Roger Joseph Boscovich (Rudjer Josef Boskovic, or Ruggiero Giuseppe Boscovich) (1711-1787) was born on September 18, 1711, in Ragusa (Dubrovnik), Dalmatia, to a large Catholic family. He finished his principal work, Theoria Philosophic Naturalis Redacta ad Unicam Legem virium in Natura Existentium (A Theory of Natural Philosophy Reduced to a Single Law of the Actions Existing in Nature), in Vienna in 1758, and a definitive edition in Latin and English appeared in 1763. Boscovich’s scientific accomplishments were so extensive that they cannot be listed here. He published about 100 scientific treatises (most in Latin) and during his lifetime had an academic scientific reputation in France and Italy, England and the United States, as well as in the Slavic world.
Yet the rest of his exceptional life was eclipsed by the fact that Boscovich was the undisputed founder of one of the three families of atomic theory. Boscovich’s considerable scientific reputation today is based largely on the theory of matter that he formulated in his Theoria. This work helped shape modern conceptions both of matter and of the force field. For example, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell adapted their theories of the electromagnetic field to ideas based on Boscovich’s theory of natural philosophy.
His Theoria consists of a great many topics in physics, which may be skipped over by the reader interested primarily in his theory of time. Supplements I and II of the Theoria contain Boscovich’s mature theory of time, space, and matter. Upon reading his entire magnum opus, though, the modern nature of Boscovich’s system becomes apparent. His theory of point particles (puncta) includes kinematics, along with a relational and structural understanding of particles. In the case of high-speed particles, Boscovich foresaw the penetrability of matter.
Though his father was of purely Serbian lineage and his mother of Slavonic-Italian origins, Boscovich always insisted he was a Dalmatian nationalist. He died on February 13, 1787, of an extended lung ailment.
Boscovich’s Relation to Zeno, Newton, and Leibniz
To understand Boscovich’s notion of time, it is best to summarize his own place in the history of Western reflections on time. Even at the beginning of Boscovich’s career, the paradoxes of motion posed by Zeno of Elea in the long-past Presocratic period still confounded science.
One paradox assumes two columns of soldiers marching past each other at the same speed and in front of columns of stationary soldiers. Zeno demonstrated that the soldiers would be moving at both half-speed and double-speed relative to the other marchers. He considered this absurd, dismissing, in a sort of reductio ad absurdum argument, the assumption of real time. His paradox of motion, then, was a conceptual problem for all serious thinkers.
In reply to Zeno, Aristotle had argued that instead of using multidimensional objects, such as columns of soldiers, unextended points should be employed. In agreement with Aristotle, Boscovich embraced zero-dimensional points as the basis of his notions of time and space.
But this led to another conundrum that still baffled thinkers at the time of Boscovich; using only such unextended points, it is impossible to construct continuous space. This is true because either the points touch, in which case they “com- penetrate” and become one point, or they do not touch, in which case a continuous space or time cannot be constructed. Boscovich solved the remaining problem by rejecting the validity of the law of continuity as applied to space and time, whereas the law of continuity holds true (only) for motion. Thus he founded one of three primary families of atomic theory: point-particle atomism.
Though a great genius in his own right, Boscovich was eclipsed by two near contemporaries, Sir Isaac Newton and G. W. F. Leibniz. Independent of Newton, Leibniz had also discovered the calculus of infinitesimals, solving Zeno’s paradox at a mathematical level. The latter had also adopted zero-dimensional points in his physics and metaphysics, which he called “monads.” While Newton’s “atoms” were extended and substantial, Leibniz’s monads and Boscovich’s “force-point particles” were without extension or substance. Unlike Leibniz, however, Boscovich did not attempt to build a continuum from such zero-dimensional points. Rather, he argued that a continuum is the motion of one point. He supposed that any two points never have direct contact, an event that the metaphysics of Leibniz allowed.
By modifying Leibniz’s monadology, and by rejecting Newton’s corpuscular theory, Boscovich forged his own path. In this way, Boscovich was able to “avoid a mighty rock, upon which both of these others [Zeno and Leibniz] have come to grief.” Behind their misconceptions was the “imperfect idea of a sort of round globule having two surfaces distinct from one another, an idea they have acquired through the senses; although, if they were asked if they had made this supposition, they would deny that they had done so.”
Perhaps the most striking and counterintuitive postulate of Boscovich’s theory was that there is no universal time, only local time. At the level of force-points, there is only local time relative to two points. Time in the context of a single force-point does not exist, for Boscovich’s theory. Time is a strictly relative feature of localities between at least two points, and in the case of sensory objects, great masses of points.
The same is true for space, which Boscovich considered highly analogous to time. Spatially, a solid rod, measuring two precise and distinct points, cannot be rotated in space to measure the same distance between two new points, as it cannot be proven, without circular reasoning, that the rod has not been bent during its rotation. Just as there is a space only relative to the rod, there can be no absolute measure of time, without circular reasoning.
There is no actual space or actual time but only “real local modes.” While these force-points are objective and real, and are the only references of “time,” they are not centers of time awareness (or sensation generally), at least not for the author of the Theoria. Above all, what Boscovich wanted to say about time is that it is not a continuum consisting of many points; rather, it is a relation between two or more discrete force points. Thus the smallest particle of time is not a time atom (an indivisible length of time) but instead a “tempescule,” a “continuous progressive movement in which some intervals are parts of other intervals,” since there is a potential to insert an infinite number of points between any two points, no matter how close the time points are together. Space extends in three directions between points of space, whereas time has but one direction. The apparently continuous line of time actually consists in the progressive movement of the present.
Without saying so directly, Boscovich accused his critics and fellows of a “fallacy of division.” They had reasoned that what is true of macroscopic objects is true of their most basic constituents. Namely, because larger composite objects are extended, solid, impenetrable, and in contact with each other, elemental objects must also be extended, solid, impenetrable, and in contact with each other. This transfer of properties from whole to part, with only the senses (especially the tactile sensation of solidity) as evidence, was logically illicit.
Similarly, the elemental nature of time and space cannot be arrived at by the senses, according to Boscovich. The ultimate nature of the force-points can never be fully comprehended. The senses cannot be the ultimate jury of reality, as the case of Copernicus had shown. Likewise, the nature of the force-points cannot be deduced from properties of macroscopic objects. What seems certain to the senses may be overthrown by science.
Thus Boscovich founded the point-particle family of atomism. Even for readers in the 21st century, such relativity may be appreciated for its precociousness.
Boscovich and Spinoza’s Metaphysics of Substance
Almost every intellectual pursuit during Boscovich’s lifetime revolved around the perceived cultural twin threats of Spinoza and Newton (determinism and materialism, respectively). To Boscovich’s disadvantage, it has been almost completely overlooked that Boscovich’s theory of force-points rejected both Spinoza’s concept of “substance” and Newton’s corpuscular atomism, the roots of both being traceable to Descartes. At one fell swoop Boscovich rid the general literate public of its twin threats but did so by completely overturning the testimony of the five senses.
Ironically, among the reading public, a growing concern became Boscovich’s own theory: Even though the author insisted that his force-points were not centers of spirit, conation, emotion, cognition, or any of the like, many among his readers and the general public worried that some future thinker would modify the theory in precisely that manner. Though Boscovich was an ardent and committed Christian and an outstanding member of the Society of Jesus, his theories were atheist- scientific in interpretation.
In the Appendix on Mind and God to the Theoria, Boscovich argued that force-points cannot be construed as spirits and that time is linear, not circular. First, spirits are immaterial and cannot be spatially or temporally locatable, as must be forcepoints. Second, because the number of force-points is infinite, there is no mathematical necessity for time to eternally recur. To avoid a version of the theory now called “eternal recurrence,” Boscovich argued that there is no definite number of forcepoints, that instead their number is infinite.
For the reader of the Theoria, these rebuttals are unconvincing. In the first case, readers knew quite well that consciousness (and with it the soul) might easily become only another sort of wavelength in Boscovich’s physics. This would reject the Cartesian dualism in concert with Christianity, to the advantage of a monism of a universal singular force in no way identifiable as the traditional God. Here Boscovich introduced something of a deus ex machina into his physics, as his theory of force accounted for all physical relations as properties of force-points at varying distances. In the second case, readers remembered that Boscovich’s law of force postulated that there are no actual infinities in nature. By introducing an actual infinity of points, he violated his own theory. Further, Boscovich introduced another deus ex machina into his physics by arguing that an “infinite determinator” would choose against eternal recurrence, in any case, because an infinite determinator would want linear, not circular, time. To the careful reader of the Theoria, however, these rebuttals by Boscovich rang hollow before the specter of soul, time, and God being reduced to sets of force-points.
Boscovich in Relation to Kant and Schelling
The relation of Boscovich to Kant is exceptionally complex, and it must suffice here to remark that both Boscovich and Kant sought to occupy a position situated between Newton and Leibniz, but without repeating their mistakes. There the similarities largely end, though, for the paths of discovery followed by Boscovich and Kant diverged for decades.
The elder Boscovich knew of Kant’s arguments against his point-particle atomism and was not convinced. In fact, Boscovich drew nothing from the young Kant into the original Theoria and mentioned the objection from Kant (not by name) in a later edition only to include a summary of arguments against his own position.
In his Supplements I and II, Boscovich drew a distinction between “space and time” and “space and time as we know them.” Significantly, though, he did so adopting neither a cumbersome metaphysic of faculties nor a distinction between nou- mena and phenomena. Thus Boscovich’s theory would have been a valuable asset to Johann Gottfried von Herder, an opponent of Kant’s metaphysics, who did not know of the former. Moses Mendelssohn, another critic of Kant who knew of Boscovich’s theory, found Boscovich’s theory worthy of public endorsement.
Within the rather alien German Idealist tradition, oddly, Boscovich found another adherent. In his philosophy of nature, Friedrich W. J. Schelling employed Boscovich’s Theoria precisely to avoid the metaphysics of both Spinoza and Newton (along with that of Leibniz). Almost certainly, Schelling would have come into contact with the ideas of the Theoria while Kant’s student at Königsberg. At that time, the young Kant was working out a theory of force, which would occupy him off and on until his last works. In his dissertation, Kant had reviewed and modified the theories of force from a wide range of naturalists and physicists. The exclusion of Boscovich is remarkable; apparently Kant was not yet settled in his own mind about the Theoria.
Kant certainly knew of Boscovich and his cultural “danger”: Moses Mendelssohn had made that obvious to the German literate public. In his last years, Kant still wrestled with Boscovich in Metaphysics of the Groundwork of Natural Sciences around the ancient questions of motion and direct contact. As was his wont in this case, Kant never explicitly mentioned Boscovich. But identifiable ideas in Kant’s thinking were originally and uniquely from Boscovich. In Metaphysics of the Groundwork of Natural Sciences, Kant’s final word was a theory of force based on force-points much closer to that of Boscovich than to the theory of Leibniz.
After Schelling, the overt influence of Boscovich on German thought would come primarily with Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, in which the author lauded Boscovich as another Copernicus in usurping the world of sense-driven appearances (by destroying the last remnant of solid, extended matter). Nietzsche employed the force-points of Boscovich not only as centers of physical force but also of conation and sensation, even of temporal registry. This evolved quickly into Nietzsche’s own theory of will to power. An early and foundational note from 1873, the “time atomism fragment,” sketched precisely these modifications of Boscovich’s point-particle theory into Nietzsche’s own theory of force-points. Yet the influence of the Theoria on Nietzsche’s philosophy went unnoticed except for a crucial study (in German) by scholar Karl Schlechta and physicist Anni Anders in the 1960s. Since the 1990s, though, awareness of Boscovich’s role in Nietzsche’s work has become widespread. Although Boscovich was one of a large number of scientific influences on Nietzsche, his theory of force was by far more central than the others.
In any case, Boscovich will be remembered as a point-particle theorist and as a philosopher of nature.
See also God and Time; Johann Gottfried von Herder; Immanuel Kant; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von; Materialism; Metaphysics; Isaac Newton; Friedrich Nietzsche; Baruch de Spinoza; Spacetime Continuum; Relativity of Time; Zeno of Elea
Boscovich, R. J. (1966). A theory of natural philosophy. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hesse, M. B. (1962). Forces and fields: The concept of action at a distance in the history of physics. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Whitlock, G. (1998). Examining Nietzsche’s “Time atom theory” fragment from 1873. Nietzsche-Studien. Internationales Jahrbuch für Nietzsche Forschung, 26. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Whitlock, G. (1998). Reexamining Nietzsche’s relation to Roger Joseph Boscovich. In B. E. Babich & R. S. Cohen (Eds.), Nietzsche’s writings in epistemology and philosophy of science, vols. 1 & 2. Boston: Kluwer Academic.
Whitlock, G. (2003). Moses Mendelssohn and the German reception of Roger Boscovich’s Theoria. Pli: Warwick Journal of Philosophy 14, 106-128.