From Nominalism to immaterialism

Berkeley makes perhaps the most striking move from Nominalism to immaterialism, arguing that the individuals given to sense need not and cannot depend on matter for their existence. Leibniz opens up a different way of moving from Nominalism to immaterialism which, if less striking, is still very powerful. Nominalism (though it is not alone in holding this) holds that only concrete individuals exist, but no spacio-temporal thing is an individual. The minor premise is the first conclusion reached in Monadology. 

1. The monad, of which we will speak here, is nothing else than a simple substance, which goes to make up compounds; by simple, we mean without parts.

2. There must be simple substances because there are compound substances; for the compound is nothing else than a collection or aggregatum of simple substances.

3. Now, where there are no constituent parts there is possible neither extension, nor form, nor divisibility. These monads are the true atoms of nature, and, in a word, the elements of things.

To be clear: nothing which we have ever called an atom is a Leibnizian monad. From Democritus to Dalton to our own day atoms have had parts or something like them, but, by the same token, all atoms have been a sort of approximation of monads: Democritus denied they had size but gave them shape; Newton seemed to think that the parts of things had no important differences made by spacial extension but nevertheless made up spacial extension; and our own account of electrons seems to simultaneously give them spacial and non-spacial properties. But it’s not the case that an atom is even the best approximation of a monad. A horse or cat gives us a clearer view of what it is to be monad, as both have the same sort of indivisibility that an element has but are more familiar to us. Nevertheless, the cat or horse is not monadic so far as they have extended parts in space, but so far as there is something determining those parts to being a this. The individuality of a cat, manifested not just in metabolism but even in its being a this, is something like a man juggling lettered blocks which – even though he had no intention of this happening – spin in just the right way as to always spell exactly the same word in the arc of his juggling. It is precisely this source of unified identity over time that counts as monadic, which is broader but nevertheless includes Aristotle’s notion of substantial form.

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