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‘Metaphysical Points’ in the works of


G.W. Leibniz and G.B. Vico


by Dr. Hans-Joachim Rudolph (MD)

It is true that the notion 'metaphysical points’ was used more often by
Vico than by Leibniz. Both differentiated, however, between physical,
geometrical, arithmetical and metaphysical points; moreover, Leibniz
used synonymous terms like substantial and animated points, formal
and metaphysical atoms, atoms of substance, substantial unities and,
from 1690 onwards, ‘monads‘. In his “Système Nouveau de la
Nature“ (1695), English “New System of the Nature of Substances” (1),
he says for example: “It is only atoms of substance, that is to say real
unities absolutely devoid of parts, that can be the sources of actions,
and the absolute first principles of the composition of things, and as it
were the ultimate elements in the analysis of substances (substantial
things). They might be called metaphysical points; they have something
of the nature of life and a kind of perception … Mathematical points
really are indivisible, but they are only modalities. It is only metaphysical
or substantial points (constituted by forms or souls) which are both
indivisible and real, and without them there would be nothing real, since
without true unities there would be no multiplicity.“

Giambattista Vico, on the other hand, devoted a whole chapter to this


topic in his book “De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia” (1710), English
“On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians”. It is headlined
“Metaphysical Points and Conatus” and encompasses 10 pages (2).

Robert Flint, a well known commentator, summarizes and compares


these views by saying: “No person who has read the philosophical
writings of Leibniz can fail to observe that the doctrine of Vico as to
metaphysical points bears many marked resemblances to the doctrine
of monads. Hence arises the question, did the author of the 'De
Sapientia' borrow from the author of the 'Système Nouveau de la
Nature'? ... If two thinkers have been in contact with common sources of
speculation - if they have the same general philosophical spirit and aim -
if they are at one as regards many of their principles - it is quite possible
that when lead to deal with the same problem their solutions may not
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only in substance but in statement have numerous and striking


resemblances, although arrived at quite independently of each other.
And all this holds of Leibniz and Vico.“ (3) He further elaborates on
Vico‘s theory of metaphysical points: “We see from it that he conceived
of the whole of things as a mighty circle, at the center of which there is
Being, - the One - the Absolute Substance - God, - in perfect rest; at the
circumference of which there are existences, - compound and multiple
objects, - mere effects, - in perpetual motion; and within which,
intermediate in position and nature, are the points, - modes of being, -
essences - a world of virtues or causes, - in the state of effort, which is
transition from rest to motion.“ (3) And then he explains: “The transition
from the metaphysical points, which constitute the materia prima or
natura in fieri, to the external things, which compose the physical world,
or natura in facto esse, is effected by the conatus of the points. As
Leibniz supposed that his monads were endowed with a certain
appetitus (quelque chose d'analogique au sentiment et à l'appétit), in
virtue of which they passed from one perception or act to another; so
Vico imagined that his points possess a certain conatus, or power of
effort, in virtue of which they give rise to motion. At the same time these
points are not described as possessed by perceptions or sentiments, or
as being souls, like the Leibnizian monad; they are simply centers of
force which produce motion by an effort or energizing, which is itself no
motion, and which, were itself equal, may give rise to unequal motions.
The conatus is entirely metaphysical; it has no existence in the physical
world, and cannot, like physical force, be measured, or properly said to
be more or less.“ (3)

Regarding Leibniz’ supposed identification of souls and monads it must


be emphasized, however, that he didn’t use the term ‘soul’ in a common
sense. Rather he held that “the substantial forms are said in some way
to correspond to the soul“. But how? Since 1668, he repeated the
traditional definition that “substance is being which subsists in itself“,
and then immediately added that “being which subsists in itself is that
which has a principle of action within itself“. Similarly he maintained that
“the essence of substances consists in a primitive force of action“, a
view which he never abandoned. (4) Accordingly, he concluded “that a
first entelechy or first subject of activity must be recognized in corporeal
substance; that is, a primitive motive force, additional to extension (or
what is purely geometrical) and mass (or what is purely material), which
indeed always acts but which in interactions between bodies is modified
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in various ways through conatus and impetus. And it is this substantial


principle which is called the soul in living things, and a substantial form
in others, and in so far as together with matter it makes up a substance
which is truly one, or one per se, it forms what I call a monad.“ (5)

By implication, Flint’s distinction (that these points are not described …


as being souls) can be rejected, resulting in a merely gradual rather than
substantial difference between Vico’s metaphysical points and the
monads of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

(1) Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm: Système Nouveau de la Nature (1695),


https://epdf.tips/philosophical-texts, p 143 ff

(2) Vico, Giambattist: De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia (1710), https://


books.google.de/books, p 68 ff

(3) Flint, Robert: Vico, in ‘Philosophical Classics for English


Readers’ (1884), https://archive.org/details/vico00flinuoft, p 122 ff

(4) Woolhouse, Roger Stuart: Introduction to G. W. Leibniz,


Philosophical Texts (1998), https://epdf.tips/philosophical-texts, p 5 ff

(5) Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm: De ipsa natura (1698), https://epdf.tips/


philosophical-texts, p 209 ff