Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding, John Dewey
Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding
John Dewey
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New Essays on Human Understanding (French: Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain) is a chapter-by-chapter rebuttal by Gottfried Leibniz of John Locke's major work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. It is one of only two full-length works by Leibniz (the other being the Theodicy). It was finished in 1704, but Locke's death was the cause alleged by Leibniz to withhold its publication. The book appeared some 60 years later. Like many philosophical works of the time, it is written in dialogue form. The current volume is a critical exposition of New Essays on Human Understanding by John Dewey, Ph.D., published in 1902.

Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human

A Critical Exposition

John Dewey, Ph.D.


The purpose of the series of which the present volume is one, is not, as will be seen by reference to the statement in the initial volume, to sum up in toto the system of any philosopher, but to give a “critical exposition” of some one masterpiece. In treating the “Nouveaux Essais” of Leibniz, I have found myself obliged, at times, to violate the letter of this expressed intention, in order to fulfil its spirit. The “Nouveaux Essais,” in spite of its being one of the two most extended philosophical writings of Leibniz, is a compendium of comments, rather than a connected argument or exposition. It has all the suggestiveness and richness of a note-book, but with much also of its fragmentariness. I have therefore been obliged to supplement my account of it by constant references to the other writings of Leibniz, and occasionally to take considerable liberty with the order of the treatment of topics. Upon the whole, this book will be found, I hope, to be a faithful reflex not only of Leibniz’s thought, but also of his discussions in the “Nouveaux Essais.”

In the main, the course of philosophic thought since the time of Leibniz has been such as to render almost self-evident his limitations, and to suggest needed corrections and amplifications. Indeed, it is much easier for those whose thoughts follow the turn that Kant has given modern thinking to appreciate the defects of Leibniz than to realize his greatness. I have endeavored, therefore, in the body of the work, to identify my thought with that of Leibniz as much as possible, to assume his standpoint and method, and, for the most part, to confine express criticism upon his limitations to the final chapter. In particular, I have attempted to bring out the relations of philosophy to the growing science of his times, to state the doctrine of pre-established harmony as he himself meant it, and to give something like consistency and coherency to his doctrine of material existence and of nature. This last task seemed especially to require doing. I have also endeavored to keep in mind, throughout, Leibniz’s relations to Locke, and to show the “Nouveaux Essais” as typical of the distinction between characteristic British and German thought.


May, 1888.

Chapter I.
The Man

“He who knows me only by my writings does not know me,” said Leibniz. These words — true, indeed, of every writer, but true of Leibniz in a way which gives a peculiar interest and charm to his life — must be our excuse for prefacing what is to be said of his “New Essays concerning the Human Understanding” with a brief biographical sketch.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was born in Leipzig June 21, 1646. His father, who died when Leibniz was only six years old, was a professor in the university and a notary of considerable practice. From him the future philosopher seems to have derived his extraordinary industry and love of detail. Such accounts as we have of him show no traces of the wonderful intellectual genius of his son, but only a diligent, plodding, faithful, and religious man, a thoroughly conscientious husband, jurist, and professor. Nor in the lines of physical heredity can we account for the unique career of Leibniz by his mother’s endowments. The fact, however, that she was patient in all trial, living in peace with her neighbors, anxious for unity and concord with all people, even with those not well disposed to her, throws great light upon the fundamental trait of Leibniz’s ethical nature. As in so many cases, it is the inherited moral characteristics which form the basis of the intellectual nature. The love of unity which was a moral trait in Leibniz’s mother became in him the hunger for a harmonious and unified mental world; the father’s devotion to detail showed itself as the desire for knowledge as minute and comprehensive as it was inter-related.

Left without his father, he was by the advice of a discerning friend allowed free access to the library. Leibniz never ceased to count this one of the greatest fortunes of his life. Writing in after years to a friend, he says: —

“When I lost my father, and was left without any direction in my studies, I had the luck to get at books in all languages, of all religions, upon all sciences, and to read them without any regular order, just as my own impulse led me. From this I obtained the great advantage that I was freed from ordinary prejudices, and introduced to many things of which I should otherwise never have thought.”

In a philosophical essay, in which he describes himself under the name of Gulielmus Pacidius, he says: —

“Wilhelm Friedlieb, a German by birth, who lost his father in his early years, was led to study through the innate tendency of his spirit; and the freedom with which he moved about in the sciences was equal to this innate impulse. He buried himself, a boy eight years old, in a library, staying there sometimes whole days, and, hardly stammering Latin, he took up every book which pleased his eyes. Opening and shutting them without any choice, he sipped now here, now there, lost himself in one, skipped over another, as the clearness of expression or of content attracted him. He seemed to be directed by the Tolle et lege of a higher voice. As good fortune would have it, he gave himself up to the ancients, in whom he at first understood nothing, by degrees a little, finally all that was really necessary, until he assumed not only a certain coloring of their expression, but also of their thought, — just as those who go about in the sun, even while they are occupied with other things, get sun-browned.”

And he goes on to tell us that their influence always remained with him. Their human, their important, their comprehensive ideas, grasping the whole of life in one image, together with their clear, natural, and transparent mode of expression, adapted precisely to their thoughts, seemed to him to be in the greatest contrast with the writings of moderns, without definiteness or order in expression, and without vitality or purpose in thought, — “written as if for another world.” Thus Leibniz learned two of the great lessons of his life, — to seek always for clearness of diction and for pertinence and purpose of ideas.

Historians and poets first occupied him; but when in his school-life, a lad of twelve or thirteen years, he came to the study of logic, he was greatly struck, he says, by the “ordering and analysis of thoughts which he found there.” He gave himself up to making tables of categories and predicaments, analyzing each book that he read into suitable topics, and arranging these into classes and sub-classes. We can imagine the astonishment of his playmates as he burst upon them with a demand to classify this or that idea, to find its appropriate predicament. Thus he was led naturally to the philosophic books in his father’s library, — to Plato and to Aristotle, to the Scholastics. Suarez, in particular, among the latter, he read; and traces of his influences are to be found in the formulation of his own philosophic system. At about this same time he took great delight in the theological works with which his father’s library abounded, reading with equal ease and pleasure the writings of the Lutherans and of the Reformed Church, of the Jesuits and the Jansenists, of the Thomists and the Arminians. The result was, he tells us, that he was strengthened in the Lutheran faith of his family, but, as we may easily imagine from his after life, made tolerant of all forms of faith.

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