chapter  2
Leibniz
Pages 17

One of the last great polymaths, Leibniz (1646-1716) was trained in law and employed, first as secretary to a secret alchemical society in Nuremberg,1 then, in the court of the Elector and Prince-Archbishop of Mainz, Johann Philipp von Schönborn, he served as assistant to court jurist Hermann Lasser, drafting proposals for a complete reform of the legal system. While still employed by Schönborn, Leibniz also acted for his patron and supporter, Baron Johann Christian von Boineburg, on a secret diplomatic mission to Paris and assumed the role of tutor to Boineburg’s son, Philipp Wilhelm and Schönborn’s nephew, Melchior Friedrich von Schönborn.2 Leibniz remained in Paris even after Boineburg’s death at the end of 1672, but in 1676 he took up residence in the court of the dukes of Brunswick-Lüneberg-Calenberg (Hanover), serving initially as court counsellor and librarian, then as Privy Counsellor under Duke Johann Friedrich. Under the second duke, Ernst August, Leibniz was assigned the role of court historian, with explicit instructions to research and write the history of the royal House of Brunswick. Under the third duke, Georg Ludwig, Leibniz played a background but nevertheless key role in negotiations that saw Georg Ludwig ascend the English throne as George I in 1714. However, employment details do no more than skim the surface of Leibniz’s range of activities, for he was also a philosopher, mathematician, inventor, jurist, linguist, physicist and geologist. In philosophy, Leibniz is best known for his theory of monads, the doctrine of pre-established harmony, and his optimistic belief that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Mathematicians associate his name with the development of the differential calculus, in particular for his

introduction of the integration symbol (∫) and what has come to be known as the Leibniz formula for π. Computer scientists recognize Leibniz as the inventor of binary arithmetic on which so much of modern-day digital computing relies and he himself invented a sophisticated calculating machine. In physics, Leibniz is applauded for his work in dynamics and in particular for his formulation of vis viva (living force) as f = mv2, and for his theory of space and time as relative. Leibniz made important contributions in the life sciences too, not least through his development of a coherent conception of living beings as organisms.3 The specific examples given here comprise only a fraction of the contribution Leibniz made to these and other fields of study that include geology, linguistics, formal logic, jurisprudence and library science, as well as newer disciplines such as psychology and sociology.4