Why did Nietzsche believe that atomism was well-refuted?



Here are a couple of quotes from Beyond Good and Evil:

As far as materialistic atomism goes: this is one of the most well-refuted things in existence. In Europe these days, nobody in the scholarly community is likely to be so unscholarly as to attach any real significance to it, except as a handy household tool (that is, as an abbreviated figure of speech). For this, we can thank that Pole, Boscovich, who, together with the Pole, Copernicus, was the greatest, most successful opponent of the visual evidence.

... Boscovich taught us to renounce belief in the last bit of earth that did "stand still," the belief in "matter," in the "material," in the residual piece of earth and clump of an atom...

Wikipedia states that Boscovich "produced a precursor of atomic theory." This seems to contradict the achievements that Nietzsche is attributing to him. I don't understand why Nietzsche would be claiming that atomism is "well-refuted," or why he would claim that one of the forefathers of atomic theory had helped to refute it.

At first, I assumed that Nietzsche must be using the word "atomism" in a way with which I am unfamiliar. Then I read on to this quote:

... we must also put an end to that other and more disastrous atomism, the one Christianity has taught best and longest, the atomism of the soul. Let this expression signify the belief that the soul is something indestructible, eternal, indivisible, that it is a monad, an atomon: this belief must be thrown out of science!

Here, Nietzsche defines what he means by "atomism," and it's exactly what I imagine when I hear the word. It seems as if Nietzsche is asserting that it is obvious that the universe and all matter is continuous (not discrete). Was this really the consensus at the time?


Posted 2015-11-06T15:55:36.540

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One of the best questions i've seen on N; I'd suggest that it's a denial of one or more of the attributes given to atoms: ie indestructibility, indivisibility etc. – Mozibur Ullah – 2015-11-06T18:08:33.957



Nietzsche was contemporary with Maxwell, Mach and other very successful field-oriented theorists, and by some at the time, field theories were thought to be so incompatible with atomism that no one would ever take atoms seriously again.

Boscovich's 'atoms' are suspended and independent, they never touch and are not truly solid, (like our modern atoms) as opposed to the kinds of atoms folks had thought of since Democritus. They only rotate and indirectly control one another via an intervening field. This is not a way most physicists considered looking at atoms before we broke one open. So from their point of view, this was another field theory.

For them, what was real was the field, a solid was not a collection of atoms, but a continuous field in space. It made sense for that field to have nodal points of some sort (supplied by Boscovich's suspended spinning atoms) to give it something that structured it. But those were not really atoms in the old sense. They did not really fill up the solid, packed together so that they bounce off of, or rub up against one another.

The absolute distaste for atoms reversed with Boltzmann, who needed to appeal to atomism to support thermodynamics. But it was stringently resisted, at least enough that he felt the need to both hedge his bets and address the philosophical weaknesses of atomism to make sure they did not undermine his use of them as a way of looking at entropy.

But that reversed when we developed nuclear physics. Having been wrong once about this reversal, we found the parts of atoms, and then more particles that did not seem entirely particle-like. We figured we would find a retreat into a field theory underlying the nature of particles, and that is the notion behind the Schroedinger equation.

String theory is yet another reversal of sorts. Things are atomized, but the atoms are not interchangeable or irreducible, they exchange energy in a way that is continuous, but must allow for a given pattern of vibrational states.


Posted 2015-11-06T15:55:36.540


@Conifold What were Mach's objections? – CriglCragl – 2018-07-19T23:16:44.193

Looking back at that, you raise an number of issues unrelated to my post as if I had said them. Yes, modern atoms don't do that -- like I said. Yes, Boscovich is Neitzsche's choice to attribute this to, not mine. Sorry I misidentified Maxwell, but that is still "much of the physics establishment". So this stays. I have edited out Maxwell's name. – None – 2018-07-20T17:24:22.713


@CriglCragl Occam's razor, essentially, he was an early positivist and interested in reformulating physics in terms of "sensational elements", "all metaphysical elements are to be eliminated as superfluous and as destructive of the economy of science." So atomism seemed to him as a step in the wrong direction, while "energetics", redescription in terms of energy transformations, as a step in the right direction.

– Conifold – 2018-07-20T21:58:11.600

2Note also that in the background might be vitalistic biology. Nietzsche endorsed a kind of vitalism which would also be incompatible with atomism. My impression is that vitalism was a position that was taken seriously in the scientific community in the time Nietzsche was writing. – None – 2015-11-06T18:32:58.810

1??? There was no consensus:"Much of the physics establishment did not share belief in the reality of atoms and molecules — a belief shared, however, by Maxwell in Scotland and Gibbs in the United States; and by most chemists since the discoveries of John Dalton in 1808". Boscovich lived in 18th century and was scientifically irrelevant at the end of 19th, main opponents of atomism were positivists like Mach, and their opposition had nothing to do with field theory. And modern atoms aren't solid at all, the adjective is meaningless there, nor do they fill up solids or rub against each other. – Conifold – 2015-11-07T00:20:27.133

If i am that wrong about the context of early thermodynamics, I will simply delete the answer. But it makes utter nonsense of a lot of Bolzmann's actual work. Why would he carefully rewrite everything not only to allow for Loschmidt's symmetry of conservation laws, but also to evade the issue of the true reality of atoms, if he lived in a period where this was a respectable position? And why would he not have been able to present as a physicist but have to do so as a philosopher? (Alas, I find I cannot.) – None – 2015-11-07T02:46:07.797


The answers to this question have been split into two parts:

Part 1: Why did Nietzsche believe that atomism was refuted? And why would he claim that atomism is "well-refuted"? Or why would he claim that Boscovich had helped to refute [atomism]?

Part 2: Did Nietzsche assert that it is obvious that the universe and all matter is continuous (not discrete)? And was this really the consensus at the time?

Answer to Part 1:

In aphorism #10 Nietzsche mocks the 'zeal and subtlety' with which the problem 'of the real and apparent world' is set upon by holders of metaphysical and sceptical anti-realist positions. The holder of the latter position, especially, opposes appearances, dislikes the word 'perspective', distrusts their own bodies, distrusts modern ideas and regards positivism "with the disgust of a more fastidious taste". Nietzsche criticizes their positions with the posture of both scepticism and materialism.

Love (1987) says:

"Nietzsche criticized materialism, but he was still fundamentally a materialist… What Nietzsche criticizes is materialist atomism which he mistakes for materialism itself. He argues that materialist atomists, like the idealists they criticize, are metaphysicians".

Love also mentions that the distinction between materialist and idealist ontologies must not be confused with that between sceptical and realist epistemologies, but I would like to not get too bogged down with the details of this and focus on the idea that Nietzsche mistakes materialist atomism for materialism because I agree with Love's assertion. Ignoring the 'materialist' in 'materialist atomism' in this case takes away from the general sense of the meaning.

Therefore, taking 'materialist atomism' in aphorism #12 as 'materialism', Nietzsche believed that materialist atomism was "well-refuted" because scientists such as Copernicus, with his model of the universe, persuaded everyone to believe, "…contrary to all the senses, that the earth does not stand firm…" and Boscovich, with his atomic theory, "taught us to abjure belief in the last thing of the earth that stood firm, belief in 'substance', in 'matter', in the earth-residuum and particle atom".

For Boscovich these findings made it difficult for him to work within the church. According to the MacTutor History of Mathematics archive, although Boscovich was a staunch Christian, he found his position in Rome becoming rather uncomfortable, i.e. his scientific views did not sit comfortably with his religious views, and he requested permission to travel and this was granted. Boscovich's distancing from the church and endorsement of modern ideas was demonstration enough for Nietzsche to claim that he had helped to refute soul atomism (not materialist atomism, as stated in your question).

Answer to Part 2:

By making reference to the achievements of science, Nietzsche was asserting that the hypothesis that the universe and all matter is continuous (not discrete) had all but been abandoned by science, however, soul atomism (and I would designate it 'immaterialism', putting it in terms of 'materialism) in the church prevails and, indeed, "still goes on living a dangerous after-life in regions where no one suspects it…". That the opposite to the scientific consensus was the consensus at the time in the case of the church, was something that was not obvious to everybody and Nietzsche wanted to highlight this.


Nietzsche, F. (1886) BGE. Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. R. J. Hollingdale (2014). Penguin Classics.

Love, N. S. (1987) Epistemology and Exchange: Marx, Nietzsche, and Critical Theory. New German Critique. No. 41, pp 71 - 94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/488276 accessed 19.07.2019

MacTutor History of Mathematics archive https://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Boscovich.html accessed 22.07.2019

Monica Booth

Posted 2015-11-06T15:55:36.540

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