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Science

300 years after the death of Leibniz - what can we still learn from him today?

On November 14, 1716, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz died. The universal genius of the early enlightenment not only passed on a wealth of knowledge, but left imprint on our scientific way of thinking.

The grave of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the Newtown Church (Neustädter Kirche) of Hannover (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Lübke)

The grave of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the Newtown Church (Neustädter Kirche) of Hannover

When Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was born in Leipzig in 1646, the scientific understanding of our world was still pretty manageable. It was still possible to perceive that one person could theoretically accumulate all the knowledge of the time, as it was written down in books.

People like Leibniz, who, after finishing his law degree with a PhD at the age of 21, went on to research as a historian, philosopher, linguist, physicist, mathematician and to do practical work as a librarian, mining-engineer, diplomat, political advisor and founder of what later became an academy.

The era of such multi-facetted geniuses came to an end about a century after Leibniz. It included people like Englishman Thomas Hobbes, who was not only a philosopher and constitutional lawyer, but also a mathematician. And one of the last of them was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who besides his literary works, was active as a lawyer and politician, but also researched a wide field of disciplines, including geology, zoology, botany and meteorology.

Illustration of a presentation by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (picture-alliance/akg-images/Slg.Archiv f.Kunst & Geschichte)

Leibniz left a large imprint on society. Even 150 years after his death his lectures were still being drawn

Renaissance, secularization and a focus on natural sciences

The desire to accumulate so much scientific knowledge arose out of a specific historic situation: it was right in the middle of Leibniz's lifetime that enlightenment took its course. Leibniz himself was one of its pioneers.

Rational thinking, reason and the discoveries of natural sciences gained an upper hand over superstition and alchemy. Renaissance overcame the backwardness of the Middle Ages. Enlightened absolutism along with secularization took powers away from the church and local lords.

A new all encompassing image of humanity emerged - also a precondition for the abolition of serfdom in many countries of Europe.

When Leibniz died at an age of 70, he left behind a rich intellectual heritage from an active life. More than 200,000 pages of handwritten notes can still be seen at the Leibniz Archives in Hannover today.

Leibniz exhibition with quotes (picture alliance/dpa/H. Hollemann)

The Leibniz Library in Hannover is dedicated to the work of the enlightenment scholar

Many of his ideas still shape our world today. Here are some examples:

Law

Leibniz's vision was the unification of the differing legal systems in the Christian world. He wanted to overcome the division of the church, which he believed was a precondition for world peace. Therefore, today we can consider him a pioneer of international law and universal human rights - values that are embodied in institutions like the United Nations or the European Union.

Mathematics

Not only was Leibniz the inventor of integral and differential calculus, he also described the dual numbering system, which today is the basis of our digital world. However, he interpreted it in his own way. Leibniz strove for reconciliation between science and religion. For him "God" was "one" and "nothing" was "zero." He even invented a mechanical calculating machine. 

Leibniz exhibition, calculating machine (picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hollemann)

Analog - not digital! Leibniz's calculating machine can be considered a precursor to today's computers

Physics

One needs a lot of imagination to even ask the question, whether space is absolute. Leibniz asked that question. Many observers today argue that the scholar already anticipated Einstein's theory of relativity. What is clear - Leibniz envisaged a world in which all terms could be narrowed down to simple nuclear or atomic concepts. This does not sound too different from the perspective of today's nuclear physicists, who are hunting down the smallest of all elementary particles, trying to solve the questions of dark matter, dark energy, super symmetry or the validity of the standard model of physics.

Psychology

Leibniz differentiated between what we today call the conscious and the unconscious. He called it perception and apperception. His idea was that external impacts and effects leave their mark on the soul, rather than godly or metaphysical factors. This was the beginning of modern psychology.

Linguistics

During his lifetime, there was a dispute about the origins of the Germanic languages. Leibniz opposed a popular view that they derived from an ancient form of Swedish. His critical approach to the development of language, even back then, was different from later nationalistic interpretations, attributing a genetic character to languages. He substantiated his complex understanding of language with studies of Sanskrit and traditional Chinese.

Scientific methods

What is probably the most important heritage is the method of empiric research based on evidence. This is something we owe to the pioneers of enlightenment, like Leibniz: All progress made over the past three hundred years could not be envisaged without people like him. Scholars who pressed forward with open eyes and vigor, in a period of ignorance and superstition.