I’ve been looking forward to Justin Smith’s Divine Machines book on Leibniz for a while. I previously mentioned it here in relation to Glenn Hartz’s book Leibniz’s Final System: Monads, Matter, Animals; and also provided a link when John Protevi interviewed Smith. (See also Smith’s blog here.)
I’ve now read the book, and it doesn’t disappoint. Seven chapters on different aspects of Leibniz’s engagement with natural philosophy – medicine, animals, organic bodies (two chapters), divine preformation, games of nature, and biological species. Five appendices which translate short texts of Leibniz. Along the way there are discussions of Leibniz’s interest in alchemy, orang utans, race, machines, deformed goats, vivisection, warrior slaves, and bodily fluids… “One would not expect to learn much about a philosopher’s broader concerns from his preoccupation with vomit, yet here, as elsewhere, Leibniz surprises us” (p. 34).
It’s a valuable correction to views of Leibniz as a rationalist, stressing his empiricism (i.e. p. 17); and as an idealist, demonstrating his realism (i.e. pp. 101-2). There is a good point made about his ‘philosophy of biology’ – Smith notes that it is both everywhere and nowhere in the book, because Leibniz would not have distinguished between his studies of “for example, anatomy and embryology on the one hand, and on the other his deeper philosophical interests in the metaphysics of corporeal substance, the ontology of species, and such” (p. 20). I was most interested in Chapter Six, which has some good discussion of fossils and the Protogaea more generally.
Smith has some good references including Pauline Phemister, Leibniz and the Natural World, which looks particularly good, though shame about the ridiculous price even as paperback and e-book (see Smith’s review here) and Daniel Garber’s Leibniz: Body, Substance, Monad (due out in paperback shortly). Smith, Phemister and Garber would make a good review essay.