Making Gottfried Leibniz an Empiricist, Research Time, 18/01/2018

A small patch of light shows only how much more darkness there is
beyond it.
Yeah, that title shows just how weird you can get when you’re talking about the influences of Gilles Deleuze in the history of ideas. I’m going to see if I can do this in less than 1000 words. Just one post.*

* Starting after this note, anyway. Yesterday ended up being super-busy – I couldn’t get the energy together for a post. But let’s put some dense effort into this one. Developing an unconventional empiricism is one of the themes running through Utopias, and I’ll probably pick it up in future writing.

So let’s begin. I’ve criticized some of Daniel Smith’s interpretations of Deleuze’s work, but he wrote a weird and fascinating essay in that collection about Gottfried Leibniz. Now, the textbook account of Leibniz is that he was one of the arch-rationalists.

Rationalism is typically contrasted with empiricism – Descartes-Spinoza-Leibniz opposing Locke-Hume – mind as the source of the world opposing world as the source of the mind. Like most really simple stories about complex philosophical thinkers, it breaks apart in so many ways once you actually look at them all.

But Leibniz. So Smith’s essay is based on a very left-field interpretation of Leibniz’s Monadology.** Here’s a super-casual primer on the concept.

Gottfried Leibniz and his immense courtly wig.
** An interpretation of Deleuze’s interpretation? Or using Deleuze’s interpretation to build your own interpretation? As a component? Or as an inspiration? I think the answers are, respectively: Sort Of, Yes, Pretty Much, and Definitely.

Every place in existence has a perspective on the world that you can take from it – these monads each move and develop according to their own paths. That perspective is analogous to a spot in an enormous labyrinth, as complex as all of reality itself – but it can't see the whole network, only its local area.

How much and what aspects of existence’s catacombs a monad can perceive depends on the powers that place has at a particular time. If a monad becomes a creature’s mind, then it can illuminate quite a bit of existence, thanks to its powers of perception and thought. If a monad becomes a rock, not so much.

Sidebar-ish. The monads don’t actually interact with each other in Leibniz’s thinking. They just move in harmony because maintaining that harmony among all existence is the power of God in the world. Important for knowing the Leibnizian context, not so much for Smith’s Deleuze-inspired take on the concept.

Okay. Are you still here? So the monad is simultaneously a physical perspective in the world and a concept. Let’s not get into the finer points of the argument, or we’ll be discussing it for four hundred years.

Bottom line, because every monad illuminates – literally perceives – some range, however small, of the world, that perspective is the concept of that monad. Since philosophy deals with pure concepts, the ultimate subject matter of philosophical thought is existence. Sorting perspectives, monads, aspects of existence, places.

This is not Gottfried Leibniz, but Brian May, legendary
guitarist of Queen. His hair, however, has always
been real. And it's spectacular.
Inference, deduction, interpretation, and argument are legitimate modes of philosophical thinking. Most of us accept that these days. But Smith-via-Deleuze’s interpretation of the Monadology implies that discovery, observation, and hypothesis are also modes of philosophical thinking.

Remember that sidebar? It’s important now. Monads don’t gain their powers relationally – on Leibniz’s thinking, each monad is isolated from each other. Remember as well that a monad is essentially a place. So each infinitesimally small place in existence never interacts with any other. They illuminate the world – as far as they can, given the potential of the place – not by interacting, but by expressing existence through their capacities.

Each place expresses all of existence, but the character of that expression depends on what the bodies and processes constituting that place can do. Philosophical thinking is all about understanding expression.

Because you understand the world through understanding the expression of places, it’s rationalism that actually disappears. Thought becomes empirical by nature – analyzing expression means analyzing the world. So philosophical thinking is the bedrock of all other techniques of knowledge.

It’s a very strange kind of empiricism. I definitely don’t consider it Leibniz’s own thinking. It’s a creative take on an already dense, complex, and inventive piece of philosophical writing. It’s worth picking it up and seeing what can be done with it.

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