Leibniz New Essay On Human Understanding

556 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY ~4:4 OCTOBER 1986 Nicholas Jolley. Leibniz and Locke. A Study of the "New Essayson Human Understanding." New York: Oxford University Press, The Clarendon Press, t984. Pp. 215. $34.95From our perspective it is tempting to view the conflict between the philosophies of Locke and Leibniz as embodied in the New Essays on Human Understanding as an epistemologicai one. It is Jolley's central contention that this is not so. Rather, the major difference is metaphysical. It lies in the fact that the book is "defending the idea of a simple immaterial and naturally immortal soul" (7)- Leibniz, as Berkeley. argues that reality is ultimately spiritual whereas Locke concedes too much to the new science which threatened to introduce a new materialism. The central themes of Leibniz's critique of Ix)cke are often taken to be founded on his remark that "Nothing is in the understanding which was not previously in the senses, except the understanding itself." But Jolley emphasizes the way l.~ibniz's words continue. In these Locke is taken to task because he "alsoundermines the immaterial nature of the soul. He inclined to the Socinians... whose philosophy of God and mind was always mean" (quoted on 1~). It is the charge of Socinianism that is examined in Chapter ~. Joltey does not wish to maintain that the New Essays is primarily an anti-Socinian tract but the current standing of Socinianism and Leibniz's strong opposition are very much to the fore in the context of the work, with special reference to the Socinian denial of God's foreknowledge and the natural immortality of the soul. The Socinians, Leibniz complained , have debased our minds to the level of matter. To appreciate the nature of the gap between Locke and Leibniz we must remember , as Jolley rightly emphasizes, that Locke's doubts about the immaterial nature of the mind arise not because Locke thought that there is good argument for the materialist position. Rather it is because we lack knowledge of the essential nature of the soul that Locke could see no conclusive argument for the immaterialist one. Locke's rejection of Cartesian claims to knowledge of essence lead him to an agnosticism about the mind which Leibniz interprets as a commitment to a positive metaphysics which is almost certainly not to be found there. Is Leibniz, then, unfair to Locke right from the outset? From Leibniz's viewpoint the answer must be "not at all." Locke's failure to grasp that we can indeed know the essence of mind is itself enough to set him on the downward path to materialism. It looks as though Leibniz was committed to the position that to admit to the possibility of thinking matter was tantamount to admitting its necessity. As Jolley sees it, and the argument is persuasive, Leibniz takes Locke's epistemological enquiry to be a blind for his real concern which is to insinuate a materialist metaphysics (2o). In Chapter 3, The English Background, Jolley gives us important insight into the extent of Leibniz's understanding of the debate generated in England not only over Locke's Essay but also by his other writings, especially TheReasonablenzss of Christianity. I_.eibniz was kept fully informed on matters by Thomas Burnett, including the fact that Locke was the author of the anonymously published Rtasonab/enzss. We must therefore see the New Essays as emerging from a picture of Locke's thought which BOOK REVIEWS 557 was much more comprehensive than the content might lead one to suppose. Added to this was the failure of Leibniz actually to make contact with I~cke who ignored his advances. This cannot be attributed solely to churlishness on Locke's side, for Leibniz 's paper criticizing his views which he received via Burnett in 1696 contained much dogma and little argument. In isolation from Leibniz's wider philosophy, Locke's response was not surprising: the paper appeared not to be of sufficient intellectual merit to warrant detailed reply. It is perhaps worth adding to Jolley's argument that if Locke had seen in Leibniz's words a comprehensive assault on his theology he might in any case...



208 LETTERS IN CANADA 1996 G.W. Leibniz. New Essays on Human Understanding. Second edition. Edited and translated by Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. cxix, 527. us $59.95 doth, us $21.95 paper One of the most useful distinctions by which we organize the history of philosophy is the one dividing rationalists from empiricists. It is remarkable that the seventeenth-century philosophers were so kind as to bisect themselves along lines of both doctrine and geography. The common-sense philosophers of the English world, basing their views on experimental science, the plain testimony of the senses, and the schooling of experience, stand in sturdy opposition to the effete Europeans, wandering in labyrinthinecoils ofpure thought, dreaming up the laws ofnature from armchairs. There is always a distressing amount oftruth in these caricatures ofhistory, but we know it cannot really be so neat; in fact the picture must in many ways be positively misleading. In 1690John Locke published the Essay ConcerningHuman Understanding, which is both the general manifesto and a detailed development of empiricist philosophy. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's New Essays on Human Understanding is an extensive, detailed, but also very wide ranging commentary on Locke's work. It was explicitly intended to elicit a reply from Locke and perhaps could have begun a grand engagement between empiricism and rationalism; between Britain and the Continent. The death of Locke (in 1704, at the age of seventy-two) erased this fascinating historical possibility, and Leibniz shelved the New Essays. It was finally published in 1765 (almost fifty years after Leibniz's death) but not translated into English until 1896, by Alfred Gideon Langley (an edition thatwasnever very widely available). Remnantand Bennett'sversion is the sole alternative, and since its-original publication in 1981 it has entirely superseded Langley's (thoughthis is no measure ofits merit). Remnant and Bennett's original edition was greeted with enthusiasm, but also with the inevitable host of scholarly quibbles and caveats regarding niceties of the translation. The reviews have been read and heeded, and this edition (published in the new CambridgeTexts in the History of Philosophy series) is clearly improved by a number of critically prompted alterations. It is worth repeating, after sixteen years, that Remnant and Bennett have provided a wonderful resource to students of philosophy. Though aimed straight at the classroom, where the New Essays is perfect for illuminating the philosophy of either Locke or Leibniz, or both, it is surprisingly pleasant to read and is characteristically full of all sorts of ideas, fascinating observations, and speculations going far beyond the central disputes between empiricism and rationalism. The errors of the traditional historical divide are evident: Leibniz is the one who favours, understands, and engages in empirical research. Leibniz is the one who is HUMANITIES 209 ' at the forefront of the scientific revolution, reshaping both physics and mathematics in ways undreamt of by Locke. The range of agreement and disagreement, which bears scant similarity to the party lines, also gives the lie to the old dichotomy. The New Essays presupposes much of Leibniz's philosophy and cannot serve as an introduction, but it adds much to our appreciation of that philosophy and reveals how Leibniz could apply it to questions from another's philosophical agenda. It is also delightful to see the scope and freedom of Leibniz's thought. He even gives us hints of our world; of the health sciences he says: 'this aspect of public policy will become almost the chiefconcern of those who govern.' Buthis vision is perhaps inaccurate, for he goes on to qualify that the concern for health will be 'second only to the concern for virtue'! Finally, I raise a small question about Leibniz. Though he was always interested in the emergingmathematical theories of probability andindeed contributed to them, did he ever tmderstand probability? In the New Essays he manages to state correctly the odds fC?r rolling a seven versus rolling a nine, but he is merely lucky. Leibniz is counting I arrangements' of the dice and not their permutations, as revealed by a later remark (in a letter) that one is equally likely to roll a twelve...



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