Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz, A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz, (1646-1716), a perspective

Who was he? He was a German philosopher. He was the third rationalist, the first being Rene’ Descartes, and the second was Spinoza. His philosophy begins from an Aristotelian idea of substance, thought of as that which is the carrier of property but itself is not a property of anything else. However, he still refuted Spinoza’s idea that there’s only One substance. In fact there are infinite numbers of individual substances called ‘monads’. From one point of view a monad is like the atoms of Democritus and at the same time it is more related the geometrical points of Pythagoras. It seems we’re dealing with the problem of one and many all over again. With Spinoza the oneness of the Ultimate Reality is emphasized and with Leibniz the multiplicity of individual substances is the core of his philosophy. Resembling atoms monads are the final indivisible elements of reality of which all material objects are made of. However, they’re themselves neither extended nor made of matter. He argued that a monad is a psychological entity, which, when given bodily forms in human beings, they are named ‘souls’. Let us not forget that the word “psyche’” in Greek means ‘soul’. This term has also been interpreted as mind. However, soul is not Spirit. In Descartes mind and body distinction is discussed in the absence of Spirit. The word psyche evolved to become mind. The mind of God was talked about in Descartes’ philosophy. What a joke! This is like saying, ‘May the force be with you’, which we hear in some movies as if force is God or vice versa.

Leibniz argued that a monad is a unified and independent substance. Whatever true of a monad is already in it. Thus, it cannot enter into any causal relation with any other monad. This is where we can see how Leibniz was influenced by Spinoza. Logically Leibniz used what is true of analytic propositions, namely, the predicate is already contained within the subject. In other words, every truth is a necessary one. Everything takes place the way it does because it must. It is so because God has determined to make actual the best possible world. Let us remember that God is a necessary Being, which means, He cannot not be, therefore,He must be.

We’re all possible or contingent beings, that is, we could be and we couldn’t be. Things could have merely been different, if God had preferred to actualize a different possible world.

Here the personal identity becomes a little problematic. Marcus Aurelius (121-180) could not have not been an emperor of Rome, but he had had to be. There’s a necessity involved here, which goes along Stoicism where determinism is a factor. After all, Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic philosopher. Nevertheless, there’s a problem here, namely, we thought only God is a necessary Being and we’re possible beings. It seems Leibniz somehow missed this point.  Not to accept this true proposition about the great stoic philosopher would mean to take away something essential from what makes this individual what he is. This idea comes straight from Leibniz’s notion of a monad. With necessity comes determinism, therefore lack of free will. The personal identity here is questioned by commentators. What is that which makes up who we are as individuals? Freedom and determinism still follows us. In the movie ‘forest gum’ her son walks into the room and sees his mother in bed, pale and sick. He asks her, mama what is wrong. She says I’m dying son. Why, he asked? She says, it is my time. Death is just a part of life forest, she answered. We’re all destined to die someday forest (not exact quotations) yes some sooner than the others leave this world. The other day the famous comedian, in full house passed away and the cause of his death is still unknown. New generation arrives and they move on. “We’re condemned to be free” is what Sartre said long time ago. We’re condemned to die someday. We were destined to be born in a day in the past. Did we have any saying in this event? The answer is obviously no. Leibniz (1646-1716), is the way we introduce him. Yes he was once born from his mother, in the year 1646 AD. Both Spinoza and Leibniz, I believe agree that we’re destined to some extent. Freedom becomes a reality for the former when we become aware of our true Self or Atman in Hinduism. As we just mentioned, we’re determined to spend some time in this world and then leave, because we’re mortal. What is the purpose of this is another story. We’re sandwiched between two unknowns, where we came from and where we’re going. I’m not free and determined at the same time and in the same relationship, which is a contradiction. However, I’m free in some sense and determined in another sense. We never asked to be created by God. This is the first determination. We’re part of the structure of the Ultimate Reality. The world of possibility is inner core of the Ultimate Reality, without which it is not absolute. This works, of course, for a personal God. But the opposite of the word absolute is relative, conditions and dependent. The Ultimate Reality is beyond this.

Leibniz’s monadology reminds us of the pre-Socratic philosophers whose main concern was to find out what the universe was made of. It also resembles the Brahman/ Atman relation in Hinduism, the former being the Ultimate Reality and the latter the true Self in all individuals. Basically we’re dealing with the problematic idea of One and many. Who are we is where our identities are questioned. As you can see, we play different roles in our life like Hollywood actors. But which of these characters are we? Am I a father, uncle, friend, grandfather, a teacher, a husband? What is my true Self? I don’t even posses my true Self, so I can’t even say that it is my true Self. What is offended in me when some people try to color me with their own paints? I have to remove the paint so I wouldn’t go to their levels. The recent Russian revolutionary was poisoned so certain part of his body became green. He almost lost his sight on his right eye and was restored later on by a doctor in Spain. We ought to constantly safe guard ourselves from other’s wrong view of us. We have the urge to show who we really are and soon we’ll find out that even that is not enough. We try to be who we are in the face of being threatened to become others. Where is our personal identity here? Was the Caesar who crossed the Rubicon identical with the one that entered Rome? Perhaps the answer is in the ‘bodily continuity’. As we know every 7 years the entire cells of our bodies are renewed. So was the first Caesar the same as the second one physically? Thus, there’s a need for a ‘bodily continuity’ which is not dependent on the physical constitution of our bodies. We also allow legally and medically that there’re times that an individual is not the same person, if he or she has suffered some very hard psychological trauma. Therefore, some element of psychological honesty appears to be necessary in terms of personal identity. However, searching for a suitable criterion of psychological identity is as difficult as finding one for personal identity itself. This problem continues to be unresolved in ethics, metaphysics and psychology.

Leibniz’s monads are wonderful windowless realities. Unfortunately they cannot explain to us what personal identity is. Was he able to bridge the gap between mind and body? I’m afraid he was not unable to do so. Other thinkers tried to solve the problem by either reducing matter to mind or vice versa, which is no solution to put it mildly.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, page 81)