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Dynamism is a general name for a group of philosophical views concerning the nature of matter. However different they may be in other respects, all these views agree in making matter consist essentially of simple and indivisible units, substances, or forces. Dynamism is sometimes used to denote systems that admit not only matter and extension, but also determinations, tendencies, and forces intrinsic and essential to matter. More properly, however, it means exclusive systems that do away with the dualism of matter and force by reducing the former to the latter. Here we shall limit ourselves to this strict form of dynamism, first, indicating its chief advocates and its characteristic presentations, secondly, comparing these in order to see the points of agreement and of difference.


We have but a vague and incomplete knowledge of the doctrines held by the Pythagorean School, but it seems that they may rightly be considered as at least the forerunners of modern dynamism. From Aristotle's "Metaphysics" we gather that the Pythagoreans, imbued with a mathematical spirit and accustomed to mathematical methods, came to look upon the principles ( archai ) of numbers as the principles of things themselves, to assert that the elements ( stoicheia ) of numbers were also the elements of reality, and that the whole heaven was a harmony and a number. Various geometrical figures are but different combinations of numbers, the unit being a point; from points are formed lines, from lines, surfaces, and from surfaces, solids; and geometrical figures are the very substance of things. Hence, finally, "physical bodies are composed of numbers". Among the Arabian philosophers, the Mutacallimûn were atomists. The atom is the only substance and all atoms are perfectly identical in nature. The identity, however, is not of a positive, but of a merely negative character, for these primitive elements of matter are simple substances and nothing else. They have no determinations whatever, no weight, no shape, no quantity, no extension. The atom is an indivisible and simple substantial point, the necessary subject of all accidents or determinations, and incapable of existing without them.

Leibniz's doctrine is a reaction against both the material mechanicism of Descartes and the substantial monism of Spinoza. The essence of matter cannot be extension. The laws of mechanics cannot themselves be understood without using the notion of force. Moreover, "a substance is a being capable of action", and "what does not act does not deserve the name of substance ". Hence substance implies unity and individuality, and the real substance cannot be the "mate" atom ( atome de matière ). Having extension, such an atom is composed of parts and divisible without limit; it has no real unity. The elements which compose material substances are "formal" or "substantial" atoms ( atomes de substance ), simple and without parts. They are called monads. Bodies are "multitudes" and "aggregates", and the simple substances are units and elements. As they have no parts, monads have "neither extension, nor shape, nor possible divisibility. They are the true atoms of nature, and, in a word, the elements of things." Since it is impossible for two beings to be perfectly alike, every monad is different from every other. Monads have no external, but only an internal, activity, which is twofold: perception and appetition. All monads are, in various degrees, representations of the whole universe, but this representation or perception becomes clearly conscious (apperception), and is accompanied with attention, memory, and reflection, only in higher monads. Appetition is the activity of the internal principle by which the passage from one perception to another is effected. The relative perfection of the monads depends on the degree of clearness of their perceptions. Some unite to form an organism whose centre of unity is a higher monad or soul. This system is completed by the supposition of a pre-established harmony. The order and harmony of the world are the result not of an interaction between monads, but of a pre-arranged plan of the Creator who has endowed them with their power of internal evolution. In the main, Christian Wolff reproduced and systematized Leibniz's theory.

According to Boscovich "the first elements of matter are points absolutely indivisible and without any extension. They are spread throughout an immense vacuum in such a way as to be always at some distance from one another. The distance may increase or decrease indefinitely, but can never disappear completely without a compenetration of the points themselves, for contact between them is impossible" (Theoria Philosophiæ Naturals, no. 7). Hence there can be no continuous extension. The elements are all homogeneous, and, by their numbers, distances, arrangements, activities, and relations produce the diversity of material substances. They have no perception and no appetition. According to their distances, they have a determination to diminish or to increase the interval that separates them. This very determination Boscovich calls force, attractive in the former case, repulsive in the latter. The law of these forces is the following: if the distance between them is infinitesimal, they are repulsive, and the more so in proportion as the distance is smaller; if the distance, although remaining always very small, is increased a little, the repulsive force becomes first less intense, then null, and at a still larger distance is changed into an attractive force. This attraction again, with the increase of distance, goes on augmenting, then diminishing, till it becomes again null, and changes into a repulsion, which, in turn, by the same gradual process becomes attraction. Such changes may be repeated several times, but only while the distance, though increasing, remains infinitesimal. At greater distances the force is exclusively attractive. To explain the interaction of the points, Boscovich had to admit an actio in distans ; yet he also admits the possibility of a Divinely pre-established harmony and even of occasionalism.

In his pre-critical period, Kant admitted physical monads, that is, simple and indivisible substances. His later views may be summed up as follows: matter is divisible without limit, but not actually divided into separate atoms. Matter is what fills up a space, and to fill up a space is to defend it against any mobile which should try to penetrate it. Hence matter is essentially resistance and force. It is not impenetrable, in the absolute or mathematical sense of the Cartesians, but in a relative sense and in varying degrees; it may be compressed and condensed. There are two distinct forces, repulsion and attraction. The former is the primary constituent of matter, since by it other things are excluded from the space it occupies. It produces extension, and, without it, matter would be reduced to a geometrical point. However, attraction is also essential to the occupancy of an assignable space, for otherwise matter would be scattered without limit. Repulsion can act only by contact; attraction may also act at a distance. From these two forces Kant derives all the properties of matter. It must be remembered that this theory is an explanation of the phenomenon only, the noumenon being inaccessible to our mind. This idealistic feature was carried still further by the German Transcendentalists; among them Schelling proposes a view the main lines of which agree with that of Kant. In more recent times, Herbart, Lotze, von Hartmann, Renouvier, to mention only a few names among many, also hold dynamic theories modified by their special points of view and philosophical systems. To these may be added some Catholic philosophers, e.g. the Sulpician Branchereau, and the Jesuits Carbonnelle and Palmieri. Among scientists, Ampère, Cauchy, Faraday, and others are also in favour of dynamism. Faraday's theory is substantially the same as that of Boscovich. That theory, namely, that "atoms . . . are mere centres of forces or powers, not particles of matter in which the powers themselves reside", has "a great advantage over the more usual notion". "A mind just entering on the subject may consider it difficult to think of the powers of matter independent of a separate something to be called the matter , but it is certainly far more difficult, and indeed impossible, to think of or imagine that matter independent of the powers. Now the powers we know and recognize in every phenomenon of the creation, the abstract matter in none; why, then, assume the existence of that of which we are ignorant, which we cannot conceive, and for which there is no philosophical necessity ?" (A Speculation touching Electric Conduction and the Nature of Matter, pp. 290, 291).

Today there is a tendency to substitute the concept of energy for that of force. Hence Professor Ostwald's "energetic theory". Matter is to be looked upon as a complex of energies arranged together in space. The concept of matter resolves itself into that of energy, since the manifestations of energy are all we know of the external world. Energy is the common substance, for it is that which exists in space and time ; it is also the differentiating principle of whatever exists in space and time. Recent scientific discoveries, especially those in the field of radio-activity, seem to strengthen philosophical reason and lead to a more specific dynamism. The atom can no longer be considered as being what its name implies, namely indivisible. Atoms of different chemical elements are spheres of positive electrification enclosing a number of corpuscles, all homogeneous, having identical properties, and negatively electrified. Some physicists still attribute to these corpuscles a real, though infinitesimal, extension ; they admit a nucleus or carrier of the electric charge, and this nucleus alone is what we call matter. But this is denied by others for whom the corpuscle contains nothing material in the sense in which we commonly use that term. It is all electricity and nothing but electricity. Indeed the only reason for admitting anything else would be the necessity of explaining the mass and inertia of the corpuscle. But electricity itself possesses mass and inertia; or rather the mechanical inertia of matter is identical with the self-induction of the electric current, and the mass results from the velocity of the current. It has been calculated that the whole mass and inertia of the corpuscle are accounted for by its electrical charge alone and its velocity. Hence the name "electron" given to the corpuscle; it is the ultimate unit of so-called matter. This is known as the electronic theory of matter.


The preceding outline shows that the term dynamism, like all other general names of philosophical systems, is very vague, and applies to a number of widely different views originating from different considerations and supported by different arguments, namely:

  • Extension being essentially divisible, the ultimate unit must lack extension, otherwise it would be itself composed of parts, divisible and not one.
  • Matter is essentially active; to reduce it to mere extension is to ignore one of its fundamental aspects.
  • Even extension manifests itself exclusively through forces, and
  • matter as such is unknowable and unthinkable.
  • Scientific facts lead to an electronic theory.
  • Matter is, therefore, to say the least, absolutely useless, and dynamism, being a simpler, yet adequate, explanation, is preferable.
Without entering into a discussion of the system, we may note briefly that the extension which is infinitely divisible is abstract, not concrete, mathematical, not physical, extension. For Aristotle and the Scholastics, physical matter is composed of two essential and inseparable principles, primary matter and substantial form, the latter being the principle of unity and activity. Moreover, to admit the essential activity of matter does not necessarily imply that matter is nothing but activity. And if matter does not manifest itself to the senses except through forces and energies, it does not follow that it is not the necessary subject and carrier of these forces. In order to establish dynamism, it is not sufficient to overthrow materialism. If there is no matter, it is difficult to understand the forces themselves; for then, what is attracted? what moves, rotates, vibrates, etc.? Do not forces require a subject? It is clear that simple elements cannot give real extension. Can they even explain the phenomenon itself of extension, when not only physical bodies but the organism itself and the sense-organs are denied real extension ? The facts and nature of radio-activity are not as yet sufficiently explored to furnish a safe basis for a definite theory of matter. Further, the necessity of admitting an actio in distans is also considered as an objection against some forms at least of dynamism.

Dynamism is opposed to the objective dualism of matter and energy, and also to mechanical materialism, according to which, matter, endowed with extension, is of itself an inert and indifferent vehicle of motion. It is not opposed to atomism in general, but only to some forms of it. Some dynamists, like Kant, admit the continuity of the forces constituting matter, but the majority admit centres or atoms of forces acting on one another. Atomism, therefore, is either material or dynamic, and dynamism may admit atomism or continuity. How far even dynamism is irreconcilable with hylomorphism (q.v.) in its most general meaning, it is difficult to determine. Leibniz speaks of primary matter and of substantial form, or entelechy. And the common elements of all things must be conceived as being only in potentiâ with regard to the actual diverse substances which they constitute. Again, the dynamic elements may be purely physical, or, as with Leibniz, they may have, in various degrees, a psychical nature, thus implying a sort of panpsychism. Leibniz also considers them as essentially different; commonly they are considered as identical in nature. Dynamism in general may be adapted to and modified by such philosophical systems as determinism or freedom, substantialism or phenomenalism, idealism or realism, monism or theism, etc. In itself, it is not inconsistent with any essential Catholic doctrine.

In conclusion, it may be interesting to note the contrast between the modern and the Aristotelean terminology. Aristotle's dynamis and energeia (see ACTUS ET POTENTIA) are essentially opposed. Today, they have come to be almost synonymous, and energetism is one of the dynamic views of matter.

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