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The Philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

I. General Notions

The thought of Leibniz represents a synthesis of Cartesian Rationalism and Aristotelio-Scholastic thought. The two problems that must be solved are always the same:

the relationship between God and the world, and

the relationship between spirit and matter.

Leibniz believed that the central concept of the Aristotelian system -- that is, the form that is drawn out of potency -- could explain these relationships. He brought forth his theory of the monad, a spiritual substance endowed with force which, spontaneously and according to a law pre-established by God, is evolved from the obscure and confused state of potency and reaches the state of representation.

II. Life and Works

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (picture), who had a mind of encyclopedic culture, was born in 1646 at Leipzig, where he acquired during his early studies a profound knowledge of philosophy itself and of the history of medieval and modern philosophy and of the mathematical sciences.

In 1672 he went to Paris on a diplomatic mission to the court of Louis XIV, the Sun-King, whose desire to expand the realm of France represented a real danger for Germany. In Paris, Leibniz came into contact with the leading philosophers and scientists of his day, such as Malebranche and Arnauld, and there he made the discovery of infinitesimal calculus. Newton made the same discovery at the same time; hence the two entered into heated polemic regarding credit for the discovery. On a voyage to London Leibniz made the acquaintance of Newton, and at The Hague he met Spinoza.

In 1676, invited by the Duke of Brunswick to accept the office of court librarian, he left Paris to go to the ducal court of Hanover. There he did not interrupt his studies of philosophy, science, history, religion and politics, despite the fact that he had to attend to many diplomatic and political matters. In order to compile a history of the House of Brunswick, he made a trip to Italy, where he visited the major cities. When the Duke of Brunswick succeeded to the throne of England, Leibniz remained in Hanover, where he died in solitude in 1716.

Of the many writings of Leibniz only his Theodicy was published during his lifetime, many other works of his remaining unedited. These are separate essays rather than a systematic exposition of Leibniz' thought. They are, however, of great critical value. Among the works published posthumously the most important from a philosophical point of view are: Discourse on Metaphysics; The New System of Nature; New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (a criticism of Locke's Essays); and Monadology. The originals of nearly all the writings of Leibniz are in French or in Latin.

III. Theory of Knowledge

In regard to the problem of the origin of ideas, Leibniz upholds a virtual innatism, which is a middle course between the innatism of Descartesand the empiricism of Locke.

Descartes had admitted that such concepts as God, the perfect being, and so forth are directly impressed by God upon the intellect. Locke denied this innatism, with good reason, and taught that the intellect was a "tabula rasa" (blank slate), and that all ideas come from experience and reflection.

Leibniz believes that a middle course must be held in order to avoid the extremes of both these theories. Thus he admits that the ideas of reason are virtually in the intellect, and that the intellect discovers them by revolving upon itself through reflection.

Let us take the example of a piece of marble. The statue of Hercules which can be carved in it does not "de facto" exist, but a sculptor sees the lines of the projected statue in the marble, and through his workmanship is able to reduce to actuality what first existed there only virtually. This is the concept of Aristotelian potency. For Leibniz, the intellect is an active potency which finds itself the power of being reduced to act by virtue of the spontaneity of the monad, as we shall see in his metaphysics.

Regarding the fundamental principles of knowledge, Leibniz holds that they are two:

the principle of identity, and the principle of sufficient reason. In fact, since reality is presented under two different aspects, one necessary and absolute, the other relative and contingent, it follows that we are able to make two kinds of judgments:

The first pertains to the order of reason -- for example, two plus two equals four; such judgments are justified in themselves in so far as the predicate is already contained in the subject. Such are all analytical judgments in which the analysis of the subject reveals the predicate to us; and all founded on the principle of identity. The opposite is impossible because it would be against the principle of contradiction.

The second order of truth is that which concerns the contingent aspect of reality. In this order we find judgments of fact and not of reason; such judgments indicate that the thing exists, but do not tell us why. This is because we cannot, from an analysis of the subject, derive or deduce the necessity of the predicate. For example, let us take the judgment: "Socrates is walking." This is a truth of fact, and the predicate "walking" is not necessarily connected with Socrates, for he could also be seated. But the reason of fact exists, and it is constituted by an infinity of acts, past and present, which constitute the sufficient reason of the fact that is now taking place -- namely, that Socrates is walking. If we were able to consider a present fact from an absolute standpoint, for example, with the eye of God, this fact would appear to be necessary. As a consequence, the truths of fact are contingent for us ("quoad nos") but not in themselves ("quoad se"), because an adequate idea of the subject would reveal to us that the predicate is necessarily connected with the subject. Thus both the truths of reason and the truths of fact have a common foundation, infallible logical necessity.

IV. Metaphysics

The metaphysics of Leibniz is a logical development of the theory of the monad. He was led by his training in infinitesimal calculus to conceive of reality, even on the philosophical level, as composed of infinitely small atoms devoid of all extension and endowed with activity (dynamic atoms). The atom of Democritus was extended and hence divisible: it had to be replaced by an unextended atom, a mathematical point.

On the other hand, Cartesian atoms ("res extensa"), subject to movement, are not passive but are endowed with resistance, and resistance is a force. Leibniz unites both these results of his critique and conceives reality as an infinity of points deprived of all extension, but endowed with activity. They are unextended centers of force. These he calls monads.

The activity of the monad consists in representation. Every monad, each from its own point of view, represents the universe, partially understood, and as it were in miniature. Since the life of the monad consists in representation and every representation of a monad is different from the representation of other monads, they differ from one another. There cannot be two monads equal to each other.

Furthermore, the monad draws these representations from its own depths, from the obscure principle that exists within it, and that tends to become clear in the representative act. The monad can never exhaust this source that exists within itself, for in such a case it would become Pure Act, God. The representative act of the monad can never rest; it seeks ever to represent itself anew. Thus the monad is representation and appetite.

Although not only the soul-monad but all monads are representations and appetite, it does not follow that all representations are equal. There are unconscious representations, in which case the monad never manages to become conscious of its own being. Such are representations of the mineral and vegetable world. These unconscious representations Leibniz calls "perceptions." There are also conscious representations, in which case the monad, by reflecting upon itself, knows its own content. Such are the representations of the soul-monad. These representations Leibniz calls "apperceptions."

Another important particular of the metaphysics of Leibniz is the law of pre-established harmony. The monads, being unextended points, cannot have a relation of causality to one another. Such relations are attributable to God, who establishes the order that every monad must have in itself and in relation to its fellows from the moment of creation (pre-established harmony). An example may be found in the watchmaker who selects and puts together the parts of a watch.

Thus the world of Leibniz is made up of monads, infinite in number, active, but without any relation of causality among themselves. Monads are arranged by God in a perfect order which ascends to God, the supreme monad.

V. The World as Phenomenal Extension

The world, presented as extended matter, is a phenomenon resulting from the grouping of monads. The monad is representation; it is driven ever more clearly toward itself by an obscure principle. Since there are degrees in the perfection of representation, it follows that the monad passes from lesser to greater degrees of perfection, and hence that it is dual. Thus in the monad there are to be distinguished an obscure passive principle, and an active principle. The passive element is called by Leibniz "matter" or "mass."

By virtue of pre-established harmony, the monads arrange themselves in groups, as if in a colony -- by coordinating themselves, the more imperfect with the perfect, and these with a superior, central monad. Every reality that results from such aggregates is a body in which the material part is the sum of the passivity of the component monads. But, granted the immateriality of the monads, the material element that results is not real, but a phenomenon of the obscure principle of the monads. This is not to be confused with phantasms and dreams, for these latter do not have a foundation in reality, while the materiality of body is a well-founded phenomenon ("phenomenon bene fundatum"), founded on the passivity of the monad.

VI. Rational Psychology

Even man is an aggregate of monads, ending in the central monad which is the soul. Hence there are in man monads of diverse nature, unconscious, subconscious, and conscious. Since every conscious representation lies first in the unconscious state of the passive material element, Leibniz adopts the Scholastic expression "Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu," and adds "praeter intellectum." The meaning is that the intellect, by virtue of innatism, finds within itself the truths of reason. Birth and death, in the system of Leibniz, signify the passage on the part of the soul from one aggregate of monads to another.

VII. Theodicy

Leibniz proves the existence of God by a priori and a posteriori arguments. The a priori argument is substantially the same as the ontological argument of St. Anselm. Leibniz, however, gives the argument a different coloring by developing the concept of possibility. Thus if the infinite Being is possible (and it is possible, for the concept of the infinite does not involve contradiction), it exists. Hence God exists.

The a posterior proofs are two: The first is based on pre-established harmony in so far as such harmony demands an author, and this is God. The second is based on the principle of sufficient reason: Everything that exists must have sufficient reason for existing, and this reason is God.

Where the attributes of God are under consideration, Leibniz differs from the traditional concept of creation. God is the creator of the monads and of their order. But if God was free to decree the creation of the world, He was not free in the choice between different possible worlds. In virtue of the principle of sufficient reason, God chose the best of creatable worlds (optimism), because there would be no justification for a world worse than the present one.

Thus Leibniz, while wishing to avoid the voluntarism of Descartes and the absolute necessity of Spinoza, winds up by approaching this latter, and finishes by conceiving of the world as forming and shaping itself under the necessity of the principle of sufficient reason.

VIII. Ethics

In a world which, according to the concept of Leibniz, is the best possible world, the question of the existence of evil must be answered. Leibniz treats of this question in his Theodicy. Evil is the privation of perfection; it is not a reality but the decline of a real being.

There are three kinds of evil:

Metaphysical evil consists in the limitation of a being, a limitation necessary in every created being, since outside God there cannot be an infinite being. This privation, which is not due to the nature of being, is not a real evil.

Physical evil consists in a privation of a perfection due to the nature of the being. This is a real evil, but Leibniz justifies its existence on the basis of aesthetic motives, and also holds that it results in benefit to nature taken in its entirety.

Moral evil: Man, not God, is responsible for moral evil. The man-monad is not only apperceptive, but also appetitive, and hence free. Man abuses this freedom and opposes himself to the will of God. Moral evil consists in this opposition and man alone is responsible for it.

Keeping in mind, however, the pre-established harmony and the law of optimism ("lex melioris"), derived from the principle of sufficient reason, it is to be concluded that moral evil also is necessary and willed by God.

As Michele Sciacca writes: "We can conclude that Leibniz, despite all his efforts, does not succeed in overcoming what is called the "geometric fatalism" of Spinoza, which is the central problem of his speculation. Once admitted that the various acts of the soul are causally bound together in such a manner that each is necessarily determined by preceding acts, one can no longer speak of liberty. Leibniz can justify spontaneity, but not liberty." (Manuale di storia della filosofia, II, 96.)

IX. Conclusion: Historical Position

Leibniz' philosophy is not superficial; it considers the most important problems of metaphysics and psychology. Platonic in spirit, it is inclined toward a poetic rather than a scientific synthesis. Thus its principal defect is it unreality: the philosophy of Leibniz is not built on experimental data but on a priori principles and definitions.

Still, Leibniz must not be underrated as a speculative thinker. He rendered great service to the cause of philosophy by opposing empirical sensism. His philosophy opens to the mind new vistas of philosophic syntheses, and is an invaluable aid to the understanding of later systems.

Adapted from the book: "Modern Philosophy"

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