Leibniz on Death

A friend recently asked me about Leibniz’s position on death. ​​Leibniz is very consistent on this question in his mature metaphysics (from the 1686 Discourse onward). Essentially, he denies death, affirming the immortality of the soul. In part, this is due to his commitment to the substantiality of minds or monads: monads must be individual substances, because there is unity in formed matter, but matter has no principle of unity in itself; and substances are by definition imperishable. (He even says at some point: it’s not so weird to insist that monads are indestructible, with no beginning or end; it’s no different, after all, from what the Gassendists say about their atoms.)

Each soul/mind/monad is characterized — this is literally its principium individuationis — by a proportion of clarity-distinctness and obscurity with regard to the expression or perception of the actual infinity of the world. In other words, you and I both perceive-express the same whole, but we express different parts of it with different degrees of clarity, and the rest only obscurely (and obscurity also admits of degrees). What we call death is when that ratio skews almost entirely in favor of the obscure, or, we might say, when the ratio of clear to obscure perceptions itself becomes infinitesimally small.

I like to imagine each soul as represented by a downward facing parabola; the height of the curve indicates the level of activity or freedom of the soul, since it clearly expresses everything beneath it. And freedom is essentially a function of the degree of understanding or intelligence, i.e., how much is clearly perceived. As we move right the y-value of the curve approaches -∞, or what is the same, the ratio of obscure perception (above the curve) to clear perception (beneath the curve) approaches ∞. And for the same reasons the level of understanding and freedom of the mind becomes infinitesimally small, as its confusion becomes infinite and it becomes infinitely passive. This process is indexed to the dissolution of the soul’s body, and we call it death. But the soul never finally goes out of existence, and it seems to follow that there is no kind of afterlife or otherworld.


That said, it’s not especially obvious how to square this conception with his Christological proclamations about the ‘great future’ of the City of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, which he says we know of not through reason but through revelation. Sometimes his language suggests that this world just is the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the moral order of grace, with its just punishments and rewards, is a fait accompli, whether we recognize it or not; at other times it’s hard not to think he has in mind a more classical notion of a Christian afterlife, even though he is quite explicit in arguing that the soul is inseparable from the body.

Here are some relevant passages.

“What becomes of the souls or forms at the death of the animal or at the destruction of the individual unit of organized substance? This question is the more difficult, insasmuch as it hardly seems reasonable that souls should remain, useless in a chaos of confused matter. This led me at length to conclude that there is only one reasonable view to take — that of the conservation not only of the soul but also of the animal itself and its organic machine, even though the destruction of its grosser parts may have reduced this machine to a size so small that it escapes our senses just as it did before birth. Moreover, no one can mark exactly the true time of death, which may for a long time be taken to be a simple suspension of observable actions and in the last analysis is never anything but this in the simple animals. Witness the resuscitation of flies which have been drowned and then buried under powdered chalk, and a number of similar examples which suffice to show that there would be other resuscitations, in cases much further gone, if men were in a position to restore the mechanism. … It is natural, then, that animals which have always been living and organized (as people of great penetration are beginning to recognize) will also always remain so. And since an animal has thus no first birth or enitrely new generation, it follows that there will be no final extinction or complete death, in a strict metaphysical sense, and that as a result, there is no transmigration of souls but only a transformation of the same animal, as its organs are differently folded and more or less developed.” (New System on the Communication of Substances §7)

Leibniz constantly reiterates that ‘the Cartesians’ (he also means to implicate the occasionalists) don’t distinguish between perception and apperception, and so don’t realize that there are perceptions of which one is unaware. This “led them into the popular confusion of a long stupor with death in a rigorous sense, which made them support the Scholastic prejudice that souls are entirely separate, and even confirmed some ill-balanced minds in a belief in the mortality of the soul.” (Monadology §14)

“When there is a large multitude of small perceptions with nothing to distinguish them, we are stupefied, as when we turn continuously in the same direction several times, so that a dizziness overcomes us and we grow faint and can distinguish nothing. Death can produce this state in animals for a time.” (M §21)

“The soul only changes its body little by little and by degrees, so that it is never deprived of all its organs at once; there is often metamorphosis in animals but never metempsychosis or the transmigration of souls. Neither are there entirely separated souls or higher spirits without bodies.” (M §72)

“It is because of this, too, that there is never complete generation, or, strictly speaking, perfect death, consisting in the separation of the soul. What we call generation is a development and an increase, just as what we call death is an envelopment and a diminution.” (M §73)

“These same Cartesians think that only spirits are monads and that there is no soul in beasts, still less other principles of life. And after having defied the everyday opinion of men too much in denying that beasts have feeling, they adjusted their views too far to popular prejudices, on the other hand, when they confused a long stupor coming from a great confusion of perceptions with death in the rigorous sense, in which all perception would cease. This has confirmed the poorly grounded opinion that certain souls are destroyed and has supported the pernicious view of certain so-called free-thinkers who have denied the immortality of our souls.” (Principles of Nature and Grace §4)

“Just as animals in general are not completely born in conception or generation, neither do they completely perish in what we call death, for it is reasonable that what has no natural beginning also has no end within the order of nature. Thus, abandoning their masks or their rags, they merely return, but to a finer stage, on which, however, they can be as sensitive and as well-ordered as on the larger one. And what has been said about grosser animals takes place also in the generation and death of spermatic animals themselves, that is, they are enlargements of other smaller spermatic animals, in proportion to which they can be considered large, for everything in nature proceeds to infinity. Not only souls, therefore, but animals as well, cannot be generated or perish; they are only developed, enveloped, reclothed, stripped, transformed. Souls never leave the whole of their bodies and do not pass from one body to another entirely new to them.” (PNG §6)


Malebranche’s critique of Aristotelian physics

The Search After Truth has many virtues—including scathing, robust critiques of Aristotelian/scholastic/medieval approaches to physics and natural phenomena—but it really can’t be said that brevity and concision are among them. The following is a paragraph-by-paragraph summary of Book Six, Part Two, Chapter Three.

The general rule concerning the subject of our studies. That the school philosophers do not observe it, which is the cause of several errors in physics.

[1] ‘We must reason only on the basis of clear ideas.’ Hence start with and dwell on what is maximally simple before proceeding to anything complex, and do so only on the basis of the former.
[2] Yeah, sure, you say—this may even strike you as obvious. But maybe you’ll be surprised to hear that almost nobody (read: the scholastics) actually follows this rule.
[3] Aristotle is the absolute master in this regard. (Malebranche says, words dripping with scorn, that he ‘justly deserves the status of Prince.’) Most of his ‘concepts’ are actually just vague terms that, because they are equivocal, don’t clearly and distinctly represent anything. The Physics is the worst: it says nothing, means nothing. There will turn out to be two kinds of equivocal terms to be distinguished.
[4] The first are equivocal is because the terms involved ‘arouse only sensible ideas’—i.e., they refer to sensation. Doing any work on their basis leads invariably to error.
[5] NB some equivocal terms aren’t really a problem: nobody mistakes the constellation for the animal when diagnosing an allergic reaction to fish. But ‘terms of sensible ideas’ are equivocal in much sneakier ways.
[6] So: ‘fire is hot’ in the scholastic mouth means ‘fire contains what I feel when I am warm’; ‘grass is green’ means ‘grass has on it the colors I believe I see there’. Thus they confuse modes of bodies with those of minds.
[7] Descartes teaches us to make the proper distinction here. If ‘heat’ is ‘the movement of insensible parts of bodies’, then the fire is hot. But if ‘heat’ is ‘what I feel near fire’, then the fire is not hot—rather, I am. Of course some people think that what they sense is the same thing that is in the object. But then everything falls apart, and you’ll never make your way back to clarity. Here’s why.
[8] First. Things feel differently to different people, and even to the same person at different times. You think this is bitter, I think it’s sweet—how can bitterness and sweetness both be in the same thing (at the same time and in the same way)? (My new favorite example of this, because maximally tragic, is the taste of cilantro.) This room seems hot to me because I’ve just come in out of the cold, but also cold when I’ve just gotten out of a hot shower—how can it itself be both hot and cold? Classic paradoxes of sensate becoming.
[9] Second. We abstract the sensation confusedly. Paper, sugar, and salt are all ‘white’. Is it the same ‘whiteness’ in each thing? Then its universality suggests that it is ‘in us’, and yet it must be ‘in the thing’ if our determination of that thing is to be valid.
[10] Third. Some nearly identical bodily qualities cause nearly opposite sensations; some radically different bodily qualities cause nearly identical sensations. The difference between tickling and torture has got to be one only of degree. Directly identifying the quality in itself and for us leaves us without a way to resolve this sort of problem.
[11] So people judge sensible qualities on the basis of sensations; then they determine objects based on these judgments of sensible qualities based on sensations. How could this not be a mess? Wheat and flour are determined to be essentially different because the sensations we have of them are quite different. But flour is just ground wheat. And so on.
[12] Upshot is that ‘terms for sensible ideas are completely useless for the distinct proposal and clear resolution of questions, i.e., for the discovery of truth.’ But Aristotle and the Aristotelians propose their questions and try to resolve them precisely in and through using just these kinds of equivocal terms.
[13] This approach has (by the 1600s) congealed into a kind of philosophical common sense. Ask the Aristotelian whether water is moist or fire is hot; they’ll answer immediately, having consulted nothing but ‘the impressions these objects have made on their senses, or those which their reading has left on their memory. They will not see that these terms are equivocal.’ M says: this common sense leads them to multiply distinctions that confuse things, and leave admixed the things that ought to be distinguished.
[14] Now if we subtract everything based on such equivocations, most of Aristotle and the scholastics falls away. But the same isn’t true of Descartes, who ‘explains the principle effects of nature in a clear, obvious, and often demonstrative manner using the only ideas that are distinct, i.e., those of extension, figure, and motion, the principle effects of nature.’
[15] So much for terms that are equivocal because they have to do with sensation. There is another category of equivocal term, which have to do with logic. Malebranche’s enumeration shows these to be transcendentals: ‘genus, species, act, potency, nature, form, faculties, qualities, cause in itself, and accidental cause.’ The Aristotelians don’t even realize that these words refer to nothing real. Worse, and this gets to the real heart of the problem: they have no real explanatory power. Hence ask the scholastic how and why we digest food, and they’ll invoke our ‘digestive faculty’.
[16] Those who go down this route are typically not wrong—because they’re taking no chances, since there’s nothing at stake in building propositions out of nothing-terms.
[17] ‘Fire heats, dries, hardens, and softens because it has the faculty to produce these effects.’ Bread nourishes because it has the nutritive quality. You can’t go wrong! But also, you’re not saying anything; you’re turning the question directly into the answer. Why/how does x do y? Because x has the y quality. ‘These or similar ways of speaking are not false: it is just that in effect they mean nothing. These vague and indeterminate ideas do not involve one in error, but they are completely useless for discovering truth.’
[18] We can see how useless this sort of claim is when we try to obtain new knowledge with one. Say we grant a substantial form of fire that involves a host of faculties like heating. Will exposure to fire lead to hardening or softening a given object? There’s no necessary connection if the question is posed in this way: fire hardens mud, but softens wax. Experience gives the answer, but that experience also has nothing to do with any such substantial form or causal faculties.
[19] Contrast this with the Cartesian claim that extended bodies are modified by the rates of movement and the organization of the particles that constitute them. For there is a connection between the hardness/softness of mud or wax, and the heat of fire—hardness, softness, and heat are all understood in terms of particulate velocity, and thus can be meaningfully related. This means that the knowledge involved in understanding fire in this way has predictive value (e.g., I can predict that exposure to fire will soften wax and harden mud), whereas there is nothing of the sort in Aristotelian-scholastic positing a ‘dilating faculty’ or ‘hardening faculty’.
[20] This is what happens when you posit substantial forms in your reckoning with natural phenomena. And there’s no stopping point: you’ll posit a substantial form or causative faculty for every sensation you receive. This is like throwing Ockham off a thousand cliffs (just one would have been sufficient).
[21] This gets us back to the rule: reason only on the basis of simple, clear ideas. ‘If we ask the philosophers what sort of entity is fire’s illuminating faculty, they will answer only that it is the being that causes fire to be capable of producing light. So their idea of this faculty is no different from the general idea of cause and the confused idea of the effect they see.’ There just are no clear ideas to be found here. Physics demands better.

What is an axiom?

1. In De Corpore, Hobbes writes: ‘A primary proposition is one in which the predicate is a name which explains the subject by means of a number of names.’ The example immediately given is the primary proposition: ‘A human is a rational, animated body’, which progressively reveals multiple determinations or aspects of the single given subject, in this case a human. This, Hobbes tells us, is what it is to be a definition, and the sense of such claims constitute truths that are indemonstrable in principle. He goes on: ‘There are some who add certain other propositions, which they call “primary” or “principles”, namely axioms or common notions. However, they are not really principles, because they can be proved (even if their self-evidence means that they do not need to be proved).’ (Hobbes, De Corpore, §3.9) And yet it is not clear how an axiom or common notion would be proven, since they are neither propositions nor definitions. Continue reading “What is an axiom?”

Place and Expression

This is a response I gave to a paper entitled ‘Leibniz on Place’ by Jen Nguyen at DePaul’s philosophy graduate conference yesterday, 2.11.2017.

Nguyen’s paper raises a fascinating series of issues in the context of Leibniz’s metaphysics, which to my mind come down to this central question: where is a place? In some ways, as she notes, Leibniz’s view on place is commonsensical enough: a place will turn out to be a point of view on the world; this is its intrinsic determination, as opposed to the purely extrinsic or formal definition, according to which a place is a set of coordinates in abstract three-dimensional space. And if this squares with common sense, it’s due to a strange sort of phenomenological intuition, rather like how, to borrow from Wilfrid Sellars’ terminology, we sense an incompleteness in the ‘scientific image’ of the world and supplement it with the ‘manifest image’. We want to say: no, this place, this room, is not defined by the amount of space, the quantitative distance between the walls, the placement of the windows, the positions of these tables and chairs; rather it is a matter of the way we perceive it, what it opens up for us, how we are determined within it, a question of perspective and orientation, affect and delimitation: it is how we express it. Continue reading “Place and Expression”