Fly on the Wall—Atoms Among Us, Atoms As Us

It’s been said that no person is an island, but could it be we’re each grains of sand forming a luscious beach?  The philosopher, Democritus, of Ancient Greece, suggested that all the world was made up of atoms, tiny particles that Lego®’d themself into semblances of order as rocks, trees, and humans.  “The atomists argued that since atoms and the void are infinite, there are innumerable worlds” and, presumably, endless possible configurations of each person’s atoms and thus their identity (Lloyd, p.  448).  This sense of possibility and creativity pervades non-human nature and underpins educational possibility; learning opens infinite opportunities for growth.

Individuals, like physical reality, are many things in many seasons.  “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion” (Democritus, online).  The paradox of his view, or any totalizing narrative (such as democracy versus autarky or the trades versus academia) is that it binarizes itself into a box, like a sudoku of the soul.  Whatever remains from an explanation, in this case the bizarre mystery of opinion, remains to be explained!

Opinions rarely seem a mystery to we who hold them, however.  Often, we take our opinions to be self-evident truths, like assumptions about who and what composes our identity.  Yet, meanings are replete with contextual factors and, unlike phonetics and words and sentences, meanings are actions dependent upon external evaluations.  Language likewise holds meaning only when imparted by its users.  In isolation, a word is only a sound.  The same holds true with shallow physical stereotypes about identity: flannel jacket (stump-dumb lumberjack) or Lululemon pants (yoga floozy).  William P. Aston states that “a word is a common possession of the linguistic community” and perhaps this is why we can feel maddened or saddened when we are misunderstood (Aston, p.  238).

Indeed, the very act of speaking often appears to be about an audience more than ourselves.  Soliloquies in a silent forest perhaps have personal meanings all their own but when a human audience is involved our sense of awareness is implicated.  We might ask ourselves, then, what we most want to do and say with our education?

Social Soup and The Quest for Uniqueness

A few millennia after Democritus, in the late 1800s, the sociologist Emile Durkhem famously noted the corollary of an atomistic outlook: anomie.  Modern life, where we are easily reduced to statistics and categories, consists of envisioning our selves as individuals each swimming in a social soup.  And if you’ve ever wished you had a snorkel for culture and other people in general, AU might be the place for you.  To find one’s place within mass society can feel like swimming against a current; so how do we know what our authentic composition consists of?  The nature and potential of internal atoms as a metaphor for personal evolution might hold potential for evaluating our unique selves.

Atoms are often in motion, and so are our hearts and minds.  Friction, and the ecstatic frission created when we generate a new idea, produces excitement in our minds.  Education is the elixir that triggers wonderful blooms of insight.  Meanwhile, internal tensions are also the stuff of philosophy and education: few if any learner is fully embroiled in a singular discipline that emanates all that their being, imagined or otherwise, has to offer.  We might be social scientists with a dose of poetry, or nursing students with a dash of psychology.  In the end, all that we feel and learn is loosely linked together within our idenity as an individual.

Meanwhile, from Italy’s Boot: The Eleatic Peninsular Philosophers

Eleatic philosophers, predating Democritus, had suggested that the universe (atomistic or otherwise) amounted to a great big One.  This One could contain no space within itself because absence, or a void, are impossible because a person cannot think of nothing.  Imagine, if you will, a completely blank mind.  Meditational guru videos aside, the fact is that mental images and words always creep into our thoughts and form ideas; like a seawall holding back the ocean for a short time in the eyes geology, our mind can never be truly blank.  Training our mind is thus a process of selecting which beliefs and paths of inquiry we choose to privilege; without hierarchies of thought we might find ourselves adrift in the stew of culture and the me-me-me narcissism of memes.  We’re not entitled to wisdom any more than to sympathy for our circumstance; it remains for us to identify how we wish to conceptualize our identities.

Such a process is not a matter of right or wrong answers, because each person’s compositions, atoms of self and experience and preference, are as unique as is our private DNA sequence.  This contrasts with, say, a word game App on social media where shrieks of jubilation accompany the successful completion of one monkey game or other.  Recall that, in its vulgar form, learning is a matter or rote memorization, like rats in a cage, or dull problem solving, when there are a limited number or answers or options within a highly rarified landscape of rules and borders.  Democritus might not have liked such strict games or such a mechanistic worldview as the atom suggests; after all, philosophy is literally the love of individual acquired wisdom, not the love of conforming mental sameness.

Authors of Authenticity

To address our own authenticity implies a definition of who and what we are.  While Democritus suggested that we are each individual particles, the fact of our inner realm suggests that we are composed within our whole self of many lesser and perhaps conflicting inner selves.  Ambivalence and ambiguity go hand in hand whenever we are stumped or stymied or confused.  In fact, uncertainty itself is a form of being that implies that a coherent whole is preferred to a diverging series of thought paths.  To accept all of our self, including the contradictions, might be a ghost theme in many a course.  After all, education teaches us to account for a variety of points of view on a given subject.

Erwin Schrödinger, famed for his cat in a box that may be thought of as simultaneously dead and alive, suggested that the heritage of philosophy lacks something crucial to the maintenance of a balanced view of the carnival labyrinth of self and reality:

“Our science — Greek science — is based on objectivation, whereby it has cut itself off from an adequate understanding of the Subject of Cognizance, of the mind.  But I do believe that this is precisely the point where our present way of thinking does need to be amended, perhaps by a bit of blood-transfusion from Eastern thought.  That will not be easy, we must beware of blunders — blood-transfusion always needs great precaution to prevent clotting.  We do not wish to lose the logical precision that our scientific thought has reached, and that is unparalleled anywhere at any epoch.” (in Popova, online).

Perhaps the best education is one that remains open to conflict even as we gain footing and understanding within the comforting realm of knowledge.  We’re on a special journey at AU and who knows what configuration our atoms will form when the process is complete…in fact, learning to see life as a learning opportunity means that we will never cease to evolve and discover new facets of ourselves and our environment.  An epistemological break with our prior sense of who we are and what we know is ever in the offing.

Alston, W.P.  (1967/1972).  ‘Meaning’.  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Volumes 5 and 6.  USA: Macmillan.
Democritus.  (4th Century BCE/2021).  ‘Top 40 Democritus Quotes’.  Retrieved from
Lloyd, G.E.R.  (1967/1972).  ‘Leucippus and Democritus’ The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Volumes 3 and 4.  USA: Macmillan.
Popova, M.  (2022).  ‘The Atom and the Doctrine of Identity.’ The Marginalian.  Retrieved from
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