agency, consciousness, creativity, deity, Enlightenment, Fichte, History, human nature, idealism, ideas, Kant, knowledge, Leibniz, politics, questioning, science
Fragment 158, word count: 803.
This is the story of a crucial modern rethinking of human nature. The monad is a conception of the organization of ordinary human consciousness presented by Leibniz in 1714. There is no hardware in Leibniz’ vision of the world formed of monads, only individual instances of ordinary consciousness having coherent experiences composed of images and other impressions of a world that does not exist in any other way. In this conception, the world is the setting of some vast number of these subjects having experiences. This world of monads is entirely a world of ideas, a strictly idealist world. In Leibniz’ vision the monads, even though not anchored to a concrete material world, were not self sufficient because the entire content of their consciousness was supplied by an omnipotent deity who had pre-determined everything, every event and change in exact detail, at the moment of creation. Although the monads are “windowless” with no personal agency in constructing knowledge of anything, experiences are coordinated among the monads by the deity to simulate a coherent unity of shared surroundings, in which they seem to engage with one another. Later in the century (1781), Kant’s idealism was a development and modification of this legacy from Leibniz. It focused on understanding instances of ordinary consciousness, but introduced two structural changes. Kant removed the deity as the single supplier of experiences and added hardware in the form of the external “thing in itself”, a surrounding objective world which was not reducible to ideas. Kant’s monads had something like windows onto the external hardware, but their transparency was far from perfect. The “thing in itself” could never be known directly, but Kant was convinced that it must exist as an influence on, and partial source of, the coherent impressions and images that are the content of experience. Following Kant closely (1795), Fichte also engaged with this legacy of ordinary consciousness idealism. His innovation was to remove Kant’s “thing in itself”, the hardware, from the conception of reality, and he didn’t bring back the deity. So, by the end of the eighteenth century with Fichte, the deity was gone along with the hardware (the thing in itself) leaving only truly self-subsisting monadic subjectivities each structured as a distinct “I”. In Fichte’s work these subjectivities are independent sources of suppositions. Each “I” posits, creating the ideas of itself and its entire world from its own interiority. Fichte’s vision effectively eliminates the fundamental distinction in Christendom and creationist monotheism generally between human and divine personality. This is not a declaration of the death of God, but instead a reconceptualization of the place of creative transcendence in human experience.
These are conceptions of idealism in which ideality is always personality, in which all forms of ideality occur together in the living experience of some personality, structured as an elaborate “I”, the subject of a personal drama which is an individual’s life in the world. In the case of Leibniz, one of those personalities was unique by being divine. This idealism (conception of ideality) is special in the history of philosophy as a sharp contrast to more familiar kinds such as Platonic or Hegelian idealism in which the primary ideas are remote, impersonal, and cosmically scaled drivers of nature and history. Monadic idealism is much more compatible with the spirit of science than is creationist monotheism which includes disembodied angels and demons, and it makes sense of the claim that human nature is inclined and competent to conceive questions that enable discoveries and scientific knowledge, which mechanistic science itself fails to explain. (It isn’t enough to stipulate that knowledge comes from experience without accounting for questions.) Monadic idealism did not permanently imprint popular or intellectual culture because it is politically problematic: it does not denigrate human nature sufficiently to support existing political and other hierarchical institutions of social control. Any aspiration for cultural, social, and political change must be founded on idealism of some non-Platonic and non-Hegelian kind, and so such idealism will be feared and loathed by forces of conservatism.
This developmental arc of the conception of monadic ideality marks out the tendency of post-reformation Lutheran-stream Protestant idealism to retain a sense of transcendence (the creative freedom of ideality) but increasingly to relocate the occurrence of transcendence from a remote central deity to ordinary individual human personalities. The influence of Martin Luther (1483-1546) is behind the whole stream, with his conception of spiritually capable and independent individuals like himself, Bible readers, doubters and questioners, takers of mental leaps. The monadic idealism that emerged from Luther’s influence plays a crucial part in the spirit of protestantism that decisively shaped Euro-American Enlightenment along with the spirit of science, each protesting against authority. Modern people expect to be treated as Kant/Fichte-style monads without grasping the concept.
Note: The following philosophers were brought up in Lutheran households and communities: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Max Stirner (1806-56), Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).
Copyright © 2020 Sandy MacDonald.