The Monadology

I’m addicted to Leibniz. This metaphysics is insane. So let’s talk about monads.

When I first read the Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason, it was not obvious to me that monads are not extended. Jo pointed out where Leibniz writes that they have no shape or parts, and so clearly cannot be extended, but I was caught up by this passage: “Thus there is perfect harmony between the perceptions of the monad and the motions of bodies, pre-established from the first between the system of efficient causes and that of final causes. And in this consists the agreement and the physical union of soul and body, without the one being able to change the laws of the other.” (pg 208 in the Garber/Ariew volume). So I was operating, somewhat foolishly, under the assumption that the monad has a role similar to Descartes’ pineal gland, insofar as it connects the realm of extension and the realm thought, and even more specifically, it unites them in individuals. I assumed that, as the principle of unity, the central monad not only united a thing as ‘this thing as such’, but also united the thing in extension and thought (or the monastic realm, see below). But Descartes divvies up his ‘substances’ differently than Leibniz. For Leibniz, I don’t know if there are ‘thinking substances’ and ‘extended substances’ in the Cartesian sense, but I would guess there is not. Leibniz explicitly criticizes the Cartesians for their claim that beasts lack sensation (because they claim beasts are only extended, and not capable of thought, if I’m remembering this correctly, which means they are just machines). So Leibniz is avoiding this problem – animals clearly feel pain. Instead of clear cut “thinking” and “extended” substances, for Leibniz there are bodies and a central monad (it’s a monad, soul, or mind, depending on what degree of life the monad contains, and whether it has reason). So this rock and this dog and Jo are living substances, each with a monad and a particular body. The rock’s monad doesn’t have much life, which explains why it just sits there even if I yell at it or hit it or threaten its rock family. The dog has organs, and we can assume the dog’s monad has more life than the rock’s, because the dog has sensation, or “perception accompanied by memory.” The dog has a soul. When I yell or chase the dog, he reacts. If I put on my jacket every time before I go outside with him, the dog gets excited when I put on the jacket because he remembers. The dog just associates, though – the jacket to outside, with no knowledge of causes. When Jo sees me put the jacket on, he can reason as to why – it’s chilly, or raining, or whatever – because his monad is a mind, which is a soul elevated by the ability to reason. Which isn’t to say Jo is always rational.

But Jo is right about monads not being extended. The first page of The Monadology confirms: “3. But where there are no parts, neither extension, nor shape, nor divisibility is possible. These monads are the true atoms of nature and, in brief, the elements of things.” They aren’t extended, but they do perceive and, in some cases, apperceive (consciousness). So far, this picture seems to be of a realm of extension and a realm of monads – or what I’ve started calling the monastic realm. It remains to be said what extra thing exists in the mind that does not exist in a monad alone. Leibniz indicates such an additional thing exists but does not, in these two texts, indicate just what it could be. That reflective knowledge is not given to all souls is nonetheless clear.

I’ve gone too long without talking about Spinoza. So let’s do some comparative metaphysics regarding the unity of substances/realms/ontological spaces. I have an idea of unification in Leibnizian metaphysics (in these two texts), which is a monad. A monad, however, is distinct from its particular body – it is only together that they are a living substance. I think it’s safe to say there are, then, at least two ontological spaces (which I’m using interchangeably with ‘realms’): extension, the realm of bodies; and monastic space, the realm of monads. The monads somehow act as the unifying component of the metaphysical picture. In Spinoza, there is unification, but it’s a true unification, in that there is only one. My reading of Spinozisitic metaphysics is that there is a realm of modes as such. That I know this dog to be extended or Jo to have ideas is just an expression of my own limits as a finite mode – I have to understand the world through extension or through thought. But extended Jo and thought Jo are just instantiations of the same Jo (modal Jo). The realm of ideas and the realm of bodies are perfectly in sync because they are, in fact, one thing, understood in different ways. Only God (or eternity) can see or understand the realm of modes as such. All of us, the modes with finite intellects, understand the world through attributes. So there is a true unity in thought and extension because ultimately, they are the same thing.

The difference between the dog and myself in Spinoza is a matter of degrees. I have way more ideas and knowledge of causes than the dog. I have reason because I have knowledge of causes, but sometimes I can also act on my passions, which is why sometimes I act in the manner of an animal. It’s all a matter of degrees – some men act more like beasts than others. That’s why we should always strive for adequate knowledge. In Leibniz, however, despite his repeated assertion that monads have ‘varying degrees of life’, there seems to be threshold that certain living substances can’t cross – a dog will never have a mind, will never have reason. This seems a difference of kind, not degree. A rock will never have sensations, or perceptions accompanied by memory.

The Monadology is interesting, and I know I’ll be returning to these two works. I don’t see where the ethics and politics are going to emerge from this metaphysics yet, but I’m going to keep looking. I need to get a copy of the Theodicy. Oh, and by the way Plato – apparently the answer to “What is justice” was way simpler than what you made it out to be: we can skip all the fuss because Leibniz has declared:

…justice, taken very generally, is nothing other than goodness in conformity with wisdom…”


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