Selected Presentations

“Leibniz on the Public Morality and Natural Theology of China.” Ethics for Lunch Lecture Series, Villanova University, Villanova, PA (November 2017)

Leibniz was deeply interested in China, which he was able to learn about via correspondence with Jesuit Missionaries. Unlike many later European philosophers, Leibniz considered ancient Chinese thought as properly philosophical, arguing that it involved many of the same philosophical and theological concepts as those operative in the European tradition. Practically and ethically speaking, he maintained that China had been more successful than European nations in generating public order, and suggested that, in this regard, Europe might benefit from the presence of missionaries from China. This presentation critically evaluates Leibniz’s views on China and Chinese intellectual history as part of a discussion about how to think about the Western philosophical canon and its relation to philosophical perspectives from outside of Europe.


“Automata in Spinoza’s Critique of Descartes in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione.” Summer School: Collegium Spinozanum II, University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands (July 2017)

This presentation analyzes Spinoza’s use of the concept of a self-moving machine or automaton in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, and compares the Dutch philosopher’s use of the term with that of Descartes. Descartes characterized living beings as automata in natural philosophical works such as the Discours de la Methode. For Descartes, the notion of an automaton provides a mechanical model of animal behavior that does not need to take recourse to substantial forms or souls. I show that, by contrast with Descartes, Spinoza employs the concept of an automaton in the context of a theory of knowledge and of the human mind. Specifically, Spinoza draws a distinction between two forms of automata in order to help clarify the nature of the mental activities of imagination and intellection, and I will argue that examining both instances is instructive for understanding how Spinoza’s account of the mind in the TIE represents an alternative to that of Descartes.

For Descartes the concept of the automaton provides a model for the nature of living bodies. Automata were useful for Descartes because they helped render the movements of such beings intelligible without the need for recourse in the unintelligible principles and faculties of the Scholastics. In this way, vegetative and locomotive activity could be understood on purely mechanical grounds without reference to souls or sensation. Animals do not have perceptions of the world; rather, they move according to their mechanical structure alone. Further, Descartes opposes freedom to the workings of an automaton. Descartes, an automaton cannot be free since it operates according to the laws of its nature. Descartes therefore develops a conception of human freedom and mentality that is incompatible with the concept of an automaton.

 The term “automaton” appears on two occasions in the text of the TIE. In ¶48, Spinoza uses it dismissively with regards to skeptics who doubt that we possess a true idea of nature. Spinoza characterizes these skeptics as “automata, completely lacking a mind.” For Spinoza, these skeptics like mindless automata insofar as they are dominated by imaginative ideas and fail to understand their own minds. By contrast, Spinoza uses the term positively in ¶85, likening the soul to a “spiritual automaton” when it acts according to certain laws to produce true ideas of nature according to the power of the intellect.

 Both passages where Spinoza uses the concept of an automaton present a different aspect of Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes. The first passage associates methodological skepticism of the sort practiced by Descartes with the activities of a mindless automaton dominated by the imagination. The second passage indicates that the form of intellection aimed at by Spinoza’s own method is compatible with the soul acting according to certain laws of its nature. In sum, an examination of Spinoza’s application of the concept of the automaton to the mind in the TIE helps shed light on his critique of the Cartesian method and account of the mind.


“Understanding the Past through Past Historiography: The Case of Leibniz.” Summer School: Understanding the Past Today: Methodology in the History of Philosophy. University of Groningen, Groningen, Netherlands, (June 2017)

My presentation examines Leibniz’s approach to the history of philosophy in order to argue that historians of philosophy need to be sensitive to the historiographical views of the philosophers they interpret. Leibniz serves as an example because his philosophy attempts to reconcile ideas from a number of different philosophical schools and traditions. As opposed to rejecting the ideas of his predecessors, in other words, Leibniz sought to incorporate them into a new philosophical synthesis. I consequently detail several ways that commentators risk misunderstanding Leibniz’s thought if they do not take this approach to philosophical history into account when they interpret topics such as Leibniz’s concepts of substance or of nature in general. In conclusion, I suggest that this consideration extends, mutatis mutandis to other philosophers, and that it helps us take into account the way that forms of philosophical rationality vary across different historical contexts.


“The Soul as Spiritual Automaton in Spinoza and Leibniz.” New York City Workshop in Early Modern Philosophy, Fordham University, New York, NY (May 2017)

Spinoza and Leibniz both liken the soul to a spiritual automaton. In both cases the term captures the spontaneous operation of the soul whereby it produces thoughts and perceptions by means of its own power. Despite this terminological and thematic convergence, however, Spinoza and Leibniz each deploy the concept of the spiritual automaton for the sake of different theoretical ends. My paper therefore analyzes and distinguishes the different usage of “spiritual automaton” in Spinoza and Leibniz in order to shed light on their respective views of the soul as well as their overall philosophical projects.

For the Spinoza of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, the soul functions as a spiritual automaton when it successfully produces true ideas. Thus, it figures within Spinoza’s ethical project of attaining the highest good and loving eternal things. The soul is only like a spiritual automaton in those moments when it succeeds in moving beyond mutilated and imaginative ideas to produce adequate ideas of Nature.

By contrast, according to the mature Leibniz of texts such as the New System and the Monadology, souls operate like spiritual automata as they spontaneously pass from perception to perception according to the laws of the natures. Souls thus function as spiritual automata continuously as they produce, in concert, the phenomena of nature according to God’s design. Thus, for Leibniz, the spiritual automaton relates to the soul’s metaphysical role in explaining natural change in general.


“’To Condemn Nothing and Profit from Everything Good:’ Leibniz and the History of Philosophy.” Theorizing at Rowan Lecture Series, Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ (March 2017)

The German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is often described as an “eclectic” or “syncretic” thinker, meaning that his philosophical system brings together ideas from philosophers of different time-periods and intellectual traditions. As he himself wrote in wrote in 1706, “My general maxim is to condemn nothing, and profit from everything good.” This presentation will elucidate the strategies Leibniz employed in engaging the global history of philosophy up to his time in order to answer the question of what it would mean for a philosopher to live up to this maxim. It will also contrast Leibniz’s approach to philosophical history with standard historiographical methods employed by historians of philosophy today.


“Leibniz, Plastic Natures, and Unknowing Activity in the Essais de théodicée ¶403.” Scottish Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland, (May 2016)

In ¶403 of the Essais de Théodicée, Leibniz claims that in order for a natural substance to produce an effect, it need not have conscious knowledge of how it produces that effect. My paper analyzes Leibniz’s argument in this passage and situates it within the context of early modern arguments for occasionalism. Specifically, Leibniz is concerned to refute Pierre Bayle’s argument in theContinuation des Pensées Divers that we are not agents precisely because we lack knowledge of how we bring about effects. By way of this argument, Bayle claimed that God is the sole cause of natural phenomena, a consequence Leibniz feared would cripple piety by rendering God the author of sin.

I argue that Leibniz’ response to Bayle relies upon two theoretical assumptions. First, substances must in fact have a confusedperception of the means whereby they bring about their effects. In other words, though Leibniz maintains that substances need not be fully aware of what they do in order to be responsible, action nevertheless requires a form of unconscious perception or instinct regarding how something is to be done. Second, the activity of natural substances results from divine preformation, according to which God knowingly organizes the actions of substances in advance. Due to this preformation, confused perceptions pass from one to the next. Only in this way can a substance act without distinct knowledge of what it is doing.

I conclude that Leibniz’s response to Bayle in ¶403 therefore reintroduces forms of knowledge at two levels. Substances require a confused perception or sense of how to act and God needs knowledge of how to design substantial activity in advance.


“Leibniz and Technology: What Automata, Mills, and Calculators Teach Us About Cognition.” Colloquium in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, (October 2015)

This presentation investigates the relation between Leibniz’s theory of mind and mechanical technologies including mills, self-moving mechanical automata, and arithmetical calculators. Leibniz drew on such technologies in a variety of ways to understand cognition, arguing that although perception does not take place by means of mechanical pushing and pulling, not only can certain forms of cognitive activity be carried out by machines, but that self-moving mechanical devices provide us important information about the nature of the mind. From this perspective, Leibniz provides illustration of the way that technological development influences have historically constrained philosophical and metaphysical thinking.


“The Soul as Spiritual Automaton: Leibniz’s Natural Philosophy and the Construction of Concepts.” Leibniz-Scientist, Leibniz-Philosopher, University of Lampeter, Lampeter, Wales (July 2015)

My paper examines Leibniz’s concept of the soul as a “spiritual automaton” as it functions within his general approach to natural philosophy. I argue that, contra idealist readings of Leibniz, Leibniz’s natural philosophy essentially aims to harmonize incorporeal principles of unity and activity with material principles of passivity and multiplicity.  I argue that the notion of the “spiritual automaton” is an expression of such harmony, and that thus the construction the concept of the “spiritual automaton” exemplifies core aspects of Leibniz’s philosophical method.

I first motivate my claims regarding Leibniz’s natural philosophical approach by means of a declaration Leibniz makes at the end of De Ipsa Natura.  Leibniz claims that his natural philosophy seeks to form a middle route between what he calls “the formal” and the “material.”  The former posits an intelligent and immaterial principle intervening directly within matter whereas the latter does not recognize anything over above matter and the series of efficient causes. Leibniz wants to reconcile the two approaches, jettisoning what is incoherent in each position and synthesizing what remains. He hopes, then, that from his own axioms, “there could arise a restored and corrected system of philosophy, a philosophy midway between the formal and the material, a system that correctly joins and preserves both.”[1] This system would acknowledge the validity of both final and efficient causes as well as the need to harmonize formal principles of unity and activity with material principles of passivity and multiplicity.

I then show how this approach manifests itself by means of an analysis of Leibniz’s employment of the concept of a “spiritual automaton.” Leibniz uses this term on several occasions in his mature philosophy, including in the New System, the Theodicy, and the Monadology, in order to illustrate the way the soul spontaneously produces its states.  I suggest that we can best understand the concept as a hybrid combination of formal and material elements within a unified concept of the soul.

Formally speaking, the image of the spiritual automaton illustrates the spontaneity of the soul, or the way that the soul produces its perceptions by means of its own activity.  Moreover, it enables Leibniz to argue that the soul’s spontaneity unfolds according to a formal law-of-the-series determining, in advance, the totality of its activities.  In this way, the soul as spiritual automaton unifies and provides motion to the body. Materially speaking, the “spiritual automaton” typically moves itself from perception to perception blindly without reference to rational deliberation.  Thus it mimics the activities of a physico-mechanical automaton able to move itself mindlessly as a result of its internal mechanical structure.

My paper shows how Leibniz’s image of the soul as a “spiritual automaton” is best understood as an expression of his combining formal and material principles within nature.  It thereby sheds light on Leibniz’s general approach to natural philosophy as well as the construction of philosophical concepts.