Leibniz on the Side of the Angels

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


In the thought of Leibniz there are many rôles that angels play; he also thought that angels play many rôles. For example, he thought that angels are miracle-workers: they can perform “inferior” miracles; they can make a man walk on water without sinking [4th letter to Clarke; Loemker (1969) #44]. This is a rôle that an angel can play. It is not a rôle in the thinking of Leibniz; it is something an angel can do.1 I do not want to discuss things that angels are thought to be able to do, but rather things that angels do in the thinking of Leibniz: rôles they may be thought to play in Leibniz’ reasoning about things, hypothesizing about things, concluding or doubting about things. We may call angels that Leibniz thought could do various things ontic angels, and angels in the thinking of Leibniz we will call methodological angels. As we will see methodological angels do not do anything; they function as possibilities, as voices we might hear. It is true that an angel can say something to us based only on what it is; the two kinds of angels are connected: possibility requires actuality.


Mechanical Method Empirical Adequacy Secondary Quality Causal Knowledge Metaphysical Explanation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Among the many other things angels can do: they can intuit truths directly with a degree of evidence that renders those truths indubitable [Leibniz (1981) p. 489]; they can have conversations with one another [Leibniz (1981) pp. 313–14]; being like souls, they can move [Leibniz (1981) pp. 220–22].Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    I am of course subjecting Leibniz’ texts to interpretation. He may have intended his analysis situs to apply only to the concept of spatial quality. He does say, however, that his new method of analysis will apply not only in geometry but also in invention of machines and descriptions of the mechanisms of nature [Loemker (1969) p. 257], Leibniz sought a universal language not only for geometry but for all purposes of establishing foundations of logic. Furthermore, Leibniz’ scheme requires final elimination of geometrical considerations in favour of metaphysical ones, and it is reasonable to suppose that the analysis of situation would provide the logic of that elimination. In many places Leibniz insists that scientific explanations must in the end give way to metaphysical ones. For example: “Concerning bodies I can demonstrate that not merely light, heat, color, and similar qualities are apparent but also motion, figure, End extension. And that if anything is real, it is solely the force of acting and suffering, and hence that the substance of a body consists in this (as if in matter and form). Those bodies, however, which have no substantial form, are merely phenomena or at least only aggregates of the true ones” [On the Method of Distinguishing Real from Imaginary Phenomena; Loemker (1969) #39]. I therefore take it to be a fair interpretive hypothesis that the incompleted analysis of situation was to be Leibniz’ formal logic of substance orientation.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Leibniz introduces the metaphor in three places that I was able to discover: Letter to Jacob Thomasius (April 20/30, 1669); Loemker (1969) #3; An Example of Demonstrations about the Nature of Corporeal Things, drawn from Phenomena (late 1671); Loemker (1969) #8; Monadology [57]: “Just as the same city regarded from different sides offers quite different aspects, and thus appears multiplied by the perspective, so it also happens that the infinite multitude of simple substances creates the appearance of as many different universes. Yet they are but perspectives of a single universe, varied according to the points of view, which differ in each monad”.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    My text is Leibniz’ On the Method of Distinguishing Real from Imaginary Phenomena (date unknown); Loemker (1969) #39. Rescher (1981), contains an interesting brief discussion of the fragment (pp. 13–15).Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Leibniz says: “With the experiments are to be combined accurate and thoroughly extended reasonings after the manner of geometry, for only in this way can causes be discovered…. Unless principles are advanced from geometry and mechanics which can be applied with equal ease to sensible and insensible things alike, nature in its subtlety will escape us. And reason must supply this important lack in experiment. For a corpuscle hundreds of thousands of times smaller than any bit of dust which flies through the air, together with other corpuscles of the same subtlety, can be dealt with by reason as easily as can a ball by the hand of a player”. On the Elements of Natural Science, (Ca. 1682–84); Loemker (1969) #32, pp. 282–83.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    For example: Critical Thoughts on the General Part of the Principles of Descartes (1692); Loemker (1969) #42, pp. 408–10; Specimen Dynamicum (1695); Loemker #46, pp. 441–42; On Nature Itself, or on the Inherent Force and Actions of Created Things, Acta eruditorum (September, 1698); Loemker #53.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    Finally, we must note that there are irrational qualities that the angels, and even God, cannot satisfactorily explain: “Thus the ancients and the moderns, who own that gravity is an occult quality, are in the right, if they mean by it that there is a certain mechanism unknown to them, whereby all bodies tend towards the center of the earth. But if they mean, that the thing is performed without any mechanism, by a simple primitive quality, or by a law of God, who produces that effect without using any intelligible means, it is an unreasonable occult quality, and so very occult, that ‘tis impossible it should ever be clear, tho’ an Angel, or God himself, should undertake to explain it”. C. J. Gerhardt, ed., Die philosophischen Schriften von G. W. Leibniz (Berlin 1875–90), III, p. 517 sq. Quoted by Koyré (1965), p. 141. I am grateful to my Leibnizian colleague, Kathleen Okruhlik, for pointing out this reference to me.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

Personalised recommendations