Leibniz Rewritten

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Leibniz Rewritten  (1899) 
by Charles Sanders Peirce
Book review from The Nation, Vol. 69 No. 1779 (Aug. 3, 1899): pp. 97-98.

La Nouvelle Monadologie. Par Ch. Renouvier et L. Prat. Paris: Armand Colin & Cie. 1899. 8vo, pp. 546.

The nature of things would seem to have a screw loose if the powers of a Renouvier are not to be of service to the race. When we see a man far advanced in the eighties producing, albeit with a collaborator, a great volume of metaphysics, terse, clear, and well-oriented, it is certainly not on his shoulders that we can lay the blame if his industry should teach the world nothing. The principles of Renouvier’s philosophy were published in the earlier years of the Second Empire, with the disadvantage of a too modest title. It was mainly other causes, however, that at first prevented the work from being as much studied as it deserved to be. Of late years it has in France been, perhaps, more studied than it deserved to be; but it has not been as well studied as it deserved to be. The author belonged to that group of schools in which the ideas of Kant were still paramount. Those schools never fully ripened their fruit, because the attention of the strongest men was turned away to the rich conceptions that the mechanical theory of heat and the Darwinian hypothesis about that time suggested. None of the Kantians had more thoroughly learned their master’s great lesson than this Frenchman-the lesson that metaphysics can be solidly founded only upon the science of logic. Unfortunately, Kant, though a logical Samson, had yet treated that science with what we can but call, in view of the importance he attributed to it, inexcusable levity; and his followers had always accepted his logical dicta most uncritically, Just as they have ever since continued to do. The aliment contained in De Morgan’s and Boole’s studies had not been assimilated by anybody; nor had mathematical reasoning taken on its modern exactitude. What was meant, in that Quarterly Review period, by good logic had for its principal ingredient a forcible and imposing style of writing. Renouvier was, and is, not only an able logician in that sense, after the best French models, but even according to the more scientific standard of mediaeval Paris. But now, fifty years after his acme, if we demand that he shall satisfy the requirements of the exact logic which has since grown up, it is not surprising that we find he falls so far short of it that his conclusions as a whole can no longer be accepted. At many points his well-elaborated thought would be extremely valuable if some modern logician of the first strength would take the trouble to disentangle it from other elements with which it is interlaced. It is lamentable that such a labor is not likely to get performed, since M. Prat has not proved adequate to the task, and yet one does not find where to lay the blame for its non-performance unless it be upon the logic of events and the nature of things.

The present work undertakes the noble task of rewriting the so-called ‘Monadologie’ of Leibniz, and of more fully developing its philosophy after indispensable corrections. The doctrine is very nearly the same as that of his first philosophical treatise from which he at one time seemed to be wandering. The ‘Monadologie’ is rewritten in a Kantian spirit; and as time increases the distance from which we survey the Kantian philosophy, its affinities with that of Leibniz appear closer than they formerly did.

We cannot give much idea of what has been packed into these five hundred-odd pages, further than to say that they discuss most of the usual problems of metaphysics and much besides. The main doctrine is that of Leibniz, that the universe is composed of units, indivisible and endowed with consciousness. The doctrine of preëstablished harmony is retained-that the monads do not act on one another in any other sense than that while each one follows out its own destiny in the succession of its modifications of consciousness, these have been arranged so as to harmonize and to amount practically to actions upon one another. But here the authors bid farewell to Leibniz. The law of sufficient reason is hardly mentioned in the book, but is practically rejected in every aspect of it. Of course, with this law the bottom of optimism falls out. In place of Leibniz’s principle of the identity of indiscernibles, that things other than one another must differ in some qualities, Scotus’s doctrine of hecceity (substantially that of Kant) is adopted-that individual existence is no general character, but is an irrational act. An important departure from Leibniz is the rejection of all actual infinite multitude (and hence, of all continuity) as self-contradictory. Kantian nominalism is carried to an extreme, every conception of intellectual value (space, time, etc.) being regarded as untrue of substances. Kant himself allows us to surmise that there is some unintelligible root from which each special appearance springs, although all that makes them intelligible is our own embroidery. But in this monadism the nakedness of the thing in itself is laid bare, and it plainly appears that nothing exists but monads and their harmonizing dreams. A single monad, we are told, transcends the limits of possible experience, although some finite collection of them is cognizable.

The position of Renouvier concerning determinism has excited enough curiosity to make it worth defining. Five opinions on this subject are current to-day. The common one, which may be attributed to Boyle, is that nature is a machine working according to exact laws (like the differential equations of dynamics), while the conditions to which those laws apply (like the constants of integration) are entirely arbitrary. Or, this may be expressed by saying that Nature syllogizes in her action; the ultimate major premises being laws, and the ultimate minor premises irrational facts. There are two opinions more deterministic than this. The first is that even the initial conditions of the universe are perfectly regular. This opinion still leaves room for accidents, such, for example, as that a number of bodies should at one instant come into symmetrical positions. The extreme of determinism, held by Leibniz, supposes that every aspect of every fact is subject to reason, so that there is a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow. There remain two opinions less deterministic than the common one. One of these, which has been called Tychism, is that there are minute departures in nature from any general formula which can be assigned, so that there is a certain element of absolute chance. This is the position maintained by C. S. Peirce a few years ago in the Monist. It had already been held by Boutroux, quite incidentally, however, and not as a prominent feature of his argument in favor of the contingency of natural laws. But this is not the opinion of Renouvier. He holds that all causality is exact and produces its component effect, but that, in addition, there are component influences which spring direct from the arbitrary action of the monad. Perhaps Boutroux had in mind something like this when he spoke of “une sorte de jeu laissé aux cadres logiques.” These actions, though arbitrary in the sense of not being rational functions of preceding events, are all provided for in the preestablished harmony, and thus duly produce their component effects (or quasi-effects) upon other monads.

Three critical questions are apposite to the new monadism. The first is, Supposing we were to grant all its propositions, how far would it constitute a satisfactory philosophy? What is it that philosophy ultimately hopes to accomplish? It is, if we mistake not, to find that there is some intelligible truth, some absolutely valid reasonableness, to ascertain how far this reasonableness governs the universe, and to learn how we may best do its service. It may be this hope is not destined to be realized, although, being reasonable, it acts to strengthen itself. It may be that reasonableness essentially requires an element of unreason, a brute force, on which and with which to accomplish itself; but in that case we hope that this unreason may turn out capable of becoming infused with reason. There must be nothing hopelessly and finally unreasonable, or in so far philosophy is to no purpose and its hope is vain. But the new monadism presents many such irrational features. What possible reason can there be for the existence of the precise finite number of monads that there are, rather than for one more? Since the monads do not metaphysically act upon one another, what rational purpose is subserved by the real existence of so many? The mere dream of them by one would do as well. Why should each monad have the three peculiar characters of intelligence, passion, and will, or why should any phenomena be as they are? In short, the absolutely inexplicable pervades the whole system, while one supremely antirational nominalism is supreme over the whole. Continuity is nothing but that modification of generality which is proper to the logic of relatives; and generality is of the essence of rationality. Yet this new monadism makes all continuity a false illusion and all generality equally so. Persuade him that this is true, and what is there for a philosopher but to hug a delusion to his heart as being, by virtue of its reasonableness, infinitely more real than the wretched abortion that the world of reality would so turn out to be? Rather hope that some corrected Hegelianism is the truth, or, better still, that, as the elder James taught, the Reasonable One sets off over against himself an irrational phantom upon which his warmth and light may be brought to pass.

The second question is, how far the reasoning of this work is sound. The opening section sets forth that conception of a simple substance which is the very cornerstone of monadism, without which the whole erection would crumble. Nobody is unaware that most thinkers now reject any such idea. The subject of an attribute, they say, is nothing but a group of phenomena differing from a metaphysical substance in not being permanent, like that old jackknife. Even Kant declared the conception of substance has no validity beyond possible experience. It was incumbent on our authors, then, to begin by proving that there is any substance other than the universe as a whole. Instead of this, they so naively take the matter for granted as to give a definition of substance which would make it a mere way of thinking. They parade a pretended demonstration that a contradiction is involved in supposing a substance to be infinitely divisible, or, what is precisely the same thing (though they do not so treat it), in supposing an infinite multitude of substances. We will not stop to point out the glaring fallacy of that “demonstration.” Modern logic enables us to show that it is absurd to say there is a contradiction in supposing an infinite multitude of substances. There is certainly an infinite multitude of finite whole numbers. True, these are only possibilities, not substances. But according to the principle of hecceity, admitted by the authors, mere substantial existence is no general character and cannot create a contradiction. In other words, what is possibly possible is possibly actual.

How far can this work be regarded as the natural perfecting of the philosophy of Leibniz? Leibniz had more sides than one. If we consider him as above all else an extreme nominalist, and expunge from his celebrated paper all that tends in the opposite direction, the development of what would remain might not be very different from the nouvelle monadologie minus its free-will doctrine. But if we deem a man to be best represented by that one of his ideas which shows most prepotency, it is in the direction of the differential calculus that we must look for the genuine Leibniz, and in philosophy we must regard the law of continuity as most Leibnizian. This principle would at once do away with the isolated monads, and render the extravagant and unverifiable hypothesis of preëstablished harmony superfluous by directly solving the riddle of the transitivity of causation, while it would form the basis of a philosophy in deepest unison with the ideas of the last half of the nineteenth century.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).