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§1. The Complete Individual Concept Includes Active Powers

§1. The Complete Individual Concept Includes Active Powers

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no contradiction: it has a consistent description. We get the basic concept

of a possible world by combining into a world a plurality of individuals, or

monads, and by supposing relations between the monads to be arranged

by preestablished harmony. Should this be done so that the world so conceived has a consistent description and contains no contradiction, then Leibniz says it is possible in itself. So long as we specify possible worlds without

bringing in God’s choice of the best, we avoid any complications arising

from the fact that God’s choice of the best possible world is in some way

necessary. It is at least morally necessary, that is, practically necessary as

required by moral reasons or by God’s moral perfections. But I avoid the

tangles of this question, which troubled Leibniz and which he seems never

to have resolved.2 I don’t know if he thought that the proposition that

God creates the best world is contingent, though he did think it morally

necessary.

. To satisfy condition (b) above, Leibniz hopes his predicate-in-subject

view of truth enables him to regard complete individual substances as genuinely created things, and for this they must have active powers of their

own. This is essential for him in the case of spirits (minds with reason and

will), for it enables them to think, deliberate, and act on their own, and to

be spontaneously active, voluntarily moved, and able to follow the dictates

of their reason. The succession of thoughts, feelings, and actions that they

undergo must not be merely lifeless happenings—simply part of the divine

picture show—as Leibniz thinks is the case, in their different ways, with

Descartes and Spinoza.

To explain Leibniz’s criticisms of Descartes and Spinoza, let’s begin by

asking what a complete individual concept, where the substance in question

is a spirit, is a concept of. Suppose first that we think of the complete individual concept of Caesar as a complete story of Caesar’s life. (Let’s restrict

ourselves to this for simplicity.) The story starts with Caesar’s birth at such

and such a time, his crossing the Rubicon, his assassination, and the rest.

To this we add the story of Caesar’s thoughts, feelings, desires, perceptions,

and so on. And much else: the story recounts a complete and full sequence

of events over the life of Caesar. Think of this life as the complete film of

Caesar, as it were. Given this story, we suppose that when God creates

2. See ibid., pp. –.



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Caesar, God creates the frames in this film, each frame smoothly following

the preceding ones, so that we have a continuous appearance of a life.

On this view, the concept of an individual substance is the concept of

a (possible) complete story of a life. A life is regarded as a continuous sequence of frames; the frames are, so to speak, pictures, and have in themselves no active powers. This is how Leibniz sees both Cartesian occasionalism and Spinoza’s view of the world as one substance with its infinitely

many attributes and modes.

. Leibniz’s idea of a complete individual concept is quite different. This

concept is not that of a story of a life told, say, in film, but the concept of

an active substance with powers of its own, so that, from within itself and

its total present state, it deliberates and acts, and moves spontaneously and

voluntarily to another state in accordance with its own peculiar law. Leibniz

views the complete individual concept as it lies in God’s intellect as including the concepts of these powers. Thus Leibniz says of our world: “If this

world were only possible, the individual concept of a body in this world,

containing certain movements as possibilities, would also contain our laws

of motion . . . but . . . as mere possibilities. . . . [E]ach possible individual

of any world contains in the concept of him the laws of his world” (LeibnizArnauld Correspondence, p. ).

At the initial creation of the individual substance, God actualizes but

does not create these active powers that are part of the complete concept,

as God’s decrees do not change a concept’s content but simply give it being.

These active powers then cause the successive changes of state over time

and act in accordance with certain principles and laws that characterize the

individual in question.

In the case of physics, these laws are sufficiently simple so that we can

foresee the future states and configurations of physical systems from a

knowledge of their present states. (I skip Leibniz’s account of this; see his

sketch in the Discourse:§§– and in the New System.) With spirits, however, this is impossible: while there exist principles from which the thoughts

and actions of spirits can be foreseen by God, these principles are, in general,

unknown to us. They may, as I understand Leibniz, be different for different

individuals, although there are some common principles (for example, that

we choose in accordance with the greatest apparent good). I believe, however, that Leibniz rejects the idea that natural science or social thought can

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establish principles and laws from which our decisions and actions can in

general be predicted. In practical decisions, our task is to do the best we

can to deliberate and to choose wisely (Discourse:§§, ). I come back to

this below.

. Now, as I have said, Leibniz associates the idea of a life as a picture

show with Descartes and Spinoza. He thinks that this idea denies genuine

creation, for according to it, spirits are not independent and freely active

substances. Leibniz argues for active powers in his critique of Cartesian

physics. Since Descartes defined body simply as extension and motion as

merely the change of place of a body in space (relative to other bodies),

Leibniz thought that Descartes could not give a correct account of the basic

dynamic principles of mechanics. For in Cartesian physics, nothing in the

nature of body, as extension only, can explain inertia or resistance, or account for acceleration and its relation to force. Descartes seems to have

thought that the laws of inertia and of motion in a straight line (in the

absence of other bodies) are consequences of God’s immutability and of

God’s preserving the same quantity of motion.3

Of course, Leibniz believed with Descartes that God sustains created

substances and maintains them in existence. We are always dependent on

God. But he insists that God creates substances as having certain active

powers and tendencies on which the first principles and laws of physics are

founded; and this does not involve the continual creation and re-creation

of things by God in ways that directly reflect the divine nature. For example,

Leibniz says such things as the following in comments on a dissertation by

John Christopher Sturm, De Idolo Naturae. Sturm had said that the movements of things that take place now are the result of an eternal law once

decreed by God, and that there is no need of a new command of God now.

Leibniz thinks this view is still ambiguous (Wiener:): “For I ask if . . .

this command . . . decreed originally, attributed to things only an extrinsic

denomination; or if, in forming them, it created in them some permanent

impression, . . . an indwelling law (although it is most often unknown to

the creatures in whom it resides), whence proceed all actions and all pas3. Leibniz’s argument against Descartes can be found in two short papers in the Journal des

Savans in  and , and in a letter to Father Bouvet, reprinted in Wiener, –; see also the

two selections in Ariew and Garber, –.



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sions” (On Nature Itself; or On the Force Residing in Created Things and their

Actions []).

Leibniz goes on to say that the former view seems to be that of the

Cartesians (occasionalism), while the latter seems to be the most true. He

adds (ibid.:): “This past decree does not exist at present [so] it can produce nothing now unless it then left after it some perduring effect, which

now still continues and operates. . . . [I]t is not sufficient . . . that in creating

things . . . God willed that they should observe a certain law in their progress, if . . . no lasting effect was produced in them. And assuredly it is

contrary to the notion of the divine power and will . . . that God should

will and nevertheless in willing produce . . . nothing; that he is always acting

and never effecting; that . . . he leaves no work.”

Leibniz believes we must say that (ibid.:) “the law decreed by God

left some trace of itself impressed on things; if things were so formed . . .

as to render them fit to accomplish the will of the legislator, then . . . a

certain . . . form or force . . . is impressed on things, whence proceeds the

series of phenomena according to the prescription of the first command.”

Again (ibid.:f.): “The very substance of things consists in their power of

acting and suffering, whence it follows that not even durable things can be

produced if a force of some permanence cannot be impressed upon them

by the divine power,” for otherwise (ibid.:) “all things would be only

certain passing or evanescent modifications, and . . . apparitions, of one

permanent and divine substance.”

This last remark suggests the idea above of a divine picture show, a

“pernicious doctrine” that Leibniz attributes to Spinoza. And with it we

conclude our review of Leibniz’s account of the active powers of monads,

and so of their genuine, internal spontaneity. As we shall see, this spontaneity is a further necessary condition of the true freedom of rational spirits.



§. Spirits as Individual Rational Substances

. We have seen that Leibniz wants to maintain that substances genuinely

act from powers and principles present in them and that are to be counted

as their own. In addition, he also holds that in the case of rational spirits



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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

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