Leibniz’s theory of monads

Chris asked:

Leibniz’s monads. He describes them as having perception and appetition but defines these in terms of nonconsciousness. Thus one presumes that there are ‘bare’ monads of what we would call inorganic substances.He maintains these are still some kind of basic soul though he retains this term for those monads with the ‘higher’ faculties of consciousness, memory and rationality. Yet in monadology (sections 66–69) he describes a remarkable fractal view of the world in which ‘there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe’. Now this could refer to the purported ‘soul’ like properties of ‘inanimate’ monads but in the relevant sections his description is solely of ‘living’ things as we would understand the term.

67. Each portion of matter may be conceived as like a garden full of plants and like a pond full of fishes. But each branch of every plant,each member of every animal, each drop of its liquid parts is also some such garden or pond.

68. And though the earth and the air which are between the plants of the garden, or the water which is between the fish of the pond, be neither plant nor fish; yet they also contain plants and fishes, but mostly so minute as to be imperceptible to us.

I cannot find any clarification of the question. Did Leibniz accept the existence of what we would call inanimate monads or did his description of unconscious monads refer to vegetative monads for example?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The first and biggest problem about understanding Leibniz is to get a proper context. Some of your remarks suggest to me that you missed the point altogether, although I have to add at once that you’re not alone.

Par. 1 of the Monadology gives you an unambiguous clue. Monads are simple substances. Therefore they have no parts, are not divisible. There is no bargaining with this definition, accordingly you must resist thinking of them as things in any way whatever (cf. Par. 2-3).

You should now consider where in the world you find such monads? Exactly nowhere. Because individually they are nothings and don’t actually exist. Leibniz tells you, after all, that they ‘strive for existence’. Consequently they represents a potential for existence. In order to actualise this potential, they must aggregate. Monads can only exist as a plurality, more exactly: a collective.

They are not souls either. Your terms you have used, ‘basic souls’ and ‘inanimate monads’ are self-contradictions, as you should now see. Leibniz says quite plainly that you can think of them ‘like souls’ if you wish (having his Christian readers in mind, specifically Remond and the Prince of Savoy); but when he speaks of them philosophically, he calls them ‘entelechies’.

So what is this potential and how can it be actualised? Fundamentally a monad (aka entelechy) is a point of FORCE either passive or active. Its properties are appetition and perception which represent agency. These properties confer on it the perception of other monads as inert or striving entities, but necessarily ‘other’. The actualisation proceeds by monads with varying degrees of agency (from zero to full) combining and as a collective ‘mirroring’ the perceptions of all other monads. This mirroring can be conceived as the beginning of actual perception, depending on the quality of the collective as a whole. All collectives initially form secondary matter (mass); and now it depends on the preponderance of active or passive force whether such an aggregate forms material substances with minimal agency (e.g. rocks) or maximal agency (e.g. animal bodies). The former give off phenomena and are characterised by inertia (their agency is resistance), the latter turn into organic machines and require a highly developed ‘dominant monad’ to organise them as living existents.

This is probably very confusing, but if you read slowly and try to grasp each point in turn, you may find the answer to your question in there. Unfortunately you don’t get such a description from the Monadology. Readers of Leibniz have been misled for centuries into believing that this work ‘is’ the philosophy of Leibniz. That’s like saying you need only to read ‘The Tempest’ to understand everything about Shakespeare. Untrue in both cases.

So pars. 67-68 have to be understood in the context of the infinite continuity of the world in the large and the small. Monads being zero-dimensional points of force, they construct a cosmos of infinite dimensionality. When you look through a microscope (Leibniz is telling you) you see a whole world of life and matter which is like your world. If those creatures looked into a microscope they would see yet another world throbbing with life and matter. And so on to infinity. Yes: it is a kind of fractal world. Leibniz understood this long before we discovered real fractals and it is not far-fetched to see the Mandelbrot/Julia Set unfolding in that imagery.

Now to conclude: Depending on how far you wish to take your studies, I would recommend that you put the Monadology away and peruse some other writings instead. If you’re doing Honours or a PhD, look into the Yale Leibniz, ‘The Labyrinth of the Continuum’ with an exceptionally fine commentary by Richard Arthur. The Leibniz-Clark Correspondence is indispensable, as well as the ‘New Essays’. Finally a self-serving recommendation is my own book on Leibniz, which comprises a new interpretation of the whole philosophy and includes much of the newly published manuscripts of Leibniz. Maybe your Library has a copy.

If your interest is more modest, there is Rescher’s ‘Student Edition of the Monadology’ which fills in every one of the 90 points with material from other sources and gives excellent commentaries on each. A good selection of Leibniz’s important papers appears in Ariew and Garber, ‘Philosophical Essays’.

One final note: Leibniz repeated himself incessantly, and always with minor variations. This makes it uncommonly difficult to get a coherent picture of his system without reading them all. That’s the main objection to concentrating on texts like the ‘New System’ and ‘Monadology’. Both of them put together give you barely 10% of the whole philosophy and if studied in isolation must inevitably give you a very distorted perspective. This explains why Rescher’s edition runs to 300 pages, while the Monadology could easily fit into 20 pages.

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