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§2. Spirits as Individual Rational Substances

§2. Spirits as Individual Rational Substances

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      

capable of deliberation, these principles and powers are not explicable by

physics and social thought. Self-conscious and rational minds have various

distinctive powers and principles of action of which they are at least partly,

though as we shall see not fully, aware. As already noted, one such principle is that spirits act for the sake of the greatest apparent good (Discourse:

§:). The upshot is that the complete concept of an individual rational

substance has in it the concept of its active powers and impressed principles

with its laws of development.

To this we can add that not only are these principles and laws not

explicable by physics and social science, but also there is a complete concept

of an individual spirit (as a possible individual) paired with any kind of free

and spontaneous and reasoned self-conscious and self-determined life that

we can imagine and consistently describe. And if we can so describe it, God

would bring it into existence, should the individual specified by this concept belong to the best of all possible worlds. I believe that Leibniz would

say that his system allows the real possibility of the most free and selfdetermined and reasoned life that we can imagine without contradiction.

Call such a life true freedom. Then he would say his doctrine does not

exclude it.

To be fair to Leibniz, it is important to stress this point. Of course, here

I abstract from the foreknowledge God has of our actions, including God’s

foreknowledge of our thoughts and the course of our future deliberations.

I shall not discuss the question whether God’s foreknowledge is incompatible with our freedom. I mean to leave this aside, as Leibniz does in effect:

when we are deciding what to do, these philosophical problems have no

practical relevance. Of course, God foresees our thoughts and actions, but

there is no possible way that our deliberations and conduct can be foreseen

or predicted by natural science or social thought, however much we may

know. Nor can it be foreseen by us (“Necessary and Contingent Truths,”

paragraph ). Our task as spirits is always to decide by reason and deliberation as we seek to identify the greatest apparent good (Discourse:§§, ).

. These points need further elaboration. In discussing miracles and the

actions of God on the substances of individuals, Leibniz distinguishes between general order and universal laws as being above what he calls “subordinate maxims” (Discourse:§). The subordinate maxims I take to be the

laws of physics and of the other natural sciences. These are simple enough

[  ]

   :  

to be known by us. And while miracles may be inconsistent with those

laws, they are not inconsistent with the general order and universal laws

of God’s creation. Leibniz says (Discourse:§): “I say that God’s miracles

and extraordinary concourses of God have the peculiarity that they cannot

be foreseen by the reasoning of any created spirit, no matter how enlightened, because the distinct comprehension of the general order surpasses all

of them. On the other hand, everything that we call natural depends on

the less general maxims that creatures can understand.” He says in New

System §:

We must not be indifferent to the different grades of minds or reasonable souls, the higher orders being incomparably more perfect than

those forms buried in matter, being like little Gods by contrast with

the latter, and are made in the image of God. . . . That is why God

governs minds as a Prince governs his subjects, and even as a father

cares for his children, whereas he disposes of other substances as an

engineer manipulates his machines. Thus minds have particular laws

which put them above the revolutions of matter; and we may say that

everything else is made only for them. (Wiener:–)

And in §: “Reasonable souls follow much higher laws and are exempt from

anything which might make them lose the quality of being citizens of a

society of spirits. [This society I take to be the City of God]” (Wiener:).

These and other passages suggest that Leibniz holds that for us there

is no way to use the laws of nature (the subordinate maxims) to foresee

the thoughts and deliberations of rational spirits. We know certain general

principles, such as that we choose in accordance with the greatest apparent

good, but that does not tell us anything specific about actual choices. But

the question remains as to how we are to think of the higher laws that

Leibniz says reasonable spirits follow.

. Perhaps we can say something like this. In the Discourse §, Leibniz

distinguishes between the ordinary and extraordinary actions of God, and

he maintains that God does nothing out of order. What passes for the extraordinary is so only with respect to an order already established; everything conforms to the (highest) universal order. He also says that there is

nothing so irregular that we cannot find a concept, a rule, or an equation

[  ]

      

to characterize it. Thus: “If someone drew in one stroke a line which was

now straight, now circular, now of another nature, it is possible to find a

concept, a rule, or an equation common to all the points on the line, in

virtue of which these same changes must occur. . . . [T]here is no face . . .

the outline of which does not form part of a geometrical line and cannot

be traced in one stroke by a certain movement according to a rule. But

when a rule is complex what conforms to it passes for irregular.”

Leibniz is careful to add that he does not by these remarks claim to

explain anything; he is concerned with how we may think about the world

for pious and religious purposes. Still, one finds here, I think, the thought

that each rational soul has its own particular principle that governs its active powers and free spiritual life (free because it shares in reason, both

intellectual and deliberative).4 Nevertheless, the world remains orderly even

though those principles and powers are distinct for each spirit (person),

despite certain common features.

Leibniz even says the following in “Necessary and Contingent Truths,”

paragraph : “Free or intelligent spirits . . . possess something greater and

more marvellous, in a kind of imitation of God. For they are not bound

by any particular subordinate laws of the universe, but act as it were by

private miracle, on the sole initiative of their own power and by looking

towards a final cause they interrupt . . . the course of efficient causes that

act on their will . . . so that, in the case of minds, no subordinate universal

laws can be established (as is possible in the case of [physical] bodies) which

suffice for predicting a mind’s choice.”

I conclude, then, that Leibniz thought that God specified a particular,

or private, law for each rational spirit. Let’s say that this principle expresses

a spirit’s individuality: it characterizes its distinctive individuality as it expresses its particular form of life and the point of view from which it mirrors

the universe. Given the principle of Fourier series for rational spirits, the

range of these possible principles is wide enough to allow for any form of

intellectual and moral life that we can consistently describe. This is why I

said above that Leibniz believes that his system has room for all forms of

4. Call this the principle of Fourier series for free spirits. [Fourier analysis uses certain infinite

series—Fourier series—to find functions that approximate periodic data.—Ed.]

[  ]

   :  

free moral life. It can admit whatever criteria we think are required for

such a life, provided that their application can be coherently described.

§. True Freedom

. To this point (in §§–), we have looked at two elements in Leibniz’s

view of the freedom of rational spirits: their spontaneity and their individuality. While Kant and others have found his view of human freedom unsatisfactory, I want to present it in the most favorable way I can so that we

can see where the conflict between them really lay. As in any important

case, this is never easy to do, and we may not succeed.

Now, on the question of freedom, Leibniz is a determinist and a compatibilist: he sees no incompatibility between freedom and a certain special

kind of determinism. I say a special kind of determinism because it is natural

to object that his view seems much like Spinoza’s. But Leibniz’s answer is

that it is mistaken to object to determinism as such: what matters is the

nature of the ultimate and active powers that do the determining. On his

view, these ultimate and active powers are the wisdom and moral perfections of God, joined with God’s greatness (power and omniscience). This

means that true thought and sound moral judgment shape the final course

of the world and determine its form and structure. Moreover, rational spirits

are spontaneous and individual, expressing their own forms of life. Beyond

this, the determinants of their thought and judgment can be sound reasoning and deliberation. He says, in his familiar account of freedom in Theodicy

§ (see §–, ) that

freedom . . . consists in intelligence, which involves a clear knowledge

of the objects of deliberation, in spontaneity, whereby we determine,

and in contingency, that is, in the exclusion of logical and metaphysical

necessity. Intelligence is, as it were, the soul of freedom, and the rest

is as its body and foundation. The free substance is self-determining and

that according to the motive and good perceived by the understanding,

which inclines it without compelling it; and all the conditions of freedom are comprised in these few words. It is nevertheless well to point

[  ]

      

out that the imperfection present in our knowledge and our spontaneity, and the infallible determination that is involved in our contingency,

destroy neither freedom nor contingency.

Here Leibniz states three conditions for a free action: intelligence, spontaneity, and contingency, to which we may add individuality. Expressed

more fully, they are: intelligence, which is a clear knowledge of the object

of deliberation; spontaneity, whereby we ourselves determine the action

done (and in a manner distinctive of ourselves); and contingency, that is, the

absence of logical or metaphysical necessity. This last means the existence of

alternatives. Freedom is impossible if there is only one choice.

. In Theodicy §, Leibniz explains the meaning of intelligence as follows:

Our knowledge is of two kinds, distinct and confused. Distinct knowledge, or intelligence, occurs in the actual use of reason; but the senses

supply us with confused thoughts. And we may say that we are immune from bondage in so far as we act with a distinct knowledge, but

that we are the slaves of passion in so far as our perceptions are confused. . . . Yet a slave, slave as he is, nevertheless has freedom to choose

according to state wherein he is. . . . [T]hat evil state of the slave,

which is also our own, does not prevent us, any more than him, from

making a free choice of that which pleases us most.

As for spontaneity, Leibniz asserts the doctrine we discussed (in §),

namely, that each of us, as a complete substance, has within us the source

of our actions. By preestablished harmony, external things have no influence upon us. Although this is true, Leibniz is careful to say, it is true only

in a strictly philosophical sense. The point is that spontaneity is common

to us and all simple substances; in intelligent or free substances, spontaneity

is mastery over actions. Further, in §, Leibniz writes: “Its individuality

consists in the perpetual law which brings about the sequence of perceptions

that are assigned to it, springing naturally from one another, to represent

the body that is allotted to it, and through its instrumentality the entire

universe, in accordance with the point of view proper to this simple substance.”

[  ]

   :  

I mention again that the individuality of a free substance (and of others

as well) consists in its own distinctive principle or law that characterizes

the sequences of their states (of perception, apperception, and thought) over


. Finally, we come to contingency as the presence of alternatives. Leibniz had often been confronted with an objection that says: God chooses

the best of necessity. The world that is the best is the best of necessity.

Therefore, it is necessary that if God chooses any world, God chooses this

(our) world. So God’s choice is not free.

To this Leibniz made the following reply: a world that is not chosen

nevertheless remains possible in its own nature. This is so even if it is not

possible with respect to the divine will. Earlier we defined a world as possible in its own nature if its description does not imply a contradiction. This

allows that its coexistence with God does imply a contradiction. Thus Leibniz is arguing that in creating our world, God’s choice is free because there

are many worlds to choose from, and each (having a consistent description)

is possible in its own nature. The contingency condition is satisfied.

[Addendum: There is a good discussion of this point in Sleigh, Leibniz

and Arnauld: A Commentary on Their Correspondence, pp. ff. Sleigh observes

that crucial to Leibniz’s argument is the following. The inference from ‘it is

metaphysically necessary that if p then q’ together with ‘it is metaphysically

necessary that p’ to ‘it is metaphysically necessary that q’ is a good inference.

It is a case where necessity of the consequence gives necessity of the consequent. However, the inference from ‘it is metaphysically necessary that if

p then q’ together with ‘it is necessary in its own nature that p’ to ‘it is

necessary in its own nature that q’ is not a valid inference.]

. To conclude: we have seen that for Leibniz it is mistaken to say that

being determined to seek the best is to lack freedom. Regarding this matter,

he says (in the Summary added to the end of the Theodicy) the following:

I deny the major of this argument [Whoever cannot fail to choose the

best is not free]. Rather is it true freedom, and the most perfect, to be

able to make the best use of one’s free will, and always to exercise this

power, without being turned aside either by outward force [freedom to

act] or by inward passions [freedom to will], whereof the one enslaves

our bodies and the other our souls. There is nothing less servile and

[  ]

      

more befitting the highest degree of freedom than to be always led

towards the good, and always by one’s own inclination, without any

constraint and without any displeasure. (Objection VIII, paragraph )

For Leibniz, what is important is that God’s freedom so understood, and

our freedom as imperfect approximations to God’s, should be fundamental

causes both in the world and in our life. All this is in contrast to Spinoza,

who, Leibniz thought, held that there are no final causes in nature, and

that while we think of things as good and evil according to how they affect

us, God is indifferent to them. Moreover, in Spinoza’s scheme, as Leibniz

understands it, there is no such thing as divine choice: for by necessity of

the divine nature and its infinity, everything possible must be actual, and

so there is nothing to choose. Choice presupposes alternatives: a choice

selects this over that. It has no place when everything possible must be.

Whatever we think of Leibniz’s determinist and compatibilist account

of human freedom, he thought that his view was very different from Spinoza’s.

§. Reason, Judgment, and Will

. In the previous quotation from the Theodicy (from paragraph  of Objection VIII), Leibniz refers to true freedom. I have used this phrase to refer

to his account, as far as we can make it out, of what he thinks of as the

fullest and most complete form of freedom as it might be shown in human

life. So far we have considered four main elements of it: spontaneity, individuality, intelligence, and contingency. Now I look at some further details

of those elements; one way to do this is to see what he says about reasoned

deliberation, judgment, and certain aspects of free will.

We saw last time (§.) that Leibniz says (in Discourse:§) that, as a

consequence of God’s first decree always to do what is most perfect, God’s

second decree, in regard to human nature, is that we will always do (though

freely) what appears to us best. Leibniz holds what he refers to as the old

axioms that the will follows the greatest good and that it flies from the

greatest evil that it perceives (New Essays, Bk. II, Ch. XXI, §).

And in Discourse § he says that by virtue of God’s decree, “[t]he will

[  ]

   :  

should always tend to the [greatest] apparent good, expressing or imitating

the will of God in certain particular respects with regard to which this apparent good always has some truth in it.” In this way, “God determines our

will to the choice of that which seems the better, nevertheless without

necessitating it.”

The first thing we can say, then, is that our guiding principle of deliberation is to ascertain, to the best of our ability, what is the greatest apparent

good. This is the object of deliberation in true freedom. How far we achieve

true freedom, rather than simply the freedom we commonly have, depends

on how far we succeed in attaining a distinct knowledge of the greatest

apparent good and overcoming the usual imperfections in our thinking and


. Before we proceed to other elements in Leibniz’s idea of true freedom,

this is a good place to consider the phrase he often uses, “incline without

necessitating,” a phrase said of the reasons for doing something. (Recall

from Theodicy § above the phrase “inclines . . . without compelling.”) It

is here that Leibniz’s predicate-in-subject theory of truth with its account of

contingency may enter his moral psychology. In one place he says: “There

is the same proportion between necessity and inclination that there is in the

mathematicians’ analysis between exact equations and limits that give an

approximation” (G. Grua, ed. and comp., G. W. Leibniz, Textes inedits d’apre`s

les manuscrits de la Bibliothe`que provinciale de Hanovre [Paris, ]:).

Here I believe there are several thoughts. One is the idea of a deliberative judgment as balancing the reasons that incline us to either side, pro

or con. These reasons are indefinitely many, even possibly infinitely many.

Certainly this is true of God’s decision in creating the best possible world.

For God’s antecedent will, which looks to all particular goods and evils

taken separately (though infinite in number), precedes God’s consequent

will, which is given by the divine judgment, all things considered, as the

final decree (Vindication:§§–).

That decree reflects an infinite analysis; it is in that sense contingent,

although, of course, as Leibniz says, it is also certain. In our case, it seems

best to say that the reasons entering our deliberations are, in principle, open,

or indefinitely many, although in practice a few reasons may be sufficiently

conclusive for us to act.

. A second thought is this: Leibniz thinks of the reasons and motives

[  ]

      

that enter into our decisions as including all kinds of inclinations and perceptions, subconscious as well as conscious. For as complete substances we

have latent in us expressions of everything in the universe from our point

of view. These expressions we may experience simply as perceptions (which

is actually confused knowledge) and inclinations. Thus, commenting on

Locke’s view that what moves us is uneasiness, he says (New Essays:II:xxi:

§): “Various perceptions and inclinations combine to produce a complete

volition; it is the result of the conflict amongst them. There are some, imperceptible in themselves, which add up to a disquiet which impels us without our seeing why. There are some that join forces to carry us towards

or away from some object, in which case there is desire or fear. . . . The

eventual result of all these impulses is the prevailing effort, which makes

a full volition.”

The crucial point here is that while we pursue the greatest apparent

good, what we perceive as that good is affected by our perceptions and

inclinations; but these in turn mirror the infinite complexity of the universe,

which our nature expresses. So our decisions are influenced by the way the

rest of the universe affects us, not by clear knowledge, but in confused

perceptions and inclinations (Discourse:§; Nature and Grace:§). Since our

minds are finite, we can never fully grasp the infinite influences that shape

our conduct, even when we have reached the highest degree of perfection

possible for us. In the fullest sense, true freedom is always beyond us, at

least in this life.

. Relevant here is the argument Leibniz uses to reject the possibility

of the freedom of equipoise. He wants to rebut the idea that free will can

involve a perfectly balanced equilibrium of reasons pro and con, which

allows the will to make the decision. (This is sometimes called the freedom

of indifference.) Leibniz wants to hold instead (letter to Coste, , in Ariew

and Garber:) that “with respect to the will in general, . . . choice follows

the greatest inclination (by which I understand both passions and reasons,

true or apparent).”

But to hold this he needs to maintain that a greatest inclination always

exists. This he does by saying that we can never be in a state of perfect

equilibrium of reasons pro and con. That idea is chimerical, he says, as the

universe cannot be divided into two equal parts each of which might impinge on us equally (ibid., Ariew and Garber:): “The universe has no

[  ]

   :  

center, and its parts are infinitely varied; thus, the case never arises in which

everything is perfectly equal and strikes us equally on all sides. And although

we are not always capable of perceiving all the small impressions that contribute to determining us, there is always something that determines us [to

choose] between contradictories, without the case being perfectly equal on

all sides.”

To conclude: both in God’s case and in ours, reasons incline without

necessitating in view of the infinity of possible reasons involved. By intuitive

vision of the possible existence of things, God sees the answer, the complete

analysis, and acts with full understanding. Whereas we not only cannot

complete the analysis but also can never comprehend the infinite complexity of the causes of our perceptions and inclinations, and how they influence

our desires and aversions, and thereby our view of the apparent good. So

to say that God determines the will to the choice of that which appears best,

yet without necessitating it, seems to mean that our making that choice is

not necessary but contingent (in view of Leibniz’s predicate-in-subject account of truth). It is on these lines, I think, that the phrase “incline without

necessitating” (Discourse:§§, ) is to be understood.

. I now shift to other aspects of Leibniz’s account of rational deliberation and their connection with his view of freedom. In the New Essays (II:

xxi), Leibniz gives one of his fullest discussions as he comments on Locke’s

view in his chapter on power and freedom also in II:xxi of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I review some of the more relevant points.

In section  he notes the ambiguity of the term “freedom.” He distinguishes between freedom in law and freedom in fact. In law the slave is

not free and a subject is not entirely free, yet the rich and the poor are

equally free in this sense. Whereas freedom in fact consists either in the

power to do what one wills or chooses to do, or in the power to do as

one should.

He says to Locke that his topic is freedom to do and that there are

different degrees and kinds of this. He adds: “Speaking generally, a man is

free to do what he wills in proportion as he has the means to do so; but

there is also a special meaning in which ‘freedom’ is a matter of having the

use of things which are customarily in our power, and above all with the

free use of our body . . . [so] that a prisoner is not free . . . and . . . a

paralytic does not have the free use of his limbs.”

[  ]

      

Leibniz goes on in section  to distinguish freedom to do from what

he calls freedom to will. This he understands in two senses. One of these

we have just examined, simply the idea that our will in its deliberations is

contingent in the sense that reasons incline without necessitating.5 The

other sense is that our mind in its deliberations is free from the imperfections, or the bondage, that may arise from the passions. In this sense, the

Stoics held that only the wise man is free. To achieve this inner freedom,

we must be able to will as we should, that is, with proper deliberation. He

says (§): “It is in that way that God alone is perfectly free, and that created

minds are free only in proportion as they are above passion; and this is a

kind of freedom which pertains strictly to our understanding.”

. From all this, it seems clear that, for Leibniz, what is fundamental

in true freedom is freedom of the understanding. For while we can will

only the apparent good (what we think good), “the more developed the

faculty of understanding is the better are the choices of the will” (§). And

again (§): “[T]he question is not whether a man can do what he wills to

do but whether his will is sufficiently independent. It is not a question . . .

whether his legs are free . . . but whether he has a free mind and what it

consists in. On this way of looking at things, intelligences will differ in how

free they are, and the supreme Intelligence will possess a perfect freedom

of which created beings are not capable.”

But how is freedom of the understanding to be achieved? One way,

surely, is by gaining control of our passions and appetites. Much of II:xxi

is taken up with Leibniz’s numerous suggestions about how we can escape

from their bondage and achieve greater moral perfection. He considers how

by forming appropriate resolutions and habits, and by having a sound way

of reasoning in practical matters, we can gradually master and control our

passions and inclinations. And this we can do as the mind may use various

devices to make one desire prevail over another (§; cf. §; Discourse:§

[Ariew and Garber:]; letter to Coste [Ariew and Garber:]): “Since the

5. He says: “[T]he strongest reasons or impressions which the understanding presents to the

will do not prevent the act of will from being contingent, and do not confer upon it an absolute

or (so to speak) metaphysical necessity. It is in this sense that I always say that the understanding

can determine the will, in accordance with the perceptions and reasons that prevail, in a manner

which, although it is certain and infallible, inclines without necessitating.”

[  ]

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§2. Spirits as Individual Rational Substances

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