The Transformations of the Atomic Concept Through the Ages [1969f]

  • Robert S. Cohen
  • John J. Stachel
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 21)


If one opens a textbook of atomic physics, one will read on the first page that the atomic concept was introduced into science by the Greeks. It is true that the word ‘atom’ is a Greek word that means ‘indivisible’; however, every child knows today that we are perfectly able to split atoms, and that the components of atoms are themselves made up of even smaller particles. From this point of view it is a good thing that children are no longer forced to learn Greek; for the poor Greek children the word ‘atom’ is perhaps even more confusing, for in Modern Greek it denotes a single human being, an individual. This discordance is already a hint that the introduction of the atomic concept did not proceed quite so smoothly: in the course of time this concept has undergone an essential alteration, which has of course been conditioned by our increased knowledge of the structure of matter. If we look more closely at the historical development, we get in fact a very varied picture of continually changing notions about the smallest parts of matter — whether the idea of atom was upheld in sonic form or other, or was completely rejected. It is not without interest to try to understand the motivations that at various periods led philosophers and scientists to so different opinions: such an analysis sheds light upon the way in which the construction of our scientific concepts is influenced by our knowledge of the phenomena and related to the tasks imposed on us by nature itself or by society.


Greek Philosophy Atomic Concept Materialistic Description Reidel Publishing Company Finite Displacement 
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert S. Cohen
  • John J. Stachel

There are no affiliations available

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