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The epistemological theory of Gottfried Leibniz

The epistemological theory of Gottfried Leibniz

June 21, 2022

Do we learn through experimentation with the environment, or through reflection and introspection? This question reflects the main theme that, during the Enlightenment era, served as a differentiating axis to distinguish the great types of philosophers: the rationalists, who argued that knowledge is extracted by reason, and the empiricists, who believed that we developed our intellect through experience.

The German thinker and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz escaped this classification of two categories. In fact, although more than 300 years have passed since his death, his ideas can still serve today to understand in an approximate and intuitive way how we experience reality. Let's see what his theory consisted of.


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Who was Gottfried Leibniz?

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was born in Leipzig in the year 1646. From a young age he showed great curiosity about a wide variety of subjects, and that led him to constantly learn about all kinds of subjects. At 11 he had already learned Latin and he started studying Greek.

From the year 1666, when he finished studying law and scholastic logic at the University of Leipzig, he worked for the elector bishop of the town of Mainz. In 1675 he agreed to become a counselor and librarian to the Duke of Brunswick, which made him move to Hanover , place where he produced his philosophical work at the same time that he combined this activity with several trips, trying to carve out a future in other cities with a more stimulating intellectual environment.


He died forgotten by the nobles of those who surrounded himself during his life because, among other things, of pressures generated by his enmity with Isaac Newton, who accused him of plagiarism in his work on mathematics. His tomb remained anonymous until several years after his death.

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The theory of Leibniz

Although he died without receiving the recognitions of practically anyone, Leibniz is considered a genius: he wrote about economics, law, theology, architecture, mathematics and chemistry. Beyond all these fields of knowledge, is recognized primarily for his contributions to philosophy .

The main proposals of the epistemological theory of Gottfried Leibniz , who developed a philosophy about how we generate knowledge and develop a complex metal life, are the following.


1. The idea of ​​notions

Leibniz believed that every element of reality, be it a person, a landscape or an object, is associated with something called "notion". The notion is all that is true about the element of reality to which it is associated. For example, the color of a raven is black, its hind limb fingers are devoid of feathers, etc.

2. Everything is related

Leibniz was strongly inspired by rationalism, and for that reason he believed that the most that language can aspire to is to resemble mathematics, an hermetic system of symbols. That's why, for him, if something is true, he has to be connected to the truths of other elements of reality described by their corresponding notions, at least from the theoretical point of view.

That is to say, if we discover these relationships between different notions, we will know all reality as a whole. Basically, a notion not only contains truths about the element to which it is associated, but also tells us about all the elements with which it relates.

For example, if there is something that has the fingers of the lower extremities covered in feathers, it is not a crow.

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3. The monads

Leibniz recognizes that, although stretching the thread of the notions can be useful to us to know the truth, to the practice this is impossible, because our rationality is not powerful enough as to work with such a massive amount of information. However, this does not mean that every element of the universe does not contain pieces of truth. In fact, for Leibniz the universe is composed of units called monads, which are metaphysical entities that contain representations of everything that exists.

A monad, being true and speaking of both the past and the present and the future, is identical with another monad, since all agree in containing the true.

4. Truths of reason and truths of fact

However, the existence of monads does not change the fact that we are not capable of assimilating their presence, and in practice we often act as if nothing were certain.

While we can access simple greens through mathematics, that does not allow us to make the leap and get to know everything that is true and authentic; we just stay there, with that tiny patch of reality that the sum of one and one equals two.

That is why in the theory of Gottfried Leibniz distinguishes between truths of reason and fact, the latter being the lesser evil necessary to work with relative certainties about what happens to us. The only entity that has full access to the truths of reason , according to Leibniz, would be the Christian god.


Leibniz’ Contingency Argument (June 2022).


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