Leibniz in The Restless Clock (Part 1)

The Restless Clock CoverIn preparation for a talk this July, I’ve been working through Jessica Riskin’s recent book The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick. My talk is on the concept of instinct in relation to Leibniz’s mechanical vision of living bodies, so the Riskin is helpful because, in addition to being of interest an really detailed account of the history of mechanical visions of life (and living agency) from the late-Medieval period on, she gives Leibniz a central position in her narrative. Indeed, as Riskin tells us, the “restless clock” of the book’s title comes to us from Leibniz, and expresses what she characterizes as Leibniz’s vision of living beings as active, perceiving, dynamically changing machines:

The German philosopher, mathematician, and inventor Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote the clockwork passage that provided this book’s title as he was struggling to find a different model for nature and science from the passive machinery of his contemporaries… To be clocklike, to Leibniz, was to be responsive, agitated, and restless. How different this if from what people generally understand by the clockwork metaphor! The clockwork universe with its clockwork creatures has familiarly signified regularity and constraint, not agitation and responsiveness. In Leibniz’s alternative notion of machinery and mechanist science, however, machinelike meant forceful, restless, purposeful, sentient, perceptive. Mechanical meant lifelike, and vice versa: living beings were the most mechanical things in the universe. 6

For Riskin, Leibniz presents a vision of mechanistic existence as fully alive — as spontaneously active and dynamically self-organizing. In this way, Leibniz serves a paradigmatic example for her argument that we need not read the claim the historical claim that living bodies are machines as amounting to the claim that those bodies lack life itself.

As someone interested in Leibniz’s mechanical vision of the living being — in particular in what I take to be Leibniz’s idiosyncratically “mechanical” vision of the soul — Riskin’s interpretation of Leibniz is exciting, especially given its centrality within her larger historical narrative. I do have some reservations regarding her interpretation, however, which I plan to detail in a follow-up post. Before I get to my concerns, however, I want to draw attention to a striking footnote she includes in her account of Leibniz, and in which she distinguishes her approach to Leibniz from the approach she sees in more philosophically oriented readers. Indeed, I would be remiss if I didn’t address her footnote before providing what may be construed as philosophical criticisms of her reading. Here’s the footnote:

In the course of writing this book, I have often presented parts of it to audiences that include philosophers, and have come to realize that my Leibniz is different from most philosophers’ Leibniz… Philosophers’ purpose, as I understand it, is to arrive at a philosophically correct view of the problems that interest them. When they read Leibniz (or any other historical figure), they therefore seek coherence: a view that is both internally consistent and also concurs with their own intuitions and manners of thinking. Accordingly, philosophers tend to look for ways to eliminate (resolve, correct, filter out) the ambiguities, contradictions and inconsistencies in the historical texts they read. Historians, in contrast, want to understand the ideas in their original context: the concerns that motivated them, the forces that shaped them, the implications that flowed from them. In their efforts to understand ideas in their original context, historians catch at the very things that philosophers try to eliminate: anything that seems unfamiliar, contradictory or inconsistent. These things, which get in the way of a philosophical reading, are essential to a historical reading: they are the jagged edges and fault lines that reveal the contours of the original context, and the forces at work within it. If my Leibniz seems less familiar than most philosophers’ Leibniz, from a modern scientific perspective, it is because I have been interested in the unfamiliar aspects of his understanding of science, and the possibilities these represented. 405-06

While it might seem like an intellectual historian working on a figure like Leibniz should have much in common a philosopher working on Leibniz, in reality they may be operating according to radically divergent aims, methods, and norms. This methodological divergence has the potential to create of distinct objects of investigation, such that it may become necessary to distinguish, as does Riskin, between the “historians’ Leibniz” and the “philosophers’ Leibniz.” Whereas the first ideally represents a concrete historical figure embedded within the intellectual and political contexts of his day, the latter is ideally an abstract mouthpiece for philosophical arguments that have been made coherent and relevant for our own philosophical context today. 

This footnote struck me in part because, as a historically inclined reader of Leibniz whose institutional home is within philosophy, I feel that I can sympathize with Riskin on this point. Of course, the fact that there exists a methodological division between history and philosophy need not be a bad thing in and of itself. What I find powerful about Riskin’s account, however, is that, according to her, the historical and philosophical versions of Leibniz are not merely different; rather, they are fundamentally opposed to one another insofar as the historian brings to the fore precisely those dimensions of Leibniz that are excised from a properly “philosophical” reading. Thus, while broad-minded scholars might yearn for a harmony of the disciplines where one’s historical reading could lend depth and nuance to another’s philosophical interpretation, and in which a philosophical interpretation could add clarity and logical precision to a historical reading, the more likely result is a discursive failure in which historians and philosophers each talk past one other and conclude that conversing with the other party is a waste of time. We are presented, in short, with a spectacle in which the noble pursuit of philosophical rigor risks driving a wedge between philosophy and those forms of inquiry that actively seek to learn and gain understanding from history.

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