Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Nietzsche and Atomism

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_470


Although he was not a systematic philosopher in the mold of Kant or Hegel, Nietzsche worked toward developing a theory of will to power. Nature, man, and society served as important dimensions of the will to power in his theory. He recognized higher and lower forms of this will to power. The highest expression of will to power is the will to knowledge. And science is the highest expression of will to knowledge. Of special interest among the sciences, for Nietzsche, stood physics, which he interpreted to be the will to knowledge about nature. Physics expresses a will to power by attempting to reduce all things to atomistic explanations. Physics would be, then, the will to atomism. As science, the will to atomism is a type of honesty, an intellectual honesty. Consequently, the spirit of science marginalizes morality as an explanation of the world. And so Nietzsche exclaimed, long live physics! All forms of education in the atomistic sciences, physics, and chemistry, among others, possess the greatest potential for a breakthrough in the understanding and utilization of new forms of Macht (Ger., energy, power, or force).

Nietzsche had very specific recommendations for programmatic research and education in physics and atomism in particular. He advised that physicists abandon Newtonian atomism and investigate the point-particle theory developed by Roger Joseph Boscovich.

Boscovich’s Theory of Natural Philosophy

Boscovich’s theory may be expressed in a relatively brief set of distinct principles:
  1. (1)

    Matter is composed of perfectly indivisible, non-extended, and discrete points.

  2. (2)

    No two material points can occupy the same spatial, or local, point simultaneously.

  3. (3)

    Nothing happens per saltum.

  4. (4)

    Between all points of matter, there is a mutual force depending on the distance between them, and changing as this distance changes, so that it is sometimes attractive, and sometimes repulsive, but allows follows a definite continuous law (“Boscovich’s law”).

  5. (5)

    There is conservation of force rather than entropy.

  6. (6)

    Macro-objects are composed of centers of force.

  7. (7)

    Perception relies on relations of force.

  8. (8)

    Centers of force are absolutely nonpersistent.

  9. (9)

    There is no “rest” for centers of force.

  10. (10)

    There is no “empty space.”

  11. (11)

    Time and space are relative in a Leibnizian sense.

  12. (12)

    “Laws of physics” are abstractions.

  13. (13)

    Science aims at a unified theory rather than “laws of nature.”

  14. (14)

    Properties are dynamic, not mechanical.

  15. (15)

    There are a definite number of centers of force at any one time.

  16. (16)

    Centers of force have a definite magnitude

  17. (17)

    There is no matter, only force.

  18. (18)

    Centers of force are separated off into pairs.

  19. (19)

    A center of force cannot be represented “in itself.”

  20. (20)

    Physicists project their own properties onto matter.

  21. (21)

    There is no continuum.

  22. (22)

    The substratum of force is space.

  23. (23)

    There is no movement in mechanical sense.

  24. (24)

    Effects of force must be distinguished from force itself.

  25. (25)

    The total amount of force in the universe is finite.


Boscovich’s revolution against the senses maintains that one of the most common phenomena of macroscopic objects, collision, does not occur at all at the particle level of reality (Boscovich 1922). Instead repulsive force increases exponentially to infinity as the atomic particles draw closer. Despite all appearances with visual objects, the objects at atomic scales do not come directly into contact whatsoever. Instead all physical action is at a distance. Boscovich’s revolution is paired with an equally counterintuitive notion that ultimate particles of matter are not corpuscular extended atoms at all but rather unextended points of force. Boscovich’s atoms were not atoms at all but rather point particles. According to Boscovich, atoms are mathematical points with atmospheres of force. The atoms of common materialist imagination are corpuscular extended chunks of matter not unlike billiard balls. The materialist notion generally teaches that such atoms undergo direct contact and collision. It accepts for its atomism the common sense notion embedded in perceptual macroscopic objects and their interactions. Newton, Locke, and Dalton accepted such atoms in different forms, but Boscovich went against material atomism by suggesting that the billiard ball image of atoms was incorrect in general and specifics. He rejected the sensible judgments of collision, contact, and corpuscle with his notions of non-compenetration, action at a distance and force points. Even though phenomena of the senses appear to validate collision and so on, Boscovich denied any direct contact between ultimate particles, which for him again, are mathematical points, not solid chunks of matter. What could be more certain and common to the senses than that bodies have contact and collide, like, when we release our shot with the cue stick, the force it imparts to the cue ball seems to roll into direct contact with another ball, colliding violently enough to set off a complex set of further collisions? So all sorts of bodies collide with each other in the world of experience. Yet Boscovich denied the senses in this fundamental way. Of course macroscopic objects appear to collide or even destroy each other through impact, but this does not occur whatsoever at the point-particle level of reality. And this Boscovich could prove by rational and analytical geometric proofs.

Boscovich in Beyond Good and Evil

The most extended public pronouncement Nietzsche made on Boscovich occurs in section 12 of Beyond Good and Evil:

As for materialistic atomism, it belongs among the best-refuted things there are: perhaps no scholar in Europe today is so unlearned as to still grant it serious meaning other than as a handy device (namely, as an abbreviated means of expression) – Thanks above all to the Pole Boscovich, who, along with the Pole Copernicus, has been the greatest and most victorious opponent of appearances. While Copernicus has persuaded us, against all senses, that the Earth does not stand still, Boscovich taught us to renounce belief in the last thing of earth to “stand fast,” belief in “substance,” in “matter,” in the last remnant of Earth, the corpuscular atom [Klümpchen-Atom]: it was the greatest triumph over the senses achieved on Earth to this time.

The Dalmatian natural philosopher is credited here with refuting the “earth residuum” or corpuscular atom of the “older atomism,” from Democritus to Newton:

…It was pretty much according to the same schema that the older atomism sought, besides the operating ‘power,’ that lump of matter in which it resides and out of which it operates – the atom. More rigorous minds, however, learned at last to get along without this “earth-residuum,” and perhaps someday we shall accustom ourselves, including the logicians, to get along without the little “it” (which is all that is left of the honest little old ego). [Section 17]

Atomism and the logicians share a superstition: the object. Boscovich refuted the object of atomists; the logician’s belief in an object suffered the same fate. Yet belief in a logical subject still stands as a widespread superstition. The belief “it thinks” encapsulates the subjective model of consciousness, but it misinterprets the process of thought in which thoughts come to the thinker, not the reverse. A thinking “subject” is part of the misinterpretation of the process. Even those revolutionary thinkers against materialistic atomism preserved the fiction of a logical-psychological subject. Grammar hypostatizes the subject and establishes the superstition firmly in mind – even Boscovich maintained a naive belief in minds and souls. It proves easier to dissuade the mind from belief in solid particles of earth than from belief in the ego (this being no surprise to Cartesians). Yet the ego is as much superstition as matter; taking this step beyond the Boscovichian revolution presents us with the very origin of will to power as a theory. Boscovichian “force” must, through criticism, give way to the force of will and more exactly the “will to power.”

It is not long in Beyond Good and Evil after the first mention of Boscovich before Nietzsche deduces his own theory of reality distinct from Schopenhauer, Berkeley, and Boscovich: the primacy of neither mind nor matter but rather drives. This notion of drive has as much to do with Boscovich as Schopenhauer and perhaps even more to do with Spinoza than Schopenhauer; for while Boscovich lent Nietzsche a physics of force not requiring matter, even Schopenhauer’s notion of will was directly borrowed from Spinoza’s idea of conatus. Boscovich did not go quite far enough in his inversion of Spinozism: for he did not give conatus to his force points and quite explicitly boasted of not doing so (Whitlock 1996; Whitlock 1999). Leibniz did not refrain from attributing thought to force points, however, and this presents us with a moment in which Boscovich more closely resembles Newton’s position than that of Leibniz. Boscovichian force points do not think, requiring the strained admission of minds and souls into his new model of the world. Nietzsche found his own position when he drew the necessary conclusion that points of force must also be points of will (having conatus); thinking becomes a relation of the drives exerted from these points. They do not exert a Spinozist-Schopenhauerian will to live, but a will to power. Will power depends on active force. Will can act only upon another will, never on matter (as Schopenhauer would have will directly acting on the thing-in-itself). Beyond Good and Evil 36 is decisive as an introduction of the theory of will to power; it namelessly evokes Boscovich’s theory of force as the parent notion while then showing the birth of “my proposition,” as Nietzsche calls the theory of will to power; it also calls for the performance of a thought experiment previously carried out in the “time atomism fragment” of 1873, which can be shown to synthesize the ideas of Boscovich, African Alexandrovich Spir and Johann C.F. Zöllner (Schlechta and Anders 1962; Whitlock 1997; Whitlock 2000). That thought experiment leads directly to his theory of will to power and the idea of eternal recurrence.

Time Atomism

Ironically, Nietzsche’s time atoms are sensate monads, centers of time perception, rather than true atoms. Time atoms are more monads, the smallest point of subjectivity, but open to all other centers. Centers of force are points of sensation, which are simultaneously centers of time perception and points of conation. Time atoms are instants of observation occurring so rapidly as to be virtually instantaneous in ordinary experience. Since light travels at a finite speed, observation always takes a finite quantum of time. Temporal comparisons require a subject capable of judging simultaneity or succession. Time exists only relationally. At its most infinitesimal level, it exists as the finite instantaneous observation at the speed of light between two relatively closest points of force. Quantum observations allowed Nietzsche to consider centers of conation as points of perspectival interpretation. Dynamic time points can be points of sensation only if they are centers of time perception, that is, time monads. Time atoms are not in time; time is in them. In time atomism, there are temporal particles, clocks, and minds. Each particle is a mind, and every mind is a clock.

Crucially, Nietzsche did not believe in objective duration nor in objective time as a continuum (Nietzsche 2001). Time atoms exist for an observer but not in themselves. While we can never completely leave the naive metaphysics of natural language, retaining any amount of it lands a thinker in contradiction. Every quantum of force/time/observation constantly actualizes its potential, expressing its power. Time atoms are atomic clocks with rhythms that are thermodynamic in origin. Time is not a continuum comprising points. Rather than the recurrence of moments of objective continuous time, centers of time perception recur with definite, finite, but ever-fluctuating quanta of power. There is no absolutely smallest moment. Every perspective has its limiting points. Rates of perception determine what is called “real.”

These points of time perception, or time atoms, are centers of will to power. Further, time atomism is Nietzsche’s special theory of time, while eternal recurrence is his general theory of relativity. Thus time atomism developed into his theories of will to power and eternal recurrence. Boscovich, advancing on Newton in some regards, delivered a unified single theory of force; Nietzsche argued that all force is will, and further, will to power. There is no matter, only force, Boscovich declared against Newton, but Nietzsche continued, all force is will to power. In his own time, Boscovich was eclipsed by Newton and Leibniz, even though he enjoyed a widespread reputation in the sciences.

Boscovich had become obscure by Nietzsche’s time, though, due to the rise of experimental and instrumental sciences. Even though the Dalmatian contributed to instrumental science in astronomy, Boscovich himself witnessed only the early moments of the scientific revolution. “Natural philosophy” was quickly forgotten. Mechanistic physics came to hold sway, with its powerful discoveries of electricity and chemistry. Many of the leading scientists of the mechanistic sciences lauded Boscovich and understood his place in the history of science, but in the scientific community at large, names like Faraday, Maxwell, Davy, Lord Kelvin, and others obscured the figure of natural philosopher Boscovich.

After Nietzsche’s time, Boscovich’s point-particle physics was eclipsed by the De Broglie-Schrödinger wave-particle theory. The problem plaguing science for some time had been the nature of light, and Boscovich’s points did nothing toward a solution. Wave-particles washed away his sand castle of homogenous grains. Point-particle theory did not enjoy a long day in the sun, located between Newtonian corpuscularism and wave-particle theory.

Nietzsche lived in a brief period of time when the distinct advantages of point particle theory could be appreciated by speculative types disinclined toward mechanistic physics, without knowledge of the imminent solution to a problem unsolved by force points, i.e., the dual behavior of light as wave and particle. He was hardly the only thinker who sought out Boscovich as an advance over Newtonian corpuscular atomism and Spinozistic metaphysics; Herder the mystic did so, just as did Vogt, Priestley, Faraday, Davy, and others. Each approached Boscovich’s particle theory in a mood of pragmatism, if not opportunism. For the hard scientists, the advent of De Broglie and Schrödinger robbed the motive to research Boscovich’s theories. To some philosophers, metaphysicians, mystics, and rationalists, Boscovich still maintained importance vis-à-vis Leibniz and Kant, but only as a footnote. To historians of science, the importance of Roger Joseph Boscovich, however, was not lost.

Many of Nietzsche’s views on education and atomism have come about. Atoms are no longer thought of along Newtonian lines, meaning the corpuscular atom. Dynamism won over mechanics, for a while. Boscovich and zero-dimensional force points became part of Slavic science and atomic research. Quantum mechanics and even string theory have a Nietzschean flavor, as they are rather Dionysian insights behind appearances. Naive realism is forever gone. And educational institutions are no longer medieval in the way he had lamented. Experimentation has replaced speculation.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Parkland CollegeChampaignUSA