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Journal of the History of Philosophy, Volume 24, Number 3, July 1986,


pp. 343-357 (Article)
3XEOLVKHGE\-RKQV+RSNLQV8QLYHUVLW\3UHVV
DOI: 10.1353/hph.1986.0043

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Leibniz's Doctrine of the


Striving Possibles
CHRISTOPHER

SHIELDS

LEIBNIZ'S DOCTRINE OF THE STRIVING POSSIBLES, t h a t all t r u e

possibilities

de-

m a n d existence and will exist if not prevented, strikes the m o d e m reader as

perplexing, if not perverse. Nonetheless, Leibniz invokes the doctrine of the


striving possibles frequently and in key passages. He regards it as directly
relevant to the creation of the actual world, * the contingency of the actual
world,* the compossibility of substances, s and indeed, to God's existence. ~
The doctrine of the striving possibles, however, seems plainly inconsistent
with a number of Leibnizian principles. For example, Leibniz maintains that
God freely chooses to create the maximal compossible set of potential substances. Also, Leibniz subscribes to the Aristotelian principle that only an
actually exisdng being can cause a potentially exisdng being to exist in actuality; if possibles demand and become actual without the agency of some
actual being, Leibniz seems to have flatly contradicted himself. It is certainly
a challenge to attempt to render Leibniz consistent. But it is a rewarding
task, for in the process of deciding whether or not Leibniz is consistent, one
begins to unravel a supremely subtle metaphysical system, a system in which
the doctrine of the striving possibles plays a central role. In the final analysis,
Leibniz does not need to be rendered consistent so much as understood.
I . T H E FIGURATIVE VIEW

David Blumenfeld's "Leibniz's Theory of the Striving Possibles''5 is easily the


best discussion of some of the problems revolving around Leibniz's doctrine.
i See Leroy, E. Loemker, ed., Philosophical Papers and Letters (Dordrecht and Boston: Reidel
Publishing Co., 1969), 648.
' See Loemker, 488.
See Loemker, 158.
4 See Loemker, 167.
David Blumenfeld, "Leibniz's Theory of the Striving Possibles," Studia Leibnitiana 0973):
163-77, reprinted in R. S. Woolhouse, Leibniz: Metaphysics and Philosophy of Science (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1980, 77-99. All references are to the latter pagination.

[343]

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Blumenfeld attacks these problems directly and advances a clear, intelligent,


and initially persuasive solution. Accordingly, his view deserves careful consideration. Though in the final analysis I disagree with Blumenfeld's main
solution, I find a great many of his suggestions quite insightful.
Blumenfeld begins by citing some of the important evidence for Leibniz's doctrine of the striving possibles. The first comes from one of our
most important sources for Leibniz's views on creation and the theory of
the striving possibles, On the Ultimate Origin of Things: "We ought first to
recognize that from the very fact that something exists rather than nothing, there is in possible t h i n g s . . , a certain exigent need of existence, and,
so to speak, some claim to existence: in a word, that essence tends of itself
towards existence. Whence it further follows that all possible t h i n g s . . .
tend by equal right towards existence, according to their quantity of essence or reality, or according to the degree of perfection which they contain . . . . Hence it is most clearly understood that among the infinite combinations of possibles and possible series, that one actually exists by which the
most of essence or of possibility is brought into existence. ''6 In addition to
this, Blumenfeld also cites the following passages: "Everything possible demands that it should exist, and hence wilt exist unless something else prevents it, which also demands that it should exist and is incompatible with
the former; and hence it follows that that combination of things always
exists by which the greatest possible number of things exists . . . . And hence
it is obvious that things exist in the most perfect way. ''7 "And as possibility
is the principle of essence, so perfection or degree of essence (through
which the greatest number is at the same dme possible) is the principle of
existence. ''s
Based upon these passages, Blumenfeld correcdy ascribes six theses to
Leibniz: 9 (1) all possibles tend toward existence (each "has an impetus to
exist"); (2) this impetus is direcdy proportionate to the degree o f perfection
in the possible; (3) all possible worlds contend with one another for actual
existence; (4) there is a unique compossible set which has the greatest thrust;
(5) the inevitable result of this struggle is that the best possible world (the
maximal set of compossibles which exhibits the highest degree of order with
the greatest variety) realizes itself; and (6) without (1)-(5), there would be no
actual world. In addition to these six theses, Blumenfeld notes tht Leibniz
e C.J. Gerhardt. Die phil~ophi~chenSchrifWnurn G.W. ~
7: 3o3--08; Cf. Loemker, 487.
Gerhardt, 7: 194.
8 Gerhardt, 7 : 3 0 5 .

g (1)-(6) are paraphm~. See Blumenfeld, 77"

(Berlin: Wiedmann, t 875-9o),

DOCTRINE OF THE STRIVING POSSIBLES

345

conceives o f the r e a l m o f the possibles as existing in the m i n d o f God, TM a n d


admits this as a b a c k g r o u n d condition to ( I ) - ( 6 ) .
B l u m e n f e l d focuses on the a p p a r e n t inconsistency between the doctrine
o f the striving possibles and the f r e e creation o f the actual world. Leibniz
vociferously maintains that G o d freely chose to actualize the m a x i m a l set o f
compossible potential substances. Yet the doctrine o f the striving possibles
explains the existence o f actual substances in t e r m s o f their own exigency.
Either the best possible world exists as a result o f its own internal striving to
exist, o r God, an external force, c r e a t e d it. T h e two explanations o f the
existence o f the actual world a p p e a r mutually exclusive. Hence, if Leibniz is
c o m m i t t e d to both, h e is internally inconsistent.
S o m e c o m m e n t a t o r s on Leibniz, Lovejoy in particular, 1' a g r e e that these
two e x p l a n a t i o n s o f the world's existence are incompatible. Hence, they reg a r d Leibniz as e m b r a c i n g an inconsistency a n d as a Spinozistic necessitarJan. I f the possibles do have an intrinsic drive toward existence, and do not
r e q u i r e a n y extrinsic causal agent, G o d and creation are r e n d e r e d irrelev a n t ? ' I f o n e subscribes to the d o c t r i n e o f striving possibles, the maximal set
o f compossibles exists o f its own impetus. Hence, God's free choice, and ipso
facto c o n t i n g e n c y f o r the actual world, are no longer applicable.
T h i s r a t h e r u n f o r t u n a t e i n t e r p r e t a t i o n o f Leibniz results, according to
B l u m e n f e l d , f r o m a d o p t i n g a literal r a t h e r t h a n figurative r e n d e r i n g o f the
d o c t r i n e o f the striving possibles. H e himself follows Rescher in a d o p t i n g a
figurative interpretation. ~s It is not as if the striving possibles really tend
t o w a r d existence, or really exist if u n i m p e d e d . Rather, Leibniz is simply speaking m e t a p h o r i c a l l y in saying that essence tends toward existence. T o say that
potential substances d e m a n d to exist is to say that certain substances a p p e a r
attractive to God. T h a t is, each possible world expresses a " d e g r e e o f attrac'~ Blumenfeld, 79.
,1 Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1936), chap. 5; reprinted in Harry Frankfurt, I2ibniz: A Colltction of Critical Essays (New
York: Anchor, 1972), 281-334. All references are to the latter pagination.
~" See Lovejoy, 320.
~s Nicholas Rescher, The Philosophy of Leibniz (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Humanities Press,
1967) ~9-3o: Anyone adopting a literal interpretation "misconceives the issue badly, for it is
only because God has chosen to subscribe to the standard of perfection in selecting a possible
world for actualization that possible substances come to have a (figurative) 'claim' to existence.
The relationship between 'quantity of essence' or 'perfection' on the one hand and claim or
conatm to existence on the other is not a logical linkage at all--a thesis which would reduce
Leibniz's system into a Spinozistic necessitarianisrn---but a connection mediated by a free will on
the part of God." Rescher repeats this view in Leibniz: An Introduaion to his Philosophy (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1979), 33, and in "Leibniz on Creation and the Evaluation of Possible Worlds,"
Leibniz's Metaphysics of Nature (Dodrecht and Boston: D.Reidel Publishing Co., t981 ), 3"

346

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t i v e n e s s . . , to the divine will." The maximal compossible set presents itself to


God as the best possible world; God, in accordance with his free choice to subscribe to the Principle o f Perfection (viz. God's free decision to realize as much
perfection as possible) chooses to actualize it. On Blumenfeld's figurative
reading, the maximal compossible set does not literally strive for existence. It
simply, as it were, calls God's attention to itself, inasmuch as it contains the
highest degree of perfection, and hence attractiveness to the divine will.
There are at least two advantages to the figurative reading, as Blumenfeld notes. First, while it would not be surprising that Leibniz occasionally
contradicts himself given the sheer volume of his writings, it would be odd
for him to fail to notice a tension between the doctrine of the striving
possibles and God's free creation. For Leibniz quite regularly mentions the
two theories in tandem. For example, in the Principles of Nature and Grace,
Leibniz claims: "It follows from the supreme perfection of God that he has
chosen the best possible plan in producing the universe, a plan which combines the greatest variety together with the greatest order . . . . For as all
possible things have a claim to existence in God's understanding in proportion to their perfections, the result of all these claims must be the most
perfect actual world which is possible. Without this it would be impossible to
give a reason why things have gone as they have rather than otherwise. T M
Blumenfeld suggests that unless we are to regard Leibniz as utterly inept, we
should not regard him as overlooking the obvious contradiction given rise by
this passage, that is, the contradiction which follows from understanding the
doctrine of the striving possibles literally. Hence, it is most charitable to
regard the doctrine of the striving possibles figuratively. Second, the figurative reading provides a method for resolving the apparent conflict between
the doctrine of the striving possibles and God's role in creation. On the
figurative reading, the maximal compossible set presents itself to God as the
best possible world. God, in accordance with his choice to subscribe to the
Principle of Perfection, actualizes this set. Thus, on the figurative reading,
the doctrine of the striving possibles is intelligible and God has a role in
creation. Moreover, though this is not mentioned by Blumenfeld, on the
figurative reading there is no discord between the doctrine of the striving
possibles and Leibniz's claim that only an actually existing being can actualize
a potentially existing being. Hence, the figurative reading is a good deal
more attractive than the literal reading; the latter ascribes internal inconsistencies to Leibniz while the former interprets him as both consistent and
interesting.
24 Blumenfeld cites part of the passage cited here, as wellas Loemker, 648 and Gerhardt,
7: 3o9-31o.

DOCTRINE

OF THE STRIVING

POSSIBLES

347

Even so, there are compelling reasons for regarding Leibniz as advancing
the doctrine of striving possibles quite literally. Indeed, when properly understood there is no inconsistency between the doctrine of striving possibles and
other Leibnizian doctrines. I shall substantiate these claims only after considering a final feature of Blumenfekt's argument. For, once we are clear
about the problem in the last of Biumenfeld's arguments, we shall be prepared to understand why we need not and should adopt a figurative reading.
After discussing whether Leibniz actually defines 'existent' in terms ofcompossibility, Blumenfeld turns to an attack on the literal interpretation of the
doctrine of striving possibles. He presents "what must be regarded as the most
serious difficulty for the literalist or necessitarian interpretation. '''~ Given the
six theses which characterize the doctrine of the striving possibles (plus the
background consideration), it should be the case, according to the literalist
that (5) turns out to be necessary. For if one is a literalist, and hence a necessitartan, the actual world is necessary, and so (5) should be necessary on the
basis of (t)-(4). If thesis (5) asserts that the maximally perfect world exists
necessarily, then it does not follow from theses (a)-(4). Recall thesis (2): the
impetus of a possible is directly proportionate t o the amount of perfection
that possible contains. Hence, if something exists necessarily, it must have
enough impetus (viz. perfection) to secure its existence as necessary.
But, as Leibniz frequently maintains, only God's essence contains existence; hence, only God has enough impetus (viz. perfection) to exist necessarily. No possible world is absolutely perfect. Even the best possible world is
imperfect in some regard? 6 That is, Leibniz accepts a Limitation Principle.
Now, (1)-(4), taken together with the Limitation Principle, do not entail the
necessary existence of the actual world, i.e., that (5) is necessary. For (2)
establishes that only a possible world with absolute impetus to exist does exist
absolutely, or necessarily? v Thus, if one is to avoid attributing a non sequitur
to Leibniz, one must accept the figurative reading or reject the Limitation
Principle. As Blumenfeld proceeds to demonstrate, rejecting the Limitation
Principle is not possible within a Leibnizian framework.
2. PROBLEMS FOR THE FIGURATIVE VIEW
I should begin by admitting that I am one of those who, according to Rescher, misconceive the issue badly. It seems to me that Leibniz does intend
the doctrine of the striving possibles to be understood literally: each of the
~ See B l u m e n f e l d , 85.
in See L o e m k e r , 647 , # 4 ~ - 4 5 .
,7 B l u m e n f e l d does n o t supply a reason for s u p p o s i n g that absolute existence implies necessary existence. P r e s u m a b l y h e is w a r r a n t e d in m a k i n g this inference on the basis o f passages like
L o e m k e r , 158.

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JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 2 4 : 3 JULY

1986

m a n y times he advances the theory, he states it flatly, directly, and without


qualification. We need to examine why Leibniz maintains this doctrine, not
merely note that he does and attempt to rescue him from its alleged untoward consequences. Once we u n d e r s t a n d Leibniz's reason for adopting this
doctrine, its peculiarity diminishes.
Inasmuch as I shall be advancing a literalist interpretation, it is incumbent upon me to respond to Blumenfeld's argument. There is, I believe, a
fatal flaw in his reasoning. T h e structure of Blumenfeld's argument, in its
simplest form, is this:
~.
2.
3.
4.

5.

6.

T h e literalist interpretation implies necessitarianism.


But if the actual world is necessary, (5), understood as a necessary truth,
should follow necessarily f r o m (1)-(4) and the background consideration.
(5) does not follow necessarily from 0 ) - ( 4 ) and the background
consideration.
T h e r e f o r e , we either reject the necessitarian interpretation, and hence
the literalist interpretation o f the striving possibles, or attribute a non
sequitur to Leibniz.
We should not attribute a non sequitur to Leibniz unless we must; and we
need not since we have a plausible alternative which makes the argument sound.
Therefore, we should reject necessitarianism, and hence the literalist
interpretation o f the doctrine o f the striving possibles.

T h e flaw should be evident. T h e a r g u m e n t works only if the first premise is


true. In addition, premise (3), Blumenfeld's main contribution, contradicts
(i), his u n s u p p o r t e d assumption. It is clear that (3) is true and was recognized as such by Leibniz. Consequently, it is open to Leibniz to reject (1) as
being false, as he in fact does.
First o f all, B l u m e n f e l d himself gives no reason to believe that the first
premise is true. W h e n he advances the argument, he simply uses the terms
interchangeably: "We come now to what must be regarded as the most
serious difficulty for the literalist or necessitarian interpretation." Further,
he says, " . . . the most crucial question [is] whether or not thesis (5) should
be understood to m e a n that the most perfect universe exists of necessity.
T h e l i t e r a l i s t . . , maintains that it should be so understood . . . . " What Blumenfeld has here is a most effective a r g u m e n t against Lovejoy, who does
maintain that Leibniz advances the doctrine of the striving possibles as a
literal doctrine and that this commits him to necessitarianism. But this argument does not scathe one who maintains that Leibniz advances the doctrine
literally, but that this does not commit him to Spinozistic necessitarianism.
Now, it is not as if B l u m e n f e l d makes a simple oversight. As far as one

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349

can tell, he takes it as a given that the literalist interpretation implies necessitarianism. Blumenfeld would not be the first commentator to do so. He cites
Russell and Rescher favorably when each advances the view that the literalist
interpretation commits Lcibniz to necessitarianism. Rescher takes this to
show that the literalist reading must be false, while Russell concludes that
Leibniz is a closet necessitarian. But I cannot see that any of these views is
correct. Leibniz repeatedly claims that possible substances exist necessarily if,
and only if, existence is contained in their complete individual concepts (i.e.
existence belongs to their essence). Only God enjoys this position. Leibniz
explicitly denies existence to the essences of all substances except God? s The
striving possibles tend toward existence, but not all of them exist. Only the
maximal compossible set exists: "The actual universe is a collection of all
possibles which exist, i.e. those which form the richest composite. ''9
It will be objected immediately that it is not open to anyone to deny that a
literalist interpretation implies necessitarianism. That is, if Leibniz really
believes that the maximal compossible set strives for existence and will exist
if unimpeded, then he must secretly believe that existence belongs to its
essence. It is surely not enough to assert that this is the case (which is what
Russell and Rescher seem to do). Indeed, as I conceive a Leibniz's project, he
is attempting to demonstrate that certain substances strive for and obtain
existence without having existence as part of their essence. That is just to
say, Leibniz is trying to account for the contingency of the actual world in
terms of the doctrine o f the striving possibles.
Before spelling this out, I would like to advance two further objections to
the figurative interpretation advanced by Blumenfeld. The first is not a
definitive objection, but nonetheless, should not be overlooked. Leibniz repeatedly invokes the doctrine of the striving possibles, and advances it as if
h e meant it quite literally. Though he is quite capable of using metaphors
and speaking hyperbolically, what is the evidence that he is doing so here?
There is no textual evidence for such a claim; Rescher and Blumenfeld have
been compelled to reinterpret Leibniz's doctrine on a principle of charity.
That is a fair enough principle of exegesis and criticism, but their position
would be considerably stronger if they were able to produce some passage
which gives an indication that Leibniz did not mean the doctrine literally. As
things are, Leibniz simply says:
Everything possible demands that it should exist, and hence will exist unless something prevents it. "~
~s See Loemker, 2o3: "I use the term 'contingent', as do others, for that whose essence does
not involve existence."
~9 Loemker, 662.
9o Loemker, 487.

35 ~

J O U R N A L OF T H E H I S T O R Y OF P H I L O S O P H Y 2 4 : 3 JULY 1 9 8 6

[T]here is in possible things, a certain exigency of existence, tl


To exist is nothing other than to be harmonious; the mark of existence is organized
sensation. 2s
(The best possible world) will exist unless something prevents it? s
And just as we see liquids spontaneously collect in spherical drops, so in the nature of
the universe the most capacious (max/me cain.x) exists. ~4
T h e s e passages c o m e f r o m d i f f e r e n t periods in Leibniz's philosophical develo p m e n t . In each, Leibniz simply states o r suggests the doctrine o f the striving possibles quite literally without embellishment. We m i g h t do well to see if
we can m a k e sense o f the d o c t r i n e as stated by Leibniz.
T h e s e citations d o n o t p r o v e that Leibniz intends the doctrine o f the
striving possibles to be u n d e r s t o o d literally; they do, however, strongly suggest it. T h e r e is o n e f u r t h e r passage which seems to require that we u n d e r stand the d o c t r i n e literally. Leibniz's definition o f existence seems to be
incontrovertible evidence that he does maintain the doctrine o f the striving
possibles quite earnestly. A n existent thing is "that which is compatible with
m o r e things t h a n a n y o t h e r which is incompatible with it." This most assuredly is o f f e r e d as a defintion o f existence.
B l u m e n f e l d , following Curley, has a t t e m p t e d to explain this definition in
t e r m s o f the context in which it occurs. I myself cannot see how the context
helps their case; indeed, it seems to h i n d e r any figurative i n t e r p r e t a t i o n o f
the doctrine o f the striving possibles. I n the passage in which the definition
is advanced, Leibniz is o f f e r i n g key definitions and explanations o f primitive
terms. It is here, m o r e t h a n a n y w h e r e , that he wants to be as crystal clear
a n d precise as possible a b o u t the m e a n i n g s o f the t e r m s he uses. O n e would
expect him to qualify this definition in s o m e way if he did not maintain it in
a literal sense, in o r d e r t h a t his r e a d e r s not be misled. As things are, he does
not.'5
M o r e o v e r , even if we allow that Leibniz advances this definition some"' Loemker, 79 I.
"" Loemker, 158.
9a Gerhardt, 7: 194.
94 See Gerhardt, 7: 29o, #so. These passages could be multiplied. Cf. Loemker, 157, G.
Grua, Textes intdits d'apres manasc~.s de la Bibliotl~que provimiale de Hanovre (Paris: Bibl. de phil.
contemp., z948), 303, and G. H. R. Parkinson, Le/bn/z Ph//~oph/ca/ Wr/t/ngs (Totowa, New
Jersey: Rowman and Litdefield, 1975) z39-4o where Leibniz claims: "For just as all things that
are possible with equal right tend towards existence in proportion to their reality, so in the same
way all weights with equal right tend towards descent in proportion to their gravity; and just as
in the latter case there results motion involving the greatest possible descent of the heavy
bodies, so in the former case there results a world involving the greatest production of things
that are possible."
"s We see Leibniz defining his terms over and over again in his correspondence, particularly in response to criticism. See Loemker, ~o3, and 661 in Leibniz's letter to Louis Bourguet.

DOCTRINE OF THE STRIVING POSSIBLES

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what tentatively, an explanation o f its being advanced at all is still required


from those maintaining a figurative interpretation. Blumenfeld's account of
this definition is this. A problem for the figurative interpretation is that
Leibniz actually seems to define existence in terms of maximal compossibility. But that definition is somewhat tentative; Leibniz is simply trying it on
for size. Hence, it need not create any problems for the figurative interpretation. I cannot see this. T h e fact that Leibniz even considers advancing this
definition is e n o u g h to demonstrate how seriously, and literally, he maintains the doctrine o f the striving possibles? ~
3" L E I B N I Z ' S M O T I V A T I O N

It is easy e n o u g h to suppose that Leibniz advances the doctrine of the striving possibles as a literal doctrine. It is a good deal more difficult to determine if the literal interpretation is actually consistent with the creation and
contingent existence of the actual world. As I have mentioned abovc, Leibniz's official doctrine is that only substances whose essences contain existence
exist necessarily. T h e problem, then, is to see if Leibniz is able to characterize contingent but actual substances without allowing their essences to contain existence. Perhaps the best way to determine whether or not Leibniz is
successful is to see why he maintains the doctrine of the striving possibles.
T h a t is, we must examine the role of this doctrine in his metaphysical
schema.
T h e most concise and explicit explanation of the importance of the doctrine can be f o u n d in Leibniz's A Resume of Metaphysics. This short work, as
Parkinson ~7 points out, is something of a s u m m a r y of On the Ultimate Origin
of Things. At least one thing becomes clear in the Resume: Leibniz does not
merely assert that possibles have an exigency for existence. He views it as a
natural consequence of a n u m b e r of principles in his metaphysical system.
9s Blumenfeld maintains: "Once we abandon the view that Leibniz gave a true definition of
existence, various words and phrases that seemed to require a necessitarian interpretation now
appear more or less neutral" (85). As I argue below, the issue o f necessarianism is not involved
here at all.
97 Parkinson, a45; Gerhardt, 7: 289. In this section 1 provide a number of very specific
reasons why Leibniz maintains the doctrine of the striving possibles. In addition, there seem to
be a number of general teleological motivations. In this respect, Leibniz is not alone in maintaing the doctrine. Aquinas, for example, believes that all possibles strive for existence (De Veritate,
p. 21, art. 2, reply). Aquinas often claims that Aristotle holds it as well (citing such passages as
Phys. I 9, x99a22), though it is not clear that what Aristode says entails or even suggests the
doctrine. The general teleological motivations for the doctrine constitute another discussion.
The present points are just that Leibniz is not alone in maintaining the doctrine (and hence, is
not as peculiar as some commentators suppose), and that maintaining the doctrine poses no
special threat to the contingency of the actual world. Also irrelevant to my present concern is
Leibniz's position on modal realism; he can maintain the doctrine of the striving possibles
without ipsofacto commiting himself to some version of modal realism.

352

J O U R N A L OF THE H I S T O R Y OF P H I L O S O P H Y 2 4 : 5 J U L Y I 9 8 6

T h e main points of the beginning o f the work can be summarized as


follows:
i.
2.
34.
56.

7.

T h e r e is some reason in Nature why something rather than nothing


exists (91).
T h e need for such a reason is a consequence of the principle of sufficient reason (91).
This reason must be a real entity since it is a cause (92). ,s
This entity must be necessary, insofar as it contains its own cause (i.e.,
existence belongs to its essence) (92).
T h e r e is, therefore, a cause of existence over non-existence; the necessary being is by-existing-a-maker (existent/fic/ans)'9(w
T h e cause which makes something exist, or (makes) possibilities demand existence, also makes everything possible have an urge (conatus) to
exist (95)Therefore, it can be said that everything possible is existence-desiring
(existiturire) s~ (96).

T h e reason why (7) is said to follow from (1)-(6) is that the possibles are
f o u n d e d on the necessary being, namely God. Thus, Leibniz sees a direct
connection between the principle o f sufficient reason, God's existence, and
the doctrine o f the striving possibles.
What exactly is this connection? God is at least a necessary condition for
all actual existence. God makes (fac/t) all possibles strive for existence (6). But
why would God do this? T h e reason is clear: God subscribes to the principle
o f sufficient reason. As Leibniz says, " . . . a reason for restricting it (i.e., the
desire to exist) to certain possibles in the universe cannot be found (ratio
restrictions is ad certa possibilia in universali repiriri non possit). ''3' As Leibniz
often maintains against the Cartesians, God's will is independent of his understanding. God himself is not accountable for which possible worlds exist
as possibilities; he merely makes it such that the best possible one does exist
in actuality. This is just what Leibniz says here: God makes all possibles strive
for existence (fac/t etiam ut omne possibile habeat conatum ad Existentiam.) 32 On
account of God's agency, all possibles desire to exist (Omne possibile Existiturire)) s T h e possible world which actually does exist is the one with the highest
9s Notice that in #2 o f this work Leibniz denies any meaningful distinction between causation and explanation. In his view, what explains x is x's muse.
99 Leibniz has here, apparently, coined a word from exist/re (to exist) and facere (to make).
so This is another apparent coinage; Leibniz simply adds a desiderative ending to exist~re.
s, Gerhardt, 7: 289.
s. Ibid.
ss Ibid.

D O C T R I N E OF T H E S T R I V I N G POSSIBLES

353

degree o f perfection, which is a function of the degree of reality each world


contains. Hence, the maximal compossible set, the best possible world, exists
in actuality.
Thus we see the centrality of Leibniz's doctrine of the striving possibles.
It follows from: (1) the fact that some contingent substance exists, (2) God's
necessary existence, and (3) God's free choice to subscribe to the principle of
sufficient reason. Unless Leibniz maintains some one of these three doctrines figuratively, he must maintain the doctrine of the striving possibles
literally.
In the other direction, Leibniz infers a great deal of his metaphysical
system from the doctrine of the striving possibles. If all possibles were cornpossible, all possibles would exist, s4 But they cannot all be compossible if
there is to be contingency for the actual world, s5 Now, it follows from the
fact that all possibles strive for existence that "there exists that series through
which the greatest amount exists, or the greatest possible series. ''36 What
does exist, then, is simply the maximal compossible set of striving possibles:
"There exists therefore, that which is most perfect, since perfection is nothing other than the quantity of reality. ''s7 The existence of the actual world,
according to Leibniz, is a direct result from: (x) the fact that all possibles
strive for existence, (~) that there is a series through which the greatest
amount of reality exists, or a maximal compossible set, and (3) degree of
perfection is degree of reality, s8
Finally, we can now see why Leibniz often says that nothing is added to
t h e complete individual concept of an existing individual, even though existence does not belong to the essences of contingent substances. Existence, as
Curley has suggested? 9 is simply a supervenient property. Leibniz says: "Existence is conceived by us as having nothing in common with essence; but
this cannot be so, since there must be more in the concept of a thing which
exists than in that of one which does not exist, that is, existence must be a
perfection, since all that is explicable in existence is being an ingredient of
the most perfect series of things. ''4~ This passage occurs in a discussion of
position, and Leibniz goes on to say, "In the same way we conceive position
See Gerhardt, 7: 289.
~5 See Leibniz's letter to Arnould, Parkinson, 59.
See Gerhardt, 7 : ~ 9 ~ Whether or not Leibniz is justified in making his inference depends upon: (l) the identity of indiscernibles (in some formulation), and (a) the impossibility of
there being two or more equally perfect compossible sets. This is, of course, the subject of
another inquiry.
s7 Gerhardt, 7: 29o: "Ex~t/t ergo perfectissimum,
cure nihil aliud sit quam quantita~ realitatis."
ss See Leibniz's letter to Eckhard, Loemker, 177.
s9 E. M. Curley, " T h e Root of Contingency," in Frankfurt, 86.
40 Parkinson, x34.

354

JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 24:3 JULY ~986

as something extrinsic, which adds nothing to the thing posited. ''4~ Thus,
existence does not belong in the essences of contingent individuals; nonetheless, an individual exists in virtue of the compatibility o f its essence with that
of the greatest number of other individuals.
4.

STRIVING

POSSIBLES,

CONTINGENCY,

AND CREATION

The claim that the doctrine of the striving possibles, interpreted literally,
entails Spinozism conflates two related but logically distinct issues: the issue
of contingency and the issue of God's status as a creator (by inferring that if
possibles really do strive for existence, then God cannot mediate between the
various possible striving worlds in creation). Accordingly, it will be useful to
treat these issues separately. If it is true that Leibniz intends the doctrine of
the striving possibles literally, how is there room for contingency? I cannot
here undertake to defend Leibniz's account of contingency in any general
way. But it is incumbent on me to show that no special problem about
contingency arises from Leibniz's subscribing to the doctrine of the striving
possibles interpreted literally.
On the view endorsed by Rescher and Blumenfeld, one accounts for the
contingency of the actual world in terms o f God's unnecessitated choice to
subscribe to the Principle of Perfection. On the account I have proposed,
God freely subscribes to the principle of Sufficient Reason, and, consequently endows all possible worlds with an exigency for existence. These two
explanations are similar in that each accounts for contingency in terms of
God's unnecessitated choice to subscribe to a principle which induces him to
create the best of all possible worlds.
But, it might be objected, there is an important difference between these
two accounts, and a difference which undermines a literal interpretation of
the doctrine of the striving possibles. Leibniz repeatedly complains that the
Cartesians fail to distinguish between God's intellect and will. According to
Leibniz, the realm o f possibles, qua possible, is independent of, or prior to,
God's will; God does not decide which possible worlds are possible, But if
possible worlds have a desire to exist just because of God's agency, then the
divine will seems involved in determining the intrinsic properties of possible
worlds. Hence, the independence, or priority, of the realm of the possibles is
undermined. But on the figurative reading o f Rescher and Blumenfeld, God
does not make the possibles strive as such; rather, in virtue of his unnecessitated subscription to the Principle of Perfection, he actualizes the best. God's
choosing to subscribe to this principle does not involve him in determining
the intrinsic properties of the realm of the possibles, and so does not under4~ Ibid.

DOCTRINE OF THE STRIVING POSSIBLES

355

mine their independence from his will. Therefore, one might conclude in
line with their argument, the figurative interpretation is superior to the
literal interpretation: the latter, but not the former, is inconsistent with
Leibniz's clear distinction between God's will and intellect.
This argument is unconvincing for two related reasons. First, when Leibniz distinguishes between God's intellect and will, he is interested in maintaining that God does not determine what possibles worlds there are. God
does not will that this or that world is possible. By endowing all possible
worlds with an exigency for existence, however, God does not will that any
given world is possible; on the contrary, he brings it about that one world,
the best, is actual. Second, it is not clear that having an exigency for existence counts as an intrinsic property of any given world. As we have seen,
Leibniz argues that existence is a supervenient rather than intrisic property.
Similarly, Leibniz may well believe that a conatus for existence is a supervenient rather than intrinsic property o f a given world. Hence, the doctrine
of the striving possibles, interpreted literally, does not undermine Leibniz's
distinction between God's will and intellect. Therefore, it poses no special
problem for contingency: interpreted literally or figuratively, the doctrine of
the striving possibles does not require the necessary existence of the actual
world as long as its existence is mediated by a free decision on the part of
God.
But if God does endow all possible worlds with an exigency for existence,
and the best world emerges as actual, can we still say that Leibniz's God is a
creator? Leibniz's own discussion of God's role in creation is very slim. Indeed, he once says that though it is clear that all monads were created by
God, "we cannot understand how this Was done. ''4" Nonetheless, he does
hazard a suggestion from time to time. In particular, Leibniz sometimes says
that "God has admitted [the actual world] into existence" (emphasis mine). 43
More importandy, he says quite explicitly in his Refutation of Spinoza, "It is
true that we must not speak otherwise of things created than that they are
permitted by the nature of God. TM So it seems that Leibniz envisages a
rather passive role for G o d in the creation of the actual world.
As we know, GOd makes all possibilities have an impulse (conatus) toward
existence, since he subscribes to the principle of sufficient reason. 45 That is
just to say that GOd gives impetus toward existence to all possibilities in equal
measure. God knows that the maximal set will express the greatest degree of
4, See Peter Remnant and Jonathan Bennett, eds., New Essays on Human Understanding
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, a982), 443.
4s See Loemker, 582.
See Refutation lnkdite de spinoza, edited by A. Foucher de Careil, (Paris, 1854), 2~.
43 See Gerhardt, 7:289 #5.

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24:3

JULY

t986

perfection, since as much reality as possibly can exist will exist, and perfection is just the degree of reality. But God himself does not pick this particular
potential Adam over some other potential Adam and then create him.
Rather, the existent Adam, just as the possible but non-existent Adam, has
an impetus to exist. But the existent Adam is a member of the maximally
compossible set exhibiting the greatest degree of variety. This explains why
the actual Adam exists: an existent is a being which is compatible with most
others (Existens esse Ens quod plurimis compatibile est.) 46
But how, ultimately, is God the cause of the actual existence of one possible world, and hence one Adam, over another? If all the complete individual
Adams (though o f course each must differ in some regard) 47 strive for
existence which equal fervor, but only one actually exists on account of its
degree of compossibility, it does not seem proper to say that GOd creates one
particular Adam.
There are two ways to respond. First, GOd conceives of all possibles, so he
is at least a necessary condition for the existence of any actual being. Further
GOd himself endows the possibles with their exigency toward existence. God,
an actual being, willingly subscribes to the principle of sufficient reason. If
he did not, he might, on a whim, have endowed only some portion of the
possibles with an exigency toward existence. But given his free choice, and
his decision to actualize potentialities, he endows all possibilities with an
exigency toward existence. Thus, God does create the actual world, since: (1)
the realm of the possibles is dependent on God, and (2) God makes them
strive for existence. The existence of the actual world is contingent since
God might not have chosen to subscribe to the principle of sufficient reason,
or might not have decided to create any substances at all? 8
It is not as if the possibles, qua possibles, strive for existence by their own
agency while God passively spectates, as Rescher, Russell, and Blumenfeld
seem to suggest. Rather, all possibles strive for existence, quite literally, by
the agency of GOd. Hence, there is no conflict between the Aristotelian
principle that no potential being exists in except by the agency of
46 See L. Couturat, opuscu/ts etfragm*~ inkdits de Leibniz (Paris, a9o3), 376, #73.
47 Clearly Leibniz has a bit of a problem talking about the n u m b e r of possible Adams since
each one is disdnct and there is no transworld identity. Nonetheless, he advances a precursor to
a counterpart theory in his correspondence with Arnauld, where he refers to the various Adams
sub ratione gen~ralitatis, Parkinson, 5548 In his correspondence with Arnauld, Leibniz suggests that God has a choice to create or
not to create substances (Parkinson, 59). It is a pressing, thought quite distinct, issue as to
whether God can have free choices to create the world, subscribe to the principle of perfecdon,
subscribe to the principle of sufficient reason, etc. I wish to point out, however, that my
suggesdons for contingency here work just as well as Rescher's and Btumenfeld's suggestion
that God freely subscribes to the principle of perfecdon. These issues must be resolved on
i n d e p e n d e n t grounds.

DOCTRINE

OF THE STRIVING

POSSIBLES

357

some actual being and the doctrine of the striving possibles. Therefore, our
original dichotomy, viz., that either the doctrine of the striving possibles is to
be understood figuratively or God has no role in creation, dissolves. For
possible worlds really do strive for existence, but only as a consquence of
God's endowing them with an exigency for existence.
Alternatively, one can characterize God's role in creation in the following
way. We have seen above 49 that Leibniz does not drive a wedge between
causation and explanation as many contemporary philosophers are inclined
to do. Thus, Leibniz is prepared to allow omissions to stand in causal
relations. ~~ As the possibles, by God's agency, strive for existence, a certain
maximal compossible set emerges. In accordance with his perfection, God
does not prevent this set from existing, since he desires the greatest degree
of perfection, which is a function of the amount of reality. Thus, God's
permititng or "admitting" a certain possible world to exist in actuality is the
proper explanation and cause of the universe. For the cause is nothing other
than the real reason (Nihil aliud enim causa est, quam realis ratio). Thus, we see
why Leibniz feels at his ease in claiming that God created the actual world
even though it "is true that we must speak otherwise of things created than
that they are permitted by the nature of God. TM

University of Arizona

49 See n. ~8 above.
50 See, for e x a m p l e , New Essays, 181.
5, I a m pleased to t h a n k Carl Ginet, A l a n Wood, Michael Woods, a n d two a n o n y m o u s
referees for the Journal of the Histo~ of Philosophy for their c o m m e n t s o n their drafts o f this
paper.