Leibniz in The Restless Clock (Part 2)

The Restless Clock CoverIn my earlier post on historical vs. philosophical perspectives on philosophers, I indicated that have some reservations regarding of Riskin’s [historically-oriented] interpretation of Leibniz. Basically, I think that in analyzing Leibniz’s vision of living bodies as active, immanently self-organizing machines, Riskin winds up losing track of the connection this understanding of living beings has to the transcendent dimensions of Leibniz’s metaphysics and philosophy of nature.

Consider Riskin’s claims regarding Leibniz’s attitudes towards Spinoza:

While Leibniz hated one aspect of Spinoza’s system, the “blind” and “fatal” necessity he understood Spinoza to be ascribing to natural phenomena, he judged other aspects “excellent,” even in keeping with his own views. In particular, Leibniz shared Spinoza’s refusal of extra-natural causes, of a marionette mechanism, and his insistence that nature was everything. Whereas Spinoza took this to imply that nature encompassed every possibility, leaving no room for contingency or paths not taken, Leibniz instead construed it to mean something like the opposite: that perceptive agency (and therefore contingency) was integral to the cosmic machinery. They arrived at these opposite poles, however, from a shared principle of unbounded naturalism. 100-101

These are odd claims to make. While there is a tradition of reading Leibniz’s philosophy as close to Spinoza’s (whether wittingly or unwittingly is another question), Leibniz certainly came to reject the type of “unbounded naturalism” according to which there is nothing outside of nature by the time that he realized his vision of living bodies as infinitely complex, dynamically acting machines. Further, in his mature period metaphysics, the contingent existence of this world depends upon a cause transcending the order of nature. Think, for instance, of Leibniz’s cosmological argument in “On the Ultimate Origination of Things”: no matter how far one goes back in the causal series of nature, we cannot find a reason why it exists (and why it is the way that it is) within nature itself. In short, the existence of nature requires a non-natural reason, and Leibniz locates this reason in a transcendent divine being:

“Beyond the world, that is, beyond the collection of finite things, there is some One Being who rules… For the One Being who ruled the universe not only rules the world, but also fashions or creates it; he is above the world, and, so to speak, extramundane, and therefore he is the ultimate reason for things. For we cannot find in any of the individual things, or even in the entire collection and series of things, a sufficient reason for why they exist. Let us suppose that a book on the elements of geometry has always existed, one copy always made from another. It is obvious that although we can explain a present copy of the book from the previous book from which it was copied, this will never lead us to a complete explanation, no matter how many books back we go, since we can always wonder why there have always been such books, why these books were written, and why they were written the way they were. What is true of these books is also true of the different states of the world, for the state which follows is, in a sense, copied from the preceding state, though in accordance with certain laws of change. And so, however far back we might go into previous states, we will never find in those states a complete explanation [ratio] for why, indeed, there is any world at all, and why it is the way it is.” (Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. 1989. Philosophical Essays. Transl. Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber. Indianapolis, 149)

For Leibniz, contingency arises insofar as God conceives alternative possible worlds that He could have created. Now, there is debate over whether, on Leibniz’s own standards, such contingency is real — God creates the optimal world, after all, and he may not have realistically been able to choose a less-optimal one. Nevertheless, whatever our views regarding the contingent existence of this world, Leibniz maintains that there is something outside of the realm of natural causality.

Riskin also opposes Leibniz’s active vision of life is generally opposed to natural theological approaches that would seek to prove God’s existence through an examination of nature. Regarding the natural theological “argument from design”, Riskin writes:

… Leibniz disliked it both as theology and as science. A thoroughly naturalist, mechanical theory of nature, he argued, could accommodate no divine interventions from outside. Rather, such a theory would need to include the ultimate causes as well as the proximate ones; it must encompass the metaphysical principles governing force and the laws of motion. 106

The problem is that we find natural theological arguments from the design of the mechanical structure of living bodies to God’s existence in Leibniz. Though Leibnizian living bodies — infinitely complex “machines of nature” — act by virtue of their mechanical structure, Leibniz maintains that this mechanical structure owes its initial formation to God. For instance in the “Considerations on Vital Principles and Plastic Natures” of 1705, Leibniz holds that the existence of God follows from the pre-established harmony, Leibniz’s theory of the mutual accord of existing substances.

One piece of Leibniz’s pre-established harmony is the claim that the mechanistic structure of the natural world is subject to what Leibniz calls divine preformation. With respect to living bodies (which, following the work of Justin E. H. Smith serve as the basic ontological building blocks of the the physical world), the theory holds that they exist preformed in nature such that, e.g. biological conception is not the beginning of life, but rather one stage within a wider process of individual becoming. In the “Considerations”, Leibniz postulates material plastic natures as mechanical structures responsible for developing preformed mechanical organization. Leibniz seems to consider this theory of mechanical preformation and development as consistent with the idea that the wonders of the natural world point to the existence of God:

For since animals are never formed naturally from an inorganic mass, the mechanism, though incapable of producing their infinitely varied organs anew, can at least draw them our of pre-existing organic bodies by a process of development and transformation. However, those who make use of plastic natures, whether material or immaterial, by no means weaken the proof for the existence of God drawn from the wonders of nature, which appear with particular force in the structure of animals. (Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. 1969. Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters. Ed. Leroy E. Loemker. 2nd Ed. Dordrecht, 589. Emphasis mine)

It is true that the pre-established harmony rejects any need for God needs to intervene within the order of nature once it has been set up. Riskin is right that there are “no divine interventions from outside,” as God does not need to repair or recalibrate his machines. However, the theory depends upon a strong notion of divine design at the outset, and which can be read off of the wondrous structures exhibited by natural machines, as well as the general harmony and agreement between substances:

This system of pre-established harmony furnishes a new proof, hitherto unknown, of the existence of God, since it is very clear that the agreement of so many substances, none of which exerts an influence upon another, can only come from a general cause upon which all of the depend and that this cause must have infinite power and wisdom to pre-establish all these agreements. (Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. 1969. Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters. Ed. Leroy E. Loemker. 2nd Ed. Dordrecht, 587)

In sum, Riskin ends up emptying Leibnizian living beings of their connection to the non-natural, and therefore loses sight of the transcendent and natural theological currents in Leibniz’s thinking. In a follow-up post, I will share some thoughts on what her reading of Leibniz might mean in light of her distinction between “philosophical” and “historical” readings of philosophers that I discussed in my first entry on The Restless Clock. However, to conclude for now, what is at issue for me is the question of how to reconcile all of the different aspects of Leibniz’s philosophy. If we are to construct philosophically and historically coherent images of Leibniz, we must account for the way that his active, dynamic vision of mechanical bodies, is integrated within, and indeed is inextricable from, a larger natural theological vision of creation designed to combat precisely the form of unbounded naturalism represented by Spinoza.

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