Philosophical Essays and Texts of Leibniz


Early life

Gottfried Leibniz was born on July 1, 1646, toward the end of the Thirty Years' War, in Leipzig, Saxony, to Friedrich Leibniz and Catharina Schmuck. Friedrich noted in his family journal:

"21. Juny am Sontag 1646 Ist mein Sohn Gottfried Wilhelm, post sextam vespertinam 1/4 uff 7 uhr abents zur welt gebohren, im Wassermann."

In English:

"On Sunday 21 June [NS: 1 July] 1646, my son Gottfried Wilhelm is born into the world a quarter after six in the evening, in Aquarius."[11][12]

His father died when he was six and a half years old, and from that point on he was raised by his mother. Her teachings influenced Leibniz's philosophical thoughts in his later life.

Leibniz's father had been a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Leipzig, and the boy later inherited his father's personal library. He was given free access to it from the age of seven. While Leibniz's schoolwork was largely confined to the study of a small canon of authorities, his father's library enabled him to study a wide variety of advanced philosophical and theological works—ones that he would not have otherwise been able to read until his college years.[13] Access to his father's library, largely written in Latin, also led to his proficiency in the Latin language, which he achieved by the age of 12. He also composed 300 hexameters of Latin verse, in a single morning, for a special event at school at the age of 13.[14]

He enrolled in his father's former university at age 15,[15] and completed his Bachelor's degree in Philosophy in December 1662. He defended his Disputatio Metaphysica de Principio Individui, which addressed the principle of individuation, on June 9, 1663. Leibniz earned his Master's degree in Philosophy on February 7, 1664. He published and defended a dissertation Specimen Quaestionum Philosophicarum ex Jure collectarum, arguing for both a theoretical and a pedagogical relationship between philosophy and law, in December 1664. After one year of legal studies, he was awarded his Bachelor's degree in Law on September 28, 1665.

In 1666, at age 20, Leibniz wrote his first book, On the Art of Combinations, the first part of which was also his habilitation thesis in Philosophy.[16] His next goal was to earn his license and Doctorate in Law, which normally required three years of study. In 1666, the University of Leipzig turned down Leibniz's doctoral application and refused to grant him a Doctorate in Law, most likely due to his relative youth.[17][18] Leibniz subsequently left Leipzig.[19]

Leibniz then enrolled in the University of Altdorf and quickly submitted a thesis, which he had probably been working on earlier in Leipzig.[20] The title of his thesis was Disputatio Inauguralis De Casibus Perplexis In Jure. Leibniz earned his license to practice law and his Doctorate in Law in November 1666. He next declined the offer of an academic appointment at Altdorf, saying that "my thoughts were turned in an entirely different direction".[21]

As an adult, Leibniz often introduced himself as "Gottfried von Leibniz". Many posthumously published editions of his writings presented his name on the title page as "Freiherr G. W. von Leibniz." However, no document has ever been found from any contemporary government that stated his appointment to any form of nobility.[22]


Leibniz's first position was as a salaried secretary to an alchemical society in Nuremberg.[23] He knew fairly little about the subject at that time but presented himself as deeply learned. He soon met Johann Christian von Boyneburg (1622–1672), the dismissed chief minister of the Elector of Mainz, Johann Philipp von Schönborn.[24] Von Boyneburg hired Leibniz as an assistant, and shortly thereafter reconciled with the Elector and introduced Leibniz to him. Leibniz then dedicated an essay on law to the Elector in the hope of obtaining employment. The stratagem worked; the Elector asked Leibniz to assist with the redrafting of the legal code for his Electorate.[25] In 1669, Leibniz was appointed Assessor in the Court of Appeal. Although von Boyneburg died late in 1672, Leibniz remained under the employment of his widow until she dismissed him in 1674.

Von Boyneburg did much to promote Leibniz's reputation, and the latter's memoranda and letters began to attract favorable notice. Leibniz's service to the Elector soon followed a diplomatic role. He published an essay, under the pseudonym of a fictitious Polish nobleman, arguing (unsuccessfully) for the German candidate for the Polish crown. The main force in European geopolitics during Leibniz's adult life was the ambition of Louis XIV of France, backed by French military and economic might. Meanwhile, the Thirty Years' War had left German-speaking Europe exhausted, fragmented, and economically backward. Leibniz proposed to protect German-speaking Europe by distracting Louis as follows. France would be invited to take Egypt as a stepping stone towards an eventual conquest of the Dutch East Indies. In return, France would agree to leave Germany and the Netherlands undisturbed. This plan obtained the Elector's cautious support. In 1672, the French government invited Leibniz to Paris for discussion,[26] but the plan was soon overtaken by the outbreak of the Franco-Dutch War and became irrelevant. Napoleon's failed invasion of Egypt in 1798 can be seen as an unwitting, late implementation of Leibniz's plan, after the Eastern hemisphere colonial supremacy in Europe had already passed from the Dutch to the British.

Thus Leibniz began several years in Paris. Soon after arriving, he met Dutch physicist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens and realised that his own knowledge of mathematics and physics was patchy. With Huygens as his mentor, he began a program of self-study that soon pushed him to making major contributions to both subjects, including discovering his version of the differential and integral calculus. He met Nicolas Malebranche and Antoine Arnauld, the leading French philosophers of the day, and studied the writings of Descartes and Pascal, unpublished as well as published. He befriended a German mathematician, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus; they corresponded for the rest of their lives. In 1675 he was admitted by the French Academy of Sciences as a foreign honorary member, despite his lack of attention to the academy.

When it became clear that France would not implement its part of Leibniz's Egyptian plan, the Elector sent his nephew, escorted by Leibniz, on a related mission to the English government in London, early in 1673.[27] There Leibniz came into acquaintance of Henry Oldenburg and John Collins. He met with the Royal Society where he demonstrated a calculating machine that he had designed and had been building since 1670. The machine was able to execute all four basic operations (adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing), and the Society quickly made him an external member. The mission ended abruptly when news reached it of the Elector's death, whereupon Leibniz promptly returned to Paris and not, as had been planned, to Mainz.[28]

The sudden deaths of his two patrons in the same winter meant that Leibniz had to find a new basis for his career. In this regard, a 1669 invitation from the Duke of Brunswick to visit Hanover proved fateful. Leibniz declined the invitation, but began corresponding with the Duke in 1671. In 1673, the Duke offered him the post of Counsellor which Leibniz very reluctantly accepted two years later, only after it became clear that no employment in Paris, whose intellectual stimulation he relished, or with the Habsburg imperial court was forthcoming.

House of Hanover, 1676–1716

Leibniz managed to delay his arrival in Hanover until the end of 1676 after making one more short journey to London, where he was later accused by Newton of being shown some of Newton's unpublished work on the calculus.[29] This was alleged to be evidence supporting the accusation, made decades later, that he had stolen the calculus from Newton. On the journey from London to Hanover, Leibniz stopped in The Hague where he met Leeuwenhoek, the discoverer of microorganisms. He also spent several days in intense discussion with Spinoza, who had just completed his masterwork, the Ethics.[30]

In 1677, he was promoted, at his request, to Privy Counselor of Justice, a post he held for the rest of his life. Leibniz served three consecutive rulers of the House of Brunswick as historian, political adviser, and most consequentially, as librarian of the ducal library. He thenceforth employed his pen on all the various political, historical, and theological matters involving the House of Brunswick; the resulting documents form a valuable part of the historical record for the period.

Among the few people in north Germany to accept Leibniz were the Electress Sophia of Hanover (1630–1714), her daughter Sophia Charlotte of Hanover (1668–1705), the Queen of Prussia and his avowed disciple, and Caroline of Ansbach, the consort of her grandson, the future George II. To each of these women he was correspondent, adviser, and friend. In turn, they all approved of Leibniz more than did their spouses and the future king George I of Great Britain.[31]

The population of Hanover was only about 10,000, and its provinciality eventually grated on Leibniz. Nevertheless, to be a major courtier to the House of Brunswick was quite an honor, especially in light of the meteoric rise in the prestige of that House during Leibniz's association with it. In 1692, the Duke of Brunswick became a hereditary Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. The British Act of Settlement 1701 designated the Electress Sophia and her descent as the royal family of England, once both King William III and his sister-in-law and successor, Queen Anne, were dead. Leibniz played a role in the initiatives and negotiations leading up to that Act, but not always an effective one. For example, something he published anonymously in England, thinking to promote the Brunswick cause, was formally censured by the British Parliament.

The Brunswicks tolerated the enormous effort Leibniz devoted to intellectual pursuits unrelated to his duties as a courtier, pursuits such as perfecting the calculus, writing about other mathematics, logic, physics, and philosophy, and keeping up a vast correspondence. He began working on the calculus in 1674; the earliest evidence of its use in his surviving notebooks is 1675. By 1677 he had a coherent system in hand, but did not publish it until 1684. Leibniz's most important mathematical papers were published between 1682 and 1692, usually in a journal which he and Otto Mencke founded in 1682, the Acta Eruditorum. That journal played a key role in advancing his mathematical and scientific reputation, which in turn enhanced his eminence in diplomacy, history, theology, and philosophy.

The Elector Ernest Augustus commissioned Leibniz to write a history of the House of Brunswick, going back to the time of Charlemagne or earlier, hoping that the resulting book would advance his dynastic ambitions. From 1687 to 1690, Leibniz traveled extensively in Germany, Austria, and Italy, seeking and finding archival materials bearing on this project. Decades went by but no history appeared; the next Elector became quite annoyed at Leibniz's apparent dilatoriness. Leibniz never finished the project, in part because of his huge output on many other fronts, but also because he insisted on writing a meticulously researched and erudite book based on archival sources, when his patrons would have been quite happy with a short popular book, one perhaps little more than a genealogy with commentary, to be completed in three years or less. They never knew that he had in fact carried out a fair part of his assigned task: when the material Leibniz had written and collected for his history of the House of Brunswick was finally published in the 19th century, it filled three volumes.

In 1708, John Keill, writing in the journal of the Royal Society and with Newton's presumed blessing, accused Leibniz of having plagiarized Newton's calculus.[32] Thus began the calculus priority dispute which darkened the remainder of Leibniz's life. A formal investigation by the Royal Society (in which Newton was an unacknowledged participant), undertaken in response to Leibniz's demand for a retraction, upheld Keill's charge. Historians of mathematics writing since 1900 or so have tended to acquit Leibniz, pointing to important differences between Leibniz's and Newton's versions of the calculus.

In 1711, while traveling in northern Europe, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great stopped in Hanover and met Leibniz, who then took some interest in Russian matters for the rest of his life. In 1712, Leibniz began a two-year residence in Vienna, where he was appointed Imperial Court Councillor to the Habsburgs. On the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Elector George Louis became King George I of Great Britain, under the terms of the 1701 Act of Settlement. Even though Leibniz had done much to bring about this happy event, it was not to be his hour of glory. Despite the intercession of the Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, George I forbade Leibniz to join him in London until he completed at least one volume of the history of the Brunswick family his father had commissioned nearly 30 years earlier. Moreover, for George I to include Leibniz in his London court would have been deemed insulting to Newton, who was seen as having won the calculus priority dispute and whose standing in British official circles could not have been higher. Finally, his dear friend and defender, the Dowager Electress Sophia, died in 1714.

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