by my fault, two things are missing in this translation. The one is
the omission of my acknowledgements, the other a short rendering of
the first two lectures of the series of four which was meant to
precede the present publication. The manuscript of the translation
was begun when the pocketbook Kernenergie und Geisteswissenschaft
had not yet appeared. I owe this translation to Cynthia Chandler,
then living in Dornach, who tried hard to find adequate words for the
rather idiomatic language of the lectures. I want to thank her for
her work and especially for her patience and perseverance. Later I
sent the MS of our translation to Norman Davidson in England who had
kindly offered his help and who did a marvelous job. For the final
draft I had the very valuable typing assistance of Linda Larson who
incorporated all the advice I had received by Mr. Davidson and added
some further revisions.
Nineteenth Century Atomism
revival of Greek atomism took place in modern times with the same
reasons put forward as by the classical authors: it is difficult to
visualize matter as continuous and quite specially to understand how
continuous matter can be compressed or attenuated. Often enough one
simply visualized matter as composed of particles having exactly the
same properties as the substance in the world of perception; or in
the case of light: that red light is composed of red particles and
blue light of blue ones. Descartes distinguished between the primary
and the secondary sense qualities (the primary qualities being
mechanical, while heat, sound and light are secondary). This
distinction led to the reduction of all qualities to the movement and
order of simply particles. At first the transition of ice to water
and eventually to vapor served as the only convincing example for the
picture that in the solid state of matter the atoms have rigid mutual
positions, that in the liquid state the atoms are movable but still
“stick” together, and that only in the gaseous state the
mutual attractions are overcome by the higher kinetic energy of the
particles. That is why liquids can form free surfaces whereas gases
do not but expand into any space offered.
chemistry could use the mechanistic model to explain the fixed
numerical relations in the weight of reacting substances. Atoms could
be united in pairs (for instance) to form molecules. There was the
fact of fixed weight ratios, now interpreted as the ratio of the
weights of the atoms in question. Another fact, that there are
multiple proportions in which certain substances may react, led to
the interpretation that one atom of the one kind attracts, binds, a
fixed number of the other kind. On closer inspection these
interpretations show only a lack of thinking comparable to the
absurdity that only by the intervention of atoms could the unique
factoring of, say, 35=5x7 be understood! At the same time one had
learned in celestial mechanics to calculate the movements of the
heavenly bodies assuming that solely central forces were acting
between them. Following the same pattern of thought it was assumed
that similar mechanics of the atoms would explain all phenomena. As a
matter of fact, it was possible in heat theory to derive the lawful
connection between temperature, volume and pressure of a gas by
assuming for calculation purely mechanistic hypotheses. All the same,
at the end of the century leading chemists (Ostwald) and physicists
(Mach) expressed serious doubts as to the reality of the atoms, which
were thought to be convenient “reckoning pennies”.
are important successes in the theoretical understanding of
properties of gases by this so-called “kinetic theory”.
But the assumptions made are by no means a consequence of observable
facts; some are not even immediately plausible. They cannot,
didactically, be derived in a really convincing manner but just have
to be accepted and tested by the success of prediction. — Steiner's
criticism of the atomistic picture, as formulated in a very early
essay he sent to F. Th. Vischer, is directed against the philosophical
side of atomism, not against its usefulness in mathematical physics.
Atoms as “Phenomena”
Atomism of the 19th century changed and did so due to new experiences.
did the “real atoms”, which got into the hands of man,
look like? They contradicted everything that was thought about them:
They penetrate matter. The later being predominantly “empty”
They are not undividable; there is radio-active decay.
In trying to explain the emission of light one has to assume vibrations
which cannot he ascribed to material particles; a new kind of integer
number law arose.
The practically unlimited production of energy by radium violated a
fundamental theorem of energetics which could be saved only by
Sometimes waves behave like particles and particles like waves.
In most cases exact information about the “classical parameters”,
such as plane, time, velocity, etc. is excluded in principle
In certain cases it becomes necessary to speak of the loss of identity
way this chaos of thought is mastered speaks clearly of the
nonphysical nature of the entities in question. They no longer appear
as “building blocks” but rather as “fragments”
of nature. One student called this a “difficult thought act”,
but in reality it's just elementary logic. The potential fracture
lines in safety glass, with its inner tension, are a good simile for
the knowledge of future “fragments” — a simile for
the “potential existence” of atoms.
following is a symptomatological view of the more recent history of
Maxwell develops a system of formulae for electricity and adds —
for the sake of symmetry terms which were at that time not
observable. The formulae should explain light waves. H. Hertz derives
solutions of Maxwell's equations. His waves are not “discovered”
but the result of deliberate calculation.
Planck derives from new measurements of radiations the quantization
work of M. and P. Curie leads to the discovery of radium and new
radiations that show discontinuous appearances. (Not seemingly but
Crookes had developed the idea of a new state of matter (“radiating
matter”) — today plasma. This was in connection with
cathode rays. The beta-rays of radium are related to cathode rays.
Alpha- and beta rays penetrate matter. They are pseudo-particles.
Isolated traces on photographic emulsions or in vapor-saturated air
at the turn of the century, Lorentz develops his electron theory for
the purpose of theoretical chemistry. The atom appears as essentially
electric. The way in which radiation passes through matter points to
the extraordinary emptiness of the atom. Later experiments lead to
the idea of the nucleus-shell structure of the atom.
experimental results lead N. Bohr to his “astronomical”
model of the atom. Bohr makes physically “impossible”
assumptions but in a conscious way, because of the discrete levels of
energy. The integer number laws of Balmer in spectroscopy are an
important confirmation for Bohr.
articles of Einstein in 1905: (1) the statistical treatment of
Brown's molecular motion is to decide the question: do atoms exist,
really? — (2) the photon hypotheses puts the energy quantums
into radiation itself, in contrast to wave theory — (3) the
formulae (of Lorentz) in the electrodynamics of moving conductors
lead Einstein to the equivalence of mass and energy (and to the union
of spare and time in relativity theory).
the “wave mechanics” of L. de Broglie, from the works of
Heisenberg and of Schrodinger, the systematic unity of quantum
physics has arisen at the end of the first quarter of this century. A
model that cannot be visualized without contradictions (within
“classical” concepts) has to be assumed in order to
master the conditions in the atom — by formulae which likewise
are essentially non-visualizable.
the end of the development of “phenomenal atomism”
Heisenberg raises the criticism of whether you can visualize atoms as
little specks of matter.
responds: “The answer is decidedly ‘No’. The atom
lacks the most primitive characteristic of what we usually think in
connection with ‘matter’. Some older philosopher would
have said if the case could have been brought to his attention: Your
newfangled atoms do not consist of any substance at all, they are
following is the end of the second lecture verbatim:
a material object shows some sense qualities, then it will show all
(and if some are missing there is a reason for why they are missing).
One could call this a kind of arch-phenomenon of matter: Co-existence
of sensory qualities. What I have tried to show you can be summarized
in the statement: the appearance of phenomenal atomism transcend
get into a non-sensible — I do not say supersensible — the
expression “subsensible” would fit better. — a
subsensible world you can grasp only by thought pictures which you do
not take for reality. If that reminds you of what is said about the
nature of higher knowledge I do not mind. The higher levels of cognition
begin with certain impressions which “look” like products of
imagination but which, however, are more than that since they express a
reality behind them. The investigator of the supersensible would get
into confusion if he would take “imagination”
(in the technical sense of higher knowledge) for immediate reality.
Something similar belongs to the models of modern physics but I want
to emphasize: like caricatures. In a way they are pseudo-imaginations
adequate to the subsensible. I do not want to have said that these
models are real imaginations for the scientists are not investigators
in the realm of the supersensible. But they experience certain
different levels when mathematics begins exactly where, in higher
knowledge, inspiration begins. With that we have achieved our goal;
namely, to characterize the new atomism as the invasion of the
subsensible world with new “laws of nature”.