Jens Kraft og "De vilde Folk" (1760) - manden, forfatterskbet, værket: Bd. 1: Manden - liv, tid, dåd; Bd. 2: Forfatterskabet - udvælgelse, analyse, fortolkning; Bd. 3: Værket - Gud, udvikling, modernitet

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesisResearch

Jens Kraft and his Brief Account of the Principal Institutions, Customs and Ideas of the Savage Peoples, to Inform about the General Origins and Development of Humanity, Sorø, 1760 - The man, his writings, his book. The present dissertation presents some results of my research on Jens Kraft, the Danish eighteenth-century mathematician and natural philosopher. Born in 1720, Kraft received his masters in philosophy at the University of Copenhagen in 1742. He spent the years 1744 to 1746 studying philosophy and the mathematical sciences under Christian Wolff in Halle and the Bernoullis, Johann and Daniel, in Basel. While in Paris, he made the acquaintance of Clairaut and d'Alembert. On returning to Denmark, Kraft wrote a dissertation supporting Newton's theory of gravitation against Descartes' theory of vortices. Many see him as instrumental in introducing the Danes to Newton. In 1747, Kraft was appointed professor of mathematics and philosophy at the Academy for Young Noblemen at Sorø, a provincial town some 60 kilometers from Copenhagen. He wrote and taught here until his death in 1765. Though essentially a mathematician and natural philosopher, Kraft had a variety of interests. He was also concerned with theology, philology and antiquities, building up a comprehensive knowledge within the field of human studies. That knowledge found cumulative expression in 1760 when Kraft published his Brief Account of the Savage Peoples.Brief Account of the Savage Peoples seems an anomaly in the body of Kraft's scientific writings. His main (Lockean) thesis is "that what the savage peoples of the present age are, the whole world once used to be." Against this background Kraft compares the non-civilized or "savage" tribes of North and South America with ancient cultures, heathen nations and the old Norse peoples, thus offering an explanation of the general development of human culture: how it originates, and, more importantly, why, in some cases it did not progress beyond a certain level. Kraft shows that man's natural mode of development is a slow, uncertain process, quickened only by the comparatively recent methodological and practical advances of science - advances in great part due to the so-called mathematical or deductive method. To state his argument succinctly: savages without a knowledge of mathematical method stayed savage; savages who acquired a knowledge of the mathematical method became civilized Europeans. Brief Account of the Savage Peoples has been pronounced by some scholars the first true ethnology in any language, years ahead of its time. However, I am convinced that Brief Account of the Savage Peoples was only in a superficial sense ethnological. It would be more correct to call it a programmatic statement of Kraft's mindset and preoccupations as a mathematician. In addition, I believe that he was a heterodox Christian who wished to show that a man could acquire a true knowledge of God only with the help of Revelation. To him mathematical truth and divine truth were two aspects of the same fundamental reality: that verifiable eternal truths do exist and that they are proof of and a reflection of the Divine.
Utilizing the main body of Kraft's work - which includes his student dissertations, his Wolffian textbooks in logic and metaphysics, and article in scientific journals - as sources of our knowledge of the genesis and development of his Brief Account of the Savage Peoples, I address the following questions:
A. On what did Kraft base his ideas about a universal developmental cultural history of man?
B. What was Kraft's true purpose in demonstrating empirically that all cultures have passed through similar stages of development?
C. What contemporary intellectual and institutional circumstances in Denmark and what personal motives might have induced Kraft to write a secular history of human development?
In attempting to answere these and other questions, I put forward the following theses:
1. Brief Account of the Savage Peoples is informed by a mathematical/physical epistemology; Kraft's method of reducing forms to types of cultural expression by way of "statistical" comparison followed by generalising inductively to (natural) laws of development, as well as his theory of interaction between man and his culture, can be traced to his background as a mathematician and Newtonian physicist.
2. During his formative student years, Kraft had acquired a thorough knowledge of comparative cultural studies within the framework of an older philological tradition.
3. Brief Account of the Savage Peoples shows that Kraft attempted a synthesis of empiricism and rationalism, and that he regarded physical and metaphysical explanations as necessary to the understanding of human nature.
4. Kraft was a heterodox Christian, whose Brief Account of the Savage Peoples should be viewed as an expression of that fact and as an aplogetics of the theology of Revelation and Providence directed against the assumptions of a deistic natural religion and naturalistic materialism.
5. Kraft's interest in acquiring an understanding of man's natural cognitive processes derived from a wish to discover why scientists and philosophers were generally led astray by their own fantasies.
6. As thinker, author, and teacher, Kraft set himself the life-long task of teaching his fellow Danes about that "growth and flourishing of science" and "general improvement of true enlightenment or knowledge", which had "set cultural development in motion."
7. Brief Account of the Savage Peoples from 1760, together with an address to the Academy of Young Noblemen at Sorø and Critical Letters for the Betterment of Taste, both from 1761, might be viewed as an interrelated group of sources bearing on one particular episode in the history of Danish letters: the philosophical feud between Wolffian rationalists and Montaignean/Lockean empirical relativists.
8. Brief Account of the Savage Peoples was a programmatic statement, whose choice of subject and arguments was motivatd by philosophical and scientific as well as religious concerns.
9. Kraft's reactions, as revealed by the contradictory tendencies in Brief Account of the Savage Peoples, testify to his unease with the paradoxes of modernity and its concomitant sense of value-loss.
The dissertation is divided into three volumes.The first volume introduces the subject under investigation and reconstructs Kraft's life history directly from the original sources.The second volume centers on a dialogue with previous Kraft scholars, based on my own study of his work.The third volume provides in-depth analysis of sections of Brief Account of the Savage Peoples and of Kraft's other writings, that offer direct evidence of his insistence that mathematical knowledge and Revelation are mutually supportive expressions of a single divine truth.

Original languageDanish
Place of PublicationKøbenhavns Universitet, Det humanistiske Fakultet
Number of pages532
Publication statusPublished - 2000

ID: 35951224