On Returning to Gadamer

Earlier this year, I wrote a review of a volume of essays by the late German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. My research has become increasingly oriented around questions of philosophical historiography, so reviewing the collection—organized around the topic of the “philosophy of history”—seemed like a good excuse to work through Gadamer’s views of the relation between philosophy and history. Though I have my reservations about how Gadamer translates to our own situation today (see the review if you are at all interested), he was one of the major twentieth-century figures to insist that philosophy has an intimate relation to its past, arguing that it unfolds upon a backdrop of history and tradition. In this way, his work opposes ahistorical visions of philosophy, and—in my opinion—provides helpful lessons for philosophers and historians of philosophy alike.

Reviewing the collection also gave me a chance to get back in touch with some of my erstwhile philosophical interests. I spent a great deal of time with Gadamer’s work as an undergraduate at Boston College (where Gadamer had held visiting posts from 1974-86), and I wrote a thesis on his interpretation of the Platonic Dialogues. Back then, I was interested in Gadamer’s emphasis on understanding and his conception of questions as tools for generating dialogue. I became concerned with different things as time went on, however, and until this year had given little thought to my earlier interest in Gadamer.

In writing the review, I made a point of looking into Gadamer’s views on Leibniz (who had not really been an interest of mine as an undergrad). The Philosopher of Hannover doesn’t really figure extensively in Gadamer’s corpus, but he does occasionally pop up in notable ways. For instance, Gadamer assumed the rectorship of the University of Leipzig in 1946, 300 years after Leibniz had been born there in 1646. Aware of the anniversary, Gadamer devoted his address to Leibniz. This piece — available in German in Volume 10 of Gadamer’s Gesammelte Werke — may not shed great light on the content of Leibniz’s philosophy from our present standpoint, but it does provide a window into how Gadamer, writing in the immediate aftermath the Second World War, thought of Leibniz’s legacy within the history of German philosophy. Gadamer suggests that while we might perceive the Leibnizian preestablished harmony and monadology as though they are philosophical fairy-tales (and hence it is no surprise that he became overshadowed by later philosophers like Kant), they served admirably as contemporary solutions to the Cartesian mind-body problem. Gadamer also argues that in Leibniz we can recognize several intellectual currents that became prominent through the subsequent classical period of German Philosophy including the connections between force and life, rationalism, and a romantic vision of the unconscious.

More significant for me, however, was the discovery of a couple of later passages revealing connections that Gadamer himself drew between his hermeneutic project and Leibniz’s attempt to reconcile divergent philosophical viewpoints. I am very much interested in the question of what it means to be a Leibnizian today, and, to my mind, the answer has always been less about defending a specific metaphysical doctrine—say the monadology—and more about how to update Leibniz’s project of philosophical reconciliation. For Leibniz, insofar as each philosophical perspective occupies its own vantage point on the truth, its insights deserve a place within a completed system of philosophy. I admit that I was taken a bit off guard when I stumbled upon Gadamer matter-of-factly acknowledging his kinship with Leibniz, indicating that one way to understand his own hermeneutic project—along with its emphasis on the production of mutual understanding through dialogue—is as a response to the same philosophical and dialogical problems faced by Leibniz three centuries prior.

For instance, here is Gadamer in an autobiographical essay composed in 1977 discussing his decision to write his magnum opus Truth and Method:

The fact that along with my passionate engagement as a teacher I came to write a large book is due to a natural need I felt to ponder how the various paths of philosophizing which I retraced in my teaching could be made genuinely relevant to today by starting from the current philosophical situation. To arrange them into a historical process that is constructed in an a priori way (à la Hegel) seemed to me just as unsatisfactory as the relativistic neutrality of historicism. I agree with Leibniz, who once said that he himself approved of nearly all he read. But in contrast with that great thinker, the stimulus of this experience did not lead me to feel I must create one great synthesis, as he did. Indeed, I began asking myself whether philosophy could still be placed under the rubric of such a synthetic task at all. Indeed, for the continuation of hermeneutical experiences, must not philosophy hold itself radically open, captivated by what remains always evident to it, and use its powers to oppose all redarkening of what it has seen? Philosophy is enlightenment, but precisely also enlightenment with regard to its own dogmatism. (“Autobiographical Reflections.” In The Gadamer Reader: A Bouquet of Later Writings, edited by Richard E. Palmer, 3-38. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2007. 20, emphasis added)

Here Gadamer claims to have started in the same place as Leibniz, namely as occupying a position of approval with respect to [nearly all] that which is said by others. Though Gadamer claims his path wound up diverging from Leibniz—instead of synthesizing everything that had come before, maintaining a connection to perennial philosophical questions while resisting a transformation into dogma—his affirmation of Leibniz’s standpoint of [near] universal approbation is striking.

More revealing are these comments, from a 1996 German TV broadcast, quoted in Jean Grondin’s 2003 biography. Reflecting on his 1946 Rectoral Address, Gadamer tells us:

For some time I was a philosophy professor at Leipzig. And of course after the war the situation was such that we wanted to commemorate the great son of Leipzig, Leibniz… And I gave a talk in the University Chapel on the significance of Leibniz for us Europeans and for science throughout the world. For if we ask what authority we can rely on in our world—where, on the one hand, an undreamed-of progress in natural science dominates everything, and on the other a highly diverse religious, philosophical, and moral world is spread our over the whole globe—then at some point we will always come back to Leibniz. This is, as it were, the point to which we must return if we really want to do justice to recent centuries in their special fruitfulness and also their uniqueness. At any rate, the figure of Leibniz was completely unusual in this respect. We think, and thought in 1945 and ’46, after the endless waste that Hitler’s insane war brought upon us, that the time reminded us of the time after the Thirty Years War, when Leibniz first began the reconstruction of European culture in the middle of Europe… I would say there is really no more hermeneutic exemplar in the history of philosophy that I know of than Leibniz, who himself maintained the inherent connection and reciprocal interrelatedness of alternating viewpoints and alternating perspectives ultimately for the structure of truth itself. (Quoted in Grondin, Jean. Hans-Georg Gadamer: A Biography. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2002. 249-50, emphasis added)

There is quite a bit going on in these comments, and its unclear to me what to make of, say, the parallel Gadamer draws between reconstructions following the devastations of 1648 and 1946 (and we can certainly be wary of the image of European culture—and, for that matter, Leibniz’s role in reconstructing it—with which Gadamer is operating). What I want to note, however, is that Gadamer goes even further towards associating his own project with that of Leibniz, by identifying Leibniz as a great exemplar of the hermeneutical approach. I am still trying to decide what to make of this discovery, but one lesson seems to be that there has been more continuity in my interests than I realized, and that continuity is specifically oriented around the themes of mutual understanding and the reconciliation of prima facie opposed viewpoints. More importantly, however, if we take the liberty of reinterpreting Gadamer’s judgment of Leibniz from our own vantage point, we find one candidate for answering the question of what it might mean to be a Leibnizian today. That is to say that we may find, in the author of Truth and Method, a Leibnizian exemplar in the [recent] history of philosophy.

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.

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.

On Pasnau’s “parocialism of philosophy,” continued

In my earlier post on this interview with Robert Pasnau, I suggested that in order to combat the parochial and provincial nature of the history of philosophy as practiced in contemporary Anglo-American settings, that we ought to ask ourselves what it is that we are looking for in the history of philosophy in the first place. Here is what Pasnau has to say about the value of studying material from the history of philosophy, in this case, texts from fourteenth-century Europe:

Just as any given issue of a journal may contain an article by some hitherto unsung figure who advances the field in some notable way, so too an otherwise undistinguished fourteenth-century friar might have had similarly worthy ideas about some particular topic. And given how fitfully philosophy advances, I don’t see much reason to think the next great advance in the field will come from a new journal article as opposed to a newly discovered text from the fourteenth century. If the latter is unlikely, that only because [sic] we put so few resources into this sort of historical excavation.

On this view, the value of the history of philosophy lies in its potential to help us make advances on our own contemporary philosophical problems. There is certainly a utilitarian appeal in this approach, and it may indeed be exciting to search out arguments in forgotten texts that might help us resolve otherwise intractable problems faced by contemporary philosophers. Further, it might even furnish the diligent historian with a competitive advantage over less historically-minded colleagues insofar as they have a greater wealth of raw material to mine in constructing their philosophical arguments.

Note how utterly unhistorical this justification is. Here, the choice to engage in historical inquiry stems less from a desire to understand the historical genesis of the present, but rather from the hope that this storehouse contains, in some dusty and forgotten corner, an unexpected and useful argument. What this means is that, with respect to our humble fourteenth-century friar, we are not interested in understanding or explaining what allowed him to have such worthy ideas in this particular time and place, not interested in an analysis of the larger intellectual, cultural, pedagogical, linguistic, and political contexts in which he lived, nor are we interested in how his ideas may have influenced others prior to their being [temporarily] forgotten. Further, any attempts to provide such context may be deemed ancillary to the philosophical substance at stake, and only called for to the degree that it might be requisite for us to discern what it is the friar wanted to say. Thus, the goal is not to understand the friar’s world (and, by extension, our own, insofar as it is connected to that of the friar by historical descent), but rather to extract the friar’s views from their historical setting and employ them tactically in contemporary debates. For Pasnau, it appears that we are methodologically justified in treating the friar’s text in just the same way as we would as a brand new journal article given a skepticism regarding the existence of progress in philosophy, a discipline which, for the sake of argument, does not make progress in a linear and continuous fashion. Presumably, the thought is that if such progress was made on philosophical problems, the musings of an obscure monk from a benighted age would surely have little contribution to make.

Above, I suggested that we might think of this approach as utilitarian: ideas from the history of philosophy have value insofar as we may use them as means to producing beneficial consequences in the present. What does this mean for the problem of the parochialism with which we started? One might argue, for instance, that it supports a rejection of the excessive study of the “canonical nine” (once again, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant) insofar as it emphasizes the possibility that we could find valuable arguments elsewhere. We might further point out that given the excessive attention paid to these nine philosophers, it is plausibly the case that they have become exhausted as resources, after all, what more could we have to learn about Aristotle after 2,400 years? (of course, this latter point will surely break down in the face of, say, dedicated scholar of Aristotle [or Plato, or Leibniz, or Kant], who can always reject it as question-begging: who are we to presume that there is nothing new to be said about Aristotle?)

Now, to be fair, Pasnau has more to say on these matters: he also talks in the interview about a book he is writing on the emergence of modern science on the basis of Medieval discussions of knowledge, which sounds more like historical explanation than storehouse rummaging. The utilitarian justification of study of the history of philosophy also serves Pasnau’s point that historians often have to appeal, in the course of pursuing jobs in philosophy departments, to the “non-historical” philosophers populating hiring committees. More significantly for us, however, is that in discussing the marginalization of women philosophers, Pasnau points out that “considerations of fairness and historical justice” are relevant to attempts to study their contributions. I very much agree with this point, and just want to add that it is one reason to read the history of philosophy historically: showing the historical inadequacy and inaccuracy of the canonical “Great Man” view of philosophical history can shed light on the processes that have produced our canon and thereby help us do justice to those who have been unfairly excluded. By contrast, one has a sense that to the degree the utilitarian argument sketched above is concerned with questions of justice, it is primarily interested in rectifying a form of self-harm: the harm that results from allowing our intellectual narrowness deprive us of potential sources of the wisdom that we profess to love.

On Pasnau’s “parochialism of philosophy”

At one point early in grad school, I had a conversation with another grad student about which — if any — philosophers have had a significant impact on world history. He eventually accepted the example of Marx, but we didn’t wind up agreeing on anybody else. In hindsight, the fact that my colleague was an Aristotle scholar makes me unsure of just what it was that we were thinking at the time.

This Robert Pasnau interview has been receiving some discussion for its claim that the history of philosophy — as practiced within Anglo-American philosophy departments and journals — is excessively narrow, insofar as it focuses heavily upon nine canonical figures (Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant). In receiving this type of attention, these figures not only drive discussion in the history of philosophy, but help shape the broader image of what actually constitutes the history of philosophy (and who counts as an historian thereof). Anyone with a passing familiarity with the names on this list can note that they are all Greek and European men who either lived in Classical Athens or early modern Europe (Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, to be more precise). As such, the list excludes figures from outside of these times and places —including, for instance philosophers who have legitimately marked the course of world history like Confucius, Augustine, or Hegel — as well as, well, every female philosopher who has ever lived.

As someone whose historical research is focused on Leibniz, I do find myself in a potentially awkward position in light of what Pasnau has to say. I want us to do more to study under-recognized figures and globalize the philosophical canon, and focusing all of our attention on these figures surely gets in the way of these goals. In this way, I might very well be contributing this problem. However, to the degree that I have managed to make my own contributions to the project of “deprovincializing” the history of philosophy, my approach has in large part grown out of an interest in Leibniz, who, more than any of the other modern figure in the “canonical nine”, viewed philosophy as a global phenomenon. The best illustration of this dimension of Leibniz’s thought is his well-known interest in Chinese philosophy. Further, as Franklin Perkins has shown in his excellent book Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light, we need not see Leibniz’s interest in other cultures as independent of his philosophical interests. Rather, Perkins argues that Leibniz’s interest in cross-cultural study and understanding is fully consistent with such Leibnizian metaphysical claims as the existence of harmony and unity within diversity. In my own case, I try to follow Leibniz’s rejection of intellectual sectarianism: philosophical truth is not the exclusive possession of one philosophical school or tradition. The Leibnizian in me thus thinks that it would be a mistake to hastily reject study of the “canonical nine” in the interest of “deprovincializing philosophy.” Such study can indeed aid the critique of provincialism; it might, for example, show that Leibniz would have found our discipline just as provincial as Pasnau.

My real worry, however, is in the way that we as philosophers may tend to overlook the way that the history of philosophy (and hence philosophy itself) is embedded within the wider sweep of world history itself. Though most working philosophers — even many of those historically-attuned philosophers who are willing to recognize, say, the significance of Leibniz’s contributions to metaphysics, logic, and mathematics — might not think Leibniz’s interest in Chinese intellectual and philosophical history is of much significance, or, for that matter, of any relevance to their philosophical interests today, the picture may change when we situate Leibniz’s interest in China (or Locke’s theory of property, or Kant’s views on race) within the larger European project of global domination. I do not have an considered answer as to whether or not Leibniz himself had a “significant” impact when it comes to these types of geopolitical questions, but I do think that he wanted to, and that this desire was of a piece with his broader intellectual projects, including the metaphysics that we have spilled so much ink in analyzing. I will have more to say about this in a follow up post, but If we are serious about the overcoming the problem of the provinciality of the study of the history of philosophy, we need to ask ourselves how we conceive of the relations both between philosophy and its history, as well as between the history of philosophy and history more broadly construed.