Leibniz’s Influence on Kant (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


1. Introduction

Kant’s references to Leibniz, though sporadic, reveal an ongoing
interest in Leibnizian problems and concepts. At one time or another,
Kant addressed all of Leibniz’s main doctrines, including his defense
of living forces against the Cartesians, his attack on absolute space
and time against the Newtonians, his immaterial atomism or monadology,
his theodicy, and his various principles and laws — the identity
of indiscernibles, continuity, non-contradiction and sufficient reason.
The challenging tone towards the followers of Leibniz that the young
Kant, as an aspiring physicist and cosmologist, adopted gave way in
time to respectful engagement with the philosopher himself, as Kant
became an increasingly determined critic of materialism.

Yet Kant’s attitude towards his famous predecessor, whose ideas were
extensively discussed in French, and later in Prussian intellectual
circles after Leibniz’s death in 1716, never reaches equilibrium. This
is unsurprising, for Kant’s own texts show an attraction to
teleological theories of the whole, as well as to
epistemological caution. Kant
describes Leibniz as one of the greatest and most successful reformers
of the modern era (9:32), along with John Locke, and as a genius,
along with Isaac Newton (7.226). Yet he also refers repeatedly to the
errors of the Leibnizians, whom he considers “dogmatic”
philosophers. Their conviction that human reason could acquire
knowledge of supersensible entities, including the soul and God,
necessitated, in Kant’s view, a “critique.” Locke had
attempted to construct a critical philosophy against the Cartesians
but had failed to carry his programme through. Kant noted the
peculiarity of Locke’s suggesting that, after deriving all concepts
from experience and reflection on experience, he could demonstrate the
existence of God and the immortality of the soul, matters lying well
beyond all experience (KRV A 854f/B 882f). An even more conspicuous
failure in Kant’s eyes was perhaps Locke’s account of moral motivation
as located in a pleasure principle and God’s power to punish and
reward. “So much there was deceptive, that it is necessary to
suspend the whole enterprise and to bring instead the method of the
critical philosophy into play. This consists of examining the process
of reason itself, of dividing and testing the human knowledge capacity
in order to determine how far out its boundaries may be placed”

The suspension of the whole enterprise announced by Kant should not
obscure the fact that Leibniz and Kant shared an ethico-religious
conception of philosophy. Leibniz wrote in an era in which the
universities were still dominated by Christian philosophy. Whatever
his private leanings towards mystical and philosophical religion, he
believed that a strong and unified religious authority was essential
to the maintenance of moral and political order, and the content of
morality did not strike him as problematic. Kant, though steeped in
Protestant theology and moral philosophy, favoured the newer trend
towards the academic autonomy of philosophy and secular morality and
governance. Yet, as a moral rigorist, he had to contend with the rising influence of materialism in Germany (10:145); the skepticism and conventionalism voiced by Locke and David Hume and the
attacks on metaphysics and conventional morals of Helvetius, La Mettrie (19:109), Voltaire (15:336)and possibly the widely read Baron Holbach. How could morality be reconciled with
Newtonian science and how could the existence of ineluctable duties be
established in the face of the variety of human practices and customs established by Montesquieu and the numerous travel writers on whose accounts Kant relied in compiling his lectures on Anthropology? Leibniz, he noted, was at least not contradictory in the way Locke had
been; he denied that knowledge was limited by our experience. For
Kant, however, metaphysics could not provide knowledge of the
supersensible, including the existence of God, the possibility of the
realization of a highest good in the natural world, or the ability of
human beings to realize that good through their endowments. Human
aspirations in this regard were transcendent, futile, and
“entirely vacuous” (20: 301).

For Leibniz, the Kingdom of Nature and the Kingdom of Grace were parallel orders. Everything in nature happened, as Hobbes and Spinoza maintained, on account of ‘mechanical’ principles. At the same time, Leibniz insisted in his Principles of Nature and Grace based on Reason (1714):

[A]ll minds, whether of men or [spirits], entering into a kind of
society with God, by virtue of reason and eternal truths, are members
of a City of God, that is members of the perfect state, formed and
governed by the greatest and best of monarchs. Here there is no crime
without punishment, no good action without proportionate reward, and
finally as much virtue and happiness as is possible. (Ariew and
Garber, 212)

Referencing Leibniz, Kant adapted this dualistic scheme into his own
scheme of transcendental ideas. In nature, everything happened
mechanically (though with mechanism potentially embracing a somewhat
richer ontology of forces than Leibniz had allowed for.) Human beings,
though not other spirits – for Kant disdained the notion of
incorporeal spirits – formed a moral community (see Guyer).

To view ourselves, therefore, as in the world of grace, where all happiness awaits us, except insofar as we ourselves limit our share in it through being unworthy of happiness, is, from the practical standpoint, a necessary idea of reason. (KRV A812/B840)

In this community, reward for having lived a morally worthy
life in the form of everlasting
happiness was intrinsically deserved, but this could only be hoped for and kept in view, not proved
(KRV A810-18/B841-46).

Kant denied that the present world contained as much goodness and
happiness as possible. Rather, it was definitely progressing towards
greater cultural development, and perhaps moral development. Hope and
effort, especially in the latter struggle where they were most needed,
was itself morally mandated (8:8-32). So the ‘idea of a moral
world’ had ‘objective reality’ as a ‘corpus
mysticum of the rational beings in it’ even if it was only the
sensible world viewed in a different but obligatory way.

The dogmatic metaphysicians preceding him, Kant argued,
imagined that they could demonstrate the truth of their doctrines in
rigorous mathematical fashion, but metaphysical concepts lacked the
precision and intelligibility of mathematical concepts. At the same
time, they put their trust in intellectual intuition, which was no more
certain than the visionary and mystical writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg,
who had set down his hallucinations and angelic dictations in twelve
volumes of the Arcana Coelestia (1749–56), which Kant read in
1765 and satirized in his Dreams of a Spirit Seer in 1766.
Leibniz’s monadology exemplified both errors, for Leibniz thought that,
merely by rationally considering the problem of the divisibility of
matter, he could conclusively demonstrate that the basic constituents
of the universe were living or at least minded beings with perception and appetite. At the same time,
the details of his picture of the world behind the appearances,
incorporating slumbering monads, confused omniscience, and the
pre-established harmony, seemed to Kant gratuitous fancies.

Where Leibniz rescued ethics and religion by claiming to discover a
hidden reality of immortal, spontaneous souls forming a Kingdom of Grace beneath the material and
causally-determined appearances, Kant believed he could accomplish the
task of reconciling the scientific view of the world with moral
aspiration and accountability by investigating the necessary
preconditions of our experience. Necessary forms of thought such as
space, time, causality and objecthood would thereby be distinguished from
constraints embedded in reality. Though
materialism is commonly associated with French Enlightenment figures, Kant considered it an English vice. He associated it not however with Hobbes and Locke but with Joseph Priestley (KRV B 773; 4:258), and he was most certainly aware of its German development through Ernst Platner and others (see Rumore). Determinism and materialism seemed to support a
lax moral philosophy, in which pleasure was conceived as the summum
bonum, morality was conventional, and humans were anyway machines
devoid of responsibility for their actions. In those not given to
dissipation, skepticism and empiricism led, Kant thought, to a sense of
moral futility, misanthropy and despair. Kant was determined to attack
fashionable, pessimistic, and libertine philosophies, but he had to
show that he rejected rationalist demonstration as thoroughly as any

His manner of doing so was exceedingly elegant. Kant did not merely
challenge the logic of, or poke fun at the extravagances of Leibniz’s
metaphysics, though he is not above a joke regarding the monads —
potential human lives — he might be swallowing with his morning
coffee (2:327). In the antinomies section of the Critique of Pure
, he shows that, for every “proof” of an
important metaphysical proposition, such as determinism, atomism, or
the eternity of the universe, a proof of the contrary proposition, such
as the existence of exceptions to mechanical causality, infinite
divisibility, or the temporal finitude of the world can be supplied. By
attempting to prove too much, human rationality accomplished too
little. Traditional metaphysics left reason perturbed, confused, and

As many of Leibniz’s writings were not published until the
19th or 20th century, an accurate assessment of
the relation between the Leibniz and Kant can take into account only
those works in circulation in the second half of the 18th
century and available to Kant, his teachers and his interlocutors.
These comprised the Meditations on Knowledge, Truth and Ideas,
the New System of the Nature and Communication of Substances,
the Specimen Dynamicum, the Theodicy, the
Monadology and the Principles of Nature and Grace,
the Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence, and the posthumous New
, which Kant read four years after their publication, in
1769. A collection of diverse pieces, edited by Pierre Desmaizeaux was
published in 1720; followed by the more comprehensive Oeuvres
edited by Raspé in 1765 , and the Opera
issued by Dutens in 1768. Wolff, who may have had privileged
access to some of Leibniz’s unpublished writings, wrote a series of
textbooks under the title Vernunftige Gedancken beginning in
1719, reformulating Leibniz’s scattered thoughts on atomism,
determinism, pre-established harmony, and theodicy into scholastic
format, that served to bring these doctrines into prominence, as did
some writings of Alexander Baumgarten and G.F. Meier, and Euler’s
Letters to a German Princess (1768–1772), which deals
critically but cursorily with Leibnizian themes, including idealism,
soul-body relations, and the problem of evil. If Kant brooded on
Leibnizian topics, however, it was not, except perhaps in the period of
the controversy with J.A. Eberhard, in which Kant was concerned to
distinguish Leibniz from his followers and to champion what he saw as
Leibniz’s special Platonic contributions, with an eye to understanding
Leibniz’s system as a whole or extracting the best possible
interpretation from it, but rather with an eye to avoiding his

Insofar as Kant professed embarrassment about his pre-1770 essays,
it might be tempting to divide his discussion of Leibniz into a
pre-critical (before 1770) and a critical phase. Yet this division is
not specially illuminating, and recent scholars have questioned the
formerly standard periodization (see the entry on
Kant’s philosophical development).
The True Measurement of Living Forces, (1747),
the Physical Monadology (1756), New Elucidation
(1755), the Essay on some Treatments of Optimism
(1759), Negative Quantities (1763) and the Dreams of a
(1766) are all technically
“pre-critical,” but they are critical with respect to
logical, physical, and theological Leibnizian principles and
doctrines. It is plausible to see the “silent decade”
between 1771 and 1780 as the interval in which Kant decided how to
manage the skeptical problem he now saw as threatening morality,
arriving finally at the positive philosophy in the
Critique of Pure Reason (1781) which steers (perhaps only
temporarily, judging by the Opus Postumum) a middle course
between visionary and mystical enthusiasm and skepticism. Kant’s
further thoughts on Leibniz were developed in the Metaphysical
Foundations of Natural Science
(1786), the polemical essays,
On a Discovery According to which any Critique of Pure Reason has
been made Superfluous by an Earlier One
(1790) and What
Progress has Metaphysics Made in Germany since the Time of Leibniz and
?(1791), and in the Critique of Judgement

2. The Principle of Contradiction

Leibniz gives various formulations to his Principle of Contradiction
or Law of Identity but the central idea is that a proposition and its
negation cannot both be true (G 7: 299). Leibniz hoped to be able to
construct a logical calculus that would enable all significant truths
to be demonstrated, since every concept must include, be included in,
or exclude every other. A concept such as ‘human,’ he maintained, included the concepts ‘animal,’ ‘rational,’ ‘bipedal,’ etc., so that a true statement such as ‘Humans are animals’ was true in virtue of the inclusion of the predicate in the subject. Though the magnitude of Leibniz’s contribution
to combinatorial mathematics and logic remained unknown until the
twentieth century, Kant offers some skeptical remarks to what he takes
to be the Leibnizian programme in Section II of the New
. Later, he offers two specific criticisms of the
Principle of Contradiction taken not in a logical, but in an
ontological sense:

First, Kant claims, the Principle is too weak to ban nonentities
from theories. In Sect 28 of the Inaugural Dissertation
(1770), he complains of “fictitious forces fabricated at will,
which, not finding any obstacle in the principle of contradiction are
poured forth in multitudes by those of speculative mind.” These
fictitious forces presumably included extrasensory powers of perception
and the direct action of souls on souls. Second, the Principle of
Contradiction is too strong. Leibniz’s Neoplatonic leanings induce him
to see creatures as fragments of the divine, whose imperfections are
mere lacks. There are, in his ontology, no beings or forces opposing
God (Theodicy, §20). Kant’s orientation is more
Manichaean; he thinks that acceptance of the Principle leads the
theorist to underrepresent the extent of conflict in the world and its
constructive aspects. Kant insists that opposing forces,
“hindering and counteracting processes” operate ceaselessly
in nature and in history. The opposition of attractive and repulsive
forces in physics produces the phenomena of matter (4: 508 ff); the
opposition of good and evil principles in the human soul produces
morality, (6:1–190); and antagonism and conflict in geopolitics
produce peace and progress (6:24). Kant denies the Leibnizian claim
that all evil follows from the limitations of creatures (KRV A 273/B.

3. The Identity of Indiscernibles

The Leibnizian principle that “there are never two things in
nature which are exactly alike and in which it is impossible to find a
difference that is internal or founded on an intrinsic
denomination” is enunciated in the Monadology (G 6:
608), as well as in the Correspondence with Samuel Clarke (G
7: 372). Leibniz had abandoned his earlier view that two entities
could be distinguished by place alone when he came to his view of real
substances as infinitely complex and unique and space as ideal. Kant
found the Principle arbitrary. To insist that any two objects presented
to us in experience must be qualitatively different in some respect
was, Kant said, to take appearances for intelligibilia (KRV A
264/B320). We cannot have two concepts — concepts of two things
— that are alike in all their specifications, but we can
certainly have two empirical objects that are exactly alike. Why should
we not be able to imagine two identical water droplets? (20:280). It is
sufficient for there to be two that they present themselves to us
(veridically) in our visual space as two. Leibniz’s blunder on this
score was, for Kant, an indication that Leibniz had failed to grasp an
important feature of sensory experience, namely that it, unlike thought
in general, is always spatial.

4. Substance and “Matter”

Leibniz’s metaphysics was developed within, and in part as a reaction
to the mechanical philosophy of the mid-to-late 17th century, revived
by Galileo, Descartes, Gassendi, Boyle, Newton, and Locke. While the
term “substance,” meaning the indestructible stuff of the
universe, was retained by Descartes in his discussions of res
, the mechanical philosophers adopted a corpuscularian
theory in which objects were temporary aggregates of solid,
indestructible particles with various figures and motions, and most
though by no means all change occurred through their contact,
pressure, collision, entangling, and so on. Leibniz contested the
corpuscularian image, insisting that it was insufficiently profound
and inherently self-contradictory (G 4: 480), and holding that matter
was a ‘phenomenon’ founded upon the reality of
“metaphysical points” or, as he later termed them, monads:
qualitatively unique,indestructible and indivisible units that also
perceived and strove (G 6: 608).

Kant accused Leibniz, along with Spinoza, of ‘taking appearances
for things in themselves’ (KRV A264/B330). This might seem
puzzling since Leibniz denied that we see the world as it really
is. As Kant understood him, in failing to distinguish between
intellectual representation and perception, Leibniz believed we saw
aggregates of monads as objects. After his critical turn, Kant had
decided that “things in themselves” that compose external reality are
not perceived at all. They are not in causal contact with us, though
they affect us in such a way that we experience a sensory world
structured according to the categories of time, space, causality and

Matter, Kant could readily agree with Leibniz, cannot be a thing in
itself, stuff possessed of characteristics and qualities independent
of human perception; what we call matter is an appearance (4:507). The
true nature of mind-independent external reality cannot be described
by reference to shape, contact or movement, which characterize only
the objects presented to us (A265-6/B 321-2). He understood Leibniz’s
reasoning in favour of monads as follows: It is impossible
to conceive two material atoms as both different from one
another and as simple, i.e partless; yet possible to conceive two
souls that are both different and partless (20:285). Therefore, if
substances are manifold and partless, they must have representational
capacities. The crucial error in this reasoning lay in supposing that
our abstract conceptions are a guide to reality behind the
spatio-temporal appearances. Yet properly understood, he maintained,
Leibniz’s monadology was not an attempt to explain appearances but the
expression of a “Platonic” view of the world, considered
apart from our sensory experience of it (4:507; 8:248). In this
regard, he did grasp that Leibniz did not after all take appearances
for things in themselves.

Despite his warnings about the limited powers of human reason, Kant too believed it possible to
deduce some features of matter, as physical science must theorize it,
a priori. There are no material atoms; matter is divisible to
infinity and its parts are all material (4:503f). Yet Kant recognized,
first in the Physical Monadology, then in the Metaphysical
, particles in the form of centres of attractive and
repulsive forces that account for the space-filling property and
impenetrability of matter (4: 533ff). This relatively dogmatic
treatment co-exists with his critical claim that matter is the
appearance of a perfectly unknown substratum. As he explains it in the
Critique of Pure Reason, the rainbow is a mere appearance
relative to rain drops which, in a physical sense, are
things-in-themselves and not mirages. Yet thinking further, we realize
that the raindrops too are mere appearances, and that “even their
round form, indeed, even the space through which they fall are nothing
in themselves, but only mere modifications or foundations of our
sensible intuition; the transcendental object, however, remains unknown
to us.” (KRV A 45f/B 63f). “About these appearances,
further, much may be said a priori that concerns their form but nothing
whatsoever about the things in themselves that may ground them.”
(KRV A49/B66). This suggests that the stuff which is divisible to
infinity and bears attractive and repulsive forces is an appearance of
something unknown and unknowable. “We can understand nothing
except what brings with it something in intuition corresponding to our
words. When we complain that we do not see into the inner nature of
things, this can mean no more than that we cannot grasp, through pure
reason, what the things that appear to us might be in
themselves…. Observation and division with respect to the
appearances take us into the interior of nature, and we cannot say how
far this will proceed. But every transcendental question that takes us
beyond [perceptible] nature can never be answered…” (KRV

5. Space and Time

Leibniz held a relational theory of space and time. Without things
there would be no space, and without events there would be no time.
Space and time are not containers into which things and events may be
inserted but which could have remained empty. In the Third Letter
to Clarke
(G 7:364), Leibniz maintains that “without the
things placed in it, one point of space does not absolutely differ in
any respect whatsoever from another point of space.” An even
more ambitious positive proposal makes space the “order of
co-existents” and time the “order of successions” (G
7: 363), or a “well-founded phenomenon.”

Despite his admiration for Newton, his presentation of a purported
proof of absolute space in the essay On the Basis of the
Difference of Regions in Space
of 1768 (2: 378), and his claim in
the First Critique that two distinct but absolutely identical portions
of space were possible (KRV A 264/ B320), Kant rejected absolute space
and absolute motion in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural
. Consistently, however, he rejected Leibniz’s claim that
space was founded on the order of relations of substances. To the
claim that space emerged somehow from the underlying monadic reality
seemed to Kant to imply that the truths of mathematics—in this
case three-dimensional geometry—depended on the existence of a
world of things and events, which was absurd. Leibniz, Kant, suggests,
had noticed that things appear to interact causally and to determine
one another’s behaviour. This led him to insist that space was
“ a certain order in the community of substances, and…
time… the dynamic sequences of their states,” confusedly
apprehended (KRV A 275f/B 331f). However, the composition of bodies
from monads as basic elements presupposes their juxtaposition in space
(20:278). If we confusedly perceive monads as physical objects in
space, what would it be like to apprehend the monads distinctly as not
in space but as the foundation of space? (4:481f)

Kant’s conviction that the existence of incongruent counterparts
proved that “space in general does not belong to the properties
or relations of things in themselves” (4: 484) is not easy to
understand, but his basic argument in the 1768 essay is that Leibniz’s
view does not enable one to distinguish between a left handed glove
and a right handed glove, insofar as the relations of all the parts to
one another are the same in both cases. Yet if God had created just
one glove, it would have been one or the other. Hence space does not
depend on relations between things in space. Newton’s conception of
space as a huge container does not, however,contribute to the solution
of the problem: Consider a container in which a single glove is
floating. Is it a right-handed glove or a left-handed glove? We can
insert various new items into this space-container, e.g., an anorak, a
scarf, a shoe, but only the insertion of a human observer into the
space will permit an answer. Space, Kant, decides, is related to
directionality or orientation. The human observer experiences himself
as intersected by three planes and as having three sets of
“sides”, which he describes as up and down, back and
forward, and right and left. Right-handedness and left-handedness are
not merely anthropic concepts since nature itself insists on
handedness in twining plants and the shells of snails (2: 380). But
which direction is right and which is left can only be established by
a conscious, embodied being. As he expresses it in
the Prolegomena, “The difference between similar and
equal things which are not congruent…cannot be made
intelligible by any concept, but only by the relation to the right and
left hands, which immediately refers to intuition” (4: 286). How
spheroid beings with hands would distinguish between
“front” and “back” is not however clear. It is
not clear whether this orientational analysis implies that wherever
there is space there must also be sentient beings with pairs of
incongruent parts, as well as top-bottom and back-front asymmetry.

In the Inaugural Dissertation §15, Kant tries to move
beyond the dichotomy of taking space and time to be either substances
or phenomena, taking space instead to belong to the
“form”of sensible intuition. As he expresses it in
the Critique of Pure Reason, “Space and time are [our
sensibility’s] pure forms…” (KRV A42/B60). They are
“merely subjective conditions of all our intuition.”
(ibid., A 49/B 66). [See the entry on
Kant’s views on space and time.]

For Leibniz, each monad experiences an individual succession of
appetites and experiences that God has endowed it with from the
creation of the world. Being fated in this way, though acting always
under their own “spontaneous” power, the monads would seem to be
deprived of meaningful agency and beneficiaries or victims of
seemingly unjust rewards and punishments. Kant believed that locating
space and time in us rather than in the world was an absolute barrier
against the determinism that threatened the notion of moral
responsibility (A 5:97-8; 102).

6. Perception and Thought

Kant’s rejection of Leibniz’s Principle of the Identity of
Indiscernibles is related to his complaint that the Leibnizians treated
perception and thought as a single representational faculty that was
“logically” (by which Kant meant
“qualitatively”) distinguished in terms of the clarity of
the representation, rather than “transcendentally.” With
their theory of a single cognitive faculty, Kant maintained, Leibniz
and Wolff “abolished the distinction between phenomena and
noumena to the great detriment of philosophy.” Leibniz treated
the senses according to Kant as an inferior mode of cognition, the
senses having only the “despicable task” of confusing and
distorting the representations of reason (KRV B. 332).

The basis of this accusation was Leibniz’s attribution to the soul of
only two basic faculties: perception, the representation of
multiplicity in a simple soul, and appetition, which he defines as
“the action of an internal principle which brings about change
or the passage from one perception to another” (G 6:
608–9). Perceptions, in Leibniz, as in Descartes, are thoughts
— presentations in the mind. The perceptual thought that there
is a green tree in front of me is not absolutely unlike the
mathematical thought that triangles have three angles. Perception of
material objects is “confused” because — according
to the Cartesian tradition — corporeal substance has no colours
or other sensory properties — which come into being through the
interaction of the mind and tiny, single imperceptible, uncoloured
corpuscles of matter. Though Leibniz denied the existence of purely
material corpuscles and the possibility of causal influx or even
interaction between real substances, he agreed that, from the
perspective of what he sometimes terms mere physical science,
perception required interaction, and that corpuscular motions were
involved in the perception of sensory qualities such as light and
colour. Perception can therefore be said to confuse what reason
delivers to us clearly (A 132, 219, 403). Though we are unable to
grasp the sufficient reason of particular colours, there is nothing
arbitrary in their connection with their underlying causes (A

Leibniz’s interpreters, Wolff and Baumgarten, enunciate more
dogmatically the theory that there is a single faculty of
representation in the soul, with perception and cognition
corresponding to its lower and higher parts. It was this view that
Kant presented as entirely opposed to his own teaching with regard to
the faculties of the soul. Sensibility, for Kant, is the
“receptivity of the subject by which it is possible for the
subject’s own representative state to be affected in a particular way
by the presence of some object.” Thought is “the faculty
of the subject by which it has the power to represent things which
cannot by their own quality come before the sense of that
subject” (2:392). Thought implies an ability to experience
representations of another type not involving the forms of sensibility
— space, time, and causality. Spatio-temporal features are
attached to all our perceptions and to our perceptual thoughts, but
not to the concepts we entertain descriptively. We can
think of things in themselves, and even of God, the soul, and
other such entities, acknowledging their existence and even their
powers, but we do not perceive them and we cannot represent them in
sensuous form.

In his late philosophy, Leibniz distinguished between “simple
monads,” which despite their representational and appetitive
faculties, merely experienced something like our swoons and dreamless
sleeps; “souls,” belonging to animals with sensory organs
that had awareness of an environment and desires; and
“spirits,” who were able to grasp necessary truths and
experience more complex appetitions such as desiring the good (G 6:
610–12). All monads, according to Leibniz, are confusedly omniscient (G
6: 604). Kant was scornful of what he regarded as transcendental
reverie. The “slumbering monad” with its dim presentations,
is, he complains, “not explained, but made-up” (2.277). The
notion that the slumbering monads might awake to climb the ladder of
awareness recalls, he said, “a kind of enchanted world”
(20:285). However, Kant was favourably disposed, at least in his early
years, towards Leibniz’s doctrine of confused omniscience, and he
essentially accepts Leibniz’s conception of the mind as innately
stocked with, as Leibniz expresses it, “inclinations,
dispositions, tendencies or natural potentials” (A 52). In his
early essay on Negative Quantities, Kant remarks “There is
something great and I think, very correct in Leibniz’s notion that the
soul embraces the entire universe with its representational powers,
although only an infinitely small part of this representation is
clear……Outer things can carry the condition of their
presentation, but not the force to bring themselves into existence for
us. The powers of thought of the soul must have real
grounds…” (2.199). Though Kant later professed agnosticism
as to whether perception and mentality in general were explicable
mechanically, the emphasis on the active powers of the mind by contrast
with the passivity of matter remains important in his theory of

The distinction between perception and thought signaled
Kant’s break with rationalist metaphysics but enabled him to deploy a
divide-and-conquer strategy against dogmatic claims. By showing how
each mode of apprehension involved certain necessary and distinct
limitations on its employment, Kant was able to show that certain kinds
of assertion in theology and metaphysics could not be genuine
knowledge-claims. Perception was limited by the kinds of bodies we had
and the manner in which we could be affected by external objects. We could not acquire scientific
knowledge of the origins of the universe, or of our condition after
death. Pure reason could not fill in details that were beyond all
possible experience. The claims of metaphysics had
to be synthetic, informative and not true by definition, yet a
true. Arithmetic and geometry supplied synthetic a
truths in abundance, and natural science supplied synthetic
a posteriori truths, as well as exhibiting synthetic a
propositions, such as the conservation of force.

Already in
his prize essay of 1764, the Investigation of the Intelligibility
of the Fundamental Principles of Natural Theology and Morals
, Kant
claimed that moral and theological principles were not capable of
demonstration, since their terms, unlike mathematical terms, lacked
precise definition. Geometrical concepts lend themselves to use in
demonstrations because they are constructed and presented to intuition,
which is impossible with respect to metaphysical concepts such as the
soul. In the Critique of Pure Reason, he says: “If
anyone were to pose the question to me: What is the constitution of a
thing that thinks? then I do not know the least thing to answer a
, because the answer ought to be synthetic…But for
every synthetic solution, intuition is necessary; but this is entirely
left out of so universal a problem” (KRV A 398). The
Prolegomena returns to the question how metaphysics can, like
natural science and mathematics, employ synthetic judgments when its
concepts are not given in experience and are not constructed. Kant’s
answer is that metaphysical judgments do not point to objects existing
beyond all possible experience, but posit objects needed to
“complete” our understanding, that is, to make our thinking
systematic and untroubled by gaps and aporias. The soul is not a
supersensible object of whose faculties and powers we can acquire
knowledge but an idea that makes our practice of ascribing experiences
to ourselves intelligible.

7. Soul and Body

For Leibniz, “I” am a substance, and my mind, as a
“dominant monad,” rules over, or expresses more distinctly than they do,the subordinate monads
composing my body. Thus all happenings in all parts of
the body are felt distinctly or indistinctly, the sensory organs
collect and concentrate the impressions of the external world, and the
soul experiences them. Though commentators disagree over whether the
referent of “I” is a corporeal substance — a
soul-body composite — since Leibniz did not believe separated
souls without organic bodies were possible — or, alternatively,
a single dominant monad, an immaterial substance outside space and
time, “I” assuredly named a thing that was indivisible and
imperishable (G 6: 598–600). Kant eschews dogmatism both with
respect to whether the soul is an immaterial substance and whether it
is immortal. The use of the term “I” presupposes that my
thoughts and perceptions are experienced as bound up together and as
belonging to a single entity. Matter, with its properties of
extension, impenetrability, etc., cannot be conceived as producing
thought. But matter is only an appearance; whatever supersensible
thing it is that gives rise to the appearance of matter, that thing
may well be the same as whatever supersensible thing it is that gives
rise to the experience of an experiencing self (KRV A 358f/B

Leibniz’s theory of soul-body pre-established harmony set out in his
New System of the Nature and the Communication of Substances
of 1695 is not easy to reconcile with the interpretation of his
monadology according to which what we call bodies are appearances in
visual space founded upon spiritual substances lying underneath the
spatio-temporal order. Yet the pre-established harmony was at least
consistent with Leibniz’s claim that substances do not interact with
one another and that what we call “causal interaction” does
not involve a flow of power or force, but merely a regular sequence of
changes in two observable things, in the case of mind and body, the
experiences of perception and appetition and states of the sensory
organs (G 4:76–7). Kant points to the tension between the theory of
pre-established harmony and the monadology; “Why should one admit
bodies, if it is possible that everything happens in the soul as a
result of its own powers, which would run the same course even if
entirely isolated?” (8:249).

Kant initially preferred “influx” theories of soul-body
relations to the “parallelist” theories of occasionalism
and pre-established harmony, but he eventually decided that dualism was
incoherent. Already in the Measurement of Living Forces, he
was grappling with the problem of the location of the soul and the
nature of its action. Anatomists had long speculated that some region
of the brain, e.g., the pineal gland (Descartes 1650) or the corpus callosum (Euler 1763), was the site of interaction between soul and body. For a time,
Kant seems to have believed that souls were positioned in space and
could act outside themselves and be acted upon by bodies. Later he
became convinced that souls were not localized in space, though they
could effect changes, deciding that that neither medicine nor
metaphysics could illuminate the question. He denies that we can
understand the entry of the soul into body at conception or its
relation to the body throughout life, or its exit and separate
existence after death. Because all our experience is experience of
ourselves as living beings — when soul and body are bound
together — we cannot know what a separated soul would experience.
Leibniz compared existence after death to a deep sleep or a swoon, but
to investigate these matters is, Kant says, like standing before a
mirror with your eyes closed to see what you look like when you are
asleep (20:309).

8. Freedom and Agency

Leibniz believed that every phenomenon could be explained. His
Principle of Sufficient Reason states that “nothing takes place
without a sufficient reason; in other words,…nothing occurs for
which it would be impossible for someone who has enough knowledge of
things to give a reason adequate to determine why the thing is as it is
and not otherwise.” Though not everything possible happens (and,
therefore not everything that happens is necessary), everything that
happens has a sufficient reason in an antecedent state of the world.
God’s necessary existence is the only state of affairs that is caused
and does not have a sufficient reason in an antecedent state. Not only
does everything have a sufficient reason, but all phenomena and events,
including celestial motions, the formation of plant and animal bodies,
and the processes of life, are regulated by the laws of mechanics, as
the movements of the hands are regulated in a watch (G 7:417–8).

Leibniz’s Principle was incompatible with the existence of an open
future and with free will. His followers recognized this aspect of his
system, though his Discourse on Metaphysics, in which
determinism is tied to his inclusion theory of predicate-subject
relations remained unpublished until the twentieth century. Though
Leibniz tried to avoid contradicting the theological dogma of free will
outright, he denied that any creature could choose between alternatives
to which it was indifferent, and he agreed with Locke that we are
powerfully and necessarily motivated by disquiet and restlessness,
which are, in Leibniz’s view, sometimes unconscious or subliminal (A
188f). My body is a machine in a wider mechanical system, and my
thoughts and desires, including my “petites perceptions,”
cannot but harmonize with or parallel states of that machine.
“The organized mass in which the point of view of the soul is
located, being expressed more immediately by it, [is] reciprocally
ready to act on her account following the laws of the corporeal
machine, at the moment when the soul wills it, without one disturbing
the laws of other, the animal spirits and blood taking on, exactly the
motions required to correspond to the passions and the perceptions of
the soul” (G 4: 484). Yet, for Leibniz, the infinite complexity
and uniqueness of any living machine make human actions unpredictable,
and the truth of determinism is consistent with our experiences of
self-control, self-management, and behavioural reform (A 195f). For a
variety of reasons, Leibniz did not see determinism or mechanism as a
threat to morality.

Kant did. His perception was facilitated by a series of attacks on
Leibniz’s disciple Christian Wolff by theologians alarmed by what they
saw as the horrific consequences of Sufficient Reason, attacks that led
to Wolff’s banishment from the University at Halle. Leibniz’s
“spiritual automaton,” moved by its presentations, has a
freedom, Kant claims in his second critique, the Critique of
Practical Reason
, that is only “psychological and
comparative.” If Leibniz is right, we have no more than a
“freedom of the turnspit” (5: 97), wound up to run by
itself. In that case, Kant thought, man is a “marionette”
(5:101), and morality is but a figment of the imagination. To know that
the moral law is not a figment and is genuinely binding, it might seem
that we would have to know that we have the power to redirect the
forces of nature. Of course we cannot know this, but, on the other
hand, we cannot prove that no such power exists. [See the entry on
Kant (Sect 5.2) and the entry on
Kant’s moral philosophy (Sect. 10).]

Reason presents compelling arguments for the inevitable nature of
every event. Reason also presents compelling arguments that the human
will can influence the course of nature (KRV A 445/B 473). The antinomy
is dissolved, Kant now maintains, by recognizing that causal relations
must structure outward phenomena. Our investigations of nature
presuppose that they do, insofar as they are scientific. Human agency
is not, however, an outward phenomenon, and the assumption of
determinism is not required. We can view ourselves as machines,
responding to the environment in predetermined ways. However, we are
not compelled to do so, and we are able to regard ourselves as agents
who initiate trains of events, and who can resist (not just experience
resistance to) the desires, sensations, and impulses driving the bodily
machine to certain actions. Since we can do so, Kant decides, we
should: we need not in that case be driven to or fall into
libertinage on the basis of speculative doctrine. What reason cannot
settle theoretically, she can nevertheless decide on
“practical” grounds, i.e., deciding to believe one thing
rather than another to preserve satisfaction (by contrast with anxiety
and despair), and to give support to our sense that morality is not a
figment. We ought therefore to conceptualize our possession of free
will as an exemption from the laws of nature; the power of “doing
and forbearing.” (5: 95).

9. Mechanism and the Order of Nature

Kant was perturbed by Hume’s criticisms of causal relations in nature,
but even more perturbed by the antitheological application Hume made
of his causal skepticism in the Dialogues Concerning Natural
. [See the entry on
Kant and Hume on causality.]
He sought a third way between the Leibnizian “dogmatic”
assumption that the universe is a single mechanical system of
deterministically interacting physical parts, designed and set going
by God, and the empiricist assumption that causality corresponds to a
human feeling of anticipation with respect to some sequence of ideas.
For scientific purposes, Kant thought, we must represent inorganic
nature to ourselves as just such a unified mechanical system. The
resolve to represent it as such is facilitated (or perhaps dictated?)
by our inability to experience a world unstructured by spatial,
temporal, and causal relations. If Leibniz erred by ascribing to
unknown noumena the properties of causal closure belonging to
phenomena, Hume erred by being unaware of the inbuilt constraints on
our representational capacity. But must we represent only inorganic
nature — stones, stars, nebulae, planets, billiard balls —
as a set of mechanically interacting mechanical systems, or earth’s
plants and animals as well? Leibniz was fully committed to the
Cartesian claim that plants and animals are machines, no different in
principle from automata built from wood and metal parts; though,
impressed by the detail revealed by the early microscope, he described
them as infinitely complex machines, “machines in their smallest
parts, into infinity” (G 6: 618), another indication of the
divine origins of nature. Generation and growth were on his view,
mechanical processes, for, according to the doctrine of preformation,
which he shared with Malebranche, generation is just growth.

Kant was not so sure. By the late 18th century, the
theory of inorganic nature, thanks to Laplace, Black, Priestley,
Franklin, and other chemists and electricians was flourishing, but so
too was the study of physiology, embryology, and natural history,
thanks especially to Bourguet, Boerhaave, Haller, and Buffon. Newtonian
forces acting over a distance were no longer seen as incompatible with
a commitment to mechanism, opening the door to the supposition of vital
forces that might act in a lawlike fashion. Preformation was no longer
a credible doctrine; the possibility of self-assembling “organic
molecules,” working according to “organic mechanism,”
was much discussed. Epigenesis reduced the need for a divine creator.
Kant addresses the ensuing intellectual-theological crisis in the
Critique of Judgment, a two-part essay dealing with beauty,
beautiful forms in nature, and forms in nature generally. He tries to
show that we are caught up in an antinomy. We are strongly disposed to
view visible nature as a unity in which a single set of mechanical
forces operates, not to divide it into an inorganic realm that came to
be by the forces inherent in nature and an organic realm of plants and
animals evidencing design and supernatural creation. Yet we cannot
envision explaining generation or organic growth mechanistically. The
solution to the dilemma is to adopt teleology as a regulative
principle. We should not positively declare that organic beings could
not have arisen and cannot reproduce themselves from the forces of
nature, or that God must have a hand in their genesis; nevertheless,
in investigating them, we look for the function and interrelation of
parts, as though they were designed and built intelligently (5:
416ff). The claim that the parts of a living creature are
organized in infinitum is however, “something that
cannot be thought at all.” (KRV A 526/B 554).

Leibniz was often mistakenly credited in the 18th century
with the view that organic nature contained no gaps, i.e., between any
two different-looking organisms, another can be found. Though such a
view might seem consistent with Leibniz’s Principle of Plenitude
— that the universe is as full as possible — and his Law of
Continuity — his denial that nature makes leaps (GM 6: 240)
— it is inconsistent with his view that not everything possible
exists, but only what is compossible with other existents, and Leibniz
held no such view in any case. Kant describes the idea of perfect
continuity in any case as mere intellectual prejudice, since
observation of nature does not objectively support it. However, he
allows the “law of the ladder of continuity among
creatures” has regulative importance in natural history (KRV A
668/ B 696).

10. Theology and Theodicy

Leibniz’s philosophy is theocratic. God is a king, and the world is
his kingdom. Ours is the best of all possible worlds, with respect to
variety, order, location, place, time, efficiency, and “the most
power, knowledge, the greatest happiness and goodness in created
things” (G 6: 603). For God can choose to realize any world he
wishes, and it would be inconsistent with his goodness and power to
realize a world that is not as good as possible. Our world metes out
justice for all in the hereafter and is constantly improving. The
“kingdom of nature,” in which everything happens for
mechanical reasons, is at the same time, a “kingdom of
grace” in which everything that happens exemplifies God’s wisdom
and justice (G 6:622). Yet, though Leibniz maintained frequently that
the order and regularity of nature hinted at or pointed to a divine
creative hand, and suggested that the existence of anything at all
implied the existence of a necessary being (G 4: 106), he produced only
one actual argument for the existence of God. This was a version of
Anselm’s ontological argument. Leibniz maintained that God’s existence
could be deduced from the maximal concept of God as the sum of all
perfections, only if it was first demonstrated that God was a possible,
not an impossible object. Certain maximal concepts, such as “the
greatest speed” are, he pointed out, fundamentally incoherent,
and the term denotes nothing (G 4: 359–60). Leibniz saw nothing
incoherent in the maximal notion of “the most perfect
being” and concluded that God existed. It was unclear however,
why, so long as God is possible, the Ontological Argument survives the
familiar criticisms of Aquinas. The inference from possibility to
necessity seems to depend less on the logic of concepts than on
Leibniz’s esoteric idea that concepts, or possible objects, strive to
come into existence with a tendency to exist proportional to their
perfection (G 7:303).

Kant criticized arguments for God’s existence (presumably brought to
his attention through Wolff’s Theologia Naturalis) that
departed from the premise that the concept of God is noncontradictory
as fallacious hyperrationalism. The Leibnizian argument rested, he
thought, on the uncritical notion that every noncontradictory concept
was a possible thing (20:302), though it is unclear why he attacks this
claim in particular. Kant did not think any rationalistic proofs for
the existence of God actually worked, though, at least before the
mauling it received at the hands of Hume, he considered the
physico-theological argument the best available. He noted perceptively
the arbitrariness of merging into one theological idea a creator and a
judge. Without revelation, we might be drawn to the ideas of a creator
God, but why would we suppose this same being to have the power of
reward and punishment after death? Taking a page from Locke, Kant
decided that, since the existence of God was unknowable, philosophical
effort should be directed to the idea of God, especially the separate
functions that the idea of God plays in regulating our moral conduct (
judge concept) and our mode of address to the problems of form and
function in the organic realm (creator concept). The distinction
between the realm of grace and the realm of nature, one standing under
moral laws of reward and punishment, the other under natural laws, Kant
describes as a “practically necessary idea of reason” (KRV
A 812 f/B 840). We conceive the world both as a community of active
spirits, willing and representing, and as an aggregate of objects in
mechanical interplay and shift perspectives as needed.

As befit a celebrated optimist, Leibniz had a sanguine view of human
beings. Most of us, he appeared to think, are morally decent people,
and evil men are best dealt with by good laws and effective legal
institutions. A good education and some degree of censorship are also
helpful. Posthumous divine retribution will take care of what human
institutions cannot. Leibniz explained the appearance of evil in the
world as consistent with God’s goodness in various ways. He claimed
that evil derives from the portion of inertia or nullity present in all
non-divine creation; that it is a necessary accompaniment of good, or a
stimulus to action, that it is an illusion based on narrow or
temporally limited experience (G 4: 120f, 196, 231). Moreover, the
world has not declined since the Fall, but, on the contrary, the entire
universe “takes part in a perpetual and most free progress, so
that it is always advancing toward greater culture (cultivation)”
(G 7: 308).

Physical and increasingly moral evil were topics much discussed in the
18th century, and pessimism over the condition of the world,
especially its violence and suffering, was understood to be a tempting
yet in some ways deplorable option. Taken to ridiculous lengths by
Wolff, Leibnizian optimism was targeted and satirized by Voltaire,
who, however, took the problem of evil very seriously. Kant as well
was little inclined to make fun of evil and suffering, and he viewed
liberation from theology as a precondition of better morals and
politics. There are both optimistic and pessimistic strains in his
philosophy. In his pre-critical writings, the Nova
and the Essay on Some Considerations on
, he seemed inclined towards the best of all possible
worlds position, but in his critical period he denied that cosmic
justice is an item of knowledge. The conviction that moral goodness
not only deserves reward but is rewarded is nevertheless an article of
faith and hope that sustains morality.

Kant had no illusions about the natural goodness of human beings, but
his concept of development, of the unfolding of latent potentials, is
central to his anthropology and his philosophy of history. Development
was, however, as much of a duty as an inevitability. He accepted
Leibniz’s teleology of history: “We should be content with
providence and with the course of human affairs as a whole, which does
not begin with good and then proceed to evil, but develops gradually
from worse to better…” (8:123). Alarmed by colonial
depredations, Kant nevertheless saw social and geopolitical conflict
as necessary and he tried to find redeeming aspects to group
aggression and interracial conflict as preconditions of pacification,
civilization, and progress. Kant’s noxious views on sex and race
distinguish him from Leibniz, overall, the more generous philosopher,
whose view it is that God maximizes the richness and diversity of
creation. To be sure, the Kantian tendency to pathologize the other
flowed from an excess of moral fervour. True to his rejection of the
Principle of Contradiction, Kant saw the human soul as the
battleground of animalistic instincts vs. moral duties. Effeminacy and
savage indolence were combated by virtue. Yet the deprivations that
had to be endured by a person of strong moral fibre exercising a good
will were, he recognized, real deprivations. If the struggle for
self-mastery and self-improvement that he urged on his readers was not
to seem, and indeed to be a pointless exercise, then knowledge, as he
expressed it in the Preface to the second edition of the Critique
of Pure Reason
, had to be denied in order to make room for faith
(B xxx). This antirationalism would have been unthinkable in a
Leibnizian text.

For Kant, philosophy is a stern and masculine discipline frequently
calling for graceless prose. After publishing several floridly written
popular works, and after acquiring his knowledge of physics through
such accessible expositions as Bernard Fontenelle’s Dialogues on
the Plurality of Worlds
(1696), Emilie du
Chatelet’s Institutions de physique (1740), and
Euler’s Letters to a German Princess (1768–72)
(7:229–30), Kant traded literary charm for technicality, rigor,
and repetition, especially in the first two Critiques. The
enchanting views of the
Monadology which Leibniz himself may have regarded as a jeu
d’esprit were antithetical to philosophy’s true purpose. Yet Kant
finally aestheticizes Leibniz, claiming that he meant only to express
a view of the world that is true in its own way. The history of
philosophy, Kant suggests, is not to be assessed in terms of right and
wrong doctrines. To accuse Leibniz or Plato of errors is to take them
as authorities, as one takes Cicero as the standard for Latin, and
this is a confusion; for “there are no classical authors in
Philosophy” (8: 218).


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