Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – Leibnitz in the Pythonesque Style of Gottlieb

Apart form all the other excellent reasons to recommend Anthony Gottlieb’s “Dream of Enlightenment it was fair to say, as I predicted, that the content of the chapter on Leibnitz was largely new to me. Apart from the mythologised legacies of Voltaire vs Leibnitz and Newton vs Leibnitz I really was pretty ignorant of his work. I’m now a little more educated.

The two chapters remaining after my review the other day, on Leibnitz and Hume respectively, I am reading and gutting as individual exercises.

So, today Leibnitz in the style of Gottlieb:

The story of my life, to find myself between a rock and a hard place, pointing out to people seemingly disagreeing vehemently with each other, that in reality (IMHO) they are pretty much agreeing. Leibnitz too it seems.

Synchronicitous to be writing this review the same morning as my exchange with @TheosElizabeth, where my secular reading of her biblical “Thought for the Day” on @BBCR4Today was to emphasise our common ground. The point in Mary Parker-Follett’s work being that progress in conflict resolution, or any kind of disagreement, is about integration and synthesis based on true inter-human empathy (ie love), rather than accomodation based on compromise and concession of object(ive)s.

“Truth [Lebnitz said] is more widespread than people think.” Almost everyone manages to get hold of some of it, and most schools of thought are “right in a good part of what they propose.”

In place of [the] emphasis of putting up with others even if you disagree with them, Leibnitz wanted to convince people that they didn’t really disagree in the first place.

(Also weirdly coincidental that I had just used the “standing on the shoulders of giants” line in reviewing Gottlieb, as I had done previously reviewing Pauline Graham on Mary Parker-Follett and her relationship to 20th and 21st century management gurus. I digress, but less than might first appear.)

And, back to Dream of Enlightenment, the tone is set in Gottlieb’s opening line on Leibnitz, quoting the encyclopedic Diderot:

“When one compares one’s own talents with those of Leibnitz, it is tempting to throw away one’s books and go off to die in some quiet corner.”

And that from someone with much disagreement with, and surprisingly little knowledge of, his subject’s work. Sounds familiar? And even now a large part of Leibnitz work still “languishes in the archives“.

“At the present rate … it will take two more centuries before his complete works are published.”

“Little is known about the success or otherwise of Leibnitz’s myriad of inventions and proposals [beyond natural philosophy, “bouncing ejector-escape boots” amongst them], many of which probably never progressed beyond the vast drawing-board of his mind.”

“[Still the greatest polymath since Aristotle] … One of the few things he did not do was write music”

Unsurprisingly, his real legacy is therefore largely a trail of unfinished projects – “a perpetual jumble“. (Who, me?) The fact that his monad metaphysics is hopelessly confused – confusing anyway, a “fairy tale” according to Russell – shouldn’t detract from the quality of his thinking on so many important ideas.

Dream of Reason“, Gottlieb’s first work in his putative trilogy in four or more parts, already drew the accolades of being a 21st century successor to Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy“. My own philosophical impressions of Russell were that he’s generally over-rated; a philosophologist sure, but limited and narrow as an actual logical positivist scholar, until his regrets in later life. Gottlieb’s put down and Russell’s own self-damning quotes concerning Leibnitz are therefore sweet to my own taste:

Leibnitz chose a courtly existence [as opposed to a purely academic life], Russell wrote, which led to an “undue deference to princes, and a lamentable waste of time in the endeavour to please them.”

Russell did not need the patronage of aristocrats – he was one himself.

[Russell] seems not to have appreciated that Leibnitz was more civil servant [and lobbyist] than sycophant. Leibnitz himself wrote:

“[The] most efficatious means of augmenting the general welfare of man [is] to persuade great princes and their ministers.”

Queen Sophie-Charlotte of Prussia [one of Leibnitz’z aristocratic patrons] remarked “Leibnitz was one of the few intellectuals who did not stink.”

The “appearances” is a long-standing topic of philosophical debate and one 20th century source for me has been Owen Barfield, so it was interesting, amongst the confusion of Leibnitz’s monad metaphysics, to find him using the “strained analogy” of rainbows and similar “virtual” phenomena. Strained was exactly my view of Barfield’s use of the analogy, even though I have much time for Barfield’s work.

[More precursors to Gödel and Wittgenstein – for later.]

Anyway, to finish off Gottlieb on Leibnitz for now, most of us haven’t got much beyond Voltaire’s Candide caricature of Leibnitz as Dr Pangloss, so there is of course much of Voltaire presented by Gottlieb. There are several sections comparing the Panglossian take on Leibnitz “best of all possible worlds” with the Polyanna “good to be glad” optimism concept from US children’s literature.

[Voltaire’s caricature popularised an extreme version of “optimisme”, but it is more than  parody:]

A closer look suggests that Voltaire did in effect succeed in highlighting fatal flaws in Leibnitz’s position, even if he made jokes while he was about it.

[But there’s nothing new under the sun – Plato and the Panglossian Stoics – “optimism”, like the Hobbesian version of the do-as-you-would-be-done-by “golden rule”, pre-date even Christianity, nineteen centuries before Hobbes and Leibnitz.]

It was only Leibnitz however who had the bad luck to attract the contemptuous wit of Voltaire.

One might believe that the world is mostly bad, but still be inclined to play the “just being glad” game, in order to make life more bearable. Jewish humour can have a strain on pessimistic Pollyannaism.

Always look on the bright side of life? Did I mention a great read, recommended again, but a missed second Pythonesque opportunity methinks. [Just Gottlieb’s take on Hume to go …]


[Post Note:


and surprisingly relevant too.]

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