Leibniz's Passionate Knowledge

Blityri (1/2 2015):75-85 (2016)
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In §18 of Principles of Nature and Grace, Based on Reason, Leibniz says: ”Thus our happiness will never consist, and must never consist, in complete joy, in which nothing is left to desire, and which would dull our mind, but must consist in a perpetual progress to new pleasures and new perfections.” This passage is typical in Leibniz’s Nachlass. Universal perfection creates in us joy or pleasure of the mind and its source is our creator, God. When this joy is constant, we reach happiness and wisdom which is a kind of standing state of virtue, readiness to practice charity in the best of all possible worlds. However, it also indicates that our knowledge is never perfect. Perfecting our knowledge is a never-ending process which gives us joy in itself and motivates us to act in imitation of God. In this way some passions advance our knowledge and we can create ourselves a passionate habit of knowing more about the world and its perfection. In this paper I try to see this process of self-perfection from a cognitive rather than ethical point of view. While it is clear that in the final stage of wisdom we act mostly on our volitions which are founded on clear and distinct perceptions, it is less clear what cognitive status is to be attributed to our initial perceptions of perfection, our emotions and finally, the intellectual emotions which lead us to perfection and God. I will also reflect the role of the minute perceptions in our struggle for happiness. My argument is that a central cognitive role in Leibniz’s views on self-perfection is held by clear, but confused perfections which are subjective, undemonstrable impressions, shades, feelings. Therefore our ethical action is largely founded on passing, minute feelings rather than on deliberated conscious volitions, although the goal in Leibniz’s moral theory is to change this fact. My discussion is founded on several texts from Leibniz’s later philosophy, such as the discussion following from New System of the Nature and the Communication of Substances of 1695, Leibniz’s letter to Queen Sophie Charlotte of 1702 (also known as On What is Independent in Sense and Matter), New Essays on Human Understanding (1704),  Theodicy (1710) and naturally Leibniz’s most important epistemological text, Meditations of Truth, Knowledge and Ideas (1684).

Author's Profile

Markku Roinila
University of Helsinki


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