How does the doctrine of substantial forms differ from atomism?


Liebniz was an early admirer of Epicurean atomism; but later devoted himself to the doctrine of substantial forms as outlined in his Monadology.

On the face of it, atoms are substantial forms - they have substance and they have form; what are the major differences between these two theories?

Mozibur Ullah

Posted 2014-09-10T16:49:35.170

Reputation: 1



If I understand your question correctly, you ask about the difference between an atom and a monad - is that right?

If it is, then the major difference between them is probably the fact, that a monad is not pure matter as atom (Epicureans were matterialists: even souls they considered to be build of atoms, just of some different type). I don't want to make a mistake, but I am quite confident that a substance in Christian philosophy is a term generally not associated with matter.

But there are other differences: I assume that Epicurus concept of atom is familiar to you and the Leibniz's monads just cause confusion. (Indeed, monadology is rather odd metaphysical system.) I would recommend those articles about monads, they describe the idea of a monad quite well:

Note the biggest differences:

  • Atoms are pure matter, whereas monads are not.
  • Atoms are connected with other atoms, whereas monads can not interact between them (monad "has no doors or windows")
  • Atoms are what is the world build of in a sense as bricks are what a wall is build of, whereas monads are complete beings - they all are the parts of the universe and in every of them there is a reflection of the universe in which it appears as if they could interact.

And some differences according to particularly Epicurus' concept of atoms:

  • Atoms are not the smalles parts of the universe - they are made of minima, whereas monads are indivisible.

  • Atoms are not fully determined - there are some random movements of atoms called clinamen (greek: parenklisis), whereas monads... well, they are determined in a specific way and it is all quite complicated (the articles I recommended should put some light onto it).

On the other hand, there is no reason why couldn't the matter (not substance) be made of atoms in Leibniz's concept: I cannot though provide evidence that he has actually thought so and I am sure that it is not an important part of his philosophy (the atom concept in Epicurus' philosophy was developed for his ethics - and a similar role in Leibniz's philosophy certainly play monads).

Bartek M

Posted 2014-09-10T16:49:35.170

Reputation: 131

Great answer; thanks for the references. You're right that I was asking about the differences between monads and atoms; is it correct to say in the Epicurean system that 'soul atoms' are made of matter, rather than being atoms of some spirit-like notion? In a sense I see Leibnizs system as a spiritualised form of Epicures doctrine. Isn't the 'swerve' of atoms called clinamen rather than parenklisis - or are they the same concept in different languages? As I understand it, substances are defined as being causally closed - hence Leibnizs attempt to harmonise them through – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-09-10T20:51:10.227

his harmonic doctrine. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-09-10T20:53:03.800

You are right, as I see clinamen is probably the most common name and it means the same as parenklisis - I didn't know the English word so just transcribed the greek word (google says that it is also used).

Could you elaborate how do you see Leibniz's system as a spiritualised form of Epicure's harmonic doctrine? I don't understand which exactly part of Epicure's philosophy you refer to (I may not be an expert of Epicure though). – Bartek M – 2014-09-10T21:07:59.460

There are similarities between monads and atoms - they are simple and indivisible is probably the key property; but whereas atoms are matter; monads are substances, thus able to support the notion of mind spirit in a way that is different from Epicurus; also Epicurean atoms developed as a reaction to Parmenides One - they are many; in the same way L's monads are Parmenides One multiplied. Epicurus didn't have a harmonic doctrine; it is Lebniezs; as each monad is causally closed how can they affect each other - they cannot; the harmonic doctrine is a way of getting around that... – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-09-10T21:58:37.273

I confess I find that confusing as what (sufficent) reason is there for them to harmonise. – Mozibur Ullah – 2014-09-10T22:00:20.250

"Leibniz answers by introducing the principle of Pre-established Harmony." I must admit, that the metaphysics of Leibniz are neither my favourite, nor the simpliest. You can research the concept of Pre-established Harmony and maybe this'll do a little help, but honestly I also do not find it a good explanation.

What is important about the two discussed philosophers are the purposes of their physics/metaphysics: to E., the physics was to justify his ethics: the climenes for example is for making a space for free will... – Bartek M – 2014-09-10T22:13:19.883

L. is developing his metaphysics trying to reconcile modern physics with scholastic philosophy, theology and to complete his theodicy. As well as Epicur's physics is at some points self-contradictory, the monadology has in my opinion a lot of flaws and insufficent justifying. Personally, I think Leibniz is one of the best mathematicians and physicist and generally a brilliant person, but a poor philosopher. – Bartek M – 2014-09-10T22:25:05.777