Henri Lefebvre on Leibniz & Ars Combinatoria


The monad, moreover, is for Leibniz appetite and effort (appetitus and conatus). There is nothing inert about the monad, its ‘matter’ being not an extended and thought substance, but the limitation of all finite reality. This ‘real’ given as will is integral to the analysis. The same holds for the content. Leibniz passes easily, by metonymy, from thought in act to the thought-object, and from this to will. Thus he brings new and decisive elements to the formalization. He attains a ‘real’ both continuous and discontinuous, by the double path of the continuous (differential and integral calculus) and the discontinuous. He reveals an aspect of the discursive understanding, combinatory and operatory, that was previously implicit. By an intuition of genius, Leibniz saw already in his adolescence that ‘by the combination of the letters of the alphabet and the analysis of the words formed on the basis of these letters, it was possible to discover everything’.18 The ars combinatoria, according to him, did not produce abstractions. On the basis of simple and discontinuous elements (distinct, discrete), he thus constructs the real. God calculates. Starting from zero and one (the same and the other), he generates the discrete number and the infinitesimal continuous (the series that mathematically guarantees the connection between discrete numbers and continuous functions, between measurement and combinatory order).

Leibniz’s intellectualism claimed to make the discontinuous and the continuous converge in a perfect mimesis of the divine productive act. With him, the understanding seizes the real, decomposes it into primordial elements (atoms: zero, one), then recomposes it. He introduces intelligence into the real by a decisive victory over its resistance and opacity. Intellect is not added to the object from outside. By operatory and combinatory procedures, it makes a ‘real’ as real as the given or more so. Composition and arrangement are creation. And vice versa. Leibniz believes that he overcomes any dualism: that of extension and soul, that of object and subject, those of quantity and quality, finite and infinite, mechanism and finalism.19

The monad contains its own principle of movement. It moves of itself. It is therefore automatic. Laws are internal to it; the counterpoint of monads lets every theme and voice develop ‘freely’. Yet the spiritual or immaterial Automaton is not transcendent in relation to the material or constructed automaton. God ensures their unity, not only that of the finite and the infinite, but that of the continuous and the discontinuous, creation and calculation, spontaneity and practical manufacture, by dismembering and arranging (by operations: arrangements and combinations). Dum Deus calculate, fit mundus. God handles substances, Minds or otherwise, like an engineer with his machines—though this is not without presenting certain difficulties.

Leibniz thus stands at the start of a broad current of thought that has a culmination and conclusion in our own day. This current of knowledge and speculation sometimes disavows its Leibnizian origins; it erases the traces of its progress; it frees itself from metaphysics in a quest to be technical and only technical, scientific and only scientific. For us, however, it is still philosophy and cannot deny its philosophical origins: in Leibniz.


SOURCE: Lefebvre, Henri. Metaphilosophy, translated by David Fernbach, edited with an introduction by Stuart Elden. London; New York: Verso, 2016. Excerpt from Chapter 7: Philosophy as Message.


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