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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Strickland, L (2017) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation.

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Abstract

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was a universal genius, making original contributions to law, mathematics, philosophy, politics, languages, and many areas of science, including what we would now call physics, biology, chemistry, and geology. By profession he was a court counselor, librarian and historian, and thus much of his intellectual activity had to be fit around his professional duties. Leibniz’s fame and reputation among his contemporaries rested largely on his innovations in the field of mathematics, in particular his discovery of the calculus in 1675. Another of his enduring mathematical contributions was his invention of binary arithmetic, though the significance of this was not recognized until the twentieth century. These days, a good proportion of scholarly interest in Leibniz is focused on his philosophy. Among his signature philosophical doctrines are the pre-established harmony, the theory of monads, and the claim that ours is the best of all possible worlds, which forms the central plank of his theodicy. For Leibniz, philosophy was not the discovery of deep truths of interest only to other philosophers, but a practical discipline with the means to increase happiness and well-being. Philosophical truths, he believed, revealed the beauty and rational order of the universe, and the justice and wisdom of its creator, and accordingly could inspire contentment and peace of mind. Leibniz’s other intellectual projects were likewise geared towards the improvement of the human condition. He lobbied tirelessly for the establishment of scientific societies, devised measures to improve public health, and was actively engaged in projects to unite the churches and so end the religious strife that marred the Europe of his day. He was also engaged in politics for much of his career, and often took on a diplomatic role, sometimes officially and other times not. In the political sphere, Leibniz did not wield true power but was a man with influence, obtained in no small part by his cultivation of relationships with leaders and sovereigns both inside and outside Germany. The sheer range of Leibniz’s interests, projects and activities can make him a difficult figure to study, and the vast quantity of his writings only compounds the problem (around 50,000 of his writings survive). Nevertheless, even a sampling of Leibniz’s work is enough to get a sense of his vision, originality and intellectual depth, and good secondary literature will only enhance this. The items in this bibliography were chosen with this in mind.

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