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Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Gottfried Leibnitz
Gottfried Leibnitz was a late 17th century mathematician and philosopher. His greatest contribution to modern thought was his contributions to the development of calculus, which he worked on independently of Isaac Newton. As a philosopher, Leibnitz was one of the most important rationalist thinkers of the modern era, along with René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. His essay on “monads” was one of the most important works of metaphysics of the period and his responses to John Locke’s empiricism one of the most important works of rationalist philosophy. Leibnitz was a major influence on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and although Kant would reject rationalism later in life, he would still use Leibnitz as a major template for his work of A Critique of Pure Reason.
Leibnitz used a term from Greek philosophy to lay out his ideas about the nature of reality. He used the term Monads, which simply means small units, to refer to his very specific concept of a unit of reality. Leibnitz thought that there were “primal forces” that existed as small extensionless units of force. These were the monads and each monad existed as its own tiny little universe where all the forces of the universe in which we exist were represented. The monads have no causal relationship over space or time but instead each monad expresses the actions of all other monads internally. To Leibnitz, space and time were a set of external relations between objects and not actual substances.
This seems like a really strange idea now but it was the intention of Leibnitz to establish the idea of a universe that proceeds from a series of defined laws that could be derived from rationalist concepts. Monads did not have extension but they created ripples out into the universe and were the cause of all extension. The ideas that Leibnitz expresses about reality are derived both from his strong background in mathematics and his religious convictions. Immanuel Kant would take the basic project of Leibnitz’s, establishing a theory of reality based on some universal principles, but would reject many of the details of his ideas.
Leibnitz saw monads as being similar to the mind. They came into being through God and represented the essential intelligence of the universe. In this way he had not strayed too far from the rationalist concepts of Descartes, who insisted that the existence of minds as thinking things, his in particular, was the basis for his knowing that the universe existed but to Leibnitz matter only existed as phenomenon that was created by the presence of the entities of monads and this is an important distinction.
Leibnitz vehemently objected to Locke’s ideas of empiricism and that all knowledge came from experience. Much of his objections come from his belief in the soul as a non-corporeal thing. He saw Locke’s views as placing the human thought strictly as a physical process. He argued that without inherent ideas there would be no way in which to process the information that was coming into the mind.
Leibnitz makes a claim about minds that is similar to the ones that he makes about monads. Within all minds is the infinite perception of the universe. This means that minds have an inherent ability to perceive all possible perceptions. At any given time the mind is only aware of certain perceptions that are available to it. This is how we are able to make sense of all incoming sense data despite the fact that it should simply seem like a random series of data without a way to reference it. In this way we put together pieces of our understanding from tiny bits of perception as we experience them.
Leibnitz rejected the ontological argument that was proposed by Descartes and instead put together his own argument about God’s existence. His argument goes like this according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
God is omnipotent and omniscient and benevolent and the free creator of the world.
Things could have been otherwise—i.e., there are other possible worlds.
Suppose this world is not the best of all possible worlds. (I.e., “The world could be better.”)
If this world is not the best of all possible worlds, then at least one of the following must be the case:
- God was not powerful enough to bring about a better world; or
- God did not know how this world would develop after his creation of it (i.e. God lacked foreknowledge); or
- God did not wish this world to be the best; or
- God did not create the world; or
- there were no other possible worlds from which God could choose.
But, any one or more of the disjuncts of (4) contradicts (1) or (2).
Therefore, this world is the best of all possible worlds.
This argument was famously mocked by Voltaire in his novel Candide. Voltaire thought the idea of this being the best of all possible worlds was absurd because of all the horrific things we witness on a regular basis in the world. But this is not a refutation of the argument because this does not mean that the world should be perfect. What he is saying that in the balance of the forces in the world and the giving of human beings free will, we are living in the best possible balance that could be created. This amounts both to Leibnitz’s argument for God’s existence but his solution to the problem of evil as well.