The Shell Game: Escaping multiple choice democracy

•October 6, 2016 • Leave a Comment

In an article for Lion’s Roar, Buddhist teacher Ethan Nichtern says you have six options on November 8. In summary, he claims that your first option is voting for Clinton and your other five options are the equivalent of voting for Trump.

I’m a little tired of being told my only choices are a neo-liberal hawk who supports war and the TPP or the end of civilization. Sure, vote for the lesser evil but also be aware that democracy is not a reality show to watch on TV. There is more to democracy than watching TV and voting for president. Real democracy is participatory. Voting for president is depressing, particularly this year.

The problem is well summarized by Thomas Frank in his recent article in The Guardian:

“Today as the Democrats go into battle against Trump, they find that their rallying cry has lost its magic. Hillary is discovering how difficult it is to win an election without hope. It transforms a vote for Hillary from mildly distasteful to almost totally futile.”

I live in a swing state. That means I have little choice but to vote for Clinton. But that is not the end, or even the main focus of my political activity. I hope others will start to think the same.

There is much more that can be, should be done. I don’t want to people to be despaired about their choices and give up. I want them to realize they are being cheated and see what options are available to do something about it.

Here are some of your real options:

  • Protest. When I say “protest” I mean something like the Progressive movement  or Occupy Wall Street.
  • Run for office (there are many local offices where you can have a real impact).
  • Write a letter, a blog, an article or a book.
  • Join an organization.
  • Talk to people.
  • Raise money for a cause.
  • Make noise.

Otherwise you will just get more and more of Ethan Nichtern’s rather lame and restrictive “choices.”




User Engagement Strategy

•September 30, 2016 • Leave a Comment

User engagement refers to the quality of the user experience. It emphasizes the aspects of the user interaction with the app, particularly length and frequency of use. In order for an app to serve its ultimate purpose it is important that the app be actively used, the users be engaged and attentive while using, and that users are motivated to return and continue using the app. A user engagement strategy provides the approach that will be used to keep users motivated to use the application as well as the mechanisms for evaluating their success.

An approach to user engagement should be focused on six basic engagement principles:

  •      Experience customization
  •      Motivational Rewards & Gamification
  •      Notifications
  •      Goal Progression
  •      Habit formation
  •      Excellence on fundamentals

Experience customization
One of the best ways to keep users engaged in an app is to provide an experience that is simple, relevant and motivating. Through customizing the experience to targeted segments you are better able to achieve that optimal, yet simple, experience for each user. Data collected through patient and caregiver reported outcomes, surveys, passive monitoring and user settings and goals provide the basis for segmentation into groups based on needs, level of understanding, ability and motivation. Targeted information and activities can then be delivered to the user to match their particular needs, level of comfort and ability making them more likely to interact and feel good about their interaction.

Motivational Rewards
People experience three kinds of behavior motivation: Extrinsic, Intrinsic and Habitual. We utilize all three to achieve a greater level of engagement across the spectrum of potential users.

Extrinsic motivation is provided by external rewards. Examples would include physical rewards like monetary incentives or prizes as well as intangible rewards like badges, leaderboards or other forms of positive reinforcement.

Intrinsic motivations are internal, for example a person’s goals and desires that drive or motivate them to do things.

Habits require little motivation, as they are automatic. A person performs these actions without thinking and with little effort. Habits are powerful in that they require effort to prevent or change the action.

Generally, intrinsic motivators are stronger when it comes to sustaining behavior change however extrinsic motivators are easier to initiate. Our engagement strategy therefore starts with extrinsic motivators and gradually transitions people toward intrinsic motivators with the intention of using those to develop habits.

Gamification can be one type of extrinsic motivator. It is made up of a variety of techniques including: targets, challenges, feedback, reinforcement and progress indicators—can be particularly useful in helping a user over the activation threshold, that point where they are considering, but not quite achieving, a certain action. They provide low-effort trigger points that signal and motivate the user to overcome inertia and take action. It is important that the progress treatment visualization (e.g., the well-being index) take full advantage of these powerful extrinsic motivators.

Notifications and reminders are another form of extrinsic motivation. Timely and relevant communication can be used to keep people engaged or bring back users who may have forgotten or neglected the app. Tactical push notifications, such as schedules and reminders, can be used as triggers to remind users of events and bring them back into app usage. These notifications are typically concise and focused so they are unobtrusive. Users can opt-in or opt-out so they are always in control of what messaging they see.

Goal Progression
As user gain some familiarity with the app we gradually transition them from external to intrinsic motivators. This keeps them inspired and active, particularly during the time when their motivation from extrinsic motivators naturally dips. One of the strongest intrinsic motivators is goal setting. This helps to create interest and activity on the basis of what already motivates them and provides them with a sense of progress over a longer time frame.

To best take advantage of the benefits of goal setting users should be able to set their own personal goals. These goals should be broken down into smaller and more achievable parts. Goals should be focused, and not too difficult or time consuming. As users complete each step toward their goal they receive positive feedback which gradually builds a growing sense of progress and confidence.

Each individual goal will be unique and defined in the way that it is best understood and motivating to the user. But most of these unique goals follow general patterns that can be used to create templates that will help users create manageable steps and develop the skills needed to reach them.

Habit formation
The development and repetition of skills achieved through extrinsic motivators like gamification and intrinsic motivators like goal setting will create patterns of thought and action that will grow to be reflexive over time. The formation of these habits will help users to continue to practice the behaviors which lead to better outcomes even if they experience periods of where they are not directly interacting with the app.

Excellence on fundamentals
More important than any other aspect is the actual execution.  Usability issues can undermine even the most well thought out program. The app itself needs to be relevant, compelling, accessible and straightforward. Content needs to pertinent and useful. Instructions need to be brief and clear. The interface must be designed for clarity, simplicity and to avoid clutter and confusion.

To achieve excellence on fundamentals it is necessary to listen to users. Feedback mechanisms should be available within the app for users to comment or respond. Iterative testing of features highlights any difficulties users may have. User interviews follow up on objective usability measures to provide context and a more complete understanding of user feelings and motivation. A regular cadence of updates will continue to improve upon user performance, acceptance and commitment.

Engagement Metrics
Objective measurement is important in understanding and evaluating the success of a user engagement strategy. There are several key metrics that should be used for tracking and evaluating user engagement:

  •      Monthly Active user/Daily active user-number of people actively using the app per month or per day
  •      Session length-how much time users are spending in the app per session. The longer the sessions the more engaged
  •      Time in app-how long a user was in the app over period of time
  •      Session interval-the time between sessions showing how frequently users interact with the app
  •      Retention rate-the percentage of users who return to the app
  •      Satisfaction Rating & Net Promoter Score-survey rating of user satisfaction and willingness to recommend the app to a friend
  •      Screen Flow-demonstrates how users move through the app. Not a metric per se but provides a deeper picture of user behavior and is particularly helpful in targeting problem areas

In order for the app to serve its ultimate purpose it is important that it be actively used, the users be engaged and attentive while using, and that users are motivated to return and continue using the app. A user engagement strategy as outlined above, provides an approach that will be used to keep users motivated to use the application as well as the mechanisms for evaluating their success.

Using Behavior Change Models to Improve HEDIS Scores

•September 1, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I was recently part of a panel discussion at UXPA Boston Annual Conference on Designing for Behavior Change. This proved to be a topic of interest as the room was packed, and there were a number of questions at the end. Most people wanted to know how they could use behavior change models to help them find solutions to particular problems they were working on. One of the more interesting questions was about how to apply behavior change techniques to improve HEDIS scores, which I felt deserved a longer and more in-depth response.  

HEDIS (Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set) is a set of standardized performance measures compiled by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). There are more than 80 measures that are related to many significant public health issues such as cancer, heart disease, smoking, asthma, and diabetes. Because so many plans collect standardized HEDIS data, it is possible to accurately compare performance across different organizations. As the most widely used standard for comparing health plans, HEDIS is a high priority for most health insurance companies. With clearly defined objectives and measurable criteria, as well as addressing important healthcare issues, HEDIS measures can serve as the focused goals that direct behavior change programs.

At the conference we discussed a variety of models for behavior change. They ranged from the historical to the recent, from the complex to the simple. Because of its simplicity, Fisher’s IMB model is a great model to start with. It was specifically created to improve health-related behaviors, particularly medication adherence. If used well, it can produce useful insights and results. Because it is easy for people to grasp it can be used frequently and applied to a variety of problems.

According to J. D. Fisher’s IMB model there are three primary constructs that influence behavior change: Information, Motivation, and Behavior Skills. Information includes knowledge and ideas about the behavior,  it may be correct or incorrect, and may facilitate or impede the desired behavior. Motivation is both personal and social, and includes any drivers of behavior including perceived benefits, potential side effects, and desire to comply with others. Behavior skills include a person’s objective ability to perform the task, as well as subjective factors, like confidence.

IMB model

There are many ways that one could use the IMB model to inform a program of behavior change. Probably the easiest way to get started would be to begin with the information construct. There are many problems that can be solved by information alone. Providing information is often the first thing we do when trying to change behavior.

There are roughly thirty immunizations and screenings included in the latest HEDIS measures. Almost all of these are simple and can be accomplished in a short outpatient visit. Most of them are not controversial and people rarely object to them. One possible information strategy might include instructional pamphlets informing plan members about the screenings, how and when to get them, and any details around cost or coverage. In addition, members could be notified when it is time for these screenings through a secure messaging system. These simple and low cost information strategies will quite often result in the desired behavior. But what happens with this doesn’t work?

When you look at the results of your information-oriented screening campaign you may find that providing information and reminders worked well for breast cancer screening and flu vaccinations, but had little effect on childhood immunization status. If this measure is important to your organization it might be time to investigate motivation. The motivation construct requires a bit more time and money than information construct. It will require some research—usually surveys or interviews with the target population—and some analysis to figure out their motivations and the best approaches to facilitate behavior change.

If you look into the motivations that drive people to avoid vaccinating their children you may find a variety of reasons, as these researchers did. They found four primary motivations: Calculation, Complacency, Convenience, and Confidence. Each of these four motivations suggested different ways in which they might best be approached.

Some of the most engaged parents are motivated by Calculation. They do not have a strong pre-existing bias and will spend a great deal of time researching the benefits and risks of vaccination. They attempt to avoid the risks, by not vaccinating their own children, while relying on the benefit of low infection rates resulting from general overall vaccination. Appeals to social motives as well as information about the actual risks and benefits can best target this group.

Complacency happens when a person does not feel threatened by the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases and so their motivation for action is low. Adjusting the information intervention to specifically address risk perception and myth debunking, combined with mandatory requirements, or opt-in defaults could increase the vaccination rate with this group.

Convenience is a problem for those without access to care, usually resulting from the lack of nearby facilities or ability to pay for services. This group will be harder to reach and will require a combination of structural and support interventions. Incentives will be particularly useful for influencing this group.

Confidence is lacking in those who don’t trust the effectiveness or safety of the vaccines, the system and professionals that provide them, and/or the policy makers that recommend them. These people have frequently been exposed to a great deal of misinformation and they are the hardest to reach. Most efforts will be viewed as coercion and only serve to increase their reluctance.

The combination of information and motivation, when used creatively, will take you a long way toward improving most HEDIS issues. However, there are complex and difficult problems that cannot be resolved through information and motivation alone. The IMB model provides us with an additional tool, Behavior skills, to use to effect behavior change.

The HEDIS score for high blood pressure measures “the percentage of adults 18–85 years of age who had a diagnosis of hypertension and whose blood pressure was adequately controlled (<140/90) during the measurement year.” There are a lot of factors that can influence blood pressure. Some people will have rapid success with simple interventions. Others will have to experiment with combinations of diet, exercise, medication and other lifestyle adjustments to achieve only modest results. Many of these interventions will require changing lifelong habits. Controlling high blood pressure could require a series of IMB steps: Information to provide an understanding of risks and potential treatments, Motivation to provide the impetus to change, and Behavior skills training to build the competency and proficiency for healthy actions.

These are just a couple of examples of how you can use a behavior change model to stimulate creative approaches improving HEDIS scores. HEDIS scores are useful because they provide a clear focus and foundation for a behavior change campaign. The IMB model is simple and easy to use, but as mentioned above, there are many other models, or combination of models, that could be used as well. It is best to start with a model you are familiar with. If you find it doesn’t inspire new directions and creative solutions, switch to another model that gives you better results. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Seeing the forest for the Hegelian trees

•August 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“The reason why he wishes to admit contradictions is that he wants to stop rational argument, and with it scientific and intellectual progress.”
Karl Popper

“A beautiful oasis around a treacherous pool of nonsense, and nowhere beneath the foliage is the ground really firm.”
Roger Scruton

“This illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.”
Bertrand Russell

“Hegel was a flat, witless, disgusting, revolting, ignorant charlatan who, with unparalleled impudence, kept scribbling insanity and nonsense.”
Arthur Schopenhauer

What is going on here? Hegel is well known as one of the major figures of western philosophy and he was widely influential. Yet all to often he is the butt of jokes and derision, even from fellow philosophers.

The problem
Part of the problem is the prose. German has a grammar that can maintain clarity through long and complex sentence structures. This clarity is often lost in English translation. Hegel also uses a highly technical vocabulary and frequently uses words in ways that differ from their typical usage. Contemporary philosophers use the work “logic” to refer to a formal axiomatic system of relations unrelated to their content. In Hegel, “logic” is the rational, structural core of all of reality.

A bigger problem is the lack of context. Hegel was a systematic philosopher. He created a system. His books and lectures explain or elaborate parts of that system. Yet none of these books or lectures provides an overview of the entire system. A person is expected to know, on their own, where they are in the system and how the particular book or lecture relates to the whole.


The names of the books are not much help. We have the Greater Logic, the Lesser Logic, the Lectures on Logic, the Science of Logic, and the Encyclopedia Logic. There is the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Philosophy of Spirit, including a chapter called the “Phenomenology of Spirit.” Not to mention the Philosophy of History and the History of Philosophy.

It can be a daunting task. As Allen Speight describes “One’s choice as first-time student of Hegel seems often, then, to be determined either as a resort to the misleadingly formulaic or as a gesture towards giving up on the effort altogether in favor of caricature.”

The solution
The individual books and lectures make much more sense when you see how they all fit together. When you understand how the entire system is constructed it is much easier to see how the arguments and conclusions of one book provide the presuppositions and foundation for the next one. Questions and puzzles from a particular book receive clarification and elaboration in the supporting lectures. There are still obstacles and difficulties. The prose is dense, the structure is elaborate and the project is enormous. But with a roadmap it is much easier to follow the overall direction and when you are able to stand back and view the entire project one forgets the thorny and difficult sentences and starts to see a rather sublime and magnificent philosophy.

Two things will help us:

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The Roadmap: A visual outline of Hegel’s entire system

1) The Roadmap. An outline of Hegel’s entire philosophical project which will hopefully help to situate our reading in the context of the overall system. Download here.

2) Stephen Houlgate’s The Hegel Reader. This anthology includes key excerpts from all the major works systematically arranged in the order of Hegel’s overall argument.

These two taken together should help to get a more comprehensive picture of Hegel and to see and understand his philosophy in a new, and hopefully less confusing, light.

Stephen Houlgate’s The Hegel Reader

For the September meeting we will be reading Parts 1-3 (pp. 1-250) which includes Hegel’s Early Writings, Phenomenology of Spirit and Science of Logic as well as Houlgate’s excellent introduction. These writings provide the introduction and foundational principles of Hegel’s philosophical system.

For the October meeting we will be reading Parts 4-6 (pp. 251-527) which includes some of the most interesting parts of Hegel’s system including the Philosophy of Nature, Subjective Spirit, Objective Spirit and Absolute Spirit. We will be reading excerpts from two of Hegel’s most frequently read works, The Philosophy of Right and The Philosophy of History, as well as the culmination of his entire system, the writings on Absolute Spirit encompassing Art, Religion and Philosophy.

Critique or Paralipomena?

•February 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“Kant … could not simply have put these two topics together casually. That Kant might act in a manner undeliberate in anything should strike those familiar with him as a man or thinker as suspect from the outset. All the more so in one of his major enterprises. Some effort to grasp the work as a whole is therefore essential.”

John Zamito-Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment

The Critique of Judgment holds an unfortunate place in the contemporary view of the history of philosophy. Most readers of Kant today appreciate the important influence of the first part, The Critique of Aesthetical Judgment, and ignore the rest of the book. They refer to the Critique of Judgment as merely Kant’s theory of aesthetics. Others, looking at the whole, are confused or bored by the Critique of Teleological Judgment and assume that Kant was collecting together some ideas that he couldn’t find a place for anywhere else, calling it a patchwork.

But it should be clear from what we have read so far that Kant isn’t a patchwork kind of thinker. He was meticulous and systematic. Clearly Kant thought there was something important here as he called the work a Critique, the name he reserved for his most meticulous and systematic writings (and not, for example Parerga and Paralipomena, which is a wonderful Kant-inspired work, but an altogether different kind of construction).

We could easily spend all our time thinking about Kant’s aesthetic ideas, but as we are reading all three critiques we have the unique opportunity to think about Kant the way he would have wanted us to — viewing all three critiques as part of one systematic philosophy, with the Critique of Judgment as the final and ultimate expression of that system.

What to read:

To get the full effect of the Critique of Judgment in all its strangeness it is best to read the entire thing. More realistically we can limit ourselves to the selections found in the Modern Library Classics’ Basic Writings of Kant.

If you don’t have that edition the selections include:

Introduction (Sections I, III, IV, V, VI, IX)
First Part: Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (Sections 1-7, 10-12, 23, 55-57)
Second Part: Critique of Teleological Judgment (Sections 61, 64-67, 69-71, 64-67, 69-71, 74, 80-84, 91)

Recommended translations:

Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Free online translations:
J. H. Bernard translation (1914)

James Creed Meredith translation (1911)

Auf Deutsch:
Akademieausgabe Text:

Projekt Gutenberug-DE:

Other related works by Kant

While Kant’s most systematic and mature discussion of teleology is in the Critique of Judgment, there is also extensive discussion of the topic in the Only Possible Argument for the Existence of God (1763), included in Theoretical Philosophy 1755–1770 (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), translated and edited by David Walford and Ralf Meerbote (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992). Kant also discusses teleology in two essays about race, “Determination of the Concept of a Human Race” (1785) and “On the Use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy” (1788); both are included in Anthropology, History, and Education (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant), edited by Gunter Zöller and Robert B. Louden.

Secondary works

Frederick C. Beiser –The Fate of Reason:German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte, Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1993.

Paul Guyer, P., (ed.) Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment: critical essays, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. 2003

Paul Guyer, P., “Kant’s Principles of Reflecting Judgment,” in Guyer, Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment: critical essays(2003).

Jonathan I. Isreal, Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Religion, and Human Rights 1750-1790, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2013.

John H. Zammito, The Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Chicago: Chicago University Press. 1992.

Kant’s Technical Terms

Howard Caygill-A Kant Dictionary

Andrew N.-Kant Glossary

Stephen Palmquist-A Glossary of Kant’s Technical Terms

Internet Resources:

A Leibniz Bibliography

•July 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: Making the best of all worlds 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: