The Atomists- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (9)

The Atomists were a fascinating group of philosophers. We have seen the eminence of Greek scientists in various scientific discoveries in the past several chapters, but the Atomists are possibly the most surprising. Pertaining to their namesake, the Atomists built a science and philosophy around the positing of atoms to build up the world. The world was made from two things, atoms and void.

Russell discusses two prominent Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus. Leucippus came from Miletus, and was most active around 440 BCE. Throughout history, academics have debated whether he ever existed at all because so little is known of his work, and much of what we do know has transpired to be the works of Democritus. Aristotle, however, has referenced him several times, so we can be confident of that he did exist, but not of what was uniquely his invention.

Democritus came from Thrace, and flourished slightly later, 420 BCE. He was a highly learned person who travelled well and accumulated much knowledge from Greece, Egypt, Persia, Italy for example. Most of what we learn about the Atomists can be attributed to Democritus.


Atomism emerged as an attempt to mediate between Monism (the belief that there is one single substance in the universe), and Pluralism (the belief that there are many substances in the universe). We have seen strong arguments for both positions in the preceding chapters, Atomism was a good way of reconciling those positions without losing the philosophically efficacious positions of either.

There are many ways in which the beliefs of the Atomists are much like that of atomic theory today. These include the ideas that-

  1. The world is made from an infinite number of indivisible, minute, singular pieces of matter.
  2. They have space between each other.
  3. They are in a constant state of motion.
  4. Their behaviour is random, just like with gas particles.
  5. For atoms, there is no such thing as up or down.

They believed that atoms were individual units, but when they collided together, they created vortices which brought them together, and eventually formed larger physical forms. The rest of their science was much the same as that of Anaxagoras. They were important in that they managed to explain the formation and motion of matter without unnecessarily positing the substance ‘mind’. This isn’t to say that they refuted ‘mind’, merely that it wasn’t a viable way of explaining matter.

The Atomists were all determinists, meaning that they believed that nothing in the world ever happened by chance. They felt that evolution and atomic theory, together, meant that the natural world must be developing in a certain trajectory, not a random one.

First causes of the universe were of no interest to them. Regarding God, people may ask ‘God created the universe, but who created God? And who created that creator?’ ad infinitum. Or we could ask ‘that force caused x to move, but what caused that force? and what caused that force?’ and so forth. We can keep trying to ask about prior causes of point x until we get to a first cause. The Atomists were not interested in this, however. The question was arbitrary to them, but the point at which we stop going backwards and assert that we found a first cause is also, in their view, arbitrary.

The other thing they disregarded when explaining causes is Teleology, the explanation of things by their purposes. They refused to explain the nature of things by their inherent function. Because they refused to explain things by causes or functions, what they sought to understand was specific elements of reality, not reality as a whole. Their interest was in instances of phenomena, not the nature of phenomena.

We saw earlier that Parmenides believed there was no change in the world. Leucippus wanted to maintain a Parmenidean metaphysic, whilst supporting that change was possible. The issue is as follows- in order for change to happen, matter needs to occupy empty space (a void). Parmenides maintained that there was no such thing as a void because conceiving of a non-thing was asserting that it existed. The void into which something would have to move to change could not exist in Parmenides’ view because the void must exist if we can speak of it.

There are a few solutions to this problem. On one hand, we can try and get around the problem by distinguishing between matter and space. In this way, a void can be space, not matter. Space is, if we are to follow this line of defence, characterised as a lack of matter or form.

Further, Descartes argued that extension (the capacity of matter to move or function) was an adjective, not a noun. Descartes maintained that empty space was absurd, we didn’t need to explain there being change, merely states of affairs. Leibniz believed that rather than there being solid change or space, there is merely difference in relation between atoms.

Democritus believed that an atom was as small as any thing could get, and there was no way of cutting through one. When we cut through something, we only cut through the spaces between atoms.

Democritus believed in the soul, and posited that it was made out of atoms too. In the universe of Atomists, everything was collections of atoms, and relations. They believed that life and atoms slowly evolved from a primordial nothingness into what we have now, and that both life and form are capable of motion.

Because they believed that soul was made of atoms too, they believed that thought was just as physical as any tangible object in the world. Perception and thought were separate physical processes. They believed that most of the properties we perceive in an object were in fact in the mind of the perceiver rather than in the object. These views were prescient of later philosophers who would debate whether mind, body, and soul were one, two, or three substances.

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2 thoughts on “The Atomists- Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (9)

    1. Thank you my friend! I enjoy the fact that studying the history of though gives a definite curve.
      That is a very interesting article, I read it through three times, it’s packed with insight.
      I found the idea that thought was the chemistry of neurons interesting. I wonder, if thought is inspired by the world outside, is a thought entirely the inter-relational chemistry, or can we call the thought’s interaction with the world part of the chemistry too?
      I like the point you make that we must seek a pragmatic approach to managing thought. It seems that, on Gandhi’s view (which makes perfect sense), managing a thought is really managing much more than just a thought, it relates to a massive network of higher functions and values. Big things from small things!
      “The devotee and the divinity are separated by pragmatics we face and accept in the real world.”- this sentence packs a lot of value for me. It shows a space between ourselves and our goal which is mediated by the material world in which we must operate. It highlights the value of darshan for me, it seems to be a powerful form of experiential thought which helps us see that which pragmatism clouds. Thank you!


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