Meeting 24

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DATE: Tuesday, February 9

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL : Leibniz on Corporeal Substance and Organism: Between A Priori Reasoning and Empirical Evidence

SPEAKERS: Alessandro Becchi (Independent scholar, Florence), Osvaldo Ottaviani (University of Milan)

Recommended reading: Leibniz’s letter to Rudolf Christian Wagner (translation available here).


A metaphysician looking downwards. Some remarks on Leibniz and microscopy

Alessandro Becchi (Independent scholar, Florence)

In my presentation I will focus on the steady interest, shown by Leibniz since his youth, for the microscope: an observational instrument that in the second half of the seventeenth century triggered a second revolution in scientific and philosophical thought, after the great revolution operated by the telescope. This second revolution, which revealed the “infinitely small” to the eyes of the natural philosophers, marked the origin of entirely new sciences. Leibniz was fully aware of the immense cognitive and technical perspectives opened by the new observational tool, perspectives that – in his opinion – far exceeded those of astronomical observatories. I will try to show how this predilection for the microscope has its roots in Leibniz’s very mindset. His interest in microscopy was accompanied by the direct acquaintance with some great microscopists of the time and their pioneering works: Robert Hooke, Jan Swammerdam, Marcello Malpighi, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek. From each one of them Leibniz derived fundamental information about the “microcosm” of nature – information which he readily used as empirical support of some central metaphysical tenets of his mature system: the idea that the ultimate atoms of reality have biological features, the fundamental continuity of nature at all its levels, the doctrine of the preexistence of living beings, the infinite complexity of those “divine machines” represented by plants and animals. On this last point Leibniz makes a strong criticism of the Cartesian conception of living beings (conceived on the model of human artifacts), reformulating in an original way the classical problem of the relationship between art and nature. In continuity with the Aristotelian tradition (even if through a different kind of argument than Aristotle), Leibniz maintains that the difference between human artifacts and natural organisms is a difference of gender, not only one of degree. I believe that all these topics can help us to put into a sharper focus important aspects of the relationship between the history of philosophy and the history of science in the early modern age, and to better grasp the complexity of some historiographical and epistemological categories, such as that of “rationalism”.

Leibniz’s late metaphysics and ontology of life.
Unpublished materials from the correspondence with R. C. Wagner

Osvaldo Ottaviani

In my talk, I would like to discuss Leibniz’s late philosophy, especially his theory of substance and his ontology of living beings, focusing on unpublished materials related to the correspondence with Rudolf Christian Wagner. Leibniz’s correspondence with Wagner has been usually regarded as involving only technical issues, as the construction of Leibniz’s calculating machine; the only philosophically remarkable exception being represented by Leibniz’s well-known letter to Wagner of June 4, 1710. In the current process of publishing the Leibniz-Wagner correspondence in series III of the Akademie Ausgabe, however, other two letters (written between 1704 and 1705) have been edited, where Leibniz discusses philosophical topics, like his theory of the preformation of the animals, and the universal connection of all things. Furthermore, I discovered the original draft of Leibniz’s letter to Wagner of June 1710, which also contains a remarkable series of definitions of the philosophical notions discussed in the letter (simple and composite substances, life, entelechy, primary matter, etc.). A particularly interesting feature of this text is a quite original distinction between three elements, substantians, substantia, and substantiatum. This threefold partition is connected to Leibniz’s distinction between simple substances (monads) and composite substance, which, in his later texts, is often rephrased in terms of a distinction between the substance and the substantiatum (i.e. what is composed of simple substances).

First of all, I would like to show how these materials from the Leibniz-Wagner correspondence allow us to connect Leibniz’s ontological reflections, expressed in a long series of drafts containing definitions of philosophical notions (most of which still unpublished) with his late texts concerning the distinction between primary and secondary matter, as well as with his account of living beings and universal animation. Second, I will focus on the original draft of the letter to Wagner, taking into account his account of substantiata as a sort of leading thread of Leibniz’s philosophical reflections in his late years, where his theory of substance is deeply intertwined with his account of life and organic nature.

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