Doing Things with Leibniz

I have been ignoring my dear unread blog (except for the pervs who land in my clitoris post after google-image searching clits. I see you :) And I love you. Keep searching. Knowledge is power ✊🏻). But I have been writing. A lot. I decided to blog some of the papers I wrote this semester, at least the ones I managed to connect to my interests. The first one I want to share is a paper I did on Leibniz and his take on the mind/body problem which I connected to a discussion on “gut feminism” from my MA thesis. 

Getting into Leibniz was one of the more exciting things that happened this semester. I don’t know if it’s the disarming optimism, or the strive for reconciliation of disparate fields, the notion of completeness, the idea interconnectedness with everything affecting everything else in a non-causal yet infinitely sequential kind of manner, or those adorable monads. But Leibniz certainly got to me.

I almost want to write a review of Leibniz’s work as a specimen of science fiction for his is a strange and wondrous world where “motion is not something entirely real,” miracles happen in an orderly fashion and atoms have souls. A world which might be based on, and even have implications for, ours. (And perhaps I will do something like that on this blog at some point). Nevertheless, it feels like there is something there in all the weirdness that could get us places, even if it’s just limited to the feeling one gets that we are all in this together, all of us, these collections of little monads trying to be less imperfect, trying to reflect better (in more than one sense of the word). 

Whenever I engage with any kind of theoretical or philosophical work, I am always asking myself “what can I do with this? Where can I go with this, philosophically and politically?” Secondly, I know this is very unprofessional and everything, but I try to find out a little bit about the person. Usually the writing itself is revealing enough. I find myself with a perpetual smirk while reading Leibniz for instance. Also the little anectodes about his life that I keep running into attest to his gentle personality, like Kant recounting how L gently returns a worm to its leaf after studying it, or the little bit in his writing about some powder one can use to save a fly after it’s been drenched in water. I find Leibniz much more refreshing than the let-me-write-this-in-Latin-so-the-plebs-can’t-engage-me Descartes who annoys me to no end. Compare this to Leibniz who tried to come up with a universal visual alphabet that speakers of all languages, literate or illeterate, could understand. In all his quirks, L is inspiring to me somehow so I tried to do things with him.

A note on footnotes: The footnotes did not appear when I copied the paper to wordpress. I guess I need a plug-in which I can’t manage right now because I am currently blogging from an ipad. So I used a manual, rudimentary endnote system for the couple footnotes I had. 

(Featured image source: [ ] Image: Leibniz’s manuscript with the binary system which presaged modern computer language. )

Embodied Minds or Mindful Bodies? A Comparison of Cartesian and Leibnizian Conceptions of the Mind/Body Problem

 In this paper I will argue that Leibniz’s account of the mind/body relationship, while superficially more implausible, has better explanatory power than the Cartesian account. I will first give a summary of Descartes’s view of the mind/body problem, followed by a summary of Leibniz’s conception of the same. I will then discuss why Leibniz’s account might present a fuller and more intuitive picture of embodied experience, using a particular case. In the final part of the paper, I will discuss some problems with Leibniz’s view and offer brief suggestions towards surmounting them. 

 Before drawing his (in)famous distinction between the mind and body in the Sixth Meditation, Descartes first establishes himself as a thinking being (Second Meditation), then proves the existence of a non-deceiving, omnipotent God (Third and Fifth Meditations) and finally delineates the source of error as the discrepancy between the unlimited faculty of willing and the limited one of judgement (Fourth Meditation). Having thus established his Archimedean point (the self and God) on which to rest all else (the world), Descartes revisits the body and the senses which he had globally discredited earlier via his increasingly devastating skeptical scenarios (namely the Deceiver Argument; Dream Argument and Evil Demon Argument in order of destructive power). The Sixth Meditation sets out to prove the existence of the body (and by extension the world external to the mind) on the one hand and to explain its relationship with the intellect on the other. In a sense, the two are the same project because the body’s very existence is demonstrated in its distinction and differentiation from the mind. 

 The first strong hint as to the existence of the body in the Sixth Meditation is another distinction between the imagination and pure intellection which is somewhat analogous to the mind/body split (Moriarty 2008: 51). Thinking about a simple geometrical shape like the triangle or the pentagon, the mind understands them to be three-sided and five-sided figures respectively, and the imagination can similarly contemplate the three or five sides as present, or picture them with “the eye of the mind.”(Moriarty 2008: 52) A much more complicated shape such as the chiliaogon can just as easily be grasped by the intellect as a thousand-sided figure whereas it is nearly impossible to form a clear picture of it in the mind. This extra effort required by the imagination indicates to Descartes that imagination and pure intellect are distinct, that imagination is not integral to one’s essence like understanding, and is therefore dependent on something distinct from the subject. Further, it seems that the mind when it imagines turns itself towards corporeal things and the body. The thinking subject only becomes aware of the body at the juncture it is distinguished from the intellect. This is the essence of the Epistemological Argument for mind/body distinction. While the body was subject to radical skeptical doubt in the earlier meditations, the mind survived this rigorous methodology. Descartes finds that he would still be the same person without the faculty of imagination and without the body. If the mind can be conceived of without the body, his reasoning goes, then the two must be distinct and can exist independently from one another. Insofar as this is clearly and distinctly perceived, (and error is evaded through prudent use of the faculty of judgement), a non-deceiving omnipotent God can ensure that the two can be produced separately (Moriarty 2008: 55). The body is thus defined in its distinction from the mind. 

 The Cartesian body is also defined in its sharp differentiation from the intellect. If the thinking subject is the I, the body is the Not-I. The body is inessential and extrinsic to the self. It is also infinitely divisible and exists as extension in space. In contrast, the mind is immaterial, indivisible and non-extended. No matter how dramatically one’s mental content might change, no matter how many differing and even contradictory thoughts or feelings one might have, this does not alter the unity of the I or the thinking self. In contrast, any kind of change in the bodily realm seems to involve divisibility and extension. This fundamental difference becomes the ground for Descartes’s Metaphysical Argument for the mind/body division. In accord with the Principle of Noncontradiction, something cannot be P and -P at the same time and in the same way. In other words, one thing cannot be essentially divisible and indivisible, extended and non-extended at the same time. The body and the mind are not only distinct but they are also distinct substances, essentially and radically different from one another.

 So how does it come to be that these radically different and distinct substances seem to interact? How can an immaterial substance influence a material substance and vice versa? Just as Descartes clearly and distinctly perceives to have a body, he also clearly and distinctly perceives causal interactions between the mind and the body. Since God is no deceiver, apart from the marginal errors of judgement, these interactions must be largely reliable and they must be accounted for. When someone hits me on the head, it seems that the pain originates in the body before it is transferred to the mind as a clear impression of pain. When the desire to move my arm arises in the mind, it seems to be transferred to the body before I move my arm. When I hear growling in my stomach accompanied by some faintness, I get the clear and distinct idea that I am hungry. This is roughly how the mind and body might causally interact in the Cartesian picture. By the Sixth Meditation, then, Descartes becomes not only a thinking thing, but an embodied mind. In fact, the human being is defined as the composite whole of the mind and body. Descartes is still essentially a thinking thing but he also finds himself attached, or to use his terminology, “closely conjoined,” to a particular body which he experiences rather intimately (Moriarty 2008: 57).

 Descartes tries to account for this apparent conjunction between disparate substances through a rather complex quasi-scientific explanation that involves the brain, more specifically the pineal gland, as the intermediary that passes signals both ways (Moriarty 2008: 61). For one thing, it is not clear how an extended substance like the brain can pass messages between an unextended and an extended substance. Furthermore, this explanation cannot account for the not infrequent cases where the body seems to be doing a myriad complicated things with little or no interference from the mind. Many bodily processes like breathing or digestion are unconscious. I will keep breathing when I sleep or when I am knocked out cold. Even if I am in a coma, my bodily functions can be kept active for extended periods of time. Is there thinking going on in such cases? If there is, who is doing the thinking? How can the foregoing Cartesian conception of mind/body interaction account for these cases? The short answer is that it can’t. Because Descartes essentially imagines humans as embodied minds rather than (or in addition to being) mindful bodies, his account, while very intuitive in some respects, remains, at best, incomplete. The body remains nothing more than a metaphysically attached shell of the mind, an inanimate cocoon that is passive, inessential, inert, and unthinking. Let us now turn to the Leibnizian conception of the mind/body problem.

 Before going into Leibniz’s account of the mind/body problem, it is helpful to give a succinct summary of his substance ontology. As briefly noted above, there are two kinds of substance for Descartes (extended/nonextended or divisible/indivisible) and a substance can be separated from its qualities (or “modes” in Cartesian vocabulary) without losing its essence (one can have various thoughts while remaining the same substance: a mind). For Leibniz, on the other hand, there is only one kind of substance (minds) and the predicates (or qualities) of a subject must always be contained in the subject. Leibniz thought that an infinitely divisible substance can have no reality as it breaks further into parts that are also divisible ad infinitum (Perkins 2007: 68). He rejected the foundationalist atomist solution to this problem which asserts that the physical world is made up of indivisible unitary atoms; he argued instead that anything existing in space is divisible which is itself an eternally divisible continuum (Perkins 2007: 68-69) (1). In the interest of treating God as a separate substance from all and preserving the soul as something that persists as the same thing through all change, Leibniz tried to maintain all three traditional Aristotelian attributes of substance (individuation, independence and unity) which led to his most counterintuitive claims: there is only one kind of substance (minds with differing degrees of perception); there is no interaction between substances; bodies are not substances but well-grounded phenomena (Perkins 2007: 66). 

 For Leibniz the universe is composed of mind-like individual substances (later called Monads) which are independent of everything else but God. These individual substances exist independently and eternally each reflecting, like a mirror, the entire universe (Loemker 1989: 308). The substances are differentiated among each other not in kind but in degree of consciousness or perception: minds with apperception or reflexively conscious minds (similar to the general understanding of soul); non-reflexively conscious souls (animal minds) and unconscious (bare monads or the contemporary understanding of inanimate matter, like a rock) (Woolhouse 2010: 79). Apperceptive minds or what Leibniz variously calls intelligent spirits are differentiated from God, who is also a mind, not by kind but by degree of quality and quantity of ideas. Each individual substance reflects the entire universe because they are all created by the same God following the same principles and thus bear the marks of his handiwork. 

 Leibniz’s God is a god of possibility and principles, in that he can only create what is possible in accordance with some basic principles such as the Principle of Noncontradiction and the Principle of Sufficient Reason. For instance, something that violates the Principle of Noncontradiction, like a square circle, is not possible to create (Perkins 2007). Compossibility is another important notion; somethings are possible but not possible together with other things (Perkins 2007: 27). God can only create what is possible but not everything that is possible can exist. When God finally decides to create one thing instead of another, he has already made the decision to create an entire coherent universe where this one thing could fit in with everything else without any contradiction. This is another way of stating the Principle of Sufficient Reason. This is also how any one substance reflects the entire universe as well as its complete concept, its essence, its past and present because sufficient reason for any one thing to exist implicates the entire universe. The complete concept of an individual substance is every predicate that can be attached to it, as each substance is infinite so are the predicates and they can only be known in their entirety by the omniscient God. Understanding the complete concept of an individual substance requires fully understanding the particular causes that produced that thing, and in turn the causes that produced them, going all the way back to the first spark of creation, ultimately including the entire universe (Perkins 2007: 17-18).  

 Each substance in the Leibnizian universe infinitely unfold from their complete concepts expressing the entire universe, however confusedly and imperfectly, in their own perspectival way without ever interacting for this would violate their independence, unity and individuation which alone makes them substances. So how does this view account for the phenomenal world we seem to experience in all its interactions? For this end, Leibniz introduces his principle of Pre-established Harmony. The universe has different sets of laws for physical and immaterial substances which unfold from their complete concepts independently of one another but God has made it such that they correspond to one another perfectly, there is a law-like relationship between them sans direct causality or interaction (Loemker 1989: 311-12). Intra-substantial causation, however, is allowed: All states of the mind follow from previous states of the mind, all bodily states follow from previous bodily states according to the complete concept of each individual substance (Loemker 1989: 338). But the two cannot influence one another, only they are adapted to each other via pre-established concomitance. It is enough to create a law of general harmony between them. God does not have to make any miraculous interventions once the stage is set (unlike Malebranche’s Occasionalism which Leibniz rejects), they just keep unfolding in a law-like manner like an infinite chain reaction of sorts. 

 The Leibnizian relationship between the mind and the body is not only one of pre-established harmony but also that of mutual perception and expression (Woolhouse 2010). Each individual substance expresses the entire universe but it cannot express the universe in its entirety clearly and distinctly at all times. Only God can do that. Instead, all of the universe is contained in the individual substance in a confused state, the whole is there but the details are confused just as when one perceives a symphony as a whole without clearly perceiving all of the details at all times such as every single instrument or note (Perkins 2007: 117). The substance can express most clearly what is in proximity to it. That is why the expression is always perspectival and contextual. Leibniz says that there is no soul without a body and the soul mirrors the whole world by “representing this body which belongs to it in a particular way” (Woolhouse 2010:54). Or as Woolhouse (2010) puts it: “What the soul primarily expresses is its body, for it is through it, as part of the material plenum, that it expresses and mirrors the rest of the universe”(56)(emphasis in the original). The representation goes both ways as the body similarly expresses the soul (Woolhouse 2010: 97). 

 It is through this model of expression that Leibniz is able to present something that presages the modern subconscious (or Minute Perceptions in his words) which is in part a developed version of Plato’s Doctrine of Reminiscence (3) (Loemker 1989: 320). The mind is unitary for Leibniz, so there is no separate part that can be singled out as the subconscious; the only difference between conscious and unconscious thoughts, or minute perceptions, is one of degree (Perkins 2007: 112-113). Individual substances “have no windows,” as Leibniz puts it (Perkins 2007: 91). Nothing can be added to or subtracted from them, they already contain everything they need in their complete concept, but in a confused and perspectival state, where they are highlighted at times only to fade into the background again, as when one forgets a past event and then remembers again when triggered by some experience. Similarly minute perceptions are always running in the background as part of the individual substance’s way of expressing the whole world and these perceptions have “faint influences” on our actions although we are usually unaware of them (Perkins 2007: 113). Leibniz’s model of expression coupled with the concept of minute perceptions enables him to offer a complete account of the relationship between the mind and the body including such cases as the ones offered above that Descartes’s intermittent one-directional model falls short of. 

 Although there is no true interaction between the mind and the body in Leibniz but only a relationship of pre-established harmony, there still seems to be better mind/body unity than Descartes’s model by virtue of their mutual expression where the representation goes both ways. When the body is harmed in some way the pain does not just transfer from the body to the mind as in the Cartesian conception but it is also expressed by it. The difference in their expressions is again one of degrees of perceptions; the desire to raise one’s arm is a more distinct expression than pain which is more like a confused state (Woolhouse 2010: 96). In Descartes’s account, it seems like the communication between the mind and the body is always one-directional, either from the body to the mind or from the mind to the body. Thereby Descartes’ conception can only account for some interactions between the body and mind. The account becomes especially problematic when the source of the volition is not clear or when it seems like there is no causality at all as in the case of digestion. As Leibniz puts it: 

certain movements that are rightly called involuntary have been attributed to the body so exclusively that they have been believed to have nothing corresponding to them in the soul; and conversely it has been thought that certain abstract thoughts aren’t represented in the body. But both of these are mistaken.(2)

Every movement in the body corresponds to some movement in the mind, however confused. And similarly every movement in the mind finds its expression in the body, no matter how imperceptible. A nervous tic which might not be located to any distinct idea in the mind nevertheless finds a clear expression in the body. The sensation of hunger referred to earlier seems to exclusively originate in the body. But it is also the case that one sometimes feels the urge to eat with reasons other than pure hunger such as boredom. It could perhaps be said that the body expresses the mind’s boredom in the act of eating. Or perhaps it is simultaneously the case that the mind, in creating the volition to eat, is expressing a kind of confused state of boredom which originated in the body. Leibniz’s conception of the mind/body relation is capable of accounting for each of these complicated cases where souls are embodied just as bodies are mindful. 

 Beginning with some premises that sound rather implausible Leibniz, then, seems to have nevertheless created a more complete and intuitive account of embodied experience. Let us now turn to a particular example which might demonstrate the superior explanatory power of Leibniz’s account as opposed to a Cartesian one. The Cartesian mind/body division seems to be a dominant paradigm in modern Western biomedicine as well as in contemporary political movements such as feminism. An illness in this context is usually described as either having psychogenic or biological etiology (and rarely both). As discussed above, the Cartesian conception of the mind/body is particularly deficient when it comes to certain unconscious states where the one directional body/mind interaction falls short of explaining how the body is able to perform complex activities with no obvious contribution from the mind. Similarly, Western biomedicine seems particularly inadequate in helping patients whose illnesses defy this clear distinction between the mind and the body, where the etiology is unclear. Bulimia Nervosa is one such case (4).

 Bulimia is considered to be a mental illness according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders although the exact etiology has not been formulated. But because the condition is assumed to be psychogenic, the medical establishment has been more reluctant to investigate biological etiologies and bring them in conversation with psychological factors. Eating disorders like bulimia that disproportionately affect women are considered to be feminist issues and thus there is a plethora of feminist theoretical material about the issue which is unfortunately no less Cartesian in its approach with a marked distinction between psychological and biological factors to the exclusion of one. What impedes the understanding of bulimic bodies and practices in this case seems to be the underlying Cartesian mind/body division and linear causality whereas a non-causal Leibnizian account where the body and mind are mutually expressing each other and where the body (in this case, the gut) is a perceiving entity, capable of abstract thought, might provide a fuller account. 

 In her article “Gut Feminism,” Wilson (2004) argues that a particular Freudian conception of psychosomatization that makes a distinction between the bodily and the organic (which is another way of formulating the Cartesian mind/body distinction) has had a lasting and decapacitating effect on most feminist thought on eating disorders such as bulimia leading to a problematic dissociation of ideation and biology. The preference of psychogenic etiologies over biological ones, that is, the idea that psychic and cultural events could be somatized, was one of the central organizing principles of feminist work on the body in the 1980s and 1990s according to Wilson, allowing “feminists to think of bodily transformation ideationally and symbolically, without reference to biological constraints. That, is to think about the body as if anatomy did not exist” (Wilson 2004:68-69). While Freudian somatization is one way of imagining some biological transformations as psychogenic, it is marred by the same kind of Cartesianism where the transformation is considered either psychogenic or biological and depending on context one is privileged over the other.

 Studying the biological substrate dynamically through a synthesis of psychoanalysis and biology, Wilson arrives at a conception of “organic thinking” whereby biology (in this case, the intestinal tract) is “an active broker” in somatization and not just a passive substrate waiting to be animated by the unconscious (2004:73). Ferenczi, one of Freud’s controversial disciples, believed that traditional sciences would do well by moving away from excessive concern with the utility and rationality of organs through incorporating “a more intricate account of their capacity for pleasure, for the expression of wishes, and for complicated thought” (Wilson 2004:76). With these insights, Wilson investigates the disappearance of the gag reflex in bulimia. Combining the biological knowledge about the larynx as a local switch point between different organic capacities such as ingestion, breathing, vocalizing, hearing and smelling, with other organic capacities such as sensation and expression, it becomes possible to understand that in practitioners of bulimia “the gagging capacities of the fauces have borrowed from the pharynx and become more like swallowing; and ingestion has become a technique for expulsion rather than digestion” (2004:81). Perhaps in Leibnizian terms this could be rephrased as the monad of the fauces becoming confused in its expressions and beginning to mirror the pharynx instead. 

 Looking at the vicissitudes of digestion and vomiting as “complex thinking enacted organically” (2004:82), Wilson is able to present a fascinating account of why antidepressants seem to be effective in bulimia, although practitioners of bulimia are not necessarily depressed (by clinical definition, anyway) (Mitchell, Agras and Wonderlich 2007:95). It seems that some antidepressants have direct effect on appetite via manipulating the serotonin mechanism in the gut. In other words, the mood enhancing serotonin, which is supposed to have a direct effect on the mind, also seems to coincidentally treat the gut flora. Concomitantly, the balancing of the gut flora, seems to have a positively curbing effect on the repetitive binging/vomiting behavior. Using such examples, Wilson tries to defy the exclusionary logic that makes the current data about bulimia look inconclusive. Etiological discussions in the relevant literature seem to echo the Cartesian account of the strict mind/body division and its linear causality when they push certain demarcations on the reader: “depression then binging; satiety or mood; brain not gut” (Wilson 2004:83) (emphasis in original). Wilson does not look for a linear causal determination but rather takes into account all those vectors simultaneously with the understanding that there is no radical (by which she means originary) distinction between biology and mood. She suggests, for instance, to think of non-normative alimentary practices not just as possible symptoms of depression but also to think of depression as “a kind of nutritional disorder” (2004:85). Imagining organs not only in their use but, at the same time, for their capacity to know, to think, to question, to solve, to complicate and to experience pleasure promises to present an infinitely more complex picture. In more Leibnizian terms, this amounts to imagining the mind and the body as mutually expressing one another. So, with no help from Leibniz, Wilson seems to arrive at a rather Leibnizian picture of how every movement in the mind might have a representation in the body as well as in the other direction even though one might be mostly unconscious of this communication and expression. Also remarkable is the possibility that the body might be capable of some kind of primitive thought or what Leibniz would call perception. 

 While Leibniz’s account seems to have more complete and in some cases more intuitive explanatory merit than Descartes’s account, it rests on principles and premises (like the principle of pre-established harmony; the idea of monads; the lack of causality and interaction) that are not tenable given our modern sensibilities. If his account is accepted without qualification then one ends up with a universe made up of God and individual substances where the material world is unreal and the body is not even a substance but a well-grounded phenomenon infinitely represented with immaterial monads. How would Leibniz describe illness to begin with? Would he say that any particular illness to plague an individual substance is just part of its complete concept and should unfold accordingly? Would a Leibnizian medicine even be possible given this rather deterministic framework? Or would Leibniz say that illness is the some monad getting rather confused in its expressions? In this case medicine could help the individual substance in its appetition towards perfection by making its expressions more clear and distinct so that it turn it expresses the universe and God more perfectly. Perhaps one could somehow divorce the implications from the premises, or make use of some of Leibniz’s insights without completely engaging with the metaphysical set up. Given that Leibniz’s philosophy is a complete and coherent system in itself, however, this may not be possible. On the other hand, Descartes’s account also rests on a prior premise of a non-deceiving God and the fantastical notion of the pineal gland, yet it seems that modern medicine had no problem incorporating the mind/body division without the aid of the theological and pseudo-scientific background. Another path to take towards remedying Leibniz’s account could be to attempt to reach similar conclusions from a different set of premises, not metaphysical but perhaps physical and biological qualified with the political and cultural like Wilson’s effort briefly sketched above.  


(1) Leibniz had the right intuition about this: the electron was discovered in the 19th century as the first subatomic particle, to be followed by the nuclei, nucleon and quarks. 

(2)  Jonathan Bennet, trans. 2010. “Leibniz’s Exchange of Views with Bayle.” Pg 32 Source: Accessed December 19, 2015. 

(3) This footnote was not in the original paper but it should have been. Here’s Plato’s Doctrine of Reminisence or Recollection [] . In a nutshell: it is the idea that we already possess all knowledge; learning is a process of remembrance, brought out with the help of asking the right questions.

(4) For the purposes of this paper, bulimia will be provisionally defined as a collection of alimentary practices which involves the regular ingestion of large amounts of food followed by regular self-induced vomiting through a sustained period of time (which might be measured in weeks, months, years or even a lifetime). 
Bennett, Jonathan, trans. 2010. “Leibniz’s Exchange of Views with Bayle.” Source: Accessed December 19, 2015. 

Descartes, Rene. 2008. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Moriarty, Michael, trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. 1989. Philosophical Papers and Letters. Loemker, Leroy E, trans & ed. Dordrecht: Kluver. 

Mitchell, James E., Stewart Agras, and Stephen Wonderlich. 2007. Treatment of Bulimia Nervosa: Where Are We and Where Are We Going? International Journal of Eating Disorders 40(2):95-101.

Perkins, Franklin. 2007. Leibniz: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum. 

Wilson, Elizabeth A. 2004. Gut Feminism. differences 15(3):66-94.

Woolhouse, Roger. 2010. Starting with Leibniz. New York: Continuum. 

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