Leibniz on Agency and Force

University dissertation from Uppsala

Abstract: This is a study of Leibniz’s theory of agency – his theory of the nature of causal powers and agents. Leibniz develops his view against the background of an Aristotelian conception of agency. The latter was rejected by many early modern philosophers in the wake of the mechanist conception of the natural world. Leibniz famously argues that Aristotelian notions such as substantial forms and final causes – the view that an agent’s powers are directed at ends, to perfection – need to be retained at the fundamental level of ontology. But his argument is also paired with a criticism of the Aristotelian theory. The present study focuses on that criticism, drawing attention to its basis in Leibniz’s notion of force from his dynamics. It is argued that, as Leibniz develops his alternative force conception of agency, he seems to propose a view of agents as structured within a physical order. The basic notion of agent for Leibniz appears to be that of a physically structured force.This is a surprising result. According to a traditional reading, Leibniz defends a basic ontology of non-physical entities: mind-like substances whose states consist in perceptions and end-directed appetites. This study seeks to show that the latter doctrine need not conflict with the claim that his conception of agency is based on physically structured force. An alternative account of what it is for Leibniz to be a perceiving and striving agent is developed – an account of how physical force enters into his theory of perception and appetite. In the end, it looks as if Leibniz’s argument for substantial forms and final causes can be understood as an attempt at developing the connection between agency and perfection, not in opposition to, but rather on the basis of a view of agency as essentially embedded within a physical order.

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