Monday, September 16, 2019

Leibniz And The Reaction To Modernity

Leibniz was not the Panglossian optimist that Voltaire had portrayed him in his 1759 satire Candide—he was a pessimist. In his mature years, Leibniz was harried by the premonition that Europe was on the verge of being ripped apart by anarchy and revolution. He was oppressed by the realization that the world that he has described in his monological writings is not real; it is a mirage. Matthew Stewart, in his book The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World, suggests that the reaction to modernity was first instantiated by Leibniz. Here’s an excerpt (page 311):

"Kant’s attempt to prove the existence of a “noumenal” world of pure selves and things in themselves on the basis of a critique of pure reason; the nineteenth-century-spanning efforts to reconcile teleology with mechanism that began with Hegel; Bergson’s claim to have discovered a world of life forms immune to the analytic embrace of modern science; Heidegger’s call for the overthrow of western metaphysics in order to recover the truth about Being; and the whole “postmodern” project of deconstructing the phallogocentric tradition of western thought—all of these diverse trends in modern thought have one thing in common: they are at the bottom forms of the reaction to modernity first instantiated by Leibniz."

During his lifetime, Leibniz made an impact on the lives of hundreds of people—he was close to key scientists and politicians, and he was deeply involved in political affairs of his time. But his funeral was a meager affair. Stewart writes (page 306): “Yet, to judge by his funeral, it would seem that he died, like a windowless monad, having touched no one very deeply at all.”

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