Frank Ankersmit: Where the Two Extremes Meet


Frank Ankersmit is emeritus professor of philosophy of history and intellectual history at Groningen University. He wrote some fifteen books on philosophy of history, political philosophy and aesthetics – most of them focussing on the theme of representation. He is presently working on a book on Leibniz and historical representation.


Where the Two Extremes Meet (abstract)

The relation between the sciences and historical writing is an old and venerable theme in the history of the philosophy of history. I hope to show that new light can be shed on the topic with an appeal to Leibniz’s logic and metaphysics. My claim will be that there is a common ground shared by the sciences and historical writing. Though from this common ground both move into entirely different directions. The fact that Leibniz was both a brilliant mathematician and, in the words of Heimsoeth, ‘the most extreme individualist in the history of Western philosophy’, may explain why his philosophy offers interesting arguments for this rapprochement between thesciences and historical writing.

I’ll start with representation and argue that, for Leibniz, representation and the represented are distinct and yet inseparable – ‘aliud est distinctio, aliud separatio’, to quote Sir Francis Bacon. This claim about Leibnizian monadological metaphysics has its counterpart in his theory of the sign: the sign is the symbol that stands for itself. This is the point of departure for Leibniz’s argument about the ‘calculatio caeca aut symbolica’ in mathematics that earned him the honour of often being seen as the father of symbolic and mathematical logic. I’ll show that much of Leibniz’s insights can be transposed to the semantics of historical representation. Finally, I’ll say a few things about how the notion of the differential quotient (discovered at roughly the same time by Leibniz and Newton) can be used to support the claim of the rationality of historical writing and historical debate.

Last updated: 16.10.2017