Explanation and demonstration in the Haller-Wolff debate

In Justin E. H. Smith (ed.), The Problem of Animal Generation in Early Modern Philosophy. Cambridge University Press (2006)
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The theories of pre-existence and epigenesis are typically taken to be opposing theories of generation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One can be a pre-existence theorist only if one does not espouse epigenesis and vice versa. It has also been recognized, however, that the line between pre-existence and epigenesis in the nineteenth century, at least, is considerably less sharp and clear than it was in earlier centuries. The debate (1759-1777) between Albrecht von Haller and Caspar Friedrich Wolff on their theories of generation is usually taken to be a debate between a pre-existence theorist and an epigeneticist, and the supposed fact that these two theories of generation are mutually exclusive explains (so the story goes) the divide between Haller and Wolff. However, it’s not clear that Haller endorsed an especially robust form of pre-existence, and nor is it clear that Wolff’s theory of generation -- once he considered it carefully -- is clear epigenetic. Rather, Haller’s theory of generation is marked by traces of epigensis and Wolff’s theory has elements of pre-existence theory. This is not to say that their theories of generation are basically the same, but the debate between the two ought not to be framed in terms of pre-existence versus epigenesis. Their points of difference must be explained in some other way. In this way, their controversy bears characteristics of similar disputes over generation in the nineteenth century more than it resembles those in the seventeenth century. In this paper, I argue that (a) Haller’s and Wolff’s theories both blend elements from pre-existence and epigenesis; (b) but there are still deeply-rooted differences between the two generation theories; (c) one source of these differences is that Haller and Wolff have divergent conceptions of what an adequate explanation is; (d) we can see that they have different conceptions of what constitutes an adequate explanation by paying heed to their evaluations of Descartes’ epistemology and methodology in his theory of generation (such as it is); and (e) this shows that one of the main differences between Haller’s generation theory and that of Wolff is the degree to which each thinks we need to (and indeed can) explain the nature of the causes -- both efficient and final -- at play during the formation of organic beings.

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Karen Detlefsen
University of Pennsylvania


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