- Monaden im Diskurs. Monas, Monaden, Monadologien (1600 bis 1770) by Hanns-Peter Neumann
In this rich and detailed study, Hanns-Peter Neumann traces the development of the concept of monad from Pythagorean thought as interpreted by philosophers and scholars from the early part of the seventeenth century through the writings of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian Wolff and concludes with a discussion of late eighteenth-century interpretations of various “monadologies.” To contemporary students of the history of philosophy, of course, monads are most closely associated with the thought of Leibniz. And for obvious reasons: monads are the fundamental beings of the universe in the mature expression of his philosophy; his Monadology has become a canonical text in the history of philosophy; and most subsequent philosophers who engaged with the philosophy of Leibniz have focused on the doctrine of monads. But the story of monads—that is, the history of the concept monad—did not begin with Leibniz, nor did it end with him. ‘Monas’ or ‘monad’ was, in fact, a relatively common philosophical term throughout the early modern period, which is not to say, however, that it had a consistent connotation for all in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Above all, the notion of a simple metaphysical atom that somehow grounds all being was considered part and parcel of the thought of the most mysterious pre-Socratic figure, Pythagoras. And in eighteenth-century German philosophy especially, monads, as the ultimate metaphysical units of being, were on display in the most influential textbooks in the philosophical curriculum, that is, principally in the writings of Wolff and Alexander Baumgarten. While these philosophers have traditionally been thought to be followers of Leibniz, there are many crucial distinctions between them, especially concerning the nature of monads.
As readers of this journal know, there was a great diversity of philosophical views among philosophers and thinkers in the early modern period, far greater than might be gleaned from the crude presentation of the history of philosophy as being a contest between “rationalists” and “empiricists.” While there were many attempts to reject features of Scholastic thought, there were also attempts to recover various ancient traditions. The Platonist and Neo-Platonist inspirations of the Renaissance did not end there but continued into the early modern period as well. And, as Neumann shows in the first part of his monograph, Pythagoras was also seen as a powerful source of philosophical inspiration, as he was thought to have unified metaphysics, mathematics, physics, cosmology, theology, and ethics in a system. Given that no texts of Pythagoras are extant, this meant that the ideal was known, the details, less so. But it was thought that Pythagoras advocated some kind of system of simple beings, monads, that grounded reality; he was a kind of “religious atomist,” as opposed to the “atheist atomist,” Democritus; such is the view advanced by the (now) best-known sympathizer of Pythagoras, Ralph Cudworth.
Neumann’s presentation of the early modern uses of Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism by Cudworth and others (Johann Christoph Heilbronner, Colin Maclaurin, Gottfried Plouquet) is interesting and extremely helpful. Perhaps more worthy of praise, however, is his analysis in the weighty second part of the book of the nuances inherent in the systems of Leibniz and Wolff and his presentation of the important differences between the two thinkers. While both made monads, simple substances, fundamental in their metaphysical systems, their conceptions of these monads were quite different. This fact was not always obvious at the time, and present-day historians of philosophy often oversimplify the relation between Leibniz and Wolff by repeating the old saw that Wolff merely systematized Leibniz’s thought. For Leibniz, obviously, all monads were essentially mind-like insofar as they were individuated by their representative states. For Wolff, monads were not essentially representative; they were essentially active forces. Now, for Leibniz, the representational activity and forces of simple substances amounted to the same thing, and it is for this reason that his thought is closer to the idealized version of Pythagoras. Even...