Elden on Leibniz Translations; On Stewart’s Leibniz and Spinoza book

Somehow I missed this a few days ago, but it came up in my google news feed under “esoteric archive stuff that fascinates Peter Gratton.” He notes the century needed, at least, to finish up the cataloging of Leibniz’s works.

In Matthew Stewart’s very good account of Leibniz and Spinoza, The Courtier and the Heretic (Yale UP, 2005), there is a note in the bibliography that

“The standard, reference edition of Leibniz’s collected works is that of the Berlin Akademie. The Akademie is expected to require another century or so to complete its edition, however, so the researcher must rely on a number of other editions of Leibniz’s work.”

Now that additional century needs to be seen from the date that edition begun, which was in 1923! Now Leibniz does present a huge number of problems – he wrote on just about every topic imaginable, he wrote in Latin, French and German, and there is an estimate of “150,000 sheets in the archives in Hanover” (Stewart, p. 13). But even so…

Leibniz isn’t especially well-served in English translations either. There are several collections of philosophical writings (Loemker; Wiener; Ariew & Garber; Woolhouse & Francks; Strickland) but lots of overlap between them; the Political Writings which is very limited; and some individual works (Theodicy; the New Essays on Human Understanding), but a huge amount not translated. There is a new Yale UP series of bi-lingual editions, but that’s been going almost twenty years and not produced many volumes.

It just so happens, also, that I read through the book on Leibniz and Spinoza (Leibniz and Spinoza, The Courtier and the Heretic [Yale UP, 2005]) he mentions last week, so this gives me an opportunity to note a couple of things:

1. It’s a great, eminently readable book on thinkers one does not normally put on the list of “eminently readable.”

2. Stewart does go in for the full through-this-lens-I-read-everything approach: apparently every dispute Leibniz ever had (with Newton, Locke, his mother…) and all future philosophical developments (in liberalism, in the philosophy of God…) is reducible to his meeting with Spinoza in 1676.

3. Stewart also begins with perhaps the most depressing first sentence of a book on philosophers in some time: “It is our good fortune to live in an age when philosophy is thought to be a harmless affair” (p. 11). Just let that linger with you for a few moments…then get a stiff drink.

However, Stewart has a real eye for telling moments in various letters back and forth across the continent, and his feel for Leibniz’s pettiness (who isn’t, though, when placed under such a microscope?) really humanizes this giant of intellect in a way that doesn’t minimize his achievements. I wish I had marked up the book for my favorite passages–and there are many.

Also, if someone, though, could write a book on Leibniz’s love of alchemy, I’d really appreciate it…


  1. “Also, if someone, though, could write a book on Leibniz’s love of alchemy, I’d really appreciate it…”

    Well, I assume you mean a non-fiction book. Or maybe just one that focuses more on Leibniz. Regardless, he is a reoccurring character Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle. Though of course Newton is much more the focus of those books. If you haven’t read them, I highly encourage it.

  2. Ah, good pointer: I have not read them but will put them on the heap… thanks!

  3. Stephenson’s books of The Baroque Cycle are a horrid waste of time. Sure, they are about various philosophical figures and portray the times etc etc. But they are badly written, without any real imagination (read, 800 pages of dull with every volume). Please, don’t waste your time. There’s a number of non-fiction books that do a much better job – Stephenson’s a disappointment.

  4. The Baroque Cycle is pretty unreadable. (IMO) Great idea, failed implementation. His other books are great though. Cryptomonicon is one of my favorite books of all time.

  5. Well, i have a good feel for turgid prose: I’ll see if I can make it a couple of chapters…if not, I’ll try Cryptomonicon…

  6. I’ve only read The Baroque Cycle, so maybe I’m wrong on Stephenson as a whole, but I found the narrative to be oh-so-dull and I’m not even sure why I kept on reading. I think it was the same reason for why people keep on watching Inception for 2.5 hours trying to see if there’s a twist or something…

    I wouldn’t call his prose turgid. A couple of chapters will probably get you through a detailed description of a ship and sea voyage of yet unnamed but soon-to-be reveal “important person”. I think I can how one can enjoy the books vis-a-vis all the interesting figures and connections between them, but that seems like a secondary result. There seems to be no real thought/theory behind all the historical details (however) accurate.

    Compare Stephenson with someone like Robert Harris (I suppose it’s the same literary niche) and his books on Cicero – gigantic difference, me thinks…

  7. If you want a book on Leibniz and Alchemy, check out Allison Coudert’s books on Leibniz. They get into his strong links with mystical subjects.

    Also I’ll be making some youtube videos that touch on this subject a little soon which you can find searching “Gary Geck Secret History”.

    -Gary Geck

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