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Greek Atomism and the One and the Many LILLIAN U. PANCHERI ONE OF THE PROBLEMS which claimed the attention of the Greek philosophers, especially those writing subsequent to Parmenides, was the problem of "the one and the many" or the relation of unity to plurality as it pertains to the nature of the real. I shall here be concerned with certain facets of the solution which Greek atomism offers to this problem. And I shall seek to demonstrate that although the earliest version of this theory may in fact be unable to account with equal success for the reality of both unchanging atoms and changing compound bodies, the later version proposed by Epicurus can do so. It can do so I think precisely because Epicurus does not, as Aristotle maintains that one cannot without certain impossible results,1 absolutely oppose the one and the many. Now according to Aristotle's remarks upon their position at De Caelo 303a3-10, Leucippus and Democritus subscribed to the thesis that "one [thing] cannot turn into many [things], nor many into one." Because they hold this, these men provide for the possibility of a sensible many by postulating one substance existing in many discrete, indivisible units, each separated from the others by void and differing from them in size and shape. According to this version of atornism, perceptible bodies are generated from the atoms by "combination" and "dissolution." The qualitative differences among the compounds are explained on the basis of the order and position, as well as the size, shape and number, of the atoms involved in each case. But does such an account of generation and change explain things in a way which allows equally for the reality of atoms and compound bodies? Aristotle thinks not.z And I suspect that Democritus thought not also, for he is quoted as holding that sensory impressions are unreliable, that "bitter" and "sweet" are predicated of things by convention, and that the truth is not evident but "lies in the depths. ''3 It seems that Democritus believes that we may account for perceptible change by means of an hypothesis of an infinity of substantially identicai units in constant motion, but in so doing the reality of what we perceive becomes subject to question. Still, despite his objections to the atomic theory, Aristotle repeatedly avers that it comes nearer to being a scientific theory that any proposed by the other "natural philosophers. ''4 He does so for good reason I think: it contains the foundations upon which one can erect an explanation of the sensibly perceptible world without allowing that world to slip into a world of illusory appearances. All that is needed to assure the reality of the sensible world in such a theory is a non-arbitrary way in which to unite the world of compound bodies 1 Metaphysics 1056b5-10. 2 Cf., e.g., Aristotle On Democritus ap. Simplieium de caelo 295, 11; De gen. et cor. 325a23; Metaph. lO09bl I. 8 Frr. 9 and 117. 4 Cf., e.g., De gen. et cor. 315a25 and 325b15. [139] 140 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY with the world of atoms-in-motion. This way is provided by Epicurus when he makes certain distinctions with respect to the basic natures of atoms and of sensible bodies, distinctions by which he proposes to meet and counter Aristotle's objections to the earlier version of atomism.5 Let me approach Epicurus' modifications of the atomic theory through some of Aristotle's objections to the theory, primarily those which turn around the unity he believes requisite for the existence of a thing and for our knowledge of it and around the possibility of motion under the atomic hypothesis. At Metaphysics 1015b17ff. Aristotle writes that things may be "one" in any one (or several) of four basic ways: A thing is one when it is continuous by nature and not by "contact or squeezing." A thing is one when it is a whole and has a certain shape or form which is its by nature and not by force. A thing is one when it is indivisible; and things can be one in number or one in kind (of. Metaph. 1054a30-35...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 139-144
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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