Saturday, August 12, 2006

Chimaera in the Leibniz-Arnauld Exchange

"I acknowledge in good faith that I have no idea of substances purely possible, that is to say, which God will never create. I am inclined to think that these are chimeras which we construct and that whatever we call possible substances, pure possibilities are nothing else than the omnipotence of God who, being a pure act, does not allow of there being a possibility in him. Possibilities, however, may be conceived of in the natures which he has created, for, not being of the same essence throughout, they are necessarily composites of power and action. I can therefore think of them as possibilities. I can also do the same with an infinity of modifications which are within the power of these created natures, such as are the thoughts of intelligent beings, and the forms of extended substance. But I am very much mistaken if there is any one who will venture to say that he has an idea of a possible substance as pure possibility. As for myself, I am convinced that, although there is so much talk of these substances which are pure possibilities, they are, nevertheless, always conceived of only under the idea of some one of those which God has actually created. We seem to me, therefore, able to say that outside of the things which God has created, or must create, there is no mere negative possibility but only an active and infinite power."

(Arnauld,
VI: Arnauld to Leibniz; May 13, 1686.)


"In addition I cannot approve the custom of those who have recourse to their ideas, when they are at the end of their proofs, and who abuse the principle that every clear and distinct conception is good. For I hold that we must possess the criteria of distinct knowledge. And seeing that we often think without ideas, employing in place of the ideas in question, characters whose signification we wrongly suppose ourselves to know, and thus form impossible chimeras, therefore I hold that the criterion of a true idea is that its possibility can be proved, whether a priori in conceiving its cause or reason, or a posteriori when experience enables us to know that it is actually found in nature. This is why I consider definitions to be real when it is known that the defined is possible; otherwise they are only nominal and cannot be trusted; for if by chance the thing defined implies contradictions, two contradictories can be deduced from the same definition. It is for this reason that you had good cause to insist against Father Malebranche that a distinction must be made between true and false ideas, and that too much confidence must not be placed in the imagination under the pretext of a clear and distinct intellection."

(Leibniz,
X: Leibniz to Arnauld; Hanover, July 14, 1686.)

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