Review of Christia Mercer’s Leibniz’s Metaphysics

This review was published in the Heythrop Journal 50 (2):328-329 (2009).


Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz
Review of Christia Mercer. Leibniz’s Metaphysics: Its Origins and Development, Cambridge University Press, 2001

The dominant portrayal of the philosophy of Leibniz in the United Kingdom for the past century has been that outlined in Bertrand Russell’s A Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz, published in 1900. This commentary, acting in tandem with that offered by Courturat in La logique de Leibniz d’aprés des documents inédits of 1901 and ‘Sur la metaphysique of Leibniz’ of 1902, segregates the philosophy of Leibniz into two distinct domains, those of logic and metaphysics. Russell claims that Leibniz’s metaphysics, for the little that it is worth, is grounded upon his logic (as an ornament of his ‘deductive system’), and, not vice versa. For Russell, the fairy tale of the Monadology (1714) is grounded upon the properly logical philosophy of the Discourse on Metaphysics (1686). Indeed, that which is significant for Russell is the analytic judgement, or, the concept containment notion of truth. He claimed that the entire philosophy of Leibniz could be deduced from, and hence, reduced to, a definite set of axioms. All else may be jettisoned to the wasteland of the history of ideas, especially his idiosyncratic fascinations pertaining to scholasticism and theology.

Benson Mates, in his The Philosophy of Leibniz: Metaphysics and Language (1986) was the first to offer a sustained challenge to what had become the inherited portrayal of Leibniz. In his work, Mates contends that no priority can be given to either logic or metaphysics since ‘everything is in everything.’ Mates explicitly questions Russell’s attempt to re-cast the philosophy of Leibniz into a deductive system, and moreover, underlines the indispensability of metaphysics to an understanding of not only the logic of Leibniz, but of his philosophy as a whole. The implications of this criticism of Russell is far reaching with respect to the very meaning and practise of philosophy, as I have argued in ‘Mathesis and Analysis: Finitude and the Infinite in the Monadology of Leibniz’ (Heythrop Journal, 2006).

In her outstanding work, Leibniz’s Metaphysics: Its Origins and Development, Christia Mercer argues that Mates did not go far enough, and has, through his maxim ‘everything is in everything’, left Leibniz scholarship in a state of unacceptable vagueness. For while the maxim may be true (contra Russell), Mercer argues that it must be true in a very precise manner, one which can be fully explicated through an exhaustive interpretation of extant writings (essays, notes, letters, etc.). With a fine toothed comb, Mercer discloses the precise relations between substantial forms and substantial states, of God and creatures, and of mind and perception – in which everything is in everything, but in a pre-established and harmonious manner.

In this way, Mercer acknowledges Mates description of Russell’s philosophical vandalism, but seeks to show that the logic of Leibniz arose from what she has named his core metaphysics, one that was in place by 1672, a dating that is many years before any previous chronology of his development. Mercer, contrary to the Russell-Couturat picture, argues that the metaphysical background of Leibniz, much of which was developed in the context of theological questions of transubstantiation, resurrection and the Eucharist (not to mention his attempts to unify the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches), sets the stage for the eventual expression of his logic in a document entitled First Truths (1689). She underscores her argument by tracing an interesting genealogy of the philosophical influences of Leibniz from his eclectic Aristotelian and Platonist teachers.

There is also a fascinating account of Leibniz’s engagement with mechanist philosophers and his attempt to convince them of the necessity of his own interpretation of motion as that which is enacted by substantial forms, conceived as ‘acts’. Mercer has, through the sheer broadness and depth of her research, shaken up many of the received assumptions of Leibniz scholarship and has hinted at a similar shake-up in the practise of philosophy in the current era. This call for a transformation in the method of scholarship pertains to the depth, breadth and context of sources, a standard clearly not fulfilled in Russell’s interpretation. At the end of the day, he was not interested in precision and detail as his goal was instead to set Leibniz up as one of the plaster saints of Analytic philosophy.

What Mercer does not mention, but which is perhaps an aspect of her own ‘Rhetoric of Attraction’, are the implications of her interpretation with respect to the hegemony of analytic philosophy in the contemporary world and its impact upon our own possible interpretive access to early Modern philosophy. In a few places, Mercer mentions that some aspect of Leibniz may seem odd or obscure to the Twenty First Century philosopher. Indeed, on the last page she writes:

It is clear that Leibniz is brilliant. It is a fact that he contributed mightily to the history of philosophy and science. But it is also true that in glorious and unexpected ways, he seems from our perspective to be strangely unmodern and provocatively weird. (LM, p. 472)

What she does not say is that the very interpretations which she is contesting, those of Russell and Courturat, have been instrumental in shaping what we ourselves are as readers in the Twenty First Century. Of course, she is acutely aware of the scrutiny under which her work will be placed by analytic philosophers, an awareness which is expressed by her touchtone statements, such as ‘Let’s be clear,’ ‘We should be clear about this’, etc. It is well known that the dominant criticism of Continental philosophers (and of the metaphysical philosophies in the tradition of Western philosophy) is that they are allegedly unclear, and, in fact, dissolve into non-sense. Mercer has guarded herself from similar criticisms through her rigorous precision and clarity. Yet, perhaps Mercer has guarded herself too well as she has made no explicit connection between her project and contemporary attempts to criticise scientism and logicism (the mechanists of our day). She does mention Deleuze, in a footnote, but does not mention others, such as Heidegger, who gave a lecture course, entitled The Metaphysical Foundations of Logic (1928), in which he argues in quite a similar way.

This apparent failure to situate herself in the context of ongoing contemporary debates is unfortunate since the dye has already been cast with her criticisms of Russell and Mates. This is especially relevant in light of renewed interest in British Idealism, the collapse of which created the vacuum into which Analytic philosophy came to prominence. Perhaps, however, this is not a failure on Mercer’s part, but is, as I have suggested, an aspect of her own Rhetoric of Attraction. She does mention the esteemed poet T.S. Eliot, who wrote an essay on Leibniz and studied for a time with Russell, and who is said to have abandoned a Dissertation at Harvard on F.H. Bradley. Mercer quotes Eliot, who she claims has, despite his teachers, recognised a depth in Leibniz which transcends logic. Perhaps, this is a hint from Mercer that the work that still needs to be done includes an attempt to retrieve differing philosophical approaches, weird though they may seem to the post-analytic philosophical mindset, from out of the wasteland of the history of ideas.


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