Beginning at the beginning: Leibniz and the texts of deep history.

Guest blogger Justin E. H. Smith writes…

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz never finished the principal task assigned to him by his boss, Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover. When the latter became King of England in 1704 --the beginning of the ‘Hanoverian usurpation’ that still enjoys some sort of power in the United Kingdom and some of its former possessions--, Leibniz, the delinquent court genealogist, was not invited to join him, as he had hoped. Instead he was made to stay behind, in the expectation that he would finally complete his long overdue history of the medieval origins of Georg Ludwig's own Guelf family, and of their distant union with the Italian Este dynasty: a forgotten alliance that, once reestablished, might yield up validation for new territorial claims.

Leibniz’s principal excuse for taking so long was, he felt, that in order to write a history properly one must begin at the beginning. And he understood this in the most rigorous sense possible: not the beginning of the Guelfs, nor even of humanity, but that of the continents, oceans, and mountains, and the several curiosities discovered within them. Any true history, Leibniz thought, is big history. And thus by the early 1690s, after several years of largely unsuccessful mine-engineering projects in the Harz Mountains, the philosopher set about writing what would come to be called the Protogaea, a text that may rightly be seen as the first instalment in the planned history of his employer’s ancestors.  

This work begins as a sort of advertisement for both the scientific interest and the economic potential of the Elector’s lands:

[T]hose who would trace our region back to its beginnings must also say something about the original appearance of the Earth, and about the nature of the soil and what it contains. For we occupy the highest region of lower Germany, one that is especially rich in metals. Moreover, our homeland is the source of remarkable speculations, and the rays of a public light emanating from here will also advance the exploration of other regions.

The spirit of this passage is an instance of what I have elsewhere described as Leibniz’s ‘rationalist empiricism’ —the contradiction in terms is only apparent—, whereby precise observations of singular and local things eventually contribute to a universal picture of the rational order of nature, an order we may know exists on a priori grounds, but which only gets fleshed out through the the accumulation of empirical data. Thus curiosity is a tributary of reason, and the particular provides clues to the structure of the universal. As Leibniz says elsewhere in the Protogaea: “[W]hen everyone contributes curiosity locally, it will be easier to recognize universal origins.” 

Leibniz’s procrastination on his genealogy project, in order to write of the origins of fossils and of volcanoes, has generally been interpreted as itself a mere curiosity, a quirk of his outsized ambitions, and something that is sooner amusing than revealing. But what if he was right? What if you cannot, in fact, write an adequate history of humanity, let alone of a single lineage of human beings, without ‘beginning at the beginning’? 

Mammoth molar and a hypothetical reconstruction of a unicorn skeleton, from G. W. Leibniz,  Protogaea ;  or, On the Primitive Aspect of the Earth and On the Traces of the Most Ancient History Contained in the Monuments of Nature , ed. Christian Ludwig Scheidt, 1749.

Mammoth molar and a hypothetical reconstruction of a unicorn skeleton, from G. W. Leibniz, Protogaea; or, On the Primitive Aspect of the Earth and On the Traces of the Most Ancient History Contained in the Monuments of Nature, ed. Christian Ludwig Scheidt, 1749.

 The fundamental unity of the earth sciences with ‘history’ in a narrow sense is one that almost a century and a half later Charles Lyell continued to take for granted. Just as “we obtain a more profound insight into human nature by instituting a comparison between the present and the former states of society,” he writes in The Principles of Geology of 1830-33, “all the more astonishing and unexpected are the connections brought to light, when we carry back our researches into the history of nature.” The one great difference between human history and natural history is that the ‘monuments’ of nature are undesigned, but for Lyell this only makes them more reliable as documentary sources: nature does not produce fakes (notwithstanding what earlier thinkers, such as Athanasius Kircher, had said about the production of fossils as ‘games of nature’).  

The currently accepted method of division has long dictated that ‘history’ encompasses that period of the human occupation of the planet that has involved the production of written texts, thus, relatively speaking, only the very most recent past. But this division is as arbitrary as it is vague: writing arrives at different times in different places, and surely Chinese oracle bones and Native American petroglyphs are just as ‘designed’, in Lyell’s sense, as sentences on blogs are, even though they lack some of the formal criteria to warrant being called writing systems. According to Daniel Lord Smail, the deep worry for which this arbitrary boundary came to be seen as a solution in the late 19th century, was that of ensuring that a long period of ‘pre-history’ might serve for us, the civilised, as a ‘buffer zone’ between the study of human social reality and its past, on the one hand, and the scientific study of nature on the other. This buffering, I believe, has been so successful as to occlude from our view the understanding of the division of the sciences in which it made sense, as it plainly did for Leibniz and Lyell, to think of palaeontology and palaeography as different elements of the same general project, and as having more in common with one another than, say, the former has with molecular biology or the latter has with structural linguistics.  

I hold out some hope that philosophers interested in the past in general —philosophers of palaeontology, for example, along with historians of philosophy— might play a role in restoring this lost unity of natural and human history, and that unlike the lost unity of the Guelfs and the Estes this is one that will not be met with procrastination.  

In the Protogaea Leibniz explicitly refers to fossils as ‘documents’, and we would do well to entertain the idea that this is not a metaphor. The idea that nature itself is a ‘book’ has gradually fallen out of fashion since the Renaissance, and one way to establish our distance from the intellectual world in which this equation made sense is to treat it as a mere metaphor. But perhaps the problem all along has been not that the equation glorifies nature undeservedly, but rather that it presumes without justification that reading is something particularly exalted, a trans-temporal union between minds, rather than simply the ability to learn from traces, designed or undesigned. (In the age of artificial intelligence, it is worth noting in passing, even written texts in the strict sense are increasingly of the latter sort.)  

If it feels like you’re reading, maybe you are. In 2018 scientists discovered that the enormous plugs of earwax taken from the auditory passages of whales and held in the collections of natural history museums, could be chemically analysed so as to reveal a fairly fine-grained biography of the individual whales to which they had belonged. The release of stress hormones in particular, the scientists found, may be rigorously correlated with well-known events in the history of 20th-century whaling. These plugs of wax came from natural history museums, but the activity of the researchers is, as far as I can see, literally and not just metaphorically the same as that of historians in an archive.  

The quickening discovery of new such methods of reading the past where before we only had cumbersome specimens gathering dust, the possibility that potentially any natural specimen might yield up information in ways we have not yet figured out how to read, speaks strongly in favour of a return to Leibniz’s expansive conception of document, which included genealogy records and fossils alike, as well as a return to his expansive conception of history, which began at the beginning, and had little need of the buffer between nature and society that 19th-century historians would later impose. 


Justin E. H. Smith is professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris 7 - Denis Diderot. He is the author, most recently, of Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason (Princeton University Press, 2019).