Monday, July 30, 2012

Unseeded?

So I'm trying to figure out what to say about "Leibniz' Theodicy as a Metaphysics for Lived Religion." When I proposed the topic, I vaguely had in mind the presentation I gave at the International Leibniz Congress in 2001 on the Theodicy as ethics - but also, of course, "lived religion," buzzword of the year. The thought was that Leibniz' idea of possible worlds encourages and emboldens a situated experimental and resilient practical engagement with the world, one which refuses to accept that things must stay the way they are, avoids grand narratives, and absorbing the failure of some of our world-improving projects with deference to divine wisdom.

Not a bad argument, and probably what I'll wind up making in Lisbon, with a quick resume of my Theodicy interpretation, an overview of the project of "lived religion," and some telling examples, perhaps some from Leibniz and some from religion (sociologist David Smilde's concept of "imaginative rationality" is promising).

But today I was reading in Maria Rosa Antognazza's big intellectual biography of Leibniz (2009), which claims to provide a synoptic and coherent narrative of the polymath's life and work which no earlier generation could achieve - and some critical assessments of it. Antognazza distinguishes her project from that of earlier biographers stumped by the sheer variety of Leibniz' theoretical and practical projects, starting with Fontenelle in 1717, and the generally accepted response - focusing on only one or two strands of his oeuvre, ignoring or even deploring the others. Recent scholarship allows us to see that 

Throughout his life Leibniz nursed essentially the same dream: the dream of recalling the multiplicity of human knowledge to a logical, metaphysical, and pedagogical unity, centred on the theistic vision of the Christian tradition and aimed at the common good. (6)

On the basis of a broad and deep reading of Leibniz' work and the latest scholarship in and beyond the history of philosophy she promises to stitch back together the man dismembered by Fontenelle and his successors by emphasizing the organic development of a generally harmonious system of thought and action within a particular historical context (10). Even his philosophical works can't be understood without awareness of his non-philosophical projects. That fits my understanding of the man - but then I focused on his philosophical theology (as Antognazza did in her first book), not his work in mathematics, law, history, physics, metaphysics, etc. (Intriguingly she argues also that Leibniz only makes sense if understood as a German, a thinker of the Holy Roman Empire: more, doubtless, anon on that.)

One scholar whose work I admire has serious "methodological" concerns about Antognazza's project, though. In order to make of Leibniz' life and work a whole, he alleges, she claims that the seeds of all of Leibniz' mature work were there at the start of his career - just as the late "Monadology" would predict: it almost seems as if the most basic features of Leibniz's intellectual system were implicit from the beginning (9). He assails her for the vagueness of the claim, and challenges her specific accounts of alleged early anticipations of mature views on monads, sufficient reason, etc. There's no consensus among scholars about the relationship of Leibniz' early, middle and mature thought. Few believe that Leibniz did not correct and even replace many of his ideas along the way, and everyone knows that his Nachlass is full of semi-serious experiments.

I can't get into the details - I don't know them! But this disagreement got me thinking about Leibniz and "lived religion," and biography. A biography of the whole man clearly makes him more three-dimensional, and will surely help us understand his thought better. (Not everyone would agree with this claim, actually. I remember the rather pained introduction to a biography of Kant, where the biographer had to come to terms with Kant's own apparent contempt for the irrelevance of merely biographical stuff - a contempt I imbibed as an undergraduate in Oxford. Who cares if someone figured something out as a result of love or loss; if it's worth anything it makes philosophical sense, and that's the only reason we could possibly be asked to care about it.)

But the narrative of a whole life inevitably irons out some of the larger and most of the smaller contingencies of a life. (We've seen Margaret Urban Walker's objections to the ideal of the "career self.") Even without the help of the "Monadology," a biographer will plant seeds in her account of her subject's early life to give us something to follow, continuity, tension, tragedy, triumph. I'm not sure you could write a satisfying biography without doing something like that.

What's this got to do with lived religion? Well, one of the emphases of scholars of lived religion is that life is messy, people's religious lives are less coherent than philosophers and theologians demand, and folks are less bothered by that than one might think they should be. They're characterized by a "logic of practices" quite unlike the logic of concepts. It's more like a habitus, a pragmatic social habitus, a process, a modus vivendi and operandi too, savoir faire as well as vivre. And one of my emphases is that this is true not only of lay people but of religious specialists and professionals, too.

Would I dare claim that part of Leibniz' appeal is that his life was so shaggy - and not held back by its prolific messiness but driven by it? Would it be heavy-handed to suggest that this is the form of engaged living the Theodicy was written to promote?

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