Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, German philosopher and mathematician. Born Leipzig, Germany, July 1, 1646. Died Hanover, Germany, November 14, 1716.
Leibniz was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 17th century. He wrote extensively on philosophy, mathematics, law, physics, theology, and politics and diplomacy. Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton, each working without knowledge of the other's efforts, developed the branch of mathematics known as calculus. Leibniz also invented the system of notation for calculus that is still in use. In addition, he was one of the pioneers in the development of mathematical logic.
In his philosophical writings, Leibniz disagreed with thinkers such as Rene Descartes, who said that the world is composed of two basic substances, mind and matter. According to Leibniz, reality consists of an infinite number of units of conscious energy called monads. He held that monads are organized in levels of complexity ranging from God, who has complete consciousness, through man, who has a limited consciousness, down to such apparently inanimate things as stones, which have a very low degree of consciousness.
For Leibniz, the universe is a harmonious system arranged by God. Man's consciousness is limited, however, and he can perceive the system only imperfectly. As a result, man thinks that the world contains evils and imperfections. If he could see reality as a whole, as God sees it, he would know that apparent evils, such as disease and death, are necessary for the overall perfection and goodness of the whole universe. Thus, since a better world is not possible, Leibniz held that this is literally "the best of all possible worlds." It was this optimistic view that was satirized by Voltaire in his famous romance Candide. The son of a university professor, Leibniz studied at Leipzig, Jena, and Altdorf. After receiving the degree of Doctor of Law in 1666, he entered the service of the Archbishop of Mainz, one of the most important German princes, who sent him on a diplomatic mission to Paris in 1672. At the court of Louis XIV, Leibniz met the foremost thinkers of the day, such as Nicolas Malebranche and Christiaan Huygens. In 1676 he journeyed to Amsterdam, where he met Spinoza. Thereafter he returned to Germany and became librarian to the Duke of Brunswick at Hanover, a position he held until his death. Among the works of Leibniz are the Theodicy (1710) and Monadology (1714).