“Leibniz’s Fairy Tale,” Chapter 1 of Roger Woodhouse’s Starting with Leibniz


Roger Woolhouse presents an overview of Leibniz’s later philosophy in his first chapter, “Leibniz’s Fairy Tale,” of Starting with Leibniz.[1]  The title of the chapter comes from Bertrand Russell’s comments upon Leibniz’s work: the Monadology “struck him as a ‘kind of fantastic fairy tale’” (11).  I will briefly list the main points that Woolhouse makes in this overview.

First of all, for Leibniz the world is composed of monads.  Monads are “simple, shapeless, partless substances” and they are the true ‘atoms’ of the world (11).  Furthermore, because they are partless, they cannot be brought into or taken out of existence by natural processes and the rearrangement of previously existing parts.  Also, they cannot be affected by any other thing (thus, its “windowless” nature).

However, this does not mean that they have no quality or change in their internal properties.  This just means that this change is not the result of other affections upon them.  Instead, every monad is distinct from every other by virtue of the change it brings about within itself.

Leibniz names the monad’s inner activities, perceptions and appetitions.  Appetite is the name for its movement from one transitory perception to the next.  Woolhouse does not seem to define perception here.  Instead, he points to the fact that we should not understand perception as implying conscious activity, since there are indeed monads that lack consciousness.  There are thus at least two types of monads: these ‘non-conscious’ monads and rational souls or minds.

Perception, again, does not imply affection or the state of having been affected by another.  Instead, because of the pre-established harmony between its own perceptions and those of other monads, each monad represents the world to itself.  Each monad is “‘a perpetual living mirror of the universe’” (12).

Monads are also self-sufficient (ibid.), with nothing entering or leaving, thus being the source of their own internal activity.  Furthermore, they contain implicitly the past and future within their representations of the world.

God is the ultimate origin of every monad, the only necessarily existent being.  [Is God himself a monad for Leibniz?]  He has created this universe because it is the best of all possible universes.  It is this because it is the one in which “is manifested the greatest variety together with the greatest order” (13).

Leibniz also distinguishes between simple and compound monads: “every simple substance ‘forms the centre of a compound substance,’ and is the principle of its unity” (ibid.).  If the central monad is a mind it is surrounded by other monads that make up its body and the whole is a person.  If the central monad is a non-rational monad, the resulting whole is a more primitive life form.  [Woolhouse does not go into detail here, so I'm a little unclear on the logic here.  I'm not sure of the exact details, since it is not clear how the whole is composed or unified so that it is bounded off from other monads and, also, how it is thereby more than just an aggregate of monads.]

Composite bodies can change and leak, while simple monads cannot.  [Again, here I am confused.  Is a composite body a composite monad?  Are human persons monads or made up of monads?  Hopefully, these questions will be answered in later chapters and posts.]

There is a harmony between the rational and non-rational components of a soul-body union.  Nevertheless, they follow different rules.  Souls follow the rules of “final causes, of means and ends, of good and evil;” while bodies follow the laws of efficient causality and the movement of physical bodies (14).

Woolhouse goes on to explain Leibniz’s ‘society of God’ view of the relationship between God and human beings.  He writes, “It means that God is to them [rational human beings] not just, as he is to other of his creatures, like an inventor to his machines.  He is, rather, as a prince to his subjects or a father to his children” (15).

In the next post in this series, will look at Woolhouse’s presentation of Leibniz’s view on substances.

[1] Roger Woolhouse, Starting with Leibniz, (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).

PicCred: Kelly Kristen Jones

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