- Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light
In December 1697, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) wrote to a Jesuit friend in China, praising the Jesuit mission there as "the greatest affair of our time" (p. 42). The purpose of that mission, in Leibniz's view, was not simply to glorify God and to spread Christianity; it was also being undertaken for the good of humanity and the growth of human knowledge. He went on:
For this is a commerce of light, which could give to us at once their work of thousands of years and render ours to them, and to double so to speak our true wealth for one and the other. This is something greater than one thinks.(p. 42)
Why was Leibniz, unlike his contemporaries Locke and Spinoza, so enthusiastic about other cultures, especially Chinese culture? Why, in contrast to the scholars of today who claim that philosophy is the privilege of the Western mind and who dismiss philosophical exchange as useless, was Leibniz able to understand the importance of cultural exchange? And why is it that his "commerce of light" can still illuminate our path toward wisdom in this age of globalization? In a well-researched and carefully crafted monograph, Leibniz and China: A Commerce of Light, Franklin Perkins answers these questions with compelling evidence and persuasive argument.
To emphasize the significance, magnitude, and relevance of cultural exchange Perkins organizes his book thematically in five chapters. The first chapter provides the historical context of the world in which Leibniz lived. Perkins cites well-documented events to illustrate how Europeans first encountered other cultures and the "three lenses" through which they viewed them (p. 12). This exploration sets the stage for understanding Leibniz's knowledge of China and his basic orientation toward learning from diversity.
In chapter 2 Perkins challenges current scholarship and makes the critical claim that Leibniz's interest in China and cultural exchange was "not accidental" (p. 45), but rather flowed from his own distinctive philosophical system. This argument distinguishes Perkins's innovative approach from the mainstream traditional scholarship on Leibniz. He claims that Leibniz was "a more pragmatic, empirical and fallibilistic investigator of the world," that he was "motivated by practical and theological concerns," and that he was "a pluralistic thinker" (p. 45). To support his argument, Perkins discusses Leibniz's "monads" in the context of order, diversity, and perfection. Each monad is a different manifestation of the same universe, yet one unitary universe is multiplied by its expression in diverse monads. God chose to create a world exemplifying the utmost perfection, with "the greatest possible combination of order and diversity" (p. 44). Diversity is essential to the perfection of the world since the most perfect possible world maximizes the greatest order. This intrinsic relation between order, diversity, and perfection creates an unqualified need for cultural exchange because order requires diversity for perfection, and an ordered diversity only amplifies the magnificence of its Creator. On a metaphysical level, cultural exchange for Leibniz [End Page 111] was "driven by the value of diversity in the best possible world and the derivation of diversity from variations in monadic perspectives. On an epistemological level, exchange was driven by the necessary limits of our own perspective and the fact that monads in distant places have different and complementary perspectives" (p. 108).
After laying out the philosophical foundation for cultural exchange in Leibniz's system, Perkins turns his discussion to Leibniz's specific connection with China. In chapter 3 he offers a historical narrative that traces the development and growth of Leibniz's interest in and knowledge of China. Leibniz's first mention of China was in his De Arte Combinationis in 1666, when he was only twenty years old (p. 109). Through his massive correspondence with Jesuits in China and his active social participation in controversies around the Jesuit mission, Leibniz's knowledge of China grew in depth and sophistication as the decades passed. His initial approach to China reflected "his interest in international politics and economics" (p. 113). But this practical focus was...