PHIL 352 17th Century Philosophy: Leibniz (and Locke)

Spring Semester 2013 | Day | Burnaby


INSTRUCTOR: P. Hanson, WMC 5658 (


This course will be in large part an introduction to the thought of Gotfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, an intellectual giant of the 17th century, with special emphasis on his metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophies of language and logic. Although his thought was systematic, Leibniz never wrote a single unified presentation of his views. We are left to fit them together from mostly unpublished papers and correspondence. Much of this interpretive, integrative work has been done only in the 20thcentury. One of Leibniz’s few monograph-length works is a detailed commentary on Locke’s Essay. We cannot evaluate this commentary without familiarizing ourselves with what Locke said. That is where Locke comes in.

Leibniz’s view, in his Theodicy (which we will not look at), that “this is the best of all possible worlds,” was mercilessly ridiculed by Voltaire, in Candide. Bertrand Russell reports that F.H. Bradley added the sardonic comment, “and everything in it is a necessary evil.” One recent commentator. Catherine Wilson, characterizes Leibniz’s Monodology (which we will take a look at) as “probably the falsest theory in the history of philosophy.” And of course it was the Leibnizian tradition that Kant largely had in mind when he inveighed against the rationalist excesses of dogmatic metaphysics. So why study this guy, you are no doubt asking? Because notwithstanding all of this, Leibniz’s theory of necessity and contingency, his semantics of proper names and general terms, his nuanced doctrine of innate ideas, his relational theory of space and time, his theory of identity, and much else, are elements of a rich and enduring legacy that remain benchmarks today that we still draw on and learn from.


  • Philosophical Essays, G.W. Leibniz (trans., R. Ariew and D. Garber) (Hackett Pub., 1989)
  • The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz, Nicholas Jolley (ed.), (Cambridge U. Press, 1995)
  • An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke (available on web)
  • New Essays on Human Understanding, G. Leibniz (available on web).
  • A substantive amount of secondary material will be placed on reserve in the library.


  • 2 shorter written assignments -  25% apiece
  • a term paper - 40%
  • course participation - 10%

Prerequisites: Phil 100 or 151, or permission of the instructor.