Breaking up the atom: early Leibniz against minima naturalia doctrines and atomism

Lucio Mare

University of South Florida

Against the received view claiming that throughout the period from 1666 to 1676, Leibniz showed some more or less stronger measure of commitment to atomism,1 I argue for a strong case of anti-atomism in his early works. To this purpose I analyze Leibniz’ judgments, views, and relationship with 17th century corpuscular or atomist theories of matter in two of his first major contributions to natural philosophy, the letter to Jakob Thomasius from 20/30 April 1669 and the Confessio Naturae contra Atheistas (1669), which both reject atomism. When he sketches his first physical theory in the letter to Thomasius, Leibniz discusses the origin and generation of substantial forms and reaffirms the Scholastic doctrine of the eduction of forms from “the passive power of matter and not directly from the active power of God”. He criticizes the atomist and minima naturalia doctrines of Julius-Caesar Scaliger, Daniel Sennert, and Johannes Sperling for claiming that forms are created not from the passive power of matter, but from the active power of the efficient cause (A II, 1, 14). This would imply a two-foldnand unacceptable consequence for Leibniz: (1) extended, physical matter would act through itself qua matter, since (2) God would be the prime matter of all things. He was truly convinced that one could even go as far as proving the compatibility between Aristotle and the new mechanical philosophy, if both the Scholastic understanding of substantial forms and their atomist reinterpretation were rejected. The unnecessary multiplication of substantial forms is an ontological blunder of which Scholastics and contemporary novatores are equally chargeable: countless incorporeal entities glued onto the extended body of each substance would risk introducing thought into matter and lead to a divinization of nature. Besides this unnecessary multiplication of entities, the Confessio claims in good Aristotelian fashion that explaining the macroscopic and microscopic cohesion of bodies is one of the great stumbling-blocks for atomism. There appears to be no reason for cohesion or individuality within the atomists’ ultimate corpuscles (Loemker 112), since one would have to assume either that they cohere in terms of hooks, crooks, and eyes – or that the mere contact of atoms (without intervening vacuum) is sufficient to “glue” them with one another. Therefore, Leibniz objects that, in the first case, the atomist explanation leads to a type of infinite regress argument (assuming hooks on hooks to infinity). Secondly, he objects that since there would be no intervening void between two touching bodies, on contact all bodies should cohere inseparably the same way as atoms.2 On this assumption, since atoms are made of the same fundamental matter, they should coalesce on collision, like snowballs rolling through the snow (“Notes on Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy”, 1675, Loemker 406). 2 For a strikingly similar Aristotelian argument, see Aristotle, On generation and Corruption, I, 8, 326a 32-33. Furthermore, I claim that the constant reworking of this initial rejection of atomism, formed and articulated the objections against atomism of Leibniz’ philosophical maturity (Annotations on Cordemoy, 1685; A Demonstration Against Atoms Taken from the contact of Atoms, 1690).