Leibnitz and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution

Leibnitz and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution

Leibnitz and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution

Leibnitz and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution

Excerpt

To give an account of the personality and thought of Leibnitz is a difficult undertaking. Surrounded by an aura of almost legendary greatness, he stands on the boundary-line between two ages, his 'universal genius' appearing to defy all attempts at closer designation. The age of Enlightenment called him a polyhistor; later times saw him as a mathematician, logician or natural scientist; others again considered him as a great lawyer or historian, or in his capacity of Hanoverian diplomat; and he has become famous as the founder of scientific societies, particularly of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. The philosopher's cloak, it seems, does not quite fit him. He is counted among the forerunners of German idealism, yet his work lacks the systematic coherence of Kant's or Hegel's. His name is associated with philosophical fragments, such as the Theodicy or the Monadology. He never did more than sketch out a plan of his philosophical edifice--others came to pick out from what he had begun whatever fitted their own designs. One of these was Christian Wolff, who built himself a vast system in which the educated public of the German eighteenth century met with the name of Leibnitz. The Theodicy, it is true, became one of the most popular books of the Enlightenment; to all those who were neither pietists nor orthodox Christians it was the text-book of current notions on the philosophy of religion, a devotional tract rather than a philosophical cosmology. Leibnitz's real philosophical achievement was forgotten and remained so.

Yet the story of his posthumous fame is not without its significance. The fundamental answers which he attempted to give to the problems of his own age have had an effect on the thought of later ages. He hoped 'to scatter the seeds from which flowers might grow in other men's gardens'. Even to-day the consciousness of Europe is informed by his ideas. Stimulated to reflection by knowledge in all its parts, Leibnitz himself remains a universal influence. The extraordinary breadth of his interests has prevented both his contemporaries and his followers from discerning the abundantly harmonious synthesis of his work. Even his biography remains partly vague and incomplete. Although he was one of the most prolific letter-writers of his age we know but little of his private life. The impersonal nature of seventeenth-century letters--which were still largely substitutes for newspapers and magazines--gives us but little insight into the workings of this most complex of minds. Nor do the accounts of his first biographers afford us much help in such an enquiry. Their descriptions vacillate between truth and fiction, and anecdotes are made to fill factual gaps; of his birth and death legendary stories are told. As for Leibnitz's political activities (which have only recently been studied in greater detail ), here too a reliable appraisal seems impossible to come by. Unlike the names of his friends and patrons, his own name is not recorded in the political history of Germany or of Europe; his political missions never brought him into the lime-light of events. A diplomatic veil lies over his religious and patriotic work. He founded no school and had, during his lifetime, no disciples. There is, in fine, something anonymous and impersonal in all his activities.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.