Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Freiherr (baron) von Leibniz


Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Freiherr (baron) von Leibniz

biographical name

(born July 1, 1646, Leipzig, Saxony—died Nov. 14, 1716, Hannover, Hanover) German philosopher, mathematician, inventor, jurist, historian, diplomat, and political adviser. He obtained a doctorate in law at age 20. In 1667 he began working for the elector of Mainz, in which position he codified the laws of the city, among other important tasks. He served the dukes of Braunschweig-Lüneburg as librarian and councillor (1676–1716). In 1700 he helped found the German Academy of Sciences in Berlin and became its first president. Though he wrote voluminously, he published little during his lifetime. In metaphysics he is known for his doctrine of the monad, according to which reality is ultimately constituted of simple substances (monads), each consisting of nothing but perception and appetite. Though each state of a monad is the cause of its succeeding state and the effect of its preceding one, there are no causal relations between monads; the appearance of causal relations between substances is accounted for by the supposition of a “pre-established harmony” between the perceptual states of different monads. His principle of the identity of indiscernibles states that an individual x and an individual y are identical if and only if they share all the same intrinsic, non-relational properties. His Theodicy (1710) sought to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of evil in the world by asserting that only God is perfect and that the actual world is the “best of all possible worlds.” This view was famously mocked by Voltaire in his comic novel Candide. In mathematics, Leibniz explored the idea of a universal mathematical-logical language based on the binary number system (De arte combinatoria [1666]), though all the calculating devices that he later built used the decimal system. He discovered the fundamental theorem of calculus independently of Isaac Newton; the acrimonious dispute over priority left England mathematically backward for more than a generation before Leibniz's superior notation and methods were adopted. He also made important contributions to optics and mechanics. He is considered the last great polymath of Western civilization.

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