Leibniz, G. W.

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Diplomat and court councilor to the house of Brunswick in Hanover, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was born in Leipzig on July 1. By the age of twenty-one he had earned a doctorate of law and written a Dissertation on the Art of Combination, which allowed him to lecture in philosophy. Though he never formally held an academic position (he had jobs as a jurist, librarian, mining engineer, and historian), his duties in Hanover enabled him to travel and meet many well-known thinkers of his time, such as mathematician Christian Huygens (1629–1695), who tutored Leibniz in mathematics during the latter's visit to Paris from 1672 through 1676. While he published several scholarly articles and only one book during his lifetime, the Theodicy, his large body of posthumously published work reveals Leibniz's contributions to mathematics, logic, science, law, philosophy, and ethics.

A rationalist, Leibniz exhibited a characteristically modern ambition with an ambitious scientific attempt to create a universal science of all human knowledge, which consisted of a universal, simple (i.e., numerical) language and a formalized calculus for reasoning. Though he eventually acknowledged the impossibility of completing the task because of the perspectivity of human knowing, he pursued this project until the end of his life. Leibniz's crowning achievement was his discovery of the infinitesimal calculus. Although Isaac Newton (1643–1727) discovered the infinitesimal calculus several years earlier, their achievements were independent and Leibniz's system of notation (published before Newton's) continues to be used in the early twenty-first century.

To understand Leibniz, one must acknowledge the fundamental premise behind his thought: God created the best of all possible universes by achieving the maximum amount of diversity consonant with unity. This cannot be proven but must be accepted as true for rational inquiry to be possible. From this premise Leibniz identified five basic a priori metaphysical principles to guide inquiry: the principle of sufficient reason (for every event or thing there is a reason for its being what it is rather than otherwise) the principle of non-contradiction (that an essence cannot contain opposite properties in the same way at the same time) the principle of perfection (that God always creates by choosing the maximum amount of perfection) the principle of the identity of indiscernibles (that no two things can be identical in all respects save spatial location) finally, the principle of continuity (that there are no "gaps" in the perfection of the created order). In revised version, these premises may still be argued to underlie even empirical scientific research.

Leibniz's scientific method, "the conjectural method a priori," assumes certain hypotheses to demonstrate that natural occurrences follow from them. It is a priori because it relies on his five basic metaphysical principles. Leibniz used it to improve the mechanics of philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) by distinguishing between speed and velocity, and to criticize Newton's description of force. Moreover, this method was not meant merely for demonstration, but also for technological invention (which motivated Leibniz: for example, he invented a calculator). Most of his technologies nevertheless failed, but many of his proposals foreshadowed later technological developments. For example, he attempted to use windmills to remove water from mines and proposed a system of ball bearings to improve the efficiency of carriage rides.

Leibniz rejected Descartes's metaphysical dualism of mind and matter, and its major scientific presupposition, namely that the physical universe is a res extensa, whose causality is exclusively mechanistic. One reason for rejecting matter as the basic element of the universe is its infinite divisibility. This leads to an infinite regress when trying to explain matter, thereby constituting a violation of the principle of sufficient reason. Instead, Leibniz argued for the monad as the most basic element of reality.

Monads are immaterial, "windowless" (that is, there is no causal interaction between monads), microcosms of the universe, the basic activity of which is perception. God harmonizes each monad (which contain all of their predicates analytically) according to his supremely perfect divine plan. Moreover, each person, as a unified collection of monads, has a unique perspective on the universe and, consequently, gets at some degree of truth. Hence, Leibniz insisted that rational inquiry must take place within an intersubjective community.

Leibniz's emphasis on intersubjectivity is reflected in his ethics, which focuses on three concepts: wisdom, virtue, and justice. Wisdom leads to happiness because all moral action must be guided by thought. Happiness is a durable state of pleasure (i.e., understood as perfection). Virtue is the habit of acting according to wisdom, and justice is the charity of the wise person, who pursues the good of others. These are assumed to be the motivations of all technology.

Leibniz's impact cannot be adequately measured. In addition to influencing such thinkers as Immanuel Kant, Edmund Husserl, and the quantum physicist David Bohm, Leibniz's aspirations continue to be a resource for those seeking to reconcile modern science, technology, and ethical responsibilities.


SEE ALSO Husserl, Edmund; Kant, Immanuel; Theodicy.


Collins, James. (1954). "Leibniz." In his A History of Modern European Philosophy. Milwaukee, WI: Bruce.

Hostler, John. (1975). Leibniz's Moral Philosophy. London: Gerald Duckworth.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. (1989). Philosophical Essays, trans. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. (1991). Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Essays, trans. Daniel Garber and Roger Ariew. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Rescher, Nicholas. (1979). Leibniz: An Introduction to His Philosophy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Ross, G. MacDonald. (1984). Leibniz. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.