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Orientalism andAntivoluntarism in the History of Ethics: On Christian Wolff's Oratio de Sinarum philosophia practica

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Christian Wolff's 1721 Discourse on the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese is generally read as championing the autonomy of ethics from religion. This is too simple: Wolff's ethics was an antivoluntarist religious ethics. The example of the Chinese confirmed for Wolff that revelation is not necessary for knowledge or practice of genuine virtue, though he held that the Chinese achieve only the first of three “degrees of virtue.” (Most Christians, including the Pietists who drove Wolff from Halle shortly after he delivered the Discourse, did not, in his judgment, achieve even that.) China's being perceived as outside of Western (and sacred) history made it a congenial example for the ethics and moral anthropology that, in Wolff's time, were struggling against the voluntarism of a Christian ethics premised on original sin.

Keywords: China; German Enlightenment; antivoluntarism; ethics; orientalism

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: June 1, 2000


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