The Book of the Magical Language

June 12, 2011 § 4 Comments


 The Philosophy of Leibniz: Metaphysics & Language (Mates, Benson)

Here is a fairly representative excerpt from the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz:

“Every laugher is a man: that is, laugher and laugher-man are equivalent. But a laugher is an entity, by hypothesis; therefore a  laugher-man is an entity; that is, some man is a laugher. Here, in the proposition “A man – laugher is an entity”, “entity” must be taken in the same way as in the proposition, “a laugher is an entity.” If “entity” is taken to refer to possibility, that is as meaning that there is a  laugher in the region of ideas, then “Some man is a laugher” must not be understood as other than “a man-laugher is an entity,” namely, as possible, that is in the region of ideas. But if “A laugher is an entity” is taken to refer to what really exists, “a man-laugher is an entity” can also be taken to refer to this, and it will be true that some man actually laughs…”

Are you laughing yet?

The real joke, other than the one on me for reading 17th century metaphysics in the first place, is that what Leibniz was attempting, in the lines above, was to remove ambiguity from language, by defining all concepts (in this case, ‘a laughing man’) clearly.

At the root of every human dispute, Leibniz said, there are different interpretations of a single concept, of which only one is correct. Just as mathematics was vastly simplified by everyone adopting a consistent notation and a few elementary rules for manipulation of symbols, Leibniz sought to define a universal language of philosophy, by pruning down Latin to a subset of nouns, pronouns and adjectives in the nominative case, and attempting to lay down a restrictive set of rules of grammar. Once all the rules were in place, Leibniz felt, judging the truth of statements would be a piece of cake – all you had to do was to write down the offending sentences in the lingua philosophica, simplify each concept contained in it, until, within a finite set of steps, you will arrive at either a tautology or a contradiction. You would also be able, using this process, to discover new truths by examining statements known to be true.

Leibniz thought, rather naively, that all analytic statements were true, and all true statements were analytic. We know differently, of course – not only is it impossible to determine  the truth in contingent propositions (propositions about the real world) in an a priori manner, but there are analytic propositions as well that can never be proved true. Leibniz was unquestionably a great mathematician, but an inferior metaphysician to George Berkeley, and a far worse philosopher than my hero, David Hume.

This study of Leibniz’s philosophy and life, by the philosopher Benson Mates, taught me that studying Leibniz is largely of historical and academic value. It merely enables the reader to pinpoint Leibniz’s exact place in the unbroken chain that is the history of a particular strain of Western philosophical thought, from Anaxagoras, Socrates and Diodorus of Megara all the way to Alfred TarskiNoam Chomsky and Willard Quine. That strain, with Leibniz, intersects another, darker, more ancient, strand of  ideas propagated by shamans, witch-doctors, tantriks and Kabbalists, who have persistently believed in the power of the spoken or written word to govern, influence or even merely to be magically connected in some way with the material object that it signifies.

Sadly, not much else by way of fresh insight into the nature of reality could be gleaned from his thoughts. Indeed, if not for Mates’ lucid, conversational style of writing, I may not have understood much at all, such is the austere rigor of language that Leibniz employs in his paradoxical quest for clarity.

“You’re reading another crackpot, aren’t you?” sneered my 12-year old son, who has not yet recovered from my exposition of Berkeley a few months ago. Well, I said defensively, at least there is merit in contemplating a secret, magical language in which, as Leibniz puts it, “people will be unable to speak or write about anything except what they understand”, a language in which it is impossible to lie. It may not be possible to create such a language, but conceptually…”Sorry, but you know it’s been done before, don’t you?” interrupted the cruel youth, “You should read the Eragon series.”

The Eragon series! Ouch. Perhaps he will grow up one day to see things differently. Or perhaps he will always think of the people I read as complete nutters.

As the philosopher Doris Day once sang, Que sera sera.

Or, to be absolutely – ridiculously – precise, as Leibniz would have put it (he actually did, in fact), “Of what will happen, it is inconceivable that if it will happen, that it won’t happen.”

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§ 4 Responses to The Book of the Magical Language

  • The 'Cruel Youth' says:

    that’s the ERAGON series, not Eregon. and i called him a crackpot for saying that the human world is perfect
    and because of that quote at the top
    finally, i didn’t say it was done before.
    i said it was done BETTER.
    this concludes my argument.
    -the ‘Cruel Youth’
    P.S. my father reads many crackpots. Berkeley, Liebniz, possibly Hume, and definitely himself.

    • psriblog says:

      Dear Cruel Youth

      Leibniz didn’t say the human world was perfect – he merely said it was the best possible world, out of the countless options that God had. There’s a huge difference. For instance, you are easily the best possible 12-year old son I could have hoped for. But are you perfect? (No, seriously – do you REALLY think you are?)

      My apologies for misspelling Eragon (despite having been dragged along to see the movie along with you). The error has been corrected now. But then you’ve misspelt Leibniz in your comment above, so I guess we are even.

      With reference to your claim that Eragon said it better than Leibniz, I can only comment that one of the words that Leibniz had much to say about, and clearly felt the need to disambiguate and help everyone reach a common conceptual understanding, was the word “BETTER”. Now I know why.

      • The 'Cruel Youth' says:

        *cough* crackpot *cough*
        firstly, i didn’t drag you along to see the movie
        secondly, yes, i am the perfect son. Trust me, no other sane person would read your blog
        thirdly as for your arguments concerning the word ‘BETTER’, i don’t know if you realized this from my original comment: LIEBNIZ IS A CRACKPOT!!!
        Finally, the ‘Cruel Youth’ has quotes around it as it is a false description of my character which i rather like.
        -The ‘Cruel Youth’

  • psriblog says:

    Umm, Leibniz is still misspelt…as the philosopher Chan said famously: Your focus needs more focus.

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