Simple Substance?

I tremendously admire Leibniz, but have always been very puzzled by his notion of “substance”. Clearly it is different from that of Aristotle, which I still ought to develop more carefully, based on the hints in my various comments on Aristotle’s very distinctive approaches to “dialectic” and “being”. (See also Form, Substance.)

Leibniz compounds a criterion of simplicity — much emphasized in the neoplatonic and scholastic traditions — with his own very original notion of the complete concept of a thing, which is supposed to notionally encompass every possible detail of its description. He also emphasizes that every substance is “active”. Leibniz’ famous monads are identified by him with substances.

A substance is supposed to be simple. He explicitly says this means it has no parts. In part, he seems to have posited substances as a sort of spiritual atoms, with the idea that it is these that fundamentally make up the universe. The true atoms, Leibniz says, are fundamentally spiritual rather than material, though he also had great interest in science, and wanted to vindicate both mathematical and Aristotelian physics. Leibniz’ notion of spiritual atoms seems to combine traditional attributes of the scholastic “intellectual soul” (which, unlike anything in Aristotle, was explicitly said by its advocates to be a simple substance) with something like Berkeley’s thesis that what can truly be said to exist are just minds.

On the other hand, a substance is supposed to be the real correlate of a “complete” concept. The complete concept of a thing for Leibniz comprises absolutely everything that is, was, or will be true of the thing. This is related to his idea that predicates truly asserted of a grammatical subject must be somehow “contained” within the subject. Leibniz also famously claimed that all apparent interaction between substances is only an appearance. The details of apparent interaction are to be explained by the details contained within the complete concept of each thing. This is also related to his notions of pre-established harmony and possible worlds, according to which God implicitly coordinates all the details of all the complete concepts of things in a world, and makes judgments of what is good at the level of the infinite detail of entire worlds. One of Kant’s early writings was a defense of real interaction against Leibniz.

Finally, every monad is said by Leibniz to contain both a complete microcosm of the world as expressed from its distinctive point of view, and an infinite series of monads-within-monads within it. Every monad has or is a different point of view from every other, but they all reflect each other.

At least in most of his writings, Leibniz accordingly wanted to reduce all notions of relation to explanations in terms of substances. In late correspondence with the Jesuit theologian Bartholomew Des Bosses, he sketched an alternate view that accepted the reality of relations. But generally, Leibniz made the logically valid argument that it is far simpler to explain the universe in terms of each substance’s unique relation to God, rather than in terms of infinities of infinities of relations between relations. For Leibniz all those infinities of infinities are still present, but only in the mind of God, and in reflection in the interior of each monad.

Leibniz’ logically simpler account of relations seems like an extravagant theological fancy, but however we may regard that, and however much we may ultimately sympathize with Kant over Leibniz on the reality of interaction and relations, Leibniz had very advanced intuitions of logical-mathematical structure, and he is fundamentally right that from a formal point of view, extensional properties of things can all be interpreted in an “intensional” way. Intension in logic refers to internal content of a concept, and to necessary and sufficient conditions that constitute its formal definition. This is independent of whatever views we may have about minds. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

So, there is much of interest here, but I don’t see how these ultra-rich notional descriptions can be true of what are also supposed to be logical atoms with no parts. In general, I don’t see how having a rich description could be compatible with being logically atomic. I think the notion of logical atomicity is only arrived at through abstraction, and doesn’t apply to real things.

Disambiguating “Power”

As Aristotle might remind us, “power” is said in many ways. Each of these is different.

There is the power that Plato suggests as a distinguishing mark of being in the Sophist. There is the greater power he attributes to the Good more ancient than being. There is Aristotelian potentiality, which I normally prefer to distinguish from “power” altogether, but is referred to by the same Greek word. There is the related notion of power as capacity, of the sort developed by Paul Ricoeur. There is efficient causality, itself said in many ways. There is physical force. There is legal or political authority. There are repressive apparatuses. There is the positive, distributed social power involved in the formation of selves, discussed by Michel Foucault. There is the artistic and inventive power with which Nietzsche was especially concerned. There are claims of supernatural power beyond possible human understanding.

I haven’t yet found where in her French text Gwenaëlle Aubry clarifies how her identification of Aristotle’s god with pure act — involving neither Aristotelian potentiality nor Platonic power — goes together with her identification of the efficacy of the pure act with a final causality realized through “potentiality as tendency toward the end”. I think this has to do with the pure act’s role as an end or attractor, so that the potentiality in question belongs to the things it attracts, rather than to Aristotle’s god. Aristotle’s god for Aubry is what might be called an “inspiring” or attracting cause rather than a ruler and a driving cause.

It seems to me that in order to even be intelligible, a power of any kind must be understood as having definite characteristics related to its efficacy. I therefore think “infinite power” is devoid of sense. Even the “omnipotent” God of Leibniz who selects the best of all possible worlds at the moment of creation only selects an inherent, coherently realizable possibility that is also in accordance with non-arbitrary criteria of goodness. He does not create arbitrarily.

Power of the One?

Gwenaëlle Aubry calls Aristotle’s god of pure act is “a god without power, but nonetheless not a weak god” (Dieu san la puissance, p. 9, my translation). Pure act has an efficacy in the world that is not that of efficient causality, but rather that of the final causality that is the efficacy of the Aristotelian Good. She intriguingly connects this efficacy with the potentiality in things that is Aristotle’s very different meaning for the same word as “power”.

She builds a contrasting account of how for Plotinus the One — identified with the Platonic Good — is the “power of all”, that is to say the power behind all that is. To be “the power behind all that is” is not to be omnipotent in the sense of Philo and later theologians, but it is still very different from being pure act. Here the first principle of all things is a power, whereas the first principle for Aristotle according to Aubry is a pure end that is not involved with power at all, but is rather an attractor for potentialities. Plotinus wants the end of all things to be a power at the origin of all things.

“Power of” is very different from “power over”, and in Plato and Plotinus it is the Good that is the ultimate power. But according to Aubry, treating the first principle as a power at all set the stage for views that put power first in the order of explanation, ahead of the good.

In Genèse du dieu souverain she says that Augustine explicitly put divine omnipotence before divine goodness in his account of God. We have moved from “the Good is the power of all” to “the Almighty is good”.

Although Leibniz claims most theologians agree with him that God wills things because they are good, and that things are not just good because God wills them so, Aubry claims that affirming omnipotence means putting power first in the order of explanation.

Regardless of even saintly intentions, putting power first in the order of explanation is an inauspicious move for ethics.

Leibniz on Justice vs Power

In Meditation on the Common Concept of Justice (ca. 1703), Leibniz made points that deserve to be quoted at length. Editor Patrick Riley notes that “Leibniz’ radical formulation of this question follows Plato’s Euthyphro (9E-10E) almost literally, though Plato was dealing with ‘holiness’ rather than justice” (Leibniz, Political Writings, p. 45).

Leibniz says, “It is agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just: in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions” (ibid).

For present purposes, what is important is whether justice and goodness depend on an arbitrary will or have criteria of their own, not whether those criteria are necessary and eternal.

To say that justice and goodness depend upon an arbitrary will “would destroy the justice of God. For why praise him because he acts according to justice, if the notion of justice, in his case, adds nothing to that of action? And to say… my will takes the place of reason, is properly the motto of a tyrant” (pp. 45-46; brackets in original).

“This is why certain persons, too devoted to the absolute right of God, who have believed that he could justly condemn innocent people and even that this might actually happen, have done wrong to the attributes that make God lovable, and, having destroyed the love of God, they left only fear [behind]” (p. 46; brackets in original).

“Thus all [Lutheran] theologians and most of those of the Roman Church, and also most of the ancient Church Fathers and the wisest and most esteemed philosophers, have been for the second view, which holds that goodness and justice have their grounds… independent of will and of force.”

“Plato in his dialogues introduces and refutes a certain Thrasymachus, who, wishing to explain what justice is, [says] that is just… which is agreeable or pleasant to the most powerful. If that were true, there would never be a sentence of a sovereign court, nor of a supreme judge, which would be unjust, nor would an evil but powerful man ever be blameworthy. And what is more, the same action could be just or unjust, depending on the judges who decide, which is ridiculous. It is one thing to be just and another to pass for it, and to take the place of justice.”

“A celebrated English philosopher named Hobbes, who is noted for his paradoxes, had wished to uphold almost the same thing as Thrasymachus: for he wants God to have the right to do everything, because he is all-powerful. This is a failure to distinguish between right and fact. For what one can do is one thing, what one should do, another” (pp. 46-47; brackets added).

“[I]f power were the formal reason of justice, all powerful persons would be just, each in proportion to his power; which is contrary to experience.”

“It is thus a question of finding this formal reason, that is to say, the why of this attribute, or this concept which should teach us what justice is” (p. 48). By “formal” Leibniz here means something like “essential”.

Power and Act

I would say without hesitation that having a concept of power and act is better than not having one. Nonetheless, despite my tremendous admiration both for the work of Paul Ricoeur and for the classic developments of Leibniz and Spinoza, I think Ricoeur was mistaken to associate Spinoza, Leibniz, Freud, or Bergson with a properly Aristotelian notion of potentiality and actuality (see The Importance of Potentiality; Potentiality, Actuality). Ricoeur on several occasions in his late works identified Spinoza’s conatus, or the desire and effort of beings to continue being — as well as the appetite or desire of each monad in Leibniz, and desire in Freud — with potentiality in Aristotle.

I think Ricoeur was absolutely right to emphasize both the great value of potentiality and actuality in Aristotle and the generally salutary role of the other concepts mentioned, but I don’t think they are the same. Aristotelian actuality refers not just to a current state of things, but more profoundly to what is effectively operative in a process. In Aristotelian terms, I take notions like Platonic “power”, desire, or conatus to express aspects of this more profound, higher-order, and “dynamic” notion of actuality. This is all good as far as it goes, but such richer notions of actuality still do not give us true Aristotelian potentiality or its pairing with actuality, which I regard as an even greater treasure.

Potentiality consists in the concrete counterfactual conditions that give shape, generality, and a kind of substance or “thickness” to the determination of things in the present. It is always indexed to a specific actuality, supplementing and complementing it. It gives us an explicit way to talk about incomplete determination, multiple possibilities, and openness within that actuality, while still recognizing the reality of determination and concrete constraints. It helps us express real determination without overstating it. It is not itself a power, but rather what defines what our power can do.

Spinoza, in consistently following through his idea that there is only one substance, developed a fascinating relational perspective on things, but he strongly adhered to the early modern notion of a complete and univocal determination analogous to what is found in mathematics, which is ultimately incompatible with the Aristotelian notion of incomplete determination expressed in the idea of potentiality and actuality.

Leibniz’s notion of determination had a teleological as well as a mathematical component. He gave admirable consideration to variety, multiplicity, and alternate possibilities in the development of his thought. Nonetheless his notion of pre-established harmony seems to be a sophisticated variant of theological doctrines of predestination, according to which every tiny detail of the world’s unfolding follows from a divine plan.

A notion that each being has or is a kind of Platonic power is actually compatible with a notion of complete determination. For many years, this was the kind of answer I would have given as to how freedom and determination can be reconciled. In a view like this, the freedom of a being is explained in terms of its having a finite power and efficacy, and determination is explained in terms of how all the powers interact. (Leibniz of course denied real interaction, virtualizing it all into the pre-established harmony.)

In more recent years, I have wanted to stress instead that determination is real but incomplete. This is how I now read Aristotle and Hegel. Of all the major modern philosophers, it now seems to me to be Hegel who actually comes closest to recovering an Aristotelian notion of actuality and potentiality. Unlike Aristotle he does not explicitly talk about potentiality, but Hegel’s rich notion of actualization implicitly captures the nuances of the interaction of actuality and potentiality. (See also Aristotelian Actualization.)


The most essential thing in heroism is not courage per se, but taking responsibility for things that exceed our power, which does also involve a kind of courage. I relate this to the Leibnizian idea that truly ethical action involves doing more than strict obligation requires (and demanding less for ourselves). Brandom’s very original new theory of responsibility leads in a similar direction.

It turns out that taking responsibility for things that exceed our power can indirectly have a kind of efficacy after all. Genuine social change toward greater justice commonly involves many people doing something like this. (See also Values, Causality; Kantian Freedom.)


In New Essays on the Human Understanding, which was a sort of very long Platonic dialogue critically discussing Locke’s landmark Essay, Leibniz took a fascinating and extremely unexpected approach to defending what he took to be the old doctrine of innate ideas that Locke had begun by rejecting. In so doing, he completely transformed its meaning.

Leibniz describes us as inhabiting (or perhaps floating on the surface of) an immense sea of tiny perceptions below the level of conscious awareness. He says that these microperceptions are always ongoing, even in sleep.

This seems to be the first major anticipation of later notions of the unconscious. Perhaps microperceptions might more accurately be called preconscious, as one might say about the Kantian synthesis of intuition, which could be considered to use Leibnizian microperceptions as part of its material. On the other hand, even the Freudian unconscious has been reinterpreted in an expansive way no longer tied to metaphors of depth and containment, which seems to mitigate the difference. (See also Kantian Intuition.)

One may imagine how unconscious microperception might be explained in terms of Leibniz’s monadology, as always-ongoing perceptions of tiny monads included by our larger monad, in his famous image of monads within monads in series without end.

Microperception in the New Essays seems to be attributed to us as natural beings. This is different from what he says about high-level apperception, which was mainly developed in the very different context of his work Principles of Nature and Grace. There, he attributed apperception to participants in what he distinguished from the realm of nature as the community of spirits subject to grace. In terms of the development being pursued here, that would mean that we have apperception as ethical beings directly concerned with normativity, whereas the hypothesis of microperceptions would belong to biological and psychological explanation that is only normative at a methodological level.

Expansive Agency

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 623

I have said that to be an agent is to be subject to a certain kind of interpretation, independent of any consideration of causal power in the modern sense. The expansive approach to agency that Brandom recommends accordingly involves an expansive interpretation. Characteristically, he expresses this in terms of identification, authority and responsibility.

When they implement practices of what Brandom calls “postmodern” forgiveness and trust, self-conscious individuals (metonymically substituted for the applicable transcendental syntheses that actually include identification; see Substance Also Subject) are said to identify with actual goings-on. Consistent with Brandom’s expansive strategy, this should mean they identify with actual goings-on tout court, i.e. with everything that happens. This in turn helps with the implementation of normative monism. (See also Normative “Force”; Essentially Self-Conscious?)

The syntheses in question are said to have real partial authority over these same goings-on. Since what is important in an action (as distinct from, say, an event) is its normative status, how that will be evaluated, and what other normative consequences that will have — not first-nature causal efficacy — real but partial authority is all that is required of an agent. As with what was said about identification above, that real but partial authority also extends to everything that happens. A postmodern ethical being functions as a co-steward of the world.

Brandom compares this expansive approach with Leibnizian optimism that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. For Brandom, realization of this world as the best of all possible worlds is the task postmodern ethical beings set for themselves. Postmodern ethical beings accept co-responsibility for all things, and remain light of heart in doing so.

In the spirit of postmodern heroism, commitment knowingly and happily takes on responsibilities greater than it could possibly fulfill, then does the best it can, freely confesses where it fell short, and rests confident in the knowledge that it deserves to be forgiven for those shortcomings. That is its essential dignity.


Leibniz was one of the greatest minds ever — deeply original, vastly prolific, encyclopedic like Aristotle, but working in the ferment of early modernity. He formulated many differently detailed systems, in an exploratory and tentative way. What he published during his lifetime was only a tiny fraction of his output, and not fully representative of his thought. The critical edition of his collected works will not be completed for many decades yet to come.

Leibniz favored an ethical and political ideal of what he called wise charity. An ethical being is one who does more for others than is required to satisfy rights and responsibilities or social contract, and demands less of others than would be justified, while taking care to act in ways that are sustainable and not self-destructive. I like this very much.

An avowed Lutheran who cultivated extensive dialogue with Catholic scholars and religious leaders, Leibniz was deeply disturbed by Europe’s terrible religious wars. He sought to promote tolerance, diplomacy, and understanding.

As a Platonist in theology who stressed the importance of Plato’s Euthyphro, Leibniz said that God is first and foremost supposed to be good and reasonable, not just obeyed. His God would never say “…because I said so!” Leibniz was highly sensitive to the dangers of subordinating Reason and the Good to any kind of arbitrary Will, be it divine or political. To those who objected that this limited God’s power, he replied that attributing an arbitrary will to God would degrade God to a mere tyrant and despot rather than a good and wise ruler (see Leibniz on Justice vs Power).

Leibniz partly anticipated Einstein in saying that space and time are relations.

He held that mathematical physics of the sort he helped develop was fundamentally compatible with — and complementary to — what I have referred to as Aristotle’s semantic physics.

He argued for what I take to be the Aristotelian position that identity is just discernibility.

Leibniz defended the principle of sufficient reason (cleverly phrased by the scholastics as “nothing comes from nothing”). At the same time, he held that all necessity is of the hypothetical (if-then) variety, which means that nothing is unconditionally necessary, either.

The famous monads apply his pioneering work on infinite series to an inspiration from his friend Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of microscopic organisms. On the one hand, each monad is supposed to be a self-contained microcosm of the entire universe; on the other hand, each monad contains many others that each contain many others that are also such microcosms (each with its own unique point of view on the whole), and so on to infinity. (See also Unity of Apperception.) Leibniz also had a fascinating theory of unconscious microperceptions.

Monads are said not to causally interact, but instead to mutually reflect one another in a purely synchronic way. For Leibniz, it is as though in reality everything has always already happened. It all comes down to one eternal act of God selecting the best of all possible already completely formed worlds. His thesis of the unreality of interaction seems bizarre and was never widely accepted, but the idea of synchronic mutual reflection is fascinating. (This is quite different from the pattern of determination in Hegelian mutual recognition, which has a substantial synchronic dimension but is based on interaction and has an irreducible diachronic component.) (See also Things In Themselves; Redding on Morals and Modality.)

I think Leibniz’s preformationism may be intended as a kind of edifying Platonic myth, but that is a side issue. Its practical consequence is a vision of determination and explanation by synchronic structure rather than sequential causality. Like most people, I think we also need a diachronic, interactive dimension. However, the possibilities of synchronic structural explanation are huge.

Leibniz controversially argued that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Whether or not we adopt such a view, it is important to understand that it was not nearly as naive as Voltaire’s famous satire made it out to be. For Leibniz, the criteria for a possible world are rather rigorous. A possible world is certainly not just any world we might idly imagine. All its details and all their realistic consequences must be able to coherently coexist.

Brandom has characterized Leibniz as an early inferentialist. In English, recent secondary literature is far better than most older accounts. In French, I was impressed by Yvon Belaval’s Leibniz, critique de Descartes (1960) and his student Michel Serres’ dissertation Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathémathiques (1968).