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Corpuscularianism is a physical theory that supposes all matter to be composed of minute particles. The theory became important in the seventeenth century; amongst the leading corpuscularians were Thomas Hobbes, [1] René Descartes, [2] Pierre Gassendi, [3] Robert Boyle, [3] Isaac Newton, [4] and John Locke. [3]

Particle small localized object in physical sciences

In the physical sciences, a particle is a small localized object to which can be ascribed several physical or chemical properties such as volume, density or mass. They vary greatly in size or quantity, from subatomic particles like the electron, to microscopic particles like atoms and molecules, to macroscopic particles like powders and other granular materials. Particles can also be used to create scientific models of even larger objects depending on their density, such as humans moving in a crowd or celestial bodies in motion.

Thomas Hobbes 17th-century English philosopher

Thomas Hobbes, in some older texts Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which expounded an influential formulation of social contract theory. In addition to political philosophy, Hobbes also contributed to a diverse array of other fields, including history, jurisprudence, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, ethics, and general philosophy.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age, Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.



Corpuscularianism is similar to the theory of atomism, except that where atoms were supposed to be indivisible, corpuscles could in principle be divided. In this manner, for example, it was theorized that mercury could penetrate into metals and modify their inner structure, a step on the way towards the production of gold by transmutation. Corpuscularianism was associated by its leading proponents with the idea that some of the properties that objects appear to have are artifacts of the perceiving mind: "secondary" qualities as distinguished from "primary" qualities. [5] Corpuscularianism stayed a dominant theory for centuries and was blended with alchemy by early scientists such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton in the 17th century.

Atomism is a natural philosophy that developed in several ancient traditions.

Alchemy ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition

Alchemy was an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practised throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, originating in Greco-Roman Egypt in the first few centuries.

Robert Boyle Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor

Robert Boyle was an Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, chemist, physicist, and inventor. Boyle is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and therefore one of the founders of modern chemistry, and one of the pioneers of modern experimental scientific method. He is best known for Boyle's law, which describes the inversely proportional relationship between the absolute pressure and volume of a gas, if the temperature is kept constant within a closed system. Among his works, The Sceptical Chymist is seen as a cornerstone book in the field of chemistry. He was a devout and pious Anglican and is noted for his writings in theology.

In his work The Sceptical Chymist (1661), Boyle abandoned the Aristotelian ideas of the classical elements—earth, water, air, and fire in favor of corpuscularianism. In his later work, The Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666), Boyle used corpuscularianism to explain all of the major Aristotelian concepts, marking a departure from traditional Aristotelianism. [6]

<i>The Sceptical Chymist</i> 1661 book by Robert Boyle

The Sceptical Chymist: or Chymico-Physical Doubts & Paradoxes is the title of a book by Robert Boyle, published in London in 1661. In the form of a dialogue, the Sceptical Chymist presented Boyle's hypothesis that matter consisted of corpuscles and clusters of corpuscles in motion and that every phenomenon was the result of collisions of particles in motion. Boyle also objected to the definitions of elemental bodies propounded by Aristotle and by Paracelsus, instead defining elements as "perfectly unmingled bodies". For these reasons Robert Boyle has sometimes been called the founder of modern chemistry.

Aristotelianism tradition in philosophy

Aristotelianism is a tradition of philosophy that takes its defining inspiration from the work of Aristotle. This school of thought, in the modern sense of philosophy, covers existence, ethics, mind and related subjects. In Aristotle's time, philosophy included natural philosophy, which preceded the advent of modern science during the Scientific Revolution. The works of Aristotle were initially defended by the members of the Peripatetic school and later on by the Neoplatonists, who produced many commentaries on Aristotle's writings. In the Islamic Golden Age, Avicenna and Averroes translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic and under them, along with philosophers such as Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi, Aristotelianism became a major part of early Islamic philosophy.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes used corpuscularianism to justify his political theories in Leviathan . [1] It was used by Newton in his development of the corpuscular theory of light, [4] while Boyle used it to develop his mechanical corpuscular philosophy, which laid the foundations for the Chemical Revolution. [7]

<i>Leviathan</i> (Hobbes book) Book by Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil—commonly referred to as Leviathan—is a book written by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and published in 1651. Its name derives from the biblical Leviathan. The work concerns the structure of society and legitimate government, and is regarded as one of the earliest and most influential examples of social contract theory. Leviathan ranks as a classic Western work on statecraft comparable to Machiavelli's The Prince. Written during the English Civil War (1642–1651), Leviathan argues for a social contract and rule by an absolute sovereign. Hobbes wrote that civil war and the brute situation of a state of nature could only be avoided by strong, undivided government.

In optics, the corpuscular theory of light, arguably set forward by Descartes in 1637, states that light is made up of small discrete particles called "corpuscles" which travel in a straight line with a finite velocity and possess impetus. This was based on an alternate description of atomism of the time period. This theory cannot explain refraction, diffraction and interference.

Mechanism is the belief that natural wholes are like complicated machines or artefacts, composed of parts lacking any intrinsic relationship to each other.

Alchemical corpuscularianism

William R. Newman traces the origins from the fourth book of Aristotle, Meteorology . [8] The "dry" and "moist" exhalations of Aristotle became the alchemical 'sulfur' and 'mercury' of the eighth-century Islamic alchemist, Jābir ibn Hayyān (721–815). Pseudo-Geber's Summa perfectionis contains an alchemical theory where unified sulfur and mercury corpuscles, differing in purity, size, and relative proportions, form the basis of a much more complicated process. [9] [10]

William R. Newman professor, scientist

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. Most of Newman’s work in the History of Science has been devoted to alchemy and "chymistry," the art-nature debate, and matter theories, particularly atomism. Newman is also General Editor of the Chymistry of Isaac Newton, an online resource combining born-digital editions of Newton’s alchemical writings with multimedia replications of Newton’s alchemical experiments. In addition, he was Director of the Catapult Center for Digital Humanities and Computational Analysis of Texts at Indiana University. Newman is on the editorial boards of Archimedes, Early Science and Medicine, and HOPOS.

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was a Greek philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, the founder of the Lyceum and the Peripatetic school of philosophy and Aristotelian tradition. Along with his teacher Plato, he has been called the "Father of Western Philosophy". His writings cover many subjects – including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics and government. Aristotle provided a complex synthesis of the various philosophies existing prior to him, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be a subject of contemporary philosophical discussion.

<i>Meteorology</i> (Aristotle) treatise by Aristotle

Meteorology is a treatise by Aristotle. The text discusses what Aristotle believed to have been all the affections common to air and water, and the kinds and parts of the earth and the affections of its parts. It includes early accounts of water evaporation, earthquakes, and other weather phenomena.

Importance to the development of modern scientific theory

Several of the principles which corpuscularianism proposed became tenets of modern chemistry.

Stoichiometry Calculation of relative quantities of reactants and products in chemical reactions

Stoichiometry is the calculation of reactants and products in chemical reactions.

Chemical synthesis is the artificial execution of useful chemical reactions to obtain one or several products. This occurs by physical and chemical manipulations usually involving one or more reactions. In modern laboratory uses, the process is reproducible, reliable, and established to work the same in multiple laboratories.

Fossil Preserved remains or traces of organisms from a past geological age

A fossil is any preserved remains, impression, or trace of any once-living thing from a past geological age. Examples include bones, shells, exoskeletons, stone imprints of animals or microbes, objects preserved in amber, hair, petrified wood, oil, coal, and DNA remnants. The totality of fossils is known as the fossil record.

See also

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History of physics aspect of history

Physics is a branch of science whose primary objects of study are matter and energy. Discoveries of physics find applications throughout the natural sciences and in technology, since matter and energy are the basic constituents of the natural world. Some other domains of study—more limited in their scope—may be considered branches that have split off from physics to become sciences in their own right. Physics today may be divided loosely into classical physics and modern physics.

The Scientific Revolution was a series of events that marked the emergence of modern science during the early modern period, when developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry transformed the views of society about nature. The Scientific Revolution took place in Europe towards the end of the Renaissance period and continued through the late 18th century, influencing the intellectual social movement known as the Enlightenment. While its dates are debated, the publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus's De revolutionibus orbium coelestium is often cited as marking the beginning of the Scientific Revolution.

Natural science Branch of science about the natural world

Natural science is a branch of science concerned with the description, prediction, and understanding of natural phenomena, based on empirical evidence from observation and experimentation. Mechanisms such as peer review and repeatability of findings are used to try to ensure the validity of scientific advances.

Jabir ibn Hayyan Islamic Pershia polymath

Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, is the supposed author of an enormous number and variety of works in Arabic often called the Jabirian corpus. The scope of the corpus is vast and diverse covering a wide range of topics, including alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, magic, mysticism and philosophy. He has been widely described as the father or the founder of early chemistry, inventing many of the basic processes and equipment still used by chemists today.

The mechanical philosophy is a natural philosophy describing the universe as similar to a large-scale mechanism. Mechanical philosophy is associated with the scientific revolution of Early Modern Europe. One of the first expositions of universal mechanism is found in the opening passages of Leviathan by Hobbes published in 1651.

History of chemistry Wikimedia history article

The history of chemistry represents a time span from ancient history to the present. By 1000 BC, civilizations used technologies that would eventually form the basis of the various branches of chemistry. Examples include extracting metals from ores, making pottery and glazes, fermenting beer and wine, extracting chemicals from plants for medicine and perfume, rendering fat into soap, making glass, and making alloys like bronze.

According to ancient and medieval science, aether, also spelled æther or ether and also called quintessence, is the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere. The concept of aether was used in several theories to explain several natural phenomena, such as the traveling of light and gravity. In the late 19th century, physicists postulated that aether permeated all throughout space, providing a medium through which light could travel in a vacuum, but evidence for the presence of such a medium was not found in the Michelson–Morley experiment, and this result has been interpreted as meaning that no such luminiferous aether exists.

Chemical revolution

The chemical revolution, also called the first chemical revolution, was the early modern reformulation of chemistry that culminated in the law of conservation of mass and the oxygen theory of combustion. During the 19th and 20th century, this transformation was credited to the work of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier. However, recent work on the history of early modern chemistry considers the chemical revolution to consist of gradual changes in chemical theory and practice that emerged over a period of two centuries. The so-called scientific revolution took place during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries whereas the chemical revolution took place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

George Starkey (1628–1665) was a Colonial American alchemist, medical practitioner, and writer of numerous commentaries and chemical treatises that were widely circulated in Europe and influenced prominent men of science, including Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. After relocating from New England to London, England, in 1650, Starkey began writing under the pseudonym Eirenaeus Philalethes. Starkey remained in England and continued his career in medicine and alchemy until his death in the Great Plague of London in 1665.

Daniel Sennert Physician, chemist

Daniel Sennert was a renowned German physician and a prolific academic writer, especially in the field of alchemy or chemistry. He held the position of professor of medicine at the University of Wittenberg for many years.

Sébastien Basson, Latinized as Sebastianus Basso, was a French physician and natural philosopher of the beginning of the seventeenth century. He was an early theorist of a matter theory based on both atoms and compounds. His natural philosophy draws on several currents of thought, including Italian Renaissance naturalism, alchemy and Calvinist theology. Basson was an atomist, who, independently from Isaac Beeckman, formed the concept of "molecule".

John Webster (1610–1682), also known as Johannes Hyphastes, was an English cleric, physician and chemist with occult interests, a proponent of astrology and a sceptic about witchcraft. He is known for controversial works.

Paul of Taranto

Paul of Taranto was a 13th-century Franciscan alchemist and author from southern Italy. Perhaps the best known of his works is his Theorica et practica, which defends alchemical principles by describing the theoretical and practical reasoning behind it. There is also evidence to suggest, however, that Paul is also the author of the much more widely known alchemical text Summa perfectionis magisterii, generally attributed to Pseudo-Geber.

Quaestiones quaedam philosophicae is the name given to a set of notes that Isaac Newton kept for himself during his earlier years in Cambridge. They concern questions in the natural philosophy of the day that interested him. Apart from the light it throws on the formation of his own agenda for research, the major interest in these notes is the documentation of the unaided development of the scientific method in the mind of Newton, whereby every question is put to experimental test.

Minima naturalia were theorized by Aristotle as the smallest parts into which a homogeneous natural substance could be divided and still retain its essential character. In this context, "nature" means formal nature. Thus, "natural minimum" may be taken to mean "formal minimum": the minimum amount of matter necessary to instantiate a certain form.


  1. 1 2 Kenneth Clatterbaugh, The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy, 1637-1739, Routledge, 2014, p. 69.
  2. Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Clarendon Press, 1995, p. 228.
  3. 1 2 3 Vere Claiborne Chappell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Locke, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 56.
  4. 1 2 – Newton's Particle Theory of Light Lecture notes. Lindgren, Richard A. Research Professor of Physics. University of Virginia, Department of Physics.
  5. The Mechanical Philosophy Archived June 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine - Early modern 'atomism' ("corpuscularianism" as it was known)
  6. Osler, Margaret J. (2010). Reconfiguring the World. Nature, God, and Human Understanding, from the Middle Ages to Early-Modern Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 127. ISBN   978-0-8018-9656-9.
  7. Ursula Klein (July 2007), "Styles of Experimentation and Alchemical Matter Theory in the Scientific Revolution", Metascience, Springer, 16 (2): 247–256 esp. 247, doi:10.1007/s11016-007-9095-8, ISSN   1467-9981
  8. Late medieval and early modern corpuscular matter theories Volume 1 of Medieval and Early Modern Science, Christoph Lüthy, J. E. Murdoch, William R. Newman BRILL, 2001, p. 306 ISBN   978-90-04-11516-3
  9. Newman, William Royall (2006). Atoms and alchemy: chymistry and the experimental origins of the scientific revolution. University of Chicago Press. p. 13. ISBN   978-0-226-57697-8.
  10. Norris, John A. (2006). "The Mineral Exhalation Theory of Metallogenesis in Pre-Modern Mineral Science". Ambix. 53: 43–65. doi:10.1179/174582306X93183.