Rudolf Goclenius the Elder and the Philosophical Discipline of Ontology

Rudolph Goclenius the Elder (1547-1628), Painting from Gießener Professorengalerie

Rudolph Goclenius the Elder (1547-1628), Painting from Gießener Professorengalerie

On March 1, 1547, German scholastic philosopher Rudolph Goclenius the Elder was born. Goclenius made significant contributions to the field of ontology. Since he introduced the term “ontology” in German language, he is also referred to in my lectures on ontologies in computer science [13]. Goclenius extended the development of many ideas from Aristotle and is often credited with coining the term “psychology” in 1590.

Rudolph Goclenius – Early Years

He was born Rudolf Gockel (or Göckel) as a son of respectable burghers of Corbach in the county of Waldeck, an independent county in the Holy Roman Empire, on the Eder River in the northwest of the present-day state of Hesse, Germany. Here he first attended the town school until 1564 and then took up studies in Erfurt, after which he studied in Marburg from 1567. As early as 1568 he returned to Corbach and taught at his former school. On April 9, 1570, he married Margaretha Emmerich, whom he possibly already knew well from his childhood. On July 31, 1570, he matriculated at the University of Wittenberg, where he earned the degree of Magister on March 13, 1571, and lectured until 1573. He then returned to his hometown of Korbach and was head of the town school from 1573 to 1575.

Academic Carreer

In 1575, Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel appointed him rector of the Kassler Pädagogium. In the meantime he used the Latinized scholarly name Goclenius. In Kassel he turned to the philosophical direction of Ramism, named after Petrus Ramus, without completely rejecting Melanchthonianism [1], which he had become acquainted with during his school and study time.  Towards the end of the 16th century, the philosophical world was divided into the two hostile camps of Ramists and Antiramists. In the friendship with Goclenius, enthusiastic admirers of Ramus, such as Hieronymus Treutler and Rudolph Snellius, fierce opponents of Ramus, such as Nikodemus Frischlin and Philipp Scherbius, half Ramists, such as Bilstein and independent thinkers, such as Nicolaus Taurellus, agreed with each other. But he did not lack opponents either, among them intolerant theologians like Johannes Weber and Johannes Hesselbein, the quarrelsome Libavius and the notorious Daniel Hofmann. This was probably also the reason why the people of Corbach wanted to lure him back to Corbach in 1580, where the Corbach Gymnasium had just been reopened and the goal was to teach in the spirit of Ramist principles.

However, the landgrave did not want to lose his scholar and refused to allow him to continue, but agreed to Goclenius’ appointment to Marburg. The most tempting offers made to him by universities in Bremen, Herborn, Lemgo and even by Wittenberg, the most important of all Protestant universities at that time, were not able to draw him away from Marburg. In 1581, Goclenius accepted the call as professor of philosophy. From 1589 he taught logic and mathematics as a professor, and from 1603 he taught logic and ethics. He served as a professor until his death on June 8, 1628. Goclenius’ reputation attracted numerous students to Marburg not only from all parts of Germany, but also from foreign countries; overall he awarded to 600 master’s degrees. Together with the jurist Hermann Vultejus, he had a significant influence on the development of the University of Marburg. Both advised the Landgrave Moritz of Hesse. In 1618, Moritz sent Goclenius with three theologians to the Synod of Dordrecht.

Later Years

He was not a genius and not a deeply or originally conceived nature, but he possessed a wide-ranging erudition, quick-witted wit and dialectical acuity, clarity and lightness of exposition, unusual even in those days of polyhistory, in addition to an amiable, fresh and mild disposition.[2] Rudolf Goclenius was married a total of three times and had four children. His eldest son Rudolf Goclenius the Younger, also a Marburg University professor, later also achieved fame as an astrologer. The last years of Goclenius’ life were embittered by multiple bleak fates. In 1621, he lost his eldest son Rudolph, who had served alongside him for 13 years as a professor of physics at Marburg University. Two years later, the horrors of the 30 Years’ War fell upon Hesse. An inheritance dispute between Moritz and Landgrave Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt led Tilly with his execution army to Marburg in 1624. The city and the university came into the possession of the House of Darmstadt, many professors were deposed, and the circumstances of the university were thrown into confusion. How heavy Goclenius carried all this can be seen in a poem from the year 1624 , in which he calls himself “worn out by heartbreaking worries, sick in soul in the midst of the turmoil of all holy and unholy things.” He was not to see better times. He died in almost undiminished strength, but full of sorrow for the situation of his fatherland, on June 8, 1628, after reaching the age of 81.[2]

The Christian Aristotle

Goclenius was exceedingly well known in his time and was celebrated as the “Marburg Plato” or “Christian Aristotle“. Today he would be almost forgotten if he had not very early used and explained in a printed book the term psychology, which Philipp Melanchthon [1] had introduced in one of his lectures. His anthology Psychologia: hoc est, de hominis perfectione, animo, et in primis ortu hujus  (Psychology: that is, on the perfection of man, his mind, and especially its origin) published in 1590 is the first book to contain the word “psychology” in the title. Here, the term psychology refers to both a subject of inquiry (“the perfection of man, his mind, and especially its origin“) and the inquiry itself (“the comments and discussions of certain theologians & philosophers of our time“). He also still receives some attention for being the first to separate ontology from special metaphysics, which became a common teaching practice in the field of philosophy after him. Apart from that, he must have been incredibly well-read and versatile, as evidenced by his Physicae completae speculum, but he cannot be said to have had too much intellectual independence. His descriptions often seem too general and nebulous, and he too often indulged in erudite gimmicks.


The term ontology seems to have been used for the first time in German by Rudolf Goclenius. About the same time is a reference in Jacob Lorhard (1561-1609), professor in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Johann Georg Walch (1693-1775) defines in his work Philosophisches Lexicon: “Ontology means the doctrine of the end [being], and is a designation by which some recent philosophers understood the science that deals with the end in general and its properties.” Walch points out that “others prefer to say ontosophy.” However, the term “ontology” was first used in its proper sense (doctrine of being) by Rudolf Goclenius in 1613 and by Johannes Clauberg in 1656. Rudolf Goclenius separated ontology from metaphysics. In classical philosophical systematics (going back to Christian Wolff, [5] among others) ontology represents a part of metaphysics, namely general metaphysics (metaphysica generalis) in contrast to special metaphysics (metaphysica specialis), which deals with God (natural theology), the soul (natural psychology) and the world (natural cosmology). Although the term “ontology” was introduced late in the history of philosophy, its subject – being as being – is already treated in antiquity. Goclenius distinguished ontology as “philosophia de ente” on the basis of the relation of its object to matter from the “scientia transnaturalis” as doctrine of God and the angels. The plural ontologies is used in philosophy for the ontologies of different philosophers, each of which usually claims generality. In the other sciences, however, the plural ontologies refers to different sections of reality. E.g. different fields of knowledge, different persons and their respective world view.

A Witch Theorist

As a witch theorist, he achieved a certain importance through his speech Oratio de natura sagarum in purgatione et examinatione per frigidam aquis innatantium from 1583,[4] which also appeared in print in 1590. In it he deals with the doctrine of the water test. This old divine judgment had been increasingly performed again as a “witch bath” in the course of the early modern witch hunt. Now a scholarly dispute arose about its legality. Goclenius argued primarily against Wilhelm Adolf Scribonius, who vehemently defended the legality of the water test for the crime of witchcraft. Goclenius, however, proved to be a supporter of the doctrine of witchcraft who fully agreed with the explanations of the Hexenhammer.

Harald Sack, Ontologies in Philosophy and Computer Science, [12]

References and Further Reading:

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