Corpuscularianism is a physical theory that supposes all matter to be composed of minute particles. The theory became important in the seventeenth century; amongst the leading corpuscularians were René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and John Locke.
Corpuscularianism is similar to the theory of atomism, except that where atoms were supposed to be indivisible, corpuscles could in principle be divided. In this manner, for example, it was theorized that mercury could penetrate into metals and modify their inner structure, a step on the way towards the production of gold by transmutation. Corpuscularianism was associated by its leading proponents with the idea that some of the properties that objects appear to have are artifacts of the perceiving mind: "secondary" qualities as distinguished from "primary" qualities. Corpuscularianism stayed a dominant theory for centuries and was blended with alchemy by early scientists such as Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton in the 17th century.
In his work, The Sceptical Chymist (1661) Boyle abandoned the Aristotelian ideas of the classical elements—earth, water, air, and fire in favor of corpuscularianism. In his later work, The Origin of Forms and Qualities (1666), Boyle used corpuscularianism to explain all of the major Aristotelian concepts, marking a departure from traditional Aristotelianism.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes used corpuscularianism to justify his political theories in Leviathan. It was used by Newton in his development of the corpuscular theory of light, while Boyle used it to develop his mechanical corpuscular philosophy, which laid the foundations for the Chemical Revolution.
William R. Newman traces the origins from the fourth book of Aristotle, Meteorology. The "dry" and "moist" exhalations of Aristotle became the alchemical 'sulfur' and 'mercury' of the eighth-century Islamic alchemist, Jābir ibn Hayyān (721–815). Geber's Summa perfectionis contains an alchemical theory where unified sulfur and mercury corpuscles, differing in purity, size, and relative proportions, form the basis of a much more complicated process.
Importance to the development of modern scientific theory
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Several of the principles which corpuscularianism proposed became tenets of modern chemistry.
- The idea that compounds can have secondary properties that differ from the properties of the elements which are combined to make them became the basis of molecular chemistry.
- The idea that the same elements can be predictably combined in different ratios using different methods to create compounds with radically different properties became the basis of stoichiometry, crystalography, and established studies of chemical synthesis.
- The ability of chemical processes to alter the composition of an object without significantly altering its form is the basis of fossil theory via mineralization and the understanding of numerous metallurgical, biological, and geological processes.
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- The Mechanical Philosophy Archived June 11, 2008, at the Wayback Machine. - Early modern 'atomism' ("corpuscularianism" as it was known)
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- Corpuscularianism - Philosophical Dictionary
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- The Mineral Exhalation Theory of Metallogenesis in Pre-Modern Mineral Science JOHN A. NORRIS AMBIX, Vol. 53, No. 1, March 2006, 43–65 © Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 2006 doi:10.1179/174582306X93183