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"Leibniz’ Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese
and the Leibniz-Clarke Controversy"                                                                  (PDF Version)

(Philosophy East & West, Volume 53, Number 1, January 2003, 64 -86)
© 2003 by University of Hawai‘i Press 


1. Introduction

2. Some Aspects of the Controversy and of the Discours

3. The Appeal to Natural Religion or Theology

4. The God that Rules without Interposing

5. Matter and Spirit

6. Dynamicism

7. Conclusion



Leibniz was writing his Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese as the Leibniz-Clarke Controversy developed. Both were terminated by his death. These two fronts show interesting doctrinal correlations. The first is Leibniz’ concern for the “decadence of natural religion”. The dispute with Clarke began with it, and the Discourse is a defense of Chinese natural religion in order to show its agreement with Christian natural religion. The Controversy can be summed up as “clockmaker God versus idle God”. Leibniz wants to escape from the perverse consequences that all criticism of divine voluntarism seems to cause. Thus, his elaboration is directed at a distinct concept of a God that rules without interposing, a supramundane intelligence. And the Leibnizian interpretation of the natural theology of the Chinese can be viewed the same way: it emphasizes a First Principle, Li, which rules without interposing.

1. Introduction

The controversy between Leibniz and Clarke is one of the most significant episodes that the Newtonian system had to face before its definitive victory in the Age of Enlightenment. Leibniz deploys, in this epistolary interchange with the Newtonian Samuel Clarke, a whole battery of arguments against Newtonian philosophy to such an extent that this controversy has become a classic reference in the history of scientific and philosophical thought. (1)

During this exchange of letters, Leibniz was writing the Discours sur la théologie naturelle des Chinois (Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese) also known as Lettre sur la philosophie chinoise à M. de Rémond. (2) This treatise was probably written between November 1715 and January or March of 1716. (3) And the interchange with Clarke occurred between November 1715 and October 1716. (4) Both the controversy and the Discours were ended by Leibniz’s death on the 14th November 1716.

There are then, two coincidences within the Leibniz-Clarke controversy and the Discours, a chronological coincidence and, the same circumstance that provoked its termination, the death of Leibniz. Here I would like to include a third consideration: the doctrinal correlation between the Leibniz who debates with Newton via Clarke and the Leibniz who defends Chinese philosophy in his Discours.

The Discours has certainly been the object of numerous studies as part of the analysis of the European reception of Eastern thought, of the correctness or not of the European interpreters when dealing with foreign philosophic and religious contents, and of its historical circumstances, specially of the so called Rites Controversy. (5) This controversy divided the Christian missionaries in China and was reflected in Europe. In this context the Discours can be considered an attempt by a European thinker to approach Eastern thought.

Obviously these circumstances have to be taken into account. But, what is proposed here above all, is to consider the Discours in its European context. The parallelism between the Discours and the Leibniz-Clarke controversy began with the debate on “natural religion”. In effect, the Discours consists of a vindication of the natural theology of the Chinese; and in the first manuscript of his dispute with Clarke, Leibniz expresses his preoccupation for natural religion. There Leibniz says: “Natural religion itself, seems to decay very much”. And then he goes on to explain this weakening of natural religion:

“Many will have human souls to be material: others make God himself a corporeal being. Mr. Locke, and his followers, are uncertain at least, whether the soul be not material, and naturally perishable. Sir Isaac Newton says, that the space is an organ, which God makes use to perceive things by. But, if God stands in need of any organ to perceive things by, it will follow, that they do not depend altogether upon him, nor were produced by him. Sir Isaac Newton, and his followers, have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion. Nay, the machine of God’s making, is so imperfect, according to these gentlemen; that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary concourse, and even to mend it, as a clockmaker mends his work; who must consequently be so much more unskilful a workman, as he is oftener obliged to mend his work and to set it right. According to my opinion, the same force and vigour remains always in the world, and only passes from one part of matter to another, agreeably to the laws of nature, and the beautiful pre-established order. And I hold, that when God works miracles, he does not do it in order to supply the wants of nature, but those of grace. Whoever thinks otherwise, must needs have a very mean notion of the wisdom and power of God”). As is well known to scholars, this first manuscript of the controversy is, in reality, an extract from a letter from Leibniz to the Princess of Wales, in November 1715.” (6)

Here we have a summary of Leibniz’s refutation of the Newtonian position, which coincides with the development of the Discours. It seems then, that the last few months of Leibniz’s life were dedicated to these two objectives: refuting Newtonian philosophy, through his controversy with Clarke, and at the same time, establishing a positive understanding of Chinese philosophy, through his Discours

2. Some Aspects of the Controversy and of the Discours

The Leibniz-Clarke controversy deals with many subjects, that have been extensively studied. But if we bear in mind the protagonists’ own words, we can see that the diversity of subjects is reduced to these three: (a) the divine government of the World, (7)  (b) plenum and vacuum,  (8) and (c) the principle of sufficient reason. (9)

For example, Leibniz rejects vacuum because he considers that this vacuum introduces a hiatus that would ruin the necessary universal cohesion, the relation between the parts and the whole. This cohesion and coherence is the expression of the principle of sufficient reason: the universe is constituted in one way and not another, not arbitrarily but by reason. This coherence is opposed to Clarke’s conception of voluntarism. Clarke says, for example, that the proportion of matter and vacuum is something that God decides at His discretion, in the same way that His will in general governs every single detail of His creation. Leibniz, on the contrary, considers that this God has no reason to interfere with the everyday running of the World, because it is pre-established by virtue of His high reason.

Obviously from our point of view, this entire question of the divine government of the World, and as a consequence, its implications on the question of the relation between matter and spirit are the most relevant subjects. This is what Leibniz sums up in his first manuscript in the controversy with Clarke by explaining the “weakening of natural religion”.

And they are questions that are also raised in the Discours. In effect, Leibniz’s Discours went against the tide of prevailing opinion in Europe regarding Chinese philosophy and religion. It was asserted that Chinese philosophy and religion consisted, in the end, of materialism, atheism, or at most idolatry; and therefore, it would not be possible to find an equivalent of the Christian concept of God, i. e. a God governing the World. In short, it was believed that Chinese concepts reduced everything to matter.

Leibniz is opposed to these dominant opinions. They are the opinions held, for example by Longobardi, and Antoine de Sainte-Marie, whose treatises are criticized throughout the Discours. (10) The Discours is also a critical reply to a treatise of similar opinions by Malebranche. (11)  And finally the Discours should be seen as the culmination of the attention paid by Leibniz, during several decades, to the Chinese question, (12) especially as the synthesis of the ideas developed throughout an epistolary interchange with some Jesuit missionaries in China -missionaries with an accommodationist position. (13)

All these circumstances and the sources that inspired the Discours, and Leibniz’s ability or not in mastering Chinese concepts have already been extensively studied. (14) To sum up, one might remember that the Discours was involved in the aforementioned Rites Controversy. This controversy confronted the majority of Jesuit missionaries with the ecclesiastical authorities and as a result, influenced the European reception of Eastern doctrines. (15) Strictly speaking, the controversy was about whether or not missionaries should participate in the civic-religious rites of the Chinese. Obviously the accommodationist position accepted participation whereas the official position finally condemned it. The controversy was also about the translation of Chinese terms for the notion of God. The accommodationist position had accepted the indistinct use of several terms (Tian,‘Heaven’; Shangdi,  ‘Lord of above’; and Tianzhu, ‘Lord of Heaven’) while the official position finally only authorized the term Tianzhu on understanding that the first terms “give the pagans the opportunity to think that the Christian God is not distinguished from the material heaven or from the virtue contained there”. (16)

Obviously, the Rites Controversy, beyond its original purpose, presents Western culture with a problem when faced with non-Western cultures. Leibniz stood by the tolerant, accommodationist position, which would be defeated in the end. This defeat was already a fact when the Discours was written, because of the condemnation of the Paris Sorbonne in 1700 and the Papal condemnations of 1704, 1715, as well as others that followed. (17)

So the Discours deliberately sets out to elaborate in a systematic way this accommodationist position, while avoiding the strict limits of the Rites Controversy. (18) Thus, instead of concentrating on the aforementioned terms Leibniz fixes his attention on other, more abstract terms such as Shangdi, and especially Li or the First principle. The purpose of Leibniz’s thesis is to demonstrate that it is possible to deduce from the Chinese doctrines and their ancient origins a natural theology that would be compatible with Christian natural religion or theology. For this demonstration the Discours is organized into four parts, of which the first two should be highlighted: part one (Chinese Opinion Concerning God), in which Leibniz tries to establish a parallel between the Chinese and Christian concept of God, so as to contradict the widely held opinion that Chinese thought was atheist, and part two (Chinese Opinion Concerning the Productions of God or of the First Principle, Matter and Spirits),  the longest part taking up nearly half of the Discours. Here Leibniz thoroughly develops the subject of the relations between spirit and matter, which he believes would be parallel to Li and Qi

These two parts of the Discours are sufficient to illustrate the parallels with the Leibniz-Clarke controversy, highlighting the core question concerning the conception of God’s role in the World. (19)

3. The Appeal to Natural Religion or Theology

The first correlation begins, first of all, with the fact that the Discours is a defense of Chinese natural theology and secondly with the fact that the controversy with Clarke originates from a concern for the weakening of natural religion.

We understand natural religion or natural theology to mean a system of beliefs based on human nature. According to Leibniz, this system of beliefs is based on Reason. (20) In the Christian religion, this system of beliefs includes the belief in the World’s subordination to a superior principle, God; the belief in God’s attributes (wisdom, infinitude, etc); the belief in the soul’s immortal nature. These basic beliefs have neither been completed by Revelation nor influenced by cults and rites. In the Chinese case, Leibniz tries to identify a system of basic beliefs that he also calls “natural theology”, a system which he considers embodied more in the ancient Chinese doctrines than in modern ones. Ultimately Leibniz tries to prove that this natural theology of the Chinese is in accordance with the natural theology of Christianity. This is the general sense of the Discours.

It should also be added that the choice to demonstrate the similarity of the Chinese natural theology to Christian theology is neither an arbitrary nor an idle one. Leibniz defends this natural theology of the Chinese, but with his eyes fixed on the criticism of what he considers the degradation of natural theology or religion in European thought, which Leibniz considers Clarke’s position to be. So, the Discours plays a certain role in the controversy with Clarke: it helps Leibniz to establish his own position. He identifies himself with Chinese thought (to be exact, with his particular interpretation of Chinese thought), and this identification reinforces his positions against Clarke.  (21) Therefore, the coincidence between the development of the Leibniz-Clarke controversy and the composition of the Discours is significant.

As already stated, the controversy with Clarke began with the citation reproduced above in which the weakening of natural religion is criticized. To illustrate this weakening, Leibniz attacks two positions: the materialists (quoting Locke and no doubt having Hobbes in mind); and those which, in a Newtonian way, degrade –according to Leibniz– the role of God in the running of the World, either because He needs an organ or because He has to fulfil the degrading role of the clockmaker. Although without being quoted in Leibniz’s first letter, the Spinozist doctrine of unique substance and even the nullibist danger inherent in the Cartesian position would have to be included in this “weakening of natural religion”. (22)

Clarke’s response is also placed in this general context; he also criticizes materialism, but understands that it is precisely the Newtonian philosophy which stops the slide towards materialism. (23) It is this field that Clarke chooses for his first reply: he counterattacks by declaring that it is Leibniz’s position which leads to materialism, to fatalism, to nullibism, as well as to skepticism over the very Creation of the world. He also includes an important critique of the “pretense of making God a Supramundane Intelligence”. (24) This established one of the themes of the controversy,  which could be summed up under the heading “clockmaker-God versus idle God”. (25)

Clarke, faced with the Leibnizian concept of God as a supramundane intelligence, defends a model of relations between God and the World emphasizing God’s interposition, His direct activity in the maintenance of the World’s activity –in others words, God as artificer. Clarke counterattacks because he considers any diminution of this emphasis on the divine role as a slide towards materialism, exactly the same accusation that he received from his opponent. Leibniz’s model is that of a God that rules but doesn’t degrade himself into an everyday interposition: this is the supramundane intelligence. The power of this God is of such dignity, in virtue of his intelligence, that a continual vigilance over His Creation is not required. Understanding of this type of connection can be achieved by reason: the principle of sufficient reason and the principle of pre-established harmony are the Leibnizian basis of this connection between the dignity of God and His Creation.

In some ways, Leibniz is unique in his conception. On the one hand, he rejects Newtonian philosophy, a philosophy that he judges to be a crude divine voluntarism. On the other hand, neither Hobbes’ materialism, nor Cartesian dualism, nor Spinozist doctrine are sufficient to combat the Newtonian philosophy. In his reading and interpretation of the Chinese philosophy, which culminate in the Discours, Leibniz believes he has found a valid reference very similar to his own position, a reference he cannot find among Western thinkers. (26)

So, the whole interpretation that is developed in the Discours with regard to Li, that is to say the way in which a supreme spirit rules without interposing, or with regard to the relation between matter and spirit (Qi and Li), is in line with the particular Leibnizian model of this God as a supramundane intelligence. This conformity can be made clear by remembering the reproach that Leibniz directs at Clarke:

“I maintained, that an operation of God, by which he should mend the machine of the material world, tending in its nature (as this author pretends) to lose all its motion, would be a miracle. His answer was; that it would not be a miraculous operation, because it would be usual, and must frequently happen [...] But I reply again, that this vulgar opinion, according to which we ought in philosophy to avoid, as much as possible, what surpasses the natures of creatures; is a very reasonable opinion. Otherwise nothing will be easier than to account for any thing by bringing in the deity, Deum ex machina, without minding the natures of things.” (27)

In other words, Leibniz claims that the Newtonian model of divine voluntarism would be an appeal to perpetual miracles, an interposition that is ridiculed with the formula Deum ex machina. On the contrary, in the Discours he claims that the Chinese escape from this error:

“Thus one can even find satisfaction with modern Chinese interpreters, and commend them, since they reduce the governance of Heaven and others things to natural causes and distance themselves from the ignorance of the masses, who seek out supernatural miracles –or rather super-corporeal ones– as well as seek out Spirits like those of a Deus ex machina.” (28)

4. The God that Rules without Interposing

As I have said, the Leibniz-Clarke controversy could be characterized as the confrontation between two caricatures of God: the clockmaker-God (which is the criticism that Leibniz aims at the Newtonian Clarke) against the idle or absent God (which is Clarke’s criticism of Leibniz). Leibniz wants to escape from the perverse consequences that all criticism of divine voluntarism seem to cause. Thus, all the development of his thought is directed at a distinct concept of God: He is the God that rules without interposing, He is the supramundane intelligence. In this context other notions such as the principle of pre-established harmony are placed.
And the Leibnizian interpretation of Chinese natural theology also emphasizes a First Principle that rules without interposing. His interpretation of Li in the Discours is such:

“It will be easier to persuade their disciplines that God is an Intelligentia supramundana, and is superior to matter. Therefor, in order to determine whether the Chinese recognize spiritual substances, one should above all consider their Li, or order, which is the prime mover and ground of all other things, and which I believe corresponds to our Divinity.” (29)

To establish this correlation, Leibniz had to counter the interpretations of Longobardi and others, in whose Chinese denied a concept of God and interpreted Li in terms of prime matter. This obstacle is tackled in part one of the Discours.  In fact, both Longobardi’s and Leibniz’s interpretations are equally forced and have little in common with the original meanings of Li and Qi. (30)

Western Christian mentality finds great difficulty in understanding Chinese doctrines. It doesn’t find an explicit declaration of a creative and omnipresent God in these doctrines, nor does it find a clear differentiation between material and spiritual substances. Chinese doctrines fit badly into dualist schemas --and even less into intransigent, theological schemas. So it is not surprising that this indeterminacy should be interpreted by the anti-accommodationists like Longobardi and Antoine de Sainte-Marie so as to confirm their diagnosis.

But it is precisely this indeterminacy that seduces Leibniz; he sees in it an enlightenment of his own system. The Li or First Principle would correspond with this Deity that is supramundane intelligence: and its way of operating would not consist of direct interpositionism but of an obligatory adaptation from the inferior to the superior, by virtue of the so-called principle of pre-established harmony. This doctrine of pre-established harmony, very important in Leibniz’s system, is extensively defended in the controversy with Clarke. (31) In the Discours Leibniz does not explicitly attribute this doctrine to the Chinese (in the end Leibniz reserves the authorship of the doctrine for himself) but the intention of his arguments is to justify the connection between Chinese doctrine and the doctrine of pre-established harmony. (32) This significant explanation is found at the end of part one of the Discours:

“The Sing-Li Philosophy, Book 26, p. 8, says that the directing and procreating virtue is not found in the disposition of things and does not depend on them but is composed of and resides in the Li which has dominion over, governs, and produces all. Parmenides and Melissus spoke in the same way but the sense which Aristotle gives them appears different from the sense given to Parmenides by Plato. Spinoza reduces all to a single substance, of which all things are only modifications. It is not easy to explain how the Chinese understand it but I believe that nothing prevents according them a rational interpretation. With respect to that which is passive in them, all things are composed of the same prime matter, which differs only by the forms which motion gives it. Also, all things are active and possess Entelechies, Spirits and Souls only by virtue of the participation of the Li, i.e., the same originative Spirit (God), which gives them all their perfections. And matter itself is only a production of this same primary cause. Thus everything emanates from it as from a central point. But it does not follow from this that all things are different only by virtue of accidental qualities: as, for example, the Epicureans and other materialists believed, admitting only matter, figure and movement, which would truly lead to the destruction of immaterial substances, or Entelechies, Souls and Spirits.” (33)

There is, then, a clear attempt to steer clear of the accusation of materialism, and, on the other hand, a recognition of a governing principle that would correspond to the Divinity. However the difficulty in finding explicit declarations of this Divinity, in the way He is normally described –for example by emphasizing His omnipotence–, makes Leibniz resort to negative theology, i. e., to the mystical tradition and to a “metaontological” concept of God. He says:
“However, in ascribing to the Li the greatest perfections, they ascribe to it something more exalted than all this, of which the life, knowledge and power of creatures are only shadows or feeble imitations. It is somewhat like those mystics –among others Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite– who denied that God could be a Being, ens, on, but have said at the same time that he could be grater than being, super-ens, hyperousia. Thus do I understand the Chinese, who say, according to Father de Sainte-Marie (p. 62), that the Li is the law which governs, and the intelligence which guides things; that it is, however, not itself intelligent, but through natural force, its operations are so well regulated and sure, that one could say that it is intelligent. In our way of speaking, where one must seek and deliberate in order to act properly, we would say that the Li is more than intelligent; whereas for the Chinese it is infallible by its very nature”. (34)

This quotation complements the meaning of the Leibnizian interpretation of a God that rules without interposing. He is a God, whose superlative wisdom has arranged the order of His Creation, a “metaontological” God, above dealing with everyday things. This is the God that contrasts with Newton’s proposal of crude voluntarism. In this way Leibniz identifies himself with what he believes to be the Chinese concept of the First Principle.

5. Matter and Spirit

One of the most sensitive points in the Leibniz-Clarke controversy is the question whether space and time are absolute or relative. Leibniz defends, against the Newtonian concept, the concept of space and time simply as orders coexistent with things, not as independent entities. This argument is involved with other themes: for example, the argument over the quantity of matter. Leibniz claims that this quantity has to be the maximum, because of a principle that Koyré has called “maximum ontological richness” and to avoid the vacuum –another of the sensitive points in the controversy with Clarke. (35) His opponent Clarke, on the other hand, believes that the quantity of matter is decided according to God’s will and that there is no objection to supposing that a large part of the World is without matter, that’s to say it is empty –this idea being basic to Newton’s system.

This argument refers, in great part, to two important points of the Cartesian legacy: the radical separation between matter (res extensa) and spirit (res cogitans); and the identification between matter and space (extension). Leibniz doesn’t accept the Cartesian separation, but he accepts, in his own way, the correlation between space and matter. On the other hand the Newtonian Clarke denies an exclusive correlation between space and matter, although he does admit, up to a point, the Cartesian separation between matter and spirit. (36)

Clarke attacks the Leibnizian opinion that matter occupies the whole World by saying that Leibniz confuses matter and space. But Leibniz’s position, without going back on his affirmation concerning a Universe totally occupied by matter –and therefore, without vacuum–, goes the other way: space and matter are not the same thing, but they are inseparable. (37) Everything in the World, that is, everything created by God, is manifested in material form. Leibniz’s affirmation of this is so emphatic that he concludes that all created substances, even the very spirits, come accompanied by matter. This is stated explicitly in the controversy with Clarke:

“I shall not enlarge here upon my opinion explained elsewhere, that there are no created substances wholly destitute of matter. For I hold with the ancients, and according to reason, that angels or intelligences, and souls separated from a gross body, have always subtile bodies, though they themselves be incorporeal. The vulgar philosophy easily admits all sorts of fictions: mine is more strict.” (38)

And this affirmation is almost literally repeated in the Discours:
“Initially, one may doubt if the Chinese do recognize, or have recognized, spiritual substances. But upon reflection, I believe that they did, although perhaps they did not recognize these substances as separated, and existing quite apart from matter. There would be no harm in that with regard to created Spirits, because I myself am inclined to believe that Angels have bodies; which has also been the opinion of several ancient Church Fathers. I am also of the opinion that the rational soul is never entirely stripped of all matter.” (39)

These two affirmations, seen subsequently, are certainly both radical and surprising but, as Leibniz himself indicates, they adhere to Christian tradition; (40) besides echoing this tradition, they form a part of his own system, this “expliqué ailleurs” (“explained elsewhere”). (41) In the end, it’s a question of the correlation between spirit and matter, a correlation that is assured by virtue of pre-established harmony. Told in terms of the Monadologie

“The body belonging to a Monad (which is its entelechy or its soul) constitutes along with the entelechy what may be called a living being, and along with the soul what is called an animal. Now this body of a living being or of an animal is always organic; for, as every Monad is, in its own way, a mirror of the universe, and as the universe is ruled according to a perfect order, there must also be order in that which represents it, i. e. in the perceptions of the soul, and consequently there must be order in the body, through which the universe is represented in the soul.” (42)

It is precisely this type of correlation that Leibniz puts forward in the Discours. He starts with Longobardi’s criticism, which accuses the Chinese of reducing everything to matter. Leibniz recognizes in the Discours (§2) that “one may doubt if the Chinese do recognize, or have recognized, spiritual substances”. But although he admits this difficulty, he sees no problem in this possible confusion. Indeed, according to Leibniz the fact that the Chinese may conflate matter and spirit is more an advantage than a disadvantage.

At the end of the day, this conflation frees Leibniz from the Cartesian legacy, and in part II of the Discours (“Chinese Opinion Concerning the Productions of God or of the First Principle, Matter and Spirits”) it enables him to establish the parallelism between spirit and matter and the notions of Li and Qi.

6. Dynamicism

As we have seen, Leibniz goes to great lengths to demonstrate the spiritual character of Li, and how Li, as First Principle, would also be equivalent to the Divinity. On the other hand, matter would correspond to Qi, matter that is subtly conceived –that is, without specific qualities. This correspondence would also be in particular things, that is between the particular Li and its material constitution.

Leibniz makes this interpretation on the correspondence between Li / Qi and spirit / matter his own:

“Perhaps some Chinese assume that a primitive composite has resulted from the primitive form, or Li, and from primitive matter, or Ki; a substance of which the Li is the soul and the Ki its matter.” (43)

Although this correspondence has been extensively criticized in the light of the original meaning of the concepts, it nevertheless has been well used by modern scholars such as Fung Yu-lan in his A History of Chinese Philosophy.(44) Here I am not so much interested in the correctness of the interpretation, as in the meaning of this interpretation. What seduces Leibniz above all, then, is how the Chinese see Li and Qi as complementary: you can’t have one without the other. This means, according to Leibniz, that every portion of matter is animated by a governing principle, and that matter has to be seen inseparably from both sides, active and passive.

It is precisely the active character of matter, the impossibility of separating it from its internal principle of activity, that distances Leibniz from the traditional view of matter as something merely inert that requires external impulses, a view which Clarke holds. 

The discrepancy had already been proclaimed in the first text of the controversy with Clarke, when Leibniz declared against Newton’s clockmaker-God:

“According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time [...] According to my opinion, the same force and vigour remains always in the world.” (45)

This important declaration –that “the same force and vigour remains always in the world”– occurs repeatedly throughout the controversy with Clarke. From a more technical point of view, it forms part of the great controversy between the momentum (quantity of movement) and the vis viva as a measure of force and as a measure of a quantity that is conserved in the universe. (46) Leibniz believes that the vis viva is conserved and this excuses God from his lowly role as clockmaker. On the other hand, Newtonians such as Clarke understand that there is no such conservation, which explains the interposing role of God. (47)

But the argument is not merely technical. Leibniz’s conception forms part of his new emphasis on force as an active, internal principle, a principle that, according to Leibniz, has to lead to a new science, Dynamics. He defined this in 1694:

“To give a foretaste of my conception, it is sufficient for me to explain that the notion of force or virtue which the Germans call ‘Krafft’, the French ‘la force’, and for the exposition of which I have designed a special science of dynamics, adds much to the clear understanding of the concept of substance. For active force differs from the concept of bare power familiar to the Scholastics, in that this potentiality or faculty of the schools is nothing but a possibility ready to act, which nevertheless needs an external excitation or stimulus, as it were, in order to pass into action. But active force contains a certain activity or entelechy and is midway between the faculty of acting and the action itself; it includes effort and thus passes into operation by itself, without any auxiliary, but with only the removal of impediments.” (48)

The parallelism with the Chinese dynamic point of view would be underlined soon afterwards, in 1697-1698, in an epistolary interchange with the Jesuit Bouvet, a missionary in China. There, it is said that it is not enough to reduce nature to simple matter and then this to extension; it is said that the concept of force must be introduced, a concept the ancients noted to be like forms or entelechies: a concept that Bouvet also recognizes in the Chinese, in such a way that he concludes that there are notable similarities between Chinese philosophy and Leibnizian philosophy.(49)

This view is repeated in the Discours.  For example, explaining the relation between Li and matter:

“I would imagine that he means to say that the Li is, so to speak, the quintessence, the very life, the power and principle being of things, since he has expressly distinguished the Li of the air from the matter of the air.” (50)

There are other similar quotations. (51) The basic idea is that an internal principle (force, Li) is distinguished from matter –even in the case of more subtle matter, like air– but although distinguishable, matter and force are inseparable.

But the interweaving between Li and Qi is such that Leibniz has to face up to a solid objection: if they are so interwoven, it means that spirit and matter are coeternal, and that therefore God could not have created matter. He gets round this objection, which Clarke also formulates in another context, by excusing the Chinese for not having had the opportunity of knowing Revelation:

“Admittedly, it appears that the Chinese believed that the Li first and always produced its Ki and that therefore one is as eternal as the other. But there should be nothing surprising about this since they were apparently ignorant of the one Revelation which can explain to us the beginning of the universe –St. Thomas [Aquinas] and other great doctors having claimed that this dogma could not be demonstrated by reason alone.” (52)

In short, what has to be emphasized is Leibniz’s attachment to the schema of the interweaving between matter and its active principle, that is, his attachment to his dynamicist model. This model is formulated with different terminology depending on the context: in the controversy with Clarke he inclines towards a discussion on the vis viva; in the Discours the argument takes place in terms of Li and Qi. But the intention is the same: to rebut the traditional concept of matter as something inert, and Cartesian dualism, both present in the Newtonian conception. 
And this, even at the risk of being accused of conceiving matter as something coeternal: it is an accusation that has to be dealt with in the Discours as well as in the controversy with Clarke. (53) The conclusion is that Leibniz’s dynamic-energetic concept constitutes the nucleus of the doctrinal correlations between the Discours and the controversy with Clarke. This dynamic concept justifies his criticism of Newton’s clockmaker-God, and his concern for natural religion. In the Discours, the defense of Chinese natural theology leads to his model of a relationship between spirit and matter, based on the active, internal principle that animates all that exists. 

7. Conclusion

I have started with the chronological coincidence between the development of the Leibniz-Clarke controversy and Leibniz’s composition of his unfinished Discours, which were both terminated by his death. This chronological coincidence leads to the analysis of doctrinal coincidences. This analysis faces some difficulties, for example the tendency to take Leibnizian interest in China as a minor or specialized question as if it belonged to an anecdotical Leibniz rather than to the essential Leibniz. 

Therefore, I agree with the opinions that claim to see Leibniz’s interest in the Chinese question not only as a part of his thought but also as a consistent aspect of the coherence of his entire thought. (54) And so Leibniz’s dedication, in his last few months, to the refutation of Newtonian philosophy, and to the vindication of Chinese natural theology, is not an arbitrary choice.

It cannot be said that Leibniz was influenced by Chinese thought, as Needham suggested; (55) but it can be said that Leibniz acknowledged Chinese thought. This acknowledgement operates above all as a confirmation of his own positions, that Leibniz could not find in European thinkers. In effect, Leibniz could not identify himself with any of the references that were most familiar to him: not with Cartesian dualism, nor with Spinozism, nor with materialism, nor with Newtonian philosophy. At the end of the day, all these references are inevitable consequences of Cartesian metaphysical revolution. Not able to find reinforcement for his thinking in Europe, Leibniz searched for it and found it in China.

Basicly, the dilemma is between divine voluntarism and nullibism: either God is a governor who is permanently present in the running of the World, or else this God is absent. Leibniz opposes the first option, represented by Clarke, but he refuses to accept that this denial perversely leads to the second option. Spinozism could have been a way out of this dilemma, but Leibniz does not accept this solution either. His whole philosophy is an attempt to find a third way.

So, Leibniz initiates the controversy with Clarke by denouncing the Newtonian conception as crude voluntarism. He understands that this conception represents a weakening of natural religion; and he states his own conception that force subsists forever, exempting God from the lowly role of clockmaker. This points to a supramundane intelligence as God, that is a God who may not be an interposer but neither is He absent. This is the God who by virtue of His intelligence has arranged –has pre-established– the harmony that governs the World, His Creation. This is the conception that he recognizes in the Chinese. All the aspects of Chinese thought that had troubled and confused Western interpreters (such as Li as the First Principle, or the confusion between spiritual and material substances) are precisely those valued by Leibniz.

Leibniz rejects the schema that conceives matter as something inert (56) to which activity must be externally induced, that’s to say the schema ‘inert matter / external motor’. Activity is an internal principle; it is a force that subsists; it is what, in the most modern terminology, we call energy and we understand that it preserves itself. Thus, force is to bodies what spiritual substances are to matter; an adaptation, a harmony is established between the two orders, an adaptation that is assured by God. Therefore, it is not necessary to conceive the action of God as a monarch that interferes daily in the activity of his subjects. (57)

This God that rules without interposing is the God that Leibniz recognizes in Li as First Principle. Neither is his action direct, it is only the indication of the hierarchy to which the order of things is submitted. And so, Leibniz re-directs the ambiguities that others recognize in Li –for example, the non-indication of its omnipotent character– towards his own concepts. Thus, the entire first part of the Discours is a refutation of the interpretation of Li in terms of prime matter –which is the interpretation that Longobardi would make.

That the same term, Li, may be interpreted as spirit and as matter, which seems ambiguous, indicates that these two orders are very close. Leibniz accepts this ambiguity, and in fact he declares that he doesn’t conceive spirits created apart from matter, an affirmation that is practically literally repeated in the controversy with Clarke. 

This affirmation (as part of his dynamicist conception) proved to be anachronistic in the context of the European mechanical philosophy of the time, and is a result of the precartesian tradition. I have already stressed that this dynamicist conception makes up the nucleus of the doctrinal correlations between the Discours and the controversy with Clarke. (58)

We already know the result. The Newtonian option triumphed, by purifying itself of its appeal to divine voluntarism. Starting from this victory, which is the victory of modern science, “matter” would definitively be the only subject of science. And if there is no equivalent, in Chinese thought, to the concept of “matter”, it is reasonable that all subsequent attempts to approximate Chinese thought with Western thought would have no meaning. Thus, it would not be so coincidental that the Leibniz who was interested in China should be left separated, in a certain way, from his thought as a whole, and that he should only have fed a particular branch of the history of thought, the one more specifically bound to Sinology.


Many thanks are due to J. Echeverría, D. Folch, K. Chemla, C. Roldán and A. Malet for their comments on a first draft of this paper, and specially to Dickie Martin.

Bibliography Abbreviations:
Dutens = Ludovicus Dutens, ed., Gothofredi Guillelmi Leibnitii Opera omnia, 7 vols. (Geneva: Tournes, 1768; reprint, Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1989).
GP = C. I. Gerhardt, ed., Die Philosophischen Schriften von Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 7 vols. (Berlin, 1875-1890; reprint, Hildesheim: Olms, 1978).

(1)  The first edition of the controversy was made by Samuel Clarke himself in 1717: Samuel Clarke, A collection of papers which passed between the late Learned Mr. Leibnitz and Dr. Clarke (London, 1717). Of the more recent editions the following can be cited: H.G. Alexander, The Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, together with Extracts of Newton’s ‘Principia’ and ‘Opticks’ (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956); André Robinet, Correspondance Leibniz-Clarke présentée d’après les manuscrits originaux des bibliothèques de Hanovre et de Londres (Paris: PUF, 1957); Eloy Rada, La polémica Leibniz-Clarke (Madrid: Taurus, 1980); Volkmar Schüller, Der Leibniz-Clarke-Briefwechsel, (Berlin: Akademie, 1991). One of the most complete studies on this correspondence is: Ezio Vailati, Leibniz & Clarke, A Study of Their Correspondence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). See especially chap. 1, “God”, and chap. 6, “Matter & Force”.

(2)  The title Discours... is based on Leibniz’s own suggestion, for example in the letter to Rémond on the 27th of January 1716 (GP, III, 675). The title Lettre de Mons. de Leibniz sur la philosophie chinoise à Mons. de Rémond is that which appears in the first edition of 1735: C. Kortholt, ed., Epistolae ad diversos (Leipzig, 1735), II, 413-494. It is the same as in the following one of 1768 (Dutens, IV, 169-210). For the modern editions it is necessary to refer to the following: R. Loosen & F. Vonesen, Zwei Briefe über das binäre Zahlensystem und die Chinesische Philosophie (Stuttgart: Belser, 1968); Christiane Frémont, Discours sur la théologie naturelle des Chinois, plus quelques écrits (Paris: L’Herne, 1987); Antonio Caiazza et al., eds., Leibniz. La Cina (Milano: Spirali, 1987); Adelino Cardoso, Discurso sobre a Teologia natural dos Chineses (Lisboa: Colibri, 1991); Julia Ching & Williard G. Oxtoby, Moral Enlightenment. Leibniz and Wolff on China (Nettetal: Steyler, 1992); Daniel J. Cook & Henry Rosemont, Jr., eds., Leibniz. Writings on China (Chicago: Open Court, 1994); Lourdes Rensoli, ed., Discurso sobre la teología natural de los chinos (Buenos Aires: Biblioteca Internacional Martin Heidegger, 2000). Here I follow the text of Frémont’s edition, but with the paragraph numbering of the Cook and Rosemont edition (and also their English translation). See also: Leroy E. Loemker, ed., Leibniz: Philosophical Papers and Letters (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1976).

(3)  The Discours is the fruit of Remond’s request to Leibniz for his opinion on Chinese Philosophy. In his letter of the 4th of September 1715 (GP, III, 649-651), Rémond encloses the treatises of Longobardi and of Antoine de Sainte-Marie, which will be the critical references on which the Discours is built. This dispatch reached Leibniz at the beginning of November (GP, III, 656); and on the 27th of January 1716 (GP, III, 670) he announces that he has completed the writing of this Discours. But later, in a letter of the 27th of March (GP, III, 675) he says that he still needs more time to complete it. The manuscript will in fact remain unfinished.

(4)  The controversy basically consists of five texts from each side. Leibniz’s first manuscript is from the beginning of November 1715; Clarke’s fifth reply is from the middle of October 1716. Henceforth they will be quoted by author, numeration of manuscript, paragraph, preferentially following Robinet’s edition, and English translation by Alexander.

(5)  Besides the studies that accompany the editions cited of the Discours, see also: David E. Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit accommodation and the origins of Sinology (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1985); Etiemble, L’Europe chinoise (Paris: Gallimard, 1988-1989).

(6)  Leibniz, I:
 “Il semble que la religion naturelle même s’affoiblit extremement. Plusieurs font les ames corporelles; d’autres font Dieu luy même corporel. M. Locke et ses Sectateurs doutent au moins si les ames ne sont materielles et naturellement perissables. M. Newton dit que l’Espace est l’organe, dont Dieu se sert pour sentir les choses. Mais s’il a besoin de quelque moyen pour les sentir, elles ne dependent donc point entierement de luy, et ne sont point sa production. Monsieur Newton, et ses sectateurs, ont encore une forte plaisante opinion de l’ouvrage de Dieu. Selon eux Dieu a besoin de remonter de temps en temps sa montre. Autrement elle cesseroit d’agir. Il n’a pas eu assés de veue pour en faire un mouvement perpetuel. Cette Machine de Dieu est même si imparfaite selon eux, qu’il est obligé de la décrasser de temps en temps par un concours extraordinaire et même de la raccommoder, comme un horloger son ouvrage; qu’il sera d’autant plus mauvais maistre, qu’il sera plus souvent obligé d’y retoucher et d’y corriger. Selon mon sentiment, la même force et vigueur y subsiste tousjours, et passe seulement de matiere en matiere, suivant les loix de la nature, et le bel ordre preétabli.  Et je tiens, quand Dieu fait des miracles, que ce n’est pas pour soûtenir les besoins de la nature, mais pour ceux de la grace. En juger autrement ce seroit avoir une idée fort basse de la sagesse et de la puissance de Dieu”. 
As is well known to scholars, this first manuscript of the controversy is, in reality, an extract from a letter from Leibniz to the Princess of Wales, in November 1715.

(7)  As in Clarke, II, §11: “If God’s conserving all Things, means his Actual Operation and Government in preserving and continuing the Beings, Powers, Orders, Dispositions & Motions of all things; this is All that is contended for” (Clarke’s emphasis).

(8)  The Princess of Wales had characterized it like this, for example in a letter to Leibniz of May 4/15, 1716 (Robinet, 67). And Leibniz agrees: 
Je n’aurois point touché cette question du vuide si je n’avois trouvé que l’opinion du vuide deroge aux perfections de Dieu comme presque toutes les autres opinions de philosophie qui sont contraires aux miennes. Car les miennes sont toutes liées avec le grand principe de la supreme raison et perfection de Dieu” (Leibniz to the Princess of Wales, June 2, 1716; Robinet, 79; “I would not have touched on this question of the vacuum if I had not found that the theory of the vacuum detracts from the perfections of God, as do almost all the other philosophical principles which are contrary to mine. For mine are almost all bound up with the great principle of sufficient reason and the perfection of God”, Alexander’s translation, 195-196; my emphasis).

(9)  In a letter to Rémond on the 19th of October 1716, Leibniz says: “J’ay reduit l’estat de notre dispute a ce grand axiome, que rien n’existe ou n’arrive sans qu’il y ait une raison suffisante, pour quoy il en soit plutost ainsi qu’autrement. S’il continue a me le nier, ou en sera sa sincerité? S’il me l’accorde, adieu le Vuide, les Atomes, et toute la philosophie de M. Newton” (GP, III, 678). The letter is just before Leibniz’s fifth manuscript, which closes (V, §§125-130) with similar emphasis on the principle of sufficient reason. And in consequence, Clarke’s response (V, §124-130) also closes –and with it the entire controversy– with the refutation of the principle of sufficient reason, or more precisely, with the refutation of a restrictive interpretation of the principle.

(10)  The treatises are: Nicolò Longobardi, Traité sur quelques points de la religion des Chinois; Antoine de Sainte-Marie [Antonio Caballero or Antonio de Santa María], Traité sur quelques points importants de la mission de la Chine. Both were reedited in a single volume in 1701 in Paris. Rémond sent these works to Leibniz in September 1715. Longobardi’s Traité is also included in the edition of Dutens (IV/1, 89-144), together with Leibniz’s critical notes.

(11)  Rémond’s dispatch of September 1715 also included this work by Malebranche: Entretien d’un philosophe chrétien et d’un philosophe chinois sur l’existence et la nature de Dieu (1708); see vol. XV of Oeuvres complètes de Malebranche (Paris: Vrin, 1971), edited by André Robinet. English translation by A. Dominick Iorio: Dialogue between a Christian Philosopher and a Chinese Philosopher on the Existence and Nature of God (Washington: University Press of America, 1980). Apparently, Leibniz already knew Malebranche’s treatise of 1708, before Rémond’s dispatch. With regard to this, see Robinet’s introduction in the cited edition of the Entretien; also André Robinet, Malebranche et Leibniz. Relations personelles (Paris: Vrin, 1955), 486-493. On Malebranche’s interpretation, see David E. Mungello, “Malebranche and Chinese Philosophy”, Journal of the History of Ideas 41 (1980): 551-578.

(12)  This attention spans 50 years (1666-1716): Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), II, 497, summarized the main landmarks. However, Leibniz’s intense interest begins in 1696. One year later, as well as editing Novissima Sinica, he also wrote a Preface to this work. See also the following monographs: Olivier Roy, Leibniz et la Chine (Paris: Vrin, 1972); David E. Mungello, Leibniz and Confucianism (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1977).

(13)  See: Mungello, Curious Land: Jesuit accommodation and the origins of Sinology; H.J. Zacher, Die Hauptschriften zur Dyadik von G.W. Leibniz (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1973); and particularly Rita Widmaier, Leibniz korrespondiert mit China. Der Briefwechsel mit den Jesuitenmissionaren (1689-1714) (Frankfurt: Klostermann, 1990).

(14)  This analysis can be found in the cited editions of the Discours: see note 2 above.

(15)  On the Rites Controversy, apart from the monographs already cited (Roy, Leibniz et la Chine; Mungello, Leibniz and Confucianism), see: Virgile Pinot, La Chine et la formation de l’esprit philosophique en France (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1932); Etiemble, Les jésuites en Chine (1552-1773). La querelle des rites (Paris: Julliard, 1966); David E. Mungello, ed., The Chinese Rites Controversy. Its History and Meaning (Nettetal: Steyler, 1994).

(16)  J. Brucker, “Chinois (rites)”, Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique: 2, 2376, reproducing the Papal condemnation of 1704. The complete account (cols. 2376-2378) includes 7 articles: the 1st deals with the terminology question, in the 2nd until the 6th the participation in the rites is condemned, and in the 7th the atheism or idolatry of the Chinese is taken for granted. The condemnation of 1715 is expressed in almost exactly the same way; see text at col. 2382.

(17)  On the Sorbonne condemnations, see J. Davy, “La condamnation en Sorbonne des nouveaux Mémoires sur la Chine”, Recherches de Science Religieuse 37 (1950): 366-397. The history of the controversy and the condemnations, seen from the Catholic Church’s official point of view, can be followed in Brucker; also in Henri Bernard-Maître, “Chinois (Rites)”, Dictionnaire d’Histoire et de Géographie Ecclésiastiques; and in E. Préclin & E. Jarry, eds., “Le lotte politiche e dottrinali nei secoli XVII e XVIII”, Storia della Chiesa (Torino: SAIE, 1973): XIX/1, 377-401.

(18)  At the beginning of the Discours, §1, he says: “I speak here only of doctrine and will not examine ceremonies or worship, which require longer discussion” (“Je ne parle ici que de la doctrine, et je n’examine point les cérémonies, ou le culte, qui demande une plus grande discussion”).

(19)  Part three (Chinese Opinion Concerning the Human Soul, its Immortality, Rewards and Punishments) endeavours to demonstrate Chinese parallels with Christian concept of an individual, immortal soul. Part four (Concerning the Characters which Fohi, Founder of the Chinese Empire, Used in his Writings, and Binary Arithmetic) returns to an idea already explored in his letters with the Jesuits. The main references are Bouvet’s letter to Leibniz on 4 November 1701 (see Dutens, IV/1, 152-164), and Leibniz’s reply on April 1703 (see Zacher, 275-286). Leibniz establishes a correspondence between the hexagrams of the Yijing (or Book of Changes) and the binary system of his invention. This correspondence endorses a cosmogonic and metaphysical interpretation that wanted to demonstrate, among other considerations, that the Chinese had the idea of the Creation on their own. On this subject see for example James A. Ryan, “Leibniz' Binary System and Shao Yong's Yijing”, Philosophy East and West 46 (1996): 59-90.

(20)  Remember the title of the preliminary discourse of his Essais de Théodicée: “Discours de la conformité de la foi avec la raison”.

(21)  Needham surmises that Leibniz’s thought is formed under the direct influence of his reading and contacts on China. See Needham, Science and Civilization in China, II, 496-505 (Section entitled “Chu Hsi, Leibniz, and the Philosophy of Organism”), and particularly 504 note g. This conjecture has been rejected by the most recent scholars: as in D. Cook & H. Rosemont, “The Pre-Established Harmony between Leibniz and Chinese Thought”, Journal of the History of Ideas 42 (1981): 146-148.

(22)  Nullibism (from nullibi ‘in no place’). According to the Henry More’s accusation against the Cartesians, their God would not be in any place. See chaps. 5-6 of Alexandre Koyré, From the closed world to the infinite universe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1957).

(23)  Clarke, in his reply, I, § 1-2, admits the accusation aimed at the materialists.

(24)  Clarke says: “The Notion of the World’s being a great Machine, going on without the Interposition of God, as a Clock continues to go without the Assistance of the Clock-maker; is the Notion of Materialism and Fate, and tends (under pretense of making God a Supramundane Intelligence) to exclude Providence and God’s Government in reality out of the World” (Clarke, I, §4).

(25)  See chapter 11 of Koyré, From the closed world to the infinite universe.

(26)  A similar diagnosis is formulated by Frémont, Discours sur la théologie naturelle des Chinois, 28-30; and by Cook & Rosemont, eds., Leibniz. Writings on China, 2-3.

(27)  Leibniz, V, §107: 
“J’avois soûtenu que l’operation de Dieu, par laquelle il redresseroit la machine du monde corporel, prête par sa nature (à ce qu’on pretend) à tomber dans le repos, seroit un miracle. On a répondu que ce ne seroit point une operation miraculeuse, parce qu’elle seroit ordinaire et doit arriver assés souvent [...] Mais je replique encore que cet opinion vulgaire, suivant laquelle il faut eviter en philosophant, autant qu’il se peut, ce qui surpasse les natures des creatures, est tres-raisonnable. Autrement rien ne sera si aisé que de prendre raison de tout, en faisant survenir une Divinité, Deum ex machina, sans se soucier des natures des choses”.

(28Discours, §48: 
“Ainsi on peut encore satisfaire aux interprètes chinois modernes, en leur applaudissant lorsqu’ils réduisent aux causes naturelles le gouvernement du ciel, et d’autres choses, et s’éloignent de l’ignorance du peuple, qui y cherche des miracles surnaturels, ou plutôt sur-corporels, et des esprits, comme Deus ex machina”.

(29) Discours, §2: 
“On pourra persuader plus aisément à leurs disciples, que Dieu est Intelligentia supramundana, et au dessus de la matière. Ainsi pour juger que les Chinois reconnaissent les substances spirituelles, on doit surtout considérer leur Li ou règle, qui est le premier acteur et la raison des autres choses, et que je crois répondre à notre Divinité”.

(30)  The concept of Qi (which should be translated as ‘breath’, ‘energy’, ‘ether’ rather than as ‘matter’) is more universal in Chinese tradition as a whole than the concept of Li (which has been translated as ‘form’, ‘model’, ‘reason’, ‘principle of organization’, ‘norm’), and in any case Qi preceded Li. The Li is a more specific concept. It particularly belongs to the philosophic codification of Confucian origin which, driven by Zhu Xi, will dominate Chinese thought from the 13th to the 18th century. The initial meaning of Li refers to the streaks of stones, to the ducts of the human body, to rivers, to mountain ranges, and also to the activity of sculpting or polishing; that’s to say, to the idea of lines, axes, and finally to the abstract concept of norm and main corrector –a very characteristic concept of the Confucian tradition. On this base Zhu Xi builds his dialectic of Li and Qi, this being the latent reference in the Discours.  The first problem for Longobardi and Leibniz, among others, would be the interpretation of Zhu Xi’s neoconfucianism; the second problem would be that they took this particular school as a representative of “Chinese philosophy” as a whole. On Zhu Xi, consult Fung Yu-lan, A history of Chinese philosophy (Princeton, 1983; reprint Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass, 1994), vol. II, chap.13. On Longobardi’s and Leibniz’s interpretations, see the aforementioned Mungello, Leibniz and Confucianism. On the impact of the concepts of Li and Qi, see Etiemble, “Les concepts de LI et de K’I dans la pensée européenne au XVIIIe siècle”, Mélanges Alexandre Koyré II (1964): 144-159.

(31)  This theme is found particularly in the following passages: Leibniz, II, §8; IV, §31; V, §89-91; and V, §109. And the replies in: Clarke, IV, §31; V, §83-91; and V, §110-116.

(32)  This interpretation can be found, for example, in Discours, §14:  “I would imagine that he means to say that the Li is, so to speak, the quintessence, the very life, the power and principle being of things, since he has expressly distinguished the Li of the air from the matter of the air” (“Je m’imagine qu’il veut dire que le Li est, pour ainsi dire, la quintessence, la vigueur, la force et l’entité principale des choses; puisqu’il a expressément distingué le Li de l’air et de la matière de l’air”). And later in the same paragraph: “It is easy to see that this author has not penetrated enough into this issue and that he has sought the source of the diversity of Spirits in their bodies –as has been done by many of our own philosophers, who have not known of pre-established harmony– but at least he has said nothing false” (“Il est aisé de croire que cet auteur chinois n’en a pas assez pénétré la raison, et qu’il a cherché la source de la différence des esprits dans les organes, comme font aussi beaucoup de nos philosophes, faute d’avoir connu l’harmonie préétablie, mais au moins il ne dit rien de faux”).

(33) Discours, §21: 
“La philosophie Singli (Livre 26, p. 8) dit que la vertu directrice et productrice n’est point dans la disposition des choses, et ne dépend point d’elles; mais qu’elle consiste et réside dans le Li, qui prédomine, gouverne et produit tout. Parménide et Melisse parlaient de même, mais le sens qu’Aristote leur donne paraît différent de celui du Parménide de Platon. Spinoza réduit tout à une seule substance, dont toutes les choses ne sont que des modifications. Il n’est pas aisé d’expliquer comment les Chinois l’entendent, mais je crois que rien n’empêche de leur donner un sens raisonnable. Toutes les choses, quant à ce qui est passif en elles, sont d’une même matière première, qui ne diffère que par les figures que les mouvements lui donnent. Toutes les choses aussi ne sont actives, et n’ont leurs entéléchies, âmes, esprits, que par la participation du même Li, du même Esprit originaire, c’est-à-dire de Dieu, qui leur donne toutes leurs perfections. Et la matière première même n’est qu’une production de cette cause première. Ainsi tout en émane, comme d’un centre. Mais il ne s’ensuit nullement, que toutes les choses ne diffèrent que par des qualités accidentelles, comme les épicuriens et autres matérialistes le prennent, qui n’admettent que matière, figure et mouvement, ce qui serait véritablement détruire les substances immatérielles, ou les entélechies, et esprits”. 
Singli refers to the Xingli daquanshu, or Compendium: see the appropriate explication in Cook & Rosemont, eds., Leibniz. Writings on China, 28. Part one of the Discours closes with two more paragraphs, §22 and §23: in which Leibniz delivers the Chinese doctrines from the accusation of Spinozism.

(34) Discours, §16b: 
“Mais donnant au Li toutes les plus grandes perfections, ils lui donneront quelque chose de plus sublime que tout cela, dont la vie, le savoir et l’autorité des créatures ne sont que des ombres ou de faibles imitations. C’est à peu près comme quelques mystiques, et entre autres Denis le pseudo-aréopagite, ont nié que Dieu était un Être, Ens, On, mais ils ont dit en même temps qu’il était plus que l’Être, super-Ens, Hyperousia. C’est ainsi que j’entends les Chinois qui disent, chez le P. de Sainte-Marie (p. 62), que le Li est la Loi qui dirige, et l’intelligence qui conduit les choses; qu’elle n’est pourtant pas intelligente, mais, par une force naturelle, ella a ses opérations si bien réglées et si sûres, que vous diriez qu’elle l’est. C’est être plus qu’intelligent, à prendre le terme à notre manière, où il faut chercher et délibérer pour bien faire, au lieu que le premier principe est immanquable par la nature”. 
See, in effect, the parallel with this passage from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite: “Therefore, Oneness, that surpasses all intelligence, overcomes the intelligence. In the same way, Oneness, that surpasses all thought, can not be thought by any thought; neither Goodness, that surpasses the word, can be said by any word. As it is a unifying monad of all monads, a supraessential essence...” (The Divine Names, I, 1, §3).

(35)  This expression from Koyré can be found in: Alexandre Koyré, De la mystique à la science (Paris: EEHESS, 1986), 152-155. The discussion on the 'quantity of matter' in the Leibniz-Clarke controversy can be found particularly in the following passages: Leibniz, III, §9; IV, §21; V, §32, §34, §35, and §74; Clarke, III, §9; IV, §7, and §21; V, §26-32, §33-35, and §36-48. I have analyzed this discussion about quantity of matter, pointing out the weakness of Leibniz’s position on this point, in my book; see: Albert Ribas: Biografía del vacío. Su historia filosófica y científica desde la Antigüedad a la Edad Moderna (Barcelona: Destino, 1997), pp. 338-360.

(36)  In effect, Clarke does not follow Descartes on an important point: while Descartes only admits the attribute of extension for corporal substances, Newton’s spokesman admits the correlation between extension and spirit. Thus he expresses it in an important passage of the controversy: “Void Space, is not an Attribute without a Subject; because, by Void Space, we never mean Space Void of Every Thing, but void of Body only. In All void Space, God is certainly present, & possibly many Other Substances which are not Matter; being neither Tangible, nor Objects of Any of Our Senses” (Clarke, IV, §9).

(37)  Leibniz affirms this in the controversy: “I don’t say that matter and space are the same thing. I only say, there is no space, where there is no matter; and that space in itself is not an absolute reality. Space and matter differ, as time and motion. However, these things, though different, are inseparable” (“Je ne dis point que la matiere et l’espace est la même chose; je dis seulement qu’il n’y a point d’espace où il n’y a point de matiere; et que l’espace en luy même n’est point une realité absolue. L’espace et la matiere différent comme le tems et le mouvement. Cependant ces choses quoyque differentes se trouvent inseparables”) (Leibniz, V, §62).

(38)  Leibniz, V, §61: 
“Je ne veux point m’arrester icy sur mon sentiment expliqué ailleurs, qui porte qu’il n’y a point de substances créées entierement destitués de matiere. Car je tiens avec les anciens et avec la raison que les Anges ou les Intelligences et les Ames separées du corps grossier ont toujours des corps subtils, quoyqu’elles mêmes soyent incorporelles. La Philosophie vulgaire admet aisement toute sorte de fictions, la mienne est plus severe”.

(39) Discours, §2: 
“On peut douter d’abord si les Chinois reconnaissent, ou ont reconnu des substances spirituelles. Mais après y a voir bien pensé, je juge que oui; quoiqu’ils n’aient peut-être point reconnu ces substances comme séparées, et tout à fait hors de la matière. Il n’y aurait point de mal en cela à l’égard des esprits créés, car je penche moi-même à croire que les anges ont des corps, ce qui a été aussi le sentiment de plusieurs anciens Pères de l’Église. Je suis d’avis aussi que l’âme raisonnable n’est jamais dépouillée entièrement de tout corps”.

(40)  See Cook & Rosemont, eds., Leibniz. Writings on China, 76, n. 4. They exemplify this tradition with the following cases: Origen, St. Justin (Martyr), and St. Augustine. And it can be added that this tradition is taken up again in Renaissance context. As Koyré has indicated with respect to Paracelsus, Schwenckfeld and Böhme, for these the idea of a spirit without body is absurd. See Alexandre Koyré, Místicos, espirituales y alquimistas del siglo XVI alemán (Madrid: Akal, 1981), pp. 32, 80.

(41)  This “ailleurs” is the Monadologie  (see particularly §14, §20, §63, §72), and Essais de Théodicée (as in §249: “ces anges ou ces substances agissent selon les lois ordinaires de leur nature, étant jointes à des corps plus subtils et plus vigoureux que ceux que nous pouvons manier”).

(42)  Leibniz, The Monadology, trans. Robert Latta (reprint, New York: Garland, 1985), p. 253, from Leibniz, Monadologie, §63: 
“Le corps qui appartenant à une Monade qui en est l’Entelechie ou l’Ame; constitue avec l’Entelechie ce qu’on peut appeller un Vivant, et avec l’Ame ce qu’on appelle un Animal. Or ce corps d’un vivant ou d’un Animal est toûjours organique; car toute Monade étant un miroir, de l’univers à sa mode, et l’univers étant reglé dans un ordre parfait, il faut qu’il y ait aussi un ordre dans le representant, c’est a dire, dans les perceptions de l’ame, et par conséquent dans le corps, suivant lequel l’univers y est representé”.

(43)   Discours, §25a: 
“Peut-être que certains Chinois conçoivent que du Li forme primitive, et du Ki matière primitive, a resulté un composé primitif, une substance dont le Li fut l’âme, et le Ki la matière”.

(44)  Fung Yu-lan, A history of Chinese philosophy, II, 534-558, in the chapter on the neoconfucian philosophy of Zhu Xi, assumes these equivalences: Li = idea, norm; Qi = matter. Particularly, the identification of Qi with matter is the most criticized point, as Fung Yu-lan himself recognizes, because in the tradition of Chinese thought there is no exact equivalent of ‘matter’.

(45)  Leibniz, I: 
“Selon eux Dieu a besoin de remonter de temps en temps sa montre. [...] Selon mon sentiment, la même force et vigueur y subsiste tousjours”.

(46)   It is a dispute that began in 1686 as a result of an article by Leibniz (Brevis demonstratio erroris memorabilis Cartesii, et aliorum... semper quantitatem motus conservari; Dutens, III, 180ff) and that went on for practically half a century. The Cartesians thought that the momentum was the measure of this quantity that was conserved. Leibniz’s followers believed that the quantity conserved was force or vis viva; and the Newtonians like Clarke held on to the Cartesian’s momentum as the suitable measure but they denied that it could be conserved.

(47)  Remember Clarke, I, §4. See note 24 above.

(48)  Max Jammer’s translation, Concepts of Force: a study in the foundations of Dynamics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), p. 160, from Leibniz, De primae philosophiae emendatione et de notione substantiae (Dutens, III, 19-20): 
“Cujus rei ut aliquem gustum dem, dicam interim, notionem virium seu virtutis (quam Germani vocant ‘Kraft’, Galli ‘la force’) cui ego explicandae peculiarem Dynamices scientiam destinavi, plurimum lucis afferre ad veram notionem substantiae intelligendam. Differt enim vis activa a potentia nuda vulgo scholis cognita, quod potentia activa Scholasticorum, seu facultas, nihil aliud est quam propinqua agendi possibilitas, quae tamen aliena excitatione, et velut stimulo indigest, ut in actum transferatur. Sed vis activa actum quendam sive entelecheian continet, atque inter facultatem agendi actionemque ipsam media est, et conatum involvit; atque ita per se ipsam in operationemque fertur; nec auxiliis indiget, sed sola sublatione impedimenti”.

(49)  See Leibniz’s letter to Bouvet on the 2 December 1697, and Bouvet’s reply to Leibniz on the 28 February 1698. They are reproduced in E. J. Aiton & E. Shimao, “Gorai Kinzo’s study of Leibniz and the I Ching hexagrams”, Annals of Science 38 (1981): 71-92; and are extensively abstracted in Jean Baruzi, Leibniz, avec de nombreux textes inédits (Paris: Bloud, 1909), pp. 161-164.

(50Discours, §14: 
“Je m’imagine qu’il veut dire que le Li est, pour ainsi dire, la quintessence, la vigueur, la force et l’entité principale des choses; puisqu’il a expressément distingué le Li de l’air et de la matière de l’air”.

(51)  As in §§10,12, 24, 25, and generally in the whole of part two of the Discours.

(52Discours, §24a: 
“Il est vrai qu’il semble que les Chinois ont cru que le Li a d’abord et a toujours produit son Ki, et qu’ainsi l’un est aussi éternel que l’autre. Mais il ne faut point s’en étonner, puisque apparemment ils ont ignoré cette Révélation, laquelle seule nous peut apprendre le commencenment de l’univers; S. Thomas, et d’autres grands docteurs, ayant jugé que ce dogme ne peut point être démontré par la seule raison”.

(53)  The accusation in Clarke, IV, §10, and §21; the reply in Leibniz, V, §74 and §75; and the new critique in Clarke, V, §73-75.

(54)  This is, for example, Frémont’s opinion: the reflection on China enlightens Leibnizian thought and method (Frémont, Discours sur la théologie naturelle des Chinois, 29). Cook and Rosemont in a certain way agree: “Nevertheless, in finding views approximating his own in a culture 3,000 years and 8,000 miles distant from him, Leibniz could not but be interested in, stimulated by, and sympathetic to early Chinese thought as he had come to understand” (Cook & Rosemont, eds., Leibniz. Writings on China, 3). However, they do not think, as Frémont seems to suggest, that the whole of Leibniz’s thought is enlightened or influenced by Chinese thought.

(55)  See Needham, Science and Civilization in China, II, 504.

(56)  Remember Clarke’s definition of matter: “Lifeless, Void of Motivity, Unactive and Inert” (Clarke, V, §100-102).

(57)  Remember Clarke, I, §4: “If a King had a Kingdom, wherein All things would continually go on without His Government or Interposition, or without His attending to and ordering what is done therein; it would be to Him, merely a Nominal Kingdom; nor would He in reality deserve at all the Title of King or Governour”; and Leibniz’s reply, II, §11: “The comparison of a king, under whose reign every thing should go on without his interposition, is by no means to the present purpose; since God preserves every thing continually, and nothing can subsist without him” (“La comparaison d’un Roy chez qui tout iroit sans qu’il s’en mêlat, ne vient point à propos; puisque Dieu conserve tousjours les choses, et qu’elles ne sauroient subsister sans luy”).

(58)  See Leibniz, V, §61, and Discours, §2; both passages have already been cited.


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