Leibniz: Strange monads, esoteric harmony and love
Paul Lodge interviewed by Richard Marshall.
Paul Lodge is another single malt from the wild and wonderful world of Leibniz studies (starts as a Laphroaig, ends a Glenmorangie) where his thoughts go on forever brooding on the sheer breadth of Leibniz’s accomplishments, his big take-home messages, on why he never produced a magnum opus, his correspondences, his relationships with Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza, what he means by ‘harmony’, on whether he’s an Idealist, on whether he’s a Pantheist, on the strangeness of monads, on avoiding the rationalist/empiricist labelling scheme, on the mill argument and why Rorty, Searle and Wilson are unfaithful, on his esotericism, on his women and whether he’s a kind of feminist, on the different readings, on why history of philosophy is philosophy and what draws him in obsessively. Take a few shots and feel the world change….
3:AM: When and why did you decide to become a philosopher?
Paul Lodge: I can trace my initial philosophical thinking back a long way if that is generously construed. My Dad did an Open University degree course in the early 1970s and there was some philosophy involved in that. As a result this meant there was an OU textbook on Socrates and a copy of the Anscombe and Geach volume of Descartes’ writings on a bookshelf in our house during my childhood and, for some reason, they always intrigued me. And I also have a very vague recollection of watching an OU dramatization of Aristophanes’ The Clouds around that time. The earliest ‘philosophical thoughts’ I remember having were in my early teens and came in response to my Catholic upbringing and the inevitable confusions to which that gave rise – the eucharist and incarnation were inevitable sources of puzzlement. I also had an RE teacher at school, Bill Darlison, who lent me yet more Open University texts when I was about fifteen which I read with little understanding. And on top of that, there were the philosophical references that crept in from the comedy that my friends and I consumed through TV and videos – whether it was Monty Python’s philosopher’s song and philosophers’ football match, or Deep Thought providing the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. My decision to do philosophy at university didn’t flow naturally from these, however. I’d applied to do an engineering degree at first, but started to get cold feet when I went to look round campuses and so pulled out of the process. And it was only as I started to think about university again about six months later that I plumped for Psychology and Philosophy.
My religious upbringing and philosophy and psychology degree seem to be very relevant to the things that I’ve found interesting as a philosopher. Whatever else was going on in church and school, I was constantly forced to think about what it would be to live a good life, and philosophy and psychology nudged me in the direction of thinking about the philosophy of mind and the explanatory scope and limits of psychology as a natural science. Had I been drawn to maths and philosophy, say, I’m sure I’d have ended up with other philosophical interests later in my career, but there’s clearly a chicken and egg issue lurking here. As I reflect now, I see myself as having decided to become a philosopher in the somewhat naïve hope that thinking philosophically might be a way to acquire an understanding of myself and my place in the world that would yield the wisdom to live a good and happy life. And the major driving force behind this now seems to be the fact that I felt I could no longer rely on the support of a religious framework (if indeed there was ever a point at which I’d done this self-consciously). The older I get the happier I am that I was that naïve and that I ended up with the degree course that I did, and the more I try to cultivate the naivety.
3:AM: You are a leading expert on the philosophy of Leibniz. Diderot was so impressed by his talents that at one point he writes that he was ‘… tempted to throw away one’s books and go die quietly in the dark of some forgotten corner.’ Later Gottleib Frege said that Leibniz was in a class of his own. This is remarkably high praise. Can you say why his reputation is so high and what it was that drew you to him initially?
PL: Thanks, it’s nice of you to say that. I think one of the things that makes people react to Leibniz in the way that Diderot did is the sheer breadth of his accomplishments. Setting aside his achievements in any particular field, Leibniz is clearly one of the greatest polymaths the world has ever seen. He is well-known as an important philosopher, mathematician, and natural philosopher and, to a lesser degree for his pioneering writings on jurisprudence, linguistics, and geology. But his work extended to more practical endeavours, including inventions such as his early calculating machine, his designs for wind driven water pumps for use in mining, and a submarine. In one letter he even mentions an idea for shoes with springs underneath that would facilitate quick escape from pursuers. And, on top of all that, he was a tireless pursuer of social and political reform. Most significant in this regard were his efforts working toward church reunification and the foundation of scientific societies, but he was continually imagining schemes for the improvement of civil society, such as a medical training programme oriented towards public health, proposals for tax reform and a national insurance, and even a street-lighting plan that was ultimately implemented in Vienna.
Of course, it is not just the breadth that impresses. The discovery of the calculus alone would have been enough for his name to survive as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. But he also solved a significant number of other mathematical problems as well as pioneering binary arithmetic. In natural philosophy, his critique of Cartesian laws of motion led to him to introduce laws for the conservation of momentum and of vis viva (a precursor of kinetic energy) in collisions, and his rejection of absolute space and time puts him at the beginning of a relationist tradition which survives to this day. If one turns to Leibniz’s philosophy, breadth is again one of the most impressive features. But the extent to which he pursues philosophy in a systematic way, attempting to provide a grand theory of everything is also particularly striking.
However, if we look to the reception of Leibniz’s ideas things appear less rosy than the praise from Diderot and Frege might suggest. Immediately after his death it looks like three main things are happening to him. In Germany, there are disciples such as Wolff and Baumgarten who try to pick up where Leibniz left off, with a focus on the idea of providing systematic presentations of modified versions of his views that have something like the form that we find in Spinoza’s Ethics. But this largely positive reception gets swept away as a result of the direct attacks on Leibnizian ideas that we find in Kant’s critical philosophy. And, whilst there are critics of Kant whose work is somewhat Leibnizian in spirit, the standard picture of the evolution of German philosophy puts them and Leibniz squarely on the losing side. Elsewhere in the 18th century, Voltaire is lampooning Leibniz as Dr Pangloss in Candide to devastating effect, and more philosophical critiques of Leibniz’s natural theology and the ethics that depends on it are being offered by Hume. And again the combined effect is standardly regarded as devastating.
But even here, it is quite a bit more complicated. In a story that is only just beginning to be told in the Anglophone world, it is becoming clear from work by people like Jeremy Dunham that in 19th C. France the mood was not at all favorable toward the critical philosophy and that Leibniz was very much the hero. And, in addition, there are ways to read Kant and Leibniz that can give the appearance that there is a great deal more similarity between their views than one might imagine. There are crucial differences – e.g., Leibniz differs from Kant in being a compatibilist about freedom, and in offering a philosophical position that includes knowledge of the existence of representation-independent entities – but there is a huge amount of Kant that one can see latent (or event explicit) in Leibniz if one chooses to look at him in that way.
In the 20th century, Russell poses a big problem for Leibniz. Whilst he was impressed with some of what Leibniz is doing, his two big take-home messages are: 1) that Leibniz’s metaphysics drops out of a logic that involves confused understanding of the proposition as something that must have subject-predicate structure; and 2) that Leibniz was intellectually dishonest, and that had he been honest he would have had to admit that his views were really very similar to those of Spinoza. It is true that there was a resurgence of interest in Leibniz’s philosophical logic later in the century, and that he became seen as a kind of grandfather figure for possible worlds semantics and for relationism in the philosophy of space and time. But the theories themselves bear little relationship to the details of what Leibniz actually intended, and nor is there any suggestion that his views were feeding into the debates themselves in a significant way. He is also a perennial reference point for discussion of the principles of sufficient reason and principle of the identity of indiscernibles, but there is little attention to Leibniz’s reasons for adopting these principles.
At this point in the 21st century, my sense is that, outside the community of early modern scholars, Leibniz is a philosophical curiosity, but not someone who is thought to have much to offer as a source for contemporary thinking. But here, he occupies a very odd position. Most professional philosophers don’t claim to know anything about Leibniz, nor is there a live tradition that draws on his views explicitly in a way that is true of people like Hume, Kant, and even Spinoza. And yet when I tell people that I study Leibniz, I almost invariably get responses that suggest a great respect and acknowledgement that he was something quite special.
As for what drew me to him: I studied Leibniz for the first time in a graduate class run by Martha Brandt Bolton (who ultimately became my PhD supervisor) in which we read Locke’s Essay and Leibniz’s New Essays (his book-length critique of the Essay). I don’t remember much from that time. But I do remember being very struck by the strangeness of what he had to say about the ultimate nature of reality, and wanting to try to work out how anyone could have been led to actually advance such a view – here I am thinking of the standard reading of Leibniz’s metaphysics, according to which he regards the actual world as comprised by an infinite number of unextended mind-like monads, with the physical world somehow reduced to the appearance of these entities to one another.
At that point, I was expecting to do my thesis in philosophy of psychology. I liked the idea of knowing more about the big systematic philosophies of the past, but given the way that the history of philosophy fitted into the scheme of things in the UK (and to some extent still does) I didn’t have a sense that there was really a living to be made doing that. But I found myself unable to formulate any positive ideas in philosophy of psychology that didn’t seem wildly out of step with the context in which I was working and taking a largely critical approach just didn’t seem like it would be much fun or life-affirming. I also wrote a term paper that Martha seemed to like, and in her found someone who clearly was able to sustain a career just writing about the views of historical figures. And, with hindsight, it seems to me that her affirmation was an absolutely essential factor in the decisions I took, together with some of the negative feedback that I got from other quarters – some of which now seems a lot less plausible than it did then. But it was hard, of course, to gainsay those giving their stamp of disapproval given their professional reputations.
3:AM: Despite his immense reputation and productivity and achievement he never wrote a magnum opus did he? In this respect he is very different from his peers such as Descartes and Spinoza and Locke. Was this because of his personality or were there other reasons for this?
PL: It’s hard to know why this was the case, but there are a number of things that might have stood in the way. Given the breadth of his interests, one might be tempted to think that Leibniz never found the time to compose a treatise of this kind. But this flies in the face of the fact that he wrote a number of book-length works, including two philosophical works – The New Essays, which I’ve already mentioned, and the Theodicy, a lengthy series of essays whose official focus is the defence of divine justice in response to the problem of evil, but which range over a whole host of issues in philosophical theology as well as offering a sustained discussion of Leibniz’s understanding of freedom.
One possibility is that it was partly a reaction to the extremely negative response that he received from Antoine Arnauld in the late 1680s when he sent him a summary of his Discourse on Metaphysics, a work which contained an outline of many of the main themes of Leibniz’s philosophy at the time. But another explanation may lie in the form in which he thought such a magnum opus ought to be written. Leibniz often claimed that he would like to present his philosophy as a demonstrated system. And whilst it is not entirely clear what he meant by this, there is reason to think that he had in mind something similar to Spinoza’s Ethics (indeed, as I noted above, this is precisely what some of disciples tried to do for him after his death). In the places where he speaks of such an ideal form of presentation, he often suggests time is an obstacle. But there are also suggestions that there were things that Leibniz still needed to work out, or at least which he needed to express more adequately in order to be able to write such a treatise. So it may well be that Leibniz never reached a point in his life where he felt that his philosophical views were perfected enough for him to present them in the way that he would have wished a magnum opus to take.
3:AM: One of the main focuses of your research has been Leibniz’s correspondence with a relatively unknown figure called De Volder. Why did you choose to spend so much time on this?
PL: Absent a canonical text, Leibniz scholars are reliant on other sources more than scholars of other figures. Some of these are published essays; others are unpublished essays and longer unpublished manuscripts, along with large numbers of half-finished pieces. But we also have a huge volume of correspondence, and it is universally acknowledged by students of Leibniz that some of these letters contain the best records of Leibniz’s views that remain – e.g., the correspondences with Clarke, Arnauld, Des Bosses, and my guy De Volder.
Again, the proximate cause of my focusing on this correspondence was clearly my teacher Martha Brandt Bolton. I’d decided on Leibniz for my thesis and was foundering around. I’d thought about maybe focusing on his account of relations, and I had a more grandiose idea of trying to trace the Augustinian themes in his work, in the wake of Stephen Menn’s book on Descartes and Augustine. But then Martha suggested one day that Leibniz and De Volder would be a good thing to look at, given that no-one had subjected the conference as whole to serious study. This was probably partly because of the then very recent, and wonderful, study of the Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence by Robert Sleigh Jr. (which I won’t now need to put in my list recommended books when you ask for that at the end of the interview), but also because Martha knew how much really important material the correspondence contains for understanding Leibniz’s mature metaphysics.
De Volder brings out the best in Leibniz because he asks key questions about Leibniz’s conception of substance and the fundamental nature of material reality from a Cartesian perspective. He thus stands proxy for one of the (by then dead) key figures against whom Leibniz develops his views over the course of his entire career. Furthermore, it is in this correspondence (as people had known for a long time) that we get the clearest commitment to the thought that all there to reality in the end is an infinite plurality of monads, along with what seems to the clearest (and I don’t mean by that transparently clear) articulation of how this conception of reality is supposed to cohere with the world as revealed in ordinary experience and through mathematical physics.
In taking on the correspondence, the form of my thesis was pretty much decided – it was just a commentary on the main themes, and so that was a big bonus. But I faced the trickier task of having to translate quite a lot of Leibniz’s letters and all those by De Volder. And it is this side of things that has kept me with De Volder so long, given that I secured a contract with Yale to do an edition for the Yale Leibniz series and, absent a proper critical edition, I took on the somewhat foolhardy task of going back to the manuscripts to produce a transcription and translation.
That said, it still feels like I’ve only scraped the surface of this incredibly rich set of letters and my hope is that the edition and my efforts to explain it will spur others to think about it more. I also quite enjoy the thought that it’s unlikely anyone will try to replace my edition for a while, and that I’ll enjoy a kind of longevity through it that I’m sure I’d never have if I’d devoted the time to writing other things.
3:AM: In understanding that Leibniz can be usefully contrasted with Descartes on several issues. He argued against Cartesian dualism didn’t he? They had different conceptions of the body. Can you say something about their disagreement?
PL: The views of Descartes and later Cartesians are some of Leibniz’s most frequent targets. Whilst there are other important differences, e.g., their conception of God and God’s relation to the created world, their views about freedom, and their understanding of what epistemic warrant requires, I’ve written mainly about the ways in which Leibniz attacked the Cartesian conception of body. It’s easier to see the negative side here than to understand the alternative Leibniz had in mind. Indeed, it’s clear that his conception of the alternative underwent evolution over time and it is hard to find a truly stable view. Two key features of Cartesian matter worry Leibniz, namely, its indefinite divisibility into homogeneous geometrically extended parts and its passivity. Leibniz insists that genuine entities must be indivisible – otherwise they would be composites of the entities comprising them. With this in mind, Cartesian matter immediately fails to meet the condition for being genuinely real. So, assuming the material world is real, Leibniz is convinced that there must be more to matter than being geometrically extended. The other key reason that Leibniz rejects Cartesian matter is based on the fact that the material world is in motion and that the cause of at least some of that motion is external to us. From this Leibniz infers that source of that motion must either be intrinsic to matter or extrinsic to the matter and to us. The only game in town that makes it extrinsic is occasionalism (roughly the view that attributes all causal power to God), but Leibniz has a number of arguments against this view. So, he thinks we should accept that matter has an intrinsic source of motion, which is again inconsistent with the Cartesian conception of matter as passive geometrically extended stuff.
Leibniz’s positive story is really tricky to articulate. But, on the standard reading, at the heart of the view is the claim that matter is comprised of an infinite number of things that are essentially active, and that we can only understand that activity by analogy with the kind of activity that is present in the rational activity of human minds. This leaves Leibniz needing to explain how it is that this conception of the nature of body can be made to square with the way in which bodies appear in ordinary experience and the way that this relates to mathematical physics. And it is here that the idealistic elements of Leibniz’s thought come in, since he thinks that the extension of matter and the features of matter that depend it being extended (such as size, shape, and locomotion), are in an important sense representation dependent.
A rejection of Descartes substance dualism is a corollary of this. There’s not a huge gap between Leibniz and Descartes on the nature of the human mind, but, as we’ve just seen, bodies are infinite pluralities of mind-like entities rather than masses of material substance. Furthermore, within this framework, Leibniz rejects the Cartesian view that other animate beings are merely complex material systems. For every animate body in our representation of the material world, there is a mind-like entity that stands in a relation to it analogous to the one that our minds stand in to our bodies.
PL: It’s quite hard to pin down just how much Leibniz really differs from Spinoza. And in that respect there is certainly some truth to the famous charge by Russell that I mentioned above. One issue is that Leibniz was desperate to avoid committing himself to necessitarianism, a position that he, like others, ascribed to Spinoza. But at the same time Leibniz presents an account of the nature of reality that is self-consciously and unapologetically deterministic. God’s determinate nature determines that reality emerges in the fully determinate way that it does.
There has been a lot of ink spilled over how Leibniz wants to distinguish between necessary and contingent truths, given his determinism, and again it’s not clear that he is consistent over time. But it seems to me that he settles with the idea that the difference between necessary and contingent truths is exhausted by a difference in the logical structure of the propositions that express them. Perhaps the easiest way to get the position across is to start by noting that, anachronistic terminology aside, Leibniz holds that all true propositions are analytic and of subject predicate form. The difference between necessary and contingent truths is cashed out in terms of the number of steps that it would take to show that predicate term is contained in the subject term by a resolution of the terms involved. If it can be accomplished in a finite number of steps, the proposition is necessary, if it would, per impossibile, take an infinite number of steps, the proposition is contingent. Given the infinite complexity of the actual world, Leibniz thinks that this distinction tracks the distinction between truths about the created world and those that would be true in any possible world, and hence of any proposition that concerns this world. It also seems to track the epistemic capacities of finite minds in such a way that they can, in principle, understand that necessary truths must be true, but cannot do the same for contingent truths. So the account makes sense of why it is that we judge that contingent truths could have been otherwise, i.e., because we can’t rule out their falsity absolutely. But it doesn’t do justice to the gap that we seem to be able to open up between what we think could have been otherwise and what actually could have been. And Leibniz seems to leave us in a situation where the contingent truths really couldn’t have been other than true, given his determinism.
All this makes his obvious satisfaction with the account rather puzzling. But there’s at least one thing that might allow us to see what work it could do, if we think about what Leibniz says about freedom. One of the key aspects of Leibniz’s account is his attempt to show how he can respond to the worry that Arnauld had raised when Leibniz made it apparent that his view of divine and human activity was thoroughly deterministic. Leibniz characterizes the charge of Arnauld and others as an accusation that he is making all human activity necessary.
The account of modality that Leibniz offers is brought to bear on this challenge in two ways. First, given the infinite complexity of everything that happens in the created world, every proposition about human activity turns out to be contingent. But, furthermore, Leibniz’s account makes some sense of why necessity would be a problem even if one were a compatibilist. For, suppose that the outcomes of deliberation were necessary in Leibniz’s sense. This would mean that, at least in principle, one could know with certainty before one deliberated what the outcome of the deliberation would be. And were this the case, one might think that this would disrupt our practice of conceiving of ourselves as the instigators of our actions. So perhaps Leibniz’s thought is that it is ignorance regarding our place in the causal nexus that leads us to regard ourselves as the uncaused cause of the changes that involve our agency and that that in turn is a part of our conception of free action.
But although there is a kind of internal coherence to this, it is hard to see that it leaves him in any better position than Spinoza, for whom the necessity of things is a result of an equally unintelligible chain of infinite causes. And it isn’t really getting at the intuition that led his opponents to worry about the necessity of human actions, since these opponents are libertarians, who would be just as concerned about actions being wholly determined.
Another key distinction between Leibniz and Spinoza is the fact the Leibniz wants to retain the thought that the world has a teleological structure, in other words, he wants the notion of final cause to play a role in his philosophy. The basic reason for this is that he wants to save the thought that the universe is a good place (indeed, the best place it could have been) and that it was caused to exist for the sake of its goodness. Spinoza resolutely denies this, and claims that good/bad are ultimately to be explained in terms of human preferences. The justification for Leibniz’s view is very unclear, and stands at odds with most people’s intuition that a lot of bad stuff happens. My current thinking is that the ultimately answer may have to turn on a form of mystical apprehension that underwrites Leibniz’s own understanding of the world as a harmonious unity. But the details of this are something I have yet to formulate.
Leibniz’s biggest beef with Hobbes is actually one he has with Descartes too, namely that they are guilty of divine voluntarism regarding necessary truths, in particular those of morality and mathematics. The critique here is not particularly novel. Leibniz simply argues that without some facts of the matter independent of God’s will then there is no sound basis for normativity. That the grounds for normativity must be robust in this way goes without argument. Leibniz tries to rely on the intuition that mathematical truths seem like they simply could not be other than true, but in the places that Hobbes and Descartes are under explicit attack it doesn’t go any deeper than that. This is not to say, however, that we couldn’t try to investigate these foundational issues further by looking to other places in which they are relevant.
3:AM: Leibniz’s is often characterized as an Idealist. Does this seem right to you?
PL: Of course, we have to be very careful with labels such as “idealist”. And, in thinking about this question, it’s also important to note that different scholars have different views, many of which are well-argued and plausible and that there are good reasons to think that quite a bit of evolution took place over the course of his career. The kind of reading that interests me is one that assumes that something like the standard monadological view is correct. As I see it, even with this in place, Leibniz isn’t an idealist as that term is often understood – i.e., he is not someone who thinks that the material world is something that exists entirely in the conscious mind, or minds, of those who experience it. When I perceive a material object, I am perceiving something (or to be more precise some things) that exist independently of my perception of them.
But the twist comes when one considers what it is that Leibniz thinks about the nature of the things I am perceiving. On the monadological view, the ultimate nature of reality is exhausted by the existence of an infinite plurality of mind-like entities. Thus, when I perceive something that appears to me to be a material object with a spatio-temporal location, I am in fact perceiving an infinite number of unextended mind-like things, which appear to me in this way because of my finite cognitive capacities. But ‘appear’ has to be used with caution here. For although I am consciously aware of these things, I am not aware of all of them individually. In some cases, I’m consciously aware of those that ‘control’ the movements of macroscopic animate bodies. But in most cases my awareness of the monads that are the ultimate content of my perceptual experiences is like the way in which the sound of the individual waves is present in my perception of the roar of the ocean, to use one of Leibniz’s favoured examples.
One way to think of this is on analogy with the way in which people commonly understand the distinction between primary and secondary qualities that is associated with Locke. For Locke, the coloured appearance of a body is a feature of the sensation that the perceiver has when looking at a material thing whose intrinsic properties are exhausted by the so called primary qualities, i.e., the size, shape and motion of the particles that compose it. Leibniz requires us to accept that this thesis be extended to include the size, shape, and motion and the individuality of the particles themselves. For these are simply features of the way that pluralities of mind-like entities appear to one another. This leaves Leibniz with an interesting position. Material things have a reality that is independent of our perception of them. However, all their material features are perception dependent, and the reality of what is perceived is itself characterizable in ‘mental’ terms. So he is a ‘realist’ about matter. But if idealists are those who think that all there is in the world are mind-like things and ‘mental’ properties, then he counts as an idealist in this sense.
3:AM: Of course, he is famous for his Monadology? This is a crucial part of his metaphysics. So what is a monad and what does it do? Is it a kind of pantheism that claims that all nature is full of life?
PL: The easiest (and indeed only) way to get a handle on what monads are is through self-knowledge, or rather, through a particular interpretation of oneself as a mind-like being which accurately represents a world distinct from itself via outer sense, but which is causally isolated from that world and produces those representations spontaneously. The rest of the infinite plurality of existing monads are like us in these regards, but only some are self-conscious reasoning beings in the way that we are. Lots of them fail to have self-consciousness but are said to be aware in a rudimentary sense, and lots are said to be so dull-witted that their internal lives are like a dreamless sleep. There are also lots of monads that are much cleverer than us, by which Leibniz seems to mean that they have greater ability to negotiate the infinite plurality of beings conceptually. And then there is the super-monad, God who is the source of all the others and is characterised using the traditional tripartite conception of the divinity.
But Leibniz is insistent that his view is not pantheistic. The individual monads are genuinely distinct from each other and from God. God concurs with their activity and continually creates them, but is not to be identified with them in substance. Just how sustainable that view is, and indeed, just how much Leibniz was honest in claiming that monads are genuine sources of activity, which for Leibniz is a necessary condition for them to count as genuine individuals, continues to be matter of debate among scholars.
3:AM: The more we get into his thinking it’s not clear whether he’s a rationalist or an empiricist like Locke, Berkeley and Hume. He thinks we have innate ideas and holds to the principle of sufficient reason so that puts him in the rationalist camp. Where do you place him?
PL: I’m not so keen on the rationalist/empiricist labelling scheme. Those terms seem to mean too many different things to too many people at this point. There are some aspects of his philosophy that seem to distance him from Locke and Hume in important ways, however. I won’t try to compare him with Berkeley, as that seems to me a very murky question in itself, and one that is compounded by the fact that I don’t have a clear idea about what I think Berkeley is doing.
As you note, Leibniz is a proponent of innate ideas (indeed, he thinks that all our ideas are innate) and one of the key features of this view is the anti-Lockean thesis that we possess many of these ideas without being aware of their content. Indeed, to my mind, this is one of the most important things that Leibniz introduces into the history of philosophical thought, namely, the unconscious. He’s also opposed to Locke and Hume’s apparent commitment to sensory simples. Indeed, it seems to me that he does not want to regard sensations as genuine objects of awareness at all (though that’s probably a somewhat idiosyncratic reading that it would take me some time to try to defend). In addition, he is committed to the claim that the mind is an individual substance that persists over time and that we are directly aware of this in our own case. This stands against Locke’s official agnosticism, but Leibniz also appears to suspect Locke was a materialist, and the rejection of materialism is clearly an important aspect of Leibniz’s critique of Locke in the New Essays. And, of course, he’s miles away from the standard reading of Hume here according to which the self is some kind of bundle of perceptions. Leibniz’s view of the mind would not be possible if he didn’t think that we were able to know things without their being available as objects of awareness. His response to Hume’s challenge that we do not catch ourselves when we try to look would be to say that we can be aware of ourselves in act whenever we engage in mental activity – which is, for Leibniz, all the time. His commitment to this seems to me to be very clear in his response to occasionalists like Malebranche.
3:AM: Leibniz uses the famous mill argument in Section 17 of the Monadology to show that a machine couldn’t think. He’s arguing against Locke here isn’t he? What is the metaphor supposed to show and why do you think contemporary commentators such as Richard Rorty, John Searle and Margaret Dauler Wilson are unfaithful to what Leibniz intended?
PL: I’ve now written about this a couple of times, initially with Marc Bobro back in 1998, but again this year in a paper that was first published in the first edition of the new online journal Ergo. Marc and I criticized Rorty and Searle on the grounds that they attribute to Leibniz some kind of argument from ignorance. They seem to be saying that what Leibniz wants us to grasp is that knowledge of the workings of a physical system like a mill would leave us unable to see how anything of that sort could ever think (and here it seems to be the existence of conscious awareness that drives them). But in 1998 Marc and I claimed that Leibniz would surely have seen the obvious worry – i.e., that we just might not be able to make the right connections given what we now know about how physical things work. Margaret Dauler Wilson had a different reading. Her suggestion was that Leibniz was trying to get us to see that an essentially divisible thing could never be unified in such a way that it could ground the unity of consciousness. This then led Dauler Wilson to offer a Kantian critique of Leibniz, namely that he was illegitimately moving from the unity of consciousness to the assumption that the subject of conscious awareness was itself a unity. Here our worry was that Leibniz talks about perception as the key thing that a machine could never do, and perception is something that can be a feature of entities which have no conscious awareness for Leibniz. We claimed instead that it was still a clash between the essential divisibility of physical things and unity that was at issue, but that it was of a kind that left Leibniz immune to the Kantian critique. Of course, there was still the issue of why he thought that perception should be understood in this way, but we took the fifth on that. The argument seems to have lain dormant in the secondary literature for quite a while after that. But a couple of years ago, Stewart Duncan wrote a paper in which he extended the discussion of the mill argument to other texts in which it occurs and made a good case for the claim that Leibniz was up to different things in different places, sometimes offering an argument from ignorance, sometimes something like our unity of perception argument. But he also argued that it was the former that was going on the Monadology.
In the course of trying to work out whether Stewart had rendered our reading implausible I decided I might be able to respond and, in the recent paper, I try again to push against the claim that there’s an argument from ignorance, and to defend the reading of the Monadology passage. But I also came across a passage in an essay recently translated by Lloyd Strickland in which the mill is directly connected to the fact that Leibniz thinks of all ‘mental’ states (here we have to remember that this includes unconscious perceiving) as involving the activity of the entities that are in those states. Once one focuses on the kind of materialism that Leibniz had in his sights – i.e., one that invokes a conception of matter as essentially passive – it then becomes easy to see why states of mills couldn’t alone comprise mentality. This perhaps turns the argument into something that would have interested the likes of Rorty and Searle less, given that it invokes a seventeenth century conception of matter in a way that’s essential to the argument. But, especially in light of the fact that Marleen Rozemond has also published a paper this year which independently makes the same point, it offers the possibility of moving our understanding of Leibniz’s rejection of materialism forward. And whilst that might be more fun for the early modern geeks than others, there are definitely some deep philosophical issues bubbling under the surface regarding the connection between activity and perception, which Marleen has begun to explore more than I have.
3:AM: Newton wrote extensively on the occult. Did Leibniz?
PL: It depends on what counts as occult. I think it’s clear that Leibniz thought that there was wisdom to be found in the thoughts of anyone who had put sustained effort into their thinking. Indeed, it’s an artifact of his philosophy that this should be the case, given that, on one level of analysis, we are all finite instantiations of the very same infinite essence, i.e., the divine essence. So he was a voracious gatherer of information, and some of that arose from activities such as hanging out in alchemical circles, talking with the notorious Francis Mercurius van Helmont about the work of Christian Knorr von Rosenroth and others to assimilate the Kabbalah into Christendom, such as Anne Conway, or looking seriously at the ideas that were being brought back from China by the Jesuit missionaries. There’s also a well-known admission from Leibniz, nicely documented in a recent Stanford Encyclopedia article by John Whipple, that he sometimes presented his philosophy in an exoteric way and sometimes in a more esoteric one. So there is a sense in which he regarded elements of his own views as deserving to be kept occult.
The motivations here are complex, I think. Partly, I have the sense that he felt people had no idea what he was talking about when he struggled to express his deepest views and so didn’t think it worthwhile trying to express them in much of his public work. But, there’s clearly a worry about the extent to which his views might have seemed dangerously close to those of Spinoza (and in many ways they are very close) with all the worries about that might have brought for someone who clearly thrived on human company and who wanted his ideas to be taken up by others rather than portrayed as heretical and inadmissible.
The esoteric/exoteric distinction also gives the interpreter another level of hermeneutic license which makes Leibniz’s philosophy even more fun to play around with. Indeed, it’s one that fascinates me. I sometimes wonder whether Leibniz be being self-consciously ironic, when he portrays his views as if they were a true depiction of general claims about the structure of reality. And with this thought in mind, I naturally turn to thoughts about whether he might think that we ought to regard ourselves as monads in the best of all possible worlds and to propagate that view for reasons that are grounded in something other than the belief that they correspond to the way things are.
At the extreme it can sometimes look as though his method is much like Kant’s, but without all the torture that goes into trying to establish the necessity of the claims themselves. At other times, it seems to me that for Leibniz himself what emerges from his theorizing might justified on pragmatic grounds in service of that which makes this world seem to him to be genuinely as good as one could want it to be. But I’m a long way from having a good story to tell about how that might go.
3:AM: How does your approach to Leibniz differ from others? Are you aware of how your research is taking you in a certain direction which puts you at odds with some previous views about Leibniz?
PL: As I look back on the things I’ve written I can see a few things that look like points of contrast with other well-known readings – though I think a lot of what I think is dependent on the way in which I have assimilated the views of others. For example, I often find it hard to see the difference on some of the commonly discussed issues between what I think and what’s been written by Robert Merrihew Adams, Donald Rutherford and, of course, my own supervisor, Martha. But there are some things I’ve said that I think it would be nice to see people pick up on. One thing I’ve tried to emphasize is the extent to which Leibniz’s justifications are often empirical in nature. Indeed, it seems to me that his views on contingency force him to accept that we could never know anything about the created world in any other way given our finite capacities. If so, then this pushes back quite significantly against the conception of Leibniz as a ‘rationalist’ that people often have.
I’ve also tried to approach other aspects of Leibniz’s metaphysics on the basis of assuming that we are finite cognizers in an infinitely complex world. Thus, I’ve argued that Leibniz thinks the world of material individuals involves the constructive activity of finite minds, but that this doesn’t leave him committed to the view that the material world is entirely mind-dependent. But there is a big puzzle at the heart of this interpretation that I still find myself unable to resolve, since it appears that in thinking about the monads as bodies we are employing models that reify abstract features that neither monads themselves, nor the perceptual field in which they appear can be understood to instantiate. Whether that’s a problem for the interpretation or for Leibniz is the 64,000 dollar question. It seems to me that it’s something he never got entirely clear about and that the notorious (to Anglophone Leibniz scholars) puzzles about Leibniz’s use of the category of corporeal substance and his invocation of the notion of a ‘substantial bond’ in his correspondence with Des Bosses are evidence of his recognition of this puzzle.
I also, with Ben Crowe, developed some ideas on faith and reason that I still find quite interesting. I’m not sure they ascribe a particularly novel position to Leibniz as opposed to the philosophical tradition he’s working in, but they again suggest we need to think seriously about the extent to which Leibniz thinks that there are a priori reason-governed justifications for all the beliefs that we are entitled to accept. And, again this pushes back against the 21st century expectation that we will find Leibniz to be an arch-rationalist.
As for the future: I think it depends how much I end up trying to articulate some of the more idiosyncratic ideas that I have. I’m interested in writing more about Leibniz’s ethics. Indeed, I’d like to try to approach his work in such a way that I present him as primarily interested in an ethics that includes an understanding of the world that has a kind of eschatology at its heart. It’s well-known that Leibniz cared about the problem of evil, but I think it’s less well-known just how obsessed he was with it from quite early on in his life. One of his first accomplished pieces of writings, the Confessio Philosophi is very similar in intent to the much later, and more famous Theodicy. There are differences, but the continuity is quite striking, and it’s also clear that the notion of harmony of the world is at the heart of his response. Whilst the Confessio is a very theoretical piece of writing, a slightly later piece, On the Secrets of the Sublime, suggests to me that Leibniz regarded himself as having found the key to the good life as a result of acquiring the capacity to experience it as a harmonious unity. As I hinted at above in connection with the relation between Leibniz and Spinoza, this essay exudes something that seems like an almost mystical exuberance, as does another later piece, which Donald Rutherford has translated as Leibniz’s Philosophical Dream. I’d like to play around with the extent to which Leibniz’s philosophy can be seen as an attempt to articulate this quasi-mystical insight so as to make it available to as many as possible – something which he appears to me to try to do by giving an account of the world according to which it is something that will be available to all rational creatures in the fullness of time.
Part of the reading that’s sort of hatching in my mind at this point also tries to tie this into both the meaning and justification of the principle of sufficient reason, which I want to construe (in part) as a practical principle, and as part of a more general conception of the priority of the practical over the theoretical in Leibniz. The emphasis on praxis isn’t completely radical reading among scholars. The fact that pragmatic considerations play a big role in his thinking has often been a component in the ways others have seen him – it’s notable that one of Dewey’s very early writings was a study of Leibniz’s New Essays. And, in his recent translation of the correspondence between Leibniz and Electress Sophie and Queen Sophie Charlotte, Lloyd Strickland has emphasized the extent to which Leibniz is offering the princesses what he calls a ‘philosophy of contentment.’ But Strickland appears to think of Leibniz as offering a true account of things, seeing the truth of which suffices for contentment. I’d like to give these kinds of thoughts more of an existential twist and combine them with reflection on the extent to which Leibniz thinks that an account of reality offered by a finite being such as he was could ever be justified on the grounds that it corresponds with the nature of things.
I’m hoping to teach a graduate course on Leibniz’s Theodicy in the near future and that may provide the vehicle for exploring some of the ideas in a more scholarly way.
I’d also like to explore further the role that the notion of ‘love’ plays in Leibniz’s philosophy. It’s so key that’s it’s not at all silly to think of him as a philosopher of love. It plays a foundational role in his ethics, where the primary virtue is justice, which he defines as “the charity [i.e., love]” of the wise. To love is said to be to take pleasure in the perfection of the other, and this cocktail of ideas yields a kind of communitarian political philosophy that I think has perhaps been unjustly neglected. Some of that is due to the fact that it’s expressed in a context that can leave Leibniz looking like a conservative apologist for hereditary monarchy. But if appropriately decontextualized, the key ideas seem to me far more progressive and to prefigure the ‘social liberalism’ that was all the rage in late 19th century Britain. Indeed, I’m currently getting very interested in the similarities between Leibniz and T. H. Green, and even more inchoately, whether there are interesting connections to be drawn between Leibniz and Jung. But that’s another pair of stories.
3:AM: Leibniz corresponded with quite a number of women during his lifetime and seems to have had close relationships with Sophie, Electress of Hannover and Queen Sophie Charlotte of Prussia. Should we think of him has having had feminist leanings?
PL: Leibniz clearly placed a high value on his relationships with Sophie and Sophie Charlotte, and did correspond with them, and talk with them, about philosophical issues quite a bit. And he had quite a lengthy philosophical correspondence with Damaris Masham. But I think we have to be wary of thinking that he treated them as the kinds of intellectual partners that he sought in other correspondences and relationships. There were important personal and political reasons to engage with each these three women. In the case of Sophie and Sophie Charlotte, he played the role of courtier, and it’s also the case that his relationships with them had an important role in his emotional life.
The correspondence with Damaris Masham dates from a time when Locke was staying at her house, and there is some suggestion that his real aim in writing to Masham was to try to communicate indirectly with Locke through her. Furthermore, at least in the case of the correspondences with Sophie and Sophie Charlotte, when philosophy is at issue, Leibniz does almost all the talking, and is clearly trying to persuade them of the practical advantages that adherence to his philosophical outlook might bring to them. I think he did this because he cared about them as people, but it can all seem a little patronizing from a 21st century perspective. That said, he does seem to have thought the relationship between man and wife should be one of genuine friendship and to have conceived of that as involving a partnership of equals. So he probably wasn’t all bad when it comes to gender politics.
Furthermore, one tangential thing we as readers can get from thinking about Leibniz’s interactions with women is a window into the thought of some of the important women philosophers of the period. Whilst Leibniz may not have learned a lot from Masham, for me at least, knowing about Leibniz provided a route into discovering the existence of her as a philosopher in her own right. And consideration of some of intellectual circles in which he moved in the 1690s led to me find out about Anne Conway whose Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, has a Neoplatonic metaphysics that bears some striking resemblances to Leibniz’s own views. I’ve never done serious research on either of these two figures, though I am intending to teach a graduate seminar in 2015 on women philosophers of the early modern period in which Conway will certainly figure (Masham may have to be eclipsed by Margaret Cavendish given that I’ll only have eight sessions to work with). And there is now a really good body of secondary literature, and more emerging all the time, that will help to facilitate this kind of teaching. For many years, people such as Sarah Hutton, Eileen O’Neill, Margaret Atherton, and Lisa Shapiro (and many others) have been working to help us enlarge our conception of the role of women philosophers in the early modern period. Indeed, Sarah Hutton recently published an intellectual biography of Conway, and Christia Mercer is now working on a full-scale treatment of the Principles. I think of these kinds of projects as some of the most exciting things that are going on in early modern philosophy scholarship at the moment. Furthermore, they are an important part of the more general move toward a more inclusive profession which (notwithstanding the very serious growing pains) I also feel lucky to be living through.
3:AM: Your work as a scholar has been to develop philosophical understanding of this major historical figure. So how do you conceive of your work. Is it philosophy? It seems to me that engagement with the philosophical ideas of a historical figure immediately turns the process into one where the scholar is doing philosophy. Do you agree?
PL: I’m a philosopher by training and my readings of Leibniz are as someone who is trying to articulate a fairly systematic philosophical worldview, the nature and grounds for which I try to make intelligible to myself and others. I haven’t tried to defend those views as views myself, and nor do have I tried to develop neo-Leibnizian ideas that might serve as expressions of first order philosophical claims. So, since I tend to reserve the expression ‘doing philosophy’ for the latter, I am happy to regard my work as philosophically informed interpretation rather than philosophy. But I also hope that I’m contributing to keeping alive a system of ideas that might be usefully engaged with by those who do want to develop and articulate their own philosophical views. And clearly the questions I bring to the text are completely infused with the beliefs (however ill-formed) that I have about the issues I see Leibniz as discussing.
I think lots of the people that I know who write about philosophical texts are engaging with texts philosophically in something like this sense. But one sees differences within this kind of approach. In particular, there are some people who like to bring in concepts from contemporary philosophy a bit more than I do. I’d rather let Leibniz speak in his own (if translated) voice where that’s possible. And some people are a bit more interested in assessing whether it would be reasonable now to hold the views they are ascribing, or modified versions.
In fact, in private I’m doing my own philosophizing all the time and I find thinking about Leibniz’s texts very helpful in this regard, both positively and negatively. I’m most interested in foundational questions about normativity and one thing that can definitely be said for Leibniz is that he is pushing philosophy to its limits in this regard.
But it would be wrong to ignore the extent to which there is also an aesthetic motivation. I like to think of Leibniz’s thought as a bit like a musical instrument that I’ve been learning to play for a long time. Given that I can ‘play Leibniz’, there is much fun to be had from carefully learning a new bit of text, or playing through the readings of others. And then there is the great pleasure that comes from playing in the analogue of a band, i.e., talking with people who have worked on Leibniz for a long time and see things in something like the same way as I do, but who have their unique interpretations that can be shared for mutual benefit.
And, herein lies, I think, one of the great things about doing philosophy through historical figures like Leibniz. Whilst it’s very hard to leave your ego at home, there is less personal at stake when trying to discuss what you think Leibniz thought about x than when trying to say what you think about x. For one thing, everyone knows deep down, it would be crazy to think that they understood Leibniz an sich, and, for another, we all know he was a lot better at philosophy that we will ever be! And yet the joy of thinking philosophically is ever present.
3:AM: It’s probably not very cool or scholarly, but if you were to rank Leibniz where would you place him in a league table of all time greats? I ask, because he isn’t as well known now as Descartes. In terms of their ranking, is his relative obscurity fair?
PL: I have a suspicion he is the most impressive of all. But I would expect myself to be tempted by that thought that, and presumably, mutatis mutandis, that would be the standard response from anyone who focuses so much of their attention on a single historical figure. My hunch is that wherever one finds enough text that survives over time which apparently emanates from the same human being, and which sustains the level of interpretative engagement that Leibniz’s work does, one will find someone who prompts a similar kind of adulation.
I guess the best I can do is to say that I think that if you start to find reading Leibniz interesting, continuing with it is likely to be an extremely rewarding experience and one which will allow you to do a lot of philosophical thinking. And perhaps the existence of so much text and the lack of a single text that appears to provide a canonical statement of his views, means that you could get wrapped up in reading and thinking about his view for a long time – assuming, of course, that you’re lucky enough to find the financial support that facilitates that.
3:AM: When you are not steeped in the seventeenth century philosophical world, have you found any books or art or films outside of philosophy enlightening?
PL: I’m a bit of an obsessive and tend to go back to the same things over and over again. Indeed, I have only one publication that doesn’t have the word ‘Leibniz’ in the title. I don’t read a lot of fiction these days, since I find it hard not to pick up a philosophy book when I have the time to read. Indeed, most of the novels that I’ve read, I read in my teens and early twenties. One person I do go back to regularly is Hermann Hesse. There’s plenty not to like about his books – the most obvious being that they are pretty much devoid of significant female characters. But they hold a fascination for me, and The Glass Bead Game is my favorite. If I had to pick one other favorite novel, it would probably be Orlando by Virginia Woolf.
I listen to music pretty much all the time that I’m not watching the TV and DVDs that our kids are watching. Mainly that means turning on BBC Radio 3 and getting whatever I’m given. And, given just how much wonderful classical music there is, it’s rare that I turn it off.
But again I have my perennial obsessions. With classical music, it is Wagner, and mainly The Ring. Again, there are loads of things to hate about Wagner if you let yourself. But The Ring is indescribably wonderful in so many ways. I also like other kinds of music and the perennial favorites here are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Peter Gabriel (with Genesis and particularly the first 4 of his solo albums).
With all these artists, one of the key issues for me is the familiarity. I know there are lots of other newer things out there and I’m not immune to novelty (I can rattle off “Let it Go” and “Do you want to Build a Snowman?” in my sleep at the moment) and am fully aware that there are many of great things I’m probably missing out on. But I have my old friends and the richness of the experiences that returning to them again and again provides is generally more attractive to me. Crucially, there are common themes of alienation and redemption through love running throughout these works.
I’m pretty illiterate with the visual arts, but I love to walk around the National Gallery and Tate Modern in London. I also love the Rothko Chapel in Houston. As with music and philosophy the survival of canonical things seems to me to be indicative of something. Indeed, I once said in a job interview that I studied Leibniz because I thought his philosophical system needed to be preserved for future generations as one of the great achievements of human thought, much like Bach’s mass in B minor. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat. That said, again I really wouldn’t want to leave the impression that I’m immune to the charms and values of the new.
Another thing that I wouldn’t want to leave out is the beauty I find in places. I was born in Yorkshire and steeped in experiences of the Yorkshire Dales and the glacial landscapes of northern England. Three places stick out in particular. In the Lake District, it is Castlerigg stone circle just above Keswick and in Yorkshire there are two places: the head of Swaledale where the moraine Kisdon towers above the villages of Keld, Thwaite and Muker; and the tiny church of St Mary Lead, about 3 miles from where I was born, which stands isolated in a field that abuts the landscape in which the battle of Towton was fought in 1461, the bloodiest battle ever to take place on British soil. Finally, there is our garden at home in Oxford. It’s nothing special, but we have lots of lavender and hollyhocks and I love to watch all the insects going about their business in the summer. If there’s a time when the notion of pre-established harmony, and, indeed, the thought that this is the best of all possible worlds resonates for me, it’s when the bees are buzzing in among the flowers and going about their own harmonizing activity. But that’s not to say I can reconcile this rationally with the horrors that we rational beings inflict on each other.
3:AM: And finally for the monadalising readers here at 3am, are there five books you could recommend that would give us further insights into this philosophical world? (other than your own book of course which we’ll all be scampering away to buy once we’ve finished here!)
PL: It is a bit tough to get started with Leibniz and I am a little reluctant to single out five, so I want to cheat a bit if that’s Ok.
My favourite introductory book is Nicholas Jolley’s Leibniz.
If you want to know more about Leibniz the man, there is Maria Rosa Antognazza’s magisterial Leibniz: A Biography. It’s a fantastic piece of scholarship and a breezy read (for an intellectual biography) that brings out very clearly the practical dimension to Leibniz’s philosophical life.
As one moves on to the more advanced books, there are lots of good ones to choose from. I myself have probably learned most from Robert Merrihew Adams’ Leibniz: Determinist Theist, Idealist; and Donald Rutherford’s Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature, both of which present somewhat sympathetic readings of Leibniz’s ideas, even though neither author has philosophical assessment as their focus. But I also have a great regard for a book which takes a rather different approach, namely Christia Mercer’s Leibniz’s Metaphysics: It’s Origins and Development, which has a particular focus on the ways in which the preoccupations of Leibniz’s eclectic teachers led him to be infected with ideas (including a heavy dose of renaissance Neoplatonism) that would be played out during the remainder of his career.
I also can’t go without mentioning Daniel Garber’s book, Leibniz: Body, Substance, Monad, which I first heard as a lecture series and have just read for the third time this summer in preparation for a conference on his work. Dan says a lot of things that are different to things I would say, but it’s full of really interesting ideas.
Finally I wouldn’t want to leave out a few more things that are for those who might end up more obsessed. One is a book: Mark Kulstad’s Leibinz, Perception, Apperception and Reflection (Philosophia), and the other things are the academic papers of two people who’ve never written a book – namely Gregory Brown and my teacher Martha.
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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 24th, 2014.