I’m going to try and trim this closer to 500 words…


Leibniz is introduced by Russell as being the polar opposite of Spinoza: “One of the supreme intellects of all time but as a human being he was not admirable.”  It is made clear early on that Leibniz offered two systems of philosophy; one which he published to “win the approbation of princes and princesses,” and another which was published posthumously. This second system was held secret due to the outrage he imagined it would cause. Russell makes it clear that the controversial one is his favourite.

If anyone can offer an antonym of ‘posthumous’ I’ll change the title of this first section…

“Friendly” System
Leibniz claimed that this is the best of all possible words. He spoke of a rather complicated system built around the idea that the universe consists of an infinite number of substances he called ‘monads’ which, he concluded, are actually souls. Each monad is given its own nature by God, and they form a hierarchy “in which some are superior to others in the clearness and distinction with which they mirror the universe”.  The physics described are difficult to follow, though Russell occasionally hints that he’s not impressed by some of the theory (though this is not surprising when he made it so clear which is his preferred system). He points out, for example, that modern theologians no longer rely on the “proofs” of God’s existence, and refers to “his peculiar metaphysic”. (pp.536, 537)
One point which I found particularly interesting is the suggestion on p.538 that God isn’t omnipotent, just a being “vastly and more powerful than we are,” I am surprised that this wasn’t reported to have stirred up more controversy.

But the most intriguing idea is the suggestion of multiple worlds, also on p.538. Leibniz put forth the idea that there are “an infinite number of worlds, all of which God contemplated before creating the actual world,” and that ours is the best possible. The bad things in the world are necessary for us to appreciate the good things, though this can be countered by the suggestion that the good things make the bad things seem worse.

Posthumous System
“Here I have made enormous progress,” Leibniz said of the work that wasn’t published until he’s been dead for two hundred years. Sadly, this work included mathematical logic that would have been groundbreaking at the time, and the decision to keep it quiet may have dealt quite a blow to the progress of mathematics.

He had a fantastic ambition to develop something called Characteristica Universalis, a system of maths so refined that it would replace thought. “If controversies [between philosophers] were to arise… it would suffice to take their pencils in their hands…and say to each other: ‘Let us calculate.’”

Russell focuses on one of the most hard-hitting ideas in this system on p.541. He also describes it as one of the most definite statements (this is interesting as it would therefore suggest that some of the other statements are less than definite): “That the individual notion of each person involves once and for all everything that will ever happen to him.” To understand the gravity of this, we must first understand what is meant by ‘notion’ in the philosophical sense. All web results of any use seemed to life the description from Wikipedia, which is as follows: ‘A notion in philosophy is a reflection in the mind of real objects and phenomena in their essential features and relations.’  So a notion is how you see the world, and how your mind works according to various causes and their effects. Perhaps we can loosely relate this to Freud’s idea of the Ego. Leibniz was saying that everything we are and everything we do and experience in life is already ‘in us’. This means not only is everything pre-ordained, but our minds and souls already have those experiences and their effects. This is another example of philosophy butting heads with the Church; how could the clergy speak of sin and damnation if this were the case?

My favourite part if this system is Leibniz’ idea of how things come to exist. We must first accept the idea that things that exist and things that do not are still, for want of a better word, entitative.  They hang in a kind of limbo or void and battle for existence. The things that we see and experience in this world are the teams of essences which are strongest and win through to form a stable and balanced world. This is a strange idea of a kind of Darwinian system with species replaced with essences of reality. Like Darwin, “there is no mention of God, no act of Creation” (though this does not necessarily mean Leibniz didn’t believe in God).

The key thing here is that Leibniz argues that the world we live in is built on logic. All of his arguments are the result of an attempt to put a system or formula on existence which is naturally occurring and self-regulating. Russell ends the chapter by offering his opinion which also summarises one facet of Leibniz’ philosophy: “What I, for my part, think best in his theory of monads is his two kinds of space, one subjective, in the perceptions of each monad, and one objective, consisting of the assemblage of points of view of the various monads. This, I believe, is still useful in relating perception to physics.” 

500 Word Target Fail...