Episode 6: Leibniz’s Monadology: What Is There?

Have some tasty metaphysics, in mono!

Leibniz thinks that the world is ultimately made up of monads, which are like atoms except nothing at all like atoms, because they're alive, and mindful, and eternal, and windowless, placed in the best kind of harmony at the beginning of time by God. Is there a concept album in all of this?

Plus, does reading philosophy make you a better conversationalist, or just get you ostracized?

Buy the book or read it free online.

End song: The soothing "Healthy Song" by The MayTricks, from the 1994 album Happy Songs Will Bring You Down.


  1. Christiana Cranberry says

    I like that by going through these readings again, outside of academia, you the panel gain new insight to these works. Sometimes it seems the more enlightened become more stodgy and rigid and vice versa. Keep up the good work. Your show is enlightening at the very least. Awe-inspiring at its best this show is hurtling to the top of my list.

  2. Peter says

    You guys made a mistake while talking about occam’s razor. Its not the simplest explanation, its the explanation with the least assumptions. Therefore there is no metaphysical mystery to why this is true.

  3. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    Thanks for the comments! (Peter, I’m not sure of your point re. the context of the use of O’s Razor; are you saying that L’s account involves fewer or more assumptions than the realist account? “Simplest” and “fewest assumptions” seem to amount to the same thing in this case.)

  4. Peter says

    My point was more against Leibniz than you, and I wasn’t talking specifically about Monadology.
    You were talking about how Leibniz thought Occam’s Razor pointed to the perfection of creation because the simplest answer was usually correct. He made it seem as if this were true by some metaphysical design.
    I’m saying that because the razor actually talks about the least assumptions, its more of an epistemological method than an objective way to find the truth.
    I do get what you mean about the two being somewhat interchangeable. The least assumptions probably means the least parts, and therefore is the simplest.

  5. ericcaroline@cox.net says

    As far as music and Leibniz or more accurately Voltaire there is Bernstein’s Candide. It takes the satire to a new level and takes on the witch hunts of the 50s. The music is great; keep up the good work.

  6. Bazmatic says

    Great podcast guys.

    It’s interesting that you pick up on the fictional potential of Leibniz and the whole philosophic drama that was unfolding during his time, as I found your podcast largely through an interest in Leibniz sparked from reading series of novels by SF author Neal Stephenson. His 3-volume work “The Baroque Cycle” includes Leibniz, Newton, and various other luminaries from the time. It covers “logic mills”, the “Philosophical language” (which you touch upon), and many other goodies.

    BTW, “Monadology” is currently experiencing something of a rebirth through the fledgling “Process Physics” and Wolfram’s “New Kind of Science”.

  7. says

    For the interested amateur who after listening to this podcast realises he’s not supposed to like some of Ayn Rand’s work (not for the literature but the free market/socialism part) why don’t you guys do a podcast on her?
    I am in Europe but know that Rand’s work is extremely popular with the public in the U.S. so imagine it would be of broad interest.

  8. Kathleen Ryan says

    Re your queries about future talks: I WOULD like a discussion of Frege (maybe even next to David Hilbert?) and his “use/mention/meaning/reference.” Also Bertrand Russell (the logic/mathematic stuff, since that is more challenging – for me – than the political stuff), Kurt Godel (the incompleteness theorems), and the “Gettier Problem” and other problems of epistemology. And yes, philosophy of language/mind

    (all this, even though PERSONALLY I prefer hearing about history of philosophy and history of ideas, esp. in the 17-19th century, which most analytic philosophers don’t like to discuss).

  9. Patrick Mallory says

    I, like many of your lay listeners, have slogged laboriously through many of your prescribed readings. I do so cheerfully because I know you have my edification at heart. In that same spirit I’m obligated to beseech you all to check out ‘The Courtier and the Heretic’ by Matthew Stewart. Seriously juicy metaphysics. From the NYTimes review:
    “The mystery that grips Stewart is whether Leibniz himself believed in Spinoza’s God, cribbed his teachings (while pretending unfamiliarity with them) and cynically invented his own philosophy in reaction to Spinoza’s, to mask his secret atheism.” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/26/books/review/26schillinger.html?pagewanted=all

    With so many strong feelings about Leibniz and Spinoza among you three I have no doubt you would love this book. If you come to agree I hope you’ll comment on it here or on a future episode.

    Thanks for the work you do. I love what I understand of it well enough to keep me listening when I don’t.

  10. Terry says

    I only started listening to “The Partially Examined Life” podcast a couple of weeks ago, and I really like it. After this episode mentioning Candide I started thinking, for fun, about whether there might be some clever way to turn the whole thing on it’s head and have Leibniz come out the hero while Votaire takes the shaft.

    Candide, as a response to Leibniz, seems to be a “Fox News” way of arguing. It is similar to Samuel Wilberforce’s inquiry as to whether it was through his grandmother or his grandfather that Huxley considered himself descended from a monkey. It sort of bothers me to see so many philosophers applauding Voltaire and presuming it gave him the upper hand in the debate without really trying to find an “out” for Leibniz. Leibniz was a genius, and so perhaps upon further examination his idea about “the best of all possible worlds” is not so ridiculous. It may be wrong, but it seems to me not as easily dismissed as one might think.

    Firstly, I agree that Leibniz had issues, but he was not an idiot! – He invented calculus for sake! I use his work every day and so do other scientists and mathematicians. So we could at least try to give him an out.

    Let me give a trivial example to start out: Chaos theory is sometimes exemplified with the notion that a butterfly flapping its wings in Australia can cause a tornado in America. Now suppose for the moment that Leibniz was an amateur Lepidopterist (he seemed to be an amateur at everything else so why not?) and that, while on vacation in Australia, happened to net that butterfly before the “fatal flap”. In that case, neither he, nor anyone else, would jump up and down applauding him as the savior of some town in Iowa (they couldn’t know!), but I can easily imagine a sneering Voltaire jumping out from behind a nearby hedge with a snicker “I guess this world was not so great for that butterfly was it Leiby?”

    A more non-trivial example would be the fact that one of the unsolved problems in Physics is the “fine-tuning problem”. Namely, why is it that the fundamental constants of the Universe seem to be incredibly fine-tuned. So much so that changing any of them by even an tiny amount would lead to a Universe in which no life could exist. In fact, there are infinitely many possible universes in which life is impossible. So, viewed from that perspective, perhaps Leibniz has an important point?

    Here is a parable to exemplify the first of Voltaire’s logical flaws:

    Suppose you were around back Voltaire’s day and heard some guy raving in the streets with the following logical “syllogism”. He claims that:

    “Jesus said ‘I am the LIGHT';
    and Jesus is God;
    and nothing can be faster than almighty God;
    HENCE nothing can be faster than light!”

    Your correct course would be to call his ridiculous chain of logic into question (and thereby risk heresy) but not, as Voltaire would probably do, write a book to mock the conclusion: “Haha! that raving lunatic thinks nothing is faster than light!”

    If a conclusion follows from faulty argument, you should attack the argument, not the conclusion, since the conclusion is not necessarily false. (A implies B, does not mean ~A implies ~B)

    But Voltaire did exactly that. He saw a faulty argument (and he was probably right), but he chose to ridicule the conclusion rather than the premises, thus displaying a misunderstanding of logic, and thereby leaving himself open to criticism by future armchair philosophers like me.

    Now, let me beg your indulgence a bit longer. I want to prove to you right now that with only a tiny bit of speculation regarding Leibniz, I can make you at least consider that Leibniz may have been completely correct, and that in fact, it is Voltaire who looks like Pangloss.

    I agree that what Voltaire *presumed* was Leibniz’ motivation for claiming “the best of all possible worlds” is ridiculous – but I also believe it was a strawman (Voltaire’s second logical fallacy: i.e. both strawman and denying the antecedent), In fact, Leibniz’ mastery of mathematics and physics could be the *real* reason he claimed this.

    Let us assume (and here is my speculative assumption) that perhaps Leibniz uses `nature’, `physical law’, and `God’ as synonymous? Like Einstein, Hawking, and many others did/do all the time. Then his “best possible world” idea becomes much more difficult to dismiss.

    Let me explain. Mathematically, “the best of all possible worlds” means “the result of a variational principle” in other words, the answer you get by using variational calculus. This is merely adding a constraint to normal calculus [See Leibniz (1684)]. The way it works is that you assume all things are possible, and you find the actual reality by maximizing, minimizing, or holding things fixed, based on the laws of Nature. For example finding the reality that maximizes Entropy.

    A common use is in finding the path that an object will travel. Variational calculus is used to find the actual path from among all possible paths.

    In classical mechanics we would call this “the path of least resistance”.
    In Quantum Mechanics we call this “the most probable path”.
    In General Relativity we call this “the geodesic path”.
    The list goes on, all coming from variational principles,
    i.e. Leibniz’ “best possible world”

    So what Leibniz may have been saying is that the actual universe must follow from a variational principle. That the actual universe is “the best possible one” in that same sense.

    1) Einsteins equations for the geometry of spacetime follow from a variation principle.
    2) Quantum Mechanics follows from a variational principle.
    3) Classical mechanics, thermodynamics, and even evolutionary biology involve variational principles!

    They all select the best world from among all possible worlds.

    The word *Possible* means “consistent with the laws of nature” (i.e. Einstein’s, Hawking’s, or perhaps even Leibniz’ “god”). The “problem of evil” becomes meaningless if this is your idea of god. “Best” for the laws of nature has no implication to “best” for Pangloss.

    For a final point, Voltaire may think that the world would be “better” if there were no death and decay. But Leibniz might say that variational calculus and the 2nd law of thermodynamics necessarily imply death and decay. Without the 2nd law, there would be no “time”, there would be no “Change” unless that change was reversible (energetically reversible) and hence “thought” would also be impossible. So even to “think” requires death and decay!

    It seems to me that, given the 2nd law of thermodynamics, to assume there could be a physical world without death and decay takes more hope and idealism than even Voltaire’s strawman version of Leibniz. So perhaps it is Voltaire who resembles Pangloss here?

    My conclusion is that in Leibniz’ phrase “the best possible world” the operative word is “possible”, it may mean “as derived from a variational principle based on the laws of nature (god)”.

    I don’t know about you guys, but it grates my nerves a tiny bit when some loud bully (like Voltaire in this case) takes a point I was quietly trying to make, commits the “denying the antecedent” fallacy, then builds a strawman out of his misunderstanding of the point, and finally proceeds to publically trivialize and ridicule that strawman. For me, the “best possible world” would be one in which that guy was never born. Unfortunately though, I am stuck with people like that, because nature (god) doesn’t care what I think. It ain’t “my best possible world”, or “humanity’s best possible world”, it is “THE best possible world” i.e. the one that follows mathematically from the cold, hard, laws of nature.

    So perhaps, in retrospect, we could cut Leibniz some slack?

  11. says

    I enjoyed this episiode’s discussion about whether or not studying philosophy makes one a better conversationalist.

    I’ve found that the answer is “Yes” when I hang out with people like those who make these excellent podcasts. On the other hand, when I hang out with people whose favorite subject is sports, it’s tough to swing the conversation around to monads.

    I like having clean Yes/No answers to important questions such as whether I’ve become a better conversationalist, but in this instance I can only answer “Yeah, sometimes, sort-of, I guess.” This may be one reason why I am not a famous philosopher.

  12. says

    These discussions are incredible. I am a painter and I love listening, as though you are hanging out with me in the other room while I am painting. I find my mind jumping in, but better still I find my mind listening and quieting….

    and later asking questions….it gives my interior world a much richer environment.

    I think about y’all and what you’re talking about long after the podcast.

    I love you guys. Thanks for this podcast. It is exciting.

  13. Rubi says


    I’m a new listener,I have been listening in order and really enjoying how much fun you all make it and how much I learn from everyone’s different perspectives.

    Just to bring to your attention the link for this reading no longer works.


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