Monday, May 27, 2019

Gottfried Leibniz and his Grammar

Brandon C. Look's article on Leibniz (appearing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)  is fascinating. It is a clear (well, perhaps "as clear as possible") article on Leibniz, and it will amuse and reward people who take the time to read it. There is indeed something compelling about Leibniz's ingenuity that needs to be described by philosophers.

It follows also that there is something in Leibniz's language that needs to be parodied by writers who seek to expose the grammar of the representational flights and excursions that characterize poetic language.

Without being too reductive, I think it is reasonable to characterize the "avant-garde" as largely a formalist experiment.  In examining the syntactical features of philosophical language, however, we might shift the emphasis of our experiments from form to grammar.

Consider the following passage from Look's article, which is rich in ingenious and wonderful language:
4.1 The Logical Conception of Substance    
In §8 of the Discourse on Metaphysics, Leibniz gives one of his most important accounts of the nature of individual substance. There he claims that the Aristotelian idea that a substance is that which is the subject of predication and which cannot be predicated of something else is insufficient for a true analysis of the nature of substance. He next appeals to the PC and the PIN: in every true predication, the concept of the predicate is contained in the concept of the subject. “Since this is so,” Leibniz claims, “we can say that the nature of an individual substance or of a complete being is to have a notion so complete that it is sufficient to contain and to allow us to deduce from it all the predicates of the subject to which this notion is attributed.” (A VI iv 1540/AG 41) In other words, xis a substance if and only if x has a complete individual concept (CIC), that is, a concept that contains within it all predicates of x past, present, and future. The CIC, then, serves to individuate substances; it is able to pick out its bearer from an infinity of other finite created substances. Leibniz gives as an example Alexander the Great. The concept of Alexander contains being a King, being a student of Aristotle, conquering Darius and Porus, and so on. Now, “God, seeing Alexander's individual notion or haecceity, sees in it at the same time the basis and reason for all the predicates which can be said truly of him.” (A VI iv 1540–41/AG 41) Leibniz's invocation of the Scotist notion of a haecceity is intriguing. What Leibniz is telling us is that Alexander's thisness is determined by the sum of his qualitative properties. Moreover, we can see a metaphysical aspect to this logical conception of substance: the complete individual concept of a substance is the notion oressence of the substance as it known by the divine understanding. 
Leibniz concludes this section with his celebrated doctrine of marks and traces: “when we consider carefully the connection of things, we can say that from all time in Alexander's soul there are vestiges of everything that has happened to him and marks of everything that will happen to him and even traces of everything that happens in the universe, even though God alone could recognize them all.” (A VI iv 1541/AG 41) The doctrine of marks and traces, therefore, claims that, because the CIC contains all predicates true of a substance past, present, and future, the entire history of the universe can be read (if only by God) in the essence of any individual substance. 
The consequences that Leibniz draws from the logical conception of substance and the doctrine of marks and traces are remarkable. In the following section (§9) of the Discourse on Metaphysics, we are told they include the following: 
 1 No two substances can resemble each other completely and be distinct. (PII)
 2 A substance can only begin in creation and end in annihilation.
 3 A substance is not divisible.
 4 One substance cannot be constructed from two.
 5 The number of substances does not naturally increase and decrease.
 6 Every substance is like a complete world and like a mirror of God or of the whole universe, which each expresses in its own way.

Initially, it strikes me that genre fiction could best lend itself to parodying these sorts of ideas, these ways of thinking, these ways of being clever with grammar... Alternatively, take the above instances of "substance," "marks," "traces," etc., and for them substitute alternative words, curious abstractions, exotic concepts, odd nouns, comical gerunds...

Elector Sophie of Hanover honors Leibniz symbolically with the laurel wreath,
relief by Karl Gundelach, part of the historical frieze at the New Town Hall of Hanover

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