Liberty Matters

Pufendorf’s Philosophy


One of the difficult and interesting things to understand about Pufendorf’s work is the sense in which it can be understood as philosophy and the sense in which Pufendorf may be regarded as a philosopher. That this was an unsettled question at the time is adverted to in Knud’s reference to eclecticism, which was a cultural-political movement dedicated to resetting the parameters of philosophy and reconfiguring the philosophical personage. As Horst Dreitzel showed, eclecticism’s cultural-political battle with Aristotelian and Platonic styles of scholasticism involved imposing new limits on human reasoning—for example, by invoking the lapsarian loss of man’s capacity to share in divine conceptualization and willing—with a view to restricting philosophy to reasoning based on empirical-historical knowledge.[17]
In treating man’s “natural status” or condition—that of a creature whose weakness necessitated sociality for survival but whose vicious passions and flighty mind stood in the way—as something “imposed” (rather than intelligized) by God, Pufendorf introduced two momentous changes into the architecture of natural-law thought. First, this meant that man could have no insight into the reason that God had imposed this status or condition, hence no insight into the objective or “ontological” goodness of sociality. Second, it meant that although men could presume that the activity of imposing norms to achieve sociality accorded with God’s will—since this activity was dictated by the natural condition that God had imposed—they could not presume that these norms expressed the content of divine will; for in his damaged lapsarian condition man had no insight into this will beyond the presumption that God intended his creature to survive and that human reason could impose norms to this end. God had imposed a natural condition on man in which he had to invent his own norms of conduct on the flat plains of history in the absence of all transcendental insight.
One of the limitations that Pufendorf imposed on philosophy was thus his rejection of the idea that through reflection on his own “rational and sociable nature” man could obtain insight into divine, transcendental, or ontological norms that might then be imposed in the civil or historical realm. The norm of sociality that man could derive from reflection on his natural condition reached no higher or deeper than that condition itself. The notion that God would not will the destruction of his own creature—hence that sociality and natural law should be treated as willed by God—pertained only to human psychology. It did not constitute a bridge between human and divine nature across which human reason or philosophy could import transcendent, objective, or scientific grounds for the imposed norms of sociality. I would thus also question Aaron Garrett’s reading: that Pufendorf’s imposed norms and personae supervene on a human nature in which “what is morally obliging is distinct from imposed obligations,” thereby constituting the object of a science of human nature and the basis of a moral science. My understanding is that Pufendorf construes the natural condition as one in which man can learn that he should cultivate sociality. This is not because man has moral-philosophical insight into a nature that is morally obliging, but because he has historical insight into the prospect that sociality should be made morally obliging through the imposition of civil officia to ensure man’s survival.
A further limitation that Pufendorf imposed on philosophy pertains to a certain compartmentalization of the objects of intellectual inquiry and the personae of intellectual inquirers. Each in its own way, Hobbesian naturalism, Spinozist monism, and Christian Aristotelianism all assumed the possibility of an omnicompetent philosophical viewpoint, reaching outwards from a core metaphysics and encompassing such diverse domains as natural philosophy, political philosophy, law, theology, and ethics. In these cases human nature, or rational being, constituted the hub for all departments of existence and kinds of person. And this made it possible to think of philosophy—whether as natural theology, metaphysics, or the science of man—as providing a panoptical viewpoint from which such departments could be brought under the normative purview of the philosopher. In declaring that man’s natural condition did not constitute a nature capable of opening the entirety of human existence to philosophical reflection—that it was rather a condition from which man could learn a norm of sociality that pertained to his political existence alone—Pufendorf deliberately excluded confessional religion, salvational theology, natural philosophy, natural theology, and “secular” metaphysics from the discipline of natural law. Given this labor of intellectual disarticulation, I would be skeptical of Michael Zuckert’s view of Pufendorf as attempting to achieve an all-embracing philosophical synthesis by reconciling Grotius and Hobbes, although it will be interesting to see what Michael has in mind here.
As Knud points out, Pufendorf’s separation of natural law from science and religion would allow politics and law to be pursued independently of natural philosophy and theology. I suggested that this strategy was suited to a constitutional order in which a relativistic “secular” legal system provided a framework for a plurality of absolutely true confessional religions. At the same time, this meant that Pufendorf’s construction of natural law was in radical and open conflict with all of those constructions that treated human nature as the hub of a human totality and as the bridge to a transcendent rationality from which norms could be derived that applied to all areas of life, including politics and law. This is why Pufendorf was at daggers drawn with the natural theologians of the Christian natural-law tradition—Alberti, Zentgrav, Veltheim, and Strimesius—as we learn from Thomas Ahnert’s book on Pufendorf’s follower, Christian Thomasius.[18] But this is also what makes Pufendorf so difficult to understand from a modern philosophical standpoint. For, in various ways, post-Kantian philosophy continues to treat human nature, or rational being, as the locus from which all departments of existence are opened to the reflection and norms of an omnicompetent philosophical mind, which is quite inimical to the Pufendorf’s construction of natural law as a form of political philosophy.
[17.] Horst Dreitzel, “Zur Entwicklung Und Eigenart Der ‘Eklektischen Philosophie,’” Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung 18 (1991), 281-343.
[18.] Thomas Ahnert, Religion and the Origins of the German Enlightenment: Faith and the Reform of Learning in the Thought of Christian Thomasius (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2006).