Roots of German Philosophy, Part Seven: Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)

October 27, 2008

    Gottfried Leibniz could have been many things — a carpet salesman, tuba player, astrologer, wrestler, ship captain, or even a cake decorator.  Instead, he chose to become a philosopher.  And the world is not any worse for it.  Carpet salesman would have been good.  But it’s water under the bridge, as they say.  Leibniz’s main contribution to philosophy was the belief, set forth in Theodicee (1710), that we must be living in the best of all possible worlds, because God would only create the best.  Such optimism so revolted Voltaire that he wrote Candide as a thinly-veiled attack on Leibniz.  (And punks think they invented cynicism!)  The Saxony Times-Herald, which noted that the title Theodicee was a clever homonym of The Odyssey, gave it a lukewarm review, calling it “just okay.”  It got remaindered after six months.  So Leibniz put aside philosophy for a while and got into mathematics.  He eventually developed what we now know as calculus.  Unfortunately, Sir Isaac Newton also devised calculus at the same time, and he accused Leibniz of plagiarism.  Everyone sided with Newton because he was regarded as the smartest man in the world, and they couldn’t believe that Leibniz, who had been educated in law, could invent calculus.  Leibniz had been in London in 1676 and allegedly got a quick look at Newton’s calculus in unfinished draft form.  And when he presented his calculus to the world, it was almost the same as Newton’s.  But does all this prove plagiarism?  No.  In the first place, it takes science and engineering students at least two years to  learn calculus out of textbooks, so how is somebody supposed to produce an entirely new mathematics after having a brief look at somebody else’s unfinished draft?  And in the second place, if I invent long division, and you invent long division, can they turn out different in any significant way?  After all the bad publicity, Leibniz would have sunk into oblivion, but fortunately he had some rich, highly-placed patrons — Johann Philipp von Schonborn, Elector of Mainz, the Duke of Brunswick, and the Electress Sophia of Hanover.  The Elector of Mainz sent Leibniz to Paris so he could persuade the French to invade Egypt and leave Germany alone.  The French were hesitant, preferring to wait for Napoleon to invade Egypt in 1798.  But they appreciated the suggestion and invited Leibniz to stay in Paris.  There he met Christiaan Huygens, who had perfected the making of telescopes, as well as the major French philosophers and mathematicians, many of whom were his contemporaries.  In 1711, he met the Russian Tsar Peter the Great, in Hanover, with whom he discussed China, topology, aerobics, alchemy, and agrarian reform, and then played the tuba for him.  The Tsar was so impressed by Leibniz’s breadth of learning that he presented him with a fur hat.  Current advanced theories of cosmology and quantum mechanics were made possible by Leibniz’s precursors, which may be seen in several German museums.  However, his hypothesis that the sun was full of kinetic energy was rejected by Pope Clement XI and denounced by George I.  Leibniz devised a calculating machine, which impressed the Royal Society of England, even though it only calculated up to one million.  (This was considered sufficient, as respectable gentlemen of the day did not have any occasion to count higher than that; and the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic had not yet happened.)  When the Elector of Mainz died, Leibniz moved to Hanover and became the personal librarian of the Duke of Brunswick.  There he introduced the concept of fines for overdue books, and even made the Duke pay fines on his own books.  But Leibniz delivered much service to his patron.  He traveled all over Hanover, collecting historical documents which confirmed the Duke’s legitimacy, and he also inspected the Duke’s silver and uranium mines.  In addition, he created the first public health board and designed a network of jogging paths for the Holy Roman Empire, which he hoped would promote ecumenism and heal the rift caused by the Reformation.  Despite his onerous duties, Leibniz found time to write thousands of manuscripts on mathematics, science, and philosophy, and maintain voluminous correspondence with people all over Europe.  He also designed lamps, propellers, submarines, a roulette wheel, an espresso machine, and the first mechanical pin-setter for bowling alleys.  Today we are most indebted to Leibniz for the discovery of monads, which, although microscopic, are widely used in lawn mowers, energy drinks, video games, atomic warheads, and lingerie.  If there is one criticism to be made of Leibniz, it is that he left the vast bulk of his writings unpublished, which caused him to be forgotten for many years after his death.  It is a lucky thing that he lived in a civilized country like Germany in the 18th Century, because his thousands of manuscripts and piles of correspondence were saved for posterity.  (This is why we have Dead White European Males to remember.)  If he were living in Toronto, Canada, in the present day and died in an apartment full of personal papers, his multicultural landlord, Mr. Goomparooma, would bag everything without looking at it and haul it out to the curb for the garbage men.


1. The Bobbsey Twins At the Earth’s Core, by Laura Lee Hope, 1973, Grosset & Dunlap.

2. A Slug In Valhalla, by Darwinder Gupta, 1966, Outhouse Editions.

3. Discourses on Calculus and Differential Equations, by Krzysztof Oliwa, 2002, Univ. of Gdansk Press.

    Copyright@ 2008 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada.  E-mail:


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