Leibniz on Believing at Will

This paper examines the degree of voluntary control we, according to Leibniz, have over our processes of belief-formation, and then proceeds to explore the implications of the resulting account for a Leibnizian ethics of belief. I suggest that Leibniz’s account occupies a promising middle-ground between an enthusiast view, which understands cognition to be purely the product of divine inspiration, and a Cartesian conception, which regards it as a completely autonomous voluntary achievement. Moreover, I emphasize that Leibniz, along with many of his contemporaries, views judgments as mental actions that are open to moral evaluation, just like other (physical) actions. Accordingly, the aim of good epistemic practice is not simply, as H.H. Price would assert some three centuries later, to acquire “as many correct beliefs as possible on as many subjects as possible” (Price 1969, 128), but, as Descartes puts it in the Discourse on Method, to “learn to distinguish the true from the false in order to see clearly into my actions and proceed with confidence in this life” (AT VI, 10). Leibniz, I argue, is centrally concerned with developing an ethics of belief that takes into account this moral dimension of our epistemic practice.