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Life and work
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz...
born on the 21st June (1st July according to The Gregorian Calendar) 1646 in
Leipzig as son of Friedrich Leibniz, professor of moral philosophy. After attending
school at the 'Nicolaischule' in Leipzig he studied philosophy and jurisprudence
at the universities of Leipzig and Jena. In 1667 he obtained the legal degree
of doctor at the University of Altdorf. He declined the offer of a professorship.
In an effort to work not only theoretically but also to develop practical activity
(his motto was: theoria cum praxi), he chose the position of a privy counsellor
which, in the period of absolutism offered the best possibility to exercise
political influence. He first entered the service of the Elector of Mainz, Johann
Philipp von Schönborn. In 1672 he arrived in Paris on a diplomatic mission
where he spent four influential years; there for the first time he was able
to surpass the borders of contemporary German university education and to become
familiar with the most recent developments in the sciences.
In 1673 he presented the Royal Society of London with a model of his calculating
machine, which was the first of its kind with a mechanical facility for, not
only addition and subtraction, but also multiplication and division. In the
years that followed he developed the differential and
integral calculus in Paris. For financial reasons he left Paris in 1676
to become counsellor and
librarian of duke Johann Friedrich in Hannover. He maintained contact with the
learned world through extensive correspondence (1100
correspondents). In the years between 1680 and 1685 Leibniz attempted to drain
the mines in the Harz mountains using windmills and
accordingly to stabilize the silver production for the duchy. On about 30 occasions
he travelled to the Harz mountains
spending a total of about three years there, only to be frustrated in the end
by technical difficulties and the resistance of the miners set in their traditional
ways. On being commissioned by the duke, he worked from 1685 on a history of
the house of Guelphs, that sought to reinforce its own importance in historiographical
terms in the context of efforts for political advancement (promotion to an electorate
of the Empire in 1692). Leibniz's extensive investigations, including a research
tour from 1687 to 1690 to study archives in southern Germany, Austria and Italy
in which he established the northern Italian roots of the Guelphs, additionally
provided - in a period of dynastic succession settlements - legal support for
the political claims of the house to extension of its ruled territories. As
a prefatory contribution to the history of Guelphs
Leibniz wrote a natural history of the earth paying special attention to geological
discoveries in the Harz region.
In the year 1686 Leibniz developed his dynamics
on the basis of the conservation of force (in modern terminology: energy) as
a theory of physical forces. Likewise in 1686 he wrote the Discours de Metaphysique
(Metaphysical essay), being the first systematic summary of his mature philosophy.
Over many years Leibniz carried on negotiations with Catholic bishops with the
objective of reuniting the Protestant and Catholic churches. His interest in
foreign cultures motivated him to undertake an extensive correspondence with
Jesuit missionaries in China.
In connection with his historical studies Leibniz carried out extensive linguistic
investigations which were published in the Collectanea etymologica
and elsewhere. In Germany as a rule French was spoken at court, and Latin by
scholars; accordingly Leibniz wrote his philosophical and scholarly works almost
exclusively in these languages. But he also wrote Ermahnung an die Teutschen,
ihren Verstand und ihre Sprache besser zu üben in which he pleaded
for use of the German language.
In the 1690s a series of mathematical competitions
attracted the attention of scholars. Leibniz, Jacob Bernoulli, Vincenzo Viviani,
and Johann Bernoulli,among others, formulated famous challenge questions in
order to demonstrate the superiority of their mathematical methods.
In a paper for the Académie des Sciences in Paris Leibniz set out the
binary number system based on 0 and 1; although never
executed, the first calculating machine based on this binary number system was
also conceived by him. In the year 1700 he became the first president of the
Berlin Academy of Sciences which had been founded following his proposal. From
the philosophical conversations, that he had during his visits to Berlin with
the Prussian queen Sophia. Charlotte, developed the Theodicée
(published in 1710) in which Leibniz attempted a justification of God in the
light of the evil and suffering in the world. In the context of his discussion
of the ideas of the English philosopher John Locke Leibniz composed the Nouveaux
Essais sur l'entendement humain (New essays concerning human understanding),
which however only appeared in print half a century after his death. The last
years of his life were overshadowed by the priority dispute
with Isaac Newton about the discovery of the differential and integral calculus.
Leibniz died on November 14, 1716 in Hannover; his grave is located in the municipal
church, Neustädter Kirche. His extensive scholarly
manuscript-paper collection, preserved at the State Library of Lower Saxony
Hannover, has still to be published in its entirety.
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