Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Making the best of all world’s possible

•July 6, 2015 • Leave a Comment

This is the best of all possible worlds. Substances do not interact. Choices are determined but free. How could any serious philosopher have made such absurd and patently false claims? What in the world was he trying to do? Why should anyone today bother to read Leibniz?

“If a great philosopher says something stupid or obviously false, you have not understood what they are saying. It is not that understanding a philosopher requires seeing that they are right, but it requires seeing what they say as a plausible meeting between their historical context and our common human experience.”
Franklin Perkins, Leibniz: A Guide of the Perplexed

The Problem of Leibniz
There are three problems that interfere with understanding this unusual philosophy. The first is Voltaire’s Candide, a comic masterpiece that reduces the Leibniz/Wolff philosophical system into the absurd proclamations of the pedantic Dr. Pangloss. The second is Leibniz collected writings—massive, complex, written in multiple languages and across many disciplines—to this day they have not been entirely collected, edited, published or translated. Finally, and most importantly, we view him through the wrong perspective. We think of him primarily as a philosopher or occasionally as a scientist or mathematician. But the main focus of all his life’s work was political and to understand his philosophy we must understand the 17th century European political context that he was reacting to.

Leibniz’s Writings

“They read like the syllabus for an entire university written with the zest of a society tabloid.”
Matthew Stewart, The Courtier and the Heretic

One of the main problems with understanding Leibniz is the sheer magnitude of his writings. There are over 200,000 pages written in seven languages. He wrote 15,000 letters to more than 1,000 recipients—many of these letters are quite substantial in length and content.

Systematic cataloguing of his writings only began in 1901. The Berlin Akademie started work on the standard reference edition of his collected works in 1923. The series is expected to be completed some time in the 22nd century. The Länder critical edition has so far published 32 volumes of political writings, 15 volumes of mathematics and science and 10 volumes of philosophy. The volume and scope of his writing is overwhelming for even the most determined readers.

The Context
Most importantly, to understand Leibniz one must understand the context in which all this writing was produced. Europe in the 16th Century was almost constantly at war. Leibniz was born during the Thirty Years War, which devastated central Europe. The later half of the century saw a succession of European wars too numerous to mention. One of the factors that contributed to these wars was the continuing fragmentation of Western Christianity. This began with the Reformation and by the 16th century had created many competing factions closely aligned with powerful political interests. Scholasticism at that time was not just a method of learning and teaching, it had serious political implications. In 1624 the Parlement of Paris decreed that all teaching at the university should be based exclusively on Aristotle. Criticism of Aristotle carried a penalty of death. The proclamation was reissued again in 1671 by Louis XIV.

The Solution

“When one compares one’s own small talents with those of Leibniz, one is tempted to throw away one’s books and go die peacefully in the depths of some dark corner.”
Denis Diderot,“Léibnitzianisme ou Philosophie de Léibnitz”Encyclopédie

Leibniz hoped to prevent future bloodshed and strife by reconciling the different political factions through their associated religious (and philosophical) foundations. His approach worked simultaneously across multiple fronts: political negotiation, legal mediation, philosophical and theological reconciliation as well as the advancement of methodology and learning through scientific and mathematical research and discovery. Some of the more counterintuitive claims in Leibniz philosophy make better sense when understood as building blocks toward his practical social and political goals.

“Leibniz claimed we lived in the best of all possible worlds but that didn’t stop him from spending his every waking moment trying to make a better one.”
Jim Williams

Recommended Edition:
The text we are using is Lloyd Strickland’s The Shorter Leibniz Texts: A Collection of New Translations.

One of the benefits of this collection is that it provides an opportunity to see Leibniz operating simultaneously across the disciplines of philosophy, theology, law and science. It includes a wider range of material than most anthologies, which focus primarily on the philosophical. This should give us a chance to think about how the different pieces fit together and hopefully move us toward a more comprehensive understanding of what he was up to.

The book is available on Amazon with many reasonably priced new and used copies from a variety of sellers:

Other Resources

The Monadology
Leibniz’s Monadology: A New Translation And Guide by Lloyd Strickland
An in-depth, section-by-section commentary that explains in detail not just what Leibniz is saying in the text but also why he says it.

G. W. Leibniz’s Monadology : An Edition for Students by Nicholas Rescher
Section-by-section text of the Monadology with excerpts from Leibniz’s discussions of the matters at issue providing a commentary and exposition of his philosophy using the Monadology as an outline.

Other Major Texts
New Essays on Human Understanding by G. W. Leibniz (Author), Peter Remnant (Editor), Jonathan Bennett (Editor)
Leibniz’s longest and in some ways his best philosophical work. A philosophical dialogue that responds chapter by chapter to Locke’s Essays on Human Understanding.

Theodicy by G.W. Leibniz

Shorter Texts
Philosophical Essays (Hackett Classics) G. W. Leibniz (Author), Roger Ariew (Translator), Daniel Garber (Translator)

Philosophical Texts (Oxford Philosophical Texts) G. W. Leibniz (Author), R. S. Woolhouse (Editor, Introduction), Richard Francks (Editor)

Philosophical Writings (Everyman’s University Library)
Leibniz (Author), G. H. R. Parkinson (Editor), Mary Morris (Translator)

Leibniz Selections (Mass Market) Leibniz (Author), Philip P. Weiner (Editor)

Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought)
Leibniz (Author), Patrick Riley (Editor)

Leibniz Translations by Lloyd Strickland
On this site you will find English translations of various papers including many not previously translated. There are currently translations of around 175 texts on this site.

General Internet Resources
All of these look at Leibniz from a primarily philosophical perspective. The notion that philosophy is an abstract intellectual exercise is particularly problematic when applied to 17th century philosophy in general and Leibniz in particular. Leibniz, viewed outside of his political, religious and social context, can too easily fall prey to the kind of Panglossian caricature we find in Voltaire.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography by Maria Rosa Antognazza (Author)
Covers the full breadth and depth of Leibniz’s theoretical interests and practical activities, it weaves them together into a unified portrait of Leibniz and the world from which he came. At the core of Leibniz’s huge range of apparently miscellaneous endeavors, Antognazza reveals a single master project lending unity to his extraordinarily multifaceted life’s work, ultimately grounded in a practical goal: the improvement of the human condition and the the celebration of God’s creation.

Secondary Reading
The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy) by Nicholas Jolley (Editor)
One of the best of the Cambridge Companion Series, the essays work well together to create a comprehensive picture of Leibniz and his work.

On Leibniz: Expanded Edition by Nicholas Rescher (Author)
Examines many aspects of Leibniz’s work and life: including the fundamentals of Leibniz’s ontology, the theory of possible worlds, the world’s contingency, space-time frameworks, and intermonadic relationships and positions Leibniz as a philosophical role model for today’s scholars.

Leibniz Re-interpreted (Bloomsbury Studies in Philosophy) by Lloyd Strickland (Author)
Reexamines the central idea in Leibniz’s philosophy, that we live in the best of all possible worlds and argues that Leibniz’s theory has been consistently misunderstood. Provides an elucidation and reinterpretation of a number of concepts central to Leibniz’s work, such as ‘richness’, ‘simplicity’, ‘harmony’ and ‘incompossibility’, and shows where previous attempts to explain these concepts have failed.

Intellectual Environment
The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart (Author)
By comparing the lives, approach and philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz, Stewart does an excellent job of outlining the intellectual, social and political stakes of 17th century philosophy.

Philosophical and Political Context
Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan I. Israel

Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man by Jonathan I. Israel

Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights, 1750-1790 by Jonathan I. Israel

If you are not ready to read the entire 3000 page trilogy you can get an excellent overview in his 300 page summary:

A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy by Jonathan Israel

My year in reading: 2014

•March 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I finished fewer books this year. There are many reasons: health, travel, work, house. The main reason was a shift in focus from moderate sized works that I could finish reading in a few days or weeks to massive sprawling complex works. They were definitely worth the time and effort, but they require a substantial amount of it. It might be said that the highlight of this years reading was not the books I read but the books I didn’t (completely) read.

The really amazing books I did not finish:

Walter Benjamin-The Arcades Project

This year I was able to do extensive reading in the five volumes of the Harvard Press Selected Works have finally arrived at a good and consistent understanding of the enigmatic Benjamin. This was good preparation for digging through the Arcades. While not reading the entire collection cover to cover I was able to get good sense of the overall structure of the work as well as its general purpose and direction. It is still a very fragmentary experience but that is fitting. It is reminsicnet of One-Way Street’s “Construction Site” which appears to be the way Benjamin used it as well.

Antonio Gramsci-Prison Notebooks

I had first read the Hoare & Smith Selections from the Prison Notebooks when I was in college but had very little sense of the material they were working from. With Buttigieg’s translation of the first three volumes of the original notebooks I was finally able to get a good sense of what they had been working with. The notebooks are far more fragmentary than I imagined and this explains the rather strange and disjunctive arguments in the Selections. Reading this just after Benjamin’s Arcades provided an amazing picture of how difficult it was to be a socialist writer trying to survive fascist Europe.

Thomas Picketty-Capital in the 21st Century

I would like to have read this one cover to cover but it was a timely and I just did not have the time for a deep dive. Still was able to get a good impression by looking at the methodology, several examples and his conclusions and recommendations. I think the key takaway is that we now have the ability to collect and analyze this kind of data better than ever before which means that economics should move from a rationalist theory-based approach to a more empirical evidence-based approach. He also makes the point that wealth distribution should not be a dirty word as that is what banks are doing all the time, just not in a way that is transparent or democratic.

Richard Wagner-Works 8 vols.

I read across all eight volumes but did not complete any single one. This reading provided a firm understanding of the theoretical and philosophical basis for Wagner’s music dramas and the development he went through to get there. Finally I feel I have a firmly grounded understanding of Wagner’s intended meaning for Parsifal and The Ring—which are entirely consistent (and not how Bernard Shaw describes them in his otherwise excellent The Perfect Wagnerite). This reading also gave me a chance to further explore Wagner’s relationship with Nietzsche and how that effected Neitzsche’s development. (And Wagner’s supposedly problematic association with the National Socialists).

Isaac Newton-Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

I ran across this almost by accident. I always knew this is an important book in the history of science but I never had any intention of reading it. I had been reading some Medieval logicians and Francis Bacon’s New Organon. At the same time was researching Leibniz and the Rationalist philosophers. Newton seemed central to this universe and I casually picked up Prinicipia to take a look. His formulations are unusual compared to contemporary practice but the thought process was incredibly detailed and rigorous. But also solidly based in empiricism. The book is not easy going but really was an eye-opener. In fact it seems central to the development of philosophy in that era and I wonder why it is rarely (or never) treated as an important philosophical text.

What is to be done?

•March 21, 2014 • 2 Comments

NASA recently released a report with some dire warnings. Natural and social scientists developed a new model which suggests that a ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global social and economic systems.

This article has been passed around the Internet and caused a friend of mine to react in dismay:

  “…on a personal level, what do you all DO with this information? I’m asking in all sincerity and not really looking to debate. [I’m} just trying to wrap my head around how to keep moving forward, raising my little family, while still trying to make conscious choices about our impact on the environment. but not feeling like it really even matters at this rate….”

It is easy to despair at such news. We feel small and the problem feels huge. Our political leaders do not inspire confidence and seem focused on defending the profits of large Wall Street and Energy companies while the world falls apart around us. Does it matter? Is there anything we as individuals can do? Yes, there is a lot that we can do on both the political and personal levels.

On the political level there is much that needs to be done. I live in central Virginia which has been a nexus of climate change denial and preservation of inequality. We have a long way to go and much hard work that needs to be done. However, it is important that everybody everywhere do what they can. First of all, talk to your neighbors about these problems. The news media keeps us distracted with a disappearing Malaysian airliner and celebrity gossip. People need to know what is going on. It seems like small steps but they build over time. Join local grassroots activist groups. Invite speakers to talk about these issues in community forums. Work to support politicians that address these issues.

On the personal level there are also many small things that you can to reduce consumption. They add up if done by many people over time. Here are a few ideas. They are focused on global warming, but in practice address most environmental problems which are derived from waste and over-consumption. I’m sure you are already doing some, others you might have missed:

•February 27, 2014 • Leave a Comment

If scientific accuracy in the public sphere is your jam, is there really that much of a difference between Creation Museum founder Ken Ham, who seems to have made a career marketing pseudoscience about the origins of the world, and John Mackey, a founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, who seems to have made a career, in part, out of marketing pseudoscience about health?
Michael Schulson “Whole Foods: America’s Temple of Pseudoscience”

This is not just a problem for the left or right. This is a basic function of how our brains (and social networks) function. We can’t know everything so we use heuristics. Much of what we believe is based not on fact, experience or scientific evidence but on what others believe. For people who trust the right it is denial of climate change and evolution. On the left it’s nutriceuticals and colon cleanses. The facts are often secondary to building social networks and support. From a basic survival perspective it is more important to bond with your local group than understand if the sun revolves around the earth or vise versa.

On the right, denial of climate change and evolution is clearly wrong, but dogmatic acceptance of market economics and deregulation frequently lead to outcomes that undermine other, more essential, conservative values.

Similarly, on the left, Organic and GMO crops are accepted or rejected without any understanding of context or distinctions. While there are great benefits from most organic growing practices there are times where small farm, local, non-organic are better. Similarly with GMOs, rapidly becoming the tobacco and DDT of the twenty-first century. But not all GMOs pose the same risk to health and society. Golden rice can prevent vitamin deficiencies that cause death and blindness in millions worldwide yet has none of the potential health concerns associated with other GMOs.

These social heuristics can be useful in a complex world. Yet, too often they get in the way of clearly sorting out complex open issues because we view them as a credo and not a hypothesis.


Healthcare in US and France

•January 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment


In the United States, at least 9% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and are taking pharmaceutical medications. In France, the percentage of kids diagnosed and medicated for ADHD is less than .5%. How come the epidemic of ADHD—which has become firmly established in the United States—has almost completely passed over children in France?
–Marilyn Wedge “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD”

It is not that French children are different than American children. It is that the French approach diagnosis and treatment in a different way. In the US we focus on effects, so we look at symptoms and diagnose disorders. The French are more interested in cause and context. ADHD is not part of their CFTMEA (Classification Française des Troubles Mentaux de L’Enfant et de L’Adolescent). Their children have similar problems and struggles. They just think and talk about them differently.

“The French classification system supports labor and resource-intensive diagnostic and treatment practices, and such an approach is well-suited for a country with a universal health-care system, which covers the majority of medical costs. Conversely, such a labor-intensive approach would not find the same support in America’s managed care system, which deliberately seeks to curtail access to medical resources in general, and labor-intensive practices in particular.”
–Manuel Vallée “Resiting American Psychiatry”

The French approach to health care is radically different than the US. France has a multi-payer system and it works really well for them. US also has a multi-payer system but it does not work as well.

In France they believe that those who are most sick should get the best health care and that no person should be without access. In the US we believe the most deserving (those with the most money) should have the best care and the least deserving (the least money) should get little or no care.

In France they pay closer attention to context, social and environmental factors, which make for more complex, lengthier and more expensive treatments. The US system is focused on the rapid dispensing of medicine (drugs) and treatments (technology) and our symptom-focused diagnostic reflects that.

Universal coverage with lengthy and complex treatments is very expensive and France has one of the most expensive health care systems in the world. Yet many rate the French system the best in the world and the cost per person is less than half what it is in the US.


•December 22, 2013 • 2 Comments


“Justine Sacco, a PR executive who found herself at the centre of a Twitter firestorm after posting a racist “joke”, has lost her job and been forced to apologize as a result of the scandal.

The now-former director of corporate communications at media company IAC was about to board a plane to South Africa when she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Despite Ms Sacco only having around 200 followers, the message quickly spread to online news organizations, with social media users around the world expressing their disgust.

The irony of a supposed public relations expert tweeting such an insensitive comment, and the fact it could not be corrected during a 12-hour flight without an internet connection, meant the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was soon trending on the social media site.”

 A young attractive woman with a relatively important and high profile job is ruined in a few hours for a largely ironic but utterly tasteless comment to less than 200 Twitter followers. (I’m sure some of you have pets with more followers.) By the time she lands in Cape Town she has become internet famous and unemployed.


Everyone is offended by her Tweet and feels that her firing was unfortunate but deserved. As a PR exec she “should have known better.”

Yet just a few weeks earlier we had another incident involving Twitter and an airplane. Bachelor producer Elan Gale tweeted to thousands of followers about assaulting Diane, a rude woman on his pre-Thanksgiving plane, with relentless obscene sexual invective.

Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 5.31.31 PM

This time everyone passed it around as hilarious.  There was no outrage. Thankfully it was a hoax, but I didn’t see a single comment that he should loose HIS job.

Screen Shot 2013-12-26 at 5.08.11 PM

The whole thing seems rather misogynist to me. Yes, Ms. Sacco’s comment was racist and in bad taste but Elan Gale’s was extremely sexist, in bad taste and obscene. Both became the internet sensation of the day largely due to their promotion on Buzzfeed. What seems to be the big difference is that one was a woman in a position of responsibility and the other was at the expense of woman in a position of responsibility.

Witold Rybczynski: A conversation about architecture

•December 11, 2013 • 2 Comments
Villa Pisani in Leoni from Palladio

Villa Pisani in Leoni from Palladio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Focus & Attention
Architecture is a backdrop to our lives. It is rarely viewed with the focus and attention that we use with plays, novels or paintings. We glimpse a feature and think, “how nice that somebody actually thought of that.”

Distracted art
We see a play once, maybe twice, but we may see a building daily for many years. A building may remain in use for a hundred years or more, even in a consumer society that throws everything away. Most hundred-year-old things are viewed as antiques or historical curiosities and placed in museums but we live in hundred-year-old buildings. It is still “of our time.” And it will be of somebody else’s time further down the road.

The canon
Like literature, architecture has a canon. A well-designed building is not replaced in the way we replace a well-designed phone or computer or elevator. It remains in the canon as we continue to add new additions to it.

Public buildings need public support. It is hard to get behind the presentation of Brutalism from forty years ago, constructed of so much concrete. It costs money to preserve a building so you have to really like it to keep it.

Symmetry is a useful tool. It is powerful and has a long tradition. We shouldn’t throw things out that have build up a value.

Empirical, not theoretical
Architecture, like engineering, is based on trial and error. If it works we repeat it. It is a much more frequent practice than creating buildings motivated by a kind of theory. Experience almost always triumphs over theory.

The best architecture
The best architecture is when the architect faces seemingly intractable problems, solves them and creates something that is very satisfying. When a building’s roof leaks, it is not very satisfying—no matter how aesthetically pleasing it may seem.

Andrea Palladio, "Quattro libri dell´arch...

Andrea Palladio, “Quattro libri dell´architettura”, issue 1642. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Canadian architecture
Canadian architecture is very conservative because the climate is so harsh and unforgiving. Water will get into any flaws, freeze and break them apart. You would be insane to experiment too much. In warmer, more forgiving climates you can try stranger and more unusual things. Las Vegas is a perfect example.

How buildings learn
In his book How Buildings Learn, Stuart Brand points out that you cannot set out to design a building that anticipates it’s future use, but there are some buildings that are more successful in doing this than others.

I don’t really have an argument. If there is an argument it’s that there are many ways to make a building. The theory, if you will, is that we should appreciate a broader range of buildings. If you understand what an architect is trying to do, what problems he is trying to solve, you can better appreciate what he does.





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