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Fr. 365

August 3, 2013

II: Wolff’s Rational Psychology

Wolff’s influence in early modern philosophy is considerable given his role as systematizer and popularizer of numerous Leibnizian principles, available previously as ruminations and germs of ideas. As such, Wolff’s account of the soul and what the individual can come to know of it is prototypical for this period, being familiar to both his contemporaries and later academics such as Kant. As noted by Watkins, Kant’s relation with Wolff proves somewhat ambivalent (6). He incorporates elements of the Wolffian technical vocabulary (e.g. 24, §277 on the understanding) and accepts Wolff’s tripartite division of philosophy (as seen in the division of the Transcendental Dialectic into its three main chapters): rational psychology, rational cosmology, and rational theology. I should note, however, that Kant’s adoption of this division possesses something of a heuristic function. Particularly, it serves to identify those strains of logic or inference in which the thinking subject can go wrong. This suggestion falls in with Kant’s larger critique of what he perceives as Wolff’s dogmatism.

To begin, Wolff describes his account in Chapter 3 “On the Soul in General, Namely, What We Perceive of It” of Rational Thoughts as an attempt to “seek out distinct concepts of what we perceive of the soul, and occasionally note several important truths that can be proven from them (22, §191).” In short, Wolff proposes simply to observe the actions of the soul, from which the observer can then make a number of inferences by logical connection. Concerning the soul, Wolff identifies it as “that thing which is conscious of itself and other things external to it insofar as we are conscious of ourselves and of other things that are external to us1 (22, §192).” From this passage, we can conclude that reflexivity and perception prove the soul’s most readily identifiable features, at least in our initial experience of the soul and its actions. Wolff is quick to preclude any criticisms of consciousness like those brought to bear against Descartes’ account of the soul; he warns against the misunderstanding that he seeks “the essence of the soul in the fact that we are conscious of ourselves and other things (22, §193).” Namely, this guards against the temptation to conclude that we have cognitive access to the soul’s essence in virtue of being conscious of it. I should note that this warning is not due to the cognitive inaccessibility of the essence of the soul; indeed, Wolff gestures to the way in which the individual might come to such knowledge:

For wherever more is to be found in us than we are conscious of, we must draw it out by means of inferences, and, in fact, from inferences based on what we are conscious of, because we have no ground for them otherwise. Namely, what I want to attribute to the soul of those things that it perceives must occur because of what I have noticed about it in experience (ibid.).

In sum, although this knowledge ultimately derives from consciousness, the individual cannot come to this knowledge directly through the medium of consciousness. Consciousness is a condition of knowledge of the soul, but is not itself constitutive thereof. Hence, consciousness serves only as a “touchstone (46, §727)” to later inference and syllogism2.


1 Kant would most likely reject this formulation as an example of the equivocation described above. Indeed, it does mark an instance of loose speaking. Kant resists the formulation of the soul as a “thing,” precisely because this implies some notion of substance or substratum.

2 Kant characterizes this point in Chapter I of the Paralogisms as “I think is thus the sole text of rational psychology, from which it is to develop its entire wisdom (A343/B401).”


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