The Renaissance and Seventeenth-Century Rationalism

By G. H.R. Parkinson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11

Leibniz: truth, knowledge and metaphysics

Nicholas Jolley

Leibniz is in important respects the exception among the great philosophers of the seventeenth century. The major thinkers of the period characteristically proclaim the need to reject the philosophical tradition; in their different ways Descartes, Hobbes and Spinoza all insist that new foundations must be laid if philosophy is to achieve any sure and lasting results. Even Malebranche, who seeks to revive the teaching of Augustine, joins in the general chorus of condemnation of Aristotle and his legacy. Leibniz, by contrast, does not share in this revolutionary fervour. Although he is capable of criticizing the Aristotelian tradition, he is also careful to remark that much gold is buried in the dross. 1 Leibniz of course is as enthusiastic as any of his contemporaries about the new mechanistic science; indeed, he is one of its most distinguished advocates and exponents. But by temperament Leibniz is not a revolutionary but a synthesizer; in philosophy, as in politics and religion, he deliberately sets out to mediate between opposing camps. As he himself said, ‘the majority of the sects are right in a large part of what they assert but not so much in what they deny’. 2

The distinctive character of Leibniz’s reconciling project needs to be made a little clearer. Other philosophers in the period had of course also tried to show that the new science was compatible with natural theology. Descartes, for example, sought to find a place in his philosophy for such orthodox doctrines as the existence of a personal God and the immortality of the soul. But in contrast with Descartes, Leibniz sought to retain as much as possible of the Aristotelian framework and to combine it with the emerging scientific and philosophical ideas; we shall see, for example, that Leibniz seeks to fuse Aristotelian and Cartesian conceptions of the soul. The synthesizing spirit of Leibniz’s

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