Born: July 1, 1646
Born Place: Leipzig, Germany
Died: November 14, 1716
Death Place: Hanover, Germany
- Alte Nikolaischule
- Leipzig University (1661–1666:
- B.A. in phil., Dec. 1662
- M.A. in phil., Feb. 1664
- LL.B., Sep. 1665
- Dr. phil. hab., Mar. 1666)
- University of Jena
(summer school, 1663)
- University of Altdorf
(Dr. jur., November 1666)
Profession: Inventor, Advocate, Mathematician, Librarian, Diplomat, Philosopher
Gottfried Wilhelm (von) Leibniz (1 July 1646 [O.S. 21 June] – 14 November 1716) was a prominent German polymath and one of the most important logicians, mathematicians and natural philosophers of the Enlightenment. As a representative of the seventeenth-century tradition of rationalism, Leibniz developed, as his most prominent accomplishment, the ideas of differential and integral calculus, independently of Isaac Newton’s contemporaneous developments. Mathematical works have consistently favored Leibniz’s notation as the conventional expression of calculus. It was only in the 20th century that Leibniz’s law of continuity and transcendental law of homogeneity found mathematical implementation (by means of non-standard analysis). He became one of the most prolific inventors in the field of mechanical calculators. While working on adding automatic multiplication and division to Pascal’s calculator, he was the first to describe a pinwheel calculator in 1685 and invented the Leibniz wheel, used in the arithmometer, the first mass-produced mechanical calculator. He also refined the binary number system, which is the foundation of nearly all digital (electronic, solid-state, discrete logic) computers, including “the Von Neumann machine”, which is the standard design paradigm, or “computer architecture”, followed from the second half of the 20th Century, and into the 21st.
In philosophy, Leibniz is most noted for his optimism, i.e. his conclusion that our universe is, in a restricted sense, the best possible one that God could have created, an idea that was often lampooned by others such as Voltaire. Leibniz, along with René Descartes and Baruch Spinoza, was one of the three great 17th-century advocates of rationalism. The work of Leibniz anticipated modern logic and analytic philosophy, but his philosophy also assimilates elements of the scholastic tradition, notably that conclusions are produced by applying reason to first principles or prior definitions rather than to empirical evidence.
Leibniz made major contributions to physics and technology, and anticipated notions that surfaced much later in philosophy, probability theory, biology, medicine, geology, psychology, linguistics, and computer science. He wrote works on philosophy, politics, law, ethics, theology, history, and philology. Leibniz also contributed to the field of library science. While serving as overseer of the Wolfenbüttel library in Germany, he devised a cataloging system that would serve as a guide for many of Europe’s largest libraries. Leibniz’s contributions to this vast array of subjects were scattered in various learned journals, in tens of thousands of letters, and in unpublished manuscripts. He wrote in several languages, primarily in Latin, French and German but also in English, Italian and Dutch. There is no complete gathering of the writings of Leibniz translated into English.
Gottfried Leibniz was born on 1 July 1646, toward the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in Leipzig, Saxony, to Friedrich Leibniz and Catharina Schmuck. Friedrich noted in his family journal:
21. Juny am Sontag 1646 Ist mein Sohn Gottfried Wilhelm, post sextam vespertinam 1/4 uff 7 uhr abents zur welt gebohren, im Wassermann.
On Sunday 21 June [NS: 1 July] 1646, my son Gottfried Wilhelm was born into the world a quarter before seven in the evening, in Aquarius.
Leibniz was baptized on 3 July of that year at St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig; his godfather was the Lutheran theologian Martin Geier . His father died when he was six years old, and from that point on he was raised by his mother.
Leibniz’s father had been a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Leipzig, and the boy later inherited his father’s personal library. He was given free access to it from the age of seven. While Leibniz’s schoolwork was largely confined to the study of a small canon of authorities, his father’s library enabled him to study a wide variety of advanced philosophical and theological works—ones that he would not have otherwise been able to read until his college years. Access to his father’s library, largely written in Latin, also led to his proficiency in the Latin language, which he achieved by the age of 12. He also composed 300 hexameters of Latin verse, in a single morning, for a special event at school at the age of 13.
In April 1661 he enrolled in his father’s former university at age 14, and completed his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy in December 1662. He defended his Disputatio Metaphysica de Principio Individui (Metaphysical Disputation on the Principle of Individuation), which addressed the principle of individuation, on 9 June 1663. Leibniz earned his master’s degree in Philosophy on 7 February 1664. He published and defended a dissertation Specimen Quaestionum Philosophicarum ex Jure collectarum (An Essay of Collected Philosophical Problems of Right), arguing for both a theoretical and a pedagogical relationship between philosophy and law, in December 1664. After one year of legal studies, he was awarded his bachelor’s degree in Law on 28 September 1665. His dissertation was titled De conditionibus (On Conditions).
In early 1666, at age 19, Leibniz wrote his first book, De Arte Combinatoria (On the Combinatorial Art), the first part of which was also his habilitation thesis in Philosophy, which he defended in March 1666. His next goal was to earn his license and Doctorate in Law, which normally required three years of study. In 1666, the University of Leipzig turned down Leibniz’s doctoral application and refused to grant him a Doctorate in Law, most likely due to his relative youth. Leibniz subsequently left Leipzig.
Leibniz then enrolled in the University of Altdorf and quickly submitted a thesis, which he had probably been working on earlier in Leipzig. The title of his thesis was Disputatio Inauguralis de Casibus Perplexis in Jure (Inaugural Disputation on Ambiguous Legal Cases). Leibniz earned his license to practice law and his Doctorate in Law in November 1666. He next declined the offer of an academic appointment at Altdorf, saying that “my thoughts were turned in an entirely different direction”.
As an adult, Leibniz often introduced himself as “Gottfried von Leibniz”. Many posthumously published editions of his writings presented his name on the title page as “Freiherr G. W. von Leibniz.” However, no document has ever been found from any contemporary government that stated his appointment to any form of nobility.
Leibniz died in Hanover in 1716. At the time, he was so out of favor that neither George I (who happened to be near Hanover at that time) nor any fellow courtier other than his personal secretary attended the funeral. Even though Leibniz was a life member of the Royal Society and the Berlin Academy of Sciences, neither organization saw fit to honor his death. His grave went unmarked for more than 50 years. Leibniz was eulogized by Fontenelle, before the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, which had admitted him as a foreign member in 1700. The eulogy was composed at the behest of the Duchess of Orleans, a niece of the Electress Sophia.
Leibniz never married. He complained on occasion about money, but the fair sum he left to his sole heir, his sister’s stepson, proved that the Brunswicks had, by and large, paid him well. In his diplomatic endeavors, he at times verged on the unscrupulous, as was all too often the case with professional diplomats of his day. On several occasions, Leibniz backdated and altered personal manuscripts, actions which put him in a bad light during the calculus controversy.
On the other hand, he was charming, well-mannered, and not without humor and imagination. He had many friends and admirers all over Europe. He identified as a Protestant and a philosophical theist. Leibniz remained committed to Trinitarian Christianity throughout his life.
The year given is usually that in which the work was completed, not of its eventual publication.
- 1666 (publ. 1690). De Arte Combinatoria (On the Art of Combination); partially translated in Loemker §1 and Parkinson (1966)
- 1667. Nova Methodus Discendae Docendaeque Iurisprudentiae (A New Method for Learning and Teaching Jurisprudence).
- 1667. Dialogus de connexione inter res et verba.
- 1671. Hypothesis Physica Nova (New Physical Hypothesis); Loemker §8.I (part).
- 1673 Confessio philosophi (A Philosopher’s Creed); an English translation is available.
- Oct. 1684. “Meditationes de cognitione, veritate et ideis” (“Meditations on Knowledge, Truth, and Ideas”)
- Nov. 1684. “Nova methodus pro maximis et minimis” (“New method for maximums and minimums”); translated in Struik, D. J., 1969. A Source Book in Mathematics, 1200–1800. Harvard University Press: 271–81.
- 1686. Discours de métaphysique; Martin and Brown (1988), Ariew and Garber 35, Loemker §35, Wiener III.3, Woolhouse and Francks 1. An online translation by Jonathan Bennett is available.
- 1686. Generales inquisitiones de analysi notionum et veritatum (General Inquiries About the Analysis of Concepts and of Truths)
- 1695. Système nouveau de la nature et de la communication des substances (New System of Nature)
- 1700. Accessiones historicae
- 1703. Explication de l’Arithmétique Binaire (Explanation of Binary Arithmetic); Gerhardt, Mathematical Writings VII.223. An online translation by Lloyd Strickland is available.
- 1704 (publ. 1765). Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain. Translated in: Remnant, Peter, and Bennett, Jonathan, trans., 1996. New Essays on Human Understanding Langley translation 1896. Cambridge University Press. Wiener III.6 (part). An online translation of the Preface and Book I by Jonathan Bennett is available.
- 1707–1710. Scriptores rerum Brunsvicensium (3 Vols.)
- 1710. Théodicée; Farrer, A.M., and Huggard, E.M., trans., 1985 (1952). Wiener III.11 (part). An online translation is available at Project Gutenberg.
- 1714. Principes de la nature et de la Grâce fondés en raison
- 1714. Monadologie; translated by Nicholas Rescher, 1991. The Monadology: An Edition for Students. University of Pittsburgh Press. Ariew and Garber 213, Loemker §67, Wiener III.13, Woolhouse and Francks 19. Online translations: Jonathan Bennett’s translation; Latta’s translation; French, Latin and Spanish edition, with facsimile of Leibniz’s manuscript at the Wayback Machine (archived 4 July 2012).