Intros to European Philosophy: Leibniz


Previously Read: My undergraduate research project was on Leibniz’ greatest possible world theodicy (defense of God’s justice – he invented the term). But that was by way of someone else’s approximation, so I was happy to read Leibniz in his own (translated) words.

Key texts: First Truths, Discourse on Metaphysics, and Monadology

Overall impression: I love any reading where Time and Space come into the fold. “Time too may be proved not to be a thing, in the same way as space. (European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley. p. 248)” Jackpot. “Space, time, extension, and motion are not things but well-founded modes of our consideration. (p. 249)”


  • Monads. It seems to me to be a sort of atomism, for he speaks of them as simple substances which begin in creation and end in annihilation. Change is continuous in all things – very Heraclituslike.
  • Mention of the Averroists. Leibniz avers that the church fathers were ‘always more Platonic than Aristotelian’ (European Philosophers, p. 278) and the Averroists misused the concept of God being the light of souls. “Truths of reasoning are necessary, and their opposite is impossible; those of fact are contingent, and their opposite is possible. (p. 292)”

48. In God is Power, which is the source of all; then Knowledge, which contains the detail of ideas; and finally Will, which effects changes or products according to the principle of the best. (p. 294)”

For Ghazali, I believe these would be rearranged to Will, Knowledge, and Power. At least, that’s what I noted after reading Frank Griffel’s explanation of Ghazali’s cosmology. Interesting to note the parallel for me.

71. But it must not be imagined, as has been done by some people who have misunderstood my thought, that each soul has a mass or portion of matter belonging to it or attached to it forever, and that consequently it possesses other inferior living beings, destined to its service forever. For all bodies are, like rivers, in a perpetual flux, and parts are entering into them and departing from them continually. (p. 298)”

As I said, very Heraclitus-like (though I seem to perpetually want to say Xenophanes or Hippocratus)

  • He noted the limit of the ontological argument, as it was rejected by Aquinas (p. 307).

From ‘Space and Time’:

“I hold space to be something merely relative, as time is; that I hold it to be an order of coexistences, as time is an order of successions. For space denotes, in terms of possibility, an order of things which exist at the same time, considered as existing together; without enquiring into their manner of existing. (p. 304)”


Disassociated: ‘Is that me?’ or Mach on the Physical and Psychical

Questions of self-identity are popular these days, but then they are perhaps popular in all eras.  Popular films incorporating this element include ‘the Bourne Identity’ and ‘Unknown’.  In both films, the central character struggles to discover who he is, or perhaps who he was

For those of us not struggling with amnesia, the problem of permanence or connection of our current self with the past self (or rather selves) might rarely occur.  After all, most mornings I do n’t wake up wondering at any truly deep level who I am – or if I do it does n’t have any consequences.  If the question is ever posed, memory swats it away. 

According to Ernst Mach,

“Further, that complex of memories, moods, and feelings, joined to a particular body (the human body), which is called the “I” or “Ego,” manifests itself as relatively permanent.  I may be engaged upon this or that subject, I may be quiet and cheerful, excited and ill-humored.  Yet, pathological cases apart, enough durable features remain to identify the ego.  Of course, the ego also is only of relative permanency.”

~The Analysis of Sensations and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical, Ch. 1.  Trans. by C.M. Williams and printed in ‘The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche’ p. 769

So for Mach this permanency of Ego is n’t so permanent.  In fact it ‘s largely illusory. 

The apparent permanency of the ego consists chiefly in the single fact of its continuity, in the slowness of its changes.  The many thoughts and plans of yesterday that are continued to-day, and of which our environment in waking hours incessantly reminds us (whence in dreams the ego can be very indistinct, doubled, or entirely wanting), and the little habits that are unconsciously and involuntarily kept up for long periods of time, constitute the groundwork of the ego.  There can hardly be greater differences in the egos of different people, than occur in the course of years in one person.  When I recall to-day my early youth, I should take the boy that I then was, with the exception of a few individual features, for a different person, were it not for the existence of the chain of memories.  Many an article that I myself penned twenty years ago impresses me now as something quite foreign to myself.  The very gradual character of the changes of the body also contributes to the stability of the ego, but in a much less degree than people imagine. 

~ibidem, pp. 769-770

I must say there is nothing by which I can connect myself today, though he seems very like the me of yesterday, with the 2008 study abroad version of myself, or the 2004 fresh college transfer version, or the junior high school baseball player who read a few books over his head some summers ago – save memory.  And I ‘m too nostalgic not to note that my memories are changing to, not simply as I forget more things but as my vantage point changes.  While the day-to-day flux seems minimal and easily corrected for if I ponder yesterday’s events, when stretched across the canvas of larger time periods I find I can offer little explanation for the macro-changes, the gestalt shifts that have taken place.  Truly I would be unrecognizable to my 2004 predecessor.

Worse, I find that I am largely unrecognizable to myself in any enduring fashion!  I do n’t journal consistently, so that evidence cannot be called against this faltering witness, but I have critically engaged with myself as a habit for many years.  If there is any story to be told, it is that each point of view I have taken up has only had significance in relation to some purpose; and as such, my views have no absolute, permanent validity (as Mach from ‘the European Philosophers’ p. 790).


But some will have already foreseen the dubious nature of such views for those anticipating a bodily resurrection.  This is no problem for Mach, for he rejects such as unnecessary impediments (ibid, p. 785).  For Christian and Muslim believers, this is a considerable problem.  Resurrection is kind of a big deal.

Perhaps it is n’t often a believer thinks at any deep level about what the concept of a bodily resurrection entails philosophically.  After all, it is a promise for the faithful afforded by revelation (sourced either in Jesus or the Qur’an) before ever philosphical language is consulted.  But critical thought is not the enemy of religion so long as it does not supplant faithfulness and obedience for these are primary. 


Seriously though, how are we to expect a bodily resurrection to look?  In the New Testament/Injeel, the resurrected Christ is recognizable to his followers at the minimum as human (though unusual) and seems to be fully recognizable after some period of testing (on occasion).  While resurrection is no everyday thing, the resurrected Christ is n’t some monstrosity or tertium quid.  As such there seems to be something recognizable of his personality or self, even though his body at will passes through walls.

If God is to resurrect the faithful according to His promise, which self is going to be renewed?  Oh yes, of course it ‘ll be you, but are you the exact quantum states of each atom you might consider part of yourself?  Or wait, maybe now.  By tomorrow, if you were able to count, there ‘d be something akin to a slightly different body.  But then, we simply have to connect it all through memory.  If God recreates a set of memories we ‘d recognize as our own, then maybe we can say He ‘s successfully resurrected that which we used to (and can now again call) ‘I’.  But our memories are very much in flux. 

It is for this reason Dr. Augsberger, one of my wife’s professors, calls marriage ‘a series of monogamous relationships’.  The ‘we’ who say those vows are not the ‘we’ a few months later, much less years or decades.  So, we must say with Mach: “The ego is as little absolutely permanent as are bodies.  That which we so much dread in death, the annihilation of our permanency, actually occurs in life in abundant measure. (ibid, p. 770)”


Or perhaps, we have other options (I ‘ll give two, feel free to add your own): 1.  The ‘I’ is illusory.  Mach does an excellent job demonstrating the indefinite extensibility of the ego.  That which we experience as the self is actually provided for us by God.  We exist at His pleasure and, in whatever way He chooses, we will experience resurrection in some recognizably parallel manner.  In such case, nothing is particularly given of itself.  Insofar as I exist I am unable to picture my existence truly independent of other beings.  Perhaps this would be compatible with some form of acosmism, in which only God truly exists and no finite thing can claim any true existence.

This seems not to fit so well with the offered personal bodily resurrection expected by Christian or Muslim adherents.  It seems to work on a philosophical level (they do n’t know the nature of their existence after all, so however God chooses to resurrect them is still a gift); but is it recognizable still?  Perhaps not.  The anti-individualism is appealing at moments, but I ‘ll have to say this is unsatisfying as an answer.

2.  We ‘ve gone to some length to speak of the ambiguity attached to the idea of ‘I’ to this point.  I ‘m not so sure that a legitimate monolithic anthropology limits us here.  Is one picture of humanity going to eliminate answers for the Christian or the Muslim?  Perhaps, on careful consideration no answer is necessary.  Although I cannot now tell you who I shall be in the next moment, or in the past these are all in God’s hands.  That is, I see the problem, but I trust that God’s will is manifest in the state of events as they exist.  In the same way, my hope is in God to accomplish his will in resurrecting me and my fellow believers.  How exactly that is to look, I do n’t have many enduring expectations.  Only guesses.  And perhaps that ‘s the best place for me answer from: trust, not uncritical trust, but trust.

Perhaps we need not fear stepping in the river, though neither we nor the river shall be the same in, during, or after the event, for the river is but a path to an end.  Our choice then seems either to step boldly assured of the claims of our Scriptures or entirely do away with any idea of ego or self.  Which is it to be?

Mis-reminding: Wishing Time Would Stand Still

Too often I lie half citizen to the dream-world and half aware of the directions my musings may choose.  Re-calling scenes and faces and moments to remembrance, I wonder what profit such exercises may offer.  Yet I can ill afford to suppress such habits – they are too ingrained.

The picture fleshes out my own longing – to share in the joys such a space offers; the joy time well-shared.  Tonight it is that dust-scoured basement but quickly the picture can shift to a tranquil moment in the outfield, to climbing that tree’s low-hanging arms with my sister, or to traversing the fields of Oxford, or merely sprawling on a mildly uncomfortable couch drinking in words far beyond my comprehension whilst amused by the most welcome of sounds—rain on a reading day.

Consistently such images arrest me and I can do little but wish to be back there.  Worse, I wish that time would stand still so I could again appreciate the presence of being there.  Surely such a wish should never be granted, however.  To arrest time at this very moment would require halting all motions, both perceived and imperceivable.  That would require that I too experience a forced pause – I do n’t know that my mind could appreciate the experiment.  At least, it is n’t what I ‘m asking for.

Perhaps I merely desire to experience time without obligation.  But that can’t be it either: the burden of obligation better helps me appreciate that time which is left for leisure.  In the case of Oxford, our common travails made us better fellows – to one another at least.  In such a case I wish not that the burden be lessened, but that time might be extended.

Extension – that seems to hit the ear a bit better.  What do they say, ‘youth is wasted on the young’ or some such?  I desire to be revisited by the thrill of such times and to have the energy to meet it well.  This carries a certain desire that time might be modified, or at least that I might be, but in truth I can do little to affect the past in such manner.  I return to Heraclitus too often, but I should note that while we never set foot in the same river twice, change is not so great that all is unrecognizable or that we always scramble to meet time well.  What can be done but to seek opportunities to greet the present as we might such welcome scenes of the past?

…That’s Not Helpful. Intro Seg.

Graduation nears. While this should turn us to both jubilant anticipation…and soberly consider what needs to yet be done to reach there; I’m considering how strange it is to revisit the alma mater or to see familiar faces therefrom.
I miss only a few things from undergrad – foremost were the late night amblings of roommates theologizing and philosophizing in our petty ways. So, with great pleasure, reprising these sparring sessions is always a welcome part of visiting.
But this last time, I found that much had changed for each of us. Heraclitus (c. 535-475 B.C.E.) informs us that: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The river is ever in flux, as are we.
And yet, much had not changed. Surprisingly, we discovered that we were arguing less about those differences we considered most significant than we were about what terms we could express our actual positions through effectively. We awoke to find that we spoke different dialects!

I note this story because I still find the terms we used unhelpful in sorting out what we were arguing for or against. And I still am looking for better ones – I merely want to convey what I tried to argue that night: that we are in need of better terms.