Renaissance and Reformation Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
by
Lloyd Strickland
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0359

Introduction

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was a universal genius, making original contributions to law, mathematics, philosophy, politics, languages, and many areas of science, including what we would now call physics, biology, chemistry, and geology. By profession he was a court counselor, librarian, and historian, and thus much of his intellectual activity had to be fit around his professional duties. Leibniz’s fame and reputation among his contemporaries rested largely on his innovations in the field of mathematics, in particular his discovery of the calculus in 1675. Another of his enduring mathematical contributions was his invention of binary arithmetic, though the significance of this was not recognized until the 20th century. These days, a good proportion of scholarly interest in Leibniz is focused on his philosophy. Among his signature philosophical doctrines are the pre-established harmony, the theory of monads, and the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds, which forms the central plank of his theodicy. For Leibniz, philosophy was not the discovery of deep truths of interest only to other philosophers, but a practical discipline with the means to increase happiness and well-being. Philosophical truths, he believed, revealed the beauty and rational order of the universe, and the justice and wisdom of its creator, and accordingly could inspire contentment and peace of mind. Leibniz’s other intellectual projects were likewise geared toward the improvement of the human condition. He lobbied tirelessly for the establishment of scientific societies, devised measures to improve public health, and was actively engaged in projects to unite the churches and so end the religious strife that marred the Europe of his day. He was also engaged in politics for much of his career, and often took on a diplomatic role, sometimes officially and other times not. In the political sphere, Leibniz did not wield true power but was a man with influence, obtained in no small part by his cultivation of relationships with leaders and sovereigns both inside and outside Germany. The sheer range of Leibniz’s interests, projects, and activities can make him a difficult figure to study, and the vast quantity of his writings only compounds the problem (around fifty thousand of his writings survive). Nevertheless, even a sampling of Leibniz’s work is enough to get a sense of his vision, originality, and intellectual depth, and good secondary literature will only enhance this. The items in this bibliography were chosen with this in mind.

General Overviews

Introductory works on Leibniz typically focus on providing an outline of his philosophy, that is, his metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and his philosophical theology. Jolley 2005 provides a fine overview of all of these areas, and should be a new student’s first port of call, though those who read French are also advised to consult Belaval 2005. Perkins 2007 and Woolhouse 2010 are worthwhile choices also, though both are shorter and thus less detailed. Look 2013 provides a solid introduction to Leibniz’s metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophical theology, but does not discuss ethics. Arthur 2014 has the broadest range of all of the works listed here, covering theology, mathematics, and physics in addition to philosophy. Brown and Fox 2006 is an A-Z of Leibniz’s philosophy, and those unfamiliar with Leibniz—or early modern philosophy in general—will benefit from having it to hand when reading Leibniz’s own writings or even works about him.

  • Arthur, R. T. W. Leibniz. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2014.

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    This book takes an avowedly “genetic” approach to Leibniz’s philosophy, seeking to explicate it by investigating its origins. This leads to the particular problems that Leibniz sought to solve both in philosophy and in other disciplines such as theology, mathematics, and physics. Accordingly, Arthur’s book is broader in its coverage of Leibniz’s philosophy than either Perkins 2007 or Woolhouse 2010. It is especially strong on physics.

  • Belaval, Yvon. Leibniz: Initiation à sa philosophie. Paris: Vrin, 2005.

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    Originally published in 1952, and revised through six editions, Belaval’s book is an admirably clear introduction to Leibniz that has retained its value. The first part of the book, amounting to around two-thirds of the total, is devoted to telling the story of Leibniz’s life and the development of his thought. The second part outlines his philosophical system starting with God and ending with Leibniz’s system of morality.

  • Brown, Stuart, and N. J. Fox. Historical Dictionary of Leibniz’s Philosophy. Oxford: Scarecrow, 2006.

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    Contains substantial entries on an A-Z of technical terms found in Leibniz’s philosophy as well as on relevant background ideas and contemporary thinkers. That, and the huge bibliography of primary and secondary literature, makes this a good companion to anyone new to Leibniz and his thought.

  • Jolley, Nicholas. Leibniz. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    A clear, accessible, and highly engaging introduction to Leibniz’s philosophical thought, covering classic topics such as substance, body, mind, pre-established harmony, free will and contingency, and evil. The book also contains a chapter devoted to Leibniz’s ethics and politics, and another on his legacy and influence. An ideal starting point for students and non-specialists.

  • Look, Brandon C. “Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2013.

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    A useful introduction focusing on Leibniz’s metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophical theology. Look very helpfully identifies and explains the various fundamental principles that Leibniz developed and utilized in his writings, namely the principles of the best, of contradiction, of sufficient reason, of the identity of indiscernibles, of continuity, and the predicate-in-notion principle.

  • Perkins, Franklin. Leibniz: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2007.

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    A short introductory work that covers rather more of Leibniz’s philosophy than one might expect given the headings of the three main chapters (“God and the Best Possible World,” “Substances,” and “Rational Minds”). Perkins focuses principally on trying to make Leibniz’s ideas intelligible to the 21st-century student, and his sympathetic exposition coupled with his general lack of criticism gives this book the feel of a general apology for Leibniz.

  • Woolhouse, Roger. Starting with Leibniz. London: Continuum, 2010.

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    Covers much the same ground as Perkins 2007 but with a better organization of chapters. Woolhouse’s exposition of Leibniz’s ideas is admirably clear. However, it is off-putting to see Leibniz’s system described as a “fairy tale” no fewer than twelve times over the course of the book (the fact that “fairy tale” is always put within quotation marks does little to mitigate this).

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