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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Before Philosophy. Primitive cultures often pos-
sess techniques for transforming matter that are sur-
prising anticipations of scientific methods. By 3,000 B.C.
specially designed heating pots were being used in
Mesopotamia for distillation of liquids and sublimation
of ores, and not much later arts of alloy-making, glass-
manufacture, and perfumery were widespread around
the Eastern Mediterranean. Primitive cultures also
develop elaborate accounts of the processes of material
nature, principally in myths where the processes are
translated into personal relations of natural deities and
semi-deities. Technique and myth are heterogeneously
mixed in ritual and magical practices. Such ritual con-
cerns were surely reflected in a relatively sophisticated
Babylonian theory of seven chief heavenly bodies,
seven metals, seven principal parts of the human body,
seven colors, seven days of the week, and seven stages
of the soul's enlightenment—a theory which can, inci-
dentally, remind us that progress towards a scientific
theory of matter has consisted almost as much in the
discovery of disillusioning disorder as of unanticipated
order. In spite of the facts that beliefs and attitudes
of enormous subsequent influence were formed at this
mythological stage of intellectual development, it is
difficult to speak of concepts of matter: matter had
not yet been distinguished from other elements or
aspects of experience.

The two ancient cultures that have had the most
direct influence on the development of the Western
world are the Hebraic and Greek, and even in the case
of a concept so philosophical and scientific as that of
matter it might be difficult to say which had had the
greater. Both cultures moved away from cosmogonies
where, as Thales is reported to have said, “All things
are full of gods” and, where as might equally be said,
all gods are full of natural forces. By the time of the
eighth-century prophets, the Jews were sharply distin-
guishing Yahweh, the personal, ethical, and absolute
lord of history, from the material world. The world
correspondingly lost its divine immanence, a develop-
ment illustrated by prophetic attacks on magic and
soothsaying employed to cajole divine compliance, in
favor of miracle and revelation, the uncoerced grace
of Yahweh to those who served his moral and historical
ends (cf. Numbers 22-24, esp. 23:23; Deuteronomy
18:14-16). It is illustrated above all by the doctrine
of creation: in Genesis 1 all the natural order (and no
other order so much as entered into the account) was
manipulable stuff from and in the hands of the creator.
While there was no developed theory of God's imma-
teriality, and in earlier Old Testament accounts God
had appeared in bodily form and acted creatively
through his breath, he was clearly now conceived in
such a manner that the material world could not react
reciprocally upon him. If the account was anthro-
pocentric, it was not because man was not part of
material creation but because he shared a moral per-
sonality with Yahweh.

2. The Pre-Socratics 600-400 B.C. It was with the
Greeks that “matter” first emerged as a cosmological
concept systematically distinguished from such con-
trasting notions as those of change, form, void, or mind.
The fact that some of these distinctions are currently
more vague than they have often previously appeared
should not blind us to the enormous intellectual ad-
vance such distinctions represented. Of course, the
conceptual clarifications came gradually: with the
physiologoi of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., the
so-called Pre-Socratics, the interpreter is often unsure
whether suggestive insights arise from profundities, or
merely from the fragmentary character and ambiguities
of the texts. The archai or “principles” which were
the common quest of Ionian inquiry might be historical
“origins,” “units” composing the material world, or
“axioms” of scientific theory.

Nevertheless these Ionian ventures beyond mythos
and towards sophia exhibit progressions. (1) The se-
quence of material constituents, from Thales' water
through Anaximenes' air to Heraclitus' fire, seems to
reflect a growing concern that the basic stuff of nature
be sufficiently active and refined to account for all its
phenomena, including especially those of life, conscious-
ness, and thought. (2) It has also been suggested by
C. Lejewski (McMullin, pp. 25-36) that while Thales'
water was that from which all things first came, Anaxi-
mander's apeiron (“the unlimited” or “unqualified”)
was also that to which they would eventually return,
while the air of Anaximenes (and then the fire of
Heraclitus) was in addition that of which all things
presently consisted. If the fragmentary textual hints are
reliable, they would represent an expansion from
merely historical to properly metaphysical cosmology.
(3) As to the forces effecting these transformations, in
Anaximander there was an alternate separating out of
variously qualified things from neutral stuff creating
inequalities within it, and then the compensatory re-
Anaximenes was concerned to account for the
world's unity: its varieties were only products of con


densation and rarefaction of the all-embracing

Finally in Empedocles, and then in his successors,
it was the mixture of separate and different elements
(for Empedocles, earth, water, air, and fire) under
varying influences (for Empedocles, love and hate) that
explained change. This combination of material plu-
ralism and structural monism has been called (Toulmin
and Goodfield) “the first appearance in our scientific
tradition of an important intellectual model.” The
general character of that model was preserved in the
theory of “homeomerous seeds” statistically distributed
under the action of Nous (“Mind,” “Reason”) in the
theory of Anaxagoras.

The challenge which came to these Ionian “river
gods” from the “patrons of Being,” the Pythagoreans
and the Eleatics—Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno—
could be described as an attack on “material” explana-
tions of the world. Of course, just as Ionian hylozoism
(animated matter) had introduced vitality as an imma-
nent property of the material stuff, so Pythagorean and
Eleatic “formalisms” were not entirely abstracted from
a material base. Still the judgment of Parmenides that
“only that can really exist which can also be thought”
(Diels, 3, 8, 34) meant that shapes, patterns, and pro-
portions could be assigned a metaphysical status equal
to that of stuff. Indeed Pythagorean acoustic theory
played a seminal role in the mathematization of matter
and the origin of mathematical physics. Parmenides
and Heraclitus provide at their sharpest the contrasts
which had developed between the two traditions: per-
manent Being as against fluent becoming, unity as
against plurality, and the requirements of conceptual
thought as against the reports of sensory experience.
Probably the sharpness of contrasts on questions of such
ultimacy stimulated the remarkable outburst of in-
genuity on the problem of matter that followed.

The “systematic period” of Greek philosophy, the
century from 400 to 300 B.C., embracing the active
careers of Democritus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle,
produced a set of rival theories the contrasts among
which foreshadowed many of the broad outlines that
subsequent debate has followed. Francis Bacon sug-
gested that these works survived in less fragmentary
form than those of the Pre-Socratics only because they
were less solid and so did not sink in the flood of
barbarism terminating classical civilization (Novum
lxvii). The earlier theories no doubt had the
advantage of a more intimate connection with the craft
tradition, but craftsmen are not always boldly experi-
mental, and Bacon's regret perhaps underestimates the
importance to inquiry of clear and coherently orga-
nized concepts. At any rate Democritean atomism,
Platonic organicism, and Aristotelian hylomorphism
have been recurrent ideas and pervasive influences in
the development of the sciences of matter.

3. The Atomic Theory. The devices by which
Democritus (ca. 460-367 B.C.) sought to resolve the
conflict between Heraclitean change (witnessed by the
senses) and Parmenidean permanence (required by
logical thought) were (1) the perpetuation of Par-
menides' distinction between appearance and reality,
but (2) the differentiation within reality of permanent
and immutable least parts of matter—“atoms”—on the
one hand, from their perpetual changes of place on
the other. All atoms were spatially extended, internally
homogeneous, qualityless, solid, rigid, and indivisible;
they differed in shape, size, characteristic positions in
relation to one another, and consequent velocities. If
there were many atoms of the same kind it was not
because nature came in species but because, given a
finite number of possible quantitative variations of an
infinite number of atoms, “chance” must run to dupli-
cations. The permanent actuality of the atoms was
postulated to avoid deriving being from non-being, but,
in defiance of Parmenides, the existence of non-being
was asserted in the form of the void to permit atomic
motion. Atom and void differed solely as the full (or
“well-kneaded”) from the empty, but this one real
distinction in the nature of things was the source of
all others and indeed of all qualitative determinations
found in sensory appearance. Time, for example, en-
joyed no such ontological status as space (or void), but
was the consequence of redistributions of full and
empty, “an appearance under the forms of day and
night” (Diels, 72). The impenetrability of matter, the
total penetrability of space, and their shared dimen-
sions determined natural processes with total and
mathematical necessity.

Phenomena were clearly radically in excess of what
the universe actually contained. Indeed Democritus
probably and his Epicurean followers certainly con-
ceived of philosophy precisely as an emancipation from
the deceptions of the senses and emotions. Thus super-
stitious fear was, characteristically, the product of an
overestimation of the capacity of the universe to inflict
pain. The cure was provided in the all-inclusive science
of the atom, the admittedly inferred but ultimately real
least part; sensory (and a fortiori imaginary) appear-
ance, by which “man is severed from the world” was
a sort of amalgam, or at least product, of the juxta-
position of the atom with its conceptual opposite, the
infinitely extended void. The theory, from its develop-
ment by Leucippus and Democritus, and populariza-
tion (cum modifications) by Epicurus and Lucretius has
since exercised an abiding attraction: on scientists be-
cause of the quantitative character of its model; on
humanist reformers because of its antisepsis of religious


beliefs and practices; and on all because of its simplic-
ity, clarity, and obvious correspondence to significant
mechanical aspects of macroscopic experience.

4. Plato's Theory of Matter. In Plato the permanent
Being insisted upon by Parmenides and the Pythag-
oreans found its place in the real and eternal Ideas
(forms, essences), while the flux of Heraclitus was repre-
sented in the becoming, opinion, and appearance of
the empirical realm, matter providing the crucial rela-
tion between the two. But matter was not permanently
actual as in Democritus: the material thing was “always
in a process of becoming and never really is” (Timaeus
27e-28a). Nor was material change mere locomotion,
but a radical generation and destruction of temporal
existents (cf. Laws X, 894a). Again, whereas for De-
mocritus matter and space were opposites, for Plato
they were identified, for the Receptacle, that “hardly
real” principle of which we can form only a “spurious
conception” (Timaeus 52b) at once provided an oc-
cupiable space and yet also was the Mother, impreg-
nated by the immaterial essences and providing the
very stuff of the Offspring. The Offspring was the
changing empirical object, a “moving image” of eternal
Forms, and its essentially temporal character again was
the product of the Receptacle. For Plato, then, unlike
Democritus, temporal dimensions were as constitutive
of material objects as spatial ones and it was impossible
neatly to distinguish the two. Even when the verbal
formulae sound quite similar, meanings are opposed,
for when Plato spoke of “necessity” it was not of
something following ineluctably from formal proper-
ties, but, contrarily, of resistance to the action of form.
“The creation is mixed, being made of necessity and
mind” and it was produced when “Mind, the ruling
power, persuaded,” and thus “got the better of [,]
necessity” (Timaeus 47e-48a). Indeed such necessity
was what was most essential to matter as Plato con-
ceived it. Persuaded by the logical considerations that
had earlier impressed Parmenides that changing em-
pirical objects could not be real, he posited eternal
and totally intelligible archtypes. But if these were the
real, whence the disparity of their sensible appearances
from them? Here Plato felt the need to introduce “a
third thing” (Timaeus 48e-49a) and, like Democritus,
to assert that in a certain sense non-being is (Sophist
241e); for both thinkers the argument seemed to re-
quire a principle contrary to full being. The “third
thing” for Plato was the obscurely known Receptacle;
it enabled him to account for imperfections in the
earthly and mortal spheres because the very function
he assigned to it was that of a principle of privation.
Forms were universal, absolute, eternal, omnipresent,
intelligible, harmonious, and perfect; their images in
matter were particular, relative, temporal, localized,
confused, discordant, and defective. For Plato, there-
fore, matter was precisely what resisted and debilitated

The foregoing account has deliberately emphasized
methodological parallels between Democritus and
Plato. It could be added that in both instances of
accounting for the experienced as a mixture of contrar-
ies one of the contraries was matter. The functions
assigned to it, however, as we have seen varied as
radically as “being” and “non-being.” Further, sharing
Democritus' judgment of the deceptiveness of sense
experience, Plato also saw philosophy as an emancipa-
tion from that illusion, but the contrast is more inter-
esting; for while by appearance Democritus meant the
surplus by which the epistemologically given exceeded
what was ontologically there, Plato meant the defi-
ciency by which it fell short. What distressed him was
the “very melancholy” possibility that men would
continue to live among diluted shadows and echoes
and never reach “truth and the knowledge of realities”
(Phaedo 90d).

In view of the foregoing contrasts it may seem sur-
prising that Plato nonetheless sketched out a hypothesis
of atomic structures (Timaeus 53c-58c). Certainly the
dialectical method and the doctrine of hierarchically
ordered Forms, to say nothing of his specific teachings
on the “world-soul” (Timaeus 34-37), indicated an
“organismic” disposition to explain parts in terms of
the whole rather than the reverse. His theory of atomic
elements was in fact a confirmation of his identification
of matter with spatiality and his preference for geo-
metrical structure over stuff as a principle of explana-
tion. He equated Empedocles' four elements with four
of the five regular convex solids Theaetetus had identi-
fied. He conceived of these solids as volumes bounded
by two sorts of plane triangles, the half (diagonally cut)
square and half equilateral triangle (cut from apex to
base) which could be recombined according to various
possible equations (Figure 1): for example, one liquid
atom (an icosahedron with one hundred twenty trian-
gles making up its surfaces) might be broken by the
action of fire or air into two atoms of air (octahedrons
with forty-eight surface triangles each, for a sum of
ninety-six) plus one atom of fire (a tetrahedron with
twenty-four surface triangles). Clearly so geometrical
a hypothesis of ordered kinds of bodies must be seen
as already an instance of Mind's “getting the better
of necessity.”

What remained most central to the Platonic view
of matter, however, was the principle of non-being,
the capacity of which to impede the teleology and
intelligibility of full Being nevertheless obliges us to
concede it a certain existence. It is almost an irony
that Max Jammer in his search for the origins of the


concept of mass—that most irreducible of material
characteristics—should uncover a trail to the Neo-
Platonic conception of the inertial passivity of matter.
Johannes Kepler, a millennium and a half later, still
found it appropriate to characterize as a “vice” the
property of matter: “plump and clumsy to move itself.”

5. Aristotle's Theory of Matter. Aristotle, like his
two famous predecessors, hoped to synthesize the valid
insights of rival predecessors, but the rivalry now more
immediately felt was between (Platonic) “dialecticians”
and (Democritean) “physicists.” In his hylomorphism
matter ceases to be one of the conceptual extremes
whose mixture produces the experienced world and
becomes rather the neutral substratum in which con-
trary properties succeed one another: “For my defini-
tion of matter is just this—the primary substratum of
each thing, from which it comes to be without qualifica-
tion and which persists in the result” (Physics 192a
31-32). The property of matter, therefore, was poten-
tiality, the indeterminate capacity for receiving alter-
native actualizing forms. Whatever was in the world
must be actual, and existent matter, therefore, was
always under some form, e.g., that of an element, plant,
or animal, but it was called “matter” by virtue of its
continuing and further potentialities. Form involved
at once a certain proportion of material parts and an
eduction of previously unactualized properties from
(or in) them.

The altered role for matter entailed modifications
in the concepts of space and time. For both Democritus
and Plato space had been a constitutive principle of
the empirical world—as the independently existing
arena for matter or as identical with it—but for Aris-
totle the form-matter substance was ontologically pri
mary, and space was relativized into the sum total of
its “places” (Physics iv. 1-5), a network of relations
of containing and being contained among material
substances. Similarly time had now to be conceived
neither as an accident of eternal atoms nor as the
ingredient of becoming in images (since Aristotle's
material substances were neither all eternal nor all
perishable), but again relationally in the “before's” and
“after's” of given “now's.” Finally the sense in which
Aristotle found “necessity” in material change was
neither that of mathematical determinism nor of re-
sistance to the aspirations of Mind; it designated rather
the potentialities without which a given actualization
could not take place (e.g., growth without food, a saw
without metal) on the hypothesis that nature or art
were tending towards such actualization.

These contrasts can be traced to those of method.
Aristotle is disposed to begin his analyses with the
proximate stuff of this object, in this place, now, seem-
ingly tending towards this end, because of his convic-
tion that the objects of sensory experience are those
most knowable to us. Sense neither radically embroi-
ders upon nor radically impoverishes the actual consti-
tution of such objects: the empirical world is part of
actuality and the part to whose potential for producing
form our cognitive potential for reproducing it most
closely corresponds. Prime Mover and prime matter
intrigued Aristotle as they have certainly intrigued his
interpreters, but scientific or philosophic method was
not conceived as mediation between them: they were
conceptual extremes to which expanding sciences had
finally come and they were conceivable only by anal-
ogy with the more familiar concepts of what lay be-
tween (Posterior Analytics 1. 2. 71b 32-72a 6; 12. 78a


13-21). The plurality of Aristotelian sciences is a con-
sequence of conceiving philosophy as something other
than emancipation from sensory deception: different
sciences were pursued for different kinds of useful or
interesting knowledge and at many formal levels. Mat-
ter qua matter was unintelligible at the level of abstrac-
tion of that of which it is the matter (e.g., bone is not
itself an anthropological concept), but its own formal
properties might be investigated at a more elementary
level (e.g., in physiology or medicine). Of course Aris-
totle's particular pride was that by means of the actu-
ality-potentiality distinction he thought he had given
a consistent account of change, i.e., one in which non-
being did not have to be invoked as an explanatory

These three rival fourth-century cosmological theo-
ries have historically provided paradigm conceptual
schemes for the centuries that have followed. The
sharpness and pervasiveness of the contrasts almost
tempt one to think them, in broadest outline, exhaus-
tive. However the mixing of features in subsequent
theories, to say nothing of new concrete knowledge
discovered by the sciences and the modification of the
conceptual elements which these discoveries make
necessary, limit at least somewhat the extent to which
it is helpful to characterize a theory as “Platonic” or

6. The Stoic Idea of Matter. At least one prominent
theory of antiquity is related to the foregoing systems
in so complex a way as to deserve separate treatment.
The Stoic theory is particularly remarkable in assigning
to matter many properties which were in contrast to
those defined elsewhere. The theory was in a sense as
insistent as the contemporary Epicurean atomism on
grounding all quality and action in a material base,
but this was matter that could act pervasively and
simultaneously throughout an organically structured
universe; matter the structures of which were not so
much productive of, as concomitant with, its modes
of action; matter that acted of necessity indeed, but
in the realization of rational and moral ends. The
“physics” of the school, whose greatest cosmologist was
Chrysippus (ca. 280-206 B.C.), was inspired by that of
Heraclitus: all the other three elements were ultimately
reducible to fire, the breath of life or soul (pneuma),
and their respective qualities followed from the dimin-
ished degree of their activity. The development of this
protean theory of the pneuma into an elaborate and
long-surviving theory of “nutritional,” “vital,” and
“animal spirits” might incline one to think it scientifi-
cally unfortunate, but its modes of explanation have
some affinities with contemporary ones in terms of
“fields,” “waves,” and “energy.” Toulmin and Good-
field credit the Stoics with “recognizing” and “tack
ling” “questions in matter-theory which have come to
the fore again only in the twentieth century” (The
Architecture of Matter,
p. 108).