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Caroline, Leibniz, and Clarke

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 60, Number 3, July 1999
pp. 469-486 | 10.1353/jhi.1999.0021

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Journal of the History of Ideas 60.3 (1999) 469-486

The papers which passed between Leibniz and Clarke from 1715 to 1716 have long been considered classics in the history of science and philosophy, attracting a large number of scholarly works. Their exchanges, consisting of ten letters, five by Leibniz and five by Clarke, ended with Leibniz's death in November 1716. The letters deal with issues such as God's role in the universe, the notion of miracles, the cause of gravity, and space and time. The difficulties in interpreting the texts induced most, if not all, editors to present Leibniz's and Clarke's papers together with other writings to provide a context for the dispute and to elucidate the most obscure passages. This tradition was inaugurated by Samuel Clarke himself, who included in his editio princeps a number of explanatory footnotes, an appendix with passages from Leibniz's printed works, and additional epistolary exchanges between himself and others on liberty and necessity, all with appropriate cross-references. Later editors made a different selection of explanatory material, emphasizing different contexts and aspects of the dispute.

The context I have selected for this essay centers on Caroline of Ansbach, Princess of Wales, her life and contacts with Leibniz prior to her departure for London, and their correspondence before and during the dispute with Clarke. Portions of this correspondence can be found in the editions by H.G. Alexander and André Robinet, but the letters on which I shall spend more time are curiously excluded. They can be found among Leibniz's political and state papers edited at the end of last century by Onno Klopp, and only in part in those edited by John M. Kemble, and in the recent German edition by Volmar Schüller. The reader unaware of Caroline's life and intellectual horizon may well wonder why Leibniz and Clarke went on relentlessly, month after month, debating in letters addressed to her whether space is the sensorium of God, dissecting the notion of miracle, and arguing about God's role in the world. I hope to show that there are several reasons for paying attention to Caroline. The text which has become known as "Leibniz's first paper" was in fact an extract of a letter to Caroline, not intended for Clarke, belonging to an important exchange with the Princess of Wales. Caroline engaged in a dispute with Clarke, passed the extract of Leibniz's letter to him, and sent Clarke's reply to Leibniz together with a request for help. Thus Leibniz's "first paper" ought to be seen as part of his correspondence with Caroline. Later papers between Leibniz and Clarke went through Caroline.

The Princess of Wales was not just a convenient address for the correspondence; nor was she a spectator uninterested in such an intellectual confrontation. She was involved in the dispute by arguing with Clarke and even with Newton, exchanging opinions with Leibniz, and functioning as an arbiter and moderator. Her presence helped shape the style and contents of the letters, and characterizes the genre to which the correspondence belongs. This is a complex issue because of the composite nature of the exchanges: on the one hand we have Leibniz's letters to both Caroline and Clarke, on the other we have Caroline's and Clarke's letters to Leibniz, and Clarke's discussions with Caroline. Clearly the standard label "Leibniz-Clarke correspondence" does not capture all levels of the exchanges. Moreover, in order to appreciate Caroline's status in London it is worth recalling that the wife of George I, Sophie Dorothea, remained in Germany, secluded in the Castle of Ahlden. Without a Queen, the Princess of Wales was the highest female royal. As an example of her influence, it was widely believed at the time that the election of William Wake as Archbishop of Canterbury in December 1715 was due to his close contacts with Caroline. At the time of the dispute Wake, who was a close friend of Clarke, neglected his pastoral duties as Bishop of Lincoln in order to be close to Caroline, with whom he held daily meetings. Thus Caroline was an intellectual woman with...

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