Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Making the best of all worlds possible
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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: