’s heresy arrest and subsequent banishment track closely with his professional accomplishments.6 By the time he concluded his post as Rector of the University at Halle in 1721, Wolff had worked out the precepts of an entire system of philosophy, which included logic, metaphysics, ethics, politics, physics, and (the source of his controversy) theology. Although initially hired as a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, Wolff’s research extended into areas traditionally reserved for members of the theological faculty. At Halle, this department was populated by Pietists and they offered tireless resistance to Wolff’s rationalistic approach to morality and religion.7 During this era, Pietism in Germany represented an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Emphasizing a life of simplicity and an inward turn to a quiet Christian character, Pietists often reacted with suspicion to the cultural changes of the Enlightenment. Their ideological rivals in the region were the Calvinists. And although the Calvinists had gained some influence in other regions of Prussia, Halle remained a Pietist stronghold.8 Hence when Halle’s theological faculty realized many of Wolff’s philosophical views were consistent with a doctrine of pre- destination, a central tenet of Calvinist theology, Wolff was recognized as a threat.

The formal indictment of heresy brought against Wolff by the Pietists was perhaps motivated more by fear of losing ground to the Calvinists than it was from anything explicitly articulated in Wolff’s writings. Although officially branded a Fatalist, Wolff technically was not. In his philosophy of mind, what he labels the discipline of “Psychology,” he essentially defends a compatablist view of human agency. Only tentatively, for example, does Wolff accept the Leibnizian doctrine of pre-established harmony, citing it merely as the “best hypothesis” to explain mind-body interaction.9 Nevertheless, as Pietists insiders of the Frederick William’s court explained to the king that Wolff’s theory of human action implicitly denied culpability for army deserters, the king called for Wolff’s immediate removal. On November 8, 1723, Wolff was charged with heresy and ordered to leave Halle within 24 hours and the Prussian territory with 48 hours.

Wolffian Psychology

Since Wolff’s theory of human action is ultimately important for understanding his argument for academic freedom, I will now briefly highlight some of its main features.10 According to Wolff, the human mind/soul is a simple substance that exhibits the power to represent the world. Humans represent the world (i.e., have thoughts about) particular objects of possible existence. The power of thought is conceived by Wolff as a type of continuous striving for epistemic and moral perfection. Humans have the innate disposition to strive for perfection and this, Wolff believes, is evidenced by our desire for knowledge and certainty. Each human thought is individuated by its propositional content and each is marked by varying degrees of clarity and distinctness.11 A thought or object is clear, according to Wolff, if it is easily identified or picked out from what it is not. Likewise, a thought or object is distinct if its characteristics can be isolated when describing it to oneself or another. Thus the representation of something red is clear, insofar as it is not green; however, it is indistinct, because it is difficult, at least by visual inspection, to isolate its properties that help individuate it from other colors.12

The measures of clarity and distinctness play a particularly important role in the attainment of epistemic and moral perfection. Here, I will first describe Wolff’s case for knowledge and then I will turn to his analysis of moral action (both, as we shall see, are closely related given Wolff’s predilection for Stoicism). Humans have the capacity for veridical perception and true beliefs about the world, even though raw experience is adulterated by deficiencies in our senses. For Wolff, “the world” is broadly defined as a compossible set of actual and possible objects. Through the attentive application of reason, experience of the world can be rarefied into beliefs and judgments that accurately represent the way things are. In fact, philosophical analysis is the process by which humans are able to bring into greater clarity and distinctness thoughts about how the world is (and how the world can be). Wolff is both optimistic and confident that if we start out with accurate definitions of things, and apply true principles, we can deduce an entire system of human knowledge. According to Wolff, comprehensive scientific knowledge allows humans to not only know what is the case, but it allows us to see the connection (or nexus) of inter-related truths. The primary role of reason, therefore, is to clarify and make distinct the realm of possible ideas and objects. When presented side by side in logical space, it is ultimately “the force of truth” that compels us to see the facts of reality as they really are.

Wolff’s analysis of moral action is similar to what he describes for knowledge; however the story is a bit more complicated insofar it involves elements of the appetitive faculty, such as “pleasure,” “pain,” and “sensuous desire.” For Wolff, the primary task of “practical philosophy” is to specify the procedures by which humans can control their motives when choosing good over evil.13 And as we might expect, just as in the earlier case of knowledge, the measures of clarity and distinctness figure prominently. The clearer and more distinct our thoughts are, the more we become in line with realizing our inherent striving for moral perfection. Wolff believes, in particular, that as we approximate true moral perfection in our actions, the consequence is felt in the production of pleasure. This “felt pleasure” is both internal to the moral agent as well as external in the lives of others.14 Yet insofar as our actions on occasion tend toward imperfection, the consequence is both internal and external pain. Hence, since we have adequate faculties to clearly discern pleasure from pain, we also possess the ability to discern good from evil. The problem, however, and the central task of ethics according to Wolff, is the need to clarify our often indistinct representations of perfection. For example, when our thoughts for deliberate action are left indistinct, they may give rise to sensuous desire. And while not always a bad thing, for example, when thirsty we seek a glass of water, the affects of unchecked passion can sometimes lead to short term internal pleasure that is later accompanied by long term external pain. In a passage from his German Ethics, Wolff conveys this idea by utilizing a reference to slavery. He writes: “We are slaves if we allow conscience to be determined by the indistinct perceptions constituting sensory pleasures and pains, free if clear and distinct perception guide us” (§ 81).

One clear upshot of Wolff’s analysis of moral action is how moral virtue, or the moral conduct of one’s life, remains wholly independent from religion. For Wolff, it is the authority of reason, not acceptance of a pious Christian faith, which clarifies the proper motives for action. In fact, moral aptitude only really hinges on the ability to clarify available courses of action and anticipate their likely consequences. Wolff’s most pronounced statement of this claim came in a paper “On the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese” that was read as a formal address to the University of Hallein 172115. In the paper, Wolff argued that moral standards and human happiness do not depend on revelation, and therefore Chinese society could be considered moral even though it was not Christian. The address given by Wolff marked the official end of his service as Rector to the University. His replacement, Joachim Lange, was a Pietist theology professor, and not surprisingly, he was deeply troubled by what Wolff had to say. For the theological faculty at Halle, divorcing ethics from religion, was tantamount to undermining a central pillar of Pietist ideology. If Wolff was looking for a fight, he certainly knew the right buttons to push and when to push them. Far from remaining completely innocent, Wolff’s banishment was really the culmination of a two year skirmish with Lange that included mutual threats, acts of retaliation, and, in the end, formal charges of heresy.16 Had Lange not possessed the political connections he did, or had the Prussian Monarch’s approach to punishment been less severe, Wolff’s disagreement with the Pietists would almost certainly be remembered completely different.

The Argument for Academic Freedom

Classic philosophical discussions on free speech typically focus on two issues: (1) “what counts as free speech,” and (2) “how far should a policy of tolerance extend to what-is-said?” Closely connected to this set of concerns is a further issue of how exactly academic freedom and free speech are themselves related.17 Is, for example, freedom of speech a necessary condition for academic freedom? Or perhaps, is academic freedom something much more narrow and restricted than free speech given the goals of education or the commitments academic institutions often have for community outreach and social welfare? Since I am ultimately presenting Wolff’s argument as an argument for academic freedom, and at the same time, the language of Wolff’s argument is often very general, indicating perhaps something much broader, I should preface my discussion here with an account of how I think these issues hang together for Wolff. I maintain, in particular, that given what “philosophy” and “philosophical analysis” mean for Wolff, the question of free speech and the question of academic freedom are essentially identical for him. As it turns out, Wolff has very strict conditions for what counts as a proper method for intellectual discourse. The “freedom” that he advocates, as I will explain, is essentially the “freedom to present arguments” (i.e., a self contained and internally consistent program of research). Therefore, insofar as Wolff voices a concern for free speech, we should not interpret him as advocating a policy of tolerance that applies across the board to all forms of expression. Contemporary discussions on the permissibility of pornography, hate speech, and satirical political cartoons, for example, are undoubtedly well beyond Wolff’s focus.

In Wolff’s own terminology, the argument he presents in Chapter 6 of the Preliminary Discourse is for “the freedom to philosophize” or, as he also says, “the permission to state publicly one’s own opinion on philosophical issues” (§ 151). For Wolff, philosophy is the foundational science in all of human science. It is the most basic discipline of inquiry insofar as it is concerned with the reason for why things are and why things come to be. Philosophical analysis, in turn, is simply the practice of providing complete causal explanations for why and how things come into existence. Wolff is a Rationalist, insofar as he believes all of science is connected through a discoverable set of facts; and yet he is also a Scientific Determinist, insofar as he believes every event/fact is both predictable and provable from the right set of assumptions. For our purposes, and ignoring the obvious difficulty that the “problem of induction” presents for him, a primary concern is what he has to say about “the proper philosophical method.” His argument for academic freedom, as we shall soon see, is predicated on the idea that legitimate intellectual discovery requires a strict procedure of proper inference and rigorous argument. Wolff maintains, in particular, that only if a proper philosophical method is followed, can the conditions for truth in a program of research be guaranteed (§ 151).

In § 135 of the Preliminary Discourse, Wolff gives a concise description of the logical and psychological requirements that comprise his philosophical method. He writes:

For he who treats philosophy according to its method must accurately define all the terms which he uses. He must also sufficiently prove his principles, and must legitimately deduce propositions from them. He must accurately determine both the subject and the predicate of every proposition. He must order all things so that those things come first through which later things are understood and established. He must arrange the individual propositions of his demonstration in the same order in which they enter the mind of him who conceives the demonstration. He must use only those propositions which the reader, who is acquainted with what has preceded, can remember in order to complete the proof.

The underlying idea in the above passage, and that which unifies Wolff’s concept of a “proper method,” is that there are precise expositional requirements that need to be followed if a program of research is to be deemed legitimate. For Wolff, intellectual discourse must be internally consistent, self-contained, and follow a precise procedure of argumentation. Definitions, principles and even the arrangement of a presentation all matter when judging the intellectual fitness of an academic’s ideas. If there are noticeable gaps in logic, or if it is unclear how one idea follows to the next, then what is offered as academic research will simply be discounted. Moreover, on Wolff’s assessment, not just anything will pass as academic research. Artistic performance and expressive acts, for example, will not count as protected speech because they are not constrained by precise standards of logical inference. Although certainly restrictive, and even short-sighted given the scope of contemporary intellectual discourse, Wolff’s demand for a proper method is perhaps best regarded as a demand for competency within intellectual discourse. As I will explain further in the next section, a “competency requirement,” is actually a defining component of Wolff’s naïve optimism.

Wolff’s defense for the freedom to philosophize, recall, is grounded in two central claims. The reason why I choose to describe Wolff’s defense as consisting in two claims, rather than two separate arguments, has to do with how Wolff (himself) thinks the two claims of his argument fit together. That is to say, for Wolff, considerations about truth and proper method, on one hand, and considerations about scientific progress and societal benefit, on the other hand, turn out to be intricately connected. Human reason, Wolff believes, operates in both a public and private realm.18 If private reason (i.e., a person’s intellectual faculty) is constrained to the dictates of a proper philosophical method, then the product of one’s reason is both germane for public attention and has the potential to produce future societal benefits.19 And likewise, since scientific thought is advanced incrementally through public discourse and debate, if there are clear and steady gains in scientific knowledge, credit falls back, so-to-speak, to the very method that gave rise to the particular intellectual insight.

Wolff’s first claim for academic freedom, what I label the “Defense from Truth,” is stated succinctly in two separate paragraphs (§ 154 & § 166). Here, Wolff identifies the “force of truth” as the preeminent concern for protecting the freedom to state one’s opinion. Proceeding by analogy from his analysis of human action, Wolff believes that the free production of philosophical opinion is necessary for the public’s discovery of the truth. To use an expression that is slightly anachronistic, but not completely out of character for Wolff, it is the uncensored contributions to a “market place of ideas” that allows truth to win out in the ongoing competition between valuable and worthless information.20  That is to say, just as the role of reason in the private realm is to refine the clarity and distinctness of ideas for the attainment of knowledge, the freedom to philosophize spawns in the public realm incremental progress in human science. If the information available for public consumption is the result of a proper philosophical method, Wolff argues, then such information is clarified and made more distinct for the practitioners of science to interpret and utilize in a collective ongoing effort (§ 170).

Wolff’s second claim in his argument for academic freedom, what I call the “Defense from Utility,” is developed by Wolff over a larger portion of his text. The central idea here is that academic freedom and international policies of tolerance have historically, at least in Wolff’s estimation, afforded genuine scientific advance. Furthermore, Wolff believes, since scientific advance leads inevitably to societal benefits, the claim for academic freedom is indirectly justified by pointing to those occasions in the history of science where advancement is conditioned by policies of tolerance and responsible debate. In Wolff’s discussion, the premier example to point out is how celestial mechanics was transformed over time from Copernicus, to Kepler, to Galileo, to Newton.

And although the local circumstances were not always ideal for these purveyors of modern astronomy, particularly, Wolff believes, in Galileo’s case, the fact that truth was able to win out in the end is a testament to the power and promise of academic freedom. Had Newton not the benefit of those monumental discoveries that came before him, Wolff believes the progress and breakthrough discoveries of Newton would have most certainly been delayed. Undoubtedly, one of the more insightful perspectives we gain from Wolff in his argument for academic freedom is his observations on the developments and controversies in the history of science. Wolff’s enthusiasm for Newtonian physics, for example, was unshared by Leibniz and really comes before any real results. Arguably, it was not until Leonard Euler was able to mathematically quantify Newton’s three laws of motion in 1748 that Newtonian mechanics began to produce solutions to practical problems.21 Therefore, insofar as Wolff sees the promise of the Newtonian World View in a manner that is consistent with its actual development is certainly noteworthy.

Consider now two philosophical objections that can be levied against Wolff’s argument. The first calls into question the precise connection between a proper philosophical method and the conditions for guaranteed truth. In fact, identifying truth and the authority of a “proper philosophical method” as justifications for intellectual freedom, it might be said, is to trade simply one tyranny for another. That is to say, although Wolff is not appealing to any formal institution within society, such as the Church or State, his argument nonetheless crucially depends on the authority of reason. Who, after all, is responsible for assessing the proper execution of Wolff’s philosophical method, the philosopher? And if so, why isn’t her claim to authority just as suspect as any other political appointment? After all, the objection continues, freedom of expression should embrace a plurality of voices and perspectives. Intellectual oppression is more likely to result from the overblown expectations of a method that strives to preserve truth, rather than one that is simply indifferent to it. In the end, we might ask, why isn’t Wolff’s demand for preserving and advancing truth, simply a disguised way of advancing and promoting his own narrowly conceived philosophical method?

A second objection that can be raised against Wolff’s argument for academic freedom resides in questioning the expected utility of adopting a strict policy of tolerance. Although hate speech and other forms of demeaning media certainly do not qualify as intellectual expression, given Wolff’s strict conditions on method, there is a real question of why free intellectual expression need always lead to socially positive results. It is neither necessary nor obvious, for example, that progress in science will lead to a better world. Research on biological weapons, technology that leads to the destruction of the natural environment and, more recently, genetic modification of food sources all pose serious threats to the continued existence of the human race. Since these programs of research are undoubtedly carried out under the banner of science, and depend crucially on incremental technological advance, how can Wolff reasonably defend a policy of academic freedom by citing inevitable expected utility?

Naïve Optimism and Intellectual Accountability

The partial defense that I would like to present in this concluding section for Wolff’s argument requires looking past some of the more stilted elements of his philosophical view. It is true that Wolff was wrong about a lot of things; but I maintain, he was wrong about a lot of things in a lot of interesting sort of ways. Both the “Defense from Truth” and the “Defense from Utility” are predicated on the idea that human beings are progressing toward something better (a classic theme of the Enlightenment). Kant would later label this idea “progress toward a universal natural history” and it is certainly familiar to us in our own day and age. In Wolffian metaphysics, humanity (as a collective soul) is in a continuous state of striving for perfection. It is remarkable, I think, that Wolff held and developed this view of the human race amidst personal persecution and while living in a society that faced genocidal war, famine and plague. In this light, I argue in this concluding section that the single most redeeming quality of Wolff’s view on the nature of intellectual discourse is his naïve optimism. At a time when the intellectual foundations of Europe were undergoing radical and uncertain change, Wolff remained steadfast and confident about the value and promise of human knowledge.

There are two constitutive conditions to the notion of naïve optimism (as I develop it here) that are important to note.22 The first is what I call a “competency requirement” and second is the “benevolence condition.” In the broadest of terms, the speaker of intellectual discourse adopts an attitude of naïve optimism if the content of her message is both competent and benevolent. Speech is competent, we might say, if and only if it retains its meaning within its intended linguistic context; and likewise, speech is benevolent if and only if its content is not intended to disrespect or cause undue harm to others. The competency requirement and benevolence condition are presented here as formal conditions that help elucidate the forms of intellectual expression that qualify for protection. In Wolff’s argument for academic freedom, the competency requirement is simply reflected in the numerous things he has to say about the proper philosophical method. And likewise, his endorsement of the benevolence condition follows tacitly from his metaphysical assumptions about the human soul and the belief that all humans have an inherent desire to pursue and attain moral perfection.

Recall now the objection offered in the previous section against Wolff’s “Defense from Truth.” The worry again is that Wolff offers no independent justification for why truth and method should be tied so tightly together, and further, why reason should be valued above and beyond any other authority. Wolff’s demand for truth, therefore, appears to be either a disguised way to advance his philosophical method or it rests on a dogmatic preference for truth as the ultimate and final authority. In Wolff’s defense, however, it is perhaps important to remember the vital distinction he makes between the public and private uses of reason. In its private use, for example, reason is the faculty that refines ideas into clearer and more distinct units of thought. Here method is a preeminent concern because it is really the only way in which we as humans can methodically and predictably discover facts about the world. However, reason in a public capacity forms a completely different relationship with truth. That is to say, in the public sphere truth is not a means to some end; but rather for Wolff, it is the force by which we and the public chose correctly our motives for action. Hence, if we can take Wolff’s argument for academic freedom on its own, separate from Wolffian metaphysics, and perhaps separate from a correspondence theory of truth, it need not exclude academic pluralism. Strictly speaking, information that is deemed acceptable for continued academic research in the public realm need only pass the competency requirement and benevolence condition of the individual researcher.

The objection to the “Defense from Utility,” recall, is based on the idea that science does not always lead to socially positive results. Here, I think Wolff has two basic options in presenting a reply, and one is better than the other. The first is to concede the objection in the short term, and simply deny it for the long term. This is a standard type of defense for a Consequentialist when trying to mediate concerns about anticipating consequences, and for the most part, it is not all that philosophically interesting. However, the second reply to the second objection appears more promising and, at the same time, it underscores what is plausible about Wolff’s naïve optimism. The reply to the objection on the proposed utility of academic freedom which involves socially destructive elements is that we have not yet been in an academically free environment. If we were, a naïve optimist would argue, research on biological weapons and the creation of environmentally harmful technologies would be anticipated or caught early enough for their exclusion. It is only because the ideas of western science are propagated in a quasi-free environment, for example, constrained by oppressive forces of capitalism, racism, sexism, and xenophobia, that the social good is prevented from taking hold. A Naïve Optimist is going to see any set back as temporary and is going to recognize that there is a human process in realizing worldly moral perfection. And although it may appear through our confused and indistinct perception of the world that human history isn’t tending toward the best, it is important to remember that it really is (however slow the process may be).

Now the Naïve Optimist certainly doesn’t want to over emphasize the point about inevitable human progress. After all, policies of intolerance and censorship could just as easily be justified by citing inevitable human progress. To state this objection a bit more precisely: since every course of action leads by necessity to the best, there is no worry about ever committing an error. The point of reply, however, is not to overstate the determinism of a Naïve Optimist. Recall Wolff is no Fatalist, despite accusations to the contrary. Both Wolff and the Naïve Optimist will argue, for example, that the rate and quality of change in the world are things fully within our control as evolving human beings. Return for a moment to Wolff’s image of the striving soul of humanity. Freedom of information will result in a greater good for people living now and, if a true policy of tolerance is embraced, solutions to real world problems will emerge at a faster rate and in more meaningful ways.

In conclusion, the contribution of Christian Wolff for understanding and defending academic freedom is certainly not grounded in his antiquated theory of human agency or the rigid conditions he stipulates for a proper philosophical method. Here, Wolff simply misses the mark. The more we delve into his thought, the more we realize how wrong he was in all sorts of interesting ways. However, admiration for his ideas does emerge when we set his thought against the backdrop of his own historical and intellectual context. The strength of Wolff’s view comes in his belief that truth will win out in a climate of intellectual uncertainty. If the speaker is competent and her intentions are benevolent, then “what is said” has the chance to make a contribution in the ongoing evolution of human thought.



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Wolff, Christian. Logic, or Rational Thoughts on the Powers of the Human Understanding with their Use and Application in the Knowledge and Search of Truth. [German Logic] London: Printed for L. Hawes, W. Clarke, and R. Collins, 1770.

  1. References to Wolff’s Preliminary Discourse throughout this paper will be to the numbered paragraphs of Richard Blackwell’s translation: Christian Wolff, Preliminary Discourse on Philosophy in General (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1963).
  2. For a typical discussion of this debate see Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1951), 3; and J. I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (New York: Oxford UP, 2001), 5.
  3. Lewis White Beck suggests that given the anti-intellectual climate during Frederick William I’s reign, the Enlightenment pervading Europe at the start of the eighteenth century was essentially postponed in Germany until the death of Prussia’s “Soldier King.” See Lewis White Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1969), 244 & 314.
  4. For examples, see Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 (New York: Cambridge UP, 2006), 187ff; and W.H. Nelson, The Soldier Kings: The House of Hohenzollern (New York: G.P. Putnams Son’s, 1970), 119-131.
  5. See Robert Ergang, The Potsdam Führer: Frederick William I, Father of Prussian Militarism (New York: Columbia UP, 1941), 212-238.
  6. For more discussion of this episode, see Beck, Early German Philosophy, 257-259; Irving Polonoff, Force, Cosmos, Monads and Other Themes of Kant’s Early Thought (Bonn: Herbert Grundmann, 1973), 70- 72; Thomas Saine, “Who’s Afraid of Christian Wolff?,” in Anticipations of the Enlightenment, edited by A.C. Kors and P. Korshin (Philadelphia, U of Pennsylvania P 1987), 102-33; Eric Watkins, “The Development of Physical Influx in Early Eighteenth-Century Germany: Gottsched, Knutzen, and Crusius,” Review of Metaphysics 49 (1995): 298-300; and Catherine Wilson, “The Reception of Leibniz in the Eighteenth Century,” in The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz, edited by Nicholas Jolley (New York: Cambridge UP, 1995), 442-494.
  7. For discussion of the controversy between Wolff and the Pietists, see Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), 20-40; J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (New York: Cambridge UP, 1998), 442-444; and Wolfgang Drechsler, “Christian Wolff (1679-1754) A Biographical Essay,” in Christian Wolff and Law & Economics: The Heilbronn Symposium, edited by Jürgen Backhaus (New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1998), 112-113.
  8. See Richard. L. Gawthrop, Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Prussia (New York: Cambridge UP, 1993), 176-199.
  9. For discussion of Wolff’s acceptance of Pre-established Harmony, see Watkins, “The Development of Physical Influx in Early Eighteenth-Century Germany”; and Donald Rutherford, “Idealism Declined: Leibniz and Christian Wolff,” in Leibniz and His Correspondents, edited by Paul Lodge (New York: Cambridge UP, 2004), 214-237.
  10. A concise presentation of Wolff’s philosophy of mind can be found in his Vernünftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt [Rational Thoughts on God, the World, and the Soul of Man, and on All Things Whatsoever] (Halle, 1719). This work is referred to in English as Wolff’s German Metaphysics.
  11. For Wolff’s definitions of clear and distinct see § 13, Chapter 1, of his German Logic or Vernünftige Gedanken von den Kräften des menschlichen Verstandes und ihrem richtigen Gebrauch in der Erkenntnis der Wahrheit [Rational Thoughts on the Powers of the Human Understanding and their Correct Employment in the Cognition of the Truth] (Halle 1712). For further discussion of Wolff’s philosophy of mind, see Schneedwind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy, 431-444.
  12. See Wolff’s German Metaphysics § 245.
  13. See Wolff’s Preliminary Discourse § 62.
  14. See, in particular, Wolff’s German Ethics or Vernünftige Gedanken von der Menschen Thun und Lassen zur Beförderung ihrer Glückseligkeit [Rational Thoughts on Man’s Acts of Commission and Omission, with a View to Advancing His Happiness] (Halle: 1720). For selected passages of this work, translated into English, see J.B. Schneewind, Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant (New York: Cambridge UP, 2003), 333- 348.
  15. For discussion of this work, see Beck, Early German Philosophy, 258-259, and for an English translation of this work, see Julia Ching and Willard G. Oxtoby, Moral Enlightenment: Leibniz and Wolff on China (Nettelal: Steyler Verlag, 1992), 145-186.
  16. For a brief and helpful discussion of the skirmish between Wolff and Lange, see Drechsler, “Christian Wolff (1679-1754): A Biographical Essay,” 112-113.
  17. For contemporary discussions on academic freedom and its relation to the broader issue of free speech, see E. Gerstmann and M. J. Streb, Academic Freedom at the Dawn of a New Century: How Terrorism, Governments, and Culture Wars Impact Free Speech (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2006), especially 3-40.
  18. The distinction between public and private reason is made explicit in the latter sections of Chapter 6 in the Preliminary Discourse (§§ 168-170).
  19. Wolff, for example, is very careful to explain why true conclusions obtained from a “proper philosophical method” will not conflict with religion, morality or public life (§§ 163, 164, 165).
  20. Wolff is sometimes compared to Adam Smith on the areas of international law and free trade, so in many ways, the metaphor of a “market place of ideas” is really not all that out of place given Wolff’s broader philosophical outlook. For a brief discussion of Wolff’s theory of economics, see Peter R. Senn, “What is the Place of Christian Wolff in the History of the Social Sciences?,” in Christian Wolffand Law & Economics: The Heilbronn Symposium, 180-183.
  21. Euler’s contributions are discussed in Clifford Truesdell, “A Program Toward Rediscovering the Rational Mechanics of the Age of Reason,” in Archive for the History of Exact Sciences (Berlin: Springer- Verlag, 1962).
  22. The notion of “naïve optimism,” as I develop it here, is influenced by my reading and study of Herbert Paul Grice (1913-1988). In revealing this influence, however, I do not mean to suggest there is any direct or traceable influence of Wolff upon Grice (any similarities are most certainly coincidental).

Matt Hettche

Matt Hettche is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Auburn University. His primary research interests are in the history of modern philosophy (from Descartes to Kant). His most recent projects include a paper on Descartes’ Meditations and a paper on Kant’s Antinomies. [email protected]