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Atomism: what is and how has this philosophical paradigm developed?

Atomism: what is and how has this philosophical paradigm developed?

May 3, 2024

There is a lot we do not know. Reality is something complex and difficult to interpret, to which humanity has gone over time trying to give a plausible explanation. Religion, philosophy and science are some of the main ways through which it has been tried to explain the world, that have been evolving through the times. For example, in ancient times the existence of cells and molecules was unknown, although today their existence is something that most people know. And even less the substances that compose them.

However, even before being able to examine any type of matter through a microscope, the Greeks generated a theory that valued that all matter was made up of groupings of particles, which in turn could be reduced in smaller and smaller ones until they reached to an indivisible particle. We are talking about the appearance of atomism .


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Atomism: what it is, and general principles

Atomism is a philosophical paradigm born in ancient Greece , which considers that reality and the whole of matter is composed of different reducible particles in smaller and smaller units until arriving at some last particles that can not be reduced or divided anymore: the atoms. In reality, according to this paradigm, there are only atoms and emptiness.

This paradigm is a concept born in philosophy and that has been explored and used at a scientific level, being one of the main bases of chemistry. The atomism gives greater importance to the components separately than to the whole, considering that the fact of incorporating new atoms does not generate relevant differences in the elements that constitute. Atomism is also characterized by being essentially mechanistic .


Different types

There are different types of classical atomism, divided into two specific positions: the absolute physical atomism that considers that everything including the mind or concepts such as the soul or even God are configured by atoms, and the relative atomism in which matter only refers to the physical and corporeal.

Absolute Atomism

Absolute atomism is the best known at the philosophical level, being the first to emerge and the one that marked a style of thought that would allow later developments. Everything is explained by the atom, being everything that exists. The atom, the vacuum (in which nothing exists) and the movement of atoms is what configures everything that exists, existing different processes of aggregation and destruction of structures formed by atoms. Likewise, all matter is identical and with the same properties, being able to differ only in degree.


Relative Atomism

Relative atomism born to separate physical matter with spiritual aspects . The atom would then constitute only the material, being the soul or the deities another type of matter. It is considered that how the materia is organized is due to the order generated by the divinity.

In turn, this relative physical atomism can be homogeneous if it considers that all atoms were equal with the exception of characteristics such as size, shape or behavior or heterogeneous if it considers that there are a diversity of atoms with their own differential characteristics.

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Evolution through the times

Atomism as such has not remained indifferent to the passage of time, but rather has evolved in pursuit of scientific advances and the discoveries that have been produced in relation to the configuration of matter.

1. The atomism in antiquity

The emergence of atomism is attributed to Leucippus , author of the fifth century BC, that in the work Megasdiacosmos set a precedent in this regard. However, the classic author most considered as the authentic father of atomism was Democritus, a contemporary of Socrates. Democritus was the one who proposed that the world was divided into atoms and emptiness, this being the space by which atoms can move freely. Likewise, the atom is considered immutable, eternal and indivisible.

Subsequent to Democritus, atomism It was worked by different authors his disciples, like Anaxagoras (who would propose the existence of elementary particles different from each other) or Empedocles (who mixed the concept of atom with the four classical elements).

The last one that would follow the tradition proposed by Democritus would be Nausifanes , teacher of Epicurus.From this, Epicurus generates a change of orientation in the thought of atomism, focusing on human, moral and ethical elements and in turn on the mundane and on the evidence (Democritus classic was more theoretical and cosmological). This tradition has several concepts that would later set precedents for some of Karl Marx's theses.

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2. Middle Ages

With the arrival of the Middle Ages, atomism acquires different connotations, with the appearance of relative physical atomism and those who believe in it. they consider that the atoms are divine creation and their union obeys the law of God . After that, different authors such as Paracelsus in the Renaissance would link it with alchemy.

3. Modern Age

Later, in the Modern Age, the atomism would resurface at first linked to ecclesiastical dogma, although it was included in the debate of whether all atoms are equal (homogeneous) or different (heterogeneous), positions defended respectively by Gassendi and Maignan. Also other multiple authors support the atomism, among them Newton .

Contemporary age: the atom today

The scientific and technological development in recent centuries has allowed us to observe the existence of those that are still considered to this day the basic units of matter, the so-called atoms.

Dalton would generate one of the first scientific laws referring to atomism, already within the current physics. Through the law of the defined proportion and the law of multiple proportions He explained how the different chemical elements were combined: the simple elements are composed of unchangeable atoms whose characteristics explain the way in which the different weights of the elements make up a composite molecule.

Avogadro would contribute to the establishment of atomism as a scientist when classifying the atomic weights based on the weight of the hydrogen , something that has also come to us today through the periodic table of the elements that was described by Mendeleev.

However, with Thompson's discovery of electrons in 1897, Rutherford's experiments and Chadwick's contribution have found that atoms are actually also composed of other electrically charged substructures, protons, neutrons and electrons. In fact, classical physics would gradually be replaced by quantum physics according to the behavior of these particles was studied and that even these could be subdivided, as it happens with the quarks discovered by Perl. It also links and deepens in the study of the forces that generate union and separation of matter.

At present, even more primitive particles have been discovered, such as the recently discovered Higgs boson, or even antimatter, without a vacuum itself.

While what today we call atom may not be the concept proposed by the Greeks , it can not be ruled out that it ends up finding a particle that is not divisible, although there will always be a doubt whether with sufficient technology and capacity we could observe even more basic elements.

Bibliographic references:

  • Well, G. (1974). The presocratic metaphysics. Pentalfa Editions. Oviedo.
  • Echegoyen, J. (2014). History of Philosophy. Volume 1: Greek Philosophy Editorial Edinumen
  • EcuRed. (s.f) Atomism. Available at: //www.ecured.cu/Atomismo#Atomistas_de_los_siglos_XVII_y_XVIII [Accessed on [05/28/2018]
  • Encyclopaedia herder (s.f.) Atomism. Available at: //encyclopaedia.herdereditorial.com/wiki/Atomismo Consulted on [05/28/2018]

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