The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

Matter may seem like the least complicated of ideas, but it has a rich philosophic history.

Matter has been a favorite topic of thought since the pre-Socratic age. Thinkers like Thales, Parmenides, and Democritus were all interested in knowing what the world was made of and how it worked, a pursuit known at the time as (one part of) philosophy, or the love of wisdom. Some settled on a single element, such as air, water, or fire, as the fundamental principle or stuff out of which everything else was made. Pythagoras and his school were famous for positing that everything was number—a somewhat abstract and difficult assertion. Heraclitus maintained that everything was in constant flux; his most famous maxim is that “A man cannot stand in the same river twice,” because the second time both he and the river have changed.

Plato‘s theory of the Forms came into existence partly due to the difficulties of matter. How are two different apples both apples? Their matter can clearly be broken down and become part of something else, so something other than matter seems to be called for, some idea of apple-ness that exists independently of individual apples. His pupil Aristotle developed the concept rather differently, setting forth an idea of several different “causes” of material objects; the Aristotelian “formal cause” partially equates to the Platonic idea of a Form, and is the ancestor of “substance” in Scholastic philosophy, where substance is not identified but contrasted with matter.

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter. ... Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, "I refute it thus."

James Boswell, Life of Johnson

Matter is generally juxtaposed with some sort of opposite, typically called “spirit” or “mind.” Both Aristotle and Plato considered matter an inferior type of being, something that did exist but was in some way almost nothing. A tiny number of idealist philosophers have gone further, declaring that matter is an illusion. However, most thinkers who deny either of these concepts tend to deny the “spirit” half, or at least deny that it has any existence independently of matter. Materialism takes a few different forms—some of which, oddly to our sensibilities, are religious, as with the Stoics in the ancient world. It typically involves a mechanistic or determinist view of human behavior, insofar as matter is held to be governed invariably by the laws of nature; however, some materialists, both in the ancient world and today (Lucretius and Bertrand Russell are salient examples), argue that determinism is not a necessary consequence of materialism, and assert the existence of free will.

Matter was long held to be composed of four elements in European culture (the Far East subscribed to a rather different conception of the elements). It was partly this which drove the tradition of alchemy: in theory, if everything were composed of those four elements, then combining them in just the right proportions should be capable of producing gold. As experiments grew more rigorous and alchemy gradually turned into chemistry, the idea of matter became more sophisticated. By the late eighteenth century, a new table of elements (later systematized by Mendeleev) was being composed; by the early twentieth, atomic theory had been both proposed and accepted, and the exact nature of the atom was being discussed. Scientists such as Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger worked out the existence and behavior of protons, neutrons, and electrons. (Curiously enough, due to the unimaginably minuscule size of subatomic particles, most of the space taken up by an atom is empty; so the ancient opinion that matter is almost nothing has turned out to be correct in a sense.) These discoveries ultimately included the forces that held the nuclei of atoms together—and how they could, with apocalyptic consequences, be split.

Suggested reading:
Lucretius, On the Nature of Things
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ I.76
George Berkeley, The Principles of Human Knowledge
Marie Curie, The Discovery of Radium
C. S. Lewis, Miracles
Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe


If you liked this post, you may also enjoy this author profile of Edward Gibbon, this “Great Conversation” piece on the ideas of memory and imagination, or this list of recommended reading from Dr. Cornel West. And be sure to take a listen to our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

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