Aristotle's Relation to Democritus Reconsidered and Vindicated as Against the Criticism of Harold Cherniss

  • Loyola eCommons, Richard W. Baldes
  • Published 2015


sense; it is an absolutely solid physical substance; it is full (and undifferentiated) matter. Such atoms (along with the void) are the physical matter which constitutes physical objects: a'l-ria oe -rwv ov-rwv rcaurca We; uA.T)V--985b9-lO. The varying size of these atoms also contributes to an explanation of phenomenal characteristics of physical objects. Aristotle cites the fact that the atomists made the distinctions between water, air, and other objects ones due to size (aepa Be xal uowp xal rcdA.A.a μeye8e1 xat μ1~po'tT)'tl OLeiA.ov-Caelo 3.4, 303al4-15), with the distinction being obViously the size of the atoms constituting these objects. Furthermore, the generation of one such object from another is due to the . \ separating out of the largest atoms: 'ta μey10-ra o4i.a-ra EXXpLvoμeva, ~ao\ 6 1 OU'tW y(yveo8a1 uowp xa1 depa xa~ y~v e~ alA.~A.wv--Caelo 3.4, 303a27-29. This evidently means that water, for example, is composed of a variety of atomic sizes, with more larger atoms than, for instance, air. This accounting for differences between objects by the sizes of atoms they contain is supported by a similar account by Aristotle of Democritus' theory at .Q!1 the Heavens 3.7, 305b22-26. So every other thing that there is is composed of these atoms with their varying shapes and sizes: ex owμarcwv UOLa1percwv rcdA.A.a ouyxeio8a1 --~. et Corr. 1.1, 314a21-22. But because of the apparent infinite variety of phenomenal differences, they proposed an infinite number of atoms: aTie1pa rc~ cpa' vop.eva, 't"U oxfiμa'i;a 3.1tE:l pa e1tOlT)OUV --Gen. et Corr. 1.2,. 315b9-l0. 61 52 These atoms themselves are and forever remain the same, whether as part of a physical object or apart from it in isolation. There is no change in the atom itself, not even to account for change in the physical (or in the phenomenal) object; the atom~ none of the 'secondary qualities' (e.g., color, heat, relative hardness) nor can it receive one. It is thus described by Aristotle as being a1ta8e~ (~. et Corr. 1.8, 326al). The only 'motion' that is possible for it is locomotion, the movement of the other~Tise changeless atom through the void. 62 All other motions are explained by the atomists simply and solely in terms of that locomotion. The generation and corruption of a physical object for them amounts to no more than the addition and substraction of atoms of that group that constitutes the object in question; alteration is explained simply by the shifts of those atoms already in the object. 63 61For their infinite number see also Physics 3.4, 203a20 and Caelo 3.4, 303a6. Leo Elders, Aristotle's Cosmology (Assen: Royal van Gorcum, 1966), p. 301, note 1, suggests that we should rather speak of an indeterminate number. But, one wonders, if the number of different shapes--as a sub-set of atoms--is also infinite, might not 'infinite' after all be quite appropriate? . ' 62 . ' ' ' ' ' See Physics 8.9, 265b24-26: xal yap ou'tol 't"T)V xa'ta 't"OTIOV x(VT)OlV XlVeroea, 't~V q>UOlV AEYOUOlV (~yup Ola 't"O xevov ( ,(.I '-t I') x VT)Ot~ cpopu eO'tlV XUl w~ EV 't"OTI~ • 63Gen. et Corr. 1.2, 315b8-9: otaxp(oet μev xal ouyxp(oel ylvea,V-xa1 cp8opav, 't"Uset OE xat 8EOel aAAO(WOlV. r 53 ,, Thus, for instance, the generation of air from water takes ' place by the separating out of the largest atoms (Caelo 3.4, 303a27-29). The coloration of an object actually takes place by change in the position of the atoms in that object (~. ~ corr. 1.2, 316al-2); and the change from a fluid state to a ---solid state in the same object similarly takes place only by such shifts (~. et .2..2..!:£• 1.9, 327al6-19). Thus, in the midst of all phenomenal change, the atoms themselves remain absolutely unchanged. Indeed, it is because these atomic shapes retain the function of their various shapes that the characteristics which we ascribe to the physical object are explained. Fire is extremely mobile and penetrates objects quite readily and so breaks them up precisely because the spherical shapes which constitute it have and retain those characteristics even when they are parts of the physical object which we call fire; and soul is extremely sensative to motion and thus is also able to set other things into motion for the same reason (Ai.~ima 1.2, 404a2, 6-8). Objects appear to us black or white, they appear to have particular flavors because the atomic shapes in such objects are of a certain variety (~. 4, 442bll-14). Thus it is an essential part of Democritus' system of the explanation of the charac~eristics of phenomenal objects that the atoms retain their shapes and the specific functions of those shapes, that they remain impassible, that they remain always the same. Thus, the atoms themselves can have no potency. Characrterized by being simple 54 and unqualified matter, by having a specific shape and size and, perhaps, weight, 64 they simply are, in an Eleatic absolute sense of 'is'; they are one of those things which always is ('tl a{ e\ ••• 'eo'o v --Physics 8.1, 252a33), and to which as a sufficient principle Democritus refers as the causes that explain nature. 65 These physical atoms are therefore in eternal actuality. Furthermore, since it is and remains such a physical unity and theoretically indivisible, Democritus' atom is identifiable as the real substance. This, Aristotle claims at :WetaEhysics 7.13, 1039a9-10, is what Democritus taught; the passage in which this citation is found (1039a7-ll) may be translated as follows: 66 "And so, if the substance is a single thing, it will not consist of substances existing in it, and in this way ·Democritus is right, for he says that it is imP.9ssible for a unity to be generated out of two things &,toms] or 64'£he question whether the atoms have weight will be discussed in chapter two. • 65PfJ.YSics,8,.l, 252a)2-35: voμ(se&v apx~v e(va& iaO'-tT)Vl~av'f)v,, el.~'Il a&£~ ; • . E:O'IlV • • • ecp' d' 6T)μOXpl't'O<; avayel ~a<; ne:p& ~uoe:wc; Ul~la,. ,, •6~1039a9-10 reads: aouva't'oV ye\p e(va( ~TJOL\I EX ouo tv T) ~~ e:vo, ouo ye:v€o8at. The uoint that Aristotle makes here in citing Democritus is that two~actual atoms as substances can not constitute a new unity, nor can a single atom contain two (or more) ac·t;ual •sub-atoms'. See Hoss, I:Ietaphysics, II, 209, 211. . ' Cherniss, ou. cit., p. 341, note 18, savs that Aristotle is reading into the physical doctrine of atomism his own metaphysical principles. But, if Democritus had not held precisely the position that _Aristotle here attributes to him, had he admitted either that atoms ::nay merge to form a unified physical object, or that they may actually be divided into 'sub-atoms' the physical object would be reduced to nothings, an illusion. r 55 for two things to arise from what is one Lan atoraj~ for he makes his atomic magnitudes substances." Aristotle here makes at least one point quite clear about Democritus' atoms, that is, that they intentionally and by definition do not consist of further atoms as actual parts. This may very \Yell mean that Democritus 1 atom was indivisible in somewhat the same sense that a substance for Aristotle was indivisible, that there are no actual substances as parts in it into which it can be divided, that the atom was thus not indivisible because its magnitude was mathematically indivisible, but simply because it had no proper parts into which it could be divided. But the point about aouva~ov • • • I S::. # t\ E:X uUO E:V • • • yev~aeaa (1039a9-10) is not quite as clear. Ross evidently takes this as meaning "a single atom cannot be produced out of two atoms. 1167 But that does not seem to be quite the point that Democritus was making with this statement; and that Aristotle evidently did not take it that way becomes clearer from the two other instances in which Aristotle.quotes this teaching of Democritus. The first of these is from On Generation and CorFUPtion 1.8, 325a34-36: 68 11 • • • and when they [the atoms] are set together and involved with one another, they produce physical objects. And a multitude would not arise from what is truly one, nor would ·what is one' arise from those things which are 67noss, hletaphysics, II, 209. 68 ' e L s::."' ' "\ -' I >; ~ XU& OUV~& ~μe:va uE XUl ne:p&X~Exuμe:va yEVVav. eX u~ ~oG xa~'aA~8E&aV ~Vos oux €v YEV{o8al ~AD80~ ouo' lx ~WV aA~8Ws noAAWV ev, aAA 1 e:(vaL ~ou~' aouva~ov. . truly many, but it is impossible that they would."· The second passage is at .Q!1. the Heavens 3.4, 303a6-8:69 56 11 • • • and [they claim] that max1y things are not generated out of what is one [the atom] nor is one thing generated out of what is many (the atoms], but all things are produced by the invOlvement and scattering around of these atorns. 11 In both these passages the generation or structure of physical objects is connected with Democritus' claim, and it is most likely that to which this second part of Democritus' claim is to be connectea. 70 The claim then is that when atoms congregate to form a physical object they do not in fact form a unity. Here then is lik~ly an explicit denial on Democritus' part that the physical object is a real unity, a claim, therefore, that the phenomenal unity of the object is nothing but an illusion. Thus now, taking both parts of Democritus' claim together, inasmuch as the atoms cannot be further divided in themselves, and inasmuch as these atoms, when they form a physical object, do not in fact form a real unity, these atoms are the only true and physical unit that there is. 60.. ' It I 1 j, ' "I "I' ' ,, I .., Ill. ~at OU~ £~ ~vo, TIOnna YlYVE09at OU'r£ EX ~OAAWV ~v, aA.A.' -i;ij 'tOU'rWV ouμ'Jt/...oxij xa't 1t:£plnaA.<iC.:El 'JtUV'ra yEvva'.o8at. I follow ~lders, op. cit., p. 300, and Kirk and Raven, Sl!?.• cit., p. 418, in tranSTatingnEplrraA.asEt as 'by scattering around 1 • 70Joachim, ou. cit., p. 163 rightly identifies the -i;o xa-i;, aA.~O E~ av tv With -:ni'e individual atom and the 'IQ a/...T)8W<; n:oA.A.~ with an aggregate of atoms, which, though forming a perceptible body, never constitute a real unit. And, if this is the meaning of Democritus' clair::t here in On Generation and 9orruption 1.8, 325a34-36, then tnis is evidently the way in Which this same claim of Democritus is to be taken in the passage at LletaEhysics 7.13. Aristo_t}_e 's Cri ticisr:i: Against t~ jjenial of the Unity of the Physical Object 57 In the world of nature for Aristotle it is the individual physical object, the primary substance, which is 'one' thing in the strictest sense of the term; upon its unity depends not only accidental unity (~. 5.6, 1015bl6-36), but also unity in species, in genus, and by analogy (1016b311017a3). It is this primary substance which is 'one' by continuity: ~wv oe xae' tau~a ~v AEyoμevwv ~a μEY Aeye~al ~Q auvex~ elva, (1015b36-1016al).71 And it is this which is 'one' in the primary sense, for its o6a(a (substance, informed matter) is one; and it is 'one' because it is continuous, because its form is one and its definition is one: ~a oe xp&tw~ AEyo"' ~ .J.. I ( # # ' J\ ( 1\ \ μeva ~v wV ., oua a μLa, μLa OE n ouvexe q n ef6El ~Ady~ (1016b8-9). And this is the first major point on which he criticizes the teaching of Democritus on·the atom as the real physical object and unity. But it is not only the teaching that there are atomic shapes in reality that negates the real unity of the physical object, but also the doctrine of the void, which in the physical object separates those atoms which constitute that object. And there are in Democritus' teaching a number of phenomena which are explained more fr~m the point of view of the void-such as, expansion, contraction, growth, and motion. And, 71Two thines are continuous when they have a single boundary in common (Physics 5.3, 227a21-23). If two parts are to become a unity in the strict sense, it is necessary that they have this boundary in common. although these explanations too involve an unnecessary and unreasonable denial of the unity of the individual physical object, they will be considered in chapter two of this paper in connection with the doctrine of the void. The discussion 58 here in this chapter will be limited to those of Aristotle's criticisms which trace this denial of the unity of the physical object more immediately and directly to the teaching that there are atomic shapes. Specifically, Aristotle's criticisms of atomic shapes in this respect is that such atoms not only deny obvious and evident unities, 72 but also do not, and cannot in principle, account at all for all the facts. First of all, if one argues from empirical evidence--and the atomists evidently did--Aristotle claims in On ~ Heavens 3.8, 306b3-5, 9-15, that a doctrine of differentiation of simple bodies by basic shapes is unreasonable. This criticism seems to be directed not only against Plato's views, but also against any attempt in general to reduce the simple bodies to shapes: OAW~ OE 't"O ne:1pffo8a1 't"U d:n:A.ff a 0 Wμarca axT)μa't"(l;;e:iv at..oyov eo't"1--306b3-4. Such attempts are cited as being unreasonable in the first place because, in that case, the simple bodies cannot fill up a whole or constitute a material continuity (306b4-5). Bu~, more impo~tantly, in the second place, we have empirical evidence (~a(ve:'t"aL --306b9) that simple bodies do 72That such a denial is, furthermore, unnecessary and thus unwarrented will be shown in the latter part of this chapter. adjust their form to suit their container, especially water and air. If the basic shape of the element remains, it will certainly not fill its container as a whole: 73 06 yap ~v ~~~E~o nav~ax~ ~ou nEp1£xov~o~ ~6 OAOV--306bl2-13; and that 59 would be contrary to empirical evidence.74 Thus, to account for simple bodies in terms of specific shapes is to deny the wholeness and continuity of such a body and to deny empirical evidence. Aristotle reasonably chose empirical evidence: ~o~E ~avEpov 0~1 oux EO~lV ~p10μ€va ~a ox~μa~a a6~wv --306bl4-15. A second basic unity which Democritus by his atomic theory denies is the real unity of the individual animate creature. This is a unity of a higher order, for it is one supplied by nature itself and is not artificially imposed on the creature. 75 It was Democritus' view that soul consists of spherical shapes; 76 this, by itself, strongly implies that soul 73Elders, .2..E.• cit., p. 323, remarks on OAov: "It signifies a coherent and substantial unity (Aristotle's outlook is fro.:n the outset different from that of the atomists). 11 It is precisely such a OAOV which is at issue with Democritus, and thus the argument here applies to Democritus' position as well. 74Ibid., p. 322, where Elders rightly remarks: "Aristotle makes here a very important criticism on a point overlooked by Plato, viz. of how space, not informed by figures, can be real." I do not doubt that this criticism is directed primarily against Plato; but it involves the citation of empirical evidence against any view tha~ holds a reduction of simple bodies to specific shapes that is significant. 75r1Ietaphysics 5. 6, 1016a4: μaAAOV tv 't"a qnfo E 1 ouv EXTi t) 'tlXV'l'J. ~ see~ for, example, Anima 1.2, 404a2: ~~oμwv ~a o~aLpo­ El5~ nup xaL ~uxnv ~fyEL. "" 60 is not a continuum and cannot itself be a unified thing. Furthermore, if, as Democritus seems to hold, this soul is scattered throughout the percipient body (Anima 1.5, 409b2), and soul is taken to be some sort of body itself, then there will actually be two bodies in the same place; the animate creature itself will really consist of two bodies (409b3-4). It will not be a unity at all. Furthermore, Aristotle objects specifically to Democritus' theory of alteration on the same grounds at Q!! Generation and Corruption 1.9, 327al5-22. The example cited there is the change of the same body (~o a~~o oWμa--327al6) from a liquid to a solid;77 this, Democritus claims, occurs by the shifting of positions of the constituent atoms: anep AEyet ~Y)μoxpt~o~--327al8-19. Here Aristotle appeals to empirical evidence (opwμEV--327al6) for the continuity of the physical object before and during and after the change: ouvexe~ ov o~e μ~v uypov o~e oe ~eTIY)yo~ --327al7. 78 The object was and remained a continuous whole throughout the process of change; empirical evidence again contradicts the position of 77r take the most reasonable referents to be the xp6o~aA­ Ao~ at 1. 8, 325a22 and the uou)p at 326a34, al though it is not essential to the argument that they be so identified. I 78Also 327a22: anav ~ypov, O'CE OE OXAY)pov xa) 'ITETIY)yo<;: EO'r l V • Cherniss, .2.E.• cit., p. 105, contends that here Aristotle seems quite naive in that Aristotle should expect to~ the atoms moving. But Cherniss' emphasis is wrong; Aristotle says that we have empirical evidence for the continuity of the object during alteration, not that he fails to see the atoms moving. This makes a great deal of difference, for thus the burden of proof is on Democritus, not on Aristotle. 61 Democritus. The same thing is true with regard to Democritus' theory of generation and corruption, for he taught that generation and corruption occur by the addition and subtraction of atoms from the mass of atoms \'lhich constitute the physical object (~. et Corr. 1.2, 315bl6-17); this means that for Democritus a new object is generated whenever a single atom is added to the original group. This too is contrary to empirical evidence, for, as Aristotle points out at ~ Generation and Corruption 1.4, 319bl4-17, generation and corruption occur precisely ·when the physical object changes ~ .e_ whole, ?9 and nothing :perceptible persists as an identical substratum--as when seed changes to blood, or water to air. When a physical object changes, it is obvious that the kind of change which involves generation or corruption is a change of the object as a whole, and not just some (perhaps minute) part of it. Furthermore, not only does Democritus' theory negate phenomena, but also, Aristotle points out, precisely in connection with the mutual generation of the simple bodies the theory of atomic shapes cannot even in principle account for the facts of phenomena, although they were supposed to do exactly that. Aristotle's criticism of this inconsistency in atomism is ' 79see Joachim, .£1?.· cit., p. 108, and Verdenius and Waszink, £E· cit.' p. 17' on the meaning of oA.ov here. '..lhe pas~aae is as follows: O'l:QV o' oA.ov μc:1:af3aA.A.1jl WO un:oμtvovrco<; UlCJ.gT)TOU 1:1VO£; W£; U'T[OXEl!-LeVoU 'T.OU QU't"OU at..A. 01'ov tx 't"~' yov~, a~μa naari, ~ ~~ ~Oa1:o£; d~p ~ ~~ dfpo' nav'l:~' ~Owp ytvc:a,, ~ori 'to 1:01ou1:ov, 't"ou oe ~eopa. ' r 62 to be found at .Qg ~Heavens 3.4, 303a24-29. The atomis·ts are there said to have differentiated the •traditional elements•--earth, air, and water--by the size of the atoms which constitute those elements: μEy€8EL xa\ μLxpo~n~L 6La~€pELV aepa xal YDV xa& UOWP--303a25-26. This is not to say that water, for example, is composed of atoms all of one size, but rather that one particular size of atom predominates in the group, which is composed of all sizes of atoms. One of these •elements', they further claim, is generated from another when the largest atoms are separated out; for example, 'earth' becomes 'water' when the largest atoms are separated out from the 'earth'; and this is the way in which the mutual generation of 'elements' takes place (303a27-29). But this, Aristotle rightly points out, generates an int 1 t d • t • ' , "I. L I '\ -~ ""' 1. erna con ra ic ion: Evav~1a A~YElV au~ou~ au~oi~ uvayxn -303a24-25. 80 The contradiction obviously lies in the fact that when the largest atoms separate out from the earth, and water is thus forned, there are evidently no such 'largest atoms' in the water which results from this process so that 'earth' can again be generated out of it. If these 'largest atoms' are an essential constituent of •earth', and if 'earth' can in turn be generated from 'water', then the water must contain them; but ' 80Elders; .2.E.· ill·, fails to point out \vhere the contradiction lies. Cherniss, .2.E• cit., p. 6, assumes that it lies with contradicting the fact that the process of change is eternal, and that on atomist grounds it must cease; but this is not an internal contradiction in the atomiots' system. Cherniss concludes from this fact that the refutation rests on a false account of the atomists' theory. 63 they will be lacking to the 'water' because they have beeri separated out. Here is where the contradiction lies, and this is exactly where Aristotle says that it lies: unoA.c:(\lfel yap ae'l 't"U μey1o'ta owμa17a exxp1 voμevu --303a27-28. 81 Thus the atomists, although they claim to account for the mutual generation of the elements, in fact cannot do so without self-contradicti on. Thus, in summary, although Democritus had begun with phenomena and indeed tried to preserve them with accounts of reality which were in harmony with them (A.oyou, Ol't&ve, np6, \ ,, t .t ~ 't"DV UlOGDOlV oμoA.oyouμeva A.cyov'te' --Gen. et~· 1.8, 325a2324), he ended by negating many of the opinions and facts of observation: noA.A.a 't"WV evooswv xa) 't"WY ~a1voμevwv XU't~ 'tnv a'{o8Do&v\L--Caelo 3.4, 303a22-23. Not only did he deny the real and empirical unity of the physical object, but also in some cases his theory did not even fit the admitted facts as it was supposed to do. But the denial of phenomena and empirical evidence in itself is not so serious a charge, if that denial is justified in some respect. But Democritus' justification of that denial was made on two grounds: 1) the problem of 'division everywhere' 81Both Cherniss, loc. cit., and Simplicius, On~ Caelo, 612.26-613.4, s~e the point~the criticism as being that of the 'ceasing of generation', evidently in anticipation of the criticisill offered by Aristotle at On the Heavens 3.7, 305b2026. But Aristotle's criticisms differ in these two places; at On the Heavens 3.4 the point is made that unoA.e(\lfe:t ••• 'ta ~ytori;a. owμ,a'ta, while at On the Heavens 3.7 it is uTioA.e(nc:iv 't"DV ts a'A.A~AWV y€veOlV. ~ ----

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@inproceedings{eCommons2015AristotlesRT, title={Aristotle's Relation to Democritus Reconsidered and Vindicated as Against the Criticism of Harold Cherniss}, author={Loyola eCommons and Richard W. Baldes}, year={2015} }