Justin SMITH

Leibnizian Organisms between Locke's Thinking Matter and Cudworth's Plastic Nature.

vendredi 1er octobre, 16h20-16h50

Résumé de la communication :

Lady Damaris Masham took up a correspondence with Leibniz in 1704 largely in the aim of better understanding the latter’s philosophy of form and his conception of the action of soul upon matter. It is early in this correspondence, in May, 1704, that Leibniz first introduces the term ‘organism’, identifying the organic with Masham’s father’s notion of the plastic: "je crois avec M. Cudworth," Leibniz writes, "que les animaux n’ont pas esté formés par quelque chose de non organique… La matiere est plastique ou organique partout, même dans les portions aussi petites qu’on en puisse supposer" (G III 368).

Some commentators (e.g., Adams 1994; Rutherford 1995) have seen ‘organism’ as synonymous with ‘corporeal substance’ in the mature Leibniz’s thought, and have consequently held that, as Rutherford writes, "while Leibniz preserves in [his] theory the role of organisms as units of natural order, he is clear that at a fundamental level we are to conceive of such organisms as mere results: aggregates composed of a single dominant monad and a plurality of lesser bodily monads" (Rutherford 1995). What this view fails to take into account is that it is ‘animal’, not ‘organism’, that for the most part comes, in Leibniz’s writings of the early 18th century, to do the work once done by ‘corporeal substance’. Animals differ from organisms in the mature philosophy in that they are what results from the union of a dominant monad or entelechy with an organism or organic body; organisms are not the result of this union, but only one compenont of it. In other words, the animal is, to speak with Sleigh, the component-wise deconstructible union of the organism with a form, while the organism is the divisible body of the animal.

What sort of work does Leibniz hope the newly introduced concept of organism will do for him, and why does he introduce it at this particular moment? Far from waning in the early years of the 18th century, the concept of organism has in fact only just come on the scene, evidently in response to some new concerns brought up by new correspondents. One obvious source of Leibniz’s new concern with ‘l’Organisme, ou la Machine naturelle, … dont chaque partie est machine" (G III 356) is, again, Cudworth’s concept of plastic nature: Leibniz wishes to show how we can get everything from sheer mechanism that a Cambridge Platonist could comprehend only through premature recourse to immaterial forces. But another important source of Leibniz’s new concern, as Catherine Wilson has suggested, may be Leibniz’s engagement with Locke’s Nouveaux essais, in which it is prominently suggested that that ultimate immaterial activity of certain corporeal substances —thought—may amount to nothing more than the consequence of a fortuitous arrangement of matter. In this paper I will attempt to portray Leibniz’s concept of organism as a key part of his effort in the first decade of the 1700s to steer his own philosophy of nature between the Scylla of Cudworthian plastic natures and the Charybdis of the Lockean threat that matter might think.


Adams, Robert M. Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

Leibniz, G. W. Die philosophischen Schriften von G. W. 7 volumes. Ed. C. I. Gerhardt (Berlin, 1849-1860).

Rutherford, Donald. Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).