Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Leibniz and Clarke

On October 5, 1773, James Boswell and Samuel Johnson were still enjoying their sojourn in the Western Isles.  From Boswell's "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides": 'After breakfast, Dr Johnson and I, and Joseph, mounted horses, and Col and the captain walked with us about a short mile across the island. We paid a visit to the Reverend Mr Hector M'Lean. His parish consists of the islands of Col and Tyr-yi. He was about seventy-seven years of age, a decent ecclesiastick, dressed in a full suit of black clothes, and a black wig. He appeared like a Dutch pastor, or one of the assembly of divines at Westminster. Dr Johnson observed to me afterwards, 'that he was a fine old man, and was as well-dressed, and had as much dignity in his appearance as the dean of a cathedral'. We were told, that he had a valuable library, though but poor accomodation for it, being obliged to keep his books in large chests. It was curious to see him and Dr Johnson together. Neither of them heard very distinctly; so each of them talked in his own way, and at the same time. Mr M'Lean said, he had a confutation of Bayle, by Leibnitz. JOHNSON. 'A confutation of Bayle, sir! What part of Bayle do you mean? The greatest part of his writings is not confutable: it is historical and critical.' Mr M'Lean said, 'the irreligious part'; and proceeded to talk of Leibnitz's controversy with Clarke, calling Leibnitz a great man. JOHNSON. 'Why, sir, Leibnitz persisted in affirming that Newton called space sensorium numinis, notwithstanding he was corrected, and desired to observe that Newton's words were quasisensorium numinis. No, sir, Leibnitz was as paltry a fellow as I know. Out of respect to Queen Caroline, who patronized him, Clarke treated him too well.'...'

The discussion that the Johnson party is holding alludes to Huguenot philosopher Pierre Bayle's discussion of the problem of evil, with the issue boiling down to: if God is almighty, then He is able to prevent evil; if God is all-good, then He is willing to prevent evil; but there is evil; therefore, God is either unable or unwilling to prevent evil.  British philosopher Samuel Clarke was slightly later than Bayle and the German Gottfried Leibniz.

Sir Walter Scott includes reference to Leibniz in "The Edinburgh Annual Register, volume 1", which he published.  The references are to Leibniz' calculus, Leibniz being a mathematician as well as a philosopher: '...This singular coincidence in the two methods (Isaac Newton and Leibniz developing a similar calculus) gave origin to a most violent controversy between the British and continental mathematicians.  Some of the younger British mathematicians accused Leibnitz of having stolen his method from Newton; Leibnitz complained of this to the Royal Society, of which Sir Isaac Newton was president...'.  The outcome of Leibniz' complaint was that Newton felt the accusations were well founded.  The Leibniz-Clarke Correspondence itself concerns Leibniz' thinking on relational space, in a dispute in which Newton and Clarke favored a concept of absolute space.


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