Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview
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i. Early Encounters

The thinker to whom the early Aufklärung was most indebted and, according to Formey, the 'plus grand génie que l'Allemagne ait produit',1 Leibniz, was, at the same time, unsurpassed as a philosophical critic and observer of his age. He showed consummate discernment in interpreting new intellectual developments wherever in Europe they arose, often, as with his early appreciation of Locke and Newton, preceding most contemporary continental savants by decades. It is therefore of some significance in the history of ideas that Leibniz, more than any other observer of contemporary thought except perhaps Bayle, understood from the outset the wideranging implications for all mankind of the new radical philosophical movement. Committed, as he was, to upholding princely authority and religion, and eager to reunite and strengthen the Churches, Leibniz emerged as the foremost and most resolute of all the antagonists of radical thought, as well as the pre-eminent architect of the mainstream, moderate Enlightenment in Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia.

Many besides Leibniz had, by the 1670s, grasped that existing structures of belief, tradition, and control, indeed the entire prevailing religious, moral, and political system, was threatened by the upsurge of philosophical Naturalism, fatalism, and materialism, with Spinozism forming the backbone of the radical challenge. But Leibniz diverged sharply from others, such as Bossuet, Huet, Steno, Mansvelt, Maresius, Wittichius, Le Clerc, Limborch, Jaquelot, Malebranche, Lamy, Régis, and Houtteville, besides innumerable others who shared this view, in that he did not believe any of the existing alternatives could adequately defend authority, religion, and tradition, though he believed all the rival philosophical systems of his time contained grains of truth requiring careful sifting and critical reassessment. Aristotelianism, Cartesianism, Malebranchisme, Huet's and Steno's rejectionist fideism, and, later, Locke's empiricism, indeed all available alternatives, were, in his estimation, alike incapable of providing a cogent, viable, and comprehensive new framework.2

1 Formey, Mélanges philosophiques, ii, 406.

2 Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, 242–2, 255–5, 284–4; Rutherford, Leibniz, 238, 252; Ariew, 'G. W. Leibniz',


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