February 19, 2011

Berkeley and Leibniz Should be Friends

In his 1733 Theory of Vision Vindicated, commenting on the prevalence of the deist and free-thinking movements in England and Ireland, and justifying his association of these views with outright atheism, Berkeley writes:

That atheistical principles have taken deeper root, and are farther spread than most people are apt to imagine, will be plain to whoever considers that pantheism, materialism, fatalism are nothing but atheism a little disguised; that the notions of Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibnitz [sic], and Bayle are relished and applauded; that as they who deny the freedom and immortality of the soul in effect deny its being, even so they do, as to all moral effects and natural religion, deny the being of God, who deny him to be an observer, judge, and rewarder of human actions; that the course of arguing pursued by infidels leads to atheism as well as infidelity. (Para. 6, emphasis original)

One supposes that Leibniz must make the list in virtue of his determinism, but note that Locke, who also defends compatibilism about free will and determinism, gets left off. (However, see Vere Chappell's very interesting article, "Locke on the Freedom of the Will", where it is argued that through his correspondence with van Limborch, the Dutch Remonstrant (i.e. Arminian) theologian and publisher of Locke's Epistola de Tolerantia, Locke came to realize that his doctrine of the suspension of desire was incompatible with the rest of his theory, and, as a result, revised the fifth edition of the Essay in a way that may introduce a form of incompatibilism.) However, it is really hard to see how Leibniz could possibly get lumped in as a deist/free-thinker when one considers that the works of Leibniz Berkeley was most likely familiar with were the Theodicy and the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence. In both of these works, Leibniz comes off as a first rate philosophical and doctrinal theologian whose views, it seems to me, are well within the bounds of historical Christian orthodoxy. It should also be noted that one of the main aims of Theodicy is to argue for a more moderate understanding of God's decree of election than that taken by supralapsarian Calvinists. Berkeley is no Calvinist, but surely he doesn't think Calvinists are secret atheists. What gives?

Berkeley didn't have the benefit of Leibniz's 'esoteric' works, such as the Discourse on Metaphysics and Monadology, though much of Leibniz's idealistic metaphysics is recoverable from the Theodicy and the "New System of Nature." It is therefore perhaps not entirely Berkeley's fault that he doesn't have a good grasp of the relation of his own thought to that of Leibniz. However, I think Leibniz himself sees things much more clearly when he writes, with characteristic charity, at the end of his copy of Berkeley's Principles,

There is much here that is correct and close to my own view. But it is expressed paradoxically. (AG 307)

There are many important differences between Berkeley and Leibniz, but they are essentially on the same side. Both take minds to be more fundamental than bodies. Both are concerned with misinterpretations of mechanism which lead to the removal of God and/or final causes from our picture of the world. Both are, in central respects, traditional Christians for whom God occupies a central place in metaphysical theorizing. Berkeley's smear is deeply misguided.

Posted by Kenny at February 19, 2011 2:52 PM
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