Upcoming Talks

I will be presenting the paper “Leibniz, Lange, and Bilfinger on Whether the Soul is an Automaton” at the June 23-26, 2020 meeting of HOPOS (International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science) in Singapore.

Abstract: My paper examines an early eighteenth-century controversy between Joachim Lange and Georg Bernhard Bilfinger revolving around Leibniz’s earlier characterization of the nature of the soul as a self-moving “spiritual automaton.” This concept figures importantly in Leibniz’s “preestablished harmony” between soul and body, according to which soul and body do not interact directly and their correspondence results from the fact that God has arranged for their activities to unfold in parallel. In this regard, Leibniz’s hypothesis posits that an individual substance is composed of two distinct self-moving automata: a physico-mechanical bodily automaton, and an immaterial perceiving “spiritual” automaton.

Leibniz’s characterization of the soul as an “automaton” provided difficulties for later supporters of the preestablished harmony. While souls played an important explanatory role in metaphysics, explaining the presence of unity and activity within nature, Leibniz also wanted to argue that at least human souls are capable of acting freely. However, as critics of the preestablished harmony as pointed out, characterizing the soul as an automaton is problematic in this regard as is it seems to involve a comparison between the soul and amachine. If this is right, Lange argues that it entails that the activity of the human soul would not take place freely but rather as the result of necessary, machine-like causation.

Bilfinger responds to Lange by rejecting any association between the soul a machine, arguing that the term “automaton” is fundamentally ambiguous. While “automaton” commonly refers to a self-moving machine, Bilfinger argues on etymological grounds that it can also simply mean something capable of self-motion. In this sense, to say that the soul is an “automaton” merely indicates that the soul moves itself. Nevertheless, despite the way that this interpretation absolves Leibniz’s concept of the soul from machinic necessity, Bilfinger recommends that we avoid ambiguity by abstaining from characterizing the soul as an “automaton.”

I first introduce Leibniz’s concept of the spiritual automaton and then outline Lange’s criticisms of the preestablished harmony and the “spiritual automaton” in his Causa Dei of 1723. I then detail Bilfinger’s response in his Harmonia Praestabilita of 1723 and Dilucidationes Metaphysicae of 1725. I then show that Bilfinger’s strategy in fact overlooks Leibniz’s own explicit affirmation of the comparison between a soul and a machine. Indeed, for Leibniz, a soul carries out a predetermined series of perceptions, just as a well-designed machine is structured to carry out an ordered series of motions. Thus, I argue that Leibniz fully embraced the comparison between a soul and a machine,  challenging those supporters of the preestablished harmony that want to affirm a non-deterministic form of human freedom.