© Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek

28.11.2017

WHO WAS LEIBNIZ?

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was one of the most important philosophers and universal scholars of the late 17th and early 18th century. He was a German philosopher, mathematician, diplomat, historian and political advisor of the early Enlightenment. Leibniz was born in the summer of 1646 in Leipzig. He died in November 1716 in Hanover.

© orion_eff | FotoliaHe is said to have adopted an autodidactic approach to education early on. He learned Latin and Greek at the age of eight, and developed the beginnings of a mathematical sign language while pondering logical problems at twelve. From 1661 to 1666, he studied philosophy and law in Leipzig and Jena. He received his Doctorate in Law in 1667 in Altdorf, but decided not to pursue an academic career.

As of 1668, Johann Friedrich, Duke of Brunswick-Luneburg offered Leibniz a position as a librarian in Hanover. After initially rejecting the offer a few times, Leibniz eventually agreed in 1676 and was appointed Johann Friedrich’s Court Councilor two years later.

On a piece of scrap paper, the great scholar wrote about himself: "When I wake up in the morning, I have so many ideas in my head that the day is not long enough to write them all down." He had a major influence on the philosophers of the Enlightenment, traditional German philosophy, German idealism and classical literature. Leibniz's scientific discoveries and political and historical writings are still read and used around the world today.

Leibniz's binary number system

The binary number system developed by Leibniz paved the way for the computer-based information technology of the 20th century. Leibniz is said to have believed that "without God, there is nothing." For this reason, he imagined that God represented the number one and nothing represented the number zero. Leibniz believed to have discovered that human thinking is actually a calculation process, bridging the gap to religion and the notion of God and nothing - or, one and zero. Consequently, Leibniz tried to develop a secure, logical language of symbols, referred to as characteristica universalis. For this purpose, he developed the binary system, as well as other approaches. Today, the binary system forms the operational foundations of modern computer technology. Furthermore, Leibniz discovered that every object could be assigned a characteristic number, similar to arithmetical signs for natural numbers. Leibniz held the belief that this was how God wanted to show us that a far greater secret lies hidden in our understanding, of which arithmetics is but a shadow.

© Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz BibliothekIn 1672/73, Leibniz completed work on his calculating machine, called the "stepped reckoner", which was able to execute all four arithmetic operations. Also referred to as a Leibniz wheel, the gear mechanism he invented to carry out mechanical multiplication has lasted over 200 years as a base technology. By extension, Leibniz can thus be described as the pioneer of calculating machines and computers. He discovered that it was much easier to calculate using the binary number system and that arithmetic principles could be combined with logic principles thanks to binary codes. When working on his calculating machine, Leibniz actually had philosophical objectives in mind, writing: "It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation which could safely be relegated to anyone else if machines were used." The human trait of ingenuity is thus juxtaposed with the mechanical trait of technical-natural causality.

20,000 letters, 1,300 different addresses, 16 countries

A large part of Leibniz's work is documented in letters. Between 1663 and 1716, Leibniz wrote and received over 20,000 letters, supposedly from around 1,300 different addresses from 16 countries. Around 15,000 of these letters are kept in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz-Bibliothek in Hanover. His "pen pals" included philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Baruch de Spinoza, as well as theologian Antoine Arnauld. The most renowned names from the world of science include Christiaan Huygens, Isaac Newton and the brothers Jacob and Johann Bernoulli, and he also received letters or information from Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Edmé Mariotte, Robert Hooke and Denis Papin.

The letters and the ideas he wrote down on countless pieces of scrap paper are stored as part of the Leibniz collection in Hanover, encompassing around 50,000 items and around 200,000 pages. The collection also includes Leibniz’s library, as well as the only calculating machine still in existence.

Further Information

VDMAimpulse 06-2017: "Understanding Leibniz's Thouhgts"