Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is not a household name. But he certainly has every right to be, and only politics, historical circumstances and his failure to publish his best ideas seem to have prevented him from the kind of fame enjoyed by his main rival, Isaac Newton.
I first came across his ideas while working on the problem of time thirty years ago, but the more I have learned about this man and his ideas, the more I have come to admire the profundity and amazing scope of his thought. My book in Polity’s ‘Classic Thinkers‘ series is an attempt to convey some of that to the general reader.
To the extent that people have heard of Leibniz, they know him as the co-inventor (with Newton) of the calculus. In fact what we use today is his version, with its differentials and integrals, and not Newton’s. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. For Leibniz seems to have made original contributions wherever he turned his attention.
He was the first to appreciate the importance of the subconscious, with his notions of subliminal perceptions and of reasoning as “blind thought”, the unconscious manipulation of symbols. He modelled the latter with an algebraic logic that was two centuries ahead of its time, and this and his development of binary arithmetic and a sophisticated calculating machine, were precursors of computers and programming. He anticipated leading ideas of modern linguistics, such as Chomsky’s deep grammar. In etymology he argued for a proto-European ancestor language which later researchers would identify as proto-Indo-European.
In physics, he formulated the central concepts of energy and action, and with them the principles of conservation of energy and least action, and his forceful advocacy of the relativity of motion, space and time against Newton’s absolute space and time, had major influence on Mach and Einstein. He also anticipated leading ideas of information theory, fractals and matrices. In metaphysics Leibniz is known for his advocacy of the principles of Sufficient Reason, Continuity, Perfection, the Identity of Indiscernibles and Non-contradiction, and for applying these to refute Descartes’s laws of collision, and Clarke’s libertarian conception of free will. He argued that the basic continuants in the world are not lifeless atoms, but monads, embodied principles of activity which encode everything happening in the rest of the universe in one representation, and together make up a world that maximizes perfection.
Those of an empiricist bent have been happy to deride Leibniz as a head-in-the-clouds idealist. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that while Newton was poring over Biblical chronology to prove the age of the world at a little over 6,000 years, Leibniz was providing evidence of a much older Earth (what we now call “deep time”) through a correct interpretation of the fossils he had found in the silver mines in the Harz mountains, which he had spent many months trying to drain with the pumps he had invented. Through examples like this, I try to give a much more rounded portrait of this fascinating and multi-faceted thinker.
Thinkers as various as Diderot, Cantor, Russell, Borges and Deleuze found Leibniz’s thought inspiring. My intention with this book is to show why.
Richard T. W. Arthur is professor of philosophy at McMaster University and author of Liebniz, published by Polity in August 2014.