Leibniz and the Beginnings of the Causal Theory of Time

  • Henry Mehlberg
  • Robert S. Cohen
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 19-1)


In 1716, the very year of his death, Leibniz, just after expounding his relational theory of time (usually referred to as his ‘relativist’ theory) in a famous exchange of letters with Clarke, rounded it out with a causal theory. The new theory owed its composition to an outside stimulus, the ‘excellent mathematician’, Christian Wolff, who had published an article in a recent issue of the Acta eruditorum in which certain of Leibniz’s ideas on mathematical proof were set forth. Leibniz seized the opportunity to write down some thoughts, “contemplated for a long time”, on the “metaphysical origins of mathematics”. The causal theory of time is found in several lines of the note which is supposed to define the ‘mathematical’ notions of space, time, distance, etc., in terms borrowed from the ‘metaphysical’ notions of sufficient reason and non-contradiction. The theory had no immediate effect. It was not until 1863 that, thanks to the efforts of Pertz, this note (based on a manuscript in the Royal Library in Hanover) was printed in the ‘complete’ edition of Leibniz’ works.2 It was the object of a brief critical exposition in Baumann’s compilation [1869] on the philosophy of mathematics,3 apparently without either the exposition or the critique attracting the attention of those interested in the problem of time.


Temporal Order Temporal Relation Sufficient Reason Causal Theory Causal Action 
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1980

Authors and Affiliations

  • Henry Mehlberg
  • Robert S. Cohen
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Philosophy and History of ScienceBoston UniversityUSA

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