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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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It would perhaps be appropriate that a study of the
concept of matter in modern times should be forced
to consider the indispensable role of the relatively
non-conceptual factors of technique and apparatus, for
in terms of connotations of matter as they have been
laid out these would represent the more material as-
pects of science. The principal concern here, however,
must be with conceptual factors.

1. Changes in the Concept of Matter. Given the
range of materials on concepts of matter from, say,
Nicolas of Cusa (1401-64) to Isaac Newton (1640-
1727) it is useful to try to summarize, roughly, while
recognizing the inevitability of exceptions, what dis-
tinguishes the modern view from that of the preceding
period. The chronological account that follows there-
after can then be selective and merely illustrative.

The medieval universe, whether described by Plato-
nists or Aristotelians, was hierarchically ordered, e.g.,
in the astronomical distinction between celestial and
terrestrial spheres, the biological order of rational,
animal, and vegetable souls, and the alchemical divi-
sion of nobler and baser materials; and almost univer-
sally the greater the material component of any nature,
the lower in the hierarchy it fell. This view was sup
planted by an effort to account for all of physical
nature by one homogeneous matter operating
throughout by one set of mechanical laws. There were
no doubt some elements of coincidence in the mutual
reinforcement given to this rejection of hierarchy by
the growing success of Copernicus, Gilbert, Kepler,
Descartes, and Newton in applying the principles of
terrestrial mechanics to celestial movement on the one
hand, and the emphasis of the Protestant Reformers
on the absolute and unmediated sovereignty of God
over every creature on the other. Perhaps a majority
of the working “natural philosophers” of the early
modern period felt that double motivation.

It is relatively easy to detect in the Middle Ages
a pattern of transition from the early Platonic syntheses
(patristics), to an Aristotelian system of sciences (thir-
teenth century onwards), to late medieval analysis and
critique (especially from the fourteenth century on-
wards); and the increasingly “atomistic” modes of
thought even went so far in Nicolas of Autrecourt (fl.
1340), a philosopher-theologian of the Ockhamist
school, as the claim that the hypothesis of Lucretius
was preferable to that of Aristotle. The Church was
able to repress heretical speculation in Nicolas, but
increasingly in the Renaissance the whole range of
ancient methods and systems (Platonic corpus by
Ficino's translation, 1463-69; Lucretius by 1417) was
again available—the Platonic conception of parts as
dependent aspects of wholes, the Democritean under-
standing of wholes as collections of independent parts,
and the Aristotelian distinction of essential from acci-
dental in the experientially given. All these resources
were exploited by various thinkers and in various mix-
tures, but it was the long-neglected possibilities of
atomism that were most revolutionary. As the “closed
world,” centered first on the earth and then on the sun,
became observationally and conceptually untenable,
atomism's postulate of an “infinite universe” seemed
scientifically confirmed.

The enthusiasm for “corpuscular philosophy,” found
in some guise or other in all the most productive
thinkers of the time, meant that quantitative or “pri-
mary” properties such as extension, duration, and ve-
locity—properties the mathematical statement of
which corresponded in fairly direct fashion to what
was actually experienced—became the basis of causal
explanations. The old “substantial forms” and “sensible
species,” which were incapable of such equivalent
mathematical statement, were rejected as “occult
qualities,” unverifiable and redundant, and as “second-
ary” properties resulting from the action of the “pri-
mary” ones but having no status other than that of
“appearance” in the mind. It further followed that
teleological explanations, certainly in terms of the ends


inherent in the natures of particular macroscopic spe-
cies, and, more cautiously, in terms of the general
welfare of nature as a whole, were increasingly rejected
as unphilosophical. The “great book” of the universe,
said Galileo, “is written in the mathematical language—
triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without
whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single
word of it...” (Il saggiatore, sec. 6).

What substituted for patterns of behavior immanent
in the forms of a hierarchy of beings from enmattered
elements, plants, and animals to immaterial “Intelli-
gences” and God were “laws of nature,” usually con-
ceived as externally imposed upon matter at its crea-
tion by God. Descartes in some ways carried this
tendency further than anyone else. He first correctly
formulated the principle of inertia in terms of rest or
uniform rectilinear motion. Making sheer geometrical
extension the essence of material body, and postulating
a law of the conservation of motion (whatever the
directional variations), he found it necessary to intro-
duce force or causal agency (as contrasted with inertial
transfer of motion) at only one point, God's creative
and sustaining fiat. Thinkers such as Spinoza, Male-
branche, Leibniz, and Newton were unwilling to cen-
tralize physical causality in exactly the Cartesian way,
but the occasionalism of Malebranche, the pre-
established harmony of Leibniz, and even the monism
of Spinoza show Descartes' influence or the same influ-
ences that persuaded him. Cum deus calculat fit
(“As God calculates so the world happens”),
and the confidence that the laws of nature would be
relatively few and rationally ordered was sustained by
the belief in their origin in one supremely rational

While, therefore, there was a revival of atomistic
and mechanistic modes of thought in the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, there was a difference, and it
also helps to account for their wider influence in mod-
ern times. Given the sociological position of the insti-
tutional churches, early science would certainly have
had a far more stormy reception if it had not been
disposed to use God as the ready-to-hand Deus ex ma-
in many a difficulty, or supposed difficulty, where
it turned out to be convenient to think of the machina
ex deo.
Thus most—not all—of the champions of cor-
puscular philosophy held that God had first created
the atoms; that the laws by which they were governed,
however mechanical, were directed to providential
ends; and that human consciousness represented a sub-
stance as real as, though radically different from, phys-
ical matter.

In metaphysical terms this very often meant that
materialistic themes were combined with Platonic as
in Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. An interesting case
in point is on the question of the infinite divisibility
of matter, denied by ancient atomism, maintained by
Descartes and his active school. This was a traditional
Platonist doctrine, for such diffuseness at the lower
extremity of the “chain of being” was the appropriate
dialectical contrary to the absolute and spiritual Unity
at its head. It seems clear that Descartes could ignore
the atomists' argument that existence must finally have
its irreducible units, because his matter or extension
was an imperfect grade of substance (less perfect than
thinking substance, for example) which existed only on
the continuing sufferance of God. When Leibniz re-
vived the argument that there could be no plura entia
without the final unum ens (“no multitude without
units”), but this time on behalf of the psychical monads
of which he conceived matter to be composed, he was
as he himself realized, both more atomistic and more

These generalizations may now be supplemented
with a fuller description of the theories of matter of
two thinkers, one of the sixteenth, one of the seven-
teenth century, illustrative, though something more
than typical, of their ages: Giordano Bruno and Isaac

2. A Renaissance Theory of Matter: Bruno. It has
already been suggested that the Renaissance does not
conveniently mark an epoch in the history of Western
concepts of matter. It was a period of accelerating
scientific advance, but so were the later Middle Ages
and, even more certainly, the Enlightenment which
followed. In its early stages the literary and humanistic
preoccupations and the conviction of the vast superi-
ority of antiquity to anything offered by the medievals
no doubt led to the neglect of some interesting medie-
val inquiries e.g., those into “uniform difform” (uni-
formly accelerated) motions just as the logical, cosmo-
logical, and theological preoccupations of the
thirteenth century had probably retarded a literary
renascence. But the scientific value of a more accurate
and complete translation of Archimedes (1543), for
example, which humanistic scholarship had made pos-
sible, should not be underrated. By the middle of the
sixteenth century the most prominent names in philos-
ophy were not primarily humanists but natural philoso-
phers—Telesio, Patrizi, Bruno. What does distinguish
the theories of matter of the Renaissance from those
of the Middle Ages and the seventeenth century is that
it is far more difficult to discover anything like a con-
sensus. Perhaps for that very reason the embattled but
commanding figure of Bruno is especially revealing.

Poet, moralist, logician (the “Lullian art”), cos-
mologist; Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist; inspired by
Plotinus and Nicolas of Cusa in metaphysics and by
Lucretius and Copernicus in cosmology, Giordano


Bruno was a wide-ranging dissolvent of the Aristotelian
orthodoxies lodged in the universities and, though to
a far lesser degree, a prophet of systems to come. He
found the sort of philosophical significance in Coper-
nicus that Spencer found in Darwin: the geocentric
and anthropocentric theories had been exploded; noth-
ing but an infinite (and thus centerless) universe was
compatible with an infinite God. Similarly biological
hierarchies with man regularly at the apex were mere
pretension—for one thing other heavenly bodies were
probably populated as well. His theory of matter ap-
pears to have undergone an evolution from inherited
Aristotelian hylomorphism towards pantheism. The
ephemeral individuals of ordinary experience became
accidents rather than substances, accidents of either
matter or form which as more permanent features of
the universe, he later dealt with as substances. Yet in
the final analysis matter and form were one in God,
who thus became the only substance and (apparently
the final position) identical with nature. (No direct
influence on Spinoza has been traced.) The first efficient
cause was the World Soul or Universal Intellect imma-
nent in its own matter; at the more local level likewise
all future forms were virtually—i.e., incipiently, not
merely potentially—present in the matter (cf. logoi
of Stoics, rationes seminales of Augustine).
Yet, paradoxically, Bruno seems to have clung to the
Aristotelian distinction between elements subject re-
spectively to gravity and levity, in spite of the facts
that this seemed to comport awkwardly with his in-
finite, and therefore directionless, universe (cf., how-
ever, Lucretius' absolute “down”), and that Coperni-
cus, Gilbert, and Kepler were already thinking of
multiple heavenly bodies as exercising gravitional
attraction. Very far from the observational and mathe-
matically-armed scientist, Bruno nevertheless probably
deserves to be considered a scientific martyr—for his
unsparing exposure of inconsistencies in existing theo-
ries, his eclectic independence, his imaginativeness in
attempted syntheses, and his courage in finally refusing
to recant before he was burned by the Inquisition in

3. A Seventeenth-Century Theory of Matter: Isaac
A. N. Whitehead's characterization of the
seventeenth as the “century of genius” seems eminently
fitting. To the men whose collective intellectual
achievement he regarded as perhaps unparalleled—
Galileo, Descartes, Huygens, and Newton—the student
of matter might well wish to add the indefatigable and
resourceful figure of Robert Boyle. But admitting his
great indebtedness to his predecessors and contem-
poraries, even on specific achievements with which his
name is connected, Isaac Newton must stand pre-
eminent for the magnitude of his achievements and
their impact upon modes of thought. If, through some
barely conceivable quirk of intellectual history, he had
been unable to effect his observationally and mathe-
matically fortified synthesis of dynamics and astron-
omy, the scientific revolution might possibly have fal-
tered and even faded.

Once Newton's success in deriving Kepler's laws of
planetary motion—and explanations of a vast range of
other phenomena as well—from a unified mechanics
of gravitational and inertial forces had been appreci-
ated, the optimism and methodological confidence of
the natural philosophers were irresistible. From the
hither side of this achievement, particularly when
historically we observe the selective accumulation of
what were to become parts of the synthesis, it seems
inevitable, and it may be worthwhile to consider one
conceptual complication relevant to the ideas of
matter. On the one hand Newton's system required
that one should conceive every particle of matter in
the universe as gravitationally attracting every other
according to the law of inverse squares; on the other
hand the counterbalancing centrifugal forces operated
inertially, i.e., as if no external forces whatever affected
the mobile. The final equation for planetary motion,
therefore, involved combining the maintenance of the
universal interaction of all matter with the hypothesis
of how it would behave on the contrary assumption
that there was no other matter with which the mobile
in question could interact.

This was a pitch of abstraction of which a rather
ossified Aristotelianism—and some successor doctrines
as well—showed themselves quite incapable. This point
may also serve to illustrate the ambiguous sense in
which Newton's system triumphed through its “sim-
plicity”: as Butterfield remarks, it was simple in re-
quiring relatively few ad hoc assumptions about the
sort of forces involved; it was the reverse of simple
in the mathematics necessary to compute the concrete
resultant of forces.

In regard to his evolving concepts of matter, Newton
never called himself an atomist though he did hypoth-
esize that “God in the beginning formed matter in
solid, massey, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles”
with varying “sizes... figures, and... other proper-
ties” and in varying “proportions to space” (Opticks
iii.1). He was closer to the ancient theory than Boyle
in one respect: whereas Boyle had thought of atoms
as flexible even to the point of actual division, Newton
insisted on their indivisibility, “that Nature may be
lasting,” arguing that substances, including compounds,
would not be stable if the component atoms could, with
continued friction, be eroded. He also preserved from
traditional atomism the absolute mathematical charac-
ter of space and extended it to time, but he made space


and time something more than geometrically ordered
non-being by conceiving space as the “sensorium of
God.” Increasingly he also came to think that space
could not be merely “void” but was filled with a fluid
“aether”—to convey radiant heat, to account for the
optical phenomena of reflection and refraction, to
transmit light corpuscles, and perhaps to help explain
gravitation. His major departure from ancient atomism
(and from Descartes), however, was his rejection of the
concept of matter as essentially geometrical and inert.
First in gravitational theory, then in his speculations
on the nature of matter in the appendix to his Opticks,
he concluded that matter must be held together by
various and variously intense attractive and repulsive

To a considerable number of the more enthusiastic
mechanical philosophers, followers, for example, of
Descartes or Thomas Hobbes, the invocation of attrac-
tions and repulsions acting “at a distance” without
immediate bodily contact, entanglement, or impact
seemed a retreat to unintelligible explanation by “oc-
cult qualities.” Although he did in fact “feign hypothe-
ses” to account for some forces, Newton never did so
without simultaneously assuming others. (Thus he
wondered whether his postulated fluid aether might
not account for gravitation through pressure by being
more rare in the vicinity of solid bodies, but accounted
for that distribution of aether by a mutual affinity of
its parts.) His main reply to objections was that these
assumptions enabled one to account for such phe-
nomena as gravitation, magnetism, electricity, the
varying stabilities and combining properties of chemi-
cal substances, deliquescence, internal cohesion of ma-
terial particles, and capillary action, and that he was
more concerned with fidelity to the undoubted fact
than with the transparent intelligibility of the explana-
tion—a reply which, incidentally, helps us better to
understand the philosophical point involved in the
controversy over “occult qualities.” Molière was quite
right to ridicule as an explanation (e.g., a “dormitive
faculty” in the case of sleep) something that might
possibly function (as it generally seemed to Aristotle)
as a cautious and minimal registry of fact, whether or
not further causal analysis were possible. If Newton
perhaps avoided dogmatism by reason of his willingness
to admit active potentialities the mechanics of which
he did not purport to understand, it needs also to be
added that he avoided obscurantism by his patience
and resource to measure, calculate, and verify. Toulmin
and Goodfield say that in his synthesis he combined
“the atoms of Democritus into coherent order by ten-
sions and forces like those of the Stoics” (The Architec-
ture of Matter

4. Matter in Metaphysical Thought: Locke and
Leibniz. By the time of Newton the progressive spe-
cialization that has distinguished physicists, chemists,
and other empirical students of matter from the phi-
losophers and metaphysicians was fairly well advanced.
The history of the concepts of matter becomes corre-
spondingly complex. On the one hand as the scientists
have achieved greater determinacy regarding particu-
lar properties of kinds of matter, they have on the
whole been more content to leave indeterminate the
question of its ultimate generic nature: by the end of
the eighteenth century Lavoisier was insisting on that
exclusive concentration of his interests. On the other
hand, while philosophers have not ceased their effort
to excogitate what matter must be and cosmologies
have still been produced, more interestingly perhaps,
because cosmology has not been the center of philo-
sophical interest, theories of matter have been derived
from, or even only implied by, disciplines that were—
epistemology, semantics, theories of action. Neither
Karl Marx's revolutionary program of action nor A. J.
Ayer's positivist theory of meaning were indefinitely
flexible as to how matter, or “the physical world,”
were conceived. Both would find some features of some
theories of matter we have considered incompatible
with their views, and that is to say that their pragmatic
and semantic theories have implications for a theory
of matter. We may illustrate by the roles matter plays
in two contemporaries of Newton, John Locke and
G. W. Leibniz when the principal preoccupations of
philosophy tended, after the revolution of Descartes,
to be epistemological.

Locke and Leibniz are often cited as paradigm in-
stances of (British) “empiricism” and (Continental)
“rationalism,” but these commitments, and their own
curiosity, pushed them to fairly explicit concepts of
matter, even though it was the primary concern of
neither. Consider contrasting definitions of “sub-
stance.” Locke says that “... substance is supposed
always [to be] something besides the extension, figure,
solidity, motion, thinking [in the mental substances
which he also recognizes], or other observable ideas,
though we know not what it is” (Essay Concerning
Human Understanding
II. 23. 3). Since, we know only
that there must be something capable of causing these
ideas of itself in us, “Powers therefore justly make a
great part of our complex ideas of substances” (ibid.,
10; cf. Mill's “permanent possibility of sensation”;
Mach's phenomenalism). In terms of the criteria that
have here been employed to distinguish concepts of
matter, Locke's procedure might be described as the
“materialization” of all substance, for he made it stuff,
underlying and persisting through our experience,
concrete and ostensible but itself defying any repre-
sentative formulation.


But for Leibniz “... this is the nature of an individ-
ual substance or of a complete being, namely, to afford
a conception so complete that the concept shall be
sufficient for the understanding of it and for the deduc-
tion of all the predicates of which the substance is or
may become the subject...” (Discourse on Meta-
VIII). Of course Leibniz was speaking of his
monads, psychic substances, each of which mirrored
the entire universe from a unique angle of observation.
Even that expression is misleading for the orders of
space, time, and phenomenal matter were derivative
from the internal structure of individual concepts
rather than vice versa. Leibniz has identified substance
wholly with what is formal, defining, structural, and
intelligible. Material substance has become, for
Leibniz, only a phenomenon bene fundatum, a con-
ceptually useful matrix for ordering phenomena.

There are many ways, by no means all of them
touched on here, in which Locke is “Democritean”
and Leibniz is “Platonic” though a just account would
have to include very significant differences as well. The
“Aristotelian” alternative of finding in objects of in-
quiry both actual and knowable aspects (“form”) and
also as their ground, still mysterious potentialities and
powers (“matter”), was certainly also present in the
seventeenth century—to some extent in Newton's con-
fidence that he had discovered real forces operative
in the world combined with his uncertainty as to what
their precise nature was.

There seems little doubt that awareness of different
historical concepts of matter can be a factor in further
inquiry into matter itself. The history of the astonishing
progress that has been made in that direction finds the
same or similar conceptual schemes now opening the
way for, now obstructing, particular insights and dis-
coveries. But so long as we continue to be confronted—
through highly sophisticated devices of detection, or
through ordinary gross observation—by something sen-
sibly and convincingly there, additional to and un-
exhausted by our ideas and formulae, something like
the concept of matter will have work to do.