Leibniz on Monads

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was a German rationalist philosopher and polymath. (Polymaths, are those who excel in a wide variety of subjects or fields – Leonardo da Vinci, and Hildegarde of Bingen are also regarded as polymaths. Polymaths are also called Renaissance men or Homo Universalis.)


Leibniz invented the calculus independently of Newton, and we owe present day notations within differential and integral calculus to Leibniz. and Leibniz's philosophy is best remembered for his monadology. Leibniz wrote, “These Monads are the real atoms of nature and, in a word, the elements of things.” [M, #4, p.455; #4]

Leibniz’s monads exist on three levels: bare monads capable of unconscious perception; soul monads with conscious awareness and memory; and spirit, or rational soul monads capable of self-awareness and reason.

Modern thinkers could agree with Leibniz that, “there must be simple substances, since there are compounds; for a compound is nothing but a collection or aggregatum of simple things.” [M, #2, p. 455; #2] Monads are defined as indivisible, simple substances that cannot be altered by external influences. [M, #s 1-7, p.455; #1]

Leibniz proposes that each of the infinite number of monads is different from every other because no two things can be perfectly alike. While this is our general experience, we do have the everyday experience that some substances are almost identical to other examples of the substance – glasses of water drawn from the same tap on different days, for example. Unfortunately, Leibniz is not always clear which forms of substance interest him, animal certainly, vegetable occasionally, but what about mineral? He seems to believe that even mineral substances possess perception in so far as they cannot, by his definition, be destroyed except by annihilation.

Leibniz asserts that monads exhibit continuous change, and he makes this proposal because he owns that ‘every created thing’ does change. [#10; #10] While common sense experience does indicate that assemblages of substance change with time, it seems equally reasonable to postulate that the aggregates change, rather than insisting that the elements themselves change, and Leibniz does acknowledge change in aggregates.

In The Monadology, Leibniz expands upon the theme of monads introduced in the Discourse on Metaphysics when he asserts that, “The passing condition which involves and represents a multiplicity in the unity, or in the simple substance, is nothing else than what is called Perception.” [M, #14, p. 456; #14] Leibniz makes this proposal counter to Descartes’ problematic dualist explanation for the mind-body problem, which does not allow for perceptions not immediately before consciousness. Leibniz states that, “[Cartesians] treat as nonexistent those perceptions of which we are not conscious . . . confusion between a protracted period of consciousness and actual death . . . and have even confirmed ill-balanced minds in the opinion that souls are mortal.” [M, #14, p. 456; #14]

Leibniz clarifies the distinction between the changes that comprise perception and the qualities that he regards inherent to souls, “I think it right that the general name of Monads or Entelechies should suffice for simple substances which have perception only, and that the name of Souls should be given only to those in which perception is more distinct, and is accompanied by memory.” [M, # 19, p. 456; #19] This obvious reference to his beliefs concerning those criteria that distinguish human cognition is an important point because Leibniz believes that mental experience after death will include awareness of the self prior to bodily death, and “they will always be conscious of their being.” [D, p. 452]

Descartes had written of the indivisibility of the mind without postulating a working hypothesis for its function, and Leibniz confesses that, “perception and that which depends upon it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds.” Having failed to explain how the inner workings of perception, he concludes, “Thus it is in a simple substance, and not in a compound or in a machine, that perception must be sought for.” [M, # 17, p. 457; #17] Now it becomes clear why Leibniz proposes that the units, rather than the assemblages change, emphasizing that “all those who admit that the soul is a simple substance should admit this multiplicity in the Monad.” [M, # 16, p. 457; #16] The perplexing difficulty of explaining the mechanism by which mental processes occur – how matter produces mind – has forced Leibniz into the position of postulating that monads themselves are the basis for perception, and ‘appetition’, or desire. “It is also in this alone that all the internal activities of simple substances can consist.” [M, # 17, p. 457; #17]

Of the mind-body connection that Descartes depicted as a dualist unity, Leibniz says, “The body belonging to a monad, which is its entelechy or soul, constitutes together with the entelechy what may be called a living being, and along with a soul what is called an animal.” [M, # 63, p. 465; #63] Leibniz is equating mind to body, but he makes the distinction that, “since feeling is something more than a mere perception, I think that the general name of Monads or Entelechies should suffice for simple substances which have only perception, while we may reserve the term Soul for those whose perception is more distinct and is accompanied by memory. [M, # 19, p. 458; #19]

Each Leibnizian monad is a more, or less clear mirror of every other of the infinity of monads, and of the universe as a whole, yet monads do not have windows through which externals may effect internal change. Another difficulty arises here because Leibniz must explain how experience of the external world – other monads – could bring about not only simple, conscious perception, but induce memory, and elicit rational thought when the change in monads is not brought about by interaction with other monads. Leibniz has two solutions to this problem – he views ideas as innate, part of the personal history of each individual in the world that God has chosen, and he resorts to God. He claims that each monad is affected only through the mediation of God, “But in simple substances the influence of one Monad upon another is only ideal. It can have its effect only through the mediation of God . . . For since one created Monad cannot have any physical influence upon the inner being of another, it is only through the primal regulation that the one can have dependence upon the other.” [M, # 51, p. 463; #51]

Thus, all individual substance comprises mental process in the Leibnizian analysis. This does not fit with common sense experience in that we experience a distinction between the content of mental processes and the perception of our bodies. We are aware that we are able to will our bodies to move, and that such action requires the operation of our mind, although alertness is not essential in so far as others move in their sleep. We certainly see no evidence of unconscious perception in plants even though they do respond to light. In other substances such as rocks, and water, and wine, we see absolutely no evidence of unconscious perception.

Some attributes of Leibniz’s monads, as noted, do correspond to matter as we understand it through science, and this seems more the result of a logical construction of how matter must behave than of pure observation of the common sense world. However, many of Leibniz’s constructs seem exactly that – concepts conveniently constructed to serve his purposes of explication when all conceptualizing necessarily leads from and to God.

Like Descartes and Spinoza before him, Leibniz begins his examination of metaphysics with the assumption of God’s existence, and he must adapt his explanations of the substantial and phenomenal world to this assumption. “In the strictly metaphysical sense no external cause acts upon us excepting God alone, and he is in immediate relation with us only by virtue of our continual dependence upon him.” [D, p. 441] Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz each depict a slightly different God, despite employing similar terms such as ‘perfect’ and ‘infinite’, and each makes God, in one way or another, the ultimate explanation for nature. Leibniz’s “God produces different substances according to the different views which he has of the world.” [D, p. 424] “God in co-operating with ordinary actions only follows the laws which he has established.” [D, p. 443] Spirit, rather than substance, constitutes the essence of Leibniz’s God. “God who in all things has the greatest perfection will have the greatest care for spirits . . . it is because he is a spirit that God is the originator of existences . . . spirits alone are made in his image.” [D, pp. 451-2] “God alone is the ultimate unity or the original simple substance, of which all created or derivative monads are the products” [M, # 47, p. 462; #47]

Leibniz claims that existence is a property of God. Yet, our earliest and clearest experience is of the existence of a substantial world of dimensional objects outside ourselves. For instance, the concept of object permanence, the understanding that objects persist when out of sight, is amongst the earliest cognitive schemas attained by infants. Thus, we come to equate existence with the existence of physical objects, though we make a special category of existence for the products of mental processes (concepts). We are also aware that an invisible force termed gravity (warping of space-time) binds us to the surface of the earth. In the modern age, we take for granted the existence of an invisible force of nature, the electromagnetic force, every time that we flick a switch, or listen to a radio. However, because we are aware that this force is generated by machinery, we do not attribute it to God, though Leibniz undoubtedly would attribute it to God if he were unaware of the physical laws behind the phenomenon.

Leibniz recognizes two forms of truth. He terms these truths of fact and truths of fact reasoning, and states that the facts could have been otherwise, but that the reasoning, the hypothesis, could not. Leibniz proposes two principles by which to recognize truth. Leibniz terms these the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason.

31. Our reasonings are grounded upon two great principles, that of contradiction, in virtue of which we judge false that which involves a contradiction, and true that which is opposed or contradictory to the false; (Theod. 44, 169.)

32. And that of sufficient reason, in virtue of which we hold that there can be no fact real or existing, no statement true, unless there be a sufficient reason, why it should be so and not otherwise, although these reasons usually cannot be known by us. (Theod. 44, 196.)

Within the sciences, or the physical as opposed to the metaphysical, we generally reserve the term ‘proof’ for reasoning within mathematics and for a specific class of syllogism. The principle of contradiction is akin to the method of falsification by which scientific hypotheses are experimentally rejected when their predictions are demonstrated inaccurate, or retained when not yet falsified. Thus, we employ facts, experimental empirical demonstrations, to assess the probability that the scientific reasoning is probably true. Ultimately, when a hypothesis has withstood repeated experimental tests for contradiction, it is judged to have show sufficient reason, and is elevated to the status of scientific theory. However, we recognize limitations to the physical sciences in that the metaphysical, what could be termed the supernatural, is not accessible to experimental verification

D. Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics. Translated by G. Montgomery, revisions A.R. Chandler. New York: Anchor Books, 1974

M. Leibniz: The Monadology. Translated by G. Montgomery, revisions A.R. Chandler. New York: Anchor Books, 1974

Online version: THE MONADOLOGY by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz translated by Robert Latta

Links : Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz : Leibniz's Ethics : Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz : Leibniz



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