Leibniz and neoconservatism

A standard reading of modern political theory, or one could arguably say the standard reading, lays the greatest emphasis upon the state of nature theories and their attendant arguments concerning the social contract. Beginning with Hobbes, this standard reading continues on through Locke and Rousseau, emphasizing along the way the influence of Locke upon Jefferson. Given the revolutions of the late 18th century, especially in light of the social contract justifications given by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, it is perhaps not surprising that this has become the standard reading.

What I would like to argue is that it is precisely the importance of the social contract theorists for the intellectuals who sought a justificatory ground for revolution that has resulted in the great stress that has been laid upon this aspect of modern political theory. Lurking beneath this standard reading of political theory we can find a deeper tension at play, and a tension that provides for a more comprehensive and illuminating account of political and economic processes as they have actually unfolded since the late 17th century. This is the tension between the thought of Spinoza and Leibniz.

The important role of Spinoza’s thought in providing the context of much of modern thought has long been stressed, most recently and thoroughly by the work of Jonathan Israel. The importance of the relationship between Spinoza’s thought and Leibniz’s continuing reaction to this thought has also been the subject of Matthew Stewart’s engaging historical account in The Courtier and the Heretic. The reading of the Spinoza-Leibniz tension that I am interested in, and currently pursuing, presents the Spinoza-Leibniz bifurcation as integral to many of the contemporary debates within political theory and philosophy. For example, Leibniz’s theory of the infinite monads, monads that are complete and isolated from one another (windowless as Leibniz puts it), is set forth largely as a response to Spinoza’s theory of the one substance. Part of the motivation for Leibniz’s response was the sense that Spinoza’s theory undermines the will and intellect of God. God is simply the necessity of nature itself and thus cannot conceive or will that things happen other than they actually do happen. This is anathema to Leibniz. Crucial to Leibniz’s countermove is the attempt to undermine Spinoza’s arguments regarding substance, and in particular the arguments that there can only be one substance (that is, Ethics I, proposition 5). This move eventually leads Leibniz to the view that there are infinite substances, what he will call monads, and that each monad involves a soul or unifying subjectivity that is irreducible to matter (Spinoza and Locke are each thrown, by Leibniz, into the camp of those who believe that matter can think). The subsequent problem of accounting for the relationship between these monads, as souls and subjective perspectives, and matter is resolved by calling for the pre-established harmony of the universe, and hence the harmony of all the relationships between monads. As I would argue, there is more than a casual and coincidental correlation between Leibniz’s claims here and the view that the market is an autonomous, self-sufficient and self-regulating process that consists of individuals who each act upon their own self-interest in a manner that is largely if not completely independent of the interests of others (pre-established harmony of the monads). As these arguments are fleshed out we can see further reasons why those who support neoconservative economic policies are also frequently theists, if not outright evangelicals. God’s preestablished harmony is completely at work in a proper economy, in the functioning of unregulated markets and thus, so this thinking goes, to regulate such markets would be a sacrilegious infringement upon God’s plan.

A further area where Leibniz reacted to Spinoza was with Spinoza’s claim that the mind is simply the idea of the body. There were two chief problems with this claim for Leibniz. The first is that if this is true then the mind is ever-changing since the body of which it is the idea is itself ever-changing. The second and related problem is that Spinoza’s view entails the loss of personal memories and self-identity upon the death of the body. Leibniz’s efforts are thus one of rescuing the autonomy and identity of the subject in the face of material processes that elude the identities of monadic subjectivities. On this point not only has Leibniz properly assessed the implications of Spinoza’s thoughts, but on this reading we can find that Spinoza’s philosophy, the supposed epitome of rationalist thought, is much in line with Hume’s philosophy. This has important implications since it undermines the common reading of Hume as the father of neoliberal economic theory (a mantle I’d give to Leibniz instead).

Leibniz thus correctly gauged the threat Spinoza’s thought posed. If the resulting reaction of Leibniz to Spinoza is explored in full, it may very well call for a rereading of the traditional understanding of modern political theory.



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