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Introduction to Leibniz’s Life and Work

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2023

Christopher Johns
Affiliation:
American University of Beirut
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Summary

A hundred brooks drive his millwheel’

–Leibniz on himself (AA IV, 3 N.125)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) was born in Leipzig, Germany, to Friedrich Leubnitz (Leibniz), a professor of moral philosophy, and Catharina Schmuck, the daughter of a professor of law. A voracious reader and precocious student, by the age of twenty-four Leibniz held doctoral degrees in both Philosophy and Law. He was by occupation a legal advisor and reformer, a diplomat, court counsellor, librarian, engineer, and historian. He made valuable contributions to mathematics, logic, theology, physics, politics, medicine, linguistics, geography, geology, and of course, philosophy. He invented a calculating machine, the differential and integral calculus, binary arithmetic, and was the founder of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, which is still in operation today. He resided in the same city (Hannover, Germany) for forty years, but travelled frequently throughout what was then the Holy Roman Empire. Although suspected of being an ‘unbeliever’ because he did not attend the local church, he remained committed to the Lutheran confession while actively seeking to resolve doctrinal disagreements between Catholics and Protestants. Cheerful in disposition, though at times impatient, he had many friends and acquaintances, including several prominent women with whom he enjoyed close intellectual friendship. He did not marry or have children. He spent most of his time writing: approximately 50,000 items totalling 100,000 pages, including 15,000 letters sent to some 1,000 correspondents, among them some of the most notable philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, and scientists of his time. Relatively little of this work was published in his lifetime, but much has been published since.

The seventeenth-century political, scientific, and intellectual background

Reading the Discourse on Metaphysics, one will notice Leibniz’s frequent concern with defending God’s goodness against certain controversies or ‘impious’ views. A partial grasp, at least, of the historical, scientific, and intellectual background that informed Leibniz’s concerns in the Discourse can explain why he felt these defences to be important. While detailed and extensive accounts of this background may be found elsewhere, the following background conditions should be borne in mind: (1) the Holy Roman Empire, (2) the Protestant Reformation, (3) the Thirty Years’ War, (4) the scientific revolution taking place throughout Europe, (5) the intellectual legacy of ancient and Medieval philosophy, and (6) the ways in which these conditions threatened to undermine religious authority.

Type
Chapter
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Leibniz's Discourse on Metaphysics
A New Translation and Commentary
, pp. 1 - 27
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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