Leibniz’s New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding
Category: Ideas
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An essay Concerning Human Understanding is a book by John Locke that examines how humans think and perceive things in the world around them. Leibniz's New Essays Concerning the Human Understanding is s chapter by chapter argument against Locke'sLocke's ideas and work. Author Gottfried Leibniz felt so strongly against the ideas Locke presented to the world he thought it was necessary to refute them in a full-length text. It was initially completed in 1704 but was not released until almost 60 years later.

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.

In 1661 the boy Leibniz, fifteen years old, entered the University of Leipzig. If we glance back upon his attainments, we find him thoroughly at home in Latin, having made good progress in Greek, acquainted with the historians and poets of antiquity, acquainted with the contemporary range of science, except in mathematics and physics, deeply read and interested in ancient and scholastic philosophy and in the current theological discussions. Of himself he says: —

“Two things were of extraordinary aid to me: in the first place, I was self-taught; and in the second, as soon as I entered upon any science I sought for something new, even though I did not as yet thoroughly understand the old. I thus gained two things: I did not fill my mind with things empty and to be unlearned afterwards, — things resting upon the assertion of the teacher, and not upon reason; and secondly, I never rested till I got down to the very roots of the science and reached its principles.”

While there is always a temptation to force the facts which we know of a man’s early life, so as to make them seem to account for what appears in mature years, and to find symbolisms and analogies which do not exist, we are not going astray, I think, if we see foreshadowed in this early education of Leibniz the two leading traits of his later thought, — universality and individuality. The range of Leibniz’s investigations already marks him as one who will be content with no fundamental principle which does not mirror the universe. The freedom with which he carried them on is testimony to the fact that even at this age the idea of self-development, of individual growth from within, was working upon him. In the fact, also, that he was self-taught we find doubtless the reason that he alone of the thinkers of this period did not have to retrace his steps, to take a hostile attitude towards the ideas into which he was educated, and to start anew upon a foundation then first built. The development of the thought of Leibniz is so gradual, continuous, and constant that it may serve as a model of the law by which the “monad” acts. Is not his early acquaintance with ancient literature and mediæval philosophy the reason that he could afterwards write that his philosophical system “connects Plato with Democritus, Aristotle with Descartes, the Scholastics with the moderns, theology and morals with reason”? And who can fail to see in the impartiality, the comprehensiveness, of his self-education the prophecy of the time when he can write of his ideas that “there are united in them, as in a centre of perspective, the ideas of the Sceptics in attributing to sensible things only a slight degree of reality; of the Pythagoreans and Platonists, who reduce all to harmonies, numbers, and ideas; of Parmenides and Plotinus, with their One and All; of the Stoics, with their notion of necessity, compatible with the spontaneity of other schools; of the vital philosophy of the Cabalists, who find feeling everywhere; of the forms and entelechies of Aristotle and the Schoolmen, united with the mechanical explanation of phenomena according to Democritus and the moderns”?

But we must hurry along over the succeeding years of his life. In the university the study of law was his principal occupation, as he had decided to follow in the footsteps of his father. It cannot be said that the character of the instruction or of the instructors at Leipzig was such as to give much nutriment or stimulus to a mind like that of Leibniz. He became acquainted there, however, with the Italian philosophy of the sixteenth century, — a philosophy which, as formulated by Cardanus and Campanella, formed the transition from Scholastic philosophy to the “mechanical” mode of viewing the universe. He had here also his first introduction to Descartes. The consequences of the new vision opened to Leibniz must be told in his own words: “I was but a child when I came to know Aristotle; even the Scholastics did not frighten me; and I in no way regret this now. Plato and Plotinus gave me much delight, not to speak of other philosophers of antiquity. Then I fell in with the writings of modern philosophy, and I recall the time when, a boy of fifteen years, I went walking in a little wood near Leipzig, the Rosenthal, in order to consider whether I should hold to the doctrine of substantial forms. Finally the mechanical theory conquered, and thus I was led to the study of the mathematical sciences.”

To the study of the mathematical sciences! Surely words of no mean import for either the future of Leibniz or of mathematics. But his Leipzig studies did not take him very far in this new direction. Only the elements of Euclid were taught there, and these by a lecturer of such confused style that Leibniz seems alone to have understood them. In Jena, however, where he went for a semester, things were somewhat better. Weigel, a mathematician of some fame, an astronomer, a jurist, and a philosopher, taught there, and introduced Leibniz into the lower forms of analysis. But the Thirty Years’ War had not left Germany in a state of high culture, and in after years Leibniz lamented the limitations of his early mathematical training, remarking that if he had spent his youth in Paris, he would have enriched science earlier. By 1666 Leibniz had finished his university career, having in previous years attained the degrees of bachelor of philosophy and master of philosophy. It is significant that for the first he wrote a thesis upon the principle of individuation, — the principle which in later years became the basis of his philosophy. This early essay, however, is rather an exhibition of learning and of dexterity in handling logical methods than a real anticipation of his afterthought.

For his second degree, he wrote a thesis upon the application of philosophic ideas to juridic procedure, — considerations which never ceased to occupy him. At about the same time appeared his earliest independent work, “De Arte Combinatoria.” From his study of mathematics, and especially of algebraic methods, Leibniz had become convinced that the source of all science is, — first, analysis; second, symbolic representation of the fundamental concepts, the symbolism avoiding the ambiguities and vagueness of language; and thirdly, the synthesis and interpretation of the symbols. It seemed to Leibniz that it ought to be possible to find the simplest notions in all the sciences, to discover general rules for calculating all their varieties of combination, and thus to attain the same certainty and generality of result that characterize mathematics. Leibniz never gave up this thought. Indeed, in spirit his philosophy is but its application, with the omission of symbols, on the side of the general notions fundamental to all science. It was also the idea of his age, — the idea that inspired Spinoza and the Aufklärung, the idea that inspired philosophical thinking until Kant gave it its death-blow by demonstrating the distinction between the methods of philosophy and of mathematical and physical science.

In 1666 Leibniz should have received his double doctorate of philosophy and of law; but petty jealousies and personal fears prevented his presenting himself for the examination. Disgusted with his treatment, feeling that the ties that bound him to Leipzig were severed by the recent death of his mother, anxious to study mathematics further, and, as he confesses, desiring, with the natural eagerness of youth, to see more of the world, he left Leipzig forever, and entered upon his Wanderjahre. He was prepared to be no mean citizen of the world. In his education he had gone from the historians to the poets, from the poets to the philosophers and the Scholastics, from them to the theologians and Church Fathers; then to the jurists, to the mathematicians, and then again to philosophy and to law.

He first directed his steps to the University of Altdorf; here he obtained his doctorate in law, and was offered a professorship, which he declined, — apparently because he felt that his time was not yet come, and that when it should come, it would not be in the narrow limits of a country village. From Altdorf he went to Nürnberg; here all that need concern us is the fact that he joined a society of alchemists (fraternitas roseæcrucis), and was made their secretary. Hereby he gained three things, — a knowledge of chemistry; an acquaintance with a number of scientific men of different countries, with whom, as secretary, he carried on correspondence; and the friendship of Boineburg, a diplomat of the court of the Elector and Archbishop of Mainz. This friendship was the means of his removing to Frankfurt. Here, under the direction of the Elector, he engaged in remodelling Roman law so as to adapt it for German use, in writing diplomatic tracts, letters, and essays upon theological matters, and in editing an edition of Nizolius, — a now forgotten philosophical writer. One of the most noteworthy facts in connection with this edition is that Leibniz pointed out the fitness of the German language for philosophical uses, and urged its employment, — a memorable fact in connection with the later development of German thought. Another important tract which he wrote was one urging the alliance of all German States for the purpose of advancing their internal and common interests. Here, as so often, Leibniz was almost two centuries in advance of his times. But the chief thing in connection with the stay of Leibniz at Mainz was the cause for which he left it. Louis XIV. had broken up the Triple Alliance, and showed signs of attacking Holland and the German Empire. It was then proposed to him that it would be of greater glory to himself and of greater advantage to France that he should move against Turkey and Egypt. The mission of presenting these ideas to the great king was intrusted to Leibniz, and in 1672 he went to Paris.

The plan failed completely, — so completely that we need say no more about it. But the journey to Paris was none the less the turning-point in the career of Leibniz. It brought him to the centre of intellectual civilization, — to a centre compared with which the highest attainments of disrupted and disheartened Germany were comparative barbarism. Molière was still alive, and Racine was at the summit of his glory. Leibniz became acquainted with Arnaud, a disciple of Descartes, who initiated him into the motive and spirit of his master. Cartesianism as a system, with its scientific basis and its speculative consequences, thus first became to him an intellectual reality. And, perhaps most important of all, he met Huygens, who became his teacher and inspirer both in the higher forms of mathematics and in their application to the interpretation and expression of physical phenomena. His diplomatic mission took him also to London, where the growing world of mathematical science was opened yet wider to him. The name of Sir Isaac Newton need only be given to show what this meant. From this time one of the greatest glories of Leibniz’s life dates, — a glory, however, which during his lifetime was embittered by envy and unappreciation, and obscured by detraction and malice, — the invention of the infinitesimal calculus. It would be interesting, were this the place, to trace the history of its discovery, — the gradual steps which led to it, the physical facts as well as mathematical theories which made it a necessity; but it must suffice to mention that these were such that the discovery of some general mode of expressing and interpreting the newly discovered facts of Nature was absolutely required for the further advance of science, and that steps towards the introduction of the fundamental ideas of the calculus had already been taken, — notably by Keppler, by Cavalieri, and by Wallis. It would be interesting to follow also the course of the controversy with Newton, — a controversy which in its method of conduct reflects no credit upon the names of either. But this can be summed up by saying that it is now generally admitted that absolute priority belongs to Newton, but that entire independence and originality characterize none the less the work of Leibniz, and that the method of approach and statement of the latter are the more philosophical and general, and, to use the words of the judicious summary of Merz, “Newton cared more for the results than the principle, while Leibniz was in search of fundamental principles, and anxious to arrive at simplifications and generalizations.”

The death of Boineburg removed the especial reasons for the return of Leibniz to Frankfurt, and in 1676 he accepted the position of librarian and private councillor at the court of Hanover. It arouses our interest and our questionings to know that on his journey back he stopped at the Hague, and there met face to face the other future great philosopher of the time, Spinoza. But our questionings meet no answer. At Hanover, the industries of Leibniz were varied. An extract from one of his own letters, though written at a somewhat later date, will give the best outline of his activities.

“It is incredible how scattered and divided are my occupations. I burrow through archives, investigate old writings, and collect unprinted manuscripts, with a view to throwing light on the history of Brunswick. I also receive and write a countless number of letters. I have so much that is new in mathematics, so many thoughts in philosophy, so many literary observations which I cannot get into shape, that in the midst of my tasks I do not know where to begin, and with Ovid am inclined to cry out: ‘My riches make me poor.’ I should like to give a description of my calculating-machine; but time fails. Above all else I desire to complete my Dynamics, as I think that I have finally discovered the true laws of material Nature, by whose means problems about bodies which are out of reach of rules now known may be solved. Friends are urging me to publish my Science of the Infinite, containing the basis of my new analysis. I have also on hand a new Characteristic, and many general considerations about the art of discovery. But all these works, the historical excepted, have to be done at odd moments. Then at the court all sorts of things are expected. I have to answer questions on points in international law; on points concerning the rights of the various princes in the Empire: so far I have managed to keep out of questions of private law. With all this I have had to carry on negotiations with the bishops of Neustadt and of Meaux [Bossuet], and with Pelisson and others upon religious matters.”

It is interesting to note how the philosophic spirit, the instinct for unity and generality, showed itself even in the least of Leibniz’s tasks. The Duke of Brunswick imposed upon Leibniz the task of drawing up a genealogical table of his House. Under Leibniz’s hands this expanded into a history of the House, and this in turn was the centre of an important study of the German Empire. It was impossible that the philosopher, according to whom every real being reflected the whole of the universe from its point of view, should have been able to treat even a slight phase of local history without regarding it in its relations to the history of the world. Similarly some mining operations in the Harz Mountains called the attention of Leibniz to geological matters. The result was a treatise called “Protogäa,” in which Leibniz gave a history of the development of the earth. Not content with seeing in a Brunswick mountain an epitome of the world’s physical formation, it was his intention to make this an introduction to his political history as a sort of geographical background and foundation. It is interesting to note that the historical studies of Leibniz took him on a three years’ journey, from 1687 to 1690, through the various courts of Europe, — a fact which not only had considerable influence upon Leibniz himself, but which enabled him to give stimulus to scientific development in more ways and places than one.

His philosophical career as an author begins for the most part with his return to Hanover in 1690. This lies outside of the scope of the present chapter, but here is a convenient place to call attention to the fact that for Leibniz the multitude of his other duties was so great that his philosophical work was the work “of odd moments.” There is no systematic exposition; there are a vast number of letters, of essays, of abstracts and memoranda published in various scientific journals. His philosophy bears not only in form, but in substance, traces of its haphazard and desultory origin. Another point of interest in this connection is the degree to which, in form, at least, his philosophical writings bear the impress of his cosmopolitan life. Leibniz had seen too much of the world, too much of courts, for his thoughts to take the rigid and unbending form of geometrical exposition suited to the lonely student of the Hague. Nor was the regular progression and elucidation of ideas adapted to the later Germans, almost without exception university professors, suited to the man of affairs. There is everywhere in Leibniz the attempt to adapt his modes of statement, not only to the terminology, but even to the ideas, of the one to whom they are addressed. There is the desire to magnify points of agreement, to minimize disagreements, characteristic of the courtier and the diplomat. His comprehensiveness is not only a comprehensiveness of thought, but of ways of exposition, due very largely, we must think, to his cosmopolitan education. The result has been to the great detriment of Leibniz’s influence as a systematic thinker, although it may be argued that it has aided his indirect and suggestive influence, the absorption of his ideas by men of literature, by Goethe, above all by Lessing, and his stimulating effect upon science and philosophy. It is certain that the attempt to systematize his thoughts, as was done by Wolff, had for its result the disappearance of all that was profound and thought-exciting.

If his philosophy thus reflects the manner of his daily life, the occupations of the latter were informed by the spirit of his philosophy. Two of the dearest interests of Leibniz remain to be mentioned, — one, the founding of academies; the other, the reconciling of religious organizations. The former testifies to his desire for comprehensiveness, unity, and organization of knowledge; the latter to his desire for practical unity, his dislike of all that is opposed and isolated. His efforts in the religions direction were twofold. The first was to end the theological and political controversies of the time by the reunion of the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches. It was a plan which did the greatest honor to the pacific spirit of Leibniz, but it was predestined to failure. Both sides made concessions, — more concessions than we of to-day should believe possible. But the one thing the Roman Catholic Church would not concede was the one thing which the Protestant Church demanded, — the notion of authority and hierarchy. Indeed, it may be questioned whether the terms on which Leibniz conceived of their reunion do not point to the greatest weakness in his philosophy, — the tendency to overlook oppositions and to resolve all contradiction into differences of degree. Hardly had this plan fallen through when Leibniz turned to the project of a union of the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Protestant Church. This scheme was more hopeful, and while unrealized during the life of our philosopher, was afterwards accomplished.

It is noteworthy that even before Leibniz went to Paris and to London he had conceived the idea of a society of learned men for the investigation, the systematization, and the publication of scientific truth in all its varied forms, — a society which should in breadth include the whole sphere of sciences, but should not treat them as so many isolated disciplines, but as members of one system. This idea was quickened when Leibniz saw the degree in which it had already been realized in the two great world-capitals. He never ceased to try to introduce similar academies wherever he had influence. In 1700 his labors bore their fruit in one instance. The Academy at Berlin was founded, and Leibniz was its first, and indeed life-long, president. But disappointment met him at Vienna, Dresden, and St. Petersburg, where he proposed similar societies.

Any sketch of Leibniz’s life, however brief, would be imperfect which did not mention the names at least of two remarkable women, — remarkable in themselves, and remarkable in their friendship with Leibniz. These were Sophia, grand-daughter of James I. of England (and thus the link by which the House of Brunswick finally came to rule over Great Britain) and wife of the Duke of Brunswick, and her daughter Sophia Charlotte, wife of the first king of Prussia. The latter, in particular, gave Leibniz every encouragement. She was personally deeply interested in all theological and philosophical questions. Upon her death-bed, in 1705, she is said to have told those about her that they were not to mourn for her, as she should now be able to satisfy her desire to learn about things which Leibniz had never sufficiently explained.

Her death marks the beginning of a period in Leibniz’s life which it is not pleasant to dwell upon. New rulers arose that knew not Leibniz. It cannot be said that from this time till his death in Hanover in 1716 Leibniz had much joy or satisfaction. His best friends were dead; his political ambitions were disappointed; he was suspected of coldness and unfriendliness by the courts both of Berlin and Hanover; Paris and Vienna were closed to him, so far as any wide influence was concerned, by his religious faith; the controversy with the friends of Newton still followed him. He was a man of the most remarkable intellectual gifts, of an energy which could be satisfied only with wide fields of action; and he found himself shut in by narrow intrigue to a petty round of courtly officialism. It is little wonder that the following words fell from his lips: “Germany is the only country in the world that does not know how to recognize the fame of its children and to make that fame immortal. It forgets itself; it forgets its own, unless foreigners make it mindful of its own treasures.” A Scotch friend of Leibniz, who happened to be in Hanover when he died, wrote that Leibniz “was buried more like a robber than what he really was, — the ornament of his country.” Such was the mortal end of the greatest intellectual genius since Aristotle. But genius is not a matter to be bounded in life or in death by provincial courts. Leibniz remains a foremost citizen in that “Kingdom of Spirits” in whose formation he found the meaning of the world.

Chapter II.
The Sources of His Philosophy

What is true of all men is true of philosophers, and of Leibniz among them. Speaking generally, what they are unconsciously and fundamentally, they are through absorption of their antecedents and surroundings. What they are consciously and reflectively, they are through their reaction upon the influence of heredity and environment. But there is a spiritual line of descent and a spiritual atmosphere; and in speaking of a philosopher, it is with this intellectual heredity and environment, rather than with the physical, that we are concerned. Leibniz was born into a period of intellectual activity the most teeming with ideas, the most fruitful in results, of any, perhaps, since the age of Pericles. We pride ourselves justly upon the activity of our own century, and in diffusion of intellectual action and wide-spread application of ideas the age of Leibniz could not compare with it. But ours is the age of diffusion and application, while his was one of fermentation and birth.

Such a period in its earlier days is apt to be turbid and unsettled. There is more heat of friction than calm light. And such had been the case in the hundred years before Leibniz. But when he arrived at intellectual maturity much of the crudity had disappeared. The troubling of the waters of thought had ceased; they were becoming clarified. Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, each had crystallized something out of that seething and chaotic mass of new ideas which had forced itself into European consciousness. Men had been introduced into a new world, and the natural result had been feelings of strangeness, and the vagaries of intellectual wanderings. But by the day of Leibniz the intellectual bearings had been made out anew, the new mental orientation had been secured.

The marks of this “new spiritual picture of the universe” are everywhere to be seen in Leibniz. His philosophy is the dawning consciousness of the modern world. In it we see the very conception and birth of the modern interpretation of the world. The history of thought is one continuous testimony to the ease with which we become hardened to ideas through custom. Ideas are constantly precipitating themselves out of the realm of ideas into that of ways of thinking and of viewing the universe. The problem of one century is the axiom of another. What one generation stakes its activity upon investigating is quietly taken for granted by the next. And so the highest reach of intellectual inspiration in the sixteenth century is to-day the ordinary food of thought, accepted without an inquiry as to its source, and almost without a suspicion that it has a recent historic origin. We have to go to Bacon or to Leibniz to see the genesis and growth of those ideas which to-day have become materialized into axiomatic points of view and into hard-and-fast categories of thought. In reading Leibniz the idea comes over us in all its freshness that there was a time when it was a discovery that the world is a universe, made after one plan and of one stuff. The ideas of inter-relation, of the harmony of law, of mutual dependence and correspondence, were not always the assumed starting-points of thought; they were once the crowning discoveries of a philosophy aglow and almost intoxicated with the splendor of its far-reaching generalizations. I take these examples of the unity of the world, the continuity and interdependence of all within it, because these are the ideas which come to their conscious and delighted birth in the philosophy of Leibniz. We do not put ourselves into the right attitude for understanding his thought until we remember that these ideas — the commonest tools of our thinking — were once new and fresh, and in their novelty and transforming strangeness were the products of a philosophic interpretation of experience. Except in that later contemporary of Leibniz, the young and enthusiastic Irish idealist, Berkeley, I know of no historic thinker in whom the birth-throes (joyous, however) of a new conception of the world are so evident as in Leibniz. But while in Berkeley what we see is the young man carried away and astounded by the grandeur and simplicity of a “new way of ideas” which he has discovered, what we see in Leibniz is the mature man penetrated throughout his being with an idea which in its unity answers to the unity of the world, and which in its complexity answers, tone to tone, to the complex harmony of the world.

The familiarity of the ideas which we use hides their grandeur from us. The unity of the world is a matter of course with us; the dependent order of all within it a mere starting-point upon which to base our investigations. But if we will put ourselves in the position of Leibniz, and behold, not the new planet, but the new universe, so one, so linked together, swimming into our ken, we shall feel something of the same exultant thrill that Leibniz felt, — an exultation not indeed personal in its nature, but which arises from the expansion of the human mind face to face with an expanding world. The spirit which is at the heart of the philosophy of Leibniz is the spirit which speaks in the following words: “Quin imo qui unam partem materiæ comprehenderet, idem comprehenderet totum universum ob eandem περιχώρησιν quam dixi. Mea principia talia sunt, ut vix a se invicem develli possint. Qui unum bene novit, omnia novit.” It is a spirit which feels that the secret of the universe has been rendered up to it, and which breathes a buoyant optimism. And if we of the nineteenth century have chosen to bewail the complexity of the problem of life, and to run hither and thither multiplying “insights” and points of view till this enthusiastic confidence in reason seems to us the rashness of an ignorance which does not comprehend the problem, and the unity in which Leibniz rested appears cold and abstract beside the manifold richness of the world, we should not forget that after all we have incorporated into our very mental structure the fundamental thoughts of Leibniz, — the thoughts of the rationality of the universe and of the “reign of law.”

What was the origin of these ideas in the mind of Leibniz? What influences in the philosophic succession of thinkers led him in this direction? What agencies acting in the intellectual world about him shaped his ideal reproduction of reality? Two causes above all others stand out with prominence, — one, the discoveries and principles of modern physical science; the other, that interpretation of experience which centuries before had been formulated by Aristotle. Leibniz has a double interest for those of to-day who reverence science and who hold to the historical method. His philosophy was an attempt to set in order the methods and principles of that growing science of nature which even then was transforming the emotional and mental life of Europe; and the attempt was guided everywhere by a profound and wide-reaching knowledge of the history of philosophy. On the first point Leibniz was certainly not alone. Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, each felt in his own way the fructifying touch of the new-springing science, and had attempted under its guidance to interpret the facts of nature and of man. But Leibniz stood alone in his interest in the history of thought. He stands alone indeed till he is greeted by his compeers of the nineteenth century. To Bacon previous philosophy — the Greek, the scholastic — was an “eidol of the theatre.” The human mind must be freed from its benumbing influence. To Descartes it was useless rubbish to be cleared away, that we might get a tabula rasa upon which to make a fresh start. And shall Locke and the empirical English school, or Reid and the Scotch school, or even Kant, be the first to throw a stone at Bacon and Descartes? It was reserved to Leibniz, with a genius almost two centuries in advance of his times, to penetrate the meaning of the previous development of reflective thought. It would be going beyond our brief to claim that Leibniz was interested in this as a historical movement, or that he specially concerned himself with the genetic lines which connected the various schools of thought. But we should come short of our duty to Leibniz if we did not recognize his conscious and largely successful attempt to apprehend the core of truth in all systems, however alien to his own, and to incorporate it into his own thinking.

Nothing could be more characteristic of Leibniz than his saying, “I find that most systems are right in a good share of that which they advance, but not so much in what they deny;” or than this other statement of his, “We must not hastily believe that which the mass of men, or even of authorities, advance, but each must demand for himself the proofs of the thesis sustained. Yet long research generally convinces that the old and received opinions are good, provided they be interpreted justly.” It is in the profound union in Leibniz of the principles which these quotations image that his abiding worth lies. Leibniz was interested in affirmations, not in denials. He was interested in securing the union of the modern method, the spirit of original research and independent judgment, with the conserved results of previous thought. Leibniz was a man of his times; that is to say, he was a scientific man, — the contemporary, for example, of men as different as Bernouilli, Swammerdam, Huygens, and Newton, and was himself actively engaged in the prosecution of mathematics, mechanics, geology, comparative philology, and jurisprudence. But he was also a man of Aristotle’s times, — that is to say, a philosopher, not satisfied until the facts, principles, and methods of science had received an interpretation which should explain and unify them.

Leibniz’s acquaintance with the higher forms of mathematics was due, as we have seen, to his acquaintance with Huygens. As he made the acquaintance of the latter at the same time that he made the acquaintance of the followers of Descartes, it is likely that he received his introduction to the higher developments of the scientific interpretation of nature and of the philosophic interpretation of science at about the same time. For a while, then, Leibniz was a Cartesian; and he never ceased to call the doctrine of Descartes the antechamber of truth. What were the ideas which he received from Descartes? Fundamentally they were two, — one about the method of truth, the other about the substance of truth. He received the idea that the method of philosophy consists in the analysis of any complex group of ideas down to simple ideas which shall be perfectly clear and distinct; that all such clear and distinct ideas are true, and may then be used for the synthetic reconstruction of any body of truth. Concerning the substance of philosophic truth, he learned that nature is to be interpreted mechanically, and that the instrument of this mechanical interpretation is mathematics. I have used the term “received” in speaking of the relation of Leibniz to these ideas. Yet long before this time we might see him giving himself up to dreams about a vast art of combination which should reduce all the ideas concerned in any science to their simplest elements, and then combine them to any degree of complexity. We have already seen him giving us a picture of a boy of fifteen gravely disputing with himself whether he shall accept the doctrine of forms and final causes, or of physical causes, and as gravely deciding that he shall side with the “moderns;” and that boy was himself. In these facts we have renewed confirmation of the truth that one mind never receives from another anything excepting the stimulus, the reflex, the development of ideas which have already possessed it. But when Leibniz, with his isolated and somewhat ill-digested thoughts, came in contact with that systematized and connected body of doctrines which the Cartesians presented to him in Paris, his ideas were quickened, and he felt the necessity — that final mark of the philosophic mind — of putting them in order.

About the method of Descartes, which Leibniz adopted from him, or rather formulated for himself under the influence of Descartes, not much need be said. It was the method of Continental thought till the time of Kant. It was the mother of the philosophic systems of Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza. It was equally the mother of the German Aufklärung and the French éclaircissement. Its fundamental idea is the thought upon which Rationalism everywhere bases itself. It says: Reduce everything to simple notions. Get clearness; get distinctness. Analyze the complex. Shun the obscure. Discover axioms; employ these axioms in connection with the simple notions, and build up from them. Whatever can be treated in this way is capable of proof, and only this. Leibniz, I repeat, possessed this method in common with Descartes and Spinoza. The certainty and demonstrativeness of mathematics stood out in the clearest contrast to the uncertainty, the obscurity, of all other knowledge. And to them, as to all before the days of Kant, it seemed beyond doubt that the method of mathematics consists in the analysis of notions, and in their synthesis through the medium of axioms, which are true because identical statements; while the notions are true because clear and distinct.

And yet the method led Leibniz in a very different direction. One of the fundamental doctrines, for example, of Leibniz is the existence everywhere of minute and obscure perceptions, — which are of the greatest importance, but of which we, at least, can never have distinct consciousness. How is this factor of his thought, which almost approaches mysticism, to be reconciled with the statements just made? It is found in the different application which is made of the method. The object of Descartes is the erection of a new structure of truth upon a tabula rasa of all former doctrines. The object of Leibniz is the interpretation of an old body of truth by a method which shall reveal it in its clearest light. Descartes and Spinoza are “rationalists” both in their method and results. Leibniz is a “rationalist” in his method; but his application of the method is everywhere controlled by historic considerations. It is, I think, impossible to over-emphasize this fact. Descartes was profoundly convinced that past thought had gone wrong, and that its results were worthless. Leibniz was as profoundly convinced that its instincts had been right, and that the general idea of the world which it gave was correct. Leibniz would have given the heartiest assent to Goethe’s saying, “Das Wahre war schon längst gefunden.” It was out of the question, then, that he should use the new method in any other than an interpreting way to bring out in a connected system and unity the true meaning of the subject-matter.

So much of generality for the method of Leibniz. The positive substance of doctrine which he developed under scientific influence affords matter for more discussion. Of the three influences which meet us here, two are still Cartesian; the third is from the new science of biology, although not yet answering to that name. These three influences are, in order: the idea that nature is to be explained mechanically; that this is to be brought about through the application of mathematics; and, from biology, the idea that all change is of the nature of continuous growth or unfolding. Let us consider each in this order.

What is meant by the mechanical explanation of nature? To answer a question thus baldly put, we must recall the kind of explanations which had satisfied the scholastic men of science. They had been explanations which, however true, Leibniz says, as general principles, do not touch the details of the matter. The explanations of natural facts had been found in general principles, in substantial forces, in occult essences, in native faculties. Now, the first contention of the founders of the modern scientific movement was that such general considerations are not verifiable, and that if they are, they are entirely aside from the point, — they fail to explain any given fact. Explanation must always consist in discovering an immediate connection between some fact and some co-existing or preceding fact. Explanation does not consist in referring a fact to a general power, it consists in referring it to an antecedent whose existence is its necessary condition. It was not left till the times of Mr. Huxley to poke fun at those who would explain some concrete phenomenon by reference to an abstract principle ending in — ity. Leibniz has his word to say about those who would account for the movements of a watch by reference to a principle of horologity, and of mill-stones by a fractive principle.

Mechanical explanation consists, accordingly, in making out an actual connection between two existing facts. But this does not say very much. A connection of what kind? In the first place, a connection of the same order as the facts observed. If we are explaining corporeal phenomena, we must find a corporeal link; if we are explaining phenomena of motion, we must find a connection of motion. In one of his first philosophical works Leibniz, in taking the mechanical position, states what he means by it. In the “Confession of Nature against the Atheists” he says that it must be confessed to those who have revived the corpuscular theory of Democritus and Epicurus, to Galileo, Bacon, Gassendi, Hobbes, and Descartes, that in explaining material phenomena recourse is to be had neither to God nor to any other incorporeal thing, form, or quality, but that all things are to be explained from the nature of matter and its qualities, especially from their magnitude, figure, and motion. The physics of Descartes, to which was especially due the spread of mechanical notions, virtually postulated the problem: given a homogeneous quantity of matter, endowed only with extension and mobility, to account for all material phenomena. Leibniz accepts this mechanical view without reserve.

What has been said suggests the bearing of mathematics in this connection. Extension and mobility may be treated by mathematics. It is indeed the business of the geometer to give us an analysis of figured space, to set before us all possible combinations which can arise, assuming extension only. The higher analysis sets before us the results which inevitably follow if we suppose a moving point or any system of movements. Mathematics is thus the essential tool for treating physical phenomena as just defined. But it is more. The mechanical explanation of Nature not only requires such a development of mathematics as will make it applicable to the interpretation of physical facts, but the employment of mathematics is necessary for the very discovery of these facts. Exact observation was the necessity of the growing physical science; and exact observation means such as will answer the question, How much? Knowledge of nature depends upon our ability to measure her processes, — that is, to reduce distinctions of quality to those of quantity. The only assurance that we can finally have that two facts are connected in such a way as to fulfil the requirements of scientific research, is that there is a complete quantitative connection between them, so that one can be regarded as the other transformed. The advance of physical science from the days of Copernicus to the present has consisted, therefore, on one hand, in a development of mathematics which has made it possible to apply it in greater and greater measure to the discussion and formulation of the results of experiment, and to deduce laws which, when interpreted physically, will give new knowledge of fact; and, on the other, to multiply, sharpen, and make precise all sorts of devices by which the processes of nature may be measured. The explanation of nature by natural processes; the complete application of mathematics to nature, — these are the two thoughts which, so far, we have seen to be fundamental to the development of the philosophy of Leibniz.

The third factor, and that which brings Leibniz nearer, perhaps, our own day than either of the others, is the growth of physiological science. Swammerdam, Malpighi, Leewenhoek, — these are names which occur and recur in the pages of Leibniz. Indeed, he appears to be the first of that now long line of modern philosophers to be profoundly influenced by the conception of life and the categories of organic growth. Descartes concerned himself indeed with physiological problems, but it was only with a view to applying mechanical principles. The idea of the vital unity of all organs of the body might seem to be attractive to one filled with the notion of the unity of all in God, and yet Spinoza shows no traces of the influence of the organic conception. Not until Kant’s famous definition of organism do we see another philosopher moved by an attempt to comprehend the categories of living structure.

But it is the idea of organism, of life, which is radical to the thought of Leibniz. I do not think, however, that it can truly be said that he was led to the idea simply from the state of physiological investigation at that time. Rather, he had already learned to think of the world as organic through and through, and found in the results of biology confirmations, apt illustrations of a truth of which he was already thoroughly convinced. His writings show that there were two aspects of biological science which especially interested him. One was the simple fact of organism itself, — the fact of the various activities of different organs occurring in complete harmony for one end. This presented three notions very dear to the mind of Leibniz, or rather three moments of the same idea, — the factors of activity, of unity brought about by co-ordinated action, and of an end which reveals the meaning of the activity and is the ideal expression of the unity. The physiologists of that day were also occupied with the problem of growth. The generalization that all is developed ab ovo was just receiving universal attention. The question which thrust itself upon science for solution was the mode by which ova, apparently homogeneous in structure, developed into the various forms of the organic kingdom. The answer given was “evolution.” But evolution had not the meaning which the term has to-day. By evolution was meant that the whole complex structure of man, for example, was virtually contained in the germ, and that the apparent phenomenon of growth was not the addition of anything from without, but simply the unfolding and magnifying of that already existing. It was the doctrine which afterwards gave way to the epigenesis theory of Wolff, according to which growth is not mere unfolding or unwrapping, but progressive differentiation. The “evolution” theory was the scientific theory of the times, however, and was warmly espoused by Leibniz. To him, as we shall see hereafter, it seemed to give a key which would unlock one of the problems of the universe.

Such, then, were the three chief generalizations which Leibniz found current, and which most deeply affected him. But what use did he make of them? He did not become a philosopher by letting them lie dormant in his mind, nor by surrendering himself passively to them till he could mechanically apply them everywhere. He was a philosopher only in virtue of the active attitude which his mind took towards them. He could not simply accept them at their face-value; he must ask after the source of their value, the royal stamp of meaning which made them a circulatory medium. That is to say, he had to interpret these ideas, to see what they mean, and what is the basis of their validity.

Not many men have been so conscious of just the bearings of their own ideas and of their source as was he. He often allows us a direct glimpse into the method of his thinking, and nowhere more than when he says: “Those who give themselves up to the details of science usually despise abstract and general researches. Those who go into universal principles rarely care for particular facts. But I equally esteem both.” Leibniz, in other words, was equally interested in the application of scientific principles to the explanation of the details of natural phenomena, and in the bearing and meaning of the principles themselves, — a rare combination, indeed, but one, which existing, stamps the genuine philosopher. Leibniz substantially repeats this idea when he says: “Particular effects must be explained mechanically; but the general principles of physics and mathematics depend upon metaphysics.” And again: “All occurs mechanically; but the mechanical principle is not to be explained from material and mathematical considerations, but it flows from a higher and a metaphysical source.”

As a man of science, Leibniz might have stopped short with the ideas of mechanical law, of the application of mathematics, and of the continuity of development. As a philosopher he could not. There are some scientific men to whom it always seems a perversion of their principles to attempt to carry them any beyond their application to the details of the subject. They look on in a bewildered and protesting attitude when there is suggested the necessity of any further inquiry. Or perhaps they dogmatically deny the possibility of any such investigation, and as dogmatically assume the sufficiency of their principles for the decision of all possible problems. But bewildered fear and dogmatic assertion are equally impotent to fix arbitrary limits to human thought. Wherever there is a subject that has meaning, there is a field which appeals to mind, and the mind will not cease its endeavors till it has made out what that meaning is, and has made it out in its entirety. So the three principles already spoken of were but the starting-points, the stepping-stones of Leibniz’s philosophic thought. While to physical science they are solutions, to philosophy they are problems; and as such Leibniz recognized them. What solution did he give?

So far as the principle of mechanical explanation is concerned, the clew is given by considering the factor upon which he laid most emphasis, namely, motion. Descartes had said that the essence of the physical world is extension. “Not so,” replied Leibniz; “It is motion.” These answers mark two typical ways of regarding nature. According to one, nature is something essentially rigid and static; whatever change in it occurs, is a change of form, of arrangement, an external modification. According to the other, nature is something essentially dynamic and active. Change according to law is its very essence. Form, arrangement are only the results of this internal principle. And so to Leibniz, extension and the spatial aspects of physical existence were only secondary, they were phenomenal. The primary, the real fact was motion.

The considerations which led him to this conclusion are simple enough. It is the fact already mentioned, that explanation always consists in reducing phenomena to a law of motion which connects them. Descartes himself had not succeeded in writing his physics without everywhere using the conception of motion. But motion cannot be got out of the idea of extension. Geometry will not give us activity. What is this, except virtually to admit the insufficiency of purely statical conceptions? Leibniz found himself confirmed in this position by the fact that the more logical of the followers of Descartes had recognized that motion is a superfluous intruder, if extension be indeed the essence of matter, and therefore had been obliged to have recourse to the immediate activity of God as the cause of all changes. But this, as Leibniz said, was simply to give up the very idea of mechanical explanation, and to fall back into the purely general explanations of scholasticism.

This is not the place for a detailed exposition of the ideas of Leibniz regarding matter, motion, and extension. We need here only recognize that he saw in motion the final reality of the physical universe. But what about motion? To many, perhaps the majority, of minds to-day it seems useless or absurd, or both, to ask any question about motion. It is simply an ultimate fact, to which all other facts are to be reduced. We are so familiar with it as a solution of all physical problems that we are confused, and fail to recognize it when it appears in the guise of a problem. But, I repeat, philosophy cannot stop with facts, however ultimate. It must also know something about the meaning, the significance, in short the ideal bearing, of facts. From the point of view of philosophy, motion has a certain function in the economy of the universe; it is, as Aristotle saw, something ideal.

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