Whenever a discussion about polymaths arises, Leibniz’s name is usually the first one to pop up in our minds. Gottfried Leibniz was a prominent German polymath and philosopher in the history of mathematics and philosophy. He made deep and important contributions to the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, logic, philosophy of religion, as well as mathematics, physics, geology, jurisprudence, and history. This article aims to put light on some of these contributions.
A Child Prodigy :
Born on July 1, 1646, Gottfried Leibniz was the son of a professor of moral philosophy, Friedrich Leibniz. At the age of seven, Leibniz entered the Nicolai School in Leipzig. Although he was taught Latin at school, being a child prodigy, he had already taught himself far more advanced Latin and some Greek by that time. As he progressed through school, he learned about Aristotle’s logic and theory of categorizing knowledge.
Leibniz was clearly not satisfied with Aristotle’s system. So, he began to develop his own ideas on how to improve on it. Along with excelling in the school work, Leibniz also studied his father’s books. In particular, he read metaphysics books and theology books from both Catholic and Protestant writers.
Higher Education And Motivation To Pursue Mathematics :
In 1661, at the age of fourteen, Gottfried Leibniz entered the University of Leipzig. Here, he completed his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy in December 1662, eventually earning his master’s degree in 1664. After one year of legal studies, he received his bachelor’s degree in Law on 28 September 1665. Consequently, he earned his license to practice law and his Doctorate in Law in November 1666.
In 1672, Gottfried Leibniz went to Paris. There, he met Dutch physicist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens. Leibniz realized that his knowledge of mathematics and physics is quite patchy. Hence, with Huygens as his mentor, Leibniz set himself on a journey of self-study that soon pushed him to make major contributions to both subjects.
Calculus and Controversy :
Like Newton, Leibniz was also a member of the Royal Society in London. During the 1670s Leibniz developed a theory of calculus. This was very similar to Newton’s theory developed earlier. However, Leibniz worked on this apparently completely independently. Leibniz developed a complete theory of differential calculus and integral calculus within a short period of two months.
However, Unlike Newton, who had not yet published his work on Calculus, Gottfried Leibniz was more than happy to publish his work. So, Europe first heard about calculus from Leibniz in 1684, and not from Newton as he published nothing on the subject until 1693.
When the Royal Society was asked to take a formal decision regarding the rival claims of the two men over the development of the theory of calculus, they gave credit for the first discovery to Newton, and credit for the first publication to Leibniz. However, the Royal Society later accused Leibniz of plagiarism, defamation from which Leibniz never really recovered. But, despite this controversy, people widely use Leibniz’s notation of calculus instead of a more clumsy Newtonian notation.
Other Significant Contributions :
Apart from Calculus, Gottfried Leibniz also re-discovered a method to solve linear equations using arrays, now known as matrices. Though this method was pioneered by Chinese mathematicians almost two millennia earlier but was long forgotten. Hence, Gottfried Leibniz revived this method and put it to practical use. Leibniz also paved the way for a new field of mathematics, Typology. Even the branch of the binary number system also has some important contributions by this genius.
Apart from being a brilliant mathematician, Gottfried Leibniz also occupies a grand place in the history of philosophy. Leibniz published nothing on formal logic in his lifetime. Still, in his working drafts, Leibniz mentioned the principal properties of what we now call conjunction, disjunction, negation, identity, set inclusion, and the empty set. This puts him on the list of great logicians of his time.
Diderot’s views about Leibniz :
Leibniz’s intellect was so magnificent that even the eighteenth-century French atheist and materialist Denis Diderot, whose views were very often at odds with those of Leibniz, could not help being awed by his persona. In an Encyclopedia, Diderot mentioned
“Perhaps never has a man read as much, studied as much, meditated more, and written more than Leibniz… What he has composed on the world, God, nature, and the soul is of the most sublime eloquence. If his ideas had been expressed with the flair of Plato, the philosopher of Leipzig would cede nothing to the philosopher of Athens. When one compares the talents one has with those of Leibniz, one is tempted to throw away one’s books and go die quietly in the dark of some forgotten corner.”
Hence, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that Gottfried Leibniz was truly one of the great thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.