PMP research seminar; Justin E. H. Smith: "Ethnolinguistics as Theodicy in Leibniz's Correspondence with Peter the Great"

PMP research seminar (

Wednesday, 2 June, 12-14
(Auditorium II, Main Building, Unioninkatu  34 [Helsinki], 2nd floor)

Justin E.H. Smith (Montreal), Ethnolinguistics as Theodicy in Leibniz's Correspondence with Peter the Great

Scholars have often supposed that Leibniz's interest in Russia was strictly instrumental: first, that he saw it as a bridge to China, which was truly a terra incognita worthy of study, unlike the relatively close and familiar Slavic world; and second, that he hoped to be able to gain political influence as an advisor to Peter the Great (which eventually he did, being appointed to the position of Russian privy councillor in 1712).  But what this account misses is that Leibniz became interested in Russia, certainly not out of any particular Russophilia, but rather as part of a much more global perspective: he wanted nothing less than an ethnolinguistic map of all of Eurasia, and he recognized that the way to gain the relevant knowledge of a broad portion of the relevant geographical area was through the mediation of the Tsar.

The dream of such a map was rooted in part in the belief that language is the principal criterion of distinction between different human groups. In a 1703 letter to Peter the Great's war councillor, Heinrich von Huyssen, Leibniz identifies ethnolinguistics as itself a branch of geography: "Among other curiosities," he writes,  "geography is not the least, and I find fault in the descriptions of distant countries to the extent that they do not take note of the languages of peoples."  It is because of this oversight, Leibniz thinks, that "we do not at all know the relations between them, nor yet their origins."

Such an ethnolinguistic map would make distinctions, certainly, but would also testify to an underlying unity, much like Leibniz's metaphysical project as a whole. For in the end Leibniz believes that particular natural languages are at once monuments to the history of particular peoples and regions, but also vehicles for one and the same universal body of truths. Thus Leibniz believes that when the study of the classical texts of textual cultures has been exhausted, learned people will move on to the study of language itself as the ultimate frontier of a post-textual philology. Here, Samoyed and 'Lappish' will be just as useful as Greek and Latin.

In this paper, I will show that Leibniz develops these views nowhere more fully than in his correspondences with the Russian Tsar and his councillors, whom he hoped to persuade to help him in his campaign to conduct a linguistic survey of the Russian empire and all of its peoples, both literate and preliterate. This campaign, I will further argue, amounts to a concrete application of Leibniz's theory of human nature, of human knowledge, and of language, all of which are in turn rooted in his metaphysical picture of the world as consisting in infinite reflections of the same order from different points of view.