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Atomism is a philosophical current proposing a conception of a discontinuous universe, composed of matter and emptiness. According to atomists, the atoms that make up the universe are all of the same substance. They are indivisible and differ from each other only by their shape, their position and their movement (today what we have called “atom” – a Greek word meaning “indivisible” – is divisible via nuclear fission or even disintegrations, but elementary particles are not in the current state of our knowledge). The atomists constitute the real with the non-being, which thus has as much reality as the being itself. In the 5th century BC, Leucippus and his pupil Democritus of Abdera are considered to be the founders of atomism, a doctrine taken up later by Epicurus from the beginning of the 4th century BC, then by Lucretia (1st century BC).

History of atomism

In India

The Vaisheshika philosophy, of which Kanada (probably around 600 BC) is the founder, contains an atomic theory. His treatise, the Vaisheshika Sutra, dates from the first centuries AD.

Atomism in India developed through several Buddhist and Hindu schools, each characterized by its own philosophical theories. Atomism, despite the diversity of the different perspectives to which it has given rise, had as its objective to account for the fundamental unity that constitutes the world that we perceive through the senses, this unity being the atom. The Sanskrit term which designates this particle is aṇu or paramaṇu. The various schools which speak of atoms have various conceptions of these but they are united in that atoms are not directly observable, even through instruments: their existence is certainly deduced from experience, but as result of a speculative reasoning which is based on this one and compensates for its limits.

Nyâya-Vaiśeṣika School

For Nyâya-Vaiśeṣika, there are five basic material substances: water, air, fire, earth and ether (Ākāśa). These substances can have several qualities but they have one in particular which characterizes them each and which makes them unique. For this school, each of the five senses is constituted in relation to the ability to recognize the five elements.

The earth possesses the qualities of color, taste, smell and touch; water has the qualities of color, taste and feel as well as viscosity and fluidity; fire possesses the qualities of color and touch; air has the quality of touch despite its invisibility; the ether has no perceptible qualities but it must be a substance because it is through space that the vibrations of sound travel to the ear (Vaiśeṣika sutra II.1.1-11).

In this school, all matter is considered to be made of atoms. These are indestructible, that is, they are eternal, indivisible and have no size. All atoms are thought to be spherical; they are therefore not distinguished by their shape, but by their qualities (color, taste, etc.).

Since atoms are always in motion, they have a high probability of encountering another atom of the same type (i.e. of the same substance, eg water) and uniting. This union takes place in the presence of atoms of other types which play a supporting role (catalysts). Two atoms of different substances cannot combine.

Two atoms of the same substance therefore unite and form a dyad, as invisible as the atoms themselves. Then three dyads can unite to form a triad. Triads can be formed by different substances (dyads of different elements can unite with each other), and they can be perceived by the senses. As a result, triads are the smallest conceivable perceptible objects. The best-known example of a triad, given by this school, is the dust particle visible in a ray of sunlight.

The “size” of the triad is due to the presence of several dyads and not to their individual size. The minimum number to constitute the plurality is therefore three. More than three dyads can also combine, for example four dyads unite to form a tetrad. According to the Nyāya – Vaiśeṣika, atoms cannot directly (without going through dyads) form triads or tetrads because objects that have magnitude must be formed by something that is also a product. Since atoms are eternal, if they united directly into triads these in turn would be eternal, but experience shows us that observable objects are neither eternal nor indestructible. So, the role that atoms play is to be located in the production of dyads: when two atoms are combined they “devote” themselves to their function as the material cause of dyads, and therefore lose their other characteristics, such as eternity.

Jaina School

In Jaina’s philosophical system, the world is not simply an object subject to change. For this school, the world has no beginning and no end; it is composed of two types of objects, the living and the non-living (inert?), the latter comprising the dharma, the akāśa, the pudgala and the kāla. With the exception of the kala, these non-living objects are known as astikaya: they exist and have an extension, that is, they occupy a certain space.

The atom is defined as that which cannot be cut or divided. It is designed as the most subtle particle, that is, without parts. Contrary to the views of the Nyāya – Vaiśeṣika school, the atom is not considered by the Jaina school to be fixed in a fixed way; on the contrary, its characteristics (color, taste, smell and touch) are liable to change over time. On the other hand, atoms are found in nature at a specific place and time: they are located in space and time.

Jaina thinkers further say that two or more atoms combine to form an aggregate, called a skandha. The physical world is a mahaskandha. This philosophy recognizes a wide variety of skandhas: these skandhas can have a countable amount of units (samhatapradesika), an uncountable amount of units (asamkhyatapradesika), an infinite number of units, or a finite number of combinations.

What causes atoms to combine are their inherent characteristics: the attractive force, the repulsive force and the attractive-repulsive force. These forces are present both in atoms and in their aggregates. In the atomist approach of the Jaina school, the union of atoms is the play of attractive and repulsive forces, without taking into account the qualitative nature of the atoms which combine, and these may or may not be of the same type.

Unlike the Nyāya – Vaiśeṣika school, the atoms of the Jaina school have all the characteristics of touch, taste, smell and color and they are similar to each other, without qualitative or quantitative differences (if they differ from each other, is it by the different realizations of each of the four qualities), that is to say that there is no distinction, for example between atoms of earth or atoms of water. In addition, in Jaina philosophy, atoms are the lightest matter in existence.

The most important aspect from the point of view of the Jaina school in relation to matter is that it exists eternally, unlike the Nyāya – Vaiśeṣika school. The atom is not the mark of the beginning of the matter which is built from it, nor of its disintegration into new isolated elements, but on the contrary represents a moment of the natural process and is no longer a privileged term for it.

Buddhist schools

Ancient canonical Buddhism does not account for atomism in its works. Of the four canonical Buddhist schools, only the Vaibhāṣika and the Sautrāntika in their philosophy admit the existence of atoms. They see matter as the union of four substrates: color, taste, smell and touch. And atoms are the smallest unit of rūpa, which is what has the ability to stimulate the sense organs.

For these schools, atoms cannot be divided, analyzed, seen, heard, or touched, and cannot be tested by direct experience. There are two types of atoms, simple (dravyaparamanu) and compounds (samghataparamanu). Matter is viewed in different ways, but in general it is seen as an agglomeration of independent atoms, like a cloud made up of a central atom and other atoms surrounding it. This agglomerate has no holes and the atoms cannot interpenetrate.

According to these schools, an aggregate is defined by eight atoms: four fundamental atoms and four secondary atoms. The four fundamentals are: earth (solid), water (liquid), fire (hot) and air (movement). The secondary atoms are: color, smell, taste and touch (in this system the qualities are also atomic in nature). Each secondary atom needs four fundamental atoms to support it, so the aggregate consists of 20 atoms (4 fundamental + 4 compounds x 4 fundamental). However, this is only valid on condition that the body in question does not produce sound, but if it does, then the aggregate will have 25 atoms. It would also seem that the Buddhists of these two schools see the sense organs as modifiers of atomic matter.

These two schools do not speak of atoms as particles of any particular substance, rather they think of them as force or energy. For example, terrestrial atoms are related to the force of repulsion, aqueous atoms are related to the force of movement (kinetics). In Buddhist considerations, all forces are present in all things in the same proportions. Different body types are perceived by the varying intensity of the force or energy content of different states, even though the proportions between the different qualities remain equal.

The Buddhist view of atoms as dynamic forces is in harmony with the doctrine of the ephemeral, which explicitly states that all things change and that everything has an end. The permanence, or stable existence of perceived objects of ordinary form, is a function of our thought process. All objects have a momentary existence, that is, all objects disappear as soon as they appear.

In Ancient Greece

In his book The Relativist Deduction (1925), the philosopher of science Émile Meyerson writes: “Atomicity is indeed, as we know well enough, a very old conception, born in Greece and elsewhere, more or less simultaneously. Atomism is a physical theory proposing a conception of a discontinuous universe, composed of matter and vacuum. With the beginnings of physics, it played in this science a role that was sometimes leading, sometimes more effaced, depending on whether the vicissitudes of evolution more or less shed light on the manifestations of the discontinuous.”

Epicureanism is a philosophy based on atomism to help men free themselves from their anxieties. In the 1st century BC, Lucretia wrote his work De rerum natura, dedicated to Caius Memmius, in order to initiate him into Epicureanism.

In medieval Islam

The kalâm develops atomist ideas.

In the middle Ages

Atomism is illustrated in the 14th century with Nicolas d’Autrecourt, Gérard d’Odon, Nicolas Bonet.

In modern times

The vitalist atomism of Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno doubles his atomism with vitalism, in a Latin poem entitled De minimo, dated 1591. The atom is the center of life, it is a point where the Soul of the world is inserted. In 1591, in Frankfurt, Giordano Bruno wrote in Latin two poems on the monad: De triplici minimo and De monade, numero et figura. He calls minimum or “monad” an indivisible entity which constitutes the minimum element of material and spiritual things. The monad, which corresponds to the point of mathematics and to the atom of physics, is this primitive being, imperishable by nature as well bodily as spiritual, which generates, by reciprocal relations, the life of the world. It is an extrinsic individualization of divinity; finite existence, it is an aspect of infinite essence. God, minimum and maximum, is the supreme Monad from which an infinity of inferior monads escapes eternally.

17th century corpularism

Without necessarily being atomists, Galileo, Pierre Gassendi, Sébastien Basson, Robert Boyle and Newton admit the existence of small particles of matter in nature.

Galileo published in 1623 an important work on the subject of atomist philosophy, The Assayer, which results for him in a letter of denunciation from the Jesuit Orazio Grassi, because of theses contrary to the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation. Since Pietro Redondi’s book, many historians of science believe that this was the real reason for the Jesuits’ opposition to Galileo.

The main theoretician of atomism in the 17th century was Pierre Gassendi, canon of Digne, who, after studying the life and doctrine of Epicurus, published Animadversiones in 1649.

In 1646, the French Johannes Magnenus wrote Democritus reviviscens sive de atomis (Reviving Democritus, or of the atom).

Church authorities bitterly fought the theory of atomism during the seventeenth century, because a material with an atomic structure was hardly compatible with transubstantiation, a dogma reaffirmed at the Council of Trent, which relied since Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Aristotelian scheme of substance and accidents. This is the reason why the Jesuits, for example, banned atomism in their colleges in 1641, 1643 and 1649.

Étienne de Clave caused a scandal by placarding in Paris in 1624 with two other accomplices fourteen theses against Aristotle, the last of which proclaimed that it was necessary to substitute atomism for Aristotle’s hylemorphism: “All things are composed of atoms or indivisible, were ignored or more often maliciously flouted by Aristotle ”. In the following decades, he developed his views in three books on (al) chemical theory and practice.

Scientific atomism

Modern, scientific, experimental atomic theory is formulated by John Dalton, in his work New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808-1827). It gives the first symbolic representation related to systems of atoms and a table of atomic masses. His method for determining the mass of atoms being erroneous, his theory is contested by the equivalentist school (equivalent notations based on combination weight ratios, on volume ratios or on substitution equivalents) of Marcellin Berthelot and William Hyde Wollaston , until the publication in 1913 of Jean Perrin, The Atoms.

Is quantum physics an atomism?

Since quantum physics, the reductionist thesis that atoms and vacuum are the two entities constituting matter is problematic. Kuhlman sums up the paradox as follows:

  • quantum field theory is atomistic, if by that we mean that there are reductionist explanations, but
  • quantum field theory is not atomistic, if by that we mean that there are only particles and vacuum.

However, according to Kuhlman, even the first thesis could be refuted, because in modern particle physics there are no longer fields and particles which are fundamental entities.

Benjamin Hiley, colleague of David Bohm comments:

”Let us ask the question: “Where is the ‘substance’ of matter?” Is it in the atom? The answer is clearly “no”. The atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons. Is it then in the protons and neutrons? Again “no”, because these particles are made of quarks and gluons. Is it in the quark? We can always hope it is, but my feeling is that these entities will be shown to be composed of “preons”, a word that has already used in this connection. But we need not go down that road to see that there is no ultimon. A quark and an antiquark can annihilate each other to produce photons (electromagnetic energy) and the photon is hardly what we need to explain the solidity of macroscopic matter such as a table. Thus we see the attempt to attribute the stability of the table to some ultimate “solid” entity is misguided.”
— Benjamin Hiley


In the Critique of Pure Reason, on the occasion of the transcendent dialectic, Immanuel Kant makes atomism one of the two terms of the second antinomy.

In his book Les intuitions atomistiques (1935), Gaston Bachelard criticizes what he calls “naïve atomism”.

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