Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646–1716)

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

5. Metaphysics: monad, body and corporeal substance

Much of Leibniz’s attention was focused on the level of the individual substance or monad, the atom of nature and the building-block of his world, that which in some sense underlies the world of bodies. But in addition to the simple substances, Leibniz often also recognized complex substances, corporeal substances, particularly in the 1680s and 1690s. Corporeal substances are understood on analogy with the human being, a soul (itself an individual substance) united with an organic body. Leibniz often used Aristotelian language to characterize the corporeal substance, calling the soul its form, and the organic body its matter (see Aristotle §§8, 11). The organic body of a corporeal substance is itself made up of corporeal substances, each of which is a soul united to another, smaller organic body, in a sequence of tinier and tinier organisms that goes to infinity, a manifestation of the infinite variety in this best of all possible worlds that God created. Leibniz distinguished corporeal substances from corporeal aggregates, aggregates of animate corporeal substances whose unity is only mental, imposed by the mind, which perceives a group of substances together. While these corporeal substances are ultimately made up of non-extended individual substances, Leibniz’s position (at least before 1704) seems to have been that these corporeal substances, as substances, are the genuine individuals whose reality grounds the aggregates that constitute inanimate bodies.

As discussed below, the soul of a corporeal substance is united to its body by virtue of pre-established harmony. However, by 1704, in response to criticism from René-Joseph de Tournemine, Leibniz came to think that this link does not produce genuine unity, and the notion of a corporeal substance becomes problematic for him. While he continued to assert that the physical world is made up of an infinite hierarchy of organisms, after this date he was not so sure that these organisms constitute genuine substances. (Nevertheless, Leibniz always thought that every monad has a body, and cannot exist without one, even if the monad together with its body does not constitute a genuine substance. Even in death the monad has a body, just a body radically smaller than the one it had had in ‘life’.) The problem of constructing complex substances from monads led Leibniz in his correspondence with Des Bosses to explore the idea of a vinculum substantiale, or a substantial bond. While it is not clear that he ever really endorsed this idea, he does seem to have taken the problem of corporeal substance seriously in that dialogue.

However the issue of corporeal substance is treated, body had a kind of subordinate status for Leibniz. While corporeal substances may be genuine substances, genuinely individual and genuinely active, and thus genuinely real, they are still grounded in non-extended individual substances or monads. And inanimate bodies are inevitably phenomenal, whether the appearance resulting from a multitude of organic corporeal substances, or simply the appearance presented by an infinite multitude of non-extended substances. In this way, one can see Leibniz’s philosophy as an inspiration for the distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal worlds in Kant’s philosophy. But in contrast to Kant, who claimed that we cannot know the noumenal world of the thing-in-itself, Leibniz is quite confident that he knows exactly how things are in themselves: they are monads (see Kant, I. §3).

Citing this article:
Garber, Daniel. Metaphysics: monad, body and corporeal substance. 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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