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Only Possible Critique of the Atomistic Concepts

On-line since: 16th July, 2013

An Letter By
Rudolf Steiner
from GA 38 / Bn 38.1

Only Possible Critique of the Atomistic Concepts was translated by Daniel Hafner from the original German of Beiträge zur Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe. This edition is highlighting Dr. Steiner's letter to Friederich Theodor Vischer (mailed, June 20, 1882).

This presentation was translated by Daniel Hafner, August 2005, and revised October, 2011. Reproduced here with kind permission of the translator.

This translation has been authorized for the Western Hemisphere by agreement with the Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung, Dornach, Switzerland.

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Only Possible Critique of the Atomistic Concepts

The following is the first extant essay by Rudolf Steiner
(from vol. 63 of Beiträge zur Rudolf Steiner Gesamtausgabe).
He mailed it to Friedrich Theodor Vischer on June 20th, 1882.

Translated by Daniel Hafner, August 2005, revised Oct. 2011.
Reproduced here with kind permission of the translator.

This e.Text edition is provided through the wonderful work of:
Daniel Hafner


Modern natural science regards Experience as the only source for the investigation of truth. And not wrongly, to be sure. Its area is the realm of outer, spatial things and temporal processes. How should one be able to make anything out about an object belonging to the outer world, without having gotten to know it by means of sense-perception, that is, the only manner of coming in contact with things spatial-temporal. First get to know the object, [see note 1] and then theorize about it, so goes the maxim asserted by modern science over against the speculative systems of the philosophers of nature from the beginning of this century. This principle is completely justified, but by an erroneous conception, it has led science astray. The misunderstanding lies in the character attributed by the inductive method, and by the materialism and atomism issuing from it, to general concepts. For the person of understanding, there can be no doubt that the current state of natural science in its theoretical part is essentially influenced by concepts as they have become dominant through Kant. If we want to go into this relationship more closely, we must commence our consideration with him. Kant limited the scope of Recognition to Experience, because in the sensory material communicated by it, he found the only possibility of filling in the concept-patterns, the categories, inherent in our mental organization, by themselves quite empty. For him, sensory content was the only form of such a conceptual pattern. Thereby he had steered the world's judgment into other courses. If, earlier, one had thought of concepts and laws as belonging to the outer world, if one had ascribed to them objective validity, now they seemed to be given merely by the nature of the “I.” The outer world counted merely as raw material, to be sure, yet as that which alone reality was to be ascribed to. This standpoint was inherited from Kant by Inductive Science. It too counts the material world as the only thing real; for it, concepts and laws are justified only to the extent that they have that world as their content and mediate the recognizing of it. It regards concepts reaching beyond this realm as unreal. For it, general thoughts and laws are mere abstractions, derived from the agreements experienced in a series of observations. It knows mere subjective maxims, generalizations, no concrete concepts bearing their validity in themselves. This must be borne in mind if one wants to penetrate from a lot of murky concepts circulating nowadays through to complete clarity. One will first have to ask oneself: what then is Experience, really, gained of this or that object? In works on the philosophy of experience, one will search in vain for a matter-of-fact, satisfying answer to this certainly justified question.

Recognizing an object of the outer world in its essential being cannot, after all, possibly mean perceiving it with the senses, and as it presents itself to them, so drawing up a likeness of it. One will never see how, from something sensory, a corresponding conceptual photograph could come about, and what relation there could be between the two. An epistemology that starts from this standpoint can never get clear about the question of the connection of concept and object. [see note 2] How is one to see the necessity of going beyond what is given immediately by the sense, to the concept, if in the former the essential being of an object of the sensory world were already given? Why the conceptual comprehending too, if the looking-at were already sufficient? At the least, the concept, if not a falsification, would be a highly unnecessary addition to the object. That is what one must arrive at, if one denies the concreteness of concepts and laws. Over against such pictorial explanations as, say, that of the Herbartian school, too: that the concept is the mental correlate of an object located outside us, and that the recognizing consists in acquiring such a picture, we now want to seek a reality explanation of recognizing. In keeping with the task we set ourselves, we here want to limit ourselves merely to the recognizing of the outer world. In this case, two things come into consideration in the act of recognizing: The confirmation [see translator's note 1] of thinking, and that of the senses. The former has to do with concepts and laws, the latter with sensory qualities and processes. The concept and the law are always something general, the sensory object something particular; the former can only be thought, the latter only looked at. The media through which the general appears to us as something particular are space and time. Every particular thing and every particular process must be able to be fitted into the conceptual content of the world, for whatever of it were not lawful and conceptual in nature does not come into consideration for our thinking at all. Hence, recognizing an object can only mean: giving what appears to our senses, in space, a place in the generality of the conceptual content of the world, indeed letting it merge into it completely. In the recognizing of a spatial-temporal object, we are thus given nothing else than a concept or law in a sense-perceptible way. Only by such a conception does one get over the previously mentioned unclearness. One must allow the concept its primariness, its own form of existence, built upon itself, and only recognize it again in another form in the sense-perceptible object. Thus we have reached a reality definition of Experience. The philosophy of induction can by its nature never reach a definition of this kind. For it would have to be shown in what way experience transmits concept and law. But since that philosophy sees these two as something merely subjective, its path to that is cut off from the beginning.

From this, one sees at the same time how unfruitful the undertaking would be to want to make out anything about the outer world without the help of perception. How can one gain possession of the concept in the form of viewing, without accomplishing the viewing itself? Only when one sees that what perception offers is concept and idea, but in an essentially other form than in pure thinking's form freed of all empirical content, and that this form is what makes the difference, does one comprehend that one must take the path of experience. But if one assumes the content to be what matters, then nothing can be put forth against the assertion that the same content could after all also be acquired in a manner independent of all experience. So experience must indeed be the maxim of the philosophy of nature, but at the same time, recognition of the concept in the form of outer experience. And here is where modern natural science, by seeking no clear concept of experience, got on the wrong track. In this point it has been attacked repeatedly, and is also easily open to attack. Instead of acknowledging the apriority of the concept, and taking the sense world as but another form of the same, it regards the same as a mere derivative of the outer world, which for it is an absolute Prior. The mere form of something is thus stamped the thing itself. Atomism, to the extent that it is materialistic, issues from this unclearness of the concepts. We want here, based on the preceding, to subject it to a careful, and — as I believe I can assume — the only possible, critique.

However opinions may diverge in the detail, atomism ultimately amounts to regarding all sensory qualities, such as: tone, warmth, light, scent, and so on, indeed, if one considers the way thermodynamics derives Boyle's law, even pressure, as mere semblance, mere function of the world of atoms. Only the atom counts as ultimate factor of reality. To be consistent, one must now deny it every sensory quality,because otherwise a thing would be explained out of itself. One did, to be sure, when one set about to build up an atomistic world system, [see note 3] attribute to the atom all kinds of sensory qualities, albeit only in quite meager abstraction. One regards it, now as extended and impenetrable, now as mere energy center, etc. But thereby one committed the greatest inconsistency, and showed that one had not considered the above, which shows quite clearly that no sensory characteristics whatsoever may be attributed to the atom at all. Atoms must have an existence inaccessible to sensory experience. On the other hand, though, also, they themselves, and also the processes occurring in the world of atoms, especially movements, are not supposed to be something merely conceptual. The concept, after all, is something merely universal, which is without spatial existence. But the atom is supposed, even if not itself spatial, yet to be there in space, to present something particular. It is not supposed to be exhausted in its concept, but rather to have, beyond that, a form of existence in space. With that, there is taken into the concept of the atom a property that annihilates it. The atom is supposed to exist analogously to the objects of outer perception, yet not be able to be perceived. In its concept, viewability is at once affirmed and denied.

Moreover, the atom proclaims itself right away as a mere product of speculation. When one leaves out the previously mentioned sensory qualities quite unjustifiably attributed to it, nothing is left for it but the mere “Something,” which is of course unalterable, because there is nothing about it, so nothing can be destroyed, either. The thought of mere being, transposed into space, a mere thought-point, basically just the arbitrarily multiplied Kantian “thing in itself,” confronts us.

Against this, one could perhaps object that after all it is all the same what is understood by Atom, that one should let the scholar of natural history go ahead and operate with it — for in many tasks of mathematical physics, atomistic models are indeed advantageous —; that after all, the philosopher knows that one is not dealing with a spatial reality, but with an abstraction, like other mathematical notions. To oppose the assumption of the atom in this respect would indeed be mistaken. But that is not the issue. The philosophers are concerned with that atomism for which atom and causality [see note 4] are the only possible motivating forces of the world, which either denies all that is not mechanical, or else holds it to be inexplicable, as exceeding our cognitive ability. [see note 5] It is one thing to view the atom as a mere thought-point, another thing to want to see in it the fundamental principle of all existence. The former standpoint never goes beyond mechanical nature with it; the second holds everything to be a mechanical function.

If someone wanted to speak of the harmlessness of the atomistic notions, one could, to refute him, go ahead and hold up to him the consequences that have been derived from them. There are especially two necessary consequences: firstly, that the predicate of original existence is squandered on isolated substances void of spirit, quite indifferent toward one another, and otherwise wholly undefined, in whose interaction only mechanical necessity rules, so that the entire remainder of the world of phenomena exists as their empty haze, and has mere chance to thank for its existence; secondly, insurmountable limits to our recognizing result from this. For the human mind, the concept of the atom is, as we have shown, something completely empty, the mere “Something.” But since the atomists cannot be content with this content, but call for actual substance, yet determine this substance in a way in which it can nowhere be given, they must proclaim the unrecognizability of the actual essential being of the atom.

Concerning the other limit of knowledge, the following is to be noted. If one sees thinking too as a function of the interaction of complexes of atoms, which remain indifferent toward one another, it is not at all to be marveled at, why the connection between movement of the atoms on the one hand, and thinking and sensation on the other, is not to be comprehended, [see note 6] which atomism therefore sees as a limit of our recognition. Only, there is something to comprehend only where a conceptual passage over exists. But if one first so limits the concepts that in the sphere of the one, nothing is to be found that would make possible the passage to the sphere of the other, then comprehending is excluded from the start. Moreover, this passage would have to be indeed not of a merely speculative nature, but rather it would have to be a real process, thus permitting of being demonstrated. But this is again prevented by the non-sensoriness of atomistic motion. With the giving up of the concept of the atom, these speculations about the limit of our knowledge fall away by themselves. From nothing must one guard oneself more than from such determinations of boundary, for beyond the boundary there is then room for everything possible. The most irrational spiritism, as well as the most nonsensical dogma, could hide behind such assumptions. The same are quite easy to refute in every single case, by showing that at their foundation there always lies the mistake of seeing a mere abstraction for more than it is, or holding merely relative concepts to be absolute ones, and similar errors. A large number of false notions has come into circulation especially through the incorrect concepts of space and time. [see note 7]

Hence we must subject these two concepts to a discussion. The mechanistic explanation of nature needs for the assumption of its world of atoms, besides the atoms in motion absolute space as well, that is, an empty vacuum, and an absolute time, that is, an unalterable measure of the One-After-Another. [see note 8] But what is space? Absolute extension can be the only answer. Only, that is only a characteristic of sensory objects, and apart from these a mere abstraction, existent only upon and with the objects, and not beside them as atomism must necessarily assume. If extension is to be present, something must be extended, and this cannot again be Extension. Here, for a proof of the absoluteness of space, one will be able to raise as an objection, say, the Kantian invention about the two gloves of the left and right hand. One says, their parts have, after all, the same relationship to one another, and yet one cannot make the two congruent. From this, Kant concludes that the relationship to absolute space is a different one, hence absolute space exists. But it is more obvious, after all, to assume that the relationship of the two gloves to one another is simply such that they cannot be made congruent. How should a relationship to absolute space be thought of, anyway? And even assuming it were possible, the relationships of the two gloves to absolute space would, however, only then establish in turn a relationship of the two gloves to one another. Why should this relationship not just as well be able to be a primary one? Space, apart from the things of the world of the senses, is an absurdity. As space is only something upon the objects, so time is also given only upon and with the processes of the world of the senses. It is inherent in them. By themselves, both are mere abstractions. Only the sensory things and processes are concrete items of the world of the senses. They present concepts and laws in the form of outer existence. Therefore they in their simplest form must be a fundamental pillar of the empirical study of nature. The simple sensory quality and not the atom, the fundamental fact and not the motion behind what is empirical, are the elements of the empirical study of nature. It is thereby given a direction which is the only possible one. If one takes that as a basis, one will not be tempted at all to speak of limits of recognizing, because one is not dealing with things to which one attributes arbitrary negative characteristics such as supersensible and the like, but rather with actually given concrete objects.

From these mentions, important conclusions will also result for epistemology. But foremost, it is certain that the atom and the motion behind the empirical must be exchanged for the fundamental sensory elements of outer experience, and henceforth can no longer count as principles of the study of nature.


  1. Compare Vischer, Old and New, Part 3, pp. 51ff.

  2. Compare with this the keen-minded discourses of John Rehmke in his sound work The World as Perception and Concept, Berlin, 1880.

  3. Here belong the indications Du Bois-Reymond gives about such a system, as well as the experiments performed by Wiessner, Schramm [see translator's note 2], and others.

  4. Compare Vischer, Old and New, Part 2.

  5. This view is advocated by Du Bois-Reymond in Concerning the Limits of the Recognition of Nature and The Seven Riddles of the World, Leipzig, 1882.

  6. Du Bois-Reymond: Concerning the Limits of the Recognition of Nature (see p. 4, footnote).

  7. Vischer has repeatedly pronounced the necessity of a correction of our concept of time (Critical Passages, 1873, Old and New, Part 3).

  8. Compare: Otto LiebmannThoughts and Facts, Strasbourg, 1882.

Translator's Notes

  1. “confirmation” (Bestätigung) could be a mistake for “activation” (Betätigung).

  2. “Schrann” is presumably a mistake for “Schramm” (Heinrich Schramm wrote The General Movement of Matter as Fundamental Cause of All Phenomena), and so I have changed it.

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