Atomism: What Is It And How Has This Philosophical Paradigm Developed

Atomism, which emerged in Ancient Greece, began to shape the concept of the atom.


We don’t know a lot. Reality is something complex and difficult to interpret, to which humanity has gone over time trying to provide a plausible explanation. Religion, philosophy and science are some of the main ways through which it has been tried to explain the world, which have evolved through time. For example, in ancient times the existence of cells and molecules was unknown, although today their existence is something that most people know. And even less the substances that compose them.

However, even before being able to examine any type of matter through a microscope, the Greeks generated a theory that valued that all matter was made up of groupings of particles, which in turn could be reduced into smaller and smaller ones until reaching to an indivisible particle. We are talking about the appearance of atomism.

Atomism: what it is, and general principles

Atomism is a philosophical paradigm born in ancient Greece, which considers that reality and the whole of matter is composed of different particles that can be reduced into smaller and smaller units until reaching the last particles that cannot be reduced or divided further: the atoms. In reality, according to this paradigm, there are only atoms and emptiness.

This paradigm is a concept born in philosophy and that has subsequently been explored and used at the scientific level, being one of the main bases of chemistry. Atomism gives greater importance to the individual components than to the whole, considering that the fact of incorporating new atoms does not generate relevant differences in the elements that they constitute. Atomism is also characterized by being essentially mechanistic.

Different types

There are different types of classical atomism, divided into two specific positions: the absolute physical atomism that considers that everything including the mind or concepts such as the soul or even God are configured by atoms, and the relative atomism in which matter only refers to the physical and corporeal.

Absolute atomism

Absolute atomism is the best known on a philosophical level, being the first to emerge and the one that marked a style of thought that would allow later developments. Everything is explained by the atom, all that exists being matter. The atom, the vacuum (in which nothing exists) and the movement of atoms is what configures everything that exists, there are different processes of aggregation and destruction of structures formed by atoms. Likewise, all matter is identical and with the same properties, and can differ only in degree.

Relative atomism

Relative atomism is born in order to separate physical matter with spiritual aspects. The atom would therefore constitute only all material, the soul or the deities being another type of matter. It is considered that how the matter is organized is due to the order generated by the divinity.

In turn, this relative physical atomism can be homogeneous if it considers that all the atoms were the same with the exception of characteristics such as size, shape or behavior, or heterogeneous if it considers that there is a diversity of atoms with their own differential characteristics.

Evolution through the ages

Atomism as such has not remained indifferent to the passage of time, but has evolved in pursuit of scientific advances and the discoveries that have been produced in relation to the configuration of matter.

1. Atomism in ancient times

The emergence of atomism is attributed to Leucippus, an author of the 5th century BC, who in the work Megasdiacosmos sets a certain precedent in this regard. However, the classical author most considered the true father of atomism was Democritus, a contemporary of Socrates. It was Democritus who proposed that the world was divided into atoms and emptiness, this being the space through which atoms can move freely. Likewise, the atom is considered immutable, eternal and indivisible.

After Democritus, atomism was worked on by different authors who were his disciples, such as Anaxagoras (who proposed the existence of elementary particles different from each other) or Empedocles (who mixed the concept of the atom with the four classical elements).

The last to follow the tradition proposed by Democritus would be Nausifanes, master of Epicurus. From this, Epicurus generates a change of orientation in the thought of atomism, focusing it on human, moral and ethical elements and in turn on the mundane and on the evidence (the classic of Democritus was more theoretical and cosmological). This tradition has various concepts that would later set a precedent for some of Karl Marx’s theses.

2. Middle Ages

With the arrival of the Middle Ages, atomism acquires different connotations, appearing relative physical atomism and those who believe in it consider that atoms are divine creation and their union obeys the law of God. After that different authors such as Paracelsus in the Renaissance would link it with alchemy.

3. Modern Age

Later, in the Modern Age, atomism would resurface at first linked to ecclesiastical dogma, although it was included in the debate of whether all atoms are the same (homogeneous) or different (heterogeneous), positions defended respectively by Gassendi and Maignan. Also multiple other authors support atomism, among them Newton.

Contemporary age: the atom today

Scientific and technological development in recent centuries has made it possible to observe the existence of what are still considered the basic units of matter today, the so-called atoms.

Dalton would generate one of the first scientific laws regarding atomism, within current physics. Through the law of definite proportion and the law of multiple proportions, he explained how the different chemical elements were combined: simple elements are composed of unalterable atoms whose characteristics explain the way in which the different weights of the elements make up a compound molecule. .

Avogadro would contribute to the establishment of atomism as a scientist by classifying atomic weights based on the weight of hydrogen, something that has also reached us today through the periodic table of elements that was described by Mendeleev.

However, with the discovery of electrons by Thompson in 1897, Rutherford’s experiments and Chadwick’s contribution, it has been discovered that atoms are actually also composed of other electrically charged substructures, protons, neutrons and electrons. In fact, classical physics would gradually be replaced by quantum physics as the behavior of these particles was studied and that even these could be subdivided, as is the case with the quarks discovered by Perl. It also links and deepens the study of the forces that generate union and separation of matter.

Currently, even more primordial particles, such as the recently discovered Higgs boson, or even antimatter, have been discovered, there being no vacuum in itself.

Although what today we call an atom may not be the concept proposed by the Greeks, it cannot be ruled out that we end up finding a particle that is not divisible, although there will always be the doubt whether with enough technology and capacity we could observe even more basic elements.

Bibliographic references:

  • Well, G. (1974). Pre-Socratic metaphysics. Pentalfa Editions. Oviedo.
  • Echegoyen, J. (2014). History of Philosophy. Volume 1: Greek Philosophy. Editorial Edinumen
  • EcuRed. (sf). Atomism. Available at: [Consulted on [05/28/2018]
  • Encyclopaedia herder (nd) Atomism. Available at: Consulted on [05/28/2018]

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