Leibniz’s perspectivism


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For Leibniz, the nature of the knowledge we have of the world is perspectival, limited and finite. It is perspectival and limited because we are all in different places at any one time and can only view the world from those positions (literal perspective), have different beliefs about the world (metaphorical perspective) and finite not only because our monadic lives must end but because, despite our intellects, we can never grasp the world in its fullness and totality as can God in his omniscience.

The degree to which our monadic capacities as ‘mirrors’ of God are developed determines the degree to which we can reason and understand God, his beneficence and the world – this very ability enables us to appreciate our limitation.

Leibniz wrote of ‘clear and distinct’ ideas. A differentiation between things gives a clear idea (for example we can reason about objects because we can perceive their form) but when it is known why a thing is as it is, what its essential properties are, the idea is distinct.

Leibniz thought that scientific knowledge, though it aims to provide both clear and distinct ideas can only ever be limited because it is based on sensory information and reflects our finitude as monads.

The ideas of empiricism and mechanistic physics give confused, contingent truths whereas the ideas of metaphysical reason lead to necessary truths, truths that are distinct – the ‘knowledge’ of particular concern to Leibniz.

The knowledge of these necessary and eternal truths distinguishes us from animals and carries us beyond science, beneath science, to the true knowledge of ourselves, the world and God.

For example, when we think about time and space clearly and distinctly we will know that they are not real, that they refer (Leibniz drawing on Neoplatonic duration) to the simultaneity and flux between monadic representations.

As monadic ‘mirrors’ of God and his ‘mind’, we bear not only our futures but these innate ideas or truths in our own ‘minds’ as dispositions or tendencies. Leibniz denied that such knowledge was limited by our experience.

While our knowledge can only ever be limited and perspectival, God’s is perfect and infinite – not only is this monadic world his creation, all perspectives (again drawing on Christianity and the Neoplatonic hypostases of Intellect and the One) are united, co-ordinated and harmonised in his mind, the world.

Consistent with God’s laws, it is an harmonisation of the internal states of the monadic substances, their perspectival representations (beliefs, perceptions) and appetitions (desires, drives).

The interactions and interconnections between monads and their states – and therefore God’s harmonisation – are pre-ordained by him. In our finitude, we can only poorly realise this true knowledge.

That thought grasps its object from a particular point of view is an excellent, necessary approach to knowing the world.

When two people look at the same object or consider the same issue yet think and speak about it differently, they do so because they relate with that object or issue from their own perspective.

The questioning and testing of these perspectives, each in relation to the other and to their objective circumstances, can result in the deepening of our understanding of what is seen or considered.

In the process, we embrace and engage with the engine of the world – contradiction.

To bring perspectives constructively to a subject is to cut facets on a rough diamond.

Perspectives are essential to truth and to our knowledge of the world.



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