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Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz
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Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Born: 1 July 1646 in Leipzig, Saxony (now Germany)

Died: 14 Nov 1716 in Hannover, Hanover (now Germany)

Gottfried Leibniz was the son of Friedrich Leibniz, a professor of moral philosophy at Leipzig. Friedrich Leibniz:-

...was evidently a competent though not original scholar, who devoted his time to his offices and to his family as a pious, Christian father.

Leibniz's mother was Catharina Schmuck, the daughter of a lawyer and Friedrich Leibniz's third wife. However, Friedrich Leibniz died when Leibniz was only six years old and he was brought up by his mother. Certainly Leibniz learnt his moral and religious values from her which would play an important role in his life and philosophy.

At the age of seven, Leibniz entered the Nicolai School in Leipzig. Although he was taught Latin at school, Leibniz had taught himself far more advanced Latin and some Greek by the age of 12. He seems to have been motivated by wanting to read his father's books. As he progressed through school he was taught Aristotle's logic and theory of categorising knowledge. Leibniz was clearly not satisfied with Aristotle's system and began to develop his own ideas on how to improve on it. In later life Leibniz recalled that at this time he was trying to find orderings on logical truths which, although he did not know it at the time, were the ideas behind rigorous mathematical proofs. As well as his school work, Leibniz studied his father's books. In particular he read metaphysics books and theology books from both Catholic and Protestant writers.

In 1661, at the age of fourteen, Leibniz entered the University of Leipzig. It may sound today as if this were a truly exceptionally early age for anyone to enter university, but it is fair to say that by the standards of the time he was quite young but there would be others of a similar age. He studied philosophy, which was well taught at the University of Leipzig, and mathematics which was very poorly taught. Among the other topics which were included in this two year general degree course were rhetoric, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He graduated with a bachelors degree in 1663 with a thesis De Principio Individui (On the Principle of the Individual) which:-

... emphasised the existential value of the individual, who is not to be explained either by matter alone or by form alone but rather by his whole being.

In this there is the beginning of his notion of "monad". Leibniz then went to Jena to spend the summer term of 1663.

At Jena the professor of mathematics was Erhard Weigel but Weigel was also a philosopher and through him Leibniz began to understand the importance of the method of mathematical proof for subjects such as logic and philosophy. Weigel believed that number was the fundamental concept of the universe and his ideas were to have considerable influence of Leibniz. By October 1663 Leibniz was back in Leipzig starting his studies towards a doctorate in law. He was awarded his Master's Degree in philosophy for a dissertation which combined aspects of philosophy and law studying relations in these subjects with mathematical ideas that he had learnt from Weigel. A few days after Leibniz presented his dissertation, his mother died.

After being awarded a bachelor's degree in law, Leibniz worked on his habilitation in philosophy. His work was to be published in 1666 as Dissertatio de arte combinatoria (Dissertation on the combinatorial art). In this work Leibniz aimed to reduce all reasoning and discovery to a combination of basic elements such as numbers, letters, sounds and colours.

Despite his growing reputation and acknowledged scholarship, Leibniz was refused the doctorate in law at Leipzig. It is a little unclear why this happened. It is likely that, as one of the younger candidates and there only being twelve law tutorships available, he would be expected to wait another year. However, there is also a story that the Dean's wife persuaded the Dean to argue against Leibniz, for some unexplained reason. Leibniz was not prepared to accept any delay and he went immediately to the University of Altdorf where he received a doctorate in law in February 1667 for his dissertation De Casibus Perplexis (On Perplexing Cases).

Leibniz declined the promise of a chair at Altdorf because he had very different things in view. He served as secretary to the Nuremberg alchemical society for a while (see [188]) then he met Baron Johann Christian von Boineburg. By November 1667 Leibniz was living in Frankfurt, employed by Boineburg. During the next few years Leibniz undertook a variety of different projects, scientific, literary and political. He also continued his law career taking up residence at the courts of Mainz before 1670. One of his tasks there, undertaken for the Elector of Mainz, was to improve the Roman civil law code for Mainz but:-

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