Leibniz on Language, Race, and Nation

Peter Fenves

The imperial plan depends entirely on the ability of the youthful captives to speak in a reasonably effective manner; otherwise, they could not follow complex military orders. And the principle of division that will make the captives into members of well-defined and well-trained military companies is entirely linguistic: the militia is to be divided into "as many classes as nations, that is, languages" (A, 4, 1: 408). What distinguishes the various peoples he names, in other words, is not a racially but, rather, a linguistically defined nationality. And as Leibniz emphasizes, it is absolutely essential that national-linguistic distinctions remain in place. Speakers of one language should not be able to communicate with speakers of another; otherwise, all of the captives might collectively recognize themselves as captives and violently liberate themselves from their European masters. This, then, is the central motif of the new method of world domination: “Take care lest troops of diverse languages ever get used to one another and thereby understand one another” (A, 4, 1: 408). Leibniz’s many plans for the development and deployment of a universal language assumes a less brilliant hue in light of this violent recommendation: the ability to translate one language into another is not only a scientific desideratum; it is also—and perhaps primarily—a means of mastery. The absolute master, who, as such, exercises control over the entire planet, can translate all human languages into his own. Those whom this master controls, by contrast, can understand only their own captive kind.

Leibniz goes even further in the same direction, moreover, as he completes his preliminary exposition of the principles of selection with the following directions: “The same things must be guarded against among men of the same language” (A, 4, 1: 408). Although all captives must be able to speak, they cannot be allowed to exercise this capacity for the very same reason that members of different nations are prohibited from communicating with one another. The activation of linguistic capacities, Leibniz subtly suggests, is always in league with liberation. What, after all, would the captives more urgently discuss among themselves than their accounts of captivity—and strategies for regaining their freedom? And this emancipatory power of language is irrepressible and ubiquitous. Leibniz does not explicitly say so; but even as he contemptuously calls the captives "semi-beasts," he recognizes that they are not fit “by nature” for slavery: if they ever get the chance to speak with one another, they are sure to revolt—and perhaps form themselves into a counter-European-Christian army. Leibniz sees only a single measure against this threat: the captives must be made into philosophers, which is to say, into human beings who are least in need of language, inasmuch as they can intuit what everyone else knows only by means of symbols. Leibniz thus concludes his preliminary exposition of the composition of the invincible militia in the following manner: “Let a Pythagorean taciturnness be introduced among them; let them be permitted to say nothing among themselves except when necessary or when ordered” (A, 4, 1: 408). Whether Leibniz was conscious of the irony contained in this recommendation cannot be known; but in any case this much is clear: the reference to Pythagoras, the first philosopher-mathematician, suggests that the inventor of the infinitesimal calculus and the author of the proposal for planetary conquest recognizes, perhaps against his will, that the "semibeasts" whom he plans to form into an invincible militia could outsmart their master and become a new breed of Pythagoreans.

And from the perspective of Leibniz’s mature thought, which culminates in the famous “Monadology” (1714), this method of terrestrial conquest appears even stranger still. The soldiers whom he envisages appear as the very models of monadic individuality: none can directly communicate with each other; all communication is mediated by their master, who, as he forms the militia, makes sure that no direct communication is ever required. This is to say, in monadological terms, all “windows” are closed. [11] And yet both monads and members of the invincible militia are so well coordinated that they act in perfect harmony nevertheless. The military monasticism Leibniz proposes is, in effect, monadic: none of the the soldiers is affected by the sight of their enemies; such is the source of their strength. And none is affected by their own plight; such is the force of their isolation. Leibniz may have had only an inkling of the metaphysical principles that would give direction to his later work; but the addendum to the Consilium Aegyptiacum anticipates—in a perverse form, to be sure—the vision of the ultimate structure of reality that Leibniz would seek to capture.


To my knowledge, Leibniz never again proposes—or even alludes to—the imperial project that finds expression in the addendum to the Consilium Aegyptiacum. Once Louis XIV invaded Holland rather than Egypt, the Consilium Aegyptiacum was in any case a moribund document, and Leibniz soon turned against the imperial-minded king, whom he would sarcastically call “the most Christian War God.” [12] Yet the addendum to the Consilium Aegyptiacum cannot simply be dismissed as a mere aberration. The list of potential captives corresponds in large part to Leibniz’s geopolitical imaginary, which accords a certain superiority to the civilizations at the far ends of the Eurasian landmass: Western Europe and China. Leibniz took an interest in the work of Sparwenfeld for precisely this reason: the lands inhabited by the Slavic peoples are a bridge between the two extremes. A careful study of Slavic languages could therefore prove to be an indispensable element not only of a reunited Christendom but of a European-Chinese synthesis. [13] What Leibniz did not have at his disposal and, as his correspondence with Sparwenfeld indicates, made no efforts to develop was a theory of race that would provide a physiological basis for a geopolitics of historical languages. As Leibniz explains in numerous places, languages are not only means of communication but also archives of knowledge. A more developed language is therefore a sign that greater levels of knowledge have been collectively achieved. Never perhaps is this thought more succinctly expressed and more closely linked to an outstanding political problem than in the following passage of a short text probably written in the 1680s entitled “Einige patriotischen Gedanken” (Some Patriotic Thoughts):

I am of the opinion that the nations [Nationen] that develop and perfect their languages thereby have a great advantage in sharpening their intellect. For one must affirm that words are not only signs with which we can reveal our intentions to others but also signs with which we can speak with ourselves, in our interior, and consider what experience shows. And the better or more convenient and clearer the signs, the better the intellect can operate; in this way, one can calculate better with the numerals currently used than Roman numerals. . . . Therefore, when striking and well-differentiated words are common in a language, many good thoughts and insights are, as it were, available to the mind. (A, 4, 3: 362-63)

That one language and system of notation is superior to another does not by itself mean the nation that speaks this language enjoys the same political or legal superiority. The virtues of the German language, which Leibniz champions in “Einige patriotischen Gedanken” and elsewhere, [14] do not make the Germanic nation superior to neighboring ones. And for this reason, linguistic superiority remains a puzzle. A language can be superior to others, even if everything articulated in this language is below the level of things articulated in inferior ones. The paradigmatic case of this enigma is, again, German: “And I must often confront the astonishing fact that so many bad books currently appear in the German language” (A, 4, 3: 363). As far as I have been able to discover, Leibniz never sought to resolve this enigma with reference to a physiological quality like “race.” This does not mean, however, that he was entirely unfamiliar with the term. In its conventional sense, as a synonym for kind or species, especially of the human variety, it appears in his French texts and letters. But to my knowledge, Leibniz defines the term only once. It appears in the notes he appended to John Wilkins’s Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668). Following Wilkins’s principles of division, Leibniz elucidates and defines a wide range of words—from the most general terms in Latin (aliquid, nihil, and res) to specific grammatical connectives in English. Of particular prominence are fifty or so words for “mixed relations pertaining to discrete quantities,” including the relations among things or phenomena (as opposed to relations among words or times); the last of these terms is race, for which Leibniz proposes the following elucidation: “Race, genus, Geschlecht, generational series. Genealogy is the explication of this series.” [15] Leibniz does not so much define as translate race—first into Latin and then into German. Neither translation helps much, however, since the Latin and German words are even more equivocal than the French and English ones. “Generational series,” by contrast, is relatively univocal: a “racial” relation is causal; more exactly, to use the term race, one must be able to identify a class whose members generate other elements who are capable of the same action. [16]

Nowhere in his notes to Wilkins’s treatise does Leibniz worry about the field of application in which the causal term generation is valid; but in at least one place in these extensive notes Leibniz‑perhaps for the first time‑introduces a term that would render any use of race unacceptable in a strictly metaphysical context, namely, species monadica. As “the absolute lowest species,” each species monadica must be “an individual.” (A, 6, 4: 31-32). The only generative series in which a "monadic species" can enter is that of its creator, who, for its part, transcends the series simply because it is, by definition, not an element of the class it creates. And if the world is ultimately composed of the infinite complex of “monadic species,” as Leibniz will argue again and again, in various different manners and with a series of corresponding terms, then the following conclusion is inevitable: the concept of race is not applicable to reality. In reality, there are no species other than monadic ones, which, as such, allow for only a single member. The causal character of racial terms makes race illegitimate within the parameters of a strict logical-metaphysical exposition. Things do not cause other things to happen. God is the sole cause in the strict sense of the term, which is to say, all things are of the same race, and each thing is its own species. In short, everything in the strict sense of the term thing is a species monadica, and these species owe their origin to a single cause, whose serial calculus rules out the possibility that two things are, in reality, of the same kind.

Such is a brief outline of Leibniz’s metaphysics, which doubtless undergoes considerable alterations of terminology and emphasis but which nevertheless retains a single vision: reality is composed of the best possible complex of compossible “monadic species.” None of this is meant to suggest, however, that Leibniz is uninterested in grounding the various kinds, classes, and orders to which human beings can legitimately be said to belong; on the contrary, his wide-ranging juridical, political, and diplomatic efforts, including the Consilium Aegyptiacum, are concerned with nothing else. The question at every turn, however, is this: given that, in reality, there are only “substantial forms” or “monads,” each of which is a “monadic species,” under what condition is it justifiable to use a term for a higher species, which is to say, a species that has more than a single member? “Human” is justifiable because all those who can be thus predicated belong to a realm from which merely natural things are excluded, namely, that of “grace.” The term “Christian” is justifiable, moreover, inasmuch as it distinguishes those who accept their inclusion in the realm of grace from those who do not. Social and political predicates can be justified accordingly‑as marks of membership in the institutions through which the realm of grace establishes terrestrial equivalents. Such is the case with “national” predicates—German, French, English, and so forth—that are removed from Christian doctrine. That the respublica Christiana is divided into different nations is not only acceptable; it is in keeping with the principles of divine justice, which demands difference as an indispensable feature of unity. [17] Leibniz can thus present himself as a German patriot, whose loyalty to his fatherland largely consists in opposing French expansion on the European continent, on the one hand, and in championing the usefulness of the German language for the sciences and arts, on the other. Just as the highly diversified political and social predicates by which Christianity establishes its earthly institutions are justifiable, so, too, are the national predicates through which the peoples of the Christian republic are distinguished for the greater glory of God. And the composition of the Christian republic does not preclude loyalty to the particular land in which one happens to be born; on the contrary, as he writes at the end of “Einige patriotischen Gedanken,” “I am of the opinion that everyone, from the prince down to the peasant, is required to perform some martial service for the fatherland whenever it is necessary” (A, 4, 3: 365).

The question remains, however, whether race is one of the class-terms by which human beings can be divided—whether, in other words, it is legitimate to describe individual members of the species in terms of subspecial yet supranational “generational series.” As far as I have been able to discover, Leibniz never poses this question in so many words; only in his vague reminiscence of Bernier's essay does he even enter into its vicinity, and even here he hesitates over the appropriate class-term: whereas Bernier oscillates between species and race, Leibniz cannot decide whether the term in question should be tribe, race, or class. At any rate, as the correspondence with Sparwenfeld indicates, Leibniz takes an interest in this question only insofar as it is posed within the same theological-political context as his many reflection on, and defenses of, a diverse yet unified respublica Christiana. He may say nothing in his letter to Sparwenfeld about the realm of grace; but it motivates his entire correspondence, to say nothing of his specific plea for a scientific argument for monogenesis. As for a neutral, non-political-theological justification for the application of the term race—or any equivalent term—there is, to my knowledge, none in his enormous literary corpus. What Blumenbach wanted from Leibniz is nowhere to be found.


2. Leibniz, Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe, ed. Preußische [later, Deutsche) Akademie der Wissenschaften (Darmstadt and Leipzig: Reichl, 1923‑), 1, 13: 544‑45; hereafter, A. All translations are my own. For a presentation of Sparwenfeld’s lexicon and a brief account of his life, see Ulla Birgegård, Johan Gabriel Sparwenfeld and the Lexicon Slavonicum: His Contribution to the Seventeenth‑Century Slavonic Lexicography (Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell Tryckeri, 1985), esp. 85‑96 (for a discussion of his correspondence with Leibniz).

11. As Leibniz famously proposes in the so‑called “Monadology,” “Monads have absolutely no windows through which anything could enter or leave” (G, 6: 606).

12. See the treatise of this title translated in Political Writings, 121‑45.

13. For Leibniz’s efforts in this regard, see Writings on China, ed. and trans. Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemon Jr. (Chicago: Open Court, 1994).

14. See, for example, the remarks in the lengthy preface to Leibniz’s own edition of Mario Nizolio’s De veris principiis et vera ratione philosophandi contra pseudophilosophos (A, 6, 2: 414) and, most famously, in “Ermalmung an die Teutsche ihren Verstand und Sprache besser zu üben” (generally dated in the early 1680s) and “Unvorgreifliche Gedancken, betreffend die Ausflbung und Verbesserung der Teutschen Sprache" (after 1697); readily available versions of the edition published by Paul Pietsch (with modernized spelling) can be found in Leibniz, Unvorgreifliche Gedanken, betreffend die Ausübung und Verbesserung der deutschen Sprache, Zwei Aufsätze, ed. Uwe Pörksen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1983). For Leibniz’s inquiries into the German language—as well as Leibniz’s other linguistic researches—see the remarkable study of Sigrid von Schulenburg, Leibniz al Sprachforscher, ed. Kurt Müller (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1973).

15. A, 6, 4: 34. it is unclear whether race in these notes should be understood as an English or French word. Of course, Leibniz knew French much better than English, but in the seventh category of “Transcendental Relations of DISCONTINUED QUANTITY or Number” Wilkins offers the following set of terms: “SERIES, Rank, Row, Class, Successive, Chain, Course, Race, Collateral, Concatenation, Alphabet” (An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language [London: Gellibrand, 16681, 34).

16. After working for several decades on the history and genealogy of the House of Brunswick without arriving at a satisfactory result (at least in his own estimation), Leibniz was well aware of the immense empirical difficulties of establishing a reliable account of a “generational series” whose elements are human beings. A fuller investigation into the theme of Leibniz and race would have to analyze in detail the methods that he developed in order to initiate, conceptualize, and pre­sent his groundbreaking historical and genealogical inquiries.

17. For an inquiry into Leibniz’s conception of the respublica christiana, see Patrick Riley, Leibniz’ Universal Jurisprudence: Justice as the Charity of the Wise (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 236‑60.

SOURCE: Fenves, Peter. “Imagining an Inundation of Australians; or, Leibniz on the Principles of Grace and Race,” in Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, edited by Andrew Valls (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 73-89. This excerpt: pp. 78-83; notes, 86-88.

Leibniz & Ideology: Selected Bibliography

Philosophical and Universal Languages, 1600-1800, and Related Themes: Selected Bibliography

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