Leibniz’s theory of monads for the perplexed

Elaine asked:

So… I’m a regular high school student who has run across the problem of not knowing what a monad is i try so hard to understand what Leibniz what trying to explain but it seems like monads are just a substance of everything. They’re described as if they are alive yet they don’t exist and at the same time they already know what they’re suppose to do yet still nonexistent… *sigh* I’m trying to understand it all but in a way i can’t please help!

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I sympathise with your predicament. Unfortunately it is difficult to overcome if, like most students, you read only the Monadology, which is not the work where Leibniz explains everything. The complete theory of the monads is spread across several writings and has to be pieced together from them. You might wonder why this is the case; and the answer is that Leibniz wrote not just for professional philosophers, but also tried to explain the monads to interested amateurs who were mainly interested in how it might solve their religious problems. These papers usually give a predigested account with the readers’ understanding of Christian doctrines in mind and skate over some of the deeper issues. The Monadology is one of these papers, written for perusal by a French Minister of State. A companion piece (‘Principles of Nature and Grace’) was written for Prince Eugene, a soldier.

Now if you are really serious about it, there is an excellent book by Nicholas Rescher: ‘Monadology, A Student Edition’, which does exactly what I’ve just said by collecting all the papers concerning the monadology in one volume. It explains every one of the numbered paragraphs and adds relevant texts from others of Leibniz’ writings, including some of his philosophical letters.

On the other hand, if you just wish to have a simple explanation to remove your confusion, I’ll give you the gist of it.

Leibniz was attempting to give a philosophical account of the smallest possible particle; and how all the matter, dead and alive, could be derived from this particle as the final building block. To this extent it is clearly a ‘substance metaphysics’. But the underlying idea is more familiar to us today as a scientific proposition. Leibniz would have wondered why we make this distinction!

He finally arrived at the notion that force is this final building block. But he gave it the name ‘monad’. Obviously this is not alive! He never claims it is alive; this is just a misunderstanding of his occasional remark (to religious people) that they should think of the monad like ‘a little soul’.

Now everything in the universe exhibits force, but you never see force ‘by itself’. We see it when it plays a role in the motions and collisions of objects. So he conceived of force as an infinity of points of energy that are spread throughout the universe. Evidently so small that we cannot perceive them as points, but only as an all-pervasive field.

The point is now, that both matter and life draw their energy from this force. There are several kinds of force corresponding to the four basic kinds of matter. The totally dead stuff, like rock or iron, which is inert. The absolutely alive stuff, like minds and souls. And all the gradations in between, such as our animal bodies that integrate matter and force.

Evidently this entails that force is itself transformed when it creates a condition of existence. Leibniz explains it this way: That innumerable monads congregate to make an existent. If it is alive, then animation results from a predominance of active force. If it is dead, then inert force is responsible. So there is a stepladder upward from mere matter to almost pure mind. But every existent has some passive force in it (matter), and every piece of matter has some little quantity of live force in it.

I hope this clears up a little of the picture. You will of course have observed that Leibniz brings God into the picture almost obsessively. It was evidently important to him to be perceived as a pious thinker, and it can make matters difficult for us. But as I hinted earlier, Leibniz was both a philosopher and a scientist. His first published paper was a New Theory of Physics! Bear this in mind, and try not to read his works in an exclusively philosophical mode.


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