Plastic Surgery for the Monadology: Leibniz Via Heidegger

Article excerpt

Leibniz's Monadology and Heidegger's 'The Thing' are surely among the two greatest short works of philosophy ever written. Along with their equal brevity, they share a number of strengths and defects. As its very title suggests, the Monadology considers the reality of unified objects (monas = unit), and the means by which they relate or fail to relate to other objects. Likewise, Heidegger's 'The Thing' describes a jug as an inner reality that exceeds both the representations we have of it and the history by which it was produced. Moreover, both authors realise that individual things are not bland stumps of featureless unity. Leibniz calls his monad a living mirror, while Heidegger's thing is likewise described as a mirror - play of the cryptic fourfold.

There is also a shared prejudice found in these authors, since both allow for only two separate levels in the cosmos. For Leibniz there is an absolute distinction between unified monads and accidental aggregates; any entity that exists can only be one or the other. For Heidegger, what lies behind present - at - hand entities is the being of those entities: no further levels lie 'beneath' that being, or 'above' presenceat - hand. In other words, there is no continued regress of objects and their parts in either Leibniz or Heidegger. Instead, there is simply one plane of self - contained realities, which can then be aggregated or unveiled in a second plane of relations. There are no levels of the world, no endless descent of objects wrapped in objects such as found today in the writings of Bruno Latour (Pandora's Hope) or Alphonso Lingis (The Imperative).

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the philosophies of Leibniz and Heidegger both entail some form of indirect causation. For both philosophers, one individual thing can never touch another directly. This is proverbial in the case of Leibniz and his windowless monads, which communicate only through God. But it becomes equally clear in Heidegger's case if we submit him to a mildly irreverent reading. For consider the following: Heidegger's 'thing,' just like his earlier equipment or tool - being, withdraws from all human representation. No perception or concept of the hammer ever fully exhausts its silent underground reality; perfect representation is always obstructed by a hidden surplus in entities. But contrary to the usual interpretation of Heidegger, this surplus cannot possibly come from an unconscious praxis lying beneath perception, since praxis can be surprised every bit as much as perception and theory can. Hammers shatter in our hands and startle us; trains topple from viaducts, killing dozens; construction workers plummet from broken scaffolding into the sea. The former practical use of all these tools was apparently blind to a creeping internal rot in the objects upon which they relied. From this we see that both theory and praxis are equally distant from the autonomous life of Heidegger's tools. The thing is equally resistant to theoretical and practical efforts to probe its depths, since it withdraws from all relations with human beings. Heidegger's tool - analysis is not an account of the praxis lying before all theory, but demonstrates instead that the reality of tool - beings lies prior to praxis, theory, and anything else that humans might accomplish. All of this should have been clear several decades ago, but was obscured by the recent fashion for pragmatism, which falsely salutes Heidegger's tool - analysis for merely repeating the earlier insights of John Dewey.

Second, things or objects (we should reject Heidegger's pedantic critical distinction between these terms) do not just withdraw from their relations with theoretical and practical humans. Instead, objects withdraw from each other as well. A snowflake, for instance, must be viewed as a private subterranean reality never exhausted by human efforts to probe it. But rather than withdrawing only from humans, the snowflake also recedes from its causal interaction with any glass window, raven's beak, tree branch, wind, or flame. …