A friend of mine does a lot of work on the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who’s probably best known for inventing calculus [Leibniz and Newton were developing the mathematical foundations of calculus at the same time, and there was a big Anglo-Continental tussle over whose version came first (and whether or not one stole from the other).]
Anyway, recently, another friend asked this scholar about the appeal of Leibniz and I wish I had had a recorder handy, as he gave an interesting and persuasive explanation as to why Leibniz is worthy of attention. It turns out that (among other things) Leibniz had anticipated a lot of stuff that didn’t really get developed fully until much later – including some stuff that Alan Turing made his name with, on computability.
Since then, I’ve read a biography of Leibniz that was pretty good. It wasn’t an intellectual biography, and so didn’t get as deep into philosophical/mathematical details as I would’ve liked. But definitely a good read.
Today, I came across another book on Leibniz that looked interesting by a philosopher named Justin E.H. Smith called Divine Machines: Leibniz and the Sciences of Life. It was a bit pricey, so I emailed my Leibniz scholar friend to ask him if he knew anything about it. Turns out he had written a review of the book for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I think it’s fair to say he liked it, but didn’t love it.
The review, though, did exactly what a review should do – make you feel like you read the book without having to actually read it 🙂 I kid, but only a little. The review is comprehensive and gives a very good sense of the content of the book. It’s also very even-handed, from what I can tell; praising where praiseworthy, but critical as well. After reading the review, I don’t think I’ll be buying the book, unless I happen to come across it at a significantly discounted rate on Amazon, or in a used bookstore.
Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping an eye out for good books on Leibniz. Feel free to send any suggestions.