Metaphysical Explanation in Leibniz: The Monads

  • Robert E. Butts
Part of the The Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 24)


Leibniz gives expression of his basic metaphysics in many places: in short books, fragments, letters, notes. In this chapter and the next I attempt to disclose the basic features of his theory, although my selective emphasis will omit many crucial details. In Monadology, a work running in most translations to fewer than twenty printed pages, Leibniz gives a highly compact statement of the theory, and it is this short work that I will examine now.1


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  1. 1.
    Much of the substance of this chapter appeared in Butts (1980). The material appearing there is extensively rewritten. Monadology has short numbered paragraphs; I give many of these paragraph numbers as references in the text. There are several good translations. I prefer (and use here) that of Paul and Anne Schrecker (1965); Loemker (1969) is also quite good.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    This is Leibniz’ extensive commentary on Locke. It is important to point out that Kant read this work in 1769, and that it had a great effect on the development of his thought from that point on. The best translation (and the one I cite) is that of Remnant and Bennett: Leibniz (1981).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    My translations of Kant (1961), pp. 40–41. The transcript of the lectures probably goes back to the Wintersemester of 1781/82. For a discussion of Kant as lecturer (and of the encyclopedia transcript) see my review in Butts (1963), pp. 309–317. See below, Ch. VII, p. 212, note 9.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    It seems to have been commonplace for Kant’s contemporaries and students to view Leibniz as a spiritualist. Thus, in Friederich A. Nitsch’s (1796) introduction to Kant’s philosophy for English readers, he correctly portrays one of Kant’s main contributions as the effort to establish the centrality of the “sensitive faculty”, and writes “Those who follow Leibnitz, the greatest of all Spiritualists, naturally assume it as a fundamental principle of their system, that the world is a compound of simple substances, that our opinion of things being extended and figured, is the result of confused ideas, and that the sensitive faculty, which furnishes these ideas, so far from being the true source of real knowledge, is rather a hindrance to the intellect, which alone has the power to contemplate things as they are, and to procure substantial knowledge of the world” (p. 48). Nitsch had been Kant’s pupil, and was lecturer in Latin and mathematics in the Royal Fridericianum College at Königsberg. That he furnishes a fair summary of Kant’s view of Liebniz will become clear as we proceed. I am grateful to my colleague Robert Binkley for calling this strange work to my attention.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Thus see Nicholas Rescher: “In mathematical analysis the continuity properties of functions play an important rôle, and there is little doubt that it was his mathematical studies which suggested to Leibniz the philosophic potentialities of the continuity concept” [Rescher (1967) p. 51, n. 9], Couturat, Russell, Schrecker, Rescher, Buchdahl, Mittelstrass, Aiton: one must be very bold indeed to oppose the authority of such a group of Leibniz scholars! As will be seen, I do not so much offer opposition as gentle insinuation. It is enough to trouble the sleep of the giants; I cannot expect to match their readings of Leibniz text-by-text and argument-by-argument. [Soon after the appearance of the journal article that forms part of this chapter I received gratifying positive responses to my suggestions about Leibniz from both Rescher and Mittelstrass. Certain revisions of the material that now appear in this chapter owe their existence to comments from these two scholars. I hope their responses will again be positive.]Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Buchdahl (1969) pp. 407–8. These remarks on Buchdahl have been allowed to stand because they make a good point about interpreting Leibniz; however, they are no longer fair comment. In a more recent paper Buchdahl again takes up the question of the relationship between science, philosophy, and theology, and his sensitive reading makes it quite plain that he really does believe that the analogies go in all relevant directions. See his fascinating paper [Buchdahl (1979) pp. 74–83]. His views on this question now seem to me to constitute the most sensitive reading of Leibniz, and the most believable account. I am here dealing with the sources of the monadology at another level, as will become clear. Buchdahl cannot be held responsible for not wanting to address my question.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    Leibniz says suggestive things about the “way of shadows” in On the True Theologia Mystica (ca. 1690); Loemker (1969) #40. I will return to this marvellously arcane, but quite revealing, text below.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    Consider just one of the many texts, Principles of Nature and of Grace, Based on Reason (1714), [Loemker (1969) #56, para. 3 (I have modified the translation slightly)]: “All nature is full [a plenum]… and because of the plenitude of the world everything is connected…”. If everything real is of the same kind, continuity is guaranteed.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    See Lovejoy (1936), surely the locus classicus for understanding the history of the concept of continuity; and Lewis White Beck (1969). Beck suggests a thematic connection between Leibniz and the mystic Nicholas of Cusa (p. 71), notes Leibniz’ admiration of the even more mystical Jakob Böhme (p. 156), and in many places is fully aware that Leibniz lived and learned in Germany, a country with a rich and influential mystical and occultist background. Beck understands that the historical move toward rationalism as Aufklärung in Germany is rather different from that in Britain or in other parts of continental Europe. The transition from 14th century German piety (the devotio moderna of the Imitation of Christ and Theologica Germanica) to Kant’s assertion of Aufklärung as “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage” is historically unique, and such patterns of differing motivation are not frequently noted in standard works in the history of philosophy.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    It may be intriguing to consider: how does the attempt to discover the number of the Beast of the Apocalypse differ in any important way from the attempt to give mathematical grounds for computing that mysterious entity known as an instantaneous rate of change of speed? When, exactly, did alchemy become chemistry and gematria modern mathematics? Was it not part of the endeavor of the medieval astrologer to have us “sit down and calculate”? Leibniz’ interest in signs or evidences (both a theoretical and a practical interest), and in the efficacy of numbers, pervades his writings. For example, in one of the German writings [On the True Theologia Mystica, Loemker (1969) #40 p. 368] he associates the binary number system (0 and 1 generating all other positive integers) with the sentiment that “All creatures derive from God and from Nothingness [Nichts], Their self-being [Selbstwesen] is of God, their nonbeing [Unwesen] is of nothing. (Numbers too show this in a wonderful way, and the essences of things are like numbers.)” In an accompanying diagram, a source of bright light illuminates a chart listing binary numbers up to 10001 (17); at the bottom we read: “IMAGO.CREATIONIS. INVEN G. G L ANN.CHR.MDCXCVII”Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    van Helmont was the friend of both Conway and More, and in all probability introduced Leibniz to their thought during morning seminars given in Hannover in 1696. He had a great deal of conversation with Leibniz from 1671 on. It is thought by some that Leibniz borrowed the term “monad” and some of the ideas of the Monadology from van Helmont. There is evidence that he had studied van Helmont’s thought closely, taking notes on the writings. The term “monad” was “in the air”, and Leibniz could just as easily have taken it from John Dee, whose writings he also knew. For some details on Conway, More and van Helmont, and for important references, see the “NOTES” in Leibniz (1981).Google Scholar
  12. 16.
    From Lessing’s Ueber die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechtes; my reference is to Etienne Gilson’s citation, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (New York 1940), p. 19.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    But consider Mircea Eliade (1967), p. 113]: “For the Gnostics and the Manichaeans, redemption is tantamount to collecting, salvaging, and carrying to heaven the sparks of the divine light which are buried in living matter, first and foremost in man’s body”. In the next chapter we will see what Leibniz’ angels have to recommend on this matter of redemption as a form of epistemological freedom.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    See Eliade (1967): “all types of light-experiences have this factor in common: they bring a man out of his profane universe or historical situation, and project him into a universe different in quality, an entirely different world, transcendent and holy. The structure of this holy and transcendent Universe varies according to a man’s culture and religion. Nevertheless they share this element in common: the Universe revealed through a meeting with the Light contrasts with the profane Universe—or transcends it—by the fact that it is spiritual in essence, in other words only accessible to those for whom the Spirit exists. The experience of Light radically changes the ontological condition of the subject by opening him to the world of the Spirit. In the course of human history there have been a thousand different ways of conceiving or valorizing the world of the Spirit. That is evident. How could it have been otherwise? For all conceptualization is irremediably linked with language, and consequently with culture and history. One can say that the meaning of the supernatural Light is directly conveyed to the soul of the man who experiences it—and yet this meaning can only come fully to his consciousness clothed in a preexistent ideology. Here lies the paradox: the meaning of the Light is, on the one hand, ultimately a personal discovery; and, on the other hand, each man discovers what he was spiritually and culturally prepared to discover. Yet there remains this fact which seems to us fundamental: whatever will be the subsequent ideological integration, a meeting with the Light produces a break in the subject’s experience, revealing to him—or making clearer than before—the world of the Spirit, of holiness and of freedom; in brief, existence as a divine creation, or the world sanctified by the presence of God” (p. 94). In an important sense Leibniz seeks both to secularize and to universalize this experience of the Light; for him the metaphysics of the monads will fix the ideology in culture, history, and language invariant ways. Ultimately, the Light will be Reason.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert E. Butts
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyThe University of Western OntarioCanada

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