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Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life

Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life

by Justin E. H. Smith
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2011
392 pp. Trade, $45.00; e-book, $45.00
ISBN: 978-0-691-14178-7; ISBN: 978-1-400-83872-1.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


This book is an in-depth scholarly exploration of the philosophical work of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Justin Smith, by investigating Leibniz's interest in the life sciences, many of which were only just emerging in the seventeenth century, sheds new light on how these “sciences” influenced Leibniz's overall philosophical doctrines.

Divine Machines is extremely well written and a pleasure to read; however, it is not really a book suitable for general readership. For philosophers, students, and those interested in the history of ideas the book will prove most rewarding. Leibniz's philosophy, in general, is not easy to fully comprehend, but Smith helps clarify some of the more abstruse concepts through his detailed discussion of Leibniz's grounding in the empirical life sciences. Leibniz explored such diverse disciplines as medicine, taxonomy, physiology, generation theory (now genetics) and palaeontology that helped him formulate his major metaphysical theory —  Monadology.

This book is divided into four parts that follow an excellent Introduction:
Part One: First Things consists of chapters one and two
Part Two: From Animal Economy to Subtle Anatomy, chapters three and four
Part Three: The Origins of Organic Form, chapters five and six
Part Four: Species, chapter seven

These are followed by five Appendixes which are examples of Leibniz's own writings:
Appendix 1 – Directions Pertaining to the Institution of Medicine (1671)
Appendix 2 – The Animal Machine (1677)
Appendix 3 – The Human Body, Like That of Any Animal, Is a Sort of A Machine (1680-86)
Appendix 4 – On Writing the New Elements of Medicine (1682-83)
Appendix 5 – On Botanical Method (1701)

These fascinating Appendixes are then followed by chapter notes, an excellent Bibliography and Index.

The term “natural philosophy” (philosophia naturalis) in the seventeenth century was an umbrella title used to cover all disciplines of what have now become separate sciences. Smith uses the modern name biology for our clarity, as there was no such “science” in Leibniz's time. Smith's main concern is to show how to understand Leibniz through his biological investigations.  This is at odds with the predominant view that Leibniz was mainly influenced by logic, language, mathematics, and theology. Herein lies the importance of this book and assures it a place in the scholarly literature concerning the greats of philosophy and modern thinking.

As an extra bonus this book gives us an exciting glimpse into the way of investigation and thinking throughout the seventeenth century. This brought home to me, quite profoundly, just how little humans knew about the fundamental workings of the world in this era, and how much we have learnt since then. Two examples: Our recent understanding of DNA coding; secondly, our current ability to do fMRI scans to see the human brain actually working. BUT it also brought about a sense of humility, in that in 400 years time, humans (if we are still here) will similarly marvel at how ignorant we early twenty-first century scientists, scholars, and philosophers were!

Smith's study gives an almost palpable sense of the struggle these early modern thinkers went through. Leibniz quite naturally was influenced by many other great thinkers especially Aristotle, Galen, Descartes, and Hobbes. He always expressed his debt to those who influenced his thinking, even when he was was at odds with them, especially Descartes. “Commenting on Descartes' account of human embryogenesis, for example, Leibniz derides “Monsieur des Cartes with his man, the generation of whom costs so little, but who so little resembles a true man.” Yet at the same time Leibniz never denies the enormous debt of his own philosophy to Cartesian mechanism” (p. 10).

This book is a scholarly tour de force, it challenges the existing understanding of Leibniz's philosophy and opens up many areas for further research––essential reading for all those engaged in research into the history of early modern philosophy and science.

Last Updated 4 November 2011

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