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Wolff, Christian

1. Dates
Born: Breslau, 24 Jan 1679
Died: Halle, 9 Apr 1754
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 75
2. Father
Occupation: Artisan
The father, also Christian Wolff, was a tanner, a man of intellectual ambitions which had been denied by the material conditions of his life. He did his best to see that his son was not denied.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: Breslau, Silesia
Career: Germany
Death: Halle, Germany
4. Education
Schooling: Jena; Leipzig, M.A.
Went to school in Breslau at the Magdalenengymnasium.
1699, spent three years at Jena studying mathematics and theology. B.A.
1702, M.A., Leipzig.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Lutheran
Because of the rationalism and determinism of Wolff's philosophy, the orthodox Lutherans of Halle denounced him in 1623. The charge led, via intricate byways on which the King of Prussia was to be found, to Wolff's summary dismissal from Halle, though he was later vindicated. It appears that Wolff never considered himself to be outside the fold.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural Philosophy
Subordinate: Mathematics
Wolff's first interest was mathematics. Although he made no original contribution to the discipline, he was an important figure in the teaching of mathematics who was instrumental in introducing the new mathematics into German universities.
After the early years teaching mathematics, he was primarily a philosopher who developed the most impressive coherent system of the 18th century. Natural philosophy was never his sole or primary enterprise in philosophy. Thoroughly eclectic, influenced by Leibniz and Descartes, he nevertheless continued fundamental themes of Aristotle. His system was important in making the discoveries of modern science known in Germany.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Patronage
Secondary: Schoolmastering, Publishing
After receiving his M.A. Wolff became a Privat-dozent in mathematics at Leipzig. He was also active on the Acta eruditorum, writing essays. Although the sources are not explicit, they certainly imply that this was paid employment, not volunteer effort.
1706, professor of mathematics and natural science, University of Halle, at a salary of 200 thaler. After 1709 also professor of philosophy. In 1721 he was rector of the university.
1723, dismissed from Halle for his deternministic tendencies.
Immediately in the same month, appointed professor, University of Marburg at a salary of 1000 thaler. He was also given the title of Hoffrat.
In 1740, after he was called by Frederick the Great, he finally settled again in Halle as professor of natural and human law, with a pension of 2000 thaler from the Academy. He was Chancellor of the university in 1743.
It is difficult to know for sure what part patronage (as distinct from university salaries awarded by patronage) played in his support. However, he was constantly receiving gifts, including heavy gold medals, and he was lionized by the ruling circles of much of Europe. I find it impossible to believe that the income from patronage was less than considerable.
8. Patronage
Types: Academic, Scientist, Court Official, Eccesiastic Official
Johann Burkhard Mencke was a great influence, and probably acted as a patron, to the young Wolff.
While two professors at the university, Hoffman and Stryck, approached Wolff about the post at Halle, Leibniz wrote to the Obercurator von Danckelman at Hoffman's request, recommending Wolff for the post. Tschirnhaus also gave his support.
An offer to go to Wittenberg was checked by the King with an additional 100 thaler salary and the title Hoffrat.
When Wolff was driven from Halle, the Landgraf of Hessen- Cassel immediately appointed him to Marburg at a large salary. The ruler of Saxony tried to get him to come to Leipzig. When the Landgraf Carl died and was succeeded by Friedrich I, King of Sweden, the new ruler of Hessen-Cassel expressed his support of Wolff by a gold medal that weighed 60 ducats.
Catholics came to Wolff's defense after the debacle at Halle, and subsequently Wolff, a most prolific author, dedicated books to Card. Polignac, Card. Fleury, Abbeé Bignon, the Bishop of Krakaw, and other Catholic ecclesiastics.
Catherine I of Russia guaranteed Wolff a pension if he should ever choose to come to Russia.
Frederick the Great, who had himself translated one of Wolff's books into French, called him back to Halle in 1740, as soon as he succeeded to the throne, as professor and Geheimrat. As Frederick's father was dying, Wolff had dedicated a book to Frederick, and he subsequently dedicated no less than fifteen others to him.
1745, he was named named Freiherr von Wolff through the initiative of Maximilian III of Bavaria.
Wolff had become a figure of enormous prominence. He received offers from all over as his fame spread, from a number of German universities (or really the rulers of the states in question) and one from Peter I of Russia, but he remained in Germany. After Friedrich Wilhelm realized what had happened, he tried to bring Wolff back to Prussia in 1733 at a very high salary, and a second time in 1736, offering this time to let Wolff set his own conditions.
Louis XV sent Wolff the two sumptuously printed volumes of the catalogue of the royal library, a gift reserved for the monarchs of Europe and for the most outstanding men of learning.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: None
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Royal Society, Académie Royal des Sciences, Berlin Academy, Russian Academy (St. Petersburg)
He was a member of the Royal Society; the Societatem Berolinensem, Rome (1711); the Academie Royale; the Berlin Academy; and the St. Petersburg Academy.
His correspondence with Leibniz (from 1702 until Leibniz's death in 1716) has been published.
  1. W. Schrader, "Wolff," Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, 44 (Leipzig, 1898), 12-32. [ref. CT1053.A4 v.44] Zedler, 58, cols 549-677. [AE27.G87 v.58]
  2. Christian Wolff, Christian Wolffs eigene Lebensbeschreibung, (Leipzig, 1841.) [B2726.A2]
  3. Hellmuth Rössler and Günther Franz, Biographisches Wörterbuch zur deutschen Geschichte, 3 (München, 1975), 3234-6.
  4. Paul Edwards, ed. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York, 1967), 8, 340-4. Lewis White Beck, "Wolff," in Beck, Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors, (Cambridge, MA, 1969), pp. 256-75.
  5. F.W. Kluge, Christian von Wolf, der Philosoph, (Breslau, 1831).
  6. There is an enormous literature on Wolff and yet curiously little that is biographical. Kluge is far and away the best treatment of his life that I have succeeded in finding.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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