Sunday, August 16, 2015

What Is It

The intellectual domain of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz cannot be captured in a single word. For most of his life, he was a jurist, a courtier, a diplomat, and a librarian; he also made huge contributions to the study of logic, geometry, physics, botany, physiology, linguistics, and of course, the infinitesimal calculus. And yet, many of his ideas remain obscure to the modern reader. What in the world is a Monad? Why does Leibniz care so much about the so-called Principle of Sufficient Reason? And how could he claim that this is the Best of all Possible Worlds? John and Ken discuss the most important philosopher you know the least about with Daniel Garber from Princeton University, author of Leibniz: Body, Substance, Monad.

Listening Notes

John and Ken note that although most know very little of Leibniz, he actually has very far reaching effects, reaching even into recent innovations in Silicon Valley. Even if he is a genius, Ken finds ridiculous Leibniz’ idea that this world was the best of all possible worlds. John defends the logical soundness of Leibniz’ argument. Ken responds with the argument that simply experience and common sense makes it clear that Leibniz is incorrect, but John responds that our experience might be an insufficient metric to evaluate the overall goodness of the world.

John and Ken invite guest Daniel Garber, Professor of Philosophy from Princeton, and author of Leibniz: Body, Substance, Monad. Discussing the best of all possible worlds argument, Daniel notes that behind it, there is the assumption that the world has meaning, that there is a reason why the world is the way it is. Ken puts this in the context of the Scientific Revolution, when the world began to be perceived as a mechanism. Daniel agrees on the importance of this context, especially since such a perception of the world jeopardized moral absolutes.

Returning to the best of all possible worlds argument, Daniel explains that it’s a purely logical argument separate from our experiences with the world. Ken asks what does Leibniz mean by good? The criterion is not pleasantness for human beings to live in; that is our parochial perspective. It is good in a much broader, metaphysical sense. This does mean that there is no particular comfort in learning that we live in the best of all possible worlds, which is something that Voltaire missed. Clarifying Leibniz for many of those who are unfamiliar with him, John shifts the conversation the what a Monad is and how it relates to the Cartesian conception of the self.

The conversation then shifts to the topic of whether we can have another Leibniz in our own times. Daniel makes the case that individuals of our time can likely never synthesize different fields of thought as was possible during Leibniz’s time, because these fields of thought have gotten much more technical.

To conclude, Daniel comments on Leibniz’s early conception of relativity in space and how it came from his understanding of the Principle of Sufficient Reason with respect to God. Also, Daniel mentions how Leibniz likely had the first conception of the unconscious and its determination of human behavior.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:22): Shuka Kalantari investigates the controversy between Leibniz and Isaac Newton regarding who first discovered calculus. She also covers Leibniz’s rise from obscurity to posthumous fame.
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 47:11): Ian Shoales: Discusses Leibniz’s life, intellectual genius, and eccentric personality.