book history Early modern Europe French history Museums philosophy

Montaigne’s Bones

By guest contributor Max Norman

On November 16th, Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, made an important announcement: the bones of Michel de Montaigne have been discovered.

Or, at least, the bones might have been discovered. “Let’s keep our cool,” said Juppé at a press conference that morning. “We haven’t yet found Montaigne. But if it were the case,” he continued, “it would be a great moment for Bordeaux.”

Montaigne, two-time mayor of Bordeaux, minor aristocrat, and inventor of the essay form, died in his tower in 1592, cause of death unknown. The next year the essayist was interred in a chapel on the west bank of the Garonne, the current site of the Musée d’Aquitaine. Montaigne’s cenotaph—a gaudy white marble affair—has been on more or less continuous display since it was carved in 1593. But his physical remains were lost in one of their 19thcentury translations to and from the nearby Chartreuse cemetery, for safekeeping when a fire devastated the chapel. No one seems to have looked for them until last year, when a curator at the Musée, Laurent Védrine, decided to investigate a mysterious crypt in the museum’s basement, sealed since 1886. Miniature cameras returned grainy images of a dusty wooden box, with the big black letters “MONTAIGNE” clearly visible beneath some chunks of fallen plaster. Researchers announced their intention to inventory the contents and to track down a descendant for DNA confirmation, but we’re still waiting for the results.


After the announcement, Juppé sounded a philosophical note in a mid-morning tweet: “In a world in which we speak of anger, and where we confront violence, we must return to our heritage and to the values that are dear to me [sic]. #tolerance #balance #Bordeaux.” Juppé of course knew that the Gilets jauneswould march for the first time the next day, flooding the streets of cities across the country in protest against the economic policies of Emmanuel Macron.


Michel de Montaigne

“C’est moy que je peins,” Montaigne writes in his opening preface “To the reader.” “It’s me that I paint.” The Essays are an intellectual portrait of one of history’s great minds, whose gentle humaneness and grinning wit are as familiar as the high forehead, ruffled collar, and thin moustache with which he is depicted in paintings and on frontispieces. But the book is also the portrait of one of history’s most average bodies, a very particular specimen that readers get to know with the intimacy of a doctor or a lover. We learn, among other things, that Montaigne didn’t like salad but was fond of melon, that he liked to ride on horseback, preferred to make love lying down, not standing up, and walked with a firm gait. This is a book, after all,  “consubstantial with its author” (Villey-Saulnier edition, 665C). Finding bones, then, is almost as good as finding a manuscript.

Montaigne’s idiosyncrasies give the Essays much of their charm. They’re also one important source of what might be called Montaigne’s philosophy—a philosophy, or at least an ethics, that is rather accurately summarized by Juppé’s hashtags. “There is no quality so universal in our image of things than diversity and variety,” he writes in “On Experience,” his final essay (1065B). Human beings are simply too complicated to be theorized: “I study myself more than any other subject. It’s my metaphysics; it’s my physics” (1072B). Metaphysics and physics collapse when “every example limps”—every case is peculiar, every example is imperfect—and therefore every inference and every assumption is a kind of violence (1070C).

Even literary interpretation is risky, particularly when books are, like Montaigne’s, “members” of a life, and memorials to it. Montaigne learned this the hard way from the fate of Etienne de la Boétie, the friend of the famous essay “On friendship.” de la Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Slavery praised republican Venice and critiqued monarchy, arguing that, since people willingly grant a tyrant power, people can willingly take it away. The treatise was naturally appropriated by anti-monarchists in the Wars of Religion. But this was a misreading, Montaigne claims: if you knew de la Boétie like he did, you’d see that there was never a better subject, “nor a greater opponent of the disturbances and innovations of his time” (194A). If de la Boétie had written his own Essays, you would never have so misunderstood him. It’s possible, of course, that Montaigne himself was the one willfully misreading de la Boétie. Either way, his polemical interpretation reminds us that we should never entirely trust the fiction of artlessness that the essayist so often affects.

As he got older, Montaigne seemed to realize that his skepticism was, like de la Boétie’s Discourse,  potentially dangerous, so in the Essays “I leave nothing to be desired or guessed about me” (“On Vanity,” 983B). Exhaustive self-description is not only a means to self-knowledge or literary immortality. It’s also an insurance policy: The flood of Montaigne’s words will overwhelm reductive misreadings with their sheer copiousness, as indeed the sheer size and labyrinthine complexity of the Essayshave defied all critical attempts at a unified interpretation. Eschewing systematic argument or organization, Montaigne prevents us from using his book, though we may profit from it. Just as we will never know if Montaigne’s representation of de la Boétie—grounded, he tells us, on intimate knowledge that is inaccessible to readers—was accurate, so we will never know for certain just what the Essays are supposed to mean, just what Montaigne is about. And that’s the point: the Essays, like the person who wrote them, ultimately prove to be something of a black box. “What I can’t represent, I point to with my finger,” he writes (983B). In the end, the Essays do no more and no less than point to their author, that infinitely peculiar human being, who, even with all the ink the world, could never be fully incorporated into his book.


Readers tend to remember Montaigne as individualist,as pioneer of a certain kind of Renaissance egoism. But in the final sighs of the Essays, Montaigne concludes that “the most beautiful lives to my mind are those which hew to the common human pattern, orderly, but without miracles or eccentricity” (1116B/C). When things are this complicated, the best policy is to mind your own business. Don’t assume you know better than anyone else (a lesson for Macron, who has publicly proclaimed that the French people never meant to kill their king)—and (for the Gilets jaunes) don’t try to rock the boat. Think of politics in human terms. Read your opponents charitably. Most of all, don’t be cruel.

The newly discovered box, like the cenotaph, may be empty. Part of me hopes that it is, and that readers have to keep searching for Montaigne’s bones in the Essays, reading them quite literally as a portrait, a vivid depiction of a “you” en chair et en os, in flesh and bone. This fleshly Montaigne has all too often been replaced in memory and imagination by a Montaigne made only of words. But you can’t separate the body from the book.

Max Norman studies literature at the University of Oxford.

French history political theory Think Piece

Time Travelers: Nomads in French Thought, 1970s-1980s

by guest contributor Anne Schult

This piece is the first installment in a three-part series on nomads and the nomadic in French thought of the 1970s and 1980s.

When the Parisian Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration opened an exhibit with the title Mondes tsiganes last year, it saw itself confronted with an unusual question of justification for the central object of its presentation: were the Romani people, in fact, immigrants to the French nation and their images thus rightfully placed in the halls of the former Colonial Palais, or were these gens du voyage something else altogether? Officially categorized as “nomads” by the French state in 1912, the Romani have been subject to both cultural fascination and racial othering throughout the 20th century—a fact attested to by the exhibit’s extensive photographic record of 800+ images taken by state officials, anthropologists, and curious by-standers in an attempt to arrest the restless at least temporarily.

Carnet anthropométrique d’identité “Nomades”,1951 © Musée national de l’histoire et des cultures de l’immigration

Yet, the Romani constitute but one contemporary example of a broader French interest in those perennially on the move. In French intellectual circles, the figure of the nomad has repeatedly been used as a tool for both boundary-making and collective introspection—one that found broad application in the post-Marxist, post-structuralist climate of the 1970s and promised to address a particular set of political problems in the French Fifth Republic. Indeed, it was no coincidence that the nomad gained intellectual popularity at the exact moment the criticism of totalitarianism and a newfound fascination with ethics took root among the Left-leaning French intelligentsia: the notion of a radical state required a new and equally radical counterfigure. Within this explicitly antinomian discourse, nomadism as concept offered a particularly potent alternative to the scheme of perpetual revolution associated with the perceived failure of the 1968-movement and its immediate aftermath. On the one hand, it was used to contest dominant class-driven narratives. In a conceptual rethinking of the revolutionary paradigm, the nomad promised to recover the individual from state oppression through norms, laws, and institutions. On the other hand, it alluded to similar dynamics of control and coercion between the French state and its erstwhile colonial territories and became a lens with which to re-examine conceptions of the non-Western “other.” In short, nomadism offered a new language to talk about anti-establishment modes of being and becoming.

As detailed below and in two forthcoming posts, nomadism emerged in three distinct narratives across a variety of academic disciplines in the 1970s, progressively extracting the nomad figure from its historical context and thrusting it into the realm of contemporary politics. First, political anthropologists, in their re-evaluation of ethnology’s inquiry into primitive societies, rediscovered nomads and began to refute then-prevalent stadial theories that posited them as powerless historical agents. Second, throughout the 1970s, the nomad arose as a more metaphorical element to describe and criticize state repression of mobility in the present. Finally, nomadism developed into a broader, more abstract antistatist concept in philosophy during the 1980s, introducing the idea of nomadic thought as practice. These three narratives developed partially in parallel, and partially by scaffolding onto one another; yet, in all of them the nomadic was constructed in relation to a specific temporality that, ultimately, also had clear implications for the mode of academic inquiry itself.

Time Travelers, Part I: Nomadic Societies and the Recovery of Alternative Pasts

        Schult 1  Though long considered an essential marker of primitive societies, nomads received particular attention in the subfield of political anthropology from the 1960s on. Most prominently, the then-prevalent evolutionist postulate—which asserted that humanity had progressed from a “natural state” of nomadic bands and tribes to sedentary state-centered society—was challenged by Pierre Clastres’ essay collection La société contre l’état (1974). For one, Clastres took issue with the fact that nomadic hunter-gatherer societies were typically deemed devoid of political power because they exhibited a subsistence economy that forwent the production of surplus in light of logistic restrictions due to their mobility. To him, the assumption of a causal relationship between the rise of the capitalist-authoritarian complex and the accumulation and exhibition of power was misguided in two ways.

First, nomads’ lack of an economic surplus did not stem from the fact that they were not capable of producing one—to the contrary, Clastres argued, they were principally societies of abundance. Rather, he posited, they chose not to do so: theirs was a more egalitarian form of society in which the need for surplus production and its associated sociopolitical hierarchy simply did not arise. A nomadic organization of society was therefore not inferior to the modern state, but simply distributed power differently to prevent the emergence of authoritarian figures. In Clastres’ formulation, nomads were thus not simply without, but explicitly against the state.

Indeed, and this was Clastres’ second point, the fact that the state would take root eventually was to be interpreted not as progress but as the corruption of a more egalitarian past in human history. Nomads’ social stasis, their essential conservatism, thus served a valid if hopeless purpose, and Clastres posited the devaluation of this stasis as the result of an anthropological misreading of history. As he asserted, many fellow anthropologists perceived history as a simple story of linear progress, a “one-way street” that charted archaic, nomadic societies as lingering at the beginning of the human trajectory towards modernity. By contrast, although he did not contest the nomads’ belonging to prehistory, Clastres located them at the threshold of a history of demise.

Anne Schult is a PhD student in the History Department at New York University. Her current research focuses on the intersection of migration, law, and demography in 20th-century Europe.

Human Rights JHI religious history

Introduction: Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights

By Udi Greenberg (Dartmouth College) and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins (Yale University)

We are delighted to bring you the Introduction to the Special Forum on Christianity and Human Rights that appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, by kind permission of the Journal, the University of Pennsylvania Press, and Project MUSE. You can find the Project MUSE page for this introduction here, and the entirety of volume 79, number 3 here.

The intellectual roots of human rights have been a source of much debate, but Christianity’s role in shaping the language of universal equality has been especially controversial. Historians agree that prominent Catholic philosophers, such as Jacques Maritain, were crucial in crafting and popularizing theories of rights, and that Protestant activists, such as American Protestant Frederick Nolde, were instrumental in drafting the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the lessons that scholars draw from this genealogy are diverse. For some, such as John Nurser, history reveals Christianity as the crucial engine of the modern era’s most celebrated concept. Christians may have engaged in countless brutalities over the centuries, but the Gospel’s universal aspirations also helped bolster peaceful endeavors. Others, such as Samuel Moyn and Joan Scott, have instead claimed that the marriage of Christianity and rights reflect how deeply the language of universal equality preserved traditional hierarchies. Human rights and religious freedom, they claim, were forged by Christian Western Europeans, and were meant to combat Marxists, feminists, Muslims, and anti-colonial activists. In this provocative narrative, the concept of rights was never an equalizing force. Rather, it helped—and still helps today—sustain political, gender, and social inequalities.

This recent debate has centered on the nature of rights, but the essays assembled in this forum seek to push the discussion in a new direction. The authors explore Christian engagement with the idea of rights to better understand the scope and evolution of Christian thought over the last two centuries. Indeed, if the project of mapping human rights’ origins and ascendancy may be now reaching its conclusion, scholars still have much to say on Christianity’s seminal role in shaping modern politics, ideologies, and culture. Having long stood on the margins of modern intellectual history, thinkers who self-identified foremost as Christian—theologians, philosophers, and social theorists—have received growing attention. Protestants and Catholics alike developed comprehensive visions of economic, social, and sexual relations, and repeatedly sought to explain the Gospel’s message regarding varied topics such as Judaism, racial tensions, marriage, and international politics. These projects—which often defied the secular categories of left and right—enjoyed considerable influence, especially in Europe and North America where Christianity remained dominant. They often resonated well beyond theological seminaries and churches, inspiring state laws and policies in a variety of regimes, in colonial, democratic, fascist, or authoritarian settings. Rights often figured prominently in these efforts, as thinkers sought to explain who has what rights and under what conditions. The concept of rights therefore provides a crucial window to an expansive and ongoing intellectual effort.

What is more, exploring the ways in which Christian thinkers grappled with rights helps chart the dramatic shifts that characterized Christianity in the modern era. While the nature and meaning of Christianity had never been stable and was always contested, the centuries that followed the French Revolution brought a new kind of turmoil. Protestants and Catholics confronted a proliferation of ideological projects rooted in non-religious and even atheist assumptions, such as utilitarian morality, racial science, and socialist revolution. For many Christians, secularism’s assumed corrosive impact necessitated a recalibration of Christian life. Many came to believe that if the Gospel were to triumph, the churches would have to rethink their approach to state institutions, foster new alliances with other Christian denominations, and even treat other religious groups (such as Jews or Confucians) as legitimate. Debating the scope and nature of rights stood at the heart of these efforts. Tracing the trajectories of these disputes helps shed light on the complex redrawing of Christianity’s content and borders.

The following essays uncover diverse Christian reflections on rights, from their first sustained appearance in the late eighteenth century until their zenith in the mid-twentieth century. They examine how a panoply of thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic, largely Catholic but also Protestant, utilized rights to rethink Christianity. Taken together, they offer new ways of understanding the transformations of Christian thought in one of its most dynamic and fascinating periods.

Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of European history at Dartmouth College. He is currently writing a book titled Religious Pluralism in the Age of Violence: Catholics and Protestants from Animosity to Peace, 1879-1970.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is currently writing a book for Columbia University Press titled, The Neoconservative Moment in France: Raymond Aron and the United States
Dispatches from the Archives

Dispatches from Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium: Jutta Schickore’s “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls”

By Guest Contributor Alison McManus

Prof. Jutta Schickore

Princeton’s History of Science Colloquium series recently welcomed Jutta Schickore, professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, to present a talk titled, “Contributions to a History of Experimental Controls.” In addition to her position at Indiana University, Schickore is a member of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for the 2017–18 academic year. As I listened to her talk earlier this month, I found myself fully immersed in uncharted territory. Experimental controls are themselves an under-studied problem, but Schickore’s attention to the practice of experimental controls rendered her project a truly novel intervention. Though her project remains in its early stages of development, it no doubt pinpoints the need to historicize the “controlled experiment,” and it lays further claim to the established strategy of examining experimenters’ practical concerns prior to grand scientific theories.



John Stuart Mill

Schickore’s scholarship is better defined by theme than by scientific discipline. Her previous monographs examine the long history of the microscope (2007) and a yet longer history of snake venom research from the seventeenth to the twentieth century (2017). Both monographs emphasize debates about scientific method, and the latter is particularly attentive to nonlinear, contingent methodological developments, which stem from the intricacies of experimental work rather than unified theory. Schickore’s current project extends this approach to new territory. Despite their manifest importance to scientific work, experimental controls have rarely been a topic of inquiry for historians and philosophers of science. The unique exception is Edward Boring’s 1954 paper in the American Journal of Psychology, in which he distinguished between colloquial and scientifically rigorous uses of the term “control.” In a further move, he identified John Stuart Mill’s “method of difference” as the first notion of a controlled experiment, a concept that Mill outlined in A System of Logic (1843). Boring’s identification of a theoretical rather than experimental origin of “control” reflects the state of the field prior to the “material turn” of the 1990s, and the time has come to integrate the controlled experiment into studies of scientific practice.


Even with a precise definition of the term, any effort to identify the first controlled experiment will likely end in failure. Probing the origins of the term’s modern popularity is a far more productive exercise. A preliminary Google search indicates that the term rose to prominence in late nineteenth-century scientific scholarship, and the same is true of its German counterpart (Kontrollversuch/Controllversuch). In order to identify the roots of its popularity, Schickore selects case studies from ostensibly marginal German agricultural field trials nearly one century before the “controlled experiment” took a prominent position in the scientific literature.

Wilhelm August Lampadius

The German pharmacists Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt and Wilhelm August Lampadius both sought to apply their chemical expertise toward agricultural production in the early nineteenth century. Both men had engaged with Lavoisier’s chemistry in their work, albeit to differing degrees. Whereas Lampadius was a staunch advocate of Lavoisier’s theory, Hermbstädt remained closer to the German chemical tradition, despite having published translations of Lavoisier’s work. Hermbstädt and Lampadius conducted near-contemporaneous field trials on fertilizer, both seeking to minimize product loss and thereby improve Germany’s economic position. However, theirs and others’ experiments reveal an inconsistent, multivalent use of the term “control.” Schickore notes that “control” occasionally served its now-familiar function as an unmanipulated unit of comparison, as in the case of Hermbstädt’s comparative category of “infertile land.” Yet Hermbstädt and Lampadius also used the concept in conjunction with other management terms. A third notion of control emerged as improved apparatuses for organic analysis began to circulate in the mid-nineteenth century. In addition to making Lavoisier’s approach less costly for agricultural scientists, these novel instruments enabled scientists to perform repeat analyses and apply different analytic methods to the same problem.



Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstädt. Line engraving by G. A. Lehmann, 1808 (Wellcome Collection).

To add to this already complex terrain of meanings, Schickore notes that even in its most familiar scientific usage, the controlled experiment poses an implicit epistemological problem. When designing an experiment, each researcher must select which features shall remain unmanipulated, according to their own worldview. In the case of Hermbstädt’s experiments, his aforementioned category of “infertile land” meant land devoid of organic matter—a reflection of his vitalist notion of plant nutrition. Schickore’s observations identify a dire need to historicize both the text and the subtext of experimental controls.


The experience of my young career has led me to approach historical questions with a sort of inverse Occam’s razor, which holds that the more nuanced and heterogeneous causal accounts are the better ones. By turning away from theorists’ concerns and engaging instead with experimenters’ array of pragmatic preoccupations, the historian of science vastly expands her sites of methodological and conceptual production. Given Hermbstädt’s and Lampadius’s keen sensitivity to economic exigencies and technological innovation, I imagine that the larger field of nineteenth-century European agricultural science also developed its methods in conjunction with site-specific economic and instrumental circumstances. Schickore’s approach promises to extract a fruitful bounty of experimental practices from this uneven terrain of pragmatic concerns.

Alison McManus is a Ph.D. student in History of Science at Princeton University, where she studies twentieth-century chemical sciences. She is particularly interested in the development and deployment of chemical weapons technologies.


JHI 79:1 Available

The latest issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 9 number 1, is now available in print, and online at Project Muse. The table of contents is as follows:


Tricia M. Ross, “Anthropologia: An (Almost) Forgotten Early Modern History,” 1–22

Albert Gootjes, “The First Orchestrated Attack on Spinoza: Johannes Melchioris and the Cartesian Network in Utrecht,” 23–43

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins and Kevin Brookes, “The Many Liberalisms of Serge Audier,” 45–63

Elías Palti, “Revising History: Introduction to the Symposium on the Bicentennial of the Latin American Revolutions of Independence,” 65–71

Jeremy Adelman, “Empires, Nations, and Revolutions,” 73–88

Francisco A. Ortega, “The Conceptual History of Independence and the Colonial Question in Spanish America,” 89–103

Gabriel Entin, “Catholic Republicanism: The Creation of the Spanish American Republics during Revolution,” 105–23

Elías Palti, “Beyond the ‘History of Ideas’: The Issue of the ‘Ideological Origins of the Revolutions of Independence’ Revisited,” 125–41

Federica Morelli, “Race, Wars, and Citizenship: Free People of Color in the Spanish American Independence,” 143–56

João Paulo Pimenta, “History of Concepts and the Historiography of the Independence of Brazil: A Preliminary Diagnosis,” 157–68

Journal authors are always encouraged to submit a blog post about their article—or anything else—to JHIBlog. And if you’re a reader of JHIBlog, why not consider subscribing to the Journal? Subscription information is available at the Penn Press website, including information about special rates for students.

Think Piece

The challenge of contingency and Leibniz’s cybernetic thinking

By guest contributor Audrey Borowski

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, painted by Christoph Bernhard Francke

According to the philosopher of science Alexandre Koyré, the early modern period marked the passage ‘from the world of more-or-less to the universe of precision’. Not all thinkers greeted the mathematization of epistemology with the same enthusiasm: for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, this marked a watershed moment when modern nihilism had taken root in the shape of the reduction of the world to calculation and recently culminated with the emergence of cybernetics. One of the main culprits of this trend was none other than the German mathematician and polymath Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), who in the late seventeenth century invented the calculus and envisaged a binary mathematical system. Crucially, Leibniz had concerned himself with the formalization and the mechanization of the thought process either through the invention of actual calculating machines or the introduction of a universal symbolic language – his so-called ‘Universal characteristic’– which relied purely on logical operations. Ideally, this would form the basis for a general science (mathesis universalis). According to this scheme, all disputes would be ended by the simple imperative ‘Gentlemen, let us calculate!’

A graphic representation of second-order cybernetics by Mark Côté

For having mechanized reasoning, cyberneticist Norbert Wiener touted Leibniz as a ‘patron saint for cybernetics’ (Wiener 1965, p. 12) in the ‘Introduction’ to his 1948 seminal work Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. In it, he settled on the term ‘kybernetes’, the ‘steersman’ to describe a novel type of automatic and self-correcting reasoning which consisted in the deployment of mathematics, notably via a feedback mechanism, towards the domestication of contingency and unpredictability. Cybernetics does not ‘drive toward the ultimate truth or solution, but is geared toward narrowing the field of approximations for better technical results by minimizing on entropy––but never being able to produce a system that would be at an entropy of zero…. In all of this, [it] is dealing with data as part of its feedback mechanism for increasing the probability of a successful event in the future (or in avoiding unwanted events).’

Cybernetic applications are ubiquitous today from anti-aircraft systems to cryptography; an anti-aircraft system, for instance, receives input data on a moving target and delivers the navigation of bullet to the target as output after a computing process.  Cybernetics’ aim is first and foremost practical and its method probabilistic: through the constant refining of the precision of a prediction, it helps steer action through the selection between probabilities. Under those conditions, a constant process of becoming is subordinated to a weak form of determinism; real infinite complexity is deferred in favour of logical symbolism and ‘disorganization’, that ‘arch-enemy’ endemic to intense mutability as Nobert Wiener put it, gives way to ontological prediction.

In his works The Taming of Chance and The Emergence of Probability Ian Hacking traced the emergence of probabilistic thinking away from deterministic causation. In fact and against commonly-held positivist narratives of the triumph of objective rationality, historians of mathematics generally acknowledge that the seventeenth century witnessed the birth of both probability theory and modern probabilism perhaps most famously epitomized by Pascal’s Wager. With the emergence of contingency, the question of its conceptualization became all the more pressing.

Perhaps no thinker was more aware of this imperative than Leibniz. Leibniz is often portrayed as an arch-rationalist and yet he did not view pure deduction as sufficient for reasoning; the ‘statics’ inherent to his characteristic (Leibniz, 1677) were simply ill-suited to a constantly evolving practical reality. Finite calculation needed to be complemented by probabilistic reasoning (1975, p. 135) which would better embrace the infinite complexity and evolving nature of reality. Although the author of a conjectural history of the world, The Protogaea, Leibniz did not merely conjecture about the past, but also sought to come to grips with the future and the state of mutability of the world. To this end, he pioneered the collection of statistical data and probabilistic reasoning especially with regards to the advancement of the modern state or the public good (Taming of Chance, 18). Leibniz had pored over degrees of probability as early as his 1665 law degree essay De conditionibus and the ability to transmute uncertainty into (approximate) certainty in conditions of constant mutability remained a lifelong preoccupation. More specifically, he set out to meet the challenge of mutability with what appears as a cybernetic solution.

An example of Leibniz’s diagrammatic reasoning

In a series of lesser-known texts Leibniz explored the limits and potentially dangerous ramifications of finite cognition, and the necessity for flexible and recursive reasoning. In 1693 Leibniz penned The Horizon of the Human Doctrine, a thought experiment which he subtitled: ‘Meditation on the number of all possible truths and falsities, enunciable by humanity such as we know it to be; and on the number of feasible books. Wherein it is demonstrated that these numbers are finite, and that it is possible to write, and easy to conceive, a much greater number. To show the limits of the human spirit [l’esprit humain], and to know the extent to these limits’. Building on his enduring fascination with combinatorial logic that had begun as a teenager in 1666 with his De Arte Combinatoria and had culminated ten years later with his famous ‘Universal Characteristic’, he set out to ‘show the limits of the human spirit, and to know the extent to these limits’. Following in the footsteps of Clavius, Mersenne and Guldin, Leibniz reached the conclusion that, through the combination of all 23 letters of the alphabet, it would be possible to calculate the number of all possible truths. Considering their prodigious, albeit ultimately finite number, there would inevitably come a point in time when all possible variations would have been exhausted and the ‘horizon’ of human doctrine would be reached and when nothing could be said or written that had not been expressed before (nihil dici, quod non dictum sit prius) (p. 52). The exhaustion of all possibilities would give way to repetition.

In his two later treatments on the theme of apokatastasis, or ‘universal restitution’, Leibniz took this reasoning one step further by exploring the possible ramifications of the limits of human utterability for reality.  In them, he extended the rule of correspondence between possible words to actual historical events. For instance, since ‘facts supply the matter for discourse’ (p. 57), it would seem, by virtue of this logic, that events themselves must eventually exhaust all possible combinations. Accordingly, all possible public, as well as individual histories, would be exhausted in a number of years, inevitably incurring a recurrence of events, whereby the exact same circumstances would repeat themselves, returning ‘such as it was before.’ (p.65):

‘[S]uppose that one day nothing is said that had not already been said before; then there must also be a time when the same events reoccur and when nothing happens which did not happen before, since events provide the matter for words.’

In a passage he later decided to omit, Leibniz even muses about his own return, writing once again the same letters to the same friends.

Now from this it follows: if the human race endured long enough in its current state, there would be a time when the same life of certain individuals would return in detail through the very same circumstances. I myself, for example, would be living in a city called Hanover situated on the river Leine, occupied with the history of Brunswick, and writing letters to the same friends with the same meaning. [Fi 64]

Leibniz contemplated the doctrine of Eternal Return, but it was incompatible with his metaphysical understanding of the world. Ultimately, he reasserted the primacy of the infinite complexity of the world over finite combinatorics. Beneath the superficial similarity of events – and thus of description- lay a trove of infinite differences which superseded any finite number of combinations: paradoxically, ‘even if a previous century returns with respect to sensible things or which can be described by books, it will not return completely in all respects: since there will always be differences although imperceptible and such that could not be sufficiently described in any book however long it is.’. [Fi 72]’   Any repetition of event was thus only apparent; each part of matter contained the ‘world of an infinity of creatures’ which ensured that truths of fact ‘could be diversified to infinity’ (p. 77).

To this epistemological quandary Leibniz opposed a ‘cybernetic’ solution whereby the analysis of the infinite ‘detail’ of contingent reality would open up a field of constant epistemological renewal which lay beyond finite combinatorial language, raising the prospect of an ‘infinite progress in knowledge’ for those spirits ‘in search of truth.’ (p. 59) The finite number of truths expressible by humans at one particular moment in time would be continuously updated to adapt itself to the mutability and progress of the contingent world. ‘Sensible truths’ could ‘always supply new material and new items of knowledge, i.e. in theorems increasing in length’ in this manner permitting knowledge to approach reality asymptotically. In this manner, the theoretical limits which had been placed upon human knowledge could be indefinitely postponed, in the process allowing for incrementally greater understanding of nature through constant refinement.

Leibniz thus set forth an ingenious solution in the shape of a constantly updated finitude which would espouse the perpetually evolving infinity of concrete reality. By adopting what may be termed a ‘cybernetic’ solution avant la lettre, he offered a model, albeit linear and continuous, which could help reconcile determinism and probabilism, finite computation and infinite reality and freedom and predictability. Probabilism here served to induce and sustain a weak form of determinism, one which, in keeping with the nature of contingency itself as defined by Leibniz, ‘inclined’ rather than ‘necessitated’.

Audrey Borowski is a historian of ideas at the University of Oxford.