Discourse on Metaphysics

Author: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz  | Date: 1826

XXII: Reconciliation of the two methods of explanation,

the one using final causes, and the other efficient causes,

thus satisfying both those who explain nature mechanically

and those who have recourse to incorporeal natures

It is worth while to make the preceding remark in order to reconcile those who hope to explain mechanically the formation of the first tissue of an animal and all the interrelation of the parts, with those who account for the same structure by referring to final causes. Both explanations are good; both are useful not only for the admiring of the work of a great artificer, but also for the discovery of useful facts in physics and medicine. And writers who take these diverse routes should not speak ill of each other. For I see that those who attempt to explain beauty by the divine anatomy ridicule those who imagine that the apparently fortuitous flow of certain liquids has been able to produce such a beautiful variety and that they regard them as overbold and irreverent. These others on the contrary treat the former as simple and superstitious, and compare them to those ancients who regarded the physicists as impious when they maintained that not Jupiter thundered but some material which is found in the clouds. The best plan would be to join the two ways of thinking. To use a practical comparison, we recognize and praise the ability of a workman not only when we show what designs he had in making the parts of his machine, but also when we explain the instruments which he employed in making each part, above all if these instruments are simple and ingeniously contrived. God is also a workman able enough to produce a machine still a thousand times more ingenious than is our body, by employing only certain quite simple liquids purposely composed in such a way that ordinary laws of nature alone are required to develop them so as to produce such a marvellous effect. But it is also true that this development would not take place if God were not the author of nature. Yet I find that the method of efficient causes, which goes much deeper and is in a measure more immediate and a priori, is also more difficult when we come to details, and I think that our philosophers are still very frequently far removed from making the most of this method. The method of final causes, however, is easier and can be frequently employed to find out important and useful truths which we should have to seek for a long time, if we were confined to that other more physical method of which anatomy is able to furnish many examples. It seems to me that Snellius, who was the first discoverer of the laws of refraction would have waited a long time before finding them if he had wished to seek out first how light was formed. But he apparently followed that method which the ancients employed for Catoptrics, that is, the method of final causes. Because, while seeking for the easiest way in which to conduct a ray of light from one given point to another given point by reflection from a given plane (supposing that that was the design of nature) they discovered the equality of the angles of incidence and reflection, as can be seen from a little treatise by Heliodorus of Larissa and also elsewhere. This principle Mons. Snellius, I believe, and afterwards independently of him, M. Fermat, applied most ingeniously to refraction. For since the rays while in the same media always maintain the same proportion of sines, which in turn corresponds to the resistance of the media, it appears that they follow the easiest way, or at least that way which is the most determinate for passing from a given point in one medium to a given point in another medium. That demonstration of this same theorem which M. Descartes has given, using efficient causes, is much less satisfactory. At least we have grounds to think that he would never have found the principle by that means if he had not learned in Holland of the discovery of Snellius.


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Chicago: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, "XXII: Reconciliation of the Two Methods of Explanation,," Discourse on Metaphysics Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LIS6PNJ1271DLSK.

MLA: Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. "XXII: Reconciliation of the Two Methods of Explanation,." Discourse on Metaphysics, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LIS6PNJ1271DLSK.

Harvard: Leibniz, GW, 'XXII: Reconciliation of the Two Methods of Explanation,' in Discourse on Metaphysics. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=LIS6PNJ1271DLSK.