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Plato and Leibniz against the Materialists

Author(s): Emily Grosholz


Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 255-276
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Plato

and
the

against

Leibniz

Materialists

Emily Grosholz
Importantparallels hold between Leibniz's attitudetowards materialism
and that of Plato. Both philosopherswere interestedin and hostile to materialism, and their qualified rejection of materialism became crucial to the
systems of their maturity.Leibniz's attachmentto Plato began very early: in
a text of 1664 Leibniz quoted the Timaeus,l and in another of 1670 he
claimed that the Timaeus,along with the Parmenides and the Phaedo, were
his favorite dialogues.2 The influence of the Timaeus is quite apparentin
Leibniz's correspondencewith the FrenchPlatonistNicholas Remond (171316) and certain essays (particularly"On the Ultimate Originationof Things"
[1697] and "TentamenAnagogicum"),where he appeals to Plato in distinguishing his own position from the materialismof his day, which revived and
transformedthat of Leucippus and Democritus, Epicurus, and the poet Lucretius.
The way in which Leibniz resists and circumventsmaterialismin these
letters and essays has a family resemblancewith the way Plato addressesand
solves certainmetaphysicalproblems,some of them raisedby materialism,in
the Timaeus.All the same, the Platonic and Leibnizianstrategiesalso diverge
in significant respects. For Plato belongs to the ancient world and Leibniz to
the modem world, in which the topic of subjectivity becomes central. Although both philosophersmake essential use of abstractmathematicalschemata to organize and inform their philosophicalpositions, Plato tends to give
them a constitutiverole and Leibniz a regulative role.
I would like to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for their generous
support of my research, and HerbertBreger for his counsel and conversation, and also Remi
Brague, Daniel Garber, Charles Kahn, Carl Vaught, and Jules Vuillemin for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
G. W. Leibniz, Sdmtliche Schriften und Briefe, ed. Deutsche Akademie der
Wissenschaften (Darmstadt, 1923-), Series 6, I, 90.
2 Louis Dutens (ed.), Gothofredi Guillelmi Leibnitii ... Opera Omnia (6 vols.; Geneva
1768), IV/1, 77.

255
Copyright 1996 by Journalof the History of Ideas, Inc.

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256

Emily Grosholz

What is the point of establishing this analogy, a likeness nuanced by


unlikeness, in the metaphysical strategies of Plato and Leibniz? First, it is
important to examine philosophical genealogies. In this case the genealogy is
attested by Leibniz himself, who feels at once indebted to and impatient with
his forebear. Yet it has received much less scholarly recognition than the
more obvious link between Aristotle and Leibniz. Second, this kind of
examination exhibits the shape and tensile strength of metaphysical systems,
as tragedy or fiction exhibits the extent and limits of moral and political
systems. I assume that certain metaphysical problems and certain possibilities for metaphysical systems recur through time and that those things that are
perennial in philosophy point to what is eternal about it, but I also believe
that there is something peculiar about modernity, which imposes a seachange on philosophy after Descartes. Materialism is a recurrent metaphysical possibility with which contemporary philosophers must still come to
terms; the peculiar nature of moder philosophy introduces new ways to
address materialism. Surely the study of how Plato and Leibniz took the
measure of materialism will be illuminating for philosophers interested in
such questions.
I. Moder scholars debate over whether Plato knew the writings of
Democritus and addressed himself to them. The classical authors were
unanimous in the opinion that Plato regarded Democritus as one of his most
important opponents. According to an often repeated anecdote, Plato wanted
all the writings of Democritus burnt and only gave up this wish when it was
clear that the writings were already too widely circulated.3
Commentators have pursued this alleged opposition in various directions. Hammer-Jensen4 and Natorp5 have argued that Plato discovered the
works of Democritus in the midst of writing the Timaeus and that one can
trace their influence in the latter part of the dialogue. Thus they find Plato
heavily indebted to Democritus. Taylor, by contrast, rejects the influence of
Democritus on Plato altogether.
3 "Fuer die antike
Ueberlieferung besteht zwischen Platon und Demokritos nur das
Verhaeltnis verstaendnislosen Hasses. Platon soil alle Buecher des Demokritos haben
aufkaufen und verbrennen wollen." But he adds, "Wir sehen heute das Verhaeltnis
wesentlich anders. Zunaechst muss mit der Moeglichkeit gerechnet werden, dass die
demokriteischen Werke erst zu einer Zeit in Athen bekannt wurden, als Platon mit einer
Anzahl seiner Werke bereits hervorgetreten war"; and he goes on to argue that Plato's
encounter with Democritus's atomism was in part responsible for Plato's revision of his
theory of Ideas or Forms. J. Stenzel, "Platon und Demokritos," Kleine Schriften zur
griechischen Philosophie (Darmstadt, 1957), 60; E. Frank, Platon und die sogenannten
Pythagoreer (Halle, 1923), 118f., gives the source of this old story as Aristoxenus,
recounted in Diogenes Laertius, IX, 40.
4
I. Hammer-Jensen,"Demokrit und Platon," Archivfur Geschichte der Philosophie,
23 (1910), 92-105.
5 P.
Natorp, "Demokrit-Spurenbei Platon," Archivfur Geschichte der Philosophie, 3
(1890), 515-30.

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Plato and Leibniz

257

There is no need to bring in Democritus,and it is perhapsmost likely


that Plato had never read his works. We cannotprove such a proposition, but we shall at least see that there is not a single sentence in the
Timaeuswhich shows any knowledge of Democritus.Moreover,it is
very doubtful whether Plato would have learned anything from
Democritus if he had read him.6
However, Taylor's conviction that Plato would not have been interested in
Democritus is based on the assumption,central to his commentary,that the
Timaeusmust be read as a Pythagoreantext, and this in itself is debatable.
After all, Plato chose Timaeus the Locrianas the protagonistof the dialogue,
and the Locrians were notoriously hostile to Pythagoras. Other moder
scholars take a more moderate position and point to both antagonism and
homage in Plato's relation to Democritus and Leucippus, and indeed to the
earlier Empedocles. The debate between Friedlander7and Kranz8is instructive in this regard.
Supposing this debate to be inconclusive, I would point to the habits of
thought that Plato exhibits throughout his dialogues as evidence for his
assessment of the materialismof his predecessors and contemporaries.9On
the one hand he was fascinatedby the constructiveargumentsof mathematicians in both arithmeticand geometry. An account of the world that had an
analogous clarity and order, that proceeded from simple elements and assumptions to the constructionof vast complexities, would have powerfully
attractedhim. On the otherhand, as the simile of the divided line reveals in a
schematic way, his philosophical temperamentwas hostile to monism. The
metaphysicalmodel that suits him depicts a reality that is layered or striated;
materialreality has a place in the strata,but as we recall, Plato locates it only
at the second level of the divided line. Any philosophical discourse about
matter could not possibly be a complete speech about reality.
Both these metaphysicalhabits belonged as well to Leibniz. The importance of formal structures,and in particularthose of mathematics,occured to
Leibniz when he was still in his teens. Clearly, mathematicsplayed a pivotal
role in his physics; indeed, the infinitesimal calculus unified mathematics
and mechanics in novel and fruitful ways. One of the great attractionsof
mechanistic materialismfor Leibniz was the way it lent itself to quantification (as Greek atomism, of course, did not). But his view of reality is also
layered or striated;the layers are linked by the relation of expression, by the
principle of continuity, and by the logical structure of the world. Any
philosophicaldiscourse aboutmatter,as Leibniz states in almost every one of
A. E. Taylor, A Commentaryon Plato's Timaeus (New York, 1987), 298-99.
P. Friedlander,Platon, III (Berlin, 1954), 329-55.
8
W. Kranz, "Die Entstehung der Atomismus," in Convivium, K. Ziegler zum 70.
Geburtstag (Stuttgart, 1954).
9 Plato's attack on materialist doctrines in Laws X cannot be
ignored in this regard.
6
7

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258

Emily Grosholz

the important writings of his maturity, must be supplemented by metaphysical considerations about spirit, about the ends of action and construction, and
about the unity of thought that confronts matter and tries to represent it.
I would once again urge that modernity gives a peculiar dimension to
Leibniz's reflections on spirit, which is lacking in Plato. Many philosophers,
Hegel and Heidegger among them, have noted that Greek thought failed to
take adequate account of subjectivity. Greek cosmology, and Plato's in
particular, attempts to give an account of nature, its origin and structure, but
leaves out of the account the fact that we are here.'0 And that we are here in a
peculiar way, not like a pebble in a box, or a planet in space, or even an
animal in its ecological niche. We are in the world in such a way that, though
we occupy a specific locale in space and time, the whole world is present to
us. Insofar as we are awarenesses or consciousnesses, what we confront is
everything. But how is that possible? What kind of being-in-the-world is
that?'
Kant, I believe, is trying to talk about this fundamental aspect of our
peculiar being-in-the-world when he struggles to define the unity of consciousness in the Transcendental Deduction in The Critique of Pure Reason.
He writes,
The synthetic unity of the manifold of intuition, as given a priori, is
thus the ground of the identity of apperception itself, which precedes
a priori all my determinate thoughts. Connection lies however not in
the objects, and cannot be borrowed from them through perception,
thence to be taken up by the understanding; rather, connection is
solely an affair of the understanding which itself is nothing more
than the ability to connect things a priori, and to bring the manifold
of given appearances under the unity of apperception. This principle
is the highest in all of human knowledge.'2
10
This point is, of course, controversial. One can find discussions of the unity of
consciousness in the Theaetetus and Aristotle's De Anima and Book XII of the Metaphysics. But these discussions are strikingly "objective": as Aristotle says in De Anima, III, 4,
"Mind is itself thinkable in exactly the same way as its objects are." Perhaps the closest
approach in classical antiquity to the philosophical theme of subjective consciousness is
Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, a tragedy that has no real plot but confronts the audience
with the awareness of Prometheus, whose boundless anguish draws us in. Not surprisingly,
Prometheus Bound was a tragedy with which Aristotle could not quite come to terms. See
Jules Vuillemin, Elements de Poetique (Paris, 1991), ch. IV.
" R.
Brague, Aristote et la question du monde (Paris, 1988), ch. 1, "Un point aveugle
de l'Hellenisme."
12 "Synthetische Einheit des Mannigfaltigen der Anschauungen, als a priori gegeben,
ist also der Grund der Identitaet der Apperzeption selbst, die a priori allem meinem
bestimmten Denken vorhergeht. Verbindung liegt aber nicht in den Gegenstaenden, und
kann von ihnen nicht etwa durch Wahrnehmung entlehnt und in den Verstand dadurch
allererst aufgenommen werden, sondem ist allein eine Verrichtung des Verstandes, der
selbst nights weiter ist, als das Vermoegen, a priori zu verbinden, und das Mannigfaltige

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Plato and Leibniz

259

The really peculiar feature of human experience is that the world is given to
us as a world, not in bits and pieces, in halves or quarters.The unity of the
world, which is the unity of consciousness, cannot be accountedfor in terms
of an empirical speech about objects. Thus, at the very least, materialism
(classical or modem) will have nothing to say about our being-in-the-world.
Indeed, what materialismtypically says about our being-in-the-worldis
that we are confused about ourselves; we take ourselves to be something we
are not. Havingjust assertedthat there exists only matterand the void and no
third substance,Lucretiusin De rerum natura goes on to say:
For we could put it that whateverhas taken place is an accident of a
particulartract of earthor of the space it occupied. If there had been
no matter and no space or place in which things could happen, no
spark of love kindled by the beauty of Tyndareus' daughterwould
ever have stolen into the breast of Phrygian Paris to light that
dazzling blaze of pitiless war; no Wooden Horse, unmarkedby the
sons of Troy, would have set the towers of Ilium aflame throughthe
midnight issue of the Greeks from its womb. So you may see that
events cannot be said to be by themselves like matteror in the same
sense as space. Rather, you should describe them as accidents of
matter,or of the place in which things happen.'3
Usurping Homer, Lucretiusurges that we must learn to redescribewhat we
have erroneouslytaken to be human events, as the motion and compounding
of atoms in the void. De rerumnatura is a book designed to liberateus from
the baseless fears caused by the illusions of history, religion, and poetry.
Likewise, Paul Churchland,writing in Matter and Consciousness, urges
us to free ourselves from the illusions of "folk psychology." Our common
sense introspection, he observes, "has enjoyed no significant changes or
advances in well over 2000 years, despite its manifold failures." These
include the enduringmysteries of sleep, learning, intelligence, memory, and
mental illness. After two thousandyears (and despite Lucretius)we still do
not know why we suffer.14 Churchlandsuggests that neuroscience may well
be the answer to our doubts and fears.
II. The obvious Platonic objection to materialismis that it must stop at
the second level of the divided line in its ontology, rejecting the existence of
everythingthat is not a materialobject or its image. But thenjust as it cannot
gegebener Vorstellungen unter Einheit der Apperzeption zu bringen, welcher Grundsatz
der oberste im ganzen menschlichen Erkenntnis ist" (I. Kant, Kritik der Reinen Vernunft
[Stuttgart, 1966], B 135).
13Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, tr. R. E. Latham (Harmondsworth, 1951),
41 (Book I).
14 P. M. Churchland,Matter and Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass., 1988), 45-46.

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Emily Grosholz

rise above the second level of the line ontologically, so in its epistemology it
can never rise above the level of common sense (or, worse, of rumor);that is,
it can never aspireto science or philosophy. By contrast,the complete though
never conclusive speeches of Plato's dialogues often advance our understanding by moving up through all four levels of the line. For when Plato
wishes to present a philosophical view completely, he turns to the divided
line as a measure of that completeness.15
The account of the constructionof the cosmos in the Timaeus'6can itself
thus be read as proceedingup the divided line. The section from 27c to 47e is
an account that belongs to the first level of the line, the level of rumor or
myth; it is incomplete because it is superficialand does not take into account
the conditions of materialitythat weigh upon all things.'7 The section from
47e to 53c-d belongs to the level of common sense and material objects,
where materialism must lodge itself; it treats the four elements and the
receptacle.
A readerof the Timaeusmust then give special attentionto the transition
that takes place at 53c-d, for it is the threshold where Plato parts company
with the materialistand begins the serious work of understandingthe real in
terms of the ideal, and becoming in terms of being. The section from 53c-d to
69b belongs to the thirdlevel of the line, where axiomatizedmathematicsand
deductively systematized science can be carriedout. From 69b to 90e Plato
engages in the synoptic, detailed philosophizing,combining both the abstract
organizationof mathematicsand the rich concreteness of experience that is
the high point of so many of his dialogues, and exhibits what he means by
knowledge at the fourthlevel of the line.'8 But Plato never pretendsthat this
high level philosophizing is the last word. Thus the dialogue ends by catapulting us back down, or perhaps out, into a myth (90e-91c) that indicates
where the philosophical dialogos might proceed in its restless, unsatisfied
quest for understanding.
15 I owe this
insight from conversations in graduate school with Paul Kahn, whose

unpublished paper "On the Structure of Plato's Republic" is in turn indebted to R. S.


Brumbaugh's Plato for the Modern Age (New York, 1962), R. L. Nettleship's Lectures on
the Republic of Plato (New York, 1901), and H. L. Sinaiko's Love, Knowledge, and
Discourse in Plato (Chicago, 1965). This paper later became part of his Plato: Eros and
Order (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1977).
16
Plato, Timaeus, IX, tr. R. G. Bury (Cambridge, Mass., 1989), 1-253.
17 If this is so, then one must suppose that Plato views the highly Pythagorean
reasoning at 35a-36e with some critical distance. It must be viewed as radically incomplete
and superficial in its attemptto explain reality, or even to aspire to the status of mathematical science. Still, it has a dialectical role to play in our understandingof things.
18 Paul Kahn remarks(op. cit.) that discourse at the fourth level of the divided line goes
beyond the static, empty abstractness of the third level because it can "enter into the
plethora of experience. That is, our understandingmust now be adequate to multiplicity; we
cannot dismiss multiplicity but must make it coherent and understandable through an
explanation based on intelligible principles." Such discourse is able to relate abstract
principles to concrete instances in a thoroughgoing way and to explain change and
development.

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What occurs at 53c-d? Just at this passage Plato provides the hypothetical
startingpoints needed for the organizeddeduction of a kind of mathematical
physics. And he does it in a way that groundsthe superficialmathematicsof
the Pythagoreansin the requirementsof materialityand uplifts materialityby
allying it with the mathematicals,so that it can be the object of a science.
Specifically, in this passage about archai (arche means beginning, first cause
or origin, and principleor element), Plato offers his own, innovative solution
to the problem of the division of matter.
There are three solutions given to this problem in classical antiquity.
Two of them constitute the venerable metaphysical antinomy indicated by
Kant as the "Second Conflict of the TranscendentalIdeas." The materialists
claimed that matter could not be indefinitely divided, for the ultimate constituents of matter were atoms, bits of matter with small but finite extension.19Aristotle, by contrast,gave mattera structureanalogous to that which
he gave to the continuum:just as a line is not composed of points (something
different in kind from a line) but only indefinitely decomposed into smaller
line-continua,so mattercannot be composed of atoms (whose characteristics
are different in kind from those of macroscopic matter)but only indefinitely
decomposed into smaller volumes of homogeneous matter,which can themselves always be so indefinitely decomposed.20
The account in Plato's Timaeusrepresentsa thirdmetaphysicalpossibility. It describes the constructionof the archai of the world by God "according to a method (logon) in which the probableis combined with the necessary" (53c-d). Plato's Timaeus observes that fire, earth, water, and air are
bodies, that every body has volume or depth (bathos), that every volume is
bounded by flat surfaces (epipedon), and that every flat surface can be
composed from triangles. That is, Timaeus proposes that the "elements"of
the four elements are triangles, which he describes in purely mathematical
terms, and to which he attributesnothing corporealor material.Thus Plato's
solution to the problem of the division of matter looks like that of
Democritus, in so far as he postulates ultimate "elements," but those elements are not material.21
This metaphysical solution to the problem has difficulties and virtues.
One difficulty is that triangles are given a location in space and time. As the
faces of the tetrahedron,octahedron,icosahedron, and cube, they compose
(respectively) the molecules of fire, air, water, and earth. So, too, they are
treated as if they were individuated,though there is nothing to individuate
triangles of the same size and shape except their location, and it seems
19For Democritus, see Die
Fragmente der Vorsokratiker,ed. H. Diehls and W. Kranz
(Berlin, 195210),68. However, for an account of Democritus's atomism, one must consult
second hand accounts, e.g., Aristotle's Metaphysics 985 B 4-20. For Epicurus see Epicuro
opere, ed. G. Arrighetti (Turin, 1960).
20
Aristotle, Physics,207a 33-35.
21
See D. J. Schulz, Das Problem der Materie in Platons Timaios (Bonn, 1966), ch. III.

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Emily Grosholz

strange to attribute individuation to a factor (location) so extrinsic to the


thing.22Treatingtriangles in this fashion makes them part of the inventoryof
the world and grants them, inexplicably, the resistance to penetrationthat
materialobjects enjoy. The hypostatizationhere is even more surprisingthan
that suggested in some of the Platonic myths, which invent a heaven-like
location for the objects properto the two highest sections of the divided line.
If trianglesexist as it were side by side in this world, then they are partof
the inventory of the world, a thing among things. Those who argue that the
classical philosophersnever arrivedat the question of subjectivity, reproach
them for only taking inventory of reality from a third-personperspective, as
does Remi Brague at the beginning of his book on Aristotle:
Of course, the Greekthinkersdid not fail to develop reflections in the
grand style on the origin of man and the place he occupies among
other living creatures;they located him with respect to other beings
which inhabit the world, whether they be plants, animals, or gods.
They even perceived that man is not an animal among other animals,
but that he deserves to be called a "microcosm,"in that he contains
in himself not just a partof the world, but all that the world contains.
And nonetheless, Greek thought seems not to have grasped the fact
that we are in the world. It conceives the site that we occupy, but not
our being-situated;it conceives the way man belongs to the world,
but not my presence in the world.23
This failure to inquirephilosophicallywithin the first-personperspective
leaves the soul regardedfrom the outside, placed either mythically in heaven
where it belongs with the Forms, or, according to common sense in this
world, with its body. Plato's placementof trianglesside by side in this world,
I would argue, is of a piece with Greek inventory-taking.To make an object
of thought like a triangle into an individuated, spatio-temporallylocated
object is to focus philosophical attentionon the contents of what I know, not
on my humanawarenessthatknows. The hypostatizationthat recursthroughout the works of Plato is a structuralfeature that signals the absence of the
philosophical theme of human subjectivity.24
22

J. Gracia, Individuality (Albany, 1988), 161f.


"Certes, les penseurs grecs n'ont pas manque de developper des reflexions de grand
style sur l'origine de l'homme et sur la place qu'il occupe parmi les vivants; ils l'ont situe
par rapportaux autres etres qui peuplent le monde, qu'ils soient plantes, animaux ou dieux.
Ils ont meme vu que l'homme n'etait pas un animal parmi d'autres, mais qu'il meritait le
nom de 'microcosme,' en ce qu'il resume en lui, non une partie du monde, mais la totalite
de ce que le monde contient. Et pourtant,la pensee greque ne semble pas avoir concu lefait
que nous sommes dans le monde. Elle pense le site que nous occupons, non la situation
(l'etre-situe) qui est la notre. Elle pense l'appartenance de l'homme au monde, non ma
presence dans le monde" (R. Brague, op. cit., 47-48).
24 Charles Kahn makes a similar
point at the end of his essay "Flux and Form in the
Timaeus"(forthcoming), in which he argues that in the Timaeus, the principles that make
23

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Plato and Leibniz

263

One clear virtue of Plato's Timaeus account is that it rests on the


interestingunity of triangles. The atom of the materialistsis postulatedto be
extended and yet indivisible. This botheredDescartes (to whom it seemed to
impugn the omnipotenceof God) and Leibniz (to whom it seemed to impugn
the principle of sufficient reason), for why should matteror extension cease
to be divisible at a certain arbitrarydegree of the very small? But a triangle,
understoodin Euclid's terms, is indivisible in the strong sense that it is not
the sum of any of its parts; it cannot be decomposed and remain a triangle.
For Euclid lines are not composed of but ratherbounded by points; plane
figures are not composed of, but boundedby, lines. (Only a twentieth-century
set theorist would make the mistake of assuming that a triangle is a set of
points, and thereforemerely the sum of its parts.) Thus, a triangle's indivisibility is not arbitrary,and it is one aspect of how a triangleis extended in the
plane. The stable, suggestive integrityof trianglesis one reason why geometric figure works so well as a schema for existing, spatio-temporal,material
individuals.The formalunity of the one stands for the existential unity of the
other.
But then it is also true that triangles are formal unities that are not true
individuals. Triangles that seem on one occasion to be distinct, on another
occasion may lose all distinction, but this ontological indistinctness of
triangles is more obvious in certain contexts than others. When the problem
is exhibiting congruence, the superimposition of one figure on another
displays the way figures initially distinguishedby place can lose all distinctness. However, when figures are used to constructother figures (as when six
equilateraltriangles are used to constructa hexagon), their distinctnessmust
be carefully preserved in order to effect the construction.The latter kind of
situationis the one Plato's Timaeus has in view when he makes triangles the
constituentsof the world by composing the faces of four regularsolids. That
preservationof distinctnessmakes them even more plausible schema for the
unity of individuals.
Locating the materialistaccount at the second level of the divided line,
Plato indicatesthat it cannotrise to the statusof an organizedscience. He also
indicates that taken on its own terms, it generates insoluble puzzles, for it
cannot even explain the way it draws the distinction between image and
object. In general the materialistaccount mistakes physical objects for images. All it can give in the inventory of the world is physical objects (e.g.,
atoms in the void), so that its explanation of representation is another
collection of objects: the components of the eye, of the object, of the
transmittingfluid, etc.

possible objective knowledge of a world of changing objects are the Receptacle (which
make reference possible) and the Forms (which make description possible). But this
ontology leaves no place for human subjectivity.

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264

Emily Grosholz

However, by locating the materialistposition on the divided line, Plato


also indicates that while it is inadequate,any account that does not include
the materialistaccount as a stratumor stage will also prove inadequate.In the
TimaeusPlato argues quite clearly that an awareness that was not embodied
also could not draw the distinction between object and image; it would
mistake images for physical objects.25Thus materialismgrasps a deep though
partial metaphysical truth, the necessity of embodiment for recognizing the
image as image, for distinguishingimage from object, for knowing oneself,
for reflectiveness, for the wisdom of mortality.
At 53c-d Plato's Timaeus introducesthe mathematicalsand so enriches
the ontology of the world, and he gives the discourse a new beginning so that
it can proceed deductively from first principles. He also suggests an analogy
between God's shaping up the universe "by means of forms and numbers"
and his own carryingup the discourse to the third level of scientific reasoning, and then immediately reminds the readerthat the analogy is imperfect.
For God creates the world; Timaeus only writes about the creation of the
world. The ambiguity of the word archai is perfectly appropriatehere, as
meaningboth first cause (in the work of God) and element or principle(in the
writing of Timaeus). Timaeus shows that he is aware of and in control of the
ambiguity, and so, that he can manage the distinction between object and
representation.
III. In Aristotelian physics and metaphysics and in the tradition that
carriesAristoteliandoctrinethroughthe end of the medieval period, figure is
only a certain mode by which finite quantity is terminated. Figure is "a
quality resulting from the terminationof visible quantity in a naturalthing,
like the external aspect of a man or lion."26Taken thus as the accident of an
accident, it has little to do with the internalprinciplesof change, the substantial forms that make natural things what they are in Aristotelian physics.
Because matteris naturallyassociated with quantity-which, Suarez argues,
exists in matter prior to its union with substantialform-any bit of matter
must have its quantity bounded simply in virtue of being finite. That
boundednessleads to a boundary,or figure. Figure is thereforenot the result
of causal efficacy and itself has no causal efficacy. That is to say, figure does
not play any important role in Aristotelian physics; purely passive and

25

See R. Brague, "The Body of the Speech," Platonic Investigations, ed. D. J.


O'Meara, Studies in the History of Philosophy, XIII, 53-83.
26
Collegium Conimbricensis, Commentarii collegii Conimbricensis e societate iesu;
in universam dialecticam Aristotelis Stagiritae (Hildesheim, 1976), I, 489, and Franciscus
Suarez, Disputationes metaphysicae (Hildesheim, 1965), 42.4.15, Opera Omnia, ed. D. M.
Andre (Paris, 1856), 26:615. This insight stems from section 4.3 of D. Des Chene's
Physiologia: Philosophy of Nature in Descartes and the Aristotelians (Ithaca, forthcoming): "The concept of figure, as we have seen, is of a certain mode by which finite quantity
is terminated. Figure is, so to speak, an accident of an accident, an adverb of quantum."

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Plato and Leibniz

265

doubly accidental,it never initiates change and is never itself changed except
as a consequence of changes in other more fundamentalproperties.27
But in the Timaeus,figure is given a causal role to play. At 53c-d, as we
have seen, Timaeus makes triangles (the most fundamentalof all rectilinear
figures) the archai of the four elements and the startingpoint for a deductive
scientific accountof the world. In that account the propertiesof the two kinds
of triangles and the four regular solids which they compose are invoked as
causal principles that explain why the elements are as they are, why they
interactin the way they do, and what some of their consequences are.
For example, the Platonic claim that the elements fire, air, and water can
be transmutedinto each other, while the element earth stands apart in this
respect, is explainedby the fact that the tetrahedron(the molecule of fire), the
octahedron(the molecule of air), and the icosahedron(the molecule of water)
are all constituted by the rectangularscalene triangle, "which is half of an
equilateraltriangle,"whereas the cube (the molecule of earth) is constituted
by the other fundamentaltriangle, the rectangularisosceles triangle.28Difference in form has causal consequences for the transmutationof elements.
Another causal consequence of form is stability or instability. The molecule of earth is most stable:
Earth is the most immobile and the most plastic body, and of
necessity the body which has the most stable bases must be preeminently of this character.Now of the triangleswe originally assumed,
the basis formed by equal sides is of its naturemore stable than that
formed by unequal sides; and of the plane surfaces which are compoundedof these several triangles,the equilateralquadrangle,both in
its parts and as a whole, has a more stable base than the equilateral
triangle.29

Conversely, the pyramid is the molecule of fire because it has the least
stability and is the smallest and sharpest:"As regards all these forms, that
which has the fewest bases must necessarily be the most mobile, since it is in
all ways the sharpestand most acute of all; and it must also be the lightest,
since it is composed of the fewest identical parts."30
Some interactionsof the elements are explained by reference to figure.
Fire destroysthe otherelements because it is sharp;the action of fire is a kind
of cutting up: "Wheneverany of the other kinds is caught within fire it is cut
up thereby,owing to the acuteness of its angles and of the line of its sides, but
when it has been re-composedinto the substanceof fire it ceases to be cut."31
27

For more extensive discussion, see Des Chene, ibid., ch. 4, "Matter,Quantity, and
Figure."
28 Timaeus, 53d-55d.
29
Ibid., 55e-56a.
30
Ibid., 56b.
31 Ibid., 57a.

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266

The integrity of young, healthy bodies is later on in the dialogue referredto


the integrity and size of the component triangles, which can stand up to
invasion from without. But in the elderly, "when the root (riza) of the
triangles grows slack owing to their having fought many fights during long
periods, they are no longer able to divide the entering triangles of the food
and assimilate them to themselves, but are themselves easily divided by those
which enter from without."32
One could multiply examples. But my point is that to regard figure as
causally efficacious is a metaphysicalpossibility that Aristotelianismon the
whole excludes and that Plato's Timaeus allows. Revived in Descartes's
physics, it was then transformedby Leibniz. He seems not to have been
particularlyinterested in the catalogue of particles of different figures that
Descartes elaboratesin the Principles to give "mechanistic"explanationsof
various naturalphenomena.The figures which interestLeibniz, and to which
in an oblique sense he accords causal efficacy (or at least a place in explanation), are the shapes of curves, particularlytranscendentalcurves.
Given Leibniz's multivalentunderstandingof curves, algebraic and transcendental curves lend themselves to the representationof the action of
forces. By analogy the way in which geometrical magnitudes mutually
constrain each other in the nexus of a curve (or the way in which a curve
imposes mutualconstraintson the geometricalmagnitudesassociated with it)
comes to stand for the way a trajectoryimposes mutual constraints on the
position, velocities, and accelerations of the particle. This analogy is supported and articulatedby Leibniz's way of associating with curves ordered
arraysof rationalnumberson the one hand, and algebraicexpressions on the
other. Thus, the figure of a trajectory,of a hanging chain, or of a vibrating
cord is not the accident of an accident but the registerof significant causes in
a mechanical situation. It is the object of scientific and mathematicalinvestigation.
For an Aristotelian, figure is never the result of a formal or efficient
cause; it is the result of a final cause only in the case of artisticproduction,as
when a sculptorimposes beautiful form on a block of marble. Thus, figure is
significant only in the case of humanartifice, not nature.It is surely relevant
here thatthe one bit of physics thatwas quantifiedin the classical era in a way
that in hindsight looks to us "modem," is Archimedes' quantification of
simple machines, of human artifice. Both Descartes and Leibniz assimilated
the realm of human artifice to the realm of natureby making figure causally
significant and by working towards a mathematicalmechanics in which the
yoking of geometrical figure to numerical sequence and algebraic structure
played a not inconsiderablerole. The God of Plato's Timaeus,who "marks
things out into shapes by means of forms and numbers," looms in the
backgroundof this development.
32

Ibid., 81d.

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Plato and Leibniz

267

IV. Leibniz often appeals to Plato in his letters to Nicholas Remond,


chief counselorto the Duke of Orleans.His correspondencewith the Platonist
Frenchmanlasted from 1713 to 1716. It was to Remond, as well as to Prince
Eugene of Savoy, that Leibniz first sent copies of his Principles of Nature
and Grace, Based on Reason, in the hope of finding a wider circle of
adherentsfor his philosophy. Remond was indirectly responsible for one of
the last encounters of Leibniz with the ideas of Newton, for the Venetian
Antonio Schinella (the Abbe Conti) was, around1715, an interlocutorof both
Remond and Newton.
Throughoutthis correspondence Leibniz invokes Plato almost always
just when he is about to attack materialism. Though he mentions classical
authorslike Democritus, Epicurus, and even Lucretius,the materialismthat
really drawshis fire is a seventeenth-centuryversion, like that of Gassendi or
the materialistDescartes that may arguablybe extrapolatedfrom L 'Homme.
Classical materialismhad little to do with mathematics;it pursuedsystematically the thesis that the ultimate constituents of reality were atoms in the
void. Early modem materialism,by contrast,was linked with a mechanism
that aspiredto understandnatureas an assemblage of complex machines and
to employ mathematics in the description and manipulation of those machines. Thus, whereas Plato's criticism of materialism led him to try to
integrate it with mathematics,Leibniz encounteredthe integrationof mathematics and materialismas a project alreadyunderway.
The correspondenceof Leibniz with Remond opens in June 1713, with
Remond introducinghimself as a Platonistwho has recently come to admire
the works of Leibniz even more than those of the master. "Having given up
all other books in orderto devote myself solely to Plato, I was astonishedto
find myself giving up Plato for a modem thinker."33In his response on 10
January1714 Leibniz replies that Remond has rightly discerned an affinity
between his own thoughtsand those of Plato, to whom he often refers. Plato's
writings deserve to be put into a system, so thatthe truthshe merely advanced
might be properly demonstrated.In particular,Plato saw that metaphysical
truthstake precedenceover empiricaltruths:"It has to do with general truths
that do not dependat all on facts but which are nonetheless still, to my mind,
the key to science, which judges the facts."34
Then he goes into a brief intellectual autobiography,beginning with his
study of Aristotle.and the Scholastics and then Plato and Plotinus. While still
at Leipzig, he recounts,he turnedto the moders. "In the end the mechanical

33
"Apres avoir quitte tous les livres pour m'attacher uniquement a Platon, je me
trouve etonne de quitter encore Platon pour un modere." C. I. Gerhardt (ed.), Die
Philosophische Schriften von G. W.Leibniz (7 vols.; Hildesheim, 1965), III, 603 (hereafter

GP).

34 "C'est sur les verites


generales et qui ne dependent point des faits, mais qui sont
pourtant encore, a mon avis, la clef de la science qui juge des faits" (GP, III, 605).

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Emily Grosholz

philosophy prevailed and led me to devote myself to mathematics."35This


interest became something deeper during his years in Paris, under the tutelage of Huygens, where, however, his enthusiasmfor materialismwas muted.
"But when I sought the ultimate reasons for mechanism and the laws of
motion, I was quite surprisedto discover that they could not be found in
mathematics,and that I had to go back to metaphysics."36This insight sent
him from the materialback to the formal,because he finally understood"that
Monads, or simple substances,are the only true substances,and that material
things are only phenomena,although well-founded and well-connected phenomena." He adds, "This is what Plato, and even the later academicians,as
well as the skeptics, got a glimpse of, though those who came after Plato did
not treat it as well as he did."37
By this Leibniz does not mean that one should give up science for
philosophy. In the seventeenth century science and philosophy were not
separate enterprisesas they now seem to be. Indeed, he thinks that understanding the subordinationof science to philosophy will lead to a more
correctscience. The principles of sufficient reason, of perfection, of continuity, and so forth, properlyapplied, will correct the errorsof Aristotelianand
Cartesianscience and open up new avenues of research.But then the fact, as
he sees it, that metaphysics operates as a corrective and inspiration for
science, points to the soundness of the metaphysics itself; and this, for
Leibniz, is a metaphysics of monads.
Then, in a ratherKantianway (or rather,prefiguringwhat Kant does in a
ratherLeibnizian way), he sets out a venerable metaphysical antinomy and
explains how he harmonizes the opposition. "Formalistslike the Platonists
and the Aristotelians are right to look for the source of things in final and
formal causes." He hastens to add,
But they are wrong to neglect efficient and materialcauses, and to go
on to conclude, as does Henry More in England and certain other
Platonists,that there are phenomenathat can't be explainedmechanically. But on the other hand, the Materialists,or those who espouse
the mechanical philosophy, are wrong to reject all metaphysical
considerations, and to wish to explain everything by that which
depends on the imagination.38
"Enfin le Mechanisme prevalut et me porta a m'appliquer aux Mathematiques"
(GP, III, 606).
36
"Mais quandje cherchay les dernieres raisons du Mechanisme et des loix memes du
mouvement, je fus tout surpris de voir qu'il etoit impossible de les trouver dans les
Mathematiques, et qu'il falloit retourner a la Metaphysique" (ibid.).
37 "... que les Monades, ou les substances simples, sont les seules veritables substances, et que les choses materielles ne sont que des phenomenes, mais bien fondes et bien
lies"(ibid.).
38 "Les Formalistes, comme les Platoniciens et les Aristoteliciens ont raison de
chercher la source des choses dans les causes finales et formelles. Mais ils ont tort de
35

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Plato and Leibniz

269

And how does Leibniz reconcile the antinomy?"Everythingtakes place both


mechanically and metaphysically at the same time in the phenomena of
nature,althoughthe source of mechanics is in metaphysics."39Thus Leibniz,
like Plato, wishes to subordinatematerialismto a more complete and "metaphysical"philosophy and at the same time to preserveit as an incompletebut
indispensablemoment in that philosophy.
A good example of the correction,extension, and supportthat metaphysics may lend to science is given in the "TentamenAnagogicum," subtitled
"Essay Anagogique dans la recherchedes causes." At the outset of this essay
Leibniz invokes Plato, and attacks scientists who are merely materialists,
"who don't admit any universal cause, like those ancient thinkers who saw
nothing in the universe besides the collision of atoms; this may seem
plausible to those in whom the faculty of the imaginationpredominates,since
they believe they need employ nothingmore than the principlesof mathematics."40 The laws of motion cannot be explained, Leibniz asserts, by purely
geometrical principles; rather, they depend upon "sublimerprinciples, that
reveal the wisdom of the authorin the order and perfection of the work."4'
To illustrate his point Leibniz describes an application of one of these
"sublime principles,"the principle of perfection, to optics. He observes that
the principle of perfection permeates the created world at all levels, so that
everythingin natureis constructedaccordingto a method of optimal form, or
so as to be the solution to a maximum/ minimum problem. Where mathematics offers an infinite numberof solutions for a certain construction,the
principle of perfection allows one to choose a certain unique solution with
special propertiesof maximalityor minimality.For Leibniz this choice is not
strictly mathematical,for mathematics only provides the spectrum of possible choices; the choice of one optimal form dependsupon the consideration
of ends and of the perfection of the whole: it is architectonic.
The example he gives in detail is an extension of Snell's law of the
equality of the angles of incidence and of refractionof light rays from the
case of a flat reflecting surface to cases of curved reflecting surfaces. He
negligerles efficienteset les materielles,et d'en inferer,commefaisoitM. HenriMorusen
Angleterre, et quelques autres Platoniciens, qu'il y a des phenomenes qui ne peuvent etre
expliques mechaniquement. Mais de l'autre cote les Materialistes, ou ceux qui s'attachent
uniquement a la Philosophie Mechanique, ont tort de rejetter les considerations
Metaphysiques, et de vouloir tout expliquer par ce qui depend de l'imagination" (GP, III,

607).
39"Quetout se fait mechaniquement
en meme temps dans les
et metaphysiquement
phenomenesde la nature,mais que la sourcede la Mecaniqueest dansla Metaphysique"
(ibid.).
40 "...
qui n'ont admis aucunecause universelle,comme ces anciensqui ne reconnoissentdansl'universque le concoursdes corpuscules,ce qui paroistplausibleaux esprits
ou la faculteimaginativepredomine,parcequ'ils croyentde n'avoira employerque des
principesde mathematique"
(GP, VII, 271).
41 "...
principesplus sublimes,qui marquentla sagessede l'auteurdansl'ordreet dans
la perfectionde l'ouvrage"(GP, VII, 272).

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Emily Grosholz

identifies the curve with the collection of its tangentsat every point, treatsthe
case as the solution to a maximum/ minimum problem, and then similarly
takes up the question of the refractionof light rays by both flat and curved
surfaces. His demonstrationsallow him at once to show the generalizing
power of his approachand to reveal how far physics goes beyond geometry.
Geometryalone would have permittedan infinity of paths for the light ray in
any of the given cases, as long as they were logically possible; only a
metaphysical physics provides the extra constraintthat explains its unique
path. In creatingthe world God is concernednot merely with logical consistency but with the perfection of the whole. "Geometrical determinations
entail an absolute necessity, whose contrary implies a contradiction;but
architectonicdeterminationsentail only a necessity of choice, whose contrary
implies imperfection."42
For Leibniz the laws of motion cannot obey a merely geometricalnecessity because that suppositionleads to a physics incorrectboth empiricallyand
rationally, that is, a physics incorrectboth inductively (because it does not
yield properexperimentallaws of motion) and deductively (because it is not
consistent with the first principles which every rationalbeing must accept).
Leibniz derives the principle of sufficient reason and other high level first
principles of physics (like the principle of perfection, which is the principle
of sufficient reason in its applicationto the createdworld) from the indemonstrable first principle, the principle of contradictionor, looked at another
way, the principle of identity. That principle is simply the presuppositionof
all rational discourse.43The laws of motion, far from arising from matter
considered as an independentsubstance and its geometric laws, have their
foundationin the perceptionsof simple substances,of monads, and so in the
immaterial:they arise from the considerationof final causes and the harmony
(convenance) of things. For all true action is perception.
V. In his next reply to Remond (Vienna, 14 March 1714) Leibniz wishes
for a new De rerumnatura written by someone
just as much poet as philosopher, and above all Platonist philosopher, who might give us a poem on the principles of things, which
would infinitely surpass what has been given us by Lucretius and
other philosophical poets, not being endowed with sufficiently elevated sentiments; whereas those of Plato are more sublime and

42
"Les determinations
Geometriques importent une necessite absolue, dont le contraire implique contradiction, mais les Architectoniques n'importent qu'une necessite de
choix, dont le contraire importe imperfection" (GP, VII, 278).
43 G. W. Leibniz, De summa rerum: Metaphysical Papers 1675-1676 (New Haven,
1992), intro. by G. H. R. Parkinson, xx, xxii-xxvii, xl-xliv.

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271

don't lack anything in the way of solidity, so that, insofar as I


understand things, his hyperbole is very often confirmed.44
I would suggest that Leibniz himself had already written the work he wished
for. The essay "On the Ultimate Origination of Things" ("De rerum
originatione radicali"), dated 23 November 1697,45 is like a prose poem
about the origin of the world, an abstract, rigorously argued myth that ends
with some of the most beautiful lines Leibniz ever wrote:
Thus already many substances
have arrived at great perfection,
although, given the infinite divisibility
of the continuum,
there are always other parts asleep
in the abyss of things,
to
be aroused, to be advanced
yet
to better and greater things,
as one might say, to better cultivation.
Thus progress never comes to a conclusion.46
In an essay entitled "Leibniz and the Timaeus" Paul Schrecker argues that
"De rerum originatione radicali" is Leibniz's attempt to cast at least one
piece of Plato's work into systematic form, and that piece is the central idea
of the Timaeus. "The problem discussed is ... clearly that which constitutes
the most important and timeless part of the Timaeus, namely, the relationship
of intelligence and necessity, final and efficient causes, or, as Leibniz also
defined the antagonism, architectonic and mathematical, respectively, metaphysical principles."47
The essay opens with the argument that if the succession of states of the
world were all that exists, it would be a great Fact inconsistent with the
principle of sufficient reason. Since Leibniz derives the principle of sufficient

44"... egalement Poete et Philosophe, et sur tout Philosophe Platonicien, [qui] pourroit
nous donner un poeme sur les principes des choses, qui passeroit infiniment ce que
Lucrece, et d'autres poetes philosophes nous ont donn6, n'ayant point eu des sentimens
asses eleves, au lieu que ceux de Platon sont plus sublimes, et ne laissent point d'avoir du
solide; de sorte que de la maniere que je prends les choses, encor ses hyperboles se verifient
bien souvent" (GP, III, 611).
45 GP, III, 302-8; translatedin G. W.Leibniz, Philosophical Essays, tr. R. Ariew and D.
Garber (Indianapolis, 1989), 149-55.
46 "Etsi multae jam substantiae ad magnam perfectionem pervenerint, / ob divisibilitatem tamen continui in infinitum, / semper in abysso rerum superesse partes sopitas /
adhuc excitandas et ad majus meliusque / et ut verbo dicam, ad meliorem cultum
provehendas. / Nec proinde umquam ad Terminum progressus perveniri."
47 P. Schrecker, "Leibniz and the Timaeus," The Review
of Metaphysics, 4 (1951),
495-505.

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Emily Grosholz

reason from the principle of contradiction, which is the necessary condition


for the possibility of thought, the falsification of those two principles is
literally unthinkable. "Therefore," he concludes, "the reasons for the world
lie hidden in something extramundane."48 That something extramundane is
God, but postulating the existence of God as the absolute necessity that
grounds the physical necessity of the chain of states of the world, generates in
turn the philosophical problem of "how temporal, contingent, or physical
truths arise from eternal, essential or metaphysical truths."49
Leibniz's solution to this problem is a conceptual cosmogony governed
the
by
principle of perfection.
Since something rather than nothing exists, there is a certain urge for
existence or (so to speak) a straining toward existence in possible
things or in possibility or essence itself; in a word, essence in and of
itself strives for existence. Furthermore, it follows from this that all
possibles, that is, everything that expresses essence or possible reality, strive with equal right for existence in proportion to the amount
of essence or reality or the degree of perfection they contain, for
perfection is nothing but the amount of essence.50
The possibles are ontologically located as ideas in the mind of God before
creation; their striving for existence in proportion to their degree of perfection is God's determination of a maximum, his creation of the most perfect of
all possible worlds. On the assumptions that being prevails over non-being
and that what exists is thinkable, Leibniz concludes that what exists is
governed by the principle of perfection (the principle of sufficient reason
applied to creation) or that "there would be as much as there possibly can be,
given the capacity of time and space (that is, the capacity of the order of
possible existence.)"51
Otherwise stated, the principle of perfection explains how the extramundane can ground and generate the mundane. Leibniz writes in summary:
"And just as possibility is the principle of essence, so perfection or degree of
essence (in virtue of which there are many compossibles) is the principle of
existence."52 Here, I would argue, the principia correspond to Plato's archai:
possibility is the principium of essence, and perfection or essence is the
principium of existence. The thinkable, the logically possible, the spectrum
of mathematical constructions, does not have enough shape; it must be
shaped by selection and determination through the benevolent agency of God
48

GP, III, 303.


Ibid.
50GP,
VII, 303.

49

51 GP, VII, 304.


52

"Et ut possibilitas est principium Essentiae, ita perfectio seu Essentiae gradus (per
quem plurima sunt compossibilia) principium existentiae" (ibid.).

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Plato and Leibniz

273

acting in accordance with the principle of perfection. The God of Plato's


Timaeus shapes matterby mathematicsand begins the creation of the world
with the mathematicals;the God of Leibniz shapes mathematicalpossibility
by metaphysics,by the considerationof perfection,and begins the creationof
the world with the maximum of essence.
In both cases the effect of the divine shaping is to make a science of
physics possible. Yet the vocabularyused by Leibniz diverges significantly
from that of Plato in a way that I see as linked with his concern with human
subjectivity. In the Timaeus the archai constitute physical objects. This
association tends to hypostatize and to make substance-like, the mathematicals, ratherthan to make physical objects "intentionalobjects," that is,
to present them as constitutedby thought.The ambiguityin the word archai
draws attention to the fact that the Timaeus is a written work about the
constitution of the physical world; the analogy between Plato's Timaeus
writing the dialogue and Timaeus's God building the world does not question
the boundarybetween thoughts and things.
By contrast,in Leibniz's essay the things discussed in his cosmogony are
things that are possible in virtue of being thinkable by God and actual in
virtue of being chosen by God. They are constituedby divine intentionality.
The ambiguity in the word principia is inherentin the things themselves, so
that the way they exist makes it impossible to distinguish thoughts and
things. The analogy between Leibniz's God creatingthe world and Leibniz's
writing the essays that make physics possible is thus much more intimate.
What separates the two relata of the analogy is the difference not between
thought and thing but between the infinite and the finite. As Leibniz says in
the "Principlesof Nature and Grace, based on Reason,"
[The rational soul] is not only a mirror of the universe of created
things, but also an image of the divinity. The mind not only has a
perception of God's works, but it is even capable of producing
something that resembles them, although on a small scale ... in

discovering the sciences according to which God has regulated


things (by weight, measure,number,etc.), it imitates in its realm and
in the small world in which it is allowed to work, what God does in
the large world.53
At the beginning of his book on Leibniz and Spinoza, Elhanon Yakira
argues that to understandLeibniz's conception of human freedom, one must
examine carefully his doctrine of divine freedom. Leibniz's theology is in a
sense an elaborate thought experiment in which he works out his most
importantinsights about humanity.54The same point might be argued for
53

GP, VI, 598-606.


Elhanan Yakira, Contrainte, necessite, choix: La metaphysique de la liberte chez
Spinoza et chez Leibniz (Zurich, 1989), especially chapters IX and X.
54

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Emily Grosholz

274

Leibniz's account of the relationbetween humanknowers and the things they


know. A significant parallel exists between the reductio ad absurdumargument made in "Tentamenanagogicum"and that made at the beginning of
"De rerumoriginationeradicali."Just as we must suppose God with respect
to the constitution and explanation of the world, or risk violating the very
conditions of intelligibility, so we must suppose minds with respect to the
constitutionand explanationof materialobjects in the world.
VI. The Beilage to Leibniz's next letter to Remond (Vienna, July 1714),
rehearseshis argumentsthat substancesare monads;that materialobjects are
mere assemblages, phenomenawhose unity is mind-dependent,and that the
laws of motion also have their foundation in the perceptions of monads. It
ends with a reprise of the extraordinarymetaphor of the monad as living
mirror.This metaphordoes not just give a more correctaccount of what there
is in the world; it points to the true account of the world that a monad enacts
by living in the world, as an embodied being, as a scientist-philosopherwho
constructsways of understanding,as a moral agent who converses with and
imitates God and lives in His presence.
If the readerimagines herself in the point of view of such a monad or if,
more precisely, she comes to realize that she is in fact such a monad, then she
will see that she knows more than facts and their experimentallinks. For she
must see as well that she also knows the necessity of eternal truths,understands the reasons for facts, imitates the divine Architect in her making, and
recognizes God as her interlocutor.(Whoever reflects inwardly,as Plato said
in a variety of ways, discovers the eternal already written in his heart and
mind. This is a good instance of the affinity between Leibniz and Plato;
indeed, in many passages Leibniz recalls with approval Plato's doctrine of
reminiscence.) The readerwill also discover, though this is a restatementof
the fact that she mirrorsGod, that the world is presentto her awarenessin its
entirety. That there can be no dividing consciousness and no dividing reality
are two sides of the same coin. "This agreement arises from the preestablished harmonyamong these substances,because each simple substance is a
mirrorof the same universe, each as enduringand ample as the universe."55
It is beside the point, I believe, to spend time arguing whether, on the
basis of his doctrine of monads, Leibniz is a dualist or a monist. That
argumentpresupposesthat Leibniz is doing what a Greek philosopherwould
do. Greek cosmology, of which the Timaeus is a good mythical/scientific/
philosophical example, makes a reflective inventory of the world, in which
people (and triangles) are found side by side with plants, animals, and gods.
To arguewhetherLeibniz is a dualist or monist is to view him as makingsuch

55

"Ce consentement vient de l'Harmonie preetablie dans ces substances, parceque


chaque substance simple est un miroir du meme Univers, aussi durable et aussi ample que
luy" (GP, III, 623).

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Plato and Leibniz

275

an inventory and then to ask whether he includes both material objects and
souls, orjust souls, in his inventory.But if one understandsLeibniz as raising
the essentially modem issue of subjectivity, then his account of the world
must be more than an inventory.
Leibniz's philosophicalconcern in his theory of monads is to addresstwo
conversely related questions. The first is how man as a thinking creature
relates to the world in which he lives. This question leads one to think about
the strange way in which a human being, conscious and self-consciously
reflective, is in the world. The "Monadology,"the "Principlesof Nature and
Grace," and the other essays discussed above, address this question. A
monad is a creaturethat is at once awareof the whole world and able to make
progress in its awareness of the world by looking back upon itself and its
location where the world is present to it and by transcendingits location via
an awarenessof absolute necessities. Thus the monad is ambiguouslylocated
in space and time and so has a perspective, or point of view, which is both
metaphorical(because the world is present in its totality to the monad and
because the monad knows truths that are ideal and transcend the world
altogether)and literal (because the monad is finite).56
The second question is what the world must be like to contain thinking
creatures. In this question the emphasis is on the world rather than the
thinking creatures, but since their presence in the world is central to the
question, the answerto the question cannot be anotherinventory.It must be a
science that is metaphysical,and that implicates the reader(or writer) as the
agent of the thinking, and theory-construction,and in a sense the worldconstruction,requiredto answer the question.
In the letter to Remond (11 February1715) Leibniz connects his claim
that metaphysics must supersede and correct materialist physics with his
doctrineof monads. As Daniel Garbermakes especially clear, to call material
objects phenomena is to say that their unity is mind-dependent;thus, one
cannot study the phenomena of physics without paying attention to the
conditions which their knowability by minds (which is in some sense their
constitutionby minds) imposes on them, and on physics.57
Since absolute reality pertains only to the monads and their perceptions, those perceptions must be well-regulated, that is, the rules of
mutual conformity must be observed therein, like the one which
decrees that the effect may not be greater than its cause. If matter
were a substance, as the vulgar believe, it would never (without a
miracle) observe the rules of mutualconformity;indeed, left to itself,
56

See F. Kaulbach, "Subjektivitat,Fundamentder Erkenntnis, und lebendiger Spiegel


bei Leibniz," Zeitschrift fur philosophische Forschung, xx/3-4, 471-95.
57 D. Garber, "Leibniz and the Foundations of Physics: The Middle Years," The
Natural Philosophy of Leibniz, eds. K. Okruhlik and J. Brown (Dordrecht, 1985), 27-130,
especially section II.

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276

Emily Grosholz
it would observe certain brute laws dependent upon mathematical
necessity which are very far from experience.58

If the world is as it must be to be known by monads, it must obey certain laws


that Leibniz does not hesitate to call metaphysical.
In a letter written a few months later (22 June 1715), Leibniz tells Remond that his Dynamique is in large part the foundation of his whole system
and in explaining why, once again invokes Plato.
Because here one can come to understand the difference between
those truths whose necessity is brute and geometric, and those truths
which have their source in mutual conformity and final causes. It's
like a commentary on the beautiful passage in Plato's Phaedo, which
I cited somewhere in a journal; it says that if one assumes that an
Intelligence created all things, one must look for their source in final
causes. Socrates reproaches Anaxagoras for first saying that an Intelligence, nous, created all things, and then going on to talk about only
the collision of atoms, without appealing to that Intelligence and
without revealing the ends or aims of things.59
When Leibniz cites Plato as saying that an Intelligence produced all
things, he means not just that God (or Plato's demiurge) created the world,
though he does intend that. He also means that the objects of physics are
productions of the human mind in so far as their unity depends upon their
being perceived. Their unity is mind-dependent; not as existents, but as
objects of knowledge, material objects depend on the human mind, just as by
analogy the essential reality of possible things, and the perfection of actual
things, depend upon the mind of God.
Pennsylvania State University.

58 "Commela realiteabsoluen'est
que dans les monadeset leur perceptions,il faut
ces
bien
que
perceptionssoyent
reglees, c'est a dire, que les regles de convenances'y
observent,commeest elle qui ordonneque l'effect ne doit point surpassersa cause. Si la
matiereestoit une substance,comme on la concoit vulgairement,elle ne pourroitpoint
(sansmiracle)observerles reglesde la convenance,et laisseea elle-meme,elle observeroit
absolumenteloigneesde
certainesloix brutes,dependantesd'une necessitemathematique,
l'experience"(GP, III, 636).
59 "Parce
qu'on y apprendla differenceentreles veritesdont la necessiteest bruteet
et
geometrique, entreles veritesqui ont leursourcedansla convenanceet dansles finales.
Et c'est commeun Commentaire
sur ce beaupassagedu Phaedonde Platon,quej'ay cite
quelquepartdansun Journal,qu'ensupposantqu'uneIntelligenceproduittouteschoses,il
fauttrouverleursourcesdansles causesfinales. Socratey blameAnaxagore,qui avoit dit
qu'une Intelligencenous avoit produitles choses, et apres cela n'avoit parle que du
concoursdes corpuscules,sans employercette Intelligenceet sans marquerles fins des
choses"(GP, III, 645).

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