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)”



Last week’s Christian mini-blog war provided an interesting case study. First, it illustrates how language meant to serve your purpose can serve the opposite purpose just as well or better. In such cases where our words ‘get away from us’ how ought we to respond? We start engaging in a cost-benefit analysis: who is being helped or harmed/what truth is being defended. Of course, in being misunderstood the line blurs. Am I being misunderstood or my assertions? These are so intricately connected within the framework we recognize as part of ourselves that defensiveness is natural.

Second, it shows that power and language funnel into each other, even when we might not intend to be speaking of power-relations explicitly. Good luck speaking of anything worth arguing about without utilizing or defending some system of power and corresponding language game.

Connected with this, it is difficult to translate skills from one game seamlessly into another. Playing baseball messes up your throwing mechanics for American football and vice versa. In fact, for many only one game is legitimately worth spending the effort to engage in. This is true of language games as well – it is difficult to see worth in another’s game without observing it closely or participating in its culture. Some people only see human worth and some only see their truth in need of defending. Striking a meaningful balance is very difficult, but one does n’t have to perform significant contortions to do so. One learns that real football has its legitimate beauty as well.

As I watched, often in horror, things being said (and let ‘s be honest, things said on from one camp generally made me sicker than the other) heightened as they always do. The urge to respond waxed and waned. My threshold of response is pretty difficult to cross (my wife wishes I would respond more often), but it happens.

The thing that kept me from replying directly is simply that by doing so, I inevitably give credit to those thoughts I am opposing. To illustrate this point, I shall recall when I first joined Facebook.

I immediately commenced finding out ‘what can I do with this?’ and discovered a religious debate group (back when group discussions were popular). Soon I was defending my views, often from those who I felt were poorly articulating them, and enjoying myself. I tried to be humble, but that has its limits. My heart was never in winning, but I liked getting my point across and figuring out a way to answer tough questions, or at least make them easier.

Then one day I stumbled onto the wrong thread. She posed an OT quandary and I tried to use my pre-adolescent Hebrew skills to set the problem in a better context (how old are the ‘children’ who mock the prophet Elisha and are mauled by God? 10 or 15? I thought it made some difference). My argument from language was questioned because she could n’t easily find a translation that backed up my interpretation. And halt. I realized that I could n’t personally defend my skills to interpret and have her trust my interpretation. Maybe someone else could. The cost of defending myself was too high. To this day I have n’t responded to her challenge. If this dispute were to be held by members of the Society for the Study of Biblical Literature, they might ‘ve sided with me (at least in my dreams they always do) – but in our context, there was no way to establish authority except by pure force of argument.

Since then I have put less and less stock in winning the debate on the street, or in the pulpit, or in the chat room than before. I do n’t like that I end up defending myself more than whatever idea I think requires defending. And then I ought to be responsible, so I ‘ll have to represent my opponent’s views. But that ‘s not the ideal starting place. This could give you the idea that I avoid conflict in all situations. Far from it – I love disagreeing with people. But I realized that there is a social cost that must be paid to speak out if I ‘m to change anyone’s mind for more than five seconds.

The title of one of my favorite books is translated as ‘the Incoherence of the Philosophers’. In it the author demonstrates, using his opponents’ methods, the limits of their understanding. He then shows that they do n’t have legitimate grounds to argue for any position counter to what God has revealed. The pre-eternity of the world? Can’t prove it – might as well trust God. The mortality of the soul? Can’t prove it either – see previous answer. You know what ‘s funny? The author was accused of adopting his opponents’ view. In doing disputation well, you might unwittingly lend credence to a voice which does n’t deserve the help. That ‘s my general feeling about this past week’s events – but we ‘ll keep moving along.

Also, someone said that often we choose to affirm something as true based on who said it, rather than judge whether these words themselves were true (and applicable). I ‘d tell you who said it, but then you might judge the verity of what he or she said by who she or he is. Kinda missing the point; for now pretend it ‘s your favorite author…then that it ‘s your least favorite author. Author and authority – it ‘s crazy stuff.  This is one of the ways we close our discourse-communities: we pick people who say what we want, then we affirm anything they say without thinking deeply about the contents of any individual utterance (or even consider whether this is a false attribution).

The last point is also a Facebook story. When I first joined, I really liked the idea of trying to articulate who I was. Some of the answers changed over time, but basically I wanted people to know that I read a lot of stuff and that I liked to talk about religion and philosophy. One of my favorite profs described his religious views as ‘accurate’ on his account. He had a Ph.D. I still do n’t. He ‘s also brilliant in a way I still do n’t feel I match, so I amended my entry to say that I was ‘pursuing accuracy’. I liked it. It sounded cool.

But I ‘ve come to realize something. While I ‘m still pursuing accuracy, it ‘s so terribly much more difficult to be faithful. After a few more years of scratching my head and typing away, maybe I could convince the people I care about that I was pretty close to ‘accurate’. But ‘faithful’? No blog post is going to show that. Ever. No public debate will tell us how to fix poverty. That does n’t mean we should give up strong opinions or serious discourse. But disputations which are self-defensive, or give voice to those who won’t do anything worthwhile with it, or which lead away from applying right action – these are n’t worth our time.

So, while we ‘re busy trying to be accurate and cordial and wise, why do n’t we consider for a moment why this fight is worth winning.  I doubt such efforts are fruitful when framed as public disputes, but some of us overvalue being right (not me of course).  Being right without doing good is absurdly meaningless.  Let ‘s try to revaluate so that what matters is defended by our actions first and then, if you must, debate away.

Misunderstanding Orthodoxy

Mysticism keeps men sane.  As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you have morbidity.  The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic… He has always cared more for truth than for consistency.  If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them…  The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man may understand everything by the help of what he does not understand.  The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious.

~Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image Books, Garden City, NY: 1959) p. 28

I recall recently having a prolonged discussion concerning the nature of evil in which, after laying out many facets concerning the reality of evil, I considered one theory in contrast with some others and stated that I considered the theory helpful because it did n’t escape mystery.  I call it mystery because after a short while my analysis goes no further fruitfully.  I ‘ve studied evil enough to believe I do n’t understand it and have come to despise any theory which explains away it’s reality flippantly.  I especially like what Chesterton says here about understanding with the help of what is n’t understood.

G.K.C. certainly does n’t despise logic, his prose is far too careful for this, but he clearly does n’t believe that anything worth knowing can be thoroughly explained by purely logical means.  That is, he does n’t see the meaningful aspects of life through a reductive lens.  For example, one can speak of evil as insanity, and that seems to be a good place in which to consider it, but one can’t quite grasp what insanity is.  Chesterton has returned often to the theme of insanity because reason alone won’t fix insanity.  He speaks of reason as the only thing that has n’t failed the insane, stating: “For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name” (p. 29).  The lunatic’s description of reality can’t be argued with, for the lunatic pays closer attention to those details they have collected, but it simply does n’t fit the whole picture.

I think most of us also have this ‘stereoscopic’ or 3 dimensional view because we look at reality through at least two dominant poles.  We understand life as more valuable because of death and we can only understand death as non-life (which makes the undead a bit confusing, or almost as confusing as arguing about Lost‘s characters’ status in relation to our world); we identify darkness as light’s absence but would n’t see light if we had no experience of the dark.  In the same vein we could say that those who can explain evil do n’t understand it.  Even if one of us could ration up all grievances by some moral calculus and prove that the numbers weigh out such that ‘the good guys and girls win’, we would notice that reconciling evil is n’t a matter of balancing an equation.  One is much better off to leave some error in one’s calculations for only so many problems can be solved by means of scratchpaper, a sharp pencil and an eraser.  The eraser might be the most important tool when considering such concerns.


But ah well, the point is clear I think that Chesterton has spoken of the healthiest understanding being one which utilizes the best view its available misunderstandings afford to it.  Although we know the image itself not to be accurate to 6 decimals, the overall sense provided is healthier than the singular view which shuts out all others by a violent show of force in logic.  We might compare such calculations with sports statistics meant to separate good performances from bad.  But these numbers are only meaningful when applied back to the game from which they derive their origin.  The numbers elucidate, but only to a small extent.  The eyes tell a truer tale, and the field tells the truest tale – as any athlete will contest.