Ideas of Democritus, by Theme

[Greek, 460 - 370 BCE, Born at Abdera in northern Greece. Probably taught by Leucippus.]

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2. Reason / B. Laws of Thought / 2. Sufficient Reason
Everything happens necessarily, and for a reason
     Full Idea: Nothing happens at random, but everything for a reason and as the effect of necessity.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B002), quoted by Pseudo-Plutarch - On the Doctrine of the Philosophers 1.25.4
     A reaction: [In Aetius 'Stob'] This remark reminds us of the link between necessity and sufficient reason. Do all reasons arise for a reason?
6. Mathematics / A. Nature of Mathematics / 4. Using Numbers / a. Units
Two can't be a self-contained unit, because it would need to be one to do that
     Full Idea: Democritus claimed that one substance could not be composed from two nor two from one. …The same will clearly go for number, on the popular assumption that number is a combination of units. Unless two is one, it cannot contain a unit in actuality.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Aristotle - Metaphysics 1039a15
     A reaction: Chrysippus followed this up the first part with the memorable example of Dion and Theon. The problem with the second part is that 2, 3 and 4 are three numbers, so they can count as meta-units.
7. Existence / A. Nature of Existence / 3. Being / a. Nature of Being
True Being only occurs when it is completely full, with atoms and no void
     Full Idea: In response to defenders of the One, Democritus says that what is, in the proper sense, is being that is completely full, but that such a being is not one, but that they are unlimited in number and invisible because of the smallness of their masses.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A007) by Aristotle - Coming-to-be and Passing-away (Gen/Corr) 325a28
     A reaction: Democritus is in a tangle here. He says proper being has no void, having apparently conceded that motion needs void (which he admits is non-existent). So true being only occurs when everything grinds to a halt, which is not now. But Idea 20902.
7. Existence / A. Nature of Existence / 3. Being / d. Non-being
Being does not exist more than non-being
     Full Idea: They say that being does not exist more than non-being, because neither does the void exist more than the body.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A006) by Aristotle - Metaphysics 0985b09
     A reaction: The claim that Being and Non-Being are the same thing is pretty startling. It seems to be an expedient to get Void into the picture, even though it is taken to be wholly devoid of qualities.
The non-existent exists as much as the existent, because it has causal powers
     Full Idea: What exists does not exist at all more than what does not exist, and both are causes in a similar way for the things that come about.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A008), quoted by Simplicius - On Aristotle's 'Physics' p.28.4-27
     A reaction: [Simplicius actually attributes this to the shadowy Leucippus] You can see the point. If you drive into a pothole, that has considerable causal powers.
7. Existence / A. Nature of Existence / 3. Being / g. Particular being
The only distinctions are Configuration (shape), Disposition (order) and Turning (position)
     Full Idea: They say that what is differs only by Configuration ([rhusmos], which is the shape), by Disposition ([diathege], which is the order), and by Turning ([tropê], which is the position.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A006) by Aristotle - Metaphysics 0985b16
     A reaction: If you give the shape, structure and position of an object, there is no much more to say. Perhaps mention time.
7. Existence / B. Change in Existence / 1. Nature of Change
Nothing comes from non-existence, or passes into it
     Full Idea: Nothing comes into being from what does not exist, nor is it destroyed into what does not exist.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A001) by Diogenes Laertius - Lives of Eminent Philosophers 09.44
     A reaction: [part of a concise summary of Democritus by DL] Probably an intuition about conservation laws, rather than a speculation about the Big Bang.
7. Existence / E. Categories / 5. Category Anti-Realism
It is not possible to know what sort each thing is
     Full Idea: In reality [eteé] to recognise what sort each thing is, belongs to what is impracticable [aporos].
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B008), quoted by Sextus Empiricus - Against the Logicians (two books) 7.137
     A reaction: On the whole modern scientists (and the rest of us) shoehorn virtually everything into a specific category. It strikes me as wildly bad metaphysics to say that everything necessarily has its category.
9. Objects / B. Unity of Objects / 1. Unifying an Object / b. Unifying aggregates
Democritus denies reality to large objects, because atomic entities can't combine to produce new ones
     Full Idea: Democritus appears to rule out from his austere ontology all so-called emergent entities - even mountains and rivers - on the ground that two or more entities can never combine to produce a new one.
     From: comment on Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by José A. Benardete - Metaphysics: the logical approach Ch.24
9. Objects / B. Unity of Objects / 2. Substance / d. Substance defined
Democritus said that substances could never be mixed, so atoms are the substances
     Full Idea: Democritus claimed that one substance could not be composed from two nor two from one; for him it is the atoms that are the substances.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Aristotle - Metaphysics 1039a10
12. Knowledge Sources / B. Perception / 2. Qualities in Perception / a. Qualities in perception
Sensible qualities can't be real if they appear different to different creatures
     Full Idea: As proof of the fact that sensible qualities have no real existence he points to the fact that they do not appear the same to all creatures.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A135) by Theophrastus - On the Senses 63
12. Knowledge Sources / B. Perception / 3. Representation
Man is separated from reality
     Full Idea: It is necessary to recognise that man by virtue of this criterion is separated from reality.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B006), quoted by Sextus Empiricus - Against the Logicians (two books) 7.137
     A reaction: I don't know what 'this criterion' is, but it strikes me as quite a good slogan for fans (like myself) of the representative theory of perception. Critics say it is the big objection to the representative theory, but I say 'get over it'.
12. Knowledge Sources / C. Rationalism / 1. Rationalism
All evidence comes from senses, so they are indispensable to the mind
     Full Idea: Mind must never reject the senses, because that is where it gets its evidence, and it would be the mind's downfall.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B125), quoted by Galen - On Medical Experience 15.8
13. Knowledge Criteria / D. Scepticism / 1. Scepticism
Democritus says there is either no truth, or it is concealed from us
     Full Idea: Democritus concludes that either there is no truth or it is concealed from us.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A112) by Aristotle - Metaphysics 1009b12
We actually know nothing, and opinions are mere flux
     Full Idea: Certainly this argument too makes it clear that in reality [eteé] we know nothing about anything, but for each person opinion is a rhythmic afflux [epirhusmié].
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B007), quoted by Sextus Empiricus - Against the Logicians (two books) 7.137
     A reaction: This seems to pick 'all is flux' up from Heraclitus, and make Democritus (along with aspects of Socrates) the true source of ancient scepticism.
We in fact know nothing, but we each restructure our reality with beliefs
     Full Idea: In reality we know nothing about anything, but belief restructures things for each of us.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B007), quoted by Sextus Empiricus - Against the Professors (six books) 7.136
It is obviously impossible to understand the reality of each thing
     Full Idea: It will be obvious that it is impossible to understand how in reality each thing is.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B008), quoted by Sextus Empiricus - Against the Professors (six books) 7.137
We know nothing in reality; for truth lies in an abyss
     Full Idea: We know nothing in reality; for truth lies in an abyss.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B117), quoted by Diogenes Laertius - Lives of Eminent Philosophers 09.72.10
14. Science / D. Explanation / 2. Types of Explanation / g. Causal explanations
Democritus was devoted to discovering causal explanations
     Full Idea: Democritus himself, as they say, stated that he would rather discover a single causal explanation [aitiologia] than become the King of the Persians.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B118) by Eusebius - Preparation for the Gospel 14.27.4
     A reaction: Democritus seems to be clearly the father of the physical sciences, because he focused single-mindedly on physical and causal explanations. David Lewis says all explanations are causal.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 2. Psuche
Democritus says soul consists of smooth round bodies brought together in accidental collision
     Full Idea: Since Democritus makes the soul consist of minute smooth round bodies brought together in some sort of accidental collision, let us pass him over.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by M. Tullius Cicero - Tusculan Disputations I.xi.23
     A reaction: If we accept that Democritus thought the collision of atoms 'accidental', then it doesn't sound like a very good theory. What would Cicero say if we replaced 'accidental' with 'naturally selected'?
The soul is the same as the mind
     Full Idea: Democritus says the soul is the same thing as the mind.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A101) by Aristotle - De Anima 405a10
     A reaction: This is not in contrast to the Christian concept of the soul, but in contrast to the normal view of psuché, which is more like the life that permeates the whole body. Democritus was more in tune than Aristotle with modern thought on this.
Atomists say soul has a rational part in the chest, and a diffused non-rational part
     Full Idea: Democritus and Epicurus say the soul has two parts, one which is rational and is situated in the chest area, and the other which is non-rational and is spread throughout the entire compound of the body.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Aetius - fragments/reports 4.4.6
     A reaction: The spread part corresponds to such things as feeling fear in the stomach, or excitement throughout the limbs. I can't think what grounds there would be for choosing the chest as the home of reason. I suppose you can hear reason thumping in there..
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 7. Animal Minds
Animals have a share of reason
     Full Idea: Democritus recognised that animals have a share of reason.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Porphyry - On Abstinence 3.6.7
     A reaction: Since he considers thinking to be the interaction of atoms in the body, which animals evidently possess, this seems consistent. No one seems to observed animals closely before the 20th century, other than to exploit them.
15. Nature of Minds / A. Nature of Mind / 8. Brain
The directive centre is located in the whole head
     Full Idea: Democritus says [the directive centre is located] in the whole head.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A105) by Pseudo-Plutarch - On the Doctrine of the Philosophers 4.5.1
     A reaction: The whole head is not quite the brain, but he is getting very warm indeed, and long before anyone else got so close.
16. Persons / F. Free Will / 6. Determinism / a. Determinism
Democritus said everything happens of necessity, by natural motion of atoms
     Full Idea: Democritus, the founder of atomism, preferred to accept that all things happened by necessity than to tear from the atomic bodies their natural motions.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by M. Tullius Cicero - On Fate ('De fato') §22
     A reaction: This is in opposition to Epicurus, who said that atoms can have a 'swerve', making free will possible. It is suggested that Epicurus was the first to really grasp the problem of free will. Democritus was just stating the (to him) obvious.
Some say there is a determinate cause for every apparently spontaneous event
     Full Idea: Some people (Democritus?) say there is no such thing as a chance event; they claim that there is always a determinate cause for everything which is said to be a chance or a spontaneous event.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Aristotle - Physics 195b37
     A reaction: This is the mutual implication of physicalism and determinism, which strikes me as unavoidable. I say: don't panic about morality because determinism is true. Embrace determinism - it is harmless and true. Its opposite is a nonsense.
Democritus said atoms only move by their natural motions, which are therefore necessary
     Full Idea: The author of the atomic theory, Democritus, preferred to accept the view that all events are caused by necessity, rather than to deprive the atoms of their natural motions.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by M. Tullius Cicero - On Fate ('De fato') 10.23
     A reaction: The 'deprivation' would have to be caused by mind, or by the later 'swerve' of Epicurus.
17. Mind and Body / E. Mind as Physical / 1. Physical Mind
Democritus says the soul is the body, and thinking is thus the mixture of the body
     Full Idea: Democritus explains thinking by the mixture of the body, which is surely in accordance with his reasoning, since he makes the soul the body.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A135) by Theophrastus - On the Senses 58
     A reaction: I agree with Democritus.
20. Action / C. Motives for Action / 1. Acting on Desires
Pleasure and pain guide our choices of good and bad
     Full Idea: The guides to what is good and bad for people are pleasure and pain.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B188), quoted by John Stobaeus - Anthology 3.01.46
22. Metaethics / A. Value / 2. Values / c. Health
Wisdom creates a healthy passion-free soul
     Full Idea: Medicine heals diseases of the body, wisdom frees the soul from passions.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B031), quoted by Clement - Pedagogue 1.6.2.1
     A reaction: The interesting concept of a healthy mind seems to have got lost in modern moral philosophy.
22. Metaethics / B. The Good / 1. Goodness / f. Good as pleasure
Happiness is identifying and separating the pleasures
     Full Idea: Democritus thinks that happiness consists in the determination and separation of pleasures, and that this is what is both finest and most beneficial for people.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A167) by John Stobaeus - Anthology 2.07.3
     A reaction: A great deal of the strategy and ethics of living consists (if you are lucky) of discriminating among possible pleasures. Philosophers should produce criteria.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 2. Elements of Virtue Theory / f. The Mean
Contentment comes from moderation and proportion in life
     Full Idea: Contentment [euthumia] comes about for human beings from the moderation of enjoyment and proportion [summetria] in life.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B191) by John Stobaeus - Anthology 3.1.210
     A reaction: This is close to Aristotle's doctrine of the Mean. The majority of ethical ideas attributed to Democritus (presumably by the Epicureans) are thought to be spurious. This idea actually sounds rather stoic.
23. Ethics / C. Virtue Theory / 4. External Goods / c. Wealth
Democritus says wealth is a burden to the virtuous mind
     Full Idea: Democritus rejected wealth, regarding it as a burden to the virtuous mind.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Seneca the Younger - On Providence §6
     A reaction: The rival view is that wealth empowers a virtuous person to perform more fine deeds. Democritus seems to have a rather solitary view of virtue.
26. Natural Theory / A. Speculations on Nature / 6. Early Matter Theories / g. Atomism
'Full' and 'Void' secularised Parmenides's Being and Not-being
     Full Idea: In atomism, the antithesis of Being and Not-being of Parmenides is secularised into the antithesis of the 'Full' and the 'Void'.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Werner Heisenberg - Physics and Philosophy 04
Atomists say there are only three differences - in shape, arrangement and position
     Full Idea: Democritus and Leucippus say that there are only three differences - in shape, arrangement and position.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A006) by Aristotle - Metaphysics 0985b15
If only atoms are real and the rest is convention, we wouldn't bother to avoid pain
     Full Idea: Democritus erred when he said that the atoms alone exist in truth among realities, but everything else is convention; for then, far from discovering the truth, we shall not even be able to live, since we shall avoid neither fire nor wounds.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Diogenes (Oen) - fragments/reports F2 7
     A reaction: The point is that we have to treat pain as a reality, not just as a convention. I suspect that Diogenes is making the same mistake made by modern attackers of 'eliminativism'. It is all about identity and reduction and levels of reality…
When atoms touch, why don't they coalesce, like water drops?
     Full Idea: Why, when they come into contact, do they [atoms] not coalesce into one, as drops of water run together when drop touches drop?
     From: comment on Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Aristotle - Coming-to-be and Passing-away (Gen/Corr) 326a33
     A reaction: Presumably we must think of atoms as having basic ontological unity, rather than as being little globules of 'stuff'. They are more like monads than they are like mud.
Because appearance is infinitely varied, atomists assume infinitely many shapes of atom
     Full Idea: They thought that truth lay in appearances, which they appreciated are contradictory and infinite, so they made the shapes of atoms infinite. Thus the infinite changes in compounds create the infinitely varies appearances.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A009) by Aristotle - Coming-to-be and Passing-away (Gen/Corr) 315b9
Atoms are irregular, hooked, concave, convex, and many other shapes
     Full Idea: Some substances are irregular, others hook-shaped, other concave, other convex, others provided with innumerable other differences.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A037) by Aristotle - On Democritus (frag)
     A reaction: [quoted in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle's On the Heavens] 'Substance' here means a fundamental object, which for Democritus is an undividable atom.
Atoms cling together, until a stronger necessity disperses them
     Full Idea: Democritus thinks that the substances hold on to one another and remain together for a length of time until some stronger necessity arising from their surroundings shakes and disperses them.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A037) by Aristotle - On Democritus (frag)
     A reaction: [quoted in Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle's On the Heavens] He's not wrong. This seems to provide a mechanism for the Heracltean flux. Ancient critics wanted to know where the 'stronger necessity' came from.
Experiences are merely convention; only atoms and the void are real
     Full Idea: Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, colour by convention; atoms and void alone exist in reality.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B009), quoted by Sextus Empiricus - Against the Logicians (two books) 7.135
There could be an atom the size of the world
     Full Idea: Democritus say that it is possible that there exists an atom of the size of the world.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A047) by Pseudo-Plutarch - On the Doctrine of the Philosophers 1.12.6
     A reaction: The editor says this may have been a criticism of Democritus - presumably a reductio ad absurdum. But Democritus has no upper limit on the size of an atom. It challenges the imagination to treat such a huge thing as indivisible.
There must be atoms, to avoid the absurdity of infinite division down to nothing
     Full Idea: If everything is infinitely divided, what survives the divisions? Alternatively, division would end at points with no magnitude, in which case bodies are composed of nothing. This is the argument claiming there are atoms of some magnitude.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A048b) by Aristotle - Coming-to-be and Passing-away (Gen/Corr) 316a14-
The basic atoms are without qualities - which only arise from encounters between atoms
     Full Idea: Democritus and the Epicureans posit that the first element is without quality, possessing by nature neither whiteness, blackness, sweetness or bitterness, warmth or cold. ...It is from the encounter of the atoms that all the sensible qualities come about.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A049) by Galen - On Hippocrates and Plato 1.2
     A reaction: Idea 493 comes in the middle of this summary by Galen. Hence atoms play the role that substrates play in object-based metaphysics. So atoms have the same problem. Is the shape of an atom a quality of an atom. Or are qualities what atoms DO?
If a cone is horizontally sliced the surfaces can't be equal, so it goes up in steps
     Full Idea: If a cone is cut parallel to the base are the two new surfaces equal or unequal? If they are unequal, the cone must have gone up in steps. If they are equal then the cone must have been a cylinder, which is absurd.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], B155), quoted by Plutarch - 72: Against Stoics on common Conceptions 1079e1
27. Natural Reality / C. Space / 1. Void
Movement is impossible in a void, because nothing can decide the direction of movement
     Full Idea: Void makes it impossible for anything to move, since in a void there is nowhere for a thing to move to more or less than anywhere else, because the void by definition contains no differentiation.
     From: comment on Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE]) by Aristotle - Physics 214b32
     A reaction: A lovely application of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. However this assumes that the cause of the movement is going to be in the void (telos?), rather than in the body which will move (modern causation?).
Growth and movement would not exist if there were no void to receive them
     Full Idea: They say that one argument for void is that otherwise local motion (that is, locomotion and growth) would not exist: for there would not seem to be motion if there were no void, for what is full is incapable of receiving anything.
     From: Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A019), quoted by Aristotle - Physics 213b03
     A reaction: The modern concept of a 'field' seems to have removed the possibility of a genuine 'void'.
27. Natural Reality / D. Time / 3. Parts of Time / a. Beginning of time
Democritus (unlike Plato alone) thinks that time must have been created
     Full Idea: With a single exception (Plato) everyone agrees about time - that it is not generated. Democritus says time is an obvious example of something not generated.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A071) by Aristotle - Physics 251b14
27. Natural Reality / E. Cosmology / 1. Cosmology
There are unlimited worlds of varying sizes, some without life or water
     Full Idea: Democritus says that there exist unlimited worlds and that they are different in magnitude. ...Some worlds are devoid of animals and plants and of all humidity.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A010, A040) by Hippolytus - Refutation of All Heresies 1.12,13.2-4
     A reaction: I'm not clear why Democritus came up with the idea of the Multicosmos. I don't suppose he meant the moon or planets, but another Cosmos.
28. God / B. Proving God / 3. Proofs of Evidence / c. Teleological Proof critique
Democritus said people imagined gods as the source of what awed or frightened them
     Full Idea: Democritus thought that people imagined gods as responsible for the frightening and awesome things that happen in this world.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A075) by Sextus Empiricus - Against the Professors (six books) 9.24
29. Religion / D. Religious Issues / 2. Immortality / a. Immortality
The soul is destroyed with the body
     Full Idea: Democritus says the soul is destructible, and is destroyed together with the whole body.
     From: report of Democritus (fragments/reports [c.431 BCE], A109) by Pseudo-Plutarch - On the Doctrine of the Philosophers 4.7.4
     A reaction: This is the only belief possible for Democritus, since everything, including life and soul, is just the confluence of atoms, and they are regularly dispersed. This is the epitome of materialist philosophy.