Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) is one of the great figures of European intellectual history. His contribution to knowledge ran from mathematics, to calculus, to natural science, and philosophy. For a person associated with the invention of the calculator, the impact of his own work was incalculable. It matters therefore that he wrote often, and at length, about China. This is all the more remarkable because of the very limited contact between the Qing China that existed at the time he lived (with pleasing neatness he was born almost at the dawn of the Qing’s foundation, which had been from 1642 to 1644) and the dearth of material that had been translated from Chinese into European languages. The great bridge over which knowledge of this remote civilisation passed to Leibniz was the work of the Jesuit missionaries, among whom Matteo Ricci from a century before was one of the most eminent. The later figures of Nicholas Longobardi and Antoine de Sainte-Marie, in their zealous mission to disprove fundamental tenets of Confucianism and the Chinese world view they had been exposed to during their time in the Qing empire had also, to some extent, offered translations of key passages from the great Confucian texts – the `Analects’, `The Great Learning’ and the `Five Classics’. In these Leibniz learned of the strange parallels between the hexagram system in the ancient work of divination, the `I Ching’ (`yijing’, 易经) and the binary number system he himself had devised.
The Jesuits had mostly approached engagement with China as part of a mission to convert the Chinese. Matteo Ricci’s work was pervaded by the task of finding parallels between the Chinese world view and Christian Catholic faith. Along the way, he developed that bifurcated, complex view that anyone dealing with the reality of the Chinese world, its cultures, societies, histories and philosophies would recognise even down to today. Half deeply impressed, admiring and embracing of Confucianism, he maintained a strong antagonism towards Buddhism. His Jesuit successors to some extent solved this tension by taking sides: they created a position of moral ascendancy, where the Chinese world and mindset were presented as challenges, problems, that somehow offered themselves to vast projects of reformation and conversion.
Leibniz matters, and matters massively, if for no other reason that the declaration he makes in his `Discourse on the Natural Theology of the Chinese’ from towards the end of his life (the book was issued in the year of his death, 1716). Here he writes:
`I said at the outset that I did not want to examine to what extent the manner of worship of the Chinese could be condemned or justified, and that I only wanted to investigate their doctrines.’ (Leibniz, `Writings on China’, trans and edited by Daniel J Cook and Henry Rosemont Jr, Open Court, LaSalle and Illinois, 1994, 123).
These words should be put in gold on the doors of any institute or entity, and be adopted as a universal creed, by anyone dealing with contemporary China. They were stated by one of the great enlightenment figures, in the full spirit of enlightenment values – commitment to intellectual openness, dispassionate enquiry, and a belief that, in the words of the modern philosopher Thomas Nagel, there is `a truth that is independent of our beliefs’ (Nagel, `The View from Nowhere’, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986, 186). This is as true about China as about any other subject or issue: there is, despite the froth and chaos of contemporary debate a `truth independent of our beliefs.’ The Leibniz attitude is the most likely way to find that.
Through his enquiry into the ideas and philosophy of China that Leibniz engaged with, in this and other works produced earlier in his career, he stood aside from the clear aim of the Jesuits whose works he was mining for material in not being motivated by a desire to make some massive evaluative point in favour of Christianity and its universal applicability. Not that this did not sometimes figure in his work. But more often it is frequently disrupted by problems, dis-junctures, and puzzles – moments when he is brought up short by appreciation of the the richness and validity of what he is finding the Chinese words he is examining, albeit at second or third hand. His long discussion of the notion of `Li’ 理 – something he equates to the concept of God, and which figures on the Warring States philosophers as a principle underlying everything, and in which everything unfolds and makes sense – is symptomatic of this. While Leibniz’s reference point is Judaic-Christian monotheism, he also unpacks the ways in which he finds the Chinese notion similar, and dissimilar, with the latter being particularly important. Leibniz certainly allows, and accepts, the dissimilarity, without wanting to embark on some grand campaign of intellectual and cultural assimilation. There are further discussions of the ideas of the `taiji’ 太极 – supreme of ultimate), the `dao’ 道 – (path or way) and the principles of `yin’ and `yang’ (阴阳). Leibniz may not have had access to much of the great corpus of Chinese classical thinking, but even in the slender amount he did find, he managed to discover a lot.
Leibniz is a great model and inspiration today on many levels. Firstly, he engaged with ideas from the largely unknown and unexplored traditions of the Chinese world with a genuine openness and curiosity. Despite this openness, his work bears no trace of fear or defensiveness. His world view was one of deep confidence and intellectual integrity – he attempted to see the Chinese world view accurately, and on its own terms. He made no shallow moral judgements, nor imposed any easy normative frameworks where his intellectual location was somehow presented as superior to what he was examining. He was open minded enough to place his own work, particularly binary numbers, against what he found in the Chinese corpus and see parallels and commonalities there, things that indicated a deeper, shared, human root. Leibniz was, after all, a great humanist.
We need the spirit or Leibniz today. That is why reading the work of someone who had never set foot in the country from over three hundred years ago is still important and refreshing. Somehow, between that time and the present, the constant desire to either save or damn China entered into the equation. We seem to be living deep in that stage. The German philosopher shows that there is a way between these two extremes. And it serves us all to find that one quick, and start to truly live up to the values that he was such a significant figure in creating, rather than simply degrading and betraying them through fear, division and blame.