Nothingness and the problem of motion

Have you ever wondered what you’re moving through when you step forward or wave your hand? It’s an interesting question that is hotly debated even today and (like most puzzling questions of reality) dates all the way back to the earliest Greek philosophy.

Parmenides – who is a 5th century BC pre-Socratic Greek philosopher – is famous for his part in the dialectical struggle of being vs becoming where he claimed that change (or becoming) is impossible and that all that exists is unified, eternal and timeless. Given that for Parmenides change is impossible, it logically follows that motion (as a type of becoming) must also be impossible; and not surprisingly Parmenides formulated an argument against motion.

Parmenides’ claim is simple: nothing cannot exist by virtue of its being nothing. Following from this, motion is impossible because a moving thing requires nothing to move through (otherwise it would be obstructed and could not move); and as there can be no nothing, there can be no motion. Here the concept of plenum (meaning fullness) is important; for Parmenides as there is no nothing, the world is full and there is no room for movement.

Leucippus, who was an atomistic forerunner of Democritus, notes that motion is an observed empirical fact that cannot be denied. He provides the antithesis of Parmenides where the atoms (which are plenum) move through a space between them which is nothing (or not-being  or the void as it is commonly referred to by atomists). However, there was still the logical problem of the void; if the void is nothing than how can it exist, and if it is moved through than certainly it must be something?

Aristotle provides a solution. In the Aristotelian view there are things which are matter and things which are space. A space is an area/volume where an object that is matter can be placed. Under Aristotle’s view space is not nothing or a void, it is rather something that is empty of, and can act as a receptacle to, matter.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] About « Nothingness and the problem of motion […]


  2. […] be thought of as opposing monism (where monism is the belief that the universe is one substance). Parmenides was a monist – for him the world was one, eternal and unchanging. Through his solution to the being vs […]


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