Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Alessandro Nannini on the Psychologization of the Soul in the German Enlightenment

by contributing editor Albert Hawks

Alessandro Nannini received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Palermo, Italy (2015) and has since been a research fellow and member of research groups at several universities and research centers in Italy, Germany, France, Bulgaria and Romania. Currently, he is a research fellow at the University of Bucharest, Romania. His research focuses on intellectual history and aesthetics in the Early Modern Age, with particular regard to the German Enlightenment. He is interviewed by contributing editor Albert J. Hawks about his article, “At the Bottom of the Soul: The Psychologization of the ‘Fundus Animae’ between Leibniz and Sulzer” that appeared in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 82.1).

Albert Hawks: I want to start out with a really basic, big picture type question. I always wonder when I’m reading a new article how the author came to the subject (my own work seems like a combination of random factors, interest, and luck). As someone outside of your field, I have no idea how one comes to write about the fundus animae. How did you find this critical moment in intellectual history? What was the process of discovery?

Alessandro Nannini: I started to study the philosophy of Baumgarten and of the German Enlightenment for my PhD dissertation several years ago. I was mainly interested in the links between aesthetics and empirical psychology, so my attention was immediately drawn to the concept of the fundus animae, which features both in Baumgarten’s Metaphysica (1739) and Aesthetica (1750-1758).

At the same time, much scholarly literature used to credit Baumgarten with its coinage, or at least with its introduction in the German Enlightenment. So, with my attention alerted but without any specific aim, I started excavating the sources around Baumgarten—in particular the Pietist background as well as the psychological tradition—and I soon discovered a few significant occurrences of fundus animae prior to Baumgarten’s Metaphysica. They were especially present in the texts of the Israel Gottlieb Canz, a Lutheran theologian and philosopher influenced by both Leibniz and Wolff. These occurrences had never been recorded in the secondary literature, although Canz already understood the ground of the soul in a psychological sense, which increased still further my interest.

At this point, I started to look at the general history of the idea and noticed that there was a gap in the period between Leibniz and Baumgarten. The gap regarded precisely the moment in which the exchanges between metaphysical and mystical concepts had been more frequent and fruitful in the establishment of two momentous disciplines such as psychology and aesthetics. As a detailed analysis of these exchanges is still a major desideratum of research, I was convinced to devote a whole study on the fundus animae, bringing to light some totally neglected sources within a wider context, in a way that could be of some utility to those interested in this period from different perspectives.

AH: In your article, you trace the evolution of the fundus animae along a winding path from theology to poetry to ethics and eventually psychology. One of the things I found myself wondering about is the extent of connectivity between, for example, Wolff and the concept’s theological roots. It seems that the fundus animae leavened into the collective consciousness and, from there, was utilized by later fields. In other words, the connections are somewhat subconscious. To what extent is this the case? And how accurate would it be to say that these separate fields are using a semantically similar but conceptually different term? 

AN: I can understand that the number of fields in which the idea emerges could give the impression that the fundus animae is just a common heritage, with few, if any, horizontal connections between the different domains. However, I think this impression is misleading.

At the beginning of the German Enlightenment, the notion of the “ground of the soul” was used by Leibniz and by Thomasius, both of whom were terminologically influenced by the seventeenth-century French moralistics and mystics. In this case, the concepts are certainly semantically similar and conceptually different: while in Leibniz the fundus animae signifies an image of the soul drawing all its ideas from itself (from its “ground”), Thomasius refers to it in the context of political prudence (aiming at the necessity for a good politician to read others’ most hidden intentions from outer gestures). Now, my thesis is that these two quite different perspectives, along with the mystical heritage, contribute to the emergence of a fully new psychological sense of the term. It is in the light of this new concept that the older strands of thought find an important convergence. The aim of my essay is precisely to reconstruct how and why at a certain point these strands started to interact with one another producing a new conceptual cohesion under the aegis of psychology.

More specifically, I maintain that the psychologization of the notion of fundus animae in the Leibnizian tradition was fostered by the new appraisal of the Thomasian tradition concerning cardiognostics made by Wolff. Wolff uses the term abyssus mentis not in the context of the spontaneity of the soul (as in Leibniz and Bilfinger), but in the discussion about the possibility of reading others’ minds, which was made famous in Germany by Thomasius with a book mentioning the “recesses of the heart” (Verborgene des Herzens) in its very title. Wolff was therefore aware of Thomasius’s use of the term “Verborgene des Herzens” and decided to take up the concept, in the Latin form of abyssus mentis (Grund und Abgrund des Gemüthes in Hagen’s German translation) in direct connection with Thomasius’s problem.

While Wolff thus appropriates the idea of a “cardiognostics”, the framework changes since Wolff intends to deal with the abyssus mentis no longer in political prudence like Thomasius but in psychology, encouraging his followers to delve further into the issue from this perspective. Wolff himself does not provide more precise indications, at least up to his late Ethica; yet, when an author influenced by Wolff such as Canz adopts the concept (in the form of abyssus animae/animi; fundus animae), he does so with the epistemological toolbox of Leibniz’s and Wolff’s psychology, that is, through clear and confused, and obscure ideas, thus welding together for the first time the fundus animae and the domain of indistinctness (later of obscurity alone), and making of fundus animae an epistemic concept. In this way, the fundus animae becomes a significant way to refer to the unconscious, which finds a significant development via the two disciplines dealing with the lower powers of the mind, that is psychology and the newly born aesthetics.

What made the reconstruction of this process challenging is the fact that the authors considered were reluctant to state their sources, often coming from different disciplines, hence my attempt was in a sense to lay bare the hidden interactions the authors left unspoken. In this way, the links between the various strands, at least from Canz onwards, are subconscious only in the sense that they are implicit, but they were certainly conscious at the time and now require a conceptual work to be acknowledged again in all their cogency and breadth.

AH: The concept of the fundus animae originates in this mystical, unknowable interiority of the soul. In your article, you demonstrate its evolution into a secular, psychological concept, the “dark basement.” How did this evolution effect the unknowability component of the concept? To what extent would it still be characterized as obscure? Or does it, through conceptual breakthrough, come to be seen as a known entity?

AN: Interesting question. The fundus animae is certainly a way to refer to an unknowable region of the soul. The fact is that what is acknowledged as unknowable can be conceptualized in different ways in different contexts. Therefore, in a sense, the conceptualization of the unknowable is knowable: what we get to know, however, is not the “content” of the fundus animae, but the way in which this “unknowable” is conceived—something about the Weltanschauung of the authors who intended to make sense by referring to it through certain images or metaphors.

Beyond this methodological plane, the necessity to assume the presence of a “ground of the soul” in an Enlightenment context originates from the disquieting awareness of a number of apparently inexplicable events and circumstances, ranging from the relationship with the divine to the artistic inspiration, from the assimilation of habits to psychopathological conditions. In a context more and more characterized by the impact of the Scientific Revolution, where the “openness” of the Renaissance consciousness—openness to the influence of stars, angels, demons, the world spirit, etc.—is no longer widely accepted, the need emerges to situate the source of such unaccountable events in the soul itself. The knowability of the fundus animae is in this manner always a posteriori, always belated with regard to the events it tries to make sense of, as Minerva’s owl, because it testifies to the attempt to rationalize and locate in the subject the dimension of the mysterious that, one way or another, always pervades our life. 

AH: Your article ends with describing the concept of the fundus animae as major breakthrough in the history of the unconscious. While it takes us beyond the scope of this article, would you be willing to briefly characterize how this moment goes on to impact psychological concepts of the unconscious in later intellectual history? Does this concept still have an influence today?

AN: The ground of the soul undoubtedly remains a significant theme for many late eighteenth-century thinkers, and is also taken up by Kant, while Herder makes of it one of the main axes of his thought, not to speak about the importance it plays for the aesthetics of genius in the Romantic age. Aesthetics itself, in the original sense of “inferior gnoseology,” becomes possible precisely following the conceptual elaboration of the lower fringes of the soul that the discussion about fundus animae has made possible within Wolffianism.

More than for direct influences on single authors, however, I think that the psychological idea of fundus animae is essential for the conceptualization of the unconscious—of the unconscious as opposed to the conscious and not of the unconscious in a Freudian fashion—because it, for the first time in a clear way, brings to the fore the necessity of locating the dimension of the subliminal in a specific seat within the soul, a seat that was unknown to the Aristotelian model of the soul and that was borrowed, after a process of adaptation, from Medieval mystics. This shift greatly contributes to bestowing epistemological dignity to the matter of the unconscious and helps us become more aware of the entanglement of very different lines of thought in its emergence. When Sulzer at the end of the 1750s sees in the depths of the soul the most cutting-edge domain of empirical psychology, it is clear that the merit of this interest greatly depends on the psychologization of the concept of fundus animae in the previous decades, which will preserve its importance for the legitimation of this field of study even when the problem of the unconscious will be taken up outside of the theoretical framework of German rationalism and under different names.

Albert Hawks, Jr. is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he is a fellow with the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies. He holds an M.Div. and S.T.M. from Yale University.

Featured Image: Johannes Itten, “Linienrhythmus,” 1919.

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