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]


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.

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]

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]

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[9] 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.[10]

Importance to the development of modern scientific theory

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

  • The idea that compounds can have secondary properties that differ from the properties of the elements which are combined to make them became the basis of molecular chemistry.
  • The idea that the same elements can be predictably combined in different ratios using different methods to create compounds with radically different properties became the basis of stoichiometry, crystalography, and established studies of chemical synthesis.
  • The ability of chemical processes to alter the composition of an object without significantly altering its form is the basis of fossil theory via mineralization and the understanding of numerous metallurgical, biological, and geological processes.

See also


  1. ^ a b 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. ^ a b c Vere Claiborne Chappell (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Locke, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 56.
  4. ^ a b – 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. ^ The Mineral Exhalation Theory of Metallogenesis in Pre-Modern Mineral Science JOHN A. NORRIS AMBIX, Vol. 53, No. 1, March 2006, 43–65, Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 2006 doi:10.1179/174582306X93183

Alchemy (from Arabic: al-kīmiyā) was an ancient branch of natural philosophy, a philosophical and protoscientific tradition practiced throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, originating in Hellenistic Egypt (primarily Alexandria) between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. It aims to purify, mature, and perfect certain objects. Common aims were chrysopoeia, the transmutation of "base metals" (e.g., lead) into "noble metals" (particularly gold); the creation of an elixir of immortality; the creation of panaceas able to cure any disease; and the development of an alkahest, a universal solvent. The perfection of the human body and soul was thought to permit or result from the alchemical magnum opus and, in the Hellenistic and Western mystery tradition, the achievement of gnosis. In Europe, the creation of a philosopher's stone was variously connected with all of these projects.

In English, the term is often limited to descriptions of European alchemy, but similar practices existed in the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, and the Muslim world. In Europe, following the 12th-century Renaissance produced by the translation of Medieval Islamic works on science and the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy, alchemists played a significant role in early modern science (particularly chemistry and medicine). Islamic and European alchemists developed a structure of basic laboratory techniques, theory, terminology, and experimental method, some of which are still in use today. However, they continued antiquity's belief in four elements and guarded their work in secrecy including cyphers and cryptic symbolism. Their work was guided by Hermetic principles related to magic, mythology, and religion.Modern discussions of alchemy are generally split into an examination of its exoteric practical applications and its esoteric spiritual aspects, despite the arguments of scholars like Holmyard and von Franz that they should be understood as complementary. The former is pursued by historians of the physical sciences who examine the subject in terms of early chemistry, medicine, and charlatanism, and the philosophical and religious contexts in which these events occurred. The latter interests historians of esotericism, psychologists, and some philosophers and spiritualists. The subject has also made an ongoing impact on literature and the arts. Despite this split, which von Franz believes has existed since the Western traditions' origin in a mix of Greek philosophy that was mixed with Egyptian and Mesopotamian technology, numerous sources have stressed an integration of esoteric and exoteric approaches to alchemy as far back as Pseudo-Democritus's first-century AD On Physical and Mystical Matters (Greek: Physika kai Mystika).Although alchemy is popularly associated with magic, historian Lawrence M. Principe writes:

Most readers probably are aware of several common claims about alchemy—for example, ... that it is akin to magic, or that its practice then or now is essentially deceptive. These ideas about alchemy emerged during the eighteenth century or after. While each of them might have limited validity within a narrow context, none of them is an accurate depiction of alchemy in general."


Atomism (from Greek ἄτομον, atomon, i.e. "uncuttable, indivisible") is a natural philosophy that developed in several ancient traditions.

References to the concept of atomism and its atoms appeared in both ancient Greek and ancient Indian philosophical traditions. The ancient Greek atomists theorized that nature consists of two fundamental principles: atom and void. Unlike their modern scientific namesake in atomic theory, philosophical atoms come in an infinite variety of shapes and sizes, each indestructible, immutable and surrounded by a void where they collide with the others or hook together forming a cluster. Clusters of different shapes, arrangements, and positions give rise to the various macroscopic substances in the world.The particles of chemical matter for which chemists and other natural philosophers of the early 19th century found experimental evidence were thought to be indivisible, and therefore were given the name "atom", long used by the atomist philosophy. Although the connection to historical atomism is at best tenuous, elementary particles have become a modern analog of philosophical atoms.


Corpuscle () or corpuscule, meaning a "small body", is often used as a synonym for particle. It may also refer to:

a small free-floating biological cell, especially a blood cell

a nerve ending such as Meissner's corpuscle or a Pacinian corpuscle

any member of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge or Corpus Christi College, Oxford

a term used by J. J. Thomson to describe particles now known to be electrons, in his plum pudding model

a term used by Isaac Newton to refer to light particles, now known to be photons, in his Opticks

CorpuscularianismAn employee of the US Army Corps of Engineers

Corpuscular theory of light

In optics, the corpuscular theory of light, arguably set forward by Descartes (1637) states that light is made up of small discrete particles called "corpuscles" (little particles) 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, interference and polarization.

Isaac Newton was a pioneer of this theory, in 1672.

Daniel Sennert

Daniel Sennert (November 25, 1572 – July 21, 1637) 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.

John Locke

John Locke (; 29 August 1632 – 28 October 1704) was an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the "Father of Liberalism". Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Sir Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence.Locke's theory of mind is often cited as the origin of modern conceptions of identity and the self, figuring prominently in the work of later philosophers such as David Hume, Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He postulated that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Contrary to Cartesian philosophy based on pre-existing concepts, he maintained that we are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception. This is now known as empiricism. An example of Locke's belief in empiricism can be seen in his quote, "whatever I write, as soon as I discover it not to be true, my hand shall be the forwardest to throw it into the fire." This shows the ideology of science in his observations in that something must be capable of being tested repeatedly and that nothing is exempt from being disproven. Challenging the work of others, Locke is said to have established the method of introspection, or observing the emotions and behaviours of one's self.

Minima naturalia

Minima naturalia ("natural minima") were theorized by Aristotle as the smallest parts into which a homogeneous natural substance (e.g., flesh, bone, or wood) 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.

Speculation on minima naturalia in late Antiquity, in the Islamic world, and by Scholastic and Renaissance thinkers in Europe provided a conceptual bridge between the atomism of ancient Greece and the mechanistic philosophy of early modern thinkers like Descartes, which in turn provided a background for the rigorously mathematical and experimental atomism of modern science.

Outline of metaphysics

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to metaphysics:

Metaphysics – traditional branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it, although the term is not easily defined. Traditionally, metaphysics attempts to answer two basic questions in the broadest possible terms:

What is ultimately there?

What is it like?


In the physical sciences, a particle (or corpuscule in older texts) 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.

The term 'particle' is rather general in meaning, and is refined as needed by various scientific fields. Something that is composed of particles may be referred to as being particulate. However, the noun 'particulate' is most frequently used to refer to pollutants in the Earth's atmosphere, which are a suspension of unconnected particles, rather than a connected particle aggregation.

Pierre Gassendi

Pierre Gassendi (French: [pjɛʁ gasɛ̃di]; also Pierre Gassend, Petrus Gassendi; 22 January 1592 – 24 October 1655) was a French philosopher, priest, astronomer, and mathematician. While he held a church position in south-east France, he also spent much time in Paris, where he was a leader of a group of free-thinking intellectuals. He was also an active observational scientist, publishing the first data on the transit of Mercury in 1631. The lunar crater Gassendi is named after him.

He wrote numerous philosophical works, and some of the positions he worked out are considered significant, finding a way between skepticism and dogmatism. Richard Popkin indicates that Gassendi was one of the first thinkers to formulate the modern "scientific outlook", of moderated skepticism and empiricism. He clashed with his contemporary Descartes on the possibility of certain knowledge. His best known intellectual project attempted to reconcile Epicurean atomism with Christianity.

René Descartes

René Descartes (, UK also ; French: [ʁəne dekaʁt]; Latinized: Renatus Cartesius; adjectival form: "Cartesian"; 31 March 1596 – 11 February 1650) was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–49) 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. He is generally considered one of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age.Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) continues to be a standard text at most university philosophy departments. Descartes' influence in mathematics is equally apparent; the Cartesian coordinate system (see below) was named after him. He is credited as the father of analytical geometry, the bridge between algebra and geometry, used in the discovery of infinitesimal calculus and analysis. Descartes was also one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution.

Descartes refused to accept the authority of previous philosophers. He frequently set his views apart from those of his predecessors. In the opening section of the Passions of the Soul, an early modern treatise on emotions, Descartes goes so far as to assert that he will write on this topic "as if no one had written on these matters before". His best known philosophical statement is "I think, therefore I am" (French: Je pense, donc je suis; Latin: Ego cogito, ergo sum), found in Discourse on the Method (1637; written in French and Latin) and Principles of Philosophy (1644; written in Latin).Many elements of his philosophy have precedents in late Aristotelianism, the revived Stoicism of the 16th century, or in earlier philosophers like Augustine. In his natural philosophy, he differed from the schools on two major points: first, he rejected the splitting of corporeal substance into matter and form; second, he rejected any appeal to final ends, divine or natural, in explaining natural phenomena. In his theology, he insists on the absolute freedom of God's act of creation.

Descartes laid the foundation for 17th-century continental rationalism, later advocated by Spinoza and Leibniz, and opposed by the empiricist school of thought consisting of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. Leibniz, Spinoza, and Descartes were all well-versed in mathematics as well as philosophy, and Descartes and Leibniz contributed greatly to science as well.

Robert Boyle

Robert Boyle (; 25 January 1627 – 31 December 1691) 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.

The World (Descartes)

The World, also called Treatise on the Light (French title: Traité du monde et de la lumière), is a book by René Descartes (1596–1650). Written between 1629 and 1633, it contains a nearly complete version of his philosophy, from method, to metaphysics, to physics and biology.

Descartes espoused mechanical philosophy, a form of natural philosophy popular in the 17th century. He thought everything physical in the universe to be made of tiny "corpuscles" of matter. Corpuscularianism is closely related to atomism. The main difference was that Descartes maintained that there could be no vacuum, and all matter was constantly swirling to prevent a void as corpuscles moved through other matter. The World presents a corpuscularian cosmology in which swirling vortices explain, among other phenomena, the creation of the Solar System and the circular motion of planets around the Sun.

The World rests on the heliocentric view, first explicated in Western Europe by Copernicus. Descartes delayed the book's release upon news of the Roman Inquisition's conviction of Galileo for "suspicion of heresy" and sentencing to house arrest. Descartes discussed his work on the book, and his decision not to release it, in letters with another philosopher, Marin Mersenne.Some material from The World was revised for publication as Principia philosophiae or Principles of Philosophy (1644), a Latin textbook at first intended by Descartes to replace the Aristotelian textbooks then used in universities. In the Principles the heliocentric tone was softened slightly with a relativist frame of reference. The last chapter of The World was published separately as De Homine (On Man) in 1662. The rest of The World was finally published in 1664, and the entire text in 1677.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes (; 5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679), 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.

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