Friday, February 26, 2016

Modernity and monads from Spinoza/Liebniz

by Matthew Stewart
Modernity dethrones humankind. It reduces all our thoughts, pur-poses, and hopes to the object of scientific inquiry. It makes labora-tory rats of us all. Spinoza actively embraces this collapse of the human into mere nature. Leibniz abhors it. Even more than he wants to convince us that God is good, Leibniz intends to demonstrate that we are the most special of all beings in nature. In the entire universe, he says, there is nothing more real or more permanent or more wor-thy of love than the individual human soul. We belong to the innermost reality of things. The human being is the new God, he announces: Each of us is "a small divinity and eminently a universe: God in ectype and the universe in prototype." This is the idea that defines Leibniz's philosophy, and that explains the enormous, if often unacknowledged, influence that his thought has wielded in the past three centuries of human history. The greatest obstacle Leibniz confronts in his quest to deify the human being is Spinoza's theory of mind. In Spinoza's view, the mind is nothing real; it is merely an abstraction over the material processes of the body. But, counters Leibniz, in the material world, nothing lasts forever; everything is at the mercy of impersonal forces; what passes for "unity" is merely temporary aggregation; and "identity" is a chimera in the never-ending flux of becoming and passing away. If Spinoza is correct, Leibniz concludes, then the human being, too, is merely chaff blowing in the silent winds of nature. Leibniz's metaphysics is thus best understood as the effort to demonstrate, against Spinoza, that there is another world that is prior to and constitutes the material world; that this more real reality con-sists of indestructible, self-identical unities; and that we ourselves—in virtue of our having minds—are the immaterial constituents of this more-than-real world. Of course, as a defender of the immaterial mind, Leibniz now faces the Cartesian mind-body problem in its full glory: He must explain how it happens that the immaterial mid. nd at least appears to interact with the less-than-real material worl So. more precisely, his metaphysics may be understood as an attempt to solve the Cartesian mind-body problem in such a manner as to avoid falling into Spinozistic heresy. IN (1,,RDER TO rid the world of Spinoza's theory of mind, Leibniz must first annihilate Spinoza's idea of Substance. For, in declaringm that God alone is Substance, Spinoza reduces human beings to ere modes of Substance, and thereby renders our minds material and mortal. Leibniz's strategy is therefore to replace the doctrine that God alone is Substance with the claim that there is a plurality of substances in the world. By identifying the mind with these new substances, Leibniz intends to secure for humankind a degree of indestructibil-ity, power, and freedom that his rival philosopher associates only with God. In one of his rare later comments on Spinoza, Leibniz new ly ' summarizes the difference between the two philosophers on this fun-damental point. The author of the Ethics, as we know, scoffs at those "for,? who regard the human mind as "a kingdom within a kingdom,  in his view, there is only one kingdom of Nature, one Substance. To which Leibniz responds:"My view is that every substance whatsoever is a kingdom within a kingdom!' The hunch that the world is made up of a plurality of substances appears in some of Leibniz's earliest writings. In the context of his reading of Spinoza's writings upon his return from The Hague, how-ever, he formulates his view in a transparent way. In hotes on Spinoza's letters to Oldenburg as well as on his copy of the Opera Posthuma, Leibniz explicitly rejects Spinoza's definition of "sub-stance" as that which is "in itself" and "conceived through itself." The second part of the definition, he now asserts, is incorrect:A sub-stance must be "in itself," but it need not be "conceived through itself." Rather, it may be "conceived through God."
An obscure point, it would seem; and yet, if true, it destroys the proof of the Proposition 5 in Part I of the Ethics that there cannot be two or more substances in the world. For, that proof turns on the claim that two substances which are "conceived through themselves" can have nothing in common and so cannot be part of the same uni-verse. It is no coincidence, then, that the proposition of the Ethics whose proof Leibniz seeks in his first letter to Schuller upon getting to Hanover is Proposition 5 of Part I of the Ethics. If he can find the weak point in Spinoza's proof, Leibniz thinks, he will open up the tantalizing possibility that there is not one but a plurality of substances in the world. He further infers—on the basis of quasi-mathematical arguments that would require several more books to elucidate—that the number of such substances must be infinite for roughly the same reason that the number of points on a line is infi-nite. No matter how small a slice of the universe you take, he says, it will contain an infinite number of substances. In writings dating from the 1690s, he dubs these substances with a name derived from the Greek for "unity," first used by his predecessor Giordano Bruno, and which has since become famous: monads. The claim that reality consists of an infinite number of monads entails some astonishing consequences, and Leibniz is not shy to draw these out. As substances, for example, monads must be entirely self-contained. That is, they depend on nothing else to be what they are. The most important implication of this is that they cannot interact with one another in any way at all—for, if they did so, one monad could conceivably alter the nature of another monad, and this would imply that its nature depends on the activity of some other substance, which, by the definition of substance, is not permissible. Thus, mon-ads are—in Leibniz's notably poetic language—"windowless." They can't see out, and you can't see in. It also follows that monads are immortal—they are always what they were and will be, namely, themselves. They have no beginning and no end. In order to make room for God, perhaps, Leibniz some-what mysteriously allows that at the moment of creation, all mon-ads came into being together, in a single "flash"; and if they should disappear, they must all vanish together in a comparable "flash" of annihilation.
Notwithstanding their evident durability and self-identity, monads do experience change of a sort, for they possess a capability to develop or "realize" themselves according to purely internal princi-ples. In Leibniz's lyrical terms, they are "big [in the sense of "preg-nant"] with the future." They may exist in the form of "seeds," he suggests, such as those observed in human semen by scientists such as Jan Swammerdam and Antoni von Leeuwenhoek (both of whom Leibniz met on his journey through Holland). Here Leibniz appeals to contemporary scientific findings in a man-ner that cannot but recall the practice of those modern philosophers who likewise attempt to substantiate their metaphysical claims with reference to recent scientific discoveries (in our time, usually quan-tum mechanics).The rocket science of Leibniz's time was microscopy. The work of the Dutch pioneers in the field, says Leibniz, demon-strates that there are tin.iimals) everywhere—animals within ani-mals—on no matter how small a scale one looks. Therefore, he concludes, it is quite plausible—nay, practically certain—that if these tiny animals had microscopes, they, too, would find even tinier ani-mals, and so on all the way down without end. Although all monads exist forever, they nonetheless seem to per-dure in the context of very different fellow-monad structures over time. The Leibniz monad, for instance, existed in seed form from the beginning of time. Contrary to popular prejudice, what it acquired on July 1, 1646, was only the agglomeration of fellow monads that make up its outward body. (The fact that Leibniz had two parents vexed the philosopher's followers—who had the monad, mom or dad?—but they did their best to overcome the "problem of sex.") Furthermore, as scientists have shown that even in fires small particles of ash survive in the smoke, it is evident that the Leibniz monad, like its brother monads, will continue to exist indefinitely in microscopic form—perhaps wafting on a piece of dust around its favorite city of Paris, where it will enjoy memories of happier days and receive from, God the rewards and punishments appropriate to its deeds. One of the most striking and controversial inferences that Leibniz, draws from the substantial nature of the monad is that a monad's future is written into its essence from the very beginning of things.
He expresses this daring doctrine in terms of logic as well as meta-physics. The "complete" concept of a substance, he says, must contain all the predicates that ever have been and ever will be true of it. For example—and here he invites much aggravation from his critics--the complete concept of "Caesar" ever and always includes the predicate "crossed the Rubicon"; just as the complete concept of "Leibniz," presumably, ever and always includes the predicate "visited Spinoza in The Hague." A monad, one could say, is the ideal subject for a biog-raphy: its entire life story unfolds with absolute logical necessity from its singular essence; and so the biographer need only locate this essence in order to settle on an appropriate plot and chapter outline. The life of a monad does not seem as solitary as it in fact is. Each monad, according to Leibniz, has within itself a "mirror" of the entire universe—a picture of what is happening everywhere at all times and how its own activities "fit in." Thus, monads are essentially mindlike. That is, they have a faculty of perception that constructs for them a pic-ture of the "external" world, and a faculty of apperception that registers an awareness of this process of perception itself. By means of these "mirrors" of consciousness, each monad repli-cates the entire universe of monads within itself; and so each monad is a "universe in prototype." Leibniz refers to this strange vision of worlds within worlds as "the principle of macrocosm and micro-cosm"—meaning that the microcosm contains or replicates the macrocosm all the way down to the infinitely small. He expresses the same notion in his claim that the ancient doctrine that "All is One" must now be supplemented with the equally important corollary that "One is All." If Leibniz had been writing in the information age, incidentally, he very likely would have replaced the monad mirrors with laptops run-ning interactive virtual-reality software. Such a metaphor perhaps better conveys the sense in which monads interact with a wider uni-verse only in an internal, "virtual" way, since they cannot really have contact with the rest of the universe at all. The monad mirrors, in any case, are somewhat scratched and imperfect—no doubt like the silver-backed mirrors that would have caught the philosopher's gaze in Paris. (Or, one could say, the virtual-reality screens have low resolution; or, the software still has lots of bugs.) So, all monads have a confused perception of the world around them. (Save God, of course, whose version of Windows is perfect). It is the logic of his system—and not arbitrary fancy nor a theory of the subconscious mind, as some have suggested—that compels Leibniz to scratch the mirrors of his monads. The imperfections in individual monads' perceptions play a key role in distinguishing one monad from another, for it is the partial perspective of each monad on the totality that makes it a unique individual with a unique "point of view" as it were. This is what Leibniz means when he says that a monad subsists "in itself" but is not necessarily "conceived through itself." To put it another way: two monads with absolutely perspicu-ous knowledge of the entire universe would be indistinguishable—in fact, they would both be God, or that through which all substances are conceived. Equally important, the splotchiness in the mirrors creates the pos-sibility of "free will" in monads, or so Leibniz contends.Although the entire past and future of a monad are embedded in its complete con-cept, nonetheless, on account of the inferior optics, a monad cannot understand its own essence in a fully perspicuous way. Because it does not know its own future (as God does), the monad is forced to make decisions and behave as though it were free. So, for example, God knew through all eternity that Leibniz was going to visit Spinoza in The Hague; but when Leibniz got off the boat, he faced a choice between walking over to the Paviljoensgracht and stopping in a local coffeehouse for the afternoon. The obscurity in the monad mirrors, finally, allows us to explain the crucial differences among types of monads. Although in the final analysis monads differ in degree and not kind, they nonetheless fall roughly into three groups, corresponding to what we may think of as rocks, animals, and people. All monads are mindlike to some degree, but only the peoplelike monads have minds, properly speaking. That is, their mirrors—their faculties of perception and apperception—are developed to the point where they have memory and self-awareness. Animal monads have souls, but not minds, strictly speaking, for their apperception or self-awareness tends to be lacking (Leibniz is a little vague on the point; but, in any case, it is worth noting that, compared with the dog-beating Cartesians, he was practically an animal-rights activist, insisting that it is repugnant to view animals as mere machines.) Rocklike monads are extremely passive, and so Leibniz has little to say about them. Note, however, that what we think of as an individual human being consists of one mind-monad dominating an infinite, swirling agglomeration of rocklike body-monads. With this last observation, the main point of the strange fable of the monads begins to come into focus. Leibniz's purpose is to lay out the context within which the Cartesian mind-body problem may be resolved and the immateriality of the mind preserved against Spinoza's soul-destroying Substance. In the new vocabulary of monads, the mind-body problem may be restated thus: How do mind-monads coordinate their activities with body-monads so that all work together to create a coherent universe in which minds and bodies appear to interact? For example: How is it that, when the Leibniz mind-monad decides to meet Spinoza in The Hague, his body-monads get him aboard the yacht, walk him down along the canals, and knock on his fellow philosopher's door? And how is it that the equally self-contained Spinoza monad happens to organize its body-monads in such a way as to open the door for his visitor? Phrased in these terms, now, it is evident that, within the Leibniz-ian system, the mind-body problem no longer refers to something that is logically impossible, but only to something that seems ludi-crously improbable. That is, Leibniz does not have to explain how two radically different classes of entity—minds and bodies—may interact with each other; he simply takes it as given that all substances are of the same mindlike nature and that they do not interact with one another at all. The remaining problem is only that it seems very unlikely, to say the least, that all these monads would coordinate their internally driven activities in such a way as to produce a coherent world—that the Leibniz mind-monad should not decide to visit Spinoza, for example, while the rest of him goes for a cup of coffee. This understanding of the problem sets the stage for what Leibniz claims is his single most magnificent bequest to humanity: the doc-trine of "the pre-established harmony" Although each monad acts according to its own, purely internal laws of development, Leibniz maintains, each is so designed that the world within which it per-ceives itself to be acting coheres exactly with the world within which all the other monads perceive themselves to be acting. Thus, for example, when the Leibniz mind-monad decides to call on Spinoza, the Leibniz body-monads just happen to be planning a walk up the Paviljoensgracht, too. Leibniz's choice of a musical metaphor to describe the coordina-tion of monad activities seems very much in the spirit of his age. In the late seventeenth century, the delights of contrapuntal music became widely celebrated, great architecture was praised as "frozen music," and even the orbits of the planets around the sun were said to have agreeably musical properties. Sometimes, though, Leibniz uses a different metaphor, one drawn from another of the wonders of his age: the watch. Mind and body, he says, are like a pair of perfectly constructed and perfectly synchronized watches. They tell the same time throughout eternity, not because they are causally linked to each other, nor because anyone intervenes to adjust one to the other, but because each on its own progresses through the same series of sec-onds on its own devices. (It is interesting to note that in Leibniz's day watches were notoriously imprecise, and could be counted on to diverge appreciably from one another by the end of each working day; but the race was on to build one of sufficient reliability to be used in measuring the longitude of ships at sea.) In the information age, we would probably favor a different metaphor: although each monad runs its own virtual-reality software on a stand-alone basis, we could say, the virtual reality of each monad is perfectly consistent with the virtual realities of all the other monads. Needless to say, the extraordinary degree of mutual compatibility among monads is far greater than could ever be attributed to any merely human watchmaker or even any immortal software corpora-tion. In fact, says Leibniz, the pre-established harmony is manifestly the handiwork of God. When the Almighty creates the infinite infin-ity of monads in the big flash, he designs each in such a way that its internal principle of activity harmonizes perfectly with those of all the others. The doctrine of the pre-established harmony may also be understood as a generalized and perhaps more elegant version of Malebranche's occasionalism. According to the latter, God intervenes on every occasion where there is an interaction of mind and body, in an endless series of real-time miracles. In Leibniz's world, God inter-venes only once, at the moment of creation, in an original miracle whereby he programs the infinite infinity of monads with such aston-ishing skill that they sing in harmony for all eternity. The pre-established harmony also lines up neatly as the apparent replacement for Spinoza's doctrine of parallelism. Spinoza, we should recall, claims that mind and body operate in parallel because they are really the same thing seen from two angles, like two sides of the same coin. Leibniz implicitly agrees that mind and body appear to operate in parallel, like two clocks ticking away side by side; but, on his account, they do so only by the grace of God's impeccable craftsman-ship, for they are in themselves radically independent of each other. God's intervention on the mind-body problem is so wondrous, Leibniz adds, that it amounts to another proof of his existence and of his goodness. The proof belongs to an ancient theological tradition, one that flared in the seventeenth century but that has always smol-dered somewhere in the hearth of the human imagination. Leibniz's question—How is it that all the monads manage to get along so well?—is a generalization over some much simpler questions that have been asked many times before: How is it that apples are just the right size for our mouths? How is it that the water we need to live falls so abundantly from the sky? With minor changes in vocabulary, the same type of question may be heard in places even today: How is it that the apparently arbitrary parameters of the physical laws of the universe, some would ask, are set at precisely those values that make life in the universe possible? How can such complex phenomena as intelligent life be the result of an evolutionary process that has no purpose or designer? The argument that only God could account for such improbable developments as bite-sized apples, congenial cosmo-logical constants, intelligent life, and the pre-established harmony is generally called "the argument from design." Spinoza, Hume, Kant, and many other philosophers have long since pointed out that the logic of the argument is hardly compelling: it establishes a probability, not a certainty; and the probability of an event that is absolutely unique is in any case indefinable. But, as Leibniz understood, mere quibbles about logic do little to diminish the enduring appeal of the argument. The story about monads and the pre-established harmony clearly reinforces—and is intended to reinforce—Leibniz's political vision. To the respublica Christiana and the Empire of Reason, Leibniz now adds a third name for his political ideal: the City of God.The citizens of this heavenly metropolis, he says, are the thinking monads of the world—i.e., all people—and the harmony they exhibit among them-selves is a reflection of God's glory. A pillar of the theocratic order represented in the City of God is the doctrine of personal immortal-ity encoded in the monadology. Indeed, Leibniz maintains that with-out universal belief in rewards and punishments in the afterlife, people will behave very badly and anarchy will consume society., Thus, at stake in his refutation of Spinoza's theory of mind is the preservation of Christian civilization. Yet, notwithstanding their creator's medieval-sounding politics, Leibniz's monads have a curiously modern edge, too. The City of God is a monarchy, to be sure, with God as its king. But, among its earthly denizens, a certain kind of egalitarianism reigns. All monads are created equal; each embodies the All, and each reflects the full glory of God; and so each has certain basic rights of citizenship. Indeed, Leibniz specifically opposes slavery, for example, on the basis of the equality of monads.The universal equality of monads also finds expression in Leibniz's thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism: "Justice is that which is useful to the community, and the public good is the supreme law—a community, however, let it be recalled, not of a few, not of a particular nation, but of all those who are part of the City of God and, so to speak, of the state of the universe." Although Leibniz's legacy was later commandeered by Germans in the name of nation building, the philosopher himself never wavered from the universal-ity of his ideal. In the context of a tiff among the various European academies, for example, he writes: "Provided something of conse-quence is achieved, I am indifferent whether this is done in Germany or France, for I seek the good of mankind. I am neither a phil-Hellene nor a phil-Roman, but a phil-anthropos."
Leibniz was indeed a phil-anthropos, and this was perhaps both the central message embedded in his monadology and the chief point of contrast with the reviled Spinoza. For, according to the latter, the human being is nothing exceptional, and it is merely ignorance and vanity that lead humankind to imagine that we "are the largest part of nature." But, according to Leibniz, the human being is every-thing—the point and the substance of the world. The modern secu-lar state, when viewed from a global perspective, looks much more like Spinoza's free republic than Leibniz's City of God; and yet, para-doxically, many of the beliefs that guide individuals within the mod-ern world—the faith in the sanctity of the individual, the ideal of charity, and the unique purpose of humankind—would seem to fol-low directly from Leibniz's essentially antimodern theocratic project. One the most intriguing features of Leibniz's monadological vision is the most obvious one: that it seems to describe an ideal. The City of God serves Leibniz as a vision whose realization is the goal of all of his efforts (and those of like-Minded individuals). In some passages, Leibniz even makes this rather modern notion of progress explicit: "We must also recognize that the entire universe is involved in a perpetual and most free progress, so that it is always advancing toward greater culture." And yet, logically speaking, the City of God is a representation of the actual world, not of an ideal one. We are monads, after all; we are already immortal and we necessarily live according to the laws of the pre-established harmony. This conflation of--or perhaps confusion between—representations of the real and depictions of the ideal is a fundamental feature of Leibnizian meta-physics, and perhaps even raises the question as to whether the entire system of monads and harmonies was less a representation of life as we know it than some sort of visionary utopia.
All this, I acknowledge, I understand not at all," wrote the English philosopher Samuel Clarke in response to Leibniz's attempt to explain his ideas about substances and the pre-established harmony, and there is no shame in admitting as much even today when presented with the monadological philosophy in bare outline. Bertrand Russell frankly confesses that, on first reading, Leibniz's metaphysics struck him as "a fascinating fairy tale, coherent, perhaps, but wholly arbitrary.
Hegel too acknowledges: Liebniz's philosophy appears like a string of arbitrary assertions. The bizarre monads all follow from the premise that substantiality is a quality of individual minds and not of nature.





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