Continental Rationalism: The Philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

1. The Monads


Let us go on now to Leibniz (1646 to 1716; you can spell it either “niz” or “nitz,” as you wish).


And so since he died in 1716 we are creeping into the 18th century. And I will be even briefer on Leibniz. He, too, has an ingenious complicated overall system, more fantastic than Spinoza’s, profuse argumentation at every step—essentially all fallacies—I am omitting almost all his arguments, I’m just giving you a quick sketch to give you an idea.


Now he, too, is a rationalist, at least three-quarters of the time.


He made some fun of rationalism, and there are even some anti-rationalist features in his philosophy (as we’ll see), and scholars distinguish two Leibnizes, the pure rationalist Leibniz and the mixed Leibniz. But we’re only going to look at the mixed Leibniz; that’s what was most influential, insofar as either of them was.


Now, as a rationalist, he believes that reasoning alone can discover the nature of the universe. There’s the usual opposition to the senses. The crucial knowledge, the foundational knowledge, is innate, we introspect to grasp it, and then we deduce its consequences.


Turning to his metaphysics, he disagrees with Spinoza’s pantheism. He believes that finite substances or entities are real. It’s not true that we’re all parts of God. And this was of course was the orthodox Christian position, and Leibniz certainly is eager to be orthodox. He does believe in God, and he believes that God is infinite, and he has no answer to Spinoza’s argument as to why if God is infinite there is no room for anything else; he just simply goes about his business. He is not the one to take risks like Spinoza.


Well let’s look at one of these finite substances, like a table or a chair or a rock or a mountain—what is it really? Well, it is compound.


The world is filled of things which are compound. In other words, substances consistent of parts. That’s what “compound” means, “consisting of parts.” Well if there are compounds, there must ultimately be simple substances.


After we break the compounds down to their ultimate constituents, we must reach the ultimate indivisible substances. And the technical name for indivisible is “simple.” And these simple substances, of course, themselves will have no parts, otherwise they too would be compound. Now such a simple substance Leibniz calls a monad, from the Greek wordmonas, meaning “one, that which is one.” Now these monads, or simple substances, are in effect the atoms of nature.


The whole universe is made up of these monads.


Now this will sound to you like the atomic theory, and Leibniz in his youth was attracted to Democritus. But of course, this is a different period of time with different influences, and he goes Democritus one step better. He says the monads, the ultimate atoms of things, cannot be material or extended in space at all.


Why? Because if they’re extended, he argues, they would be divisible, at least in thought. We could, for instance, even if the little tiny thing was a quarter of an inch or a zillionth of an inch, we could separate the left half of it from the right half in our minds, so it would still be divisible, it wouldn’t be simple.


But we’ve proved that there must be simple entities comprising the universe. And therefore, extension can’t be an ultimate attribute of these monads. So they’re not material, they’re not extended, they’re absolutely indivisible even in thought. And therefore, of course, they’re not in space, because you have to be material to be in space. (Now I interject in one sentence that the main fallacy here is the fact that you divide something in thought in no way entitles you to say that it’s divisible in reality. You see the typical Cartesian jump from consciousness to existence—“I can conceive of dividing it, therefore it can be divided”—and that’s the typical prior certainty of consciousness.)


In any event, Leibniz proceeds from this foundation to a long chain of reasoning, again consistent to the bitter end like a good Continental rationalist. Monads, we said, are not extended; they’re not spread out, they’re not material, they don’t occupy space. Well, but they must have some nature. What could it be? Well, for various reasons, but essentially the influence of Descartes—Descartes established that everything that isn’t matter must be mind—and consequently, Leibniz concluded that the monads are ultimately minds, souls, consciousnesses, perceiving beings, using “perceiving being” in the widest sense for a nonmaterial focus of awareness.


Well you might ask, if you’re still with me: What do the monads perceive?


Well obviously they can only perceive other monads, because that’s all there is. Each monad, says Leibniz, perceives every other monad in the universe; each monad is a living mirror of the entire universe of monads. And “perceive” here means simply “is aware of”; it’s not restricted to sensory perception, as you’ll see, there are various grades of monads.


Well now, what distinguishes one monad from the other?


How do you tell where one monad stops and the next one starts? They’re all minds perceiving the universe. What makes this particular monad this one rather than that one? In other words, what’s the source of individuality of the monad? Answers Leibniz, it is in how they perceive.


Some monads perceive clearly and distinctly, some obscurely and confusedly. That’s what differentiates the monads. The universe, therefore, is an infinite number of monads perceiving each other, each with its own precise degree of clarity and distinctness. Now no two have exactly the same degree or clarity—otherwise, it would be the same monad. See, that’s the only thing which individuates— which differentiates— one monad from another. So we have an infinite continuum.


On the bottom is the lowest, most confused, most unclear monad—in effect, a sub-freshman monad—and it goes on up to the monad which perceives with absolute, total, perfect clarity, and that of course is God, and every possible shade of clarity is represented.


2. Idealism

Now this sort of viewpoint, that reality is essentially nonmaterial (although not necessarily in the monad form) is as you know called "idealism." And Leibniz is therefore a staunch idealist metaphysically. And it represents the ultimate triumph of the Primacy of Consciousness. When you reach idealism, consciousness swamps existence completely, and existence simply is a collection of consciousnesses. And so this is the final upshot, you see, of Descartes.


Now we’ve seen the major objections to this, but I can’t resist pointing out that the whole case is so eloquently clear in Leibniz. The monads, he tells us, are perceiving beings.


What do they perceive? Other monads. But other monads are only perceiving beings, too. What is there to perceive? Nothing. In this whole universe it is absolutely empty. It consists of a whole infinite number of consciousnesses, each perceiving with an infinite number of degrees of clarity nothing at all. Now this is the triumph, you see, of consciousness without existence. And it’s as good as an example of the flaws of idealism, or the Primacy of Consciousness, as you’ll ever find. But we can leave this problem because others are pressing in.


The monads are minds, and Descartes had said that minds are independent substances.


And you remember a substance is that which exists in such a way as to stand in need of nothing beyond itself in order to exist. A mental substance for Descartes is a completely self-contained, locked in, independent entity. Well Leibniz follows him. He insists, with Descartes, that this is true. Each monad is absolutely impervious. It’s a self-contained independent little world. No monad, he says, can in any way whatever influence or affect any other monad. And that simply follows Descartes.


Descartes had tried to sneak in interaction among his constituents, but he couldn’t make it intelligible. Leibniz here follows Spinoza—there is no interaction, there’s no influence at all; each substance is completely independent in its own little world. No monad can in any way be acted upon by any other monad.


As he put it in a famous metaphor (but only a metaphor), “The monads have no windows from which anything can enter or go forth.” (Now that’s just a metaphor because they’re not physical, so obviously they have no windows. But it’s a way of saying they simply can’t influence any other monad nor be influenced by any other.) And ever since this formulation they have been called the "windowless monads." Now you will begin to see from conclusions of this sort, to sympathize to some extent with the empiricists, who hear all this and they say, “Oh, to hell with deduction.”


3. Kinds of monads

Well, to continue with Leibniz for a while—we have real problems now.


 How can the monads perceive each other, even supposing there was something to perceive, without being affected by one another? How does the monad which is my mind perceive, for instance, the monads which are your body, since those monads can’t act on my monad? Well, the solution to all problems is always God. God, says Leibniz, endowed each monad with all its perceptions in potential form when He created it. In effect, if you can think as an analogy, God stuck a certain motion picture film, in advance, inside each monad. And your conscious experience, life, is simply locked up in your own little world watching the film roll on; you’re locked in your own projection room. So it seems as though you’re being affected by other monads, but you really aren’t. Every experience is set in advance by God when you’re created, and your conscious life just unrolls inevitably inside your own projection room.


Well we can leave this for a moment (we’ll come back), and ask now: What is matter for Leibniz?


Well it also must be a collection of monads, because everything is. Now you say to me, surely matter isn’t composed of perceiving entities; surely matter isn’t conscious? Well, says Leibniz, no, it isn’t conscious; it perceives unconsciously, without being aware that it’s perceiving. And so he introduced the concept of “unconscious awareness,” or “unconscious perception.” And I should just mention in passing, this is one of the earliest mentions in history of the concept of “unconscious awareness”; it was hinted at in other people, but this is one of the earliest explicit mentions. Of course, it was taken over by Freud, and although misused mystically by Freud, it is a valuable psychologically concept. And it’s not startling to you today—you talk blithely of unconscious motivation, unconscious premises, etc. But it was startling at this period in time. And Leibniz, therefore, does get credit for developing this concept to some extent, even if you don’t want to give him credit for the metaphysical motives which led him to endorse it. Of course, only conscious beings in fact can be unconscious at times and over specific issues. How a completely non-conscious entity, like a chair, can be unconsciously aware without ever being consciously aware of anything, how that is possible Leibniz does not explain. But that’s the least of our problems.


In any case, we have an infinite range of monads. Four general groups. The lowest, most confused, most unclear monads, which have only unconscious perceptions, constitute matter. They are what Leibniz refers to as the "naked monads." And you can think of them as monads in a deep coma, or monads which are fast asleep. A material thing is actually a cluster of naked monads.


It looks to you as though it’s extended, physical, three-dimensional, but that is simply confused sensory appearance; that is not what it really is. Now, if a collection of naked monads clusters around one dominant monad which is considerably clearer than them, which is now conscious and has memory and sense perception, we call that totality an "animal." And if a group of naked monads clusters around one dominant monad which is still clearer, which has risen to the level of rational knowledge, we have a "human being." So each of you is, in effect, a high-class monad and a group of fellow-traveling naked monads. And of course, finally, if you get the absolutely clear infinite monad, that is "God."


 So everything is really a colony of souls, of windowless monads.


Now I might add that, for Leibniz, even though matter is only the appearance of monads, he does say the naked monads do, after all, appear to us as matter.


And we can describe the naked monads by mechanistic scientific laws. Now really, of course, the world of physics is an illusion; but it is an illusion that we live in, and which happens to obey the laws of physics. And therefore, says Leibniz, it’s perfectly All right to go ahead and study it scientifically. We must however remember that really the universe is a set of living minds created and determined by God. This is known as "Leibniz’s compromise between religion and science."


4. Pre-established harmony

Well now let’s go back to the problem of mutual influence.


We can call it the "mind-mind problem," since there’s no mind-body anymore. If nothing can influence anything, why do things seem to influence each other?


Now this is wider now than merely the problem of how does one perceive the other, although that’s part of it. Now we must ask not merely how do we account for perception, but how do we account for any form of apparent influence of one monad on another? It seems that I experience an act of will, and then—that takes place in my dominant monad—this collection of naked monads which I call my body moves as a result, so it seems. It seems as though a pin comes into my body and I then experience a pain—isn’t that influence from one monad to another? It seems as though if we just have one billiard ball hitting another, first the one rolls as one collection of naked monads does something, and then the other one rolls—isn’t that influence? Or when we all look at this water pitcher, for instance, we all have presumably the same experiences, and isn’t that an example of influence, the same real set of monads out there acting on all of us at the same time and causing the same experience in us?


Well of course, Leibniz denies that there is any such influence in any of these cases.


The monads are windowless. There seems to be influence only because God has worked it all out in advance. We are really looking at nothing but the motion picture in our heads that I referred to earlier; but God has synchronized and organized all of our experiences so that influence appears to exist, even though it doesn’t. God has arranged it, for instance, that whenever I have an experience of will, that will be followed by an experience of bodily action. Whenever I have an experience of a pin entering my body, I will have an experience of pain. Whenever I have an experience of a billiard ball hitting another, I’ll have an experience of a second one moving. And whenever we all have the same experience, that’s because God has arranged for us all to see the same picture at the same instant.


In other words, God has organized all our perceptions in advance so that they all mesh, they are all synchronized. He has pre-established a harmony among them. And that is Leibniz’s theory of "pre-established harmony." It’s his solution to the problem of interaction, among others. There is no interaction, simply God has pre-established a harmony so that there appears to be interaction.


5. The best of all possible worlds

Well now, let’s ask a final question—Why did God organize our perceptions the way He did?


He could have fed us a totally different stream of experiences, and still synchronized them all. Why, in effect, does God show all of us this movie and not some other movie? Or if we put the same question in more familiar terminology: Why did God create the world as He did?


Why does the world contain the kind of things in it that it does? Why does it follow the kinds of scientific laws that it does? After all, says Leibniz, other universes are logically possible. Why therefore this one?


Now notice that in asking this question, Leibniz has abandoned rationalism.


He has given up the attempt to see this world as logically necessary given the nature of reality. He’s decided in effect that Spinoza’s failure means that it can’t be done. Remember, Spinoza couldn’t deduce the concretes of this world from general principles, and I warned you then a reaction would set in. Well Leibniz represents the first indication of that reaction in a major way. If you asked Spinoza, “Are other worlds possible?”, he would say ridiculous, any more than if you asked him, “Why did God pick these geometrical theorems rather than some other?”—he would say no other theorems are possible. And of course, Objectivism would here agree with Spinoza—there is no other possible universe, and therefore there’s no sense to asking the question, “Why this one?” But Leibniz has given up on that question, which sounds the death knell of rationalism, at least for a century until Hegel under the influence of Kant revivified it. He has concluded that reality is not completely logical.


Now he still retains a vestige of rationalism. God, he says, cannot produce literally any world; He is limited to a self-consistent world, a world without contradictions. You can’t have a world where the angle-sum of a triangle equals 179 degrees—impossible, because that contradicts the definition of a triangle. So a possible world for Leibniz is a logically non-contradictory world.


Now of course Spinoza and Objectivism would say that limits the possibilities to one, namely the actual world. But not Leibniz. He says God in effect, before the world is created, spreads out in His mind all the possible worlds (and there’s a great many), and He asks Himself, “Which one should I actually create?” Being good, he wants to create the best world, the best of these worlds.


Now, you ask, can God create an absolutely perfect world?


Says Leibniz, no, He cannot. Because anything God creates must be finite, must be limited, since it’s not God; and that which is finite and limited we know from thousands of years of Christianity and Platonism is necessarily imperfect. And therefore, there must be some evil in the world. That’s logically required. You see here the obvious acceptance of the Augustinian, neo-Platonic solution to the problem of evil. But, says Leibniz, God does the best He can, given the limitations forced upon Him. He chooses the best of all the possible worlds. He chooses the world which has as much order, variety and goodness as is consistent with the laws of logic. And thus Leibniz’s famous line, “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”


That is his solution to the problem of evil—if there is evil, that’s simply because God is operating under certain constraints. This viewpoint by the way, I cringe to state, is sometimes referred to as "metaphysical optimism."


Now it was very unfortunate for Leibniz’s timing that his book came out just around the time of the Lisbon earthquake, which destroyed three-quarters of the city, and which was immediately followed by a gigantic tidal wave killing fifteen hundred people. This was too much for Voltaire, and so he wrote his satire Candide—Dr. Pangloss there represents Leibniz. And if I may say so, in my opinion, Candide is actually a stupid book. However, it has one clever line of satire—not very profound, but clever—he has his hero Candide with Dr. Pangloss go through a whole series of detailedly-described catastrophes, holocausts and so on, and then he has poor Candide in a bewildered way look up at one point and say words to the effect, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, I wonder what the others are like.” That’s about the substance of Voltaire’s contribution to human thought.


6. Necessary versus contingent facts

Let’s conclude Leibniz with one last epistemological point.


Notice that truths fall into two classes for him—those which even God can’t violate, those whose opposites would involve a contradiction—in other words, those which are logically necessary in any universe, in all possible worlds; they’re opposites are literally inconceivable; “Two and two make four,” for instance; “A is A”; “The angle-sum of a triangle is 180 degrees”; etc. These are the truths certified by logic, the truths of reason. And, on the other hand, there are the truths which result from God’s decision, from His goodness, from His purpose, from His having created this particular world rather than all the others He could have. In the case of these truths, they could have been different, had God so decided. These truths are not logically necessary, they are contingent. They happen to be the case in our world, they do not have to be the case. They are true as a matter of brute fact. For instance, “Bodies fall when you drop them,” “The planets travel in elliptical orbits,” “There are nine planets,” etc.


So on the one hand, we have the truths of reason, logically necessary truths which we can learn apart from experience (and I think may have, if not now, I do, introduce for you the philosophic term a priori, which means simply “independent of experience”; the logically necessary truths are a priori for Leibniz; they are the purely conceptual truths, true of all possible worlds; but they don’t pertain only to this actual world). On the other hand, there are the factual contingent truths of fact, the ones that we learn only from experience, and they are not a priori but a posteriori (a posteriori means only “dependent on experience”).


Now think for a moment—who does this dichotomy remind you of? Well, it should remind you of Hobbes. Even though he was different in certain ways—remember, he contrasted relations of names with matters of fact.


Now of course, for Hobbes, relations of names were simply linguistic. That isn’t true for Leibniz; the truths of reason are eternal laws of reality for him, even God can’t violate them. And for Hobbes, matters of fact didn’t come from God’s will. But if we leave aside those differences, we have two philosophers agreeing on the following distinction (and of course, they weren’t the only two)—the truths which are learned by reason and are necessary, vs. the truths which are learned by experience and are brute, contingent facts. Two radically different philosophers, so it seems—an ardent theist, Leibniz, and a virtual atheist, Hobbes; an ardent idealist and a passionate materialist; a Continental rationalist and a more-or-less of an empiricist; and yet we have that same basic cleavage and dichotomy.


Now, you see how the ground is being laid for Kant, those of you who know it. By the time he comes on the scene, this dichotomy is regarded as self-evident, and he proceeds to build on it.


Now Leibniz has no ethics, which is very convenient for us because it’s late.


7. The empiricist reaction

Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you observe the progression from Descartes through Spinoza and Leibniz, you will see what happens given the rationalist approach to philosophy. We start with allegedly self-evident clear and distinct principles underived from sense experience, which means in actual fact with arbitrary first principles, even though they are allegedly innate and inherited from God. And we proceed to deduce the consequences from these starting points. Whenever our conclusions conflict with the testimony of the senses, we simply write off the senses as confused, inadequate, deceptive, invalid, and proceed to deduce doggedly. The result is the construction of a number of opposed, imposing philosophic systems, all contradicting the others, all more or less completely removed from the everyday common sense world given us by the senses. We have in effect a series of intellectual castles in the air, as I mentioned at the outset, free-floating castles unrelated to and often in direct conflict with sensory data. That is the consequence of an approach whose essence is the manipulating of concepts cut off from sense experience. And it is an obviously unsatisfactory and invalid approach to philosophy.


Now, therefore, we’re going to turn to a school which reacted strongly against the rationalist approach, a school which claims to be radically opposed to the rationalists. And this school asserts that there are no innate ideas, that all knowledge is based on the evidence of the senses, and that the way to arrive at knowledge of reality is not to engage in conceptual manipulations within our minds, but to open our eyes and look at the actual world. This viewpoint, as you know, is called "empiricism," the view that there are no innate ideas and that all knowledge begins with experience. The 18th century in philosophy is the century dominated by empiricism. Empiricists pride themselves on being men of common sense, concerned with practical life. They say that this world here and now that we perceive is real (although, as you’ll see, they don’t say that for very long, but at least they start off saying that). To solve philosophic problems, they say, we must appeal to concrete facts, not get lost in a chain of floating abstract deductions. Now our ultimate description of empiricism is going to be much less flattering than this. When we get to the end of this development, you’re going to be hard-put to choose between Leibniz and the fruit of the empiricist approach as they worked it out. But we’ll watch and see it happen.


Notice: Transcripts are provided as a study aid for a student’s personal use while taking the course. Transcripts may not be downloaded, printed, copied or otherwise shared. ARI Campus reserves all rights with respect to course transcripts. Transcripts may vary slightly from the audio or video.