Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646–1716)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA052-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 23, 2019, from

1. Life

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was born in Leipzig on 1 July 1646. He later recalled how his father, who died when he was only six years old, had instilled in him a love of learning. Leibniz started school when he was seven, but more important than his formal education in those years was his reading. He taught himself Latin at an early age in order to be able to read Livy and Calvisius, and because of that was admitted into his late father’s extensive library, where he read widely. At fifteen Leibniz entered University, first the University of Leipzig (1661–66), and then the University of Altdorf (1666–67), graduating with degrees in law and in philosophy. The education he received there was conservative, a mixture of traditional Aristotelian school philosophy and Renaissance humanism. Though invited to join the faculty at Altdorf, he chose instead to enter the service of the Elector of Mainz, where he stayed until he was sent to Paris in the spring of 1672 on diplomatic business.

While he had done significant work in a number of areas before going to Paris, including law, theology, mathematics and physics, the trip was crucial to Leibniz’s intellectual development. In the later part of the seventeenth century, learned Europe was in the midst of a great intellectual revolution; the older Aristotelian philosophy of the schools was being challenged by a new mechanist philosophy which rejected the form, matter and qualities of the Aristotelian world, replacing them with a world in which everything was to be explained in terms of size, shape and motion. In this new world there was a special emphasis on mathematics, which was increasingly applied to problems in physics in a way quite foreign to the Aristotelian philosophy.

Though he had taken an interest in the moderns while in Germany (Hobbes was particularly influential on his early thought), it was only after he reached Paris that Leibniz was able to enter the mainstream of European intellectual life. There he came to know the important mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens, who introduced him to new ideas which Leibniz absorbed quickly. In those years, Leibniz laid the foundations of his calculus, his later physics and his philosophy. While there were no publications at the time, many unpublished notes survive, important for understanding the emergence of his mature thought.

Leibniz returned to Germany in December 1676, passing through Holland, where he discussed philosophy with the reclusive Spinoza. It was then that he first entered the service of the House of Hanover. He served under Duke Johann Friedrich until his death in 1679, under Duke Ernst August from 1680 to 1698, and then, finally, under the Elector Georg Ludwig, who ascended the throne of Great Britain as King George I in 1714. Except for his travels, he remained at Hanover for the rest of his life. There Leibniz undertook a very wide variety of tasks. He served as a mining engineer (unsuccessfully supervising the draining of the silver mines in the Harz Mountains), as head librarian of a large collection of books, as a general advisor and a diplomat, and was particularly interested in finding ways for the Catholics and the Protestants to reunite. Leibniz was also given the responsibility for writing a history of the House of Hanover. While he collected and published many previously unknown historical documents and published a number of other historical writings, this project barely got off the ground. All that he seems to have completed was a geological history of the region of Lower Saxony, the Protogaea. While it proved to be an important work in the history of geology when it was finally published in 1749, it seems not to have pleased Leibniz’s employers who had hoped for a history of somewhat more recent times.

Through the rest of his life, Leibniz continued to explore the philosophical, scientific and mathematical questions that interested him from his earliest years. The 1680s and 1690s saw some of his most important writings. In these years, he published his new infinitesimal calculus and a variety of papers outlining his new approach to physics, particularly his new science of dynamics, the science of force and its laws. The Brevis demonstratio of 1686 presents for the first time a refutation of Descartes’ conservation law, and hints at the foundations of a more adequate physics. The details are developed in his unpublished Dynamica (1690), some material from which is published in the Specimen dynamicum in 1695, as well as in the numerous answers to attempted refutations of his argument from tenacious Cartesians. In philosophy, Leibniz published his Meditationes de cognitione, veritate et ideis (Meditations on knowledge, truth and ideas) in 1684, and in 1686 composed the Discours de métaphysique (Discourse on metaphysics), eventually published in 1846; the main arguments from the latter are discussed in a series of letters with the Catholic theologian Antoine Arnauld, letters Leibniz contemplated publishing in later years. These same themes are found, somewhat transformed, in two important publications in the 1690s, the Système nouveau de la nature et de la communication des substances (New system of the nature and the communication of substances) (1695b) and the De ipsa natura (On nature itself) (1698). In the first decades of the next century, Leibniz continued to be very active. Important in these years were the Nouveaux essais (New essays) (1704), a close examination of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, abandoned at Locke’s death and unpublished until 1765. But he did publish his Théodicée (Theodicy) (1710), a compendium of philosophical and theological ideas involving further development of themes that go far back in his thought. His final philosophical works were short summaries, intended only as brief guides to his work, the Monadologie (Monadology) and the Principes de la nature et de la grâce (Principles of nature and grace), both of which probably date from 1714.

Throughout these years Leibniz kept up a vast correspondence, including exchanges with Huygens, Johann Bernoulli, Burchardus de Volder and Bartholomaeus Des Bosses, among many others. One exchange is particularly important. Leibniz had been at war with his English counterpart, Sir Isaac Newton, for many years; their rivalry went back to at least the early 1690s, and probably to their first contact in the mid-1670s. The affair was ugly, with accusations of plagiarism regarding the calculus from both sides, and bitter disagreements over the foundations of physics. The rivalry finally resulted, in 1715–16, in a correspondence between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, the latter standing in for Newton himself (see Clarke, S. §3). The exchange was published by Clarke in 1717.

When his employer Georg Ludwig went to London in 1714 to take the throne of Great Britain, Leibniz did not follow. He was out of favour for his failure to make progress on the history of the House of Hanover, as well as for his generally old- fashioned manner. Furthermore, it is likely that Georg feared that the dispute with Newton and the British intellectual establishment would cause difficulties. Whatever the reason, Leibniz remained in Hanover, where he died on 14 November 1716. Though celebrated in his life and considered a universal genius for the breadth of his interests and activities, in death he was virtually ignored, buried with little ceremony in a grave that was to remain unmarked for many years.

Citing this article:
Garber, Daniel. Life. Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646–1716), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA052-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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