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Leibniz: An Intellectual Biography (review)
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This is a superbly crafted and exhaustively researched account of the development of Leibniz’s thought, his ambitious plans and undertakings, his myriad intellectual engagements, and his ceaseless comings and goings across Europe. It captures, accurately and in great detail, the remarkably expansive mind of a singularly creative thinker. It is an extraordinary achievement, for the task of writing an intellectual biography of Leibniz is huge. To read even a portion of what he wrote and read, in the languages in which he wrote and read it, to come to grips with the nuances of religion, politics, and intellectual practice that define his world, and to identify the hundreds of individuals, illustrious and forgotten, with whom he interacted would challenge even the most skilled and dedicated scholar. There is no doubt that Antognazza has met this challenge with a biography that surpasses any available account of Leibniz’s life.

The book is divided into three parts. A brief introduction surveys past attempts at capturing the breadth of Leibniz’s thought and articulates “four basic, underlying theses” that unify the chapters to follow (8). They are: first, that Leibniz’s life and work need to be assessed as a whole as opposed to focusing narrowly on his contributions to one or another field; second, that Leibniz’s life and thought are integrated to a remarkable degree and that it is a mistake to see his practical undertakings as distractions from his more important theoretical endeavors; third, that the principles and aspirations that unite his intellectual and practical affairs “were established remarkably early and that the outlines of Leibniz’s life and thought emerged organically from them” (9); and fourth, that Leibniz’s mind and ambitions were formed within a specific intellectual and political context—not that of western Europe, but Germany and the Holy Roman Empire in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. As Antognazza observes, none of these theses is entirely novel, but the last in particular gives a distinctive cast to her biography. On her telling it was the “territorial and confessional fragmentation of his homeland” that generated and sustained Leibniz’s most “audacious aspirations” (9–10).

Part 1, “Youthful Vocations,” tracks the first thirty years of Leibniz’s life, through the end of his Paris sojourn and the journey that took him back to Germany, via England and Holland (where he famously met with Spinoza). Antognazza situates the young Leibniz within the intellectual milieu of Central European reformers (Alsted, Bisterfeld, Comenius) who took their inspiration from the Ramist tradition of learning and Bacon’s instauratio magna. From these thinkers, Leibniz derived his deepest aspiration for an emendatio rerum, resulting in his many schemes for the discovery, and systematic organization and representation, of all knowledge, for the sake of human happiness and the glory of God (66–67). The schemes first began to take shape at the court of Mainz, where he formulated his plan for the “Catholic Demonstrations.” Of this project, Antognazza writes, “although never realized in its entirety and shifting in shape and description in different periods, [it] provides a kind of Ariadne’s thread for those who wish to reconstruct the unity underlying Leibniz’s labyrinthine intellectual odyssey” (90).

Part 2, “Dreams and Reality,” traces Leibniz’s career through the forty years of his employment by the house of Hanover. Here we encounter the expected—the “calculus war” precipitated by the charges of plagiarism from Newton—but also much that is less well known: the scope of Leibniz’s efforts to obtain intelligence of other cultures, his endeavors on behalf of religious reconciliation, and the many correspondences through which he continued to develop his philosophical views until the end of his life. Although Antognazza’s emphasis is on constructing a coherent narrative that links Leibniz’s diverse intellectual and practical projects, she does not neglect the finer points of recent scholarship on the most debated areas of his philosophy. An impressive feature of the book is the author’s mastery of the secondary literature in German, Italian, French, and English. This alone makes it a worthwhile investment for seasoned scholars.

This is expressly an intellectual biography, so the focus is on the content of Leibniz...

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