Three Ancient Meanings of Matter: Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle Author(s): Harold J.

Johnson Source: Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1967), pp. 3-16 Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 16/04/2014 11:18
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) The more facts we learn."then I fear we shall also be impatient in having to listen to the voices of contemporarycultures whose ways of speaking are not those we preferor with which we are most familiar. Notre tendancenaturelle est de vivre confortablementdans la region impure du compromis. the greater our need of perspectivesin which they can be exhibited as coherent and manageable. or space. and Aristotle-probably the three most influential conceptual schemes of classical antiquity-it is always worth renewing the question of the extent to which we can discover system in their interrelations.145.This paper concentrateson the meanings assigned to the concept of matter in the cosmologiesof these three philosophies and on some peculiaritiesof method that seem connectedwith them. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .118. AND ARISTOTLE BY HAROLD J. 3 This content downloaded from 193. The dialogue of systems we shall considerdemonstrateshow misleading it can be to speak of "the Greekview" of matter.251 on Wed.THREE ANCIENT MEANINGS OF MATTER: DEMOCRITUS.or perhaps or because they had not yet learned to ask "the right "prescientific. Smart than to that of his contemporaryand compatriot. for purposesof contrastingit with "the Hebraic. or time.My assumption has rather been that in coming to understandthe oppositionsin the Greek cosmologicaldebates we shall also shed light on the alternatives open to us.."or "the medieval." Democritus does indeed share with Aristotle a languageand a heritage. Plato." questions. Gilson."(E.. it should highlight the general patterns of thought and motivation that generated the special theories.If we are unable to learn from the Greeks just because they were Greeks." or "the modern view. PLATO. J. to the detriment of more permanent problems and persisting proposalsfor their resolution. Also I shouldnot be sorryif the perspectiveadvancedby this paper helped to counteractwhat seems to me the frequently excessive emphasis in philosophical historiographyon the interests peculiar to particular times and cultures.A proper perspective in the case of our knowledge of historical philosophies should not only avoid ignoring or distorting the facts accumulated in piecemeal discovery. The question is not entirely a theoretical one. Christianismeet Philosophie. JOHNSON "L'unedes taches essentielles du philosopheme semble d'etre de definir ce que j'appelleraisvolontiersdes positionspures.but his way of thinking about nature is in significantways more similar to that of Hugh Eliot or J. It raises the whole issue of the limits of interculturalcommunication. C. or method.. Just because there is such a vast literatureon the philosophiesof Democritus.

2. Democritean matter cannot function as potentiality for the plain reasonthat it is permanentlyand uninterruptedly actual in all the respects in which anything for Democritus ever is actual.2 The distinctionbetween actuality and potentiality. 2. 3 Gen. that "the second predicate will attach to it potentially. The sole change to which they are subject is that of local motion.' Aristotle. Both affirm. Democritus and Plato." makes a strenuouseffort to show that no operationsof nature are exceptions to it." he asks. 186a 2. alteration. 2 defianceof the famous dictum of Parmenides.i. 172. cf. 3. 316b 20-22. Selectionsfrom Early GreekPhilosophy (New York. The actual existent thing is a certain potential "matter. but the first actually.4 In the case of Plato the answer is radically different. 37-48. corruption. The curious fact is that two of the philosophers. 44 (Diels 654). "which always is and has no becoming. 169-73.251 on Wed.Plato. the substratum that prior to change was in privation of the characteristic it now possesses. Nahm. i. Nahm. is intended to give a non-contradictory of change."in-formed by certain characteristics.for example. 2. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Let us begin with the divergentattitudes of Democritus. raise serious objection to such application.And by potentiality Aristotle means matter. 1947). Repeatedly when he seems faced with the necessity of ascribing contradictory predicates to the same subject. on the other hand. Nic."3 It is. Sophist.The atoms and their quantitative determinations are in all respects eternal and undergo no generation. and Aristotle on a question that may at first seem remote from the meanings they attached to the concept of matter-the question of the applicability of the logical principle of non-contradictionto the phenomena of nature.145. or diminution.. Aristotle points out that this will be "in no way paradoxical"if we simply understand. JOHNSON 1. Ref. increase.g. iv. This content downloaded from 193. "What is that. and what is that which is always becoming and never is? That which is appre1 Ref. 241e-2a. by means of the concept of potentiality that Aristotle purportsto avoid the reservations regarding the principle of non-contradictionhe finds in his predecessors. e. 1005b 15-24.118. Is there then something in the views of Democritusand Plato that disinclines them from exploiting the concept of matter to the same end? In the case of Democritus the answer is surely that his conceptionof matter is of particles possessedwholly and exclusively of the primaryqualities. 1. Though Democritus and Aristotle are in agreementin treating matter as the continuing substratum in change. that in some sense non-beingis. 4 Cf. Ethics ii. also Phys. finding this principle of non-contradiction"the most certain of all. and Corr. the elaboration of which occupiesso much space in Aristotle'streatisesin natural account of all species science. then.4 HAROLD J.

a second: Democritean matter is always actual. 7 Cf. There are.. e. fully actual Being belongs only to the intelligible and that which is necessaryby reason of its intelligibility. Plato would have to reject it for the opposite reason that nothing material can ever be actual. Space shares with matter all its geometrical properties. Ref. and he must assertit to providean extended and non-resistant something in which the atoms may move. even to an eternal one like God or the soul. But in the case of Democritus the motive is clear and well-known: the non-being the existence of which he must assert is empty space or the void. Whereas Democritus 5 Timaeus 27e-28a. in Platonism material change is a radical generation and destructionof the existent. 173-74.this is also the only distinction that enjoys ontological status in the system of Democritus.THREE ANCIENT MEANINGS OF MATTER 5 hended by intelligence and reason is always in the same state. and that it participatesin them to a particularlyintimate degree. and Aristotelian matter is potential in so far as it is in privation of a property. The foregoing explains why Aristotle's two predecessorsdid not choose his particularphilosophicalresourcefor maintaining the applicability of the principle of non-contradictionto nature.7 If we now turn to the conceptionof space in Plato we again encounter the sharpest contrast to Democritus. then. Thus corresponding contrast involving divergent attitudes towards the physical appliwe have now discovered cability of the principleof non-contradiction.118. two equally necessaryrealities in his universe. It is.indeed all qualitative determinationswhatever. However. 125). actual underdeterminateforms. This content downloaded from 193.251 on Wed. All other differences. but never attains it. Nahm. on the other hand. If in atomism the only sort of material change possible is locomotion. But material existences are known by the senses and have no permanenceor stability.matter and space. but actual in so far as it possesses it. The highest praise that can be given to an existent. the distinction of the empty from the full. but that which is conceived by opinion with the help of sensation and without reason. that is to the immaterial essences discovered by dialectic. then." 5 For Plato. is just that its true home is with the essences. 3. 6 Laws x. Platonic matter is never actual.g. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . and in fact is distinguishedfrom it in only one primaryrespect. 49 (D. It does not explain what led them to their original reservationsabout such application.6 And if Democritus would have to reject the Aristotelian conception of matter as potential because Democritean matter is perpetually actual.145. it fleetingly imitates the to our first systematic actual. are reducibleto this one. 894a. is always in the process of becoming and perishing and never really is.

9 Timaeus51b.'3 We are thus led to a third systematic contrast involved in these conceptionsof matter: Democriteanspace is the ontologicalreverseof matter.Again space is a locus of "physical"being in all three theories. 8 Timaeus52b. lb25-2a3. and Aristotelian space."and "ontological"respectively (Conceptsof Space: A History of Theoriesof Space in Physics [Cambridge. like space a correlateof material change. Cf. iv. 4. nor an extension which is always there." 12 Avoiding technicalities we can say that for Aristotle space is nothing more than the sum total of places. in all three theories.l4 4." a postulate that is requiredby the fact that we say "all existence . must of necessity be in some place and occupy a space. 212a 20. Mass. but only in Platonism is space constitutive of the physical. also Categ. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . roughly in parallel fashion.. Platonic space is identical with matter. they are identified by Plato. This content downloaded from 193. 12 Phys. either material or immaterial. Place can be "neitherthe form. and over and above. different from. iv. provides the very stuff out of which the sensible world of becoming is generated. 212a 2-4.." proper and actual.""mathematical. IsPhys. 4. nor the matter [Plato]. 141 am puzzled by Max Jammer'scharacterization of atomistic. Space is "mathematical" its character exclusivelymathematical. no separately existing principle. Finally.145.necessaryas in Democritus to account for motion. 14.6 HAROLD J." and at the same time "in some mysterious way partakesof the intelligible" 9 so that although it is devoid of determinateand exclusive form it neverthelessis "duly prepared"to "receivethe impress"of any form10and to be the substratum of the created world. that space has no "ontological" status separate Finally it is just in Aristotelianism from the relations of physical objects. of his different kinds of substances. 1-5. In Democritus the relation of moving atoms to time is not isomorphicwith 10Timaeus50c-e. but it is now also analogizedwith a Mother and nurse who.. Space for him is the Receptacle. JOHNSON had made matter and space ontologicalopposites. iv."1 a definition at which he arrives after having consideredand rejected the solutions of his predecessors. Platonic.118. 1 Phys. to time. 4. He defines place as "the innermostmotionless boundaryof what contains.but just the relationsof containingand being containedof substancesin their activities.251 on Wed. and Aristotelian space as "physical. It seems possible to extend this contrast. but only in atomism is 1954] 67). the extension of the thing which is displaced [Democritus]. while not material.The Receptacle is at once "hardlyreal. has no existence apart from the relations of material bodies among themselves. Aristotle'streatment of space is in terms of the "places. being impregnatedby the immaterial essences.

18 Ourfourth contrast may then be summedup as follows: time has a purely accidental relation to Democritean matter. no similar status is requiredfor time. iv. space. which involve no spatial rearrangements. 17Phys. with the "now"in this instance playing a role analogousto that of "place. and." the separability of spatial and temporal dimensions of material things: there might be. 16Timaeus37d-e.but it is the same impossibility of full communicationthat renders the "image of eternity" a "moving"one.time clearly is no essential ingredientof what things are. it is quite as essential and constitutive as spatial dimension to Platonic matter. xii. is never able to transmit its full actuality to its Offspringin space is indicated by calling the offspringa "copy"or "image". 2. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions ."Like space.118. 226a 23-36: Meta. and while for Aristotle it is always matter or potentiality that gives 15 Ref. quality. 8 Phys. but is constituted by a mutual relation of substances. on the other hand. In Plato. 179. but given its existence. cf. It is simply an accident consequentupon the successive redistributionsof the full and empty. and matter are synonymous concepts for Plato.temporalityis an essential propertyof material things and it is a property that is motheredby the same Receptacle that producedthe spatial dimensions.145. such as alteration of quality. 1: Phys. 7. or Essence. as well as those of place.16 The treatment of time which leads Aristotle to his definition of it as the "numberof movement in respect of the before and after"17 is remarkablyparallel to his treatment of space. If it would not be quite accurateto say that time. since they are identically the same in any infinitesimal fraction of a second as they are in a month or a millennium. 220a 24. but since the atoms are eternally actual. however.THREE ANCIENT MEANINGS OF MATTER 7 their relation to the void. time is not a pre-existent medium. and Aristotle thinks that there are. Aristotle's view of the relation of time to matter differsfrom that of Democritusin that changes of substance."' In production of phenomena the temporal dimension may seem quite as indispensableas the spatial ones. The void is an ontologicalprinciple. also 52d-53c. there might be changes. it is nonetheless true that in any concrete instance of becoming they represent inseparableaspects and dimensions and that all these aspects take their origin from the Receptacle. can give rise to relations of "beforeand after" and in that there are substancesthat are It differs from that of Plato in essentially temporal or "perishable.251 on Wed. "an appearanceunder the forms of day and night. iv. material substanceswhich are eternal and hence are not perpetuallybecoming. Nahm. 214a 26-28. v.equal and opposite to the atom. That the Father. 11. 72. This content downloaded from 193. and quantity.

position-inherent in the atoms and void themselves. the closest identification of reasons and necessities in ancient atomism. persuadednecessity to bring the greater part of created things to perfection.when the in19Fr. This content downloaded from 193. 2.251 on Wed.8 HAROLD J. and it refers to the potentialities without which those tendencies could not possibly be brought to realization. Mind. nevertheless these relations are not defining characteristics of material things qua material." 19 There is. We can construct no universalgeometryof existencewhen form may or may not encountera matter with the potential to receiveit. 160. 5.But mathematical necessity in nature is a of a fully actual matter with its quantitativeformsinherentin it.20 The most interesting of the three concepts of physical necessityperhaps because it is least current-is that of Plato. the ruling power. he will first need something like iron and its properties. ii. Typical of his constant coupling of necessity with its dialectical opposites. then." is a passage from the Timaeus: Thus far in what we have been saying with small exception the works of intelligencehave been set forth. Hence in such a theory it is only when quantitative form is abstractedfrom matter that its formal causality is wholly determinantand the result completely demonstrable. while agreeing that in physics necessity lies in the material cause. size. in fact. Nahm. The clearer our concepts of matter become the more we are driven to acknowledge its operations as inevitable. Physical necessity. invoking an analogy with the arts. that given iron and its properties it must of necessity become a saw. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . JOHNSON rise to temporal relations. 9. had already said that "nothing occurs at random. Democritus' predecessor. is properly spoken of in the context of the tendencies of material entities to certain acts and ends. is at some pains to dissociate his view from this mathematical determinism. and thus and after this manner in the beginning. but rather that on the hypothesis that one wishes a saw. but everything for a reason and by necessity. for they follow from the formal mathematical properties-shape. Aristotle. It is not. "freedom" or "mind. Another concept frequently involved in the philosophy of nature yields a significant contrast in the three theories of matter-the concept of necessity. In this case there seems to be at least verbal agreement that in natural causation matter and necessity coincide. The contrast between Democritusand Aristotle on necessity might be expressed by stating that Democritus would not allow Aristotle's distinction between "physical"and "mathematical" necessity (200a 15-29). Leucippus.145.118. being made of necessity and mind. he argues. logical consequence 20 Phys. and now we must place by the side of them in our discoursethe things which come into being through necessity-for the creation is mixed. at least prior to Epicurus.

In the Timaeus. on the contrary. do we get a pattern which enables us to say what each philosopher meant when he invoked "matter" as an explanatory principle? In the cases of Democritus and Aristotle. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .TIREE ANCIENT MEANINGS OF MATTER 9 fluence of reason got the better of necessity. We now seem in a position to make a fifth contrast. But in the case of Plato more needs to be said. "the nurse of all generation. often unknown at that particular level of abstraction. without which certain formal properties could not be brought to actuality. generated and visible. mathematical forms.. but rather in its recalcitrance to the activity of Mind. Rather again and again in the Platonic writings the theme occurs that God. and Aristotelian matter is necessary as the potentialities. Democritean matter is necessary by virtue of its inherent. although an actively causal principle." he begins to feel that "the argument seems to require" that we should invoke "a third kind" of thing. it seems to me. why does the argument "require" it? Not. and inherently intelligible.251 on Wed. For few are the goods of human life.. must acknowledge and make the best of. seems to show its character as "necessity" neither in the inevitability of its operations (Democritus)-since it is open to "persuasion"-nor in the indispensability of its contribution to the natural product (Aristotle)since it is rather a question of "getting the better" of it. because we need spatio-temporal dimensions or tangible stuff for the existence of material things. .23 The problem is that "evils. matter." do not "pass away" but 22 21 Timaeus 47e-48a." 22 Now. I think.21 Here. Timaeus 48e-49a. 6." and "the imitation of the pattern.. 379d. intelligible and always the same. if he be good. is not the authorof all things. though these are in fact products of the Receptacle. and we shall be able to restate with relative brevity its defining functions. the universe was created. our discussion has already obliged us to state how matter basically figures in their systems.118.. If we now superimpose upon one another the distinctions we have been able to draw thus far. This is necessity in the sense of what intelligence. This turns out to be the Receptacle. This content downloaded from 193. Theodorus. and many are the evils. Platonic matter. in its quest for values.145. 23 Republic ii. having carried on his account for some time using only the "pattern. although this is just the "necessity" it would prefer to avoid. of the evils the causes are to be sought elsewhere . is necessary in the sense of its resistance to intelligible form. and the good is to be attributedto God alone.

relative. and in Aristotle we have a matter that is passive to the action of efficient causes in imposing or destroying forms within it.26 the essential reason for the Receptacle or matter.251 on Wed. If the marble has flaws or if the foetus fails to receive a propersupply of nutrients we shall indeed have a defective statue or a monstrous birth.27In Platonism no empirical instance ever fully exemplifiesthe form-the finest statue and the truest man are in the realm of Essence ratherthan in this worldand that is why dialectic must transcendthe sensible. On the Soul ii. may seem 24 27 Theaetetus176b. seems to be that we cannot suppose the causes of things "less than two-one the author of good and the other of evil." but he evidently had to make them from things "not fair and good". 28 Gen.g. localized. Cf.118. Matter is not the principleof privation in Aristotle. 26Laws x. matter makes its offspringto be particular. 25 Timaeus53b. discordant. except accidentally." 26 If we examine what the Receptacle in fact does to the essence impressedupon it. JOHNSON "hover around the mortal nature.or diluted into the becomingwe encounter through the senses.24 God. for Democritus matter as the full. While Aristotle in this in most of the rest.believes that we can abstractforms within the sensible.. temporal.fragmented. 4. confused. and this earthly sphere". ii. no doubt made things "as far as possible the fairest and best. 896e. Its essential characteras the substratumthat underlieschangeis perhaps best evidenced by Aristotle's doctrine of the radical transmutability not of the elements only but of motions. omnipresent. It is the non-being whose existence must be affirmedto explain how the Being we discover by intellect gets diffused. and by reason of the matter. and Corr. then.perfect. e. but it is equally true that unless we have marble and nutrients and the potentialities they represent we shall not have any statues or men at all. it appears that its uniform tendency is to drag it towards its contrary: the realm of Forms is universal. is the bearerof those formalquantitative propertieswhich determineevents and phenomena.145. the ontologicalreverseof the empty. ii.28 In summary.intelligible. Phys. The very function of matter is to act as a principleof privation. it is because material instances are the only instances of the natural forms there Plato we have the sharply opposed doctrine that matter is what resists and debilitates form. If Aristotle. 1-2. now in-formed. then. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .eternal.and defective. This content downloaded from 193. absolute. But is it not true that in Aristotle also matter is a principle of imperfectionhostile to form? It is not true. on the contrary.10 HAROLD J. 194b 8. impressing the forms on matter. 2. harmonious. 10. but the potentiality that can be now deprived.

Are there features in the theories of knowledge of the three philosophersparticularlyconnected. . and which finally forces it into a compromise. . with the development of these variant concepts of matter? For both Democritus and Plato matter is in principle unobservable. but is a consequence. a. on the contrary. it seems to me.THREE ANCIENT MEANINGS OF MATTER 11 to occupy some intermediategroundbetween the sharply contrasted positions of Democritusand Plato. 2). I think Pegis makes good his case that St. why this difference? The answer seems to me to lie in different conceptions of "non-being. for Aristotle matter is the substratumof all natural contraries. 29 This content downloaded from 193. Again. This universe consisting of the things which actually exist is very good. Meta. and this is akin to emanationism in that nature is necessarily determined to be "the finest of creations" (ibid. 1939). 104. Who can produce something out of nothing. continue to exist forever" (ibid. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . I. q. 4. Thomas is not involved in the particular dilemma analyzed in Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being. non-being is simply absence of being. on the general question of "creation. For he said that the universe as to its actual conformation was the necessary outcome of the divine goodness as understood and loved by God. When. 3. . 6." Leibniz's explicit contention that a perfectly benevolent God would create no less than "the best of all possible worlds" is only an echo of the assertion of Plato himself that "God made them ['creatures'] as far as possible the fairest and best. not by reason of a passive potentiality. at this point. "Others." the nature and extent of the "creation" depending on a "principle of plenitude.. erred regarding the necessity imposed by the final cause. I think. Now." (Timaeus 53b). which impedes it. "created".118. on what I think Aristotelian grounds. 75. (2) Those theories inspiring themselves from Platonism have. but in the Creator the power of ceasing to sustain being" (Summa theologica. like Plato and his followers. q. Nevertheless God's goodness is not so tied to this universe that it could not have produced a better or one that is less good" (De potentia dei.29 7. Thomas and the Greeks (Milwaukee. 16c). tended toward "emanationism. there can. dissents from this Platonic interpretation. This indeed may be true if we look only at what is and not what might be. but fails to make his case that this escape involved an essential break with Aristotelian principles (cf. though they have a finite power. It is only when non-being is so conceived that a "plenitude" of the "best possible" is a meaningful concept. and in the context of a plural creation "best possible" ceases to be meaningful. (3) Aquinas.251 on Wed. Says St. q. be no question of creation: the completely actual neither needs to be. 12). ad. it is a measure of the absence of any general force contrary to the Creator that "things that have no contrary. Thomas: "As a thing can be created. nor could be. so when we say that a thing can be reduced to nothing. we do not imply in the creature a potentiality to non-being..145. . of their principles. and it is due to the sovereign goodness of God that it is very good. either as antecedents or consequents. a. 28e-29a). of course. there is also a sense in which their views of matter stand together in opposition to his. I." In Platonism it must be said to exist in some sense as something that is hostile to Being. ad 2). St. a. I am tempted to essay another systematic contrast. Thomas' views on this question to Anton Pegis' exciting study. (1) In a thoroughgoing and exclusive atomism. it imposes no limitations on the creative power of the First Being. I owe my introduction to St.. . it is itself necessary existence. v. but only by reason of the active potentiality of the Creator." It takes us beyond the figures considered here. for both Democritus and Plato it is one of the contraries.

This content downloaded from 193. In Aristotle. 173. once you have learnt his technique. Sensory appearanceis the surplus by which epistemologicalsupply goes beyond the ontological demand. they are devoid of perceptiblequalities. Further. but by "a kind of spurious reason. cf.took its origin in observedrelations of containing. 2."30 and so "dimly seen" that it almost requires "words of anotherkind. exception made of fullness or solidity. 30 (London: BlackfriarsPublications.Aristotelianspace. and with that portion of the actual whose potentialities for producingform are most akin to our own cognitive potentialities for reproducingit? In summary.. too. But for ."33 if the Aristotelian tradition. is in excess of what is really there.1956). on the other hand.and even repetitive. Nahm. JOHNSON and for both. serves to explain both why Aristotelianmatter is not in principleunobservable and why the entire empiricalworld. 49 (D. More generally.i.except that of the spatial order and variations of full and empty. Phys. if it is true that "Aristotle. and neither of these lie beyond empiricalobservation. For Plato it is because the empiricalalways falls short of that which fully and actually is. is it not precisely because it believes that in the sensible world it stands confrontedwith a portion of the actual..In the first place. 316a 6-11.12 HAROLD J. 8.The atoms are in principle unobservablebecause. that is the Essences.which nonethelessit contributesto make phenomenal. 81 Timaeus48e-49a. Gen. not by sense. the Receptacle. though it was later found to embracea budget of astronomical errors. 3 Knowles. the matter of the statue is the marble and the matter of the developingfoetus is the nutriments ingested by the mother. the realm of experienceis a realm of phenomenaor appearances. 125. only "by convention"32 because they are in addition to what is already fully and unalterably actual. nonethelessenjoys full title as a real object of real knowledge. 2. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .without touchingupon the difficultywith which it is known. relatively uniform. 194b ff.And Plato hardly ever refers to his matter. has shown itself literal. empirical qualities must exist. no atom could ever be seen since vision itself is an atomic process. 30 Timaeus52a-b.118.AquinasPapers.. 32Ref.though not exhaustive of reality.145. and Corr. The doctrine of matter of Aristotle.251 on Wed. as he says. 29b. the answers are diametrically opposed. 156).however. If we ask why the empiricalrealm is a realm of appearances for these two philosophers.rather than in mathematicalpostulates. no. the thinker who gives us dazzling glimpses of the obvious."31It is in some sense even more obscurethan the realm of the sensible. All of experience. in contrast to its more inventive and variable atomistic and Platonic rivals." beheld "as in a dream.

we know. i.34 8.Since both Democritus and Plato regard the sensible world as in considerable degree illusory. Plato. we shall needlesslymiss out on "truth and knowledgeof realities.251 on Wed. 36. Nic. the empiricalworldis a properobject of knowledgefor Aristotle because it is actual. and it is appearancefor Democritusbecause it goes beyond what actuality contains. esp.THREE ANCIENT MEANINGS OF MATTER 13 then. the emancipationssought by the atomists and Plato are differentenough.since it was with the applicability of logical principles to natural phenomena that we began. One contrastin method is closely associatedwith the divergent judgments on the veridical characterof sense experience. on the other hand. The prominenceof the four causes in Aristotelianism.145. wasting our lives like prisonersin a cave. Epicurussays that "we should have no need of natural science" if we "were not troubled by our suspicions of the phenomena of the sky and about death.fact and value.. Oates. 2. 31.. 38Phaedo 90d. Nahm. the Epicureans. seems to have felt that "thereis no profit in philosophy either if it does not expel the suffering of the mind. characteristically. 1. "Fragmentsfrom Unknown Sources. I should like to relate the foregoingconsiderationsto a few aspects of the scientific methods of our three philosophers. Fr." 37 The illusion he wishes to escape from is superstitionand this illusion is."38 34 This doctrineof the phenomenal characterof the given tends to make empirical causation "epiphenomenal" in the one case and "occasionalistic" in the other: the empirical is just not the area where real decisions are made.. corresponds with its epistemologicalrealism. 212. Cf. makes a radical distinction between those theoreticaldisciplineswhich are directedto knowledgefor its own sake and those practicalones which are sought to improve action. at least if we may judge from the use that was made of his doctrines by his disciples. 1139a 21-32. That is probably the reason why theory and practice. Ethics vi. 85Epicurus. are so intimately connected in their systems. fearing that it concernsus . on the contrary.118. both tend to look to philosophy as an emancipation or salvation from that initial overestimation of the resourcesof the world.We shall then in some sense have completeda circle. The Stoic and EpicureanPhilosophers(New York. 36 Meta. Of course. in this case its resources for producing pain. cf. Finally. judges knowledgeby the extent to which it leads us to a better condition of the soul and Democritus too."in Oates. ed. Plato is haunted by the opposite and "very melancholy" possibility that..36 this surely conformswith his judgment that the empiricalworld is not primarilyan illusion to be escaped. 37PrincipalDoctrines xi. This content downloaded from 193. 50."35 If Aristotle. 1940). it is appearancefor Plato because it fails to reach the actual. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .

in the case of Democritus.40 sation. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .251 on Wed. Hence 89Gen. 3. 71b 32-72a6. 40 Ref. for Plato the science of the organic whole possessingits unity throughthe hierarchyof Formsor Essences."he has probably already framed some conceptual representation of what anything that is to qualify as genuine must be."41And though these extremes are perhaps "better known to nature. to return to the question which initiated our is not fully applicable investigation. Anal. the homogeneity necessary to the existence of universal science is not concentratedat one extreme-e. 175. For both of them there is. can be conceptualized For both of them one of the extremes-in the case of Democritusthe atoms. Being and non-being. 478e. but by the appositionof fresh extreme terms. 42 Post. the least part. i.g.on which the universality of science must rest. Cf. 41 Post. extreme is precisely the privation of what full being must be. Nahm.This. as a consequence.ii. But why does the to the genuine?To providean explanation not correspond experienced the philosophermay have to invoke a third principlein addition to his "appearance" and "reality.though beyond senmore distinctly than empiricalobjects. least part and infinite space.For both of them the method is to accountfor the empiricalas a middle groundor amalgam of conceptualextremes-atoms and void. 59."they are not "better known to us": 42 our knowledge of the substancesthat are compositesof matter and form is far more firm and complete than our inferential gropings toward prime matter and the Prime Mover as ideal limits of these principles. 2. not so apparentat the level of experience."a principlethat operatesin opposition to reality in the productionof phenomena.the principleof non-contradiction to nature because the other. it seems to me. In a judgment that runs counter to both the doctrinesand practices of his philosophicalcolleagueshe holds that "a science expandsnot by the interpositionof fresh middle terms. and equally necessary. Further. i. 330b 17-18. 78a 13.14 HAROLD J. And for both of them. 12. One and manyness in Plato. Anal. 1. Cf. 980a 23-b12.145. one all-embracingscience: for Democritus the science of the independentlyexisting least part. But for Aristotle the method of science is to start with the experienced and to workout towardssuch extremesas explanationrequires.39For both philosophersthese extremes. universal principles of organizationare operative at all levels of the world. or the hierarchyof Essences-as in atomism or Platonism. 19.118.. Meta. This content downloaded from 193. JOHNSON When a philosopherbecomes convinced that primary experience has failed to acquaint him with the genuine or the "real. and Corr. Republicv. in the case of Plato the Essences-is the bearerof the homogeneity. ii. i. is how Democritus and Plato have proceeded.

McKeon.. matter..THREE ANCIENT MEANINGS OF MATTER 15 there will be a plurality of sciences treating of different aspects of nature and at differentlevels of abstraction. 332a 23-26.Nevertheless. 10. 366. 1933). who finds the "disaster"for physics represented by Plato's attitude only exceededby the "worse[that was] to come from his pupil Aristotle. 20. as we saw at the outset. xii.45 and Max Jammer ventures to "suggest a comparisonbetween the notion of physical space in Aristotle's cosmology and the notion of Einstein's 'spherical space'as expoundedin earlierrelativistic cosmology. space. Aristotle's concept of matter as the potentiality which can successively exhibit contrary attributes is his means of maintaining that no contradictionis really involved in natural change." J."The Philosophyof Aristotle. "are confronted by the necessity that there is something contrary to" their first principles. 44Jeans. . .H. 52-54. 3-44. "but we are not. Gen. "Other thinkers. There is not one of these theoriesof matter that in its strugglefor continued life has not to undergo drastic excision of its bad guesses at the hands of those with new expert information. 47 Whitehead. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions ."4 The point is not merely that one is able to quote competent historiansof thought who find the ancient answersrelevant to modern inquiries.for all contraries have matter.145.118. thinks that "presentday conceptionsof time. That relevance is more impressively demonstratedby the divisibility of the comments themselves according to their obvious Meta. and Corr. 5.I. McKeon." he says. VIII (1947)." 43 A word further on how this touches us. surprisedat "how many of the basic ideas of modern physics were foreshadowedin the speculations of" Democritus (and Empedocles). McKeon.251 on Wed.Finally.."46Finally.44 Richard P. Whitehead's magnanimous tribute to the seminal value of "sevennotions"in Plato's cosmologyis well-known: he thinks that "all philosophy is in fact an endeavour to obtain a coherent system out of some modificationof these notions" and that they must be given significantcredit for "driving.1949. for contrast of Aristotle'smethod to the methods of Plato and Democritus. Cf. The Growth of Physical Science (New York. motion. ii. 1958).Adventuresof Ideas (New York. "Aristotle's Conception of the Development and the Nature of Scientific Method. 43 This content downloaded from 193."introduction to a projected but unpublishedtwo-volumeanthologyof Aristotle'sworks. however. [the peoples of Western Europe] towards their civilization. 354. and cause are nearerto those of Aristotle than they have been in 400 years". by contrast. Concepts of Space. ." is.made available to students at the University of Chicagoin mimeograph. For there is nothing contraryto that which is primary. 46 Jammer. 1075b 20-24. 45RichardP. Cf. Sir James Jeans.

Meanwhile it should be no occasionfor hand-wringing over the indecisivenessand futility of philosophy.whether the laws of all other natural sciences are reducibleto those of physics.16 HAROLD J.there are fundamentalissues that persist. JOHNSON preferencesfor one or another of the schools. philosophical pluralism is no bad background from which to operate. how far our physics may be formal-deductiveand how far it must be empiricalinductive-these remainto a surprisingdegreeliving options. The particularoptions that have been exploredby this paper.118. This content downloaded from 193. Another day would have to document that claim. a competent contemporaryproponent of a philosophical choice significantly correspondingwith it could be found.251 on Wed. I would venture the claim that for everyone of the specific ancient options described. 16 Apr 2014 11:18:50 AM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .Although the details of argumentchangedrasticallyas scientificknowledgeaccumulates.whether we should think of particles conjoinedor of fields with local peculiarities. for example-whether spatial and temporal dimensionsare separable.145. The University of Western Ontario. As long as science continues to be stimulated by the debate of rival hypotheses.