In the 17th Century, Leibniz Dreamed of a Machine That Could Calculate Ideas

Oscar Schwartz:

In 1666, the German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz published an enigmatic dissertation entitled On the Combinatorial Art. Only 20 years old but already an ambitious thinker, Leibniz outlined a theory for automating knowledge production via the rule-based combination of symbols.

Leibniz’s central argument was that all human thoughts, no matter how complex, are combinations of basic and fundamental concepts, in much the same way that sentences are combinations of words, and words combinations of letters. He believed that if he could find a way to symbolically represent these fundamental concepts and develop a method by which to combine them logically, then he would be able to generate new thoughts on demand.

The idea came to Leibniz through his study of Ramon Llull, a 13th century Majorcan mystic who devoted himself to devising a system of theological reasoning that would prove the “universal truth” of Christianity to non-believers.

Llull himself was inspired by Jewish Kabbalists’ letter combinatorics (see part one of this series), which they used to produce generative texts that supposedly revealed prophetic wisdom. Taking the idea a step further, Llull invented what he called a volvelle, a circular paper mechanism with increasingly small concentric circles on which were written symbols representing the attributes of God. Llull believed that by spinning the volvelle in various ways, bringing the symbols into novel combinations with one another, he could reveal all the aspects of his deity.