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Atomism, Medieval

Emily Michael

Pages 81 - 85

It is a common misperception that there were no atomistic theories during the medieval period. It is true that during the medieval period, after translations of Aristotle’s works became available and were introduced in the schools in the Latin West in the thirteenth century, scholastics commonly adopted an Aristotelian framework. As is well known, Aristotle raised objections to and rejected indivisible minimal units or atoms in two contexts. First, in Physics 6, he claimed that (1) no continuum is composed of indivisibles and maintained instead that a continuum is potentially infinitely divisible. There are no actual points in a line, instants of time, or units of motion. Second, in Aristotle’s view, (2) no physical substance is composed of primitive indivisible and unchangeable building blocks or atoms. Instead, prime matter and substantial form are the fundamental ontological principles of natural bodies. From this hylomorphic viewpoint, the generation of natural things is the consequence of a change from potentiality to actuality by means of a change in substantial form. Nonetheless, some scholastics were atomists.

1Department of Philosophy, City University of New York

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23 Wyclif, J., (1869), Trialogus, ed. G. Lechler, Oxford, Clarendon Press, esp. 87-92. (Also printed in 1525 and 1753).

24 Wyclif, J., (1893), Tractatus de logica, ed. M. H. Dziewicki, 3 vols. London: The Wyclif Society.


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