Philosophical disputes tend to be dirty. You are allowed to misunderstand your opponent and in ambiguous cases always choose the most ridiculous way to read the text. In fact, you can just make a simple straw man as your punching bag and pretend it is your opponent. Because your opponent is allowed to act in an identical manner, philosophical disputes rarely have any winners – or more precisely, they have two winners, at least if we listen to the disputants.
These unwritten rules of philosophical dispute are well exemplified by Daniel Strähler's criticism of Wolff's German metaphysics, Prüfung der vernünftigen Gedancken des Herrn Hoff-Rath Wolffes von Gott, der Welt, und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt, des Herrn Autoris Schlüsse examiniret, die Unrichtigkeiten derselben gezeiget, dessen Irrthümer an den Tag geleget und die Metaphysische ingleichen die damit verknüpfte moralischen Wahrheiten in grösseres Licht gesezet werden and Ludwig Thümmig's criticism of Strähler's criticism, Eines Liebhabers der Weltweissheit unpartheyisches Sentiment von M. Daniel Strählers Prüfung der Gedancken des Herrn Hoff-Rath Wolffens von Gott, der welt und der Seeles des Menschen. As you can see, the gentlemen hardly required any abstracts, when even their titles were a mouthful.
Work of Thümmig we have already met, but Strähler is a new acquaintance. Actually this will probably be the last time when we'll hear of him, as he was more of a mathematician than a philosopher, although he did comment on the fashionable topic of Wolffian philosophy also after this text. In fact, the text in hand deals only with the ontological parts of German metaphysics, while the further parts of Wolff's book were covered in a later publication.
As if sometimes the case in philosophy, none of the disputants disagree about the correct results – Wolff, Strähler and Thümmig all appear to hold e.g. that God exists and has created the souls and the material world, with which the soul is in some sort of contact. Instead, it is the justification of these positions on which the disputes arise.
Many issues that Strähler points out in his criticism concern the definitions used by Wolff. For instance, Strähler notices that Wolff's definition of space as the order of simultaneously existing things is far from satisfactory. For instance, Strähler notes, if I have a shelf full of disordered books, the books will still take space, and in fact, even more space than if they were well ordered.
Strähler's criticism hinges, of course, on the question of what do we mean by order, as Thümmig also notes – it is not the common sense meaning used in sentences like ”he kept the house in good order” that is meant, but a more abstract idea whereby e.g. numbers are ordered according to their size. Investigators of physics, such as Leibniz and Huygens, had defined order in a precise mathematical manner, which enabled them to discuss space in terms of relations between material objects. Thümmig even suggests that Strähler is not much of a mathematician, when he cannot follow such methodology.
If Strähler's criticism is often just nitpicking, Thümmig's countercriticism is usually no better. Thus, Thümmig recurrently notes that Strähler's own preferred definitions are nothing but definitions, because they merely repeat what should be defined in synonymous terms – for instance, changeable is something that can changed but this does not really define anything.
Sometimes such nitpicking does point out crucial errors. For instance, when Strähler criticises Wolff for justifying the principle of sufficient reason by deriving an erroneous proposition from its negation, because one could as well derive true proposions from the same negation, Thümmig is quite right to point out that Strähler has confused a valid and an invalid argument form – that is, while from ”not-p → q” and ”not-q” it is valid to derive ”p”, we cannot use ”not-p → r” and ”r” to derive ”not-p”.
On the other hand, when Strähler notes that Wolff fails to distinguish between real and ideal division of things, he appears to note the very fault I have already commented in the Wolffian theory of substances – i.e. that things might well be potentially divisible into an infinite number of potential parts and still actually undivided and simple, just like in Aristotelian physics. Thümmig fails to comprehend Strähler's point here, because he confuses Strähler's distinction with the related distinction of merely thought and concrete division. Thus, Thümmig identifies Strähler's ideal division with the case of an actually indivisible thing that could be divided in thought – a classic physical atom that still takes up space.
At other times, the disputes seem like mere quibbles of words, for instance, when Strähler accuses Wolff of not distinguishing between ideal or mathematical and real or physical space and Thümmig retorts by noting that Wolff is doing ontology and thus naturally is interested only of the real space. A similar dispute over words occurs when Strähler remarks how the Wolffian definition of substance covers only finite substances and thus assumes either the non-existence or finity of God, and Thümmig answers by insisting that this is only a question of presentation – at this point of Wolff's discourse we are aware only of finite substances, so we might as well leave them out of the definition of substance – and furthermore, emphasises the complete disparity between finite and infinite things – Thümmig even thinks that Strähler himself finitises God by placing him in the same class with finite entities.
In such questions it seems obvious that both Strähler and Thümmig have begun from a presupposition that the target of their criticism is wrong – and then they have just tried to find any evidence for this presupposition. Strähler has assumed that Wolff must be an atheist or at least a bungler, while Thümmig has been convinced of Wolff's ingenuity and thus of Strähler's idiocy, and these preconceptions have coloured their reading.
From a more neutral viewpoint one clearly sees that such preconceptions are often obstacles for true dialogue. Strähler could have admitted that at least Wolff's intensions were not atheistic, and if Wolff's arguments appear not to support such conclusions, then perhaps Strähler had misunderstood Wolff's definitions. Similarly, Thümmig could have noted that Strähler had been right at least in noting a possible way to misunderstand Wolff – that is, in noting insufficiencies and ambiguities in Wolff's theory.
Next time we'll continue with philosophical disputes, and this time we are particularly interested of the question of pre-established harmony.