Gottfried Leibniz was born in Germany two years before the end of the Thirty Years War, the son of a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Leipzig. He became a pioneer in mathematical logic at a time when others did not recognise its importance.
Leibniz also invented the infinitesimal calculus during a period spent in Paris, which, at the time, was hub of philosophical thinking and mathematics. While in Paris, Leibniz met the Jansenist, Antoine Arnauld. Baruch Spinoza later also influenced him and the two conducted a number of discussions.
Parodied by Voltaire
However, Leibniz is best known for his belief that since God created the world, then it must be the best of all possible worlds. This is a dictum that inspired the critic and thinker, Voltaire, to create a comical caricature of the philosopher in his satirical novel, Candide, who went by the name of Doctor Pangloss.
Naturally, there was little love lost between these two great thinkers. Unfortunately for him, Leibniz, although in many respects, an optimist, attracted some fierce opposition from his contemporaries.
Yet, aspects of his teachings have influenced philosophy to this present day.
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Is the Mind of Man Innate?
In his book The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker credits Leibniz with the original argument against the idea that man’s mind is, indeed, a blank slate at birth.
Pinker quotes Liebniz’s reply when countering an argument with John Locke:
“There is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses, except the intellect itself.”
Pinker explain how this extraordinary man was far ahead of his time in his thinking, refusing to fabricate occult qualities or demons to explain the inexplicable. On the contrary, Leibniz recognised that the intellect must accomplish a feat of information-processing for the complex learning mechanisms to carry out.
As an example, Pinker suggests that if we consider the function of computers, we must remember that they don’t roll off the assembly line fully programmed, Someone has to install the software first. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that challenges overcome by the human intellect are far beyond artificial intelligence, and that our brains are far from being empty vessels when we are first born.
“Something in the mind must be innate, if it is only the mechanisms that do the learning. Something has to see a world of objects rather than a kaleidoscope of shimmering pixels. Something has to infer the context of a sentence rather than parrot back the exact wording. Something has to interpret other people’s behaviour as their attempts to achieve goals rather than as trajectories of jerking arm and legs,” says Pinker.
Leipniz’s Two Systems of Philosophy
In his book, History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says that there is little to admire about Leibniz as a man. He was mean, and further, he makes a point that Leibniz was “a dull writer” and made philosophy “pedantic and arid.” However, it is well to bear in mind that Russell himself is a man capable of issuing biting criticism of his fellow-thinkers.
Russell claims there are two systems of philosophy that we can attribute to Leibniz. There is the popular, optimistic one, the one that Voltaire caricatured in his novel, Candide, which Russell regards as somewhat shallow. Then, there is the more important system of philosophy… “which has been slowly unearthed from his manuscripts by fairly recent editors … was profound, coherent… and amazingly logical.”
The Monadology is the work containing Leibniz’s most popular philosophy, which Principles of Nature and of Grace followed. However, his optimism rose to its highest level in Theodicy written for Queen Charlotte of Prussia.
Leibniz: An Infinite Number of Substances
Leibniz based this optimistic philosophy on the idea of substance, but his thinking differed from that of Descartes and Spinoza, as follows:
Descartes allowed three substances, God, mind and matter.
Spinoza admitted only God. For him, both thought and extension are attributes of God.
Leibniz took a different view, says Bertrand Russell:
“Leibniz held that extension cannot be an attribute of a substance. His reason was that extension involves plurality, and can therefore only belong to an aggregate of substances, each single substance must be unextended.”
From this, he could only proceed to the following conclusion:
“He believed, consequently, in an infinite number of substances which he called ‘monads’… each monad is a soul. This follows naturally from the rejection of extension as an attribute of substance, the only remaining possible essential attribute seemed to be thought. Thus Leibniz was led to deny the reality of matter and to substitute an infinite family of souls.”
No Causal Relationships Between Monads
Leibniz’s belief leads to further complications. He thought that substances could not interact. No causal relation could be established between two monads. If it appeared there was a causal relation, then it must be false.
This presents two difficulties:
Firstly, dynamics – bodies sometimes appear to affect each other. This may happen due to impact. It may also be a consequence of the effect of a perception on the percipient. To counter this: “Leibniz held that every monad mirrors the universe, not because the universe affects it, but because God has given it a nature which spontaneously produces the result,” says Russell.
A fascinating conclusion to this thought process is that each human body must contain a number of monads, with souls, and which are immortal. One dominant monad it called the soul of the man in whose body is exists.
“The changes in a human body (in ordinary circumstances) happen for the sake of the dominant monad: when my arm moves, the purpose served by the movement is in the dominant monad, i.e. my mind, not in the monads that compose my arm. This is the truth of what appears to common sense as the control of my will over my arm.”
Space is Not Real
Space is not real; it is merely the counterpart to the arrangement of the monads that creates the three-dimensional perspective and each monad sees the world from its own perspective. “There is no such thing as a vacuum,” says Russell, “every possible point of view is filled by one actual monad, and by only one. No two monads are exactly alike; this is Leibniz’s principle of the ‘identity of indiscernibles.’”
In “Gottfried Leibniz” in 100 Great Thinkers, Jeremy Harwood describes this principle, known as Leibniz’s Law, as follows: “Essentially it states that, if two objects are identical, they will be indiscernible; that is, they will not differ in their properties. It is a law that has retained its importance in philosophy right up to the present.”
The Principle of Sufficient Reason and Free Will
There is plenty of opportunity for free will in Leibniz’s system. Leibniz coined the phrase “The Principle of Sufficient Reason” and, although other philosophers pronounced on the theory, Leibniz is generally credited with being its main resource. The Principle of Sufficient Reason means that for everything that is the case, there must be a reason or a cause to make it so.
God owns the same kind of freedom, in acting for the best, but not having any actual compulsion to do so.
“Leibniz agrees with Thomas Aquinas that God cannot act contrary to the laws of logic, but He can decree whatever is logically possible, and this leaves Him a great latitude of choice,” concludes Russell.
Leibniz’s book Monadology, was not published until after his death in 1716.
This great German philosopher also made important contributions to technology, medicine and politics.