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by George MacDonald Ross

Though best known as a philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was a polymath with many facets to his genius. Besides providing the most detailed account of his life availale in English, George MacDonald Ross puts Leibniz's philosophical ideas into perspective by examining them in the light of his work as an alchemist, librarian, diplomat, mining engineer, and historian.
Download Leibniz (Past Masters) epub
ISBN: 0192876201
ISBN13: 978-0192876201
Category: Science
Subcategory: Biological Sciences
Author: George MacDonald Ross
Language: English
Publisher: Oxford University Press (September 6, 1984)
Pages: 128 pages
ePUB size: 1182 kb
FB2 size: 1244 kb
Rating: 4.7
Votes: 905
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This short book is as good an introduction to the life and thought of Leibniz as you will find. It is not a full biography. It begins with a 25 page overview of Leibniz's life and covers all the main points from his youthful reading of his father's extensive library to his ambitions to unify all knowledge and bring peace to the warring religions. Leibniz spent most of the last half of his life in the service of the German princes, especially Georg Ludwig, the future George I of England. He was often frustrated in this position but, as Ross points out, Leibniz's rather large ego and his need for money led him to make all sorts of practical proposals to the princes that were impossible to fulfill; many of them ended up being undoable or half done. He died with many unfinished projects, both in his practical projects and in his writings.

The heart of this book is chapters two through four. Chapter two is on Mathematics, three on Science and four on Logic. I doubt if there is another source available that is as good at summarizing Leibniz's contributions to these areas. Ross clarifies a point that throws light on the intense and vicious rivalry that occurred at that time among mathematicians and scientists. That is the cult of the "virtuoso," the brilliant amateur (compared to the "professionals" in the universities). The virtuosi (and they were called that at the time) became intellectual heroes but one major result of maintaining that image besides the intense competition was that new ideas had to be pumped out and not necessarily spelled out in elaborate detail or taken to completion. This not only helps to explain the incompleteness of some of Leibniz's work but sheds light on people like Robert Hooke and to some extent Newton who refused to publish for years because he did not want to become involved in the public competition. When Newton finally did become involved he was one of the most vitriolic defenders of his work and Ross covers his debate with Leibniz about who invented calculus. Ross also shows why the notation of Leibniz was superior and has a highly readable section about what the calculus allowed mathematicians to do that they could not do before.

But Leibniz did so much more than the calculus. He invented (or, perhaps better, developed for the first time) binary arithmetic, a breakthrough that was to have far-reaching implications. Against Newton he argued for the relativity of space, i.e., that the only truth about spatial relations was how they appeared to different observers. Using his binary arithmetic, Leibniz developed a precursor of Boolean logic and developed what is closely analogous to the first truth table. These and other achievements are explained in clear and well-written prose by Ross.

Chapter five is on Metaphysics and chapter six is on "God and Man" followed by a brief concluding chapter on the influence of Leibniz. As a philosophy teacher I have many times tried to make sense out of Leibniz's metaphysics. What Ross does is to tie its development into Leibniz's life-long goal of unifying conflicting viewpoints. The metaphysics chapter is divided into sections like Scholastics versus Moderns, Cartesians versus Atomists, etc. Ross then shows how Leibniz takes his discoveries in mathematics, logic and science and builds a metaphysics with them to mediate these conflicting disputes. The result is still, as Ross admits, massively speculative but brilliantly so. Leibniz's need to tie God into the picture and the linguistic and empirical limitations Leibniz dealt with clearly show in the development of his metaphysics. Given this context (and that is critical), Leibniz's "monads" and his "best of all possible worlds" make more sense. But the speculative leaps he has to make in order to unify the polarities of his time and tie all this into his earlier work still leave the modern reader scratching his or her head. Ross is sympathetic both to Leibniz and to the modern reader of Leibniz. He does a fine job walking the tight rope of being fair to Leibniz and criticizing him. Given the complexity and difficulty of Leibniz's metaphysics, chapters five and six are as clear a summary as I have read.

Leibniz was viciously satirized by Voltaire as Dr. Pangloss in Candide. This is the Leibniz of monads and the best possible world. But Leibniz did so much more than his metaphysics. His contributions to mathematics and science have come through the centuries. Ross does a great job of summarizing what Leibniz has given all of us. I recommend this little book.
A fine, brief, intellectual biography of one of our greatest geniuses, and probably the most under-appreciated genius. I believe that he deserves greater credit for calculus than does Newton; the calculus that we use today is more Leibniz than Newton and Leibniz' philosophic understanding of the calculus was better. This book would be a good place to start in learning about Leibniz.
Abstruse "explanations" of philosophers' writings abound. This is refreshingly different. It's true to Leibniz, but it's illuminatingly broad guage, contextualizing him in the times he lived in, his restless travels, his meddling in foreign policy as a courtier, his efforts to drain royal silver mines and the like. Philosophical issues get judiciously formulation in separate chapters and are examined rigorously in the requisite terms, but this is no hermetically sealed Mason jar labeled "Let's isolate this man as a detached thinking machine".

I love this book's simplicities and lucid presentations, and the stitching in of Plato and others. "His great philosophical hero was Plato . . . . Both believed truth ultimately rested in the logical relationships between hierarchically structured objective concepts . . . . " (p.74). We don't have to reread that sentence countless times, tearing our hair out, trying to nail down the meaning on the spot and getting mired down. MacDonald Ross shares with Leibniz the ability to fit a sentence into seven league boots and have it anticipate and elucidate themes that lie ahead. We're alerted to that theme now and future chapters will gain resonance from this earlier sentence. This is rare organizational ability.

His few sentences on Leibniz's denial of absolute space in the chapter entitled "Science" suffice to give us Leibniz's coherent position. Comprehension is built in. So much so, that MacDonald Ross smoothly goes on to relate Leibniz's view of relative space with Einstein's ! --- and again in just a few sentences. His flair for organization and the linking of components takes the text out of the "grind" category.

This is a truly concise package. Deduct the opening 25 page intellectual polymath biography + the final 3 pages on subsequent influence, and you're looking at 83 pages of well organized and pertinent discussion focused on Leibniz. I dip into everything according to my moods, wait for things to jell in unhurried fashion, return to the pleasant byways of the great man's original writings (published separately and not included here) and let the entire brew steep. As this book costs next to nothing (+ reasonable shipping charges from Amazon), what a treat this is.

Leibniz should be wonder provoking. And this book facilitates that --- if one's pores are open and one takes advantage of the relaxed mode of presenting. So much so, that when I skip the chapter on Leibniz's logic (logic has always been a bugaboo for me), I still feel deeply gifted with an inexhaustible cause for wonder.