Leibniz -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
(William Blake, Auguries of Innocence, 1)

The monist views of Spinoza were challenged by his great contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), yet another encyclopaedic mind. Leibniz was a mathematician, physicist, geologist, biologist, diplomat, librarian, and historian. He invented the infinitesimal calculus, although Newton claimed to have done this earlier. In physics, he anticipated the law of preservation of energy. He is also considered to have been the founder of mathematical logic, although he did not publish his work on this subject.

An objective idealist, Leibniz nevertheless developed dialectics. In his Philosophical Notebooks, Lenin wrote that "Leibniz through theology arrived at the principle of the inseparable (and universal, absolute) connection of matter and motion." Marx also expressed his admiration for Leibniz (see Letter to Engels, 10 May 1870). The basis of Spinoza’s philosophy was the single universal substance. Leibniz also starts from the notion of substance but defines it differently. He sees it like living activity, internal motion, and energy. The fundamental difference with Spinoza is that, where he stressed the singleness of being, Leibniz lays all the emphasis on the multiplicity of the universe. For him, the entire universe is composed of an infinite number of substances which he calls "monads." The monads of Leibniz are similar to the idea of atoms. Whilst in Paris, Leibniz met and was influenced by the materialist Gassendi who had revived interest in the atomistic philosophy of Democritus and Epicurus. For Leibniz, everything is made of monads, including ourselves. However, there are some peculiarities in this theory. To begin with, no monad is like another. Each is its own special world, impenetrable from without. Leibniz thought that no two things in the world were the same. Each monad (and there are infinite number of them) is also a microcosm, which reflects the universe at large. It is a kind of embryo of the totality of things. Thus, the particular contains the universal.

The entire universe is only the sum total of the monads. Everything is an aggregate of monads, even the human soul. Moreover, these monads are not dead matter, but centres of living activity, in constant movement and mutation. In many respects, this picture is a striking anticipation of the modern atomistic view of the universe. Probably, Leibniz got his idea from observations through a microscope. Thus, he compares bodies to a fish-pond in which the smallest drop of water is full of teeming life, although it cannot be said that the pond itself lives. Feuerbach compared Spinoza’s philosophy to a telescope which makes objects visible to the human eye that are otherwise invisible because their remoteness, whereas that of Leibniz is like a microscope which makes objects visible that are unnoticeable because of their minuteness and fineness. The monad is like an individual cell which contains all the information required to construct an entire body. In the same way, Marx, in Capital, derives all the contradictions of capitalism from a single cell, the commodity.

Despite its idealistic form, there is here the germ of a profound idea and a dialectical concept of nature, based on movement, infinite connections, change and evolution from a lower to a higher stage. For example, he distinguishes between different levels of monads, from the lowest rank, analogous to the stage of inorganic nature, in which the life of the monads expresses itself only in the form of motion. There are higher stages, analogous to plants, animals, which culminates in the human soul. "Here is dialectics of a kind," commented Lenin, "and very profound, despite the idealism and clericalism." (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 38, p. 383.) What role does God have in relation to the monads? Not very much, it seems. Leibniz makes God the "sufficient reason" of all the monads. Feuerbach considered him to be only half a Christian, atheist, or a cross between a Christian and a naturalist. As Schwegler remarks: "It was a hard matter for Leibniz to bring—without abandoning the presuppositions of both—his monadology and his Theism into unison." (History of Philosophy, p. 198.)

Leibniz’s theory of knowledge is in opposition to the empiricism of Locke from the standpoint of objective idealism. Leibniz may be considered the father of German idealism. He is best known for his famous doctrine of "the best of all possible worlds," according to which it is impossible that it should be any more perfect world than that which exists. This must have been a comforting thought for the wealthy aristocrats for whom Leibniz worked. But from a philosophical standpoint, their satisfaction would not really be justified. For Leibniz, there are an infinite number of possible worlds, but only one has been chosen by God. In other words, the world we live in at this particular moment is the "best" one because it is the only one. However, the same Leibniz writes in his Monadology number 22:

"Every present state of a simple substance is the natural consequence of its preceding state, in such a way that its present is big with its future." (Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics and Other Writings, p. 256.) Leibniz’s dialectical philosophy, which echoes Heraclitus and anticipates Hegel, was far from defending the idea of an unchanging status quo, "because all bodies are in a state of perpetual flux like rivers, and the parts are continually entering in or passing out." (Leibniz, Ibid, p. 267.)

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