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 Review of Couturat’s edition of Leibniz (1904)*

By Bertrand Russell

Opuscules et Fragments Inédits de Leibniz: extraits de la Bibliothèque royale de Hanovre. Par Louis Couturat, Chargé de Cours à l’Université de Toulouse. Paris: Alcan, 1903. Pp. xvi, 682.

The present collection of texts is, in the main, supplementary to M. Couturat’s La Logique de Leibniz, which has already been noticed at length in Mind (N.S., No. 46). The importance of the new manuscripts may be gauged by the reconstruction of Leibniz’s philosophy to which they have led their editor. The editing, as far as can be judged without seeing the MSS., is unusually careful; the changes and corrections made by Leibniz are noted, from which (as is pointed out in the Preface) it becomes possible to watch the “passionate and almost dramatic” development of his thought. The Preface contains an eloquent appeal to the International Association of Academies, which has undertaken to make a new edition of Leibniz, not to repeat the error of publishing only a selection. In this respect, what M. Couturat says is most weighty, and ought to command the assent of all Leibniz-students. So many of his fragmentary attempts have been found to contain the germs of important subjects, that no editor can lightly assume the responsibility of rejecting anything. Also the very brief notes, which were written down in odd moments (once, at least, on the back of a hotel bill), contain often, as M. Couturat points out, very clear and yet very condensed statements of his views on fundamental points; moreover they are apt to concern real difficulties in his system, and to face these without the tiresome verbiage of piety in which he clothed his public utterances. Such fragments, therefore, are most specially worthy of publication.

It is also urged in the Preface that no classification except a chronological one should be adopted. Certainly the habit of divorcing Leibniz’s mathematics and philosophy is unfortunate – indeed, it would seem, more generally, that the modern practice of separating these two studies is a disaster to both. And in the case of Leibniz it is pointed out that his thoughts were so encyclopædic, and so dominated by the attempt to bring all sciences within one system, as to make all classification by subjects necessarily a mutilation.

The body of the work contains much matter of the highest interest in regard to the grounds of Leibniz’s views; and a good deal of what is now published for the first time seems at least equal, in philosophical importance, to anything in previous editions. This applies especially to the work called Generales Inquisitiones de Analysi Notionum et Veritatum, written at the same time as the Discours de Métaphysique. This work oscillates between Philosophy and Symbolic Logic, making the interconnexion of the two quite remarkably visible. Also one sees Leibniz apparently thinking of some of his main ideas for the first time, trying and testing them. Notably the theory of contingency as infinite complexity results very naturally from the purely logical test of the true as that in whose analysis there are no contradictory ingredients (p. 370 ff.); where analysis can be continued indefinitely, the test becomes inapplicable unless by a mind which can complete an infinite process. The notion of the individual developed in the correspondence with Arnauld seems also to have its origin in Symbolic Logic (cf. p. 375 ff.).

The book ends with the “Pacidius Philalethi” in full, of which fragments were published by Gerhardt. This is an important dialogue on motion and change, written in 1676, deducing from Zeno-esque arguments such conclusions as that space is not composed of points and that motion is a kind of transcreation, and ending with something very like occasionalism. The difficulties in the notion of change are admirably stated.

It is quite impossible to do justice to the many important matters contained in this collection; on Symbolic Logic and on the indefinables of philosophy, especially, much new light is thrown by M. Couturat’s labours. But his own work on Leibniz’s Logic has so admirably expounded the conclusions which follow from the texts, that there is no need for the reviewer to dwell upon this subject further than to say that, in my opinion, the new material compels the acceptance of many of M. Couturat’s most startling conclusions, and enables us (what was impossible before) to form a fairly clear idea of the Encyclopaedia, the Scientia Generalis, and the Formal Logic which Leibniz all his life endeavoured to create.


*  Bertrand Russell, Review of Louis Couturat, ed., Opuscules et Fragments Inédits de Leibniz: extraits de la Bibliothèque royale de Hanovre, Mind, n.s. 13, no. 49 (Jan 1904), 131-2