At the Edge of God : Leibniz

The Enlightenment Century is generally presented as an era of revolutions in science and philosophy in occidental Europe. The Enlightenment’s appeal to reason was then considered as the cornerstone for the conception of the human being and life in societies, which was to be followed during the major social, political and economical developments that would occur in the following centuries. One of its main effects would become the growing critical spirit towards all things religious, from the very theological conceptions of God, soul, etc. to the more concrete faces of religion, such as matters concerning the clergy and the institution of the church. In other words, the deepest roots of the West’s contemporary distrust and skepticism towards religion may be the Enlightenment Century. But the history of science teaches us one surprising fact: many of the fundamental thinkers and scientists from the 16th to 18th centuries were in fact believers, with their own theories often stemming from religious assumptions, and/or leading to theistic demonstrations. Alongside René Descartes (1596-1650), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), or Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), we may find German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) as one of their main representatives.

Leibniz is often remembered as the thinker behind the notion of monads, understood as the fundamental units of the universe. Leibniz developed this intuitive concept more than a century before John Dalton’s scientific approach to the concept of atom in 1805. Even though it has been found since then that even an atom (from the greek atomos, “indivisible) can be ‘opened’ and ‘divided’ into smaller units – the electrons, the protons and neutrons, and later, the quarks, fermions and bosons – the belief in a fundamental un-dividable entity building the universe is at the core of major trends of science till date. While this degree of sophistication in our understanding of the universe could have appeared to come as a challenge to God’s almighty power, we will see in this essay that, like many of his other original ideas, Leibniz’s monadology is greatly inspired by his theistic position. As we will see, this background is not only found, expectedly, in Leibniz’s cardinal contributions to philosophical theology – his ontological and cosmological proofs of the existence of God – but also in more seemingly ‘secular’ matters such as some of his fundamental principles, his views on substance, on harmony, on panorganicism and epistemology.

Leibniz’s thought is generally introduced through what were, for the German thinker, the six cardinal principles: the Principle of the Best, the Predicate-in-Notion Principle, the Principle of Contradiction, the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the Principle of the Identity of the Indiscernibles and the Principle of Continuity (see for instance Look 2013). Of these principles or axioms, absolutely central to Leibniz’s thought, the first is one that deals explicitly with theistic questions. Leibniz’s first concern is to address the ‘position’ of God in his overall intellectual enterprise. Introducing his Discourse on Metaphysics (1686), Leibniz develops his fundamental demonstration of God’s ultimate benevolence and power: “God is an absolutely perfect being”; “power and knowledge are perfections, and, insofar as they belong to God, they do not have limits”; “Whence it follows that God, possessing supreme and infinite wisdom, acts in the most perfect manner, not only metaphysically, but also morally speaking…” (Leibniz 1989, 35). While the other principles do not explicitly mention God, and deal with matters related to problems of epistemology, logic or metaphysics, some of his positions do bear the marks of certain Christian assumptions. For instance, describing the problem of continuity in the first lines of New Essays On Human Understanding (1704), Leibniz bases his argument on a popular view of nature: “Nothing takes place suddenly, and it is one of my great and best confirmed maxims that nature never makes leaps” (Leibniz 1981, 56). This is also found in the doctrine of panorganicism, according to which ontological entities or realms follow a particular order:

“I distinguish: (1) the primitive entelechy or soul; (2) the matter, namely, the primary matter or primitive passive power; (3) the monad made up of these two things; (4) the mass or secondary matter, or the organic machine in which innumerable subordinate monads come together; and (5) the animal, that is, the corporeal substance, which the dominating monad makes into one machine” (Leibniz 1989, 177)

One may recognise the traces of an idea of continuum of beings, already found in Neoplatonism and in Medieval Scholasticism, as described by Arthur Lovejoy in The Great Chain of Being (1976). The former tradition became cardinal for several of the Church Father, the latter was organically part of the doctrinal evolution of Christianity, and both, in turn, reinforced the fundamental metaphysical structures developed through the history of the majority religion.

These principles soon came to produce their effects, when Leibniz drew the boundaries of his main theoretical claims. In Discourse on Metaphysics, Leibniz guides the reader through the beginning of his grand theory on substance, by going beyond the preexisting Aristotelian view on the question. Aristotle defined substance as what is subject of predication. Instead, for Leibniz, a substance is more than a repository of predication, since, for him, all substances are unique, and therefore irreducible to sets of predicates that would necessarily be ‘shared’ among diverse substances. It is also against Descartes that Leibniz goes, when he denies the latter’s definition of substance as what possesses an extension; the mind/body dualism being its perfect example. Indeed: if a body is fundamentally extended, Leibniz retorted, this means that the possibility of going “deeper” in substance, or, with a more visual language, “zooming in” substance, goes against the very conceptualisation of substance as un-dividable. Substances are not just visible parts of the world, but, more fundamentally, its ultimate constituents, the hypothetical monads or bits of matter of minute proportions. But interestingly, according to Leibniz, these monads do carry traces and marks of the whole world. This point in his rhetoric is of importance: at that stage, while not apparently central in the demonstration, God is invoked by Leibniz: in a human’s soul (which is one of the possible forms of a monad), “there are vestiges of everything that has happened to him [the human] and marks of everything that will happen to him and even traces of everything that happens in the universe, even though God alone could recognize them all” (Leibniz 1989, 41). In other words, “Every substance is like a complete world and like a mirror of God or of the whole universe, which each expresses in its own way” (Look 2013). Leibniz developed a sophisticated theory of natural philosophy to propose a modern response to the fundamental question of ontology, yet he could not depart from the mention of God to complete his demonstration.

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Plato’s objective idealism, absolutely central in the intellectual history of Western thought, would rejoin the theological discourse of Christianity through the mediations of 3rd century c.e. Plotinus’ and his own re-interpretation of Plato, later known as Neoplatonism, according to which The One, a God-like principle, reigns over the metaphysical realms of Intellect and Soul. After Plotinus, the concept of mind, postulated as the human’s particular reflection of the divine soul, could only be understood in religious terms — or rather, in the terms made religious through the Neoplatonist influences of Christianity.

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In fact, while Leibniz opposes Descartes’ body-mind dualism, he echoes the Frenchman’s fundamental hierarchy between mind and matter. The concept of mind, cardinal in Christian theological thought, is the archetype of the monad for Leibniz: “the only beings that will count as genuine substances and hence be considered real are mind-like simple substances endowed with perception and appetite” (Look 2013). The root of such an understanding is, unsurprisingly, Plato’s objective idealism and his open contempt for all things worldly, degraded as second-hand reflections of abstract forms in the World of Ideas. This conception, absolutely central in the intellectual history of Western thought, would rejoin the theological discourse of Christianity through the mediations of 3rd century c.e. Plotinus’ and his own re-interpretation of Plato, later known as Neoplatonism, according to which The One, a God-like principle, reigns over the metaphysical realms of Intellect and Soul. After Plotinus, the concept of mind, postulated as the human’s particular reflection of the divine soul, could only be understood in religious terms — or rather, in the terms made religious through the Neoplatonist influences of Christianity.

Leibniz’s Christian assumptions go even deeper. Not unlike Descartes, in fact, he soon reaches a position that lowers the body under the level of the mind: “I don’t really eliminate the body, but reduce it to what it is. For I show that corporeal mass, which is thought to have something over and above simple substances, is not a substance, but a phenomenon resulting from simple substances, which alone have unity and absolute reality” (Leibniz 1989, 181). This reduction may appear as part of a rational demonstration towards the discovery of the ultimate substance at a much smaller level than the (visible) body. But on a larger, historical scale, it contributed to the Platonic and Christian depreciative hierarchy of the body vis-à-vis the mind.

As he develops his description of the monads, Leibniz reaches a point where not the tiniest detail is left free from its theistic ramification. In Discourse on Metaphysics, he writes:

“Now, first of all, it is very evident that created substances depend upon God, who preserves them and who even produces them continually by a kind of emanation, just as we produce our thoughts. For God, so to speak, turns on all sides and in all ways the general system of phenomena which he finds it good to produce in order to manifest his glory, and he views all the faces of the world in all ways possible, since there is no relation that escapes his omniscience” (Leibniz 1989, 46–47).

In other words, every single substance of the universe, i.e. every monad, is but one perspective on the universe that God could take. Leibniz’s monads can hardly, at this stage, be further described with a theological-free language: all monads are emanations of God. Seen in this light, the precursor of the idea of atoms appears fairly far away from Dalton’s theoretical hypothesis.

It is, finally, in the realm of epistemology, that we can find some more of Leibniz’s theistic assumptions. Its ramifications there, however, seem to come less explicitly from Christian doctrines. Following Look (2013), we can represent Leibniz’s conception of human knowledge as the following:

Epistemology Scheme - Leibniz

Here, the Christian influence cannot be felt only in the fact of the ultimate distinction between God’s intuitive knowledge of all things of the world, and the human’s intuitive knowledge limited to primary notions and propositions (Look 2013), but also in the initial division postulated by Leibniz: obscure as opposed to clear knowledge. With Leibniz, knowledge has a quality of clarity. This view is in accordance with the underlying common understanding of the Enlightenment thinkers: reminiscent of the light emanating from outside Plato’s cave, human cognitive faculties can and must be used to decipher, organise and understand the world. But it took a few more centuries for the very assumption of light to be revealed as one more harmful than it initially seemed. In an essay entitled “Violence and Metaphysics”, French post-structuralist Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) supports the revolt of ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ (1906-1995) against the unquestioned assumption shared by the Greco-Christian Western intellectual traditions, to see thinking through the allegory of a ray of light giving access to a set of previously cluttered or darkened knowledge. For Derrida, this is more than a naïve methodological agreement; it is a Heliopolitics, “a philosophy of a world of light, a world without time” (Derrida 2012, 111).

Willingly or not, it is to this movement that Leibniz partook: the antique enterprise of knowledge as an attempt to conceptualise, and to get as close as possible, from God’s posited omnipotence. Leibniz’s later influences on scientific practices, themselves generally freed from the hold of religious doctrine, do not suffice to question the fundamentally theistic assumptions and roots that served Leibniz in the construction of his philosophy. It is at the border separating these two major eras of the history of thought that Leibniz’s philosophy found its own place. Seeking to contemplate God further deep  down in all substance, he paved the way for our times, where even the most sophisticated microscopes cannot extinguish the eternal thirsts caused by the many (in)visible traces of the divine.


Image courtesy: Jeremy Patton