Human Knowledge

by Leibniz
  1. Our knowledge is of 2 kinds:
  • distinct
  • confused

Distinct knowledge is intelligence. It occurs in the actual use of reason; but the senses supply us with confused thoughts. And we may say that we are immune from bondage in so far as we act with a distinct knowledge, but that we are the slaves of passion in so far as our perceptions are confused. In this sense we have not all the freedom of spirit that were to be desired, and we may say with St. Augustine that being subject to sin we have the freedom of a slave.

Yet a slave, slave as he is, nevertheless has freedom to choose according to the state wherein he is, although more often than not he is under the stern necessity of choosing between two evils, because a superior force prevents him from attaining the goods whereto he aspires.

That which in a slave is effected by bonds and constraint in us is effected by passions, whose violence is sweet, but none the less pernicious. In truth we will only that which pleases us: but unhappily what pleases us now is often a real evil, which would displease us if we had the eyes of the understanding open. Nevertheless that evil state of the slave, which is also our own, does not prevent us, any more than him, from making a free choice of that which pleases us most, in the state to which we are reduced, in proportion to our present strength and knowledge.

  1. As for spontaneity, it belongs to us in so far as we have within us the source of our actions, as Aristotle rightly conceived. [304]The impressions of external things often, indeed, divert us from our path, and it was commonly believed that, at least in this respect, some of the sources of our actions were outside ourselves. I admit that one is bound to speak thus, adapting oneself to the popular mode of expression, as one may, in a certain sense, without doing violence to truth. But when it is a question of expressing oneself accurately I maintain that our spontaneity suffers no exception and that external things have no physical influence upon us, I mean in the strictly philosophical sense.

  2. For better understanding of this point, one must know that true spontaneity is common to us and all simple substances, and that in the intelligent or free substance this becomes a mastery over its actions. That cannot be better explained than by the System of Pre-established Harmony, which I indeed propounded some years ago. There I pointed out that by nature every simple substance has perception, and that its individuality consists in the perpetual law which brings about the sequence of perceptions that are assigned to it, springing naturally from one another, to represent the body that is allotted to it, and through its instrumentality the entire universe, in accordance with the point of view proper to this simple substance and without its needing to receive any physical influence from the body. Even so the body also for its part adapts itself to the wishes of the soul by its own laws, and consequently only obeys it according to the promptings of these laws. Whence it follows that the soul has in itself a perfect spontaneity, so that it depends only upon God and upon itself in its actions.

  3. As this system was not known formerly, other ways were sought for emerging from this labyrinth, and the Cartesians themselves were in difficulties over the subject of free will. They were no longer satisfied by the ‘faculties’ of the Schoolmen, and they considered that all the actions of the soul appear to be determined by what comes from without, according to the impressions of the senses, and that, ultimately, all is controlled in the universe by the providence of God. Thence arose naturally the objection that there is therefore no freedom. To that M. Descartes replied that we are assured of God’s providence by reason; but that we are likewise assured of our freedom by experience thereof within ourselves; and that we must believe in both, even though we see not how it is possible to reconcile them.

  4. That was cutting the Gordian knot, and answering the conclusion of an argument not by refuting it but by opposing thereto a contrary argument. Which procedure does not conform to the laws for philosophical disputes. Notwithstanding, most of the Cartesians contented themselves with this, albeit the inward experience they adduce does not prove their assertion, as M. Bayle has clearly shown. M. Regis (Philos., vol. 1, Metaph., book 2, part 2, c. 22) thus paraphrases M. Descartes’ doctrine: ‘Most philosophers’, he says, ‘have fallen into error. Some, not being able to understand the relation existing between free actions and the providence of God, have denied that God was the first efficient cause of free will: but that is sacrilegious. The others, not being able to apprehend the relation between God’s efficacy and free actions, have denied that man was endowed with freedom: and that is a blasphemy. The mean to be found between these two extremes is to say’ (id. ibid., p. 485) ’that, even though we were not able to understand all the relations existing between freedom and God’s providence, we should nevertheless be bound to acknowledge that we are free and dependent upon God. For both these truths are equally known, the one through experience, and the other through reason; and prudence forbids one to abandon truths whereof one is assured, under the pretext that one cannot apprehend all the relations existing between them and other truths well known.’

  5. M. Bayle here remarks pertinently in the margin, ’that these expressions of M. Regis fail to point out that we are aware of relations between man’s actions and God’s providence, such as appear to us to be incompatible with our freedom.’ He adds that these expressions are over-circumspect, weakening the statement of the problem. ‘Authors assume’, he says, ’that the difficulty arises solely from our lack of enlightenment; whereas they ought to say that it arises in the main from the enlightenment which we have, and cannot reconcile’ (in M. Bayle’s opinion) ‘with our Mysteries.’ That is exactly what I said at the beginning of this work, that if the Mysteries were irreconcilable with reason, and if there were unanswerable objections, far from finding the mystery incomprehensible, we should comprehend that it was false. It is true that here there is no question of a mystery, but only of natural religion.

  6. This is how M. Bayle combats those inward experiences, [306]whereon the Cartesians make freedom rest: but he begins by reflexions with which I cannot agree. ‘Those who do not make profound examination’, he says (Dictionary, art. ‘Helen.’, lit. ΤΔ), ‘of that which passes within them easily persuade themselves that they are free, and that, if their will prompts them to evil, it is their fault, it is through a choice whereof they are the masters. Those who judge otherwise are persons who have studied with care the springs and the circumstances of their actions, and who have thought over the progress of their soul’s impulses. Those persons usually have doubts about their free will, and even come to persuade themselves that their reason and mind are slaves, without power to resist the force that carries them along where they would not go. It was principally persons of this kind who ascribed to the gods the cause of their evil deeds.’

  7. These words remind me of those of Chancellor Bacon, who says that a little philosophy inclineth us away from God, but that depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to him. It is the same with those who reflect upon their actions: it appears to them at first that all we do is only impulsion from others, and that all we apprehend comes from without through the senses, and is traced upon the void of our mind tanquam in tabula rasa. But more profound meditation shows us that all (even perceptions and passions) comes to us from our own inner being, with complete spontaneity.

  8. Yet M. Bayle cites poets who pretend to exonerate men by laying the blame upon the gods. Medea in Ovid speaks thus:

Frustra, Medea, repugnas,

Nescio quid Deus obstat, ait.

And a little later Ovid makes her add:

Sed trahit invitam nova vis, aliudque Cupido,

Mens aliud suadet; video meliora proboque,

Deteriora sequor.

But one could set against that a passage from Vergil, who makes Nisus say with far more reason:

Di ne hunc ardorem mentibus addunt,

Euryale, an sua cuique Deus fit dira cupido?

  1. Herr Wittich seems to have thought that in reality our independence is only apparent. For in his Diss. de providentia Dei [307]actuali (n. 61) he makes free will consist in our being inclined towards the objects that present themselves to our soul for affirmation or denial, love or hate, in such a way that we do not feel we are being determined by any outward force. He adds that it is when God himself causes our volitions that we act with most freedom; and that the more efficacious and powerful God’s action is upon us, the more we are masters of our actions. ‘Quia enim Deus operatur ipsum velle, quo efficacius operatur, eo magis volumus; quod autem, cum volumus, facimus, id maxime habemus in nostra potestate.’ It is true that when God causes a volition in us he causes a free action. But it seems to me that the question here is not of the universal cause or of that production of our will which is proper to it in so far as it is a created effect, whose positive elements are actually created continually through God’s co-operation, like all other absolute reality of things. We are concerned here with the reasons for willing, and the means God uses when he gives us a good will or permits us to have an evil will. It is always we who produce it, good or evil, for it is our action: but there are always reasons that make us act, without impairing either our spontaneity or our freedom. Grace does no more than give impressions which are conducive to making will operate through fitting motives, such as would be an attention, a dic cur hic, a prevenient pleasure. And it is quite evident that that does not interfere with freedom, any more than could a friend who gives counsel and furnishes motives. Thus Herr Wittich has not supplied an answer to the question, any more than M. Bayle, and recourse to God is of no avail here.

  2. But let me give another much more reasonable passage from the same M. Bayle, where he disputes with greater force the so-called lively sense of freedom, which according to the Cartesians is a proof of freedom. His words are indeed full of wit, and worthy of consideration, and occur in the Reply to the Questions of a Provincial (vol. III, ch. 140, p. 761 seqq.). Here they are: ‘By the clear and distinct sense we have of our existence we do not discern whether we exist through ourselves or derive our being from another. We discern that only by reflexion, that is, through meditation upon our powerlessness in the matter of conserving ourselves as much as we would, and of freeing ourselves from dependence upon the beings that surround us, etc. It is indeed certain that the pagans (the same must be said of the Socinians, since they deny [308]the creation) never attained to the knowledge of that true dogma that we were created from nothing, and that we are derived from nothingness at every moment of our continuance. They therefore thought erroneously that all substances in the universe exist of themselves and can never be reduced to nothing, and that thus they depend upon no other thing save in respect of their modifications, which are liable to be destroyed by the action of an external cause. Does not this error spring from the fact that we are unconscious of the creative action which conserves us, and that we are only conscious of our existence? That we are conscious of it, I say, in such a way that we should for ever remain ignorant of the cause of our being if other knowledge did not aid us? Let us say also, that the clear and distinct sense we have of the acts of our will cannot make us discern whether we give them ourselves to ourselves or receive them from that same cause which gives us existence. We must have recourse to reflexion or to meditation in order to effect this discrimination. Now I assert that one can never by purely philosophical meditations arrive at an established certainty that we are the efficient cause of our volitions: for every person who makes due investigation will recognize clearly, that if we were only passive subjects with regard to will we should have the same sensations of experience as we have when we think that we are free. Assume, for the sake of argument, that God so ordered the laws of the union between soul and body that all the modalities of the soul, without a single exception, are of necessity linked together with the interposition of the modalities of the brain. You will then understand that nothing will happen to us except that of which we are conscious: there will be in our soul the same sequence of thoughts from the perception of objects of the senses, which is its first step, up to the most definite volitions, which are its final step. There will be in this sequence the consciousness of ideas, that of affirmations, that of irresolutions, that of velleities and that of volitions. For whether the act of willing be impressed upon us by an external cause or we bring it about ourselves, it will be equally true that we will, and that we feel that we will. Moreover, as this external cause can blend as much pleasure as it will with the volition which it impresses upon us, we shall be able to feel at times that the acts of our will please us infinitely, and that they lead us according to the bent of our strongest inclinations. We shall feel no constraint; you know the maxim: voluntas non [309]potest cogi. Do you not clearly understand that a weather-vane, always having communicated to it simultaneously (in such a way, however, that priority of nature or, if one will, a real momentary priority, should attach to the desire for motion) movement towards a certain point on the horizon, and the wish to turn in that direction, would be persuaded that it moved of itself to fulfil the desires which it conceived? I assume that it would not know that there were winds, or that an external cause changed everything simultaneously, both its situation and its desires. That is the state we are in by our nature: we know not whether an invisible cause makes us pass sufficiently from one thought to another. It is therefore natural that men are persuaded that they determine their own acts. But it remains to be discovered whether they are mistaken in that, as in countless other things they affirm by a kind of instinct and without having made use of philosophic meditation. Since therefore there are two hypotheses as to what takes place in man: the one that he is only a passive subject, the other that he has active virtues, one cannot in reason prefer the second to the first, so long as one can only adduce proofs of feeling. For we should feel with an equal force that we wish this or that, whether all our volitions were imprinted upon our soul by an exterior and invisible cause, or we formed them ourselves.’

  3. There are here excellent arguments, which are valid against the usual systems; but they fail in respect of the System of Pre-established Harmony, which takes us further than we were able to go formerly. M. Bayle asserts, for instance, ’that by purely philosophical meditations one can never attain to an established certainty that we are the efficient cause of our volitions’. But this is a point which I do not concede to him: for the establishment of this system demonstrates beyond a doubt that in the course of nature each substance is the sole cause of all its actions, and that it is free of all physical influence from every other substance, save the customary co-operation of God. And this system shows that our spontaneity is real, and not only apparent, as Herr Wittich believed it to be. M. Bayle asserts also on the same reasons (ch. 170, p. 1132) that if there were a fatum Astrologicum this would not destroy freedom; and I would concede that to him, if freedom consisted only in an apparent spontaneity.

  4. The spontaneity of our actions can therefore no longer be questioned; and Aristotle has defined it well, saying that an [310]action is spontaneous when its source is in him who acts. ‘Spontaneum est, cujus principium est in agente.’ Thus it is that our actions and our wills depend entirely upon us. It is true that we are not directly the masters of our will, although we be its cause; for we do not choose volitions, as we choose our actions by our volitions. Yet we have a certain power also over our will, because we can contribute indirectly towards willing another time that which we would fain will now, as I have here already shown: that, however, is no velleity, properly speaking. There also we have a mastery, individual and even perceptible, over our actions and our wills, resulting from a combination of spontaneity with intelligence.

  5. Up to this point I have expounded the two conditions of freedom mentioned by Aristotle, that is, spontaneity and intelligence, which are found united in us in deliberation, whereas beasts lack the second condition. But the Schoolmen demand yet a third, which they call indifference. And indeed one must admit it, if indifference signifies as much as ‘contingency’; for I have already said here that freedom must exclude an absolute and metaphysical or logical necessity. But, as I have declared more than once, this indifference, this contingency, this non-necessity, if I may venture so to speak, which is a characteristic attribute of freedom, does not prevent one from having stronger inclinations towards the course one chooses; nor does it by any means require that one be absolutely and equally indifferent towards the two opposing courses.

  6. I therefore admit indifference only in the one sense, implying the same as contingency, or non-necessity. But, as I have declared more than once, I do not admit an indifference of equipoise, and I do not think that one ever chooses when one is absolutely indifferent. Such a choice would be, as it were, mere chance, without determining reason, whether apparent or hidden. But such a chance, such an absolute and actual fortuity, is a chimera which never occurs in nature. All wise men are agreed that chance is only an apparent thing, like fortune: only ignorance of causes gives rise to it. But if there were such a vague indifference, or rather if we were to choose without having anything to prompt us to the choice, chance would then be something actual, resembling what, according to Epicurus, took place in that little deviation of the atoms, occurring without cause or reason. Epicurus had [311]introduced it in order to evade necessity, and Cicero with good reason ridiculed it.

  7. This deviation had a final cause in the mind of Epicurus, his aim being to free us from fate; but it can have no efficient cause in the nature of things, it is one of the most impossible of chimeras. M. Bayle himself refutes it admirably, as we shall see presently. And yet it is surprising that he appears to admit elsewhere himself something of like nature with this supposed deviation: here is what he says, when speaking of Buridan’s ass (Dictionary, art. ‘Buridan’, lit. 13): ‘Those who advocate free will properly so called admit in man a power of determining, either to the right hand or the left, even when the motives are perfectly uniform on the side of each of the two opposing objects. For they maintain that our soul can say, without having any reason other than that of using its freedom: “I prefer this to that, although I see nothing more worthy of my choice in the one than the other”.’

  8. All those who admit a free will properly so called will not for that reason concede to M. Bayle this determination springing from an indeterminate cause. St. Augustine and the Thomists believe that all is determined. And one sees that their opponents resort also to the circumstances which contribute to our choice. Experience by no means approves the chimera of an indifference of equipoise; and one can employ here the argument that M. Bayle himself employed against the Cartesians’ manner of proving freedom by the lively sense of our independence. For although I do not always see the reason for an inclination which makes me choose between two apparently uniform courses, there will always be some impression, however imperceptible, that determines us. The mere desire to make use of one’s freedom has no effect of specifying, or determining us to the choice of one course or the other.

  9. M. Bayle goes on: ‘There are at the very least two ways whereby man can extricate himself from the snares of equipoise. One, which I have already mentioned, is for a man to flatter himself with the pleasing fancy that he is master in his own house, and that he does not depend upon objects.’ This way is blocked: for all that one might wish to play master in one’s own house, that has no determining effect, nor does it favour one course more than the other. M. Bayle goes on: ‘He would make this Act: I will prefer [312]this to that, because it pleases me to behave thus.’ But these words, ‘because it pleases me’, ‘because such is my pleasure’, imply already a leaning towards ’the object that pleases’.

  10. There is therefore no justification for continuing thus: ‘And so that which determined him would not be taken from the object; the motive would be derived only from the ideas men have of their own perfections, or of their natural faculties. The other way is that of the lot or chance: the short straw would decide.’ This way has an outlet, but it does not reach the goal: it would alter the issue, for in such a case it is not man who decides. Or again if one maintains that it is still the man who decides by lot, man himself is no longer in equipoise, because the lot is not, and the man has attached himself to it. There are always reasons in Nature which cause that which happens by chance or through the lot. I am somewhat surprised that a mind so shrewd as M. Bayle’s could have allowed itself to be so misled on this point. I have set out elsewhere the true rejoinder to the Buridan sophism: it is that the case of perfect equipoise is impossible, since the universe can never be halved, so as to make all impressions equivalent on both sides.


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