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Friday, November 16, 2018

Kant’s Debt to Lucretius

In Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven Or Essay on the Constitution and the Mechanical Origin of the Whole Universe according to Newtonian Principles,  Immanuel Kant says that he won’t completely deny that he agrees with some aspects of the Epicurean philosophy, and that his theory of heavens owes a lot to Lucretius’s theory of atoms. He writes:
I will therefore not deny that Lucretius’ theory or that of his predecessors, Epicurus, Leucippus, and Democritus, has much in common with mine. Like those philosophers, I posit a first state of nature as a universal dispersion of the original material of all world-bodies, or atoms as they call them. Epicure posited a heaviness that caused these elementary particles to fall and this does not seem to be very different to Newtonian attraction, which I accept.  
However, Kant rejects Lucretius’s mechanical method of explaining the universe which he points out was first proposed by Leucippus and Democritus:
[Lucretius] also accorded them a certain deviation from the straight linear motion of their fall, even though he had absurd notions of their causes and effects: This deviation to some extent corresponds to the change in the straight fall that we attribute to the repulsive force of the particles; finally, the whirlpools that arose out of the perturbed motion of the atoms were a centrepiece of the theories of Leucippus and Democritus, and they will also be found in ours. The close relationship with a doctrine that was the proper theory of the denial of the divine in antiquity, will not, however, drag mine into association with their errors. Even in the most senseless opinions that have succeeded in gaining the applause of men, we will always find some truth. One false principle or a few ill-considered connecting principles will lead men from the path of truth via imperceptible errors right into the abyss. Despite the similarity I have just mentioned, there does nonetheless remain one basic difference between ancient cosmogony and the current one, which allows us to draw quite opposite conclusions from the latter.

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