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Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Who was Leibniz?

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1715) was a German philosopher, scientist, mathematician, and historian famous for his metaphysical idealism as well as his epistemological rationalism. In addition, he made contributions to the fields of astronomy, biology (including embryology), engineering, information technology, law, logic, medicine, paleontology, philology, Sinology, social science, and topology. The calculating machine he invented could add, subtract and calculate square roots; his plans for invading Egypt are said to have been used by Napoleon. Leibniz also kept up a voluminous correspondence throughout his life.

What is known about Leibniz's life?

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was born in Leipzig, Germany. His mother was the daughter of a professor, and his father was a professor. His father died when he was six. Leibniz studied philosophy and law at the University of Leipzig, but he was too young to be awarded a doctorate in law when he finished at age 20. He then moved to Altdorf, where he graduated and was offered a professorship that he turned down to become secretary of the Rosicrucian Society in Nuremberg. He then entered the service of Johann Philipp von Shonborn, elector of Mainz, and during this time he did not produce his own philosophy but mainly wrote histories and biographies for pay.

In 1672 Leibniz went to Paris, and after four years he entered the service of Johann Friedrich, Duke of Hanover. When Johann died, he served Ernst August (1629-1698), Duke of Hanover, and then Georg Ludwig, who became King George I of Great Britain in 1714.

You can thank Leibniz for those calculus problems you did in school (iStock).

You can thank Leibniz for those calculus problems you did in school (iStock).

What was the dispute between Leibniz and Newton about the calculus?

Gottfried Leibniz was very sociable intellectually, and welcomed a free and cooperative exchange of ideas. Toward the end of his life, though, he was greatly distressed by the claims of Isaac Newton's (1643-1727) advocates that he had in effect plagiarized the discovery of the differential calculus from Newton. Leibniz reported that when he was in England in 1637 he was told about Newton's work on the calculus and wrote to him.

Newton replied through an intermediary, although he wrote about the binomial theory and included only the following sentence, in Latin, about the calculus ("fluxions"). The words of the sentence were presented by Newton, in code, as follows: "aaaaa cc d ae eeeeeeeeeeeee ff iiiiiii lll nnnnnnnnn oooo qqqq rr ssss ttttttttt vvvvvvvvvvvv x." It meant, "Given equation any what so ever, flowing quantities involving, fluxions to find, and vice versa." No one has ever been able to make sense of what Newton wrote Leibniz, nor has anyone related it to the differential calculus, although the string of letters are sometimes quoted to illustrate how unreasonable Newton was. Leibniz then invented a differential calculus on his own, showed it to Newton's intermediary, and in 1684 published his method. By 1695, Newton's followers were accusing him of plagiarism.

Over the centuries, scholars have exonerated Leibniz of plagiarism. The conclusion has been that they each independently invented the calculus and that Newton did so first, although Leibniz published first.

He was commissioned by Ernst August to write the history of the house of Brunswick in 1685. After traveling to Munich, Vienna, and Italy, he showed, as part of his commissioned writing assignment, how Brunswick was connected with the house of Este.

Leibniz had a close correspondence with Ernst August's wife, Sophie, and her daughter, Sophie Charlotte, who became Queen of Prussia. He became president of the Berlin Society of Sciences in the same city where Sophie Charlotte lived. After her death, her family was not welcoming to him (perhaps because they had resented his relationship with her while she was alive).

Leibniz was continually involved in efforts to promote communication and cooperation in scientific research, both theoretical and practical. He also had hopes that all Christians might unite. He was honored with prestigious government posts in Vienna (1712-1714), but by the time of his death his royal patrons, and most of the intellectuals who had known him, abandoned him. They did so for several reasons: Isaac Newton was favored in Leibniz's dispute with him; Leibniz no longer had the protection of

Sophie Charlotte; and his philosophical work was not popular. Neither the Royal Society nor the Berlin Academy saw fit to honor him after he died. King George I was nearby when his funeral was held but did not deign to attend or send a representative.

Leibniz's grave remained unmarked for almost 50 years, until a descendent of Sophie Charlotte took up the cause of rehabilitating his memory. While it is not clear how damaging his dispute with Isaac Newton (1643-1727) over the discovery of the calculus was to his reputation and standing, it evidently proved more harmful to him than it did to Newton. (Newton had claimed that Leibniz plagiarized his work on the differential calculus.)

When Leibniz died, he was engaged in writing a religious work about Chinese philosophy and the Leibniz-Clark Correspondence in which he attacked virtually every aspect of Newton's metaphysical system.

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