Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 20, 2019, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/wolff-christian-1679-1754/v-1
Christian Wolff was a rationalistic school philosopher in the German Enlightenment. During the period between the death of Leibniz (1714) and the publication of Kant’s critical writings (1780s), Wolff was perhaps the most influential philosopher in Germany.
There are many reasons for this, including Wolff’s voluminous writings in both German and Latin in nearly every field of philosophy known to his time, their unvarying employment of a strict rationalistic method to establish their conclusions, the attention directed to Wolff and his views as a result of bitter controversies with some theological colleagues, his banishment from Prussia by King Frederick Wilhelm I in 1723 and triumphant return from Hesse–Cassel in 1740 after Frederick the Great assumed the throne, and his active teaching at the Universities of Halle and Marburg for nearly 50 years. Through his work as a university professor, his prolific writings, and the rigour and comprehensiveness of his philosophy, Wolff influenced a very large group of followers, educators and other writers. Even after his influence had begun to wane, Kant still referred to ‘the celebrated Wolff’ and spoke of ‘the strict method of the celebrated Wolff, the greatest of all dogmatic philosophers’.
Wolff thought of philosophy as that discipline which provides reasons to explain why things exist or occur and why they are even possible. Thus, he included within philosophy a much broader range of subjects than might now be recognized as ‘philosophical’. Indeed, for Wolff all human knowledge consists of only three disciplines: history, mathematics and philosophy.
The reasons provided by Wolff’s philosophy were to be established through unfailing adherence to a strict demonstrative method. Like Descartes, Wolff first discovered this method in mathematics, but he concluded that both mathematical and philosophical methods had their ultimate origins in a ‘natural logic’ prescribed to the human mind by God. In fact, the heart of Wolff’s philosophical method is a deductive logic making use of syllogistic arguments.
For Wolff, the immediate objective of philosophical method is to achieve certitude by establishing an order of truths within each discipline and a system within human knowledge as a whole. The ultimate goal is to establish a reliable foundation for the conduct of human affairs and the enlargement of knowledge.
Wolff applied his philosophical method unfailingly in each of the three principal parts of philosophy: metaphysics – knowledge of those things which are possible through being in general, the world in general, human souls, and God; physics – knowledge of those things which are possible through bodies; and practical philosophy – knowledge of those things which are concerned with human actions. Wolff’s philosophical system also includes logic, an art of discovery (to guide the investigation of hidden truth and the production of new insights), some experiential disciplines (for example, empirical psychology) and several bodies of philosophical knowledge that were not well developed in Wolff’s time concerning law, medicine, and both the practical and liberal arts.
Corr, Charles A.. Wolff, Christian (1679–1754), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB070-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/wolff-christian-1679-1754/v-1.
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