Synopsis of the Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence: Freedom

G. J. Mattey, UC Davis Philosophy Department

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Antoine Arnauld

Quotations are taken from The Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence, edited and translated by H.T. Mason, Manchester University Press, Barnes & Noble (New York: 1967).

For a sophisticated and comprehensive account of the correspondence, see Leibniz and Arnauld: a Commentary on their Correspondence by R. C. Sleigh, Jr. Yale University Press (New Haven, Connecticut: 1990).

February 11, 1686
Leibniz to the Landgrave Ernst von Hessen-Rheinfels

Leibniz encloses a summary of his Discourse on Metaphysics, for I have not yet been able to have a fair copy made. He asks that it be passed on to Arnauld to give it a little consideration and to state his opinion, for as he excels equally in theology and in philosophy, in reading and in meditation, I know of no one more fit than he to judge of it. He humbly states that he will give Arnauld no cause for dissatisfaction if he would consent to teach him.

March 13, 1686
Arnauld to the Landgrave Ernst von Hessen-Rheinfels

Arnauld is suffering from a bad cold, so he is brief: I find in these thoughts so many things that frighten me and that almost all men, if I am not mistaken, will find so shocking, that I do not see what use such a work can be, which will clearly be rejected by everybody. As an example, he cites article 13.

Since the individual concept of each person contains once for all everything that will ever happen to him, one sees in it the a priori proofs or reasons for the truth of each event, or why one event has occurred rather than another. But these truths, though certain, are nevertheless contingent, being based on the freewill of God and of creatures. It is true that there are always reasons for their choice, but they incline without necessitating.
Given the contents of article 13, although God was free to create or not to create Adam, if he wished to create him, everything that has happened since and will ever happen to the human race was and is obliged to happen through a more than fatal necessity. [Note, the copy of the letter Leibniz received was corrupted, so that the objection was understood by Leibniz to say that God was not free to create everything that has happened, etc. This was a source of misunderstanding.] Arnauld’s example was that the individual concept of Adam contained the consequence that he would have so many children, and the individual concept of each of these children everything that they would do and all the children that they would have: and so on. God is no more at liberty to create all these consequences given that he wished to create Adam than he is not to create a nature that can think given that he wished to create Arnauld. [Leibniz’s response.]

Arnauld then patronizingly suggests that this kind of notion is what keeps Leibniz out of the Roman Catholic Church, and that he would be better off if he abandoned these metaphysical speculations which cannot be of any use to him or to others, in order to apply himself seriously to the greatest business that he can ever have, the assurance of his salvation by returning to the Church.

April 12, 1686
Leibniz to the Landgrave

Leibniz professes not to know what to say about the hasty treatment his views received, and after that I am not surprised any more that some people have lost their temper with him. Still, Arnauld is of such great stature that Leibniz is willing to learn from him and to try again to see whether his doctrines contain any errors. But he does not see the difficulty with which Arnauld has charged him in the previous letter, which has cured me of my surprise and made me think that what M. Arnauld says is the result of mere prejudice.

First, Leibniz points out that individual concepts do not of themselves imply the necessity of things, As though concepts or previsions made things necessary, and a free action could not be included in the perfect concept or view which God has of the person to whom it will belong! Here, Leibniz is appealing to the traditional Christian view that God could have foreknowledge of a human action without its thereby becoming unfree.

More to the point, Leibniz agrees with Arnauld that the concept of Adam has the consequence that he has a certain number of children, and their concepts imply that they will have a certain number of children, etc. But the conclusion, that God is no more free to change the course of Adam’s posterity given that he creates Adam than he is to make a man who does not think, is incorrect, because of a confusion between hypothetical necessity and absolute necessity. One has always distinguished between what God is free to do absolutely and what he has obliged himself to do by virtue of decisions already taken, and he scarcely takes any which do not already have a universal import. [Arnauld’s response.] To think otherwise is to embrace the doctrine of the Socinians, which holds that God is free insofar as he makes decisions according to present circumstances, and would thereby lose his freedom if his initial decision fixed posterity in advance. Everyone agrees that God has regulated from all eternity the whole successive course of the universe without suffering a diminution of his liberty in any way because of that. [Arnauld’s response.]

A further reply to Arnauld’s objection is that tying God’s freedom to his ability to change the course of posterity separates God’s acts of will one from another, yet they are all interrelated. It is as if God’s will to create a particular Adam is then separate from his will to create Adam’s offspring, which would, by Leibniz’s account, mean that God would thereby take away from himself the freedom to create Adam’s posterity as he sees fit, which is very strange reasoning. One might think that God could do this by creating an indeterminate Adam, whose notion does not contain what will happen to him and his offspring. Leibniz replies that God would only create a particular Adam of whom a perfect representation exists among the possible beings in God’s ideas. If God did not include the will to create Adam’s posterity in choosing to create Adam, he would not act as God. The reason is that God’s view of the universe is complete: the universe is like a totality which God penetrates with a single view. So any act of will of God is an expression of the whole universe. [Arnauld’s response.] Leibniz makes an analogy between God’s particular acts of will and views of the same town from different vantage points. Thus, Leibniz’s view is not shocking at all, while Arnauld’s view destroys God’s perfection.

Leibniz then adds that his view is evident from the terms themselves. An individual concept of Adam is

a perfect representation of a particular Adam who has particular individual conditions and who is thereby distinguished from an infinite number of other possible persons who are very similar but yet very different from him (as every ellipse is different from the circle, however much it approximates to it), and to whom God has preferred him, because it has pleased God to choose precisely this particular order of the universe; and all that follows from his decision is necessary only by a hypothetical necessity and does not at all destroy God’s liberty or that of created minds.
[Arnauld’s response.] So there are an infinite number of other Adams . . . possible Adams (if one may so call them) with different posterities from the created Adam. They differ among themselves, and God chose just the one who is precisely our Adam. Leibniz asserts that the opposite of his view is impossible, that everyone believes this, and that it is impious not to. [Arnauld’s response.]

Leibniz ends by flattering Arnauld once again and by claiming that he is not inventing anything new, but rather is penetrating more deeply into commonly-held doctrines, as a geometer does. He also notes that if the defenders of the Catholic Church so quickly condemn some meditation bearing the slightest connection with religion and going a little beyond what is taught to children, people had better watch out for trouble. He then flatters the Landgrave and expresses the hope that Arnauld would come around to his view.

April 12, 1686
Leibniz to the Landgrave

This letter puts some of the claims of the other letter of that date in clearer terms.

Leibniz again complains about Arnauld’s temper, noting that Arnauld had been involved in a dispute with Malebranche, claiming that his views were extravagant, just as he claimed Leibniz’s were. He repeats the claim that Arnauld’s objection supposes the Socinian view, which imagines God as a man who takes decisions according to circumstances, as opposed to his own view, that God, foreseeing and regulating everything from all eternity, chose in the first place the whole successive connection of the universe, and in consequence not just an Adam but a particular Adam whom he foresaw as doing particular things and having particular children. This does not restrict God’s freedom, a fact acknowledged by all theologians except some Socinians, who conceive of God along human lines. But Leibniz will take the high road and not accuse Arnauld of accepting the dangerous dogma of those Socinians which destroys God’s sovereign perfection, though Arnauld seems almost to lean in that direction in the heat of the debate.

Leibniz repeats his claim that God would of course have chosen a particular Adam with a view of the whole in mind. And consequently it is ridiculous to say that this free decision of God deprives him of his liberty. Otherwise one would have to be constantly undecided in order to be free.

Leibniz then repeats his claim that he was just trying to sound Arnauld out, and that the latter’s outburst was unjustified. The moment one deviates even a little from the opinion of some scholars, they explode in thunder and lightning.

April 15, 1686
Leibniz to the Landgrave

Leibniz asks the Landgrave to make a substitution in the first April 12 letter, removing the part about the danger of crossing the defenders of the Church. [The original letter went though.] Leibniz’s substitution was one which noted the great dissension on topics of philosophy, as opposed to matters of faith and morals, among the various camps of Catholicism: the Thomists, the Jesuits, and some more obscure groups. If philosophy is censured, in general every absurdity would appear to be an atheistic proposition, because one can demonstrate that it would destroy the nature of God.

May 13, 1686
Arnauld to Leibniz

Arnauld changes the tenor of his remarks, claiming that he reacted so harshly not out of prejudice against Leibniz (he had a high opinion of him) or ill-humor (nothing is further form my character than the irritability which some people are pleased to ascribe to me) or excessive fondness for my own thoughts (he had no fixed opinion on this topic, not having thought about it much), but rather out of his usual frankness when writing to the Landgrave. He then cites a case where St. Augustine did something similar.

Arnauld then restates his original objection, and claims that he has not therein confused hypothetical with absolute necessity, having hypothetical necessity in mind all the time. But I find it merely strange that all human events are as necessary by hypothetical necessity from this single supposition that God wished to create Adam, as it is necessary by hypothetical necessity that there was in the world a nature capable of thought from the supposition alone that he wished to create me.

Several points of agreement are then noted, though Arnauld claims that they do not solve the problems.

  1. The distinction between what God is free to do absolutely and what God is obliged to do having made a given decision is certain.
  2. The Socinian view is very foolish.
  3. The holistic view that God’s acts of will are all interrelated, so that God’s will to create Adam is not separate from his will to create Adam’s posterity is one with which Arnauld is in agreement. Arnauld confesses that he did not understand Leibniz’s view of an individual concept. He had thought that it expresses the person he is in himself, not realizing that Leibniz meant it to be the concept that is in the understanding of God. This mistake is natural enough, since when one considers the concept of a sphere, for example, one considers what the sphere is in itself, not how God conceives of the sphere. Arnauld also grants that God has foreknowledge of everything that has happened to him and his posterity, and so taking the individual concept of Adam in this sense, what you say about it is very certain. And the act of will in creating Adam is not separate from that other acts of will regarding Adam’s posterity.

    The source of my difficulty, is whether the connection between the events in question exists as such of itself, independent of all the free decrees of God, or if it was dependent on them. The existence of an intrinsic and necessary connection between Adam on the one hand, and what has happened and will happen to him and his posterity on the other seems to be required to support Leibniz’s thesis that everything that will happen to a person is contained in his individual concept, even taking this concept in relation to God. [Leibniz’s response.]

    This notion of an intrinsic and necessary connection is supported by the view Leibniz apparently held that in the light of our understanding possible things are possible prior to the free decrees of God. In this case, the thesis would be true. What Arnauld frankly . . . cannot understand is the notion that God found a possible Adam among possible things, who has an intrinsic connection to the later individuals and what would happen to them. This would mean that the only difference between the possible Adam and the created Adam is that he was created.

    If this is right, there is a conflict with the fact that men have come into the world only through the very free decrees of God, like Isaac, Sampson, Samuel and so many others. When, therefore, God knew them conjointly with Adam, that was not because they were contained in the individual concept of the possible Adam independently of God’s decrees. In other words, if these men were contained in the individual concept of the possible Adam, then they would not be the products of God’s free decrees to create them individually. This is a re-statement of Arnauld’s original objection. [Leibniz’s response.]

    A second objection is now raised, regarding how one could think of many possible Adams. Just as any other possible varieties of myself that I can conceive is not really the same as me, so the other Adams would not be the same as Adam. The other selves could not be me since my self is necessarily a particular individual nature, so anything that deviates from that nature must be something other than myself. Arnauld endorses a strict connection between one’s individual concept and the individual that one is: I must consider as contained in the individual concept of myself only that which is such that I should no longer be me if it were not in me: and that all that is contrary such that it could be or not be in my without ceasing to be me, cannot be considered as being contained in my individual concept. [Leibniz’s response.]

    Moreover, trying to understand what is going on in the mind of God is not good philosophy. Arnauld brings up number of ways that we fail to know God. Specifically, he recites Leibniz’s notion of God’s choosing among many possible Adams, stating that I have no conception of these purely possible substances, which is to say the ones God will never create. And I am very much inclined to think that they are figments of the imagination that we create. He goes on to give a very medieval-sounding account of how we might conceive of possibility in terms of God’s power. But he draws the line at possible substance, which he thinks we can conceive only as actual, created substance. There is no passive possiblility but only the active and infinite potency of God. [Leibniz’s response.]

    In general, we should draw our conceptions of things not in God, who dwells in a light inaccessible to us, . . . but in the notions of them that we find in ourselves. [Here Arnauld sounds like Descartes, and in opposition to Malebranche.] Thus I find that I am a thinking being, but that whether I take a particular journey is not in the individual concept I have of myself. Whether I take the journey or not, I will remain myself. Even though God knows with certainty that the journey will be taken, the fact remains that taking it or not taking it, I will remain myself.

    With this, Arnauld ends the philosophical part of his letter, apologizing again for the tone of his first letter, saying that his real fault is that he is too honest. I protest that the very fault which I beg you once again to forgive me is only the result of the affection which God has given me for you and of a zeal for your salvation which was perhaps not moderate enough.

    May 13, 1686
    Arnauld to the Landgrave

    Arnauld now apologizes to the Landgrave, and asks him to make peace with Leibniz. He adds that he would like to stop the correspondence as he has too many other things to do so that I should have trouble in satisfying him, as these abstract topics require much application and would infallibly take up a lot of my time. He goes on to discuss matters not related to his controversy with Leibniz.

    May, 1686
    Remarks on Arnauld’s letter

    [This reproduced in the text. It was written before the next letter to Arnauld.]

    Leibniz summarizes the argument to this point. His first new move is to respond to Arnauld’s distinction between a concept in God’s understanding and a concept of a thing in itself. Leibniz’s problem is not with the distinction itself, but with the illustration of it with the concept of a sphere, which Arnauld says we customarily consider in itself. Leibniz holds that the concept of an object like a sphere is that of a species (kind of thing) and contains only eternal or necessary truths. The concept of a created individual, on the other hand, depends on some decrees of God which are considered as possible. To think this of the sphere would be to embrace the Cartesian view that God’s will determines the eternal truths, a view which he allows that Arnauld rejects as well as he. Moreover, the general or indeterminate concept of a sphere is abstract and incomplete, unlike the determinate concept of the sphere that Archimedes had placed on his tomb. Here, place, time and circumstance are relevant to the determinate concept, and all the other circumstances of the universe are contained in it, as with the concept of Adam.

    Now Leibniz outlines the dilemma attributed to him by Arnauld. Either what happens in the world is a product of God’s free decrees, or else the connections between things are intrinsic and necessary, and independent of those decrees. Arnauld attributes the latter view to Leibniz. In response, Leibniz espouses a middle way. The idea is that the connection between Adam and his posterity depends on some free decrees of God, but does not depend on them completely, in such a way as if every occurrence happened or was forseen only by virtue of a primary particular decree made respecting it. There are two distinct claims being made here. First, God’s decree that Adam exist is not the only decree that goes into the unfolding of events after him. And there are only a few free primary decrees capable of being called laws of the universe and regulating the sequences of things. But second, much of what is in the concept of Adam is not directly decreed, but rather is the consequence of the laws of the universe, which, when linked to the free decree to create Adam, bring about the consequence.

    Leibniz also maintains that possible things do not depend on God’s actual decrees (against the Cartesians) but possible individual concepts contain some possible free decrees. For example, if the actual world were only possible, the laws of motion that govern the world would only be possible free decrees of God. This holds of miracles as well, which are part of the general order of things.

    Leibniz then repeats his holistic conception, that it is not so much the individual concept of Adam but that of the whole world which is the subject of God’s decrees. (He adds that God’s foreknowledge does not preclude free acts on the part of the individuals in the world.)

    The next topic is Arnauld’s remarks about the impossibility of conceiving many particular Adams. Leibniz responds that he did not take Adam as one determinate individual, but rather as an indeterminate Adam, understood through only some of the properties of the real Adam. Leibniz’s view is that the Adam from whose concepts all future events follow is completely determinate, and is already formed in the domain of possible things, that is to say in [God’s] understanding.

    But Liebniz goes further, and disputes Arnauld’s claim that the he would be himself whether he made a particular journey or not. (Leibniz used the transportation of a block of marble in his own example.) Although the senses may not be able to distinguish the two cases, the understanding does, because of the connections between things the whole universe with all its parts would be quite different and would have been another universe from the beginning if the least thing were to happen other than it does. (Again, Leibniz claims that this does not make events necessary, but only certain to happen.)

    Now we get another argument for this claim (sometimes known as super-essentialism, the doctrine that every property a thing has is essential to it). How can we say that a single thing exists over time, as when in time AB Leibniz is in France, and in BC he is in Germany? The only way we can say this a priori is by stating that my attributes of the preceding time and state as well as those of the following time and state are predicates of one and the same subject, they are present in the same subject. But for the predicate to be in the subject is for the concept of the predicate to be in some sense contained in the subject. And this connection is one that exists from the beginning of existence. The predicate was always in the subject.

    After that I think that all doubts must vanish, for when I say that the individual concept of Adam contains everything that will ever happen to him, I mean nothing other than what all philosophers mean when they say that the predicate is present in the subject of a true proposition. It is true that the consequences of a doctrine so evident are paradoxes, but the fault lies with the philosophers, who do not take far enough the clearest concepts.
    [For an expanded statement, see below | Arnauld’s response.] So here, Leibniz appeals to logic to support his metaphysical claim.

    The next target is Arnauld’s claim that we should not presume to understand the mind of God. Leibniz holds that we can understand his view in itself, apart from any knowledge of God’s conceptions. Again, the appeal is to logic. A complete individual concept is made up of basic predicates, [primitive predicates in our text] and from these all that will happen to Adam can be deduced. He notes that there are problems with our understanding of God, specifically the relation between God’s vision [intuition in our text] and future contingent events. For if God already had the vision, they apparently would already exist, in which case it is problematic how they could have been willed by God. This problem is perhaps reduced to the problem raised by his will, namely of how God is free to will. This certainly passes our understanding, but it is not as necessary to understand it in order to resolve our problem.

    With respect to Arnauld’s problem with God’s choosing among possibilities, Leibniz admits that the notion is unclear. Arnauld had talked of these possibilities himself, and though he later wants to view them as creatures of the imagination, he should grant that they are in God’s understanding. But Leibniz is even content to allow that the possibility is found in the things themselves, for all he needs is to be able to form true propositions about them. But we must not go too far and reject them altogether, since one would be destroying contingency: for if nothing is possible but what God has in fact created, what God has created would be necessary in the event of his having decided to create something.

    Arnauld’s view that we should conceive individual substances through ourselves is agreed to. But we have confused ideas about ourselves, and in particular that we would remain the same self if a particular journey were taken or not. These things appear to us to be undetermined only because the advance signs or indications of them in our substance are not recognizable to us. To be guided by the senses will lead us to regard truths as foolishness.

    Leibniz concludes the remarks by noting a sense in which the connection between an individual concept and the future events of an object is intrinsic but not necessary. The reason for any action is to be found in the individual concept, but it inclines without necessitating in the case of contingent truths. The claim is that although it is certain that Leibniz will take a particular journey (he is so inclined by his present state), nonetheless, it is true that I would be able not to take this journey, (he is not necessitated). Why might he not take the journey? The only hint we get is the connection is based on free acts and decrees. That is, because there are other possibilities, and God freely decrees that one of them be actual. [For more on this, see below].

    July 14, 1686
    Leibniz to Arnauld

    This letter [sometimes referred to as the long letter, as Leibniz had on the same date sent a shorter letter on other topics] substantially recapitulates what is in the unsent Remarks just discussed. There are a couple of statements there worthy of remark.

    Leibniz clarifies and expands his claim that ultimately the thesis under dispute is based on considerations of logic.

    Now, I do not ask for more of a connection here than that which exists objectively between the terms of a true proposition, and it is only in this sense that I say that the concept of the individual substance contains all its events and all its denominations, even those that one commonly calls extrinsic (that is to say, that belong to it only by virtue of the general connection of things and of the fact that it is an expression of the entire universe after its own manner), since there must always be some basis for the connection between the terms of a proposition, and it is to be found in their concepts. That is my great principle with which I believe all philosophers must agree, and of which one of the corollaries is the common axiom that there is a reason for everything that happens, and that one can always explain why a thing has worked out in this way rather than that, although this reason often inclines without necessitating, since a state of perfect indifference is a chimerical or incomplete assumption. One sees that from the above-mentioned principle I draw surprising consequences, but it is only because one is not accustomed to pursue far enough the clearest knowledge.
    Also, it was noted above that Leibniz claimed that a future journey he will take is certain but not necessary. Here he adds that despite the certainty of its taking place, it is freely undertaken. I am free to take this journey or not, for although it is contained in my concept that I shall take it, is also contained therein that I shall take it freely.
    September 28, 1686
    Arnauld to Leibniz

    Here the famous concession is made. I confess to you in good faith that I am satisfied by the way you explain what had at first shocked me regarding the concept of the individual nature. Arnauld gave as a reason the appeal to logic, that the predicate is present in the subject in every true affirmative proposition. The only remaining area of disagreement he acknowledges is over God’s choosing among the infinitely many possible universes. But he concedes Leibniz’s point: that strictly has no bearing on the concept of the individual nature, and because of the time it would take to clarify the matter, he will remain silent about it.

    December 8, 1686
    Leibniz to Arnauld

    Leibniz professes admiration for the candor and sincerity to which you have deferred to certain arguments I had used. He had indeed suspected that the argument taken from the general nature of propositions would make some impression on Arnauld, and since few are capable of appreciating truths so abstract, others would not have so easily perceived its force. Leibniz also asks in a flattering way for Arnauld’s thoughts on the possibilities of things, a request Arnauld did not see fit to fulfil.

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