Leibniz and the Ground of Possibility

Philosophical Review 122 (2):155-187 (2013)
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Leibniz’s views on modality are among the most discussed by his interpreters. Although most of the discussion has focused on Leibniz’s analyses of modality, this essay explores Leibniz’s grounding of modality. Leibniz holds that possibilities and possibilia are grounded in the intellect of God. Although other early moderns agreed that modal truths are in some way dependent on God, there were sharp disagreements surrounding two distinct questions: (1) On what in God do modal truths and modal truth-makers depend? (2) What is the manner(s) of dependence by which modal truths and modal truth-makers depend on God? Very roughly, Leibniz’s own answers are: (1) God’s intellect and (2) a form of ontological dependence. The essay first distinguishes Leibniz’s account from two nearby (and often misunderstood) alternatives found in Descartes and Spinoza. It then examines Leibniz’s theory in detail, showing how, on his account, God’s ideas provide both truth-makers for possibilities and necessities and an ontological foothold for those truth-makers, thereby explaining modal truths. Along the way, it suggests several refinements and possible amendments to Leibniz’s grounding thesis. It then defends Leibniz against a pair of recent objections by Robert Merrihew Adams and Andrew Chignell that invoke the early work of Kant. I conclude that whereas Leibniz’s alternative avoids collapsing into yet another form of Spinozism, the alternatives proposed by Adams, Chignell, and the early Kant do not.
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