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The Dematerialization of Matter

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2022

Norwood Russell Hanson*
Indiana University


1. The philosophical version of the primary-secondary distinction concerns (a) the ‘real’ properties of matter, (b) the epistemology of sensation, and (c) a contrast challenged by Berkely as illusory.

The scientific version of the primary-secondary distinction concerns (a′) the physical properties of matter, (b′) a contrast essential within the history of atomism, and (c′) a contrast challenged by 20th century microphysics as de facto untenable.

2. The primary-secondary distinction within physics can be interpreted in two ways:

a. it can refer to content; e.g. ‘Matter has the properties of mass, shape, density… etc. — it only appears to have the properties of warmth, fragrance, etc.’ Or,

b. it can refer to form; e.g. ‘Whatever properties our best theories accord to primary matter, e.g., electrons, these are by definition primary. All other properties of, e.g., macromatter, are derivative.’

Concerning 2.a., this interpretation is simply false when 17th, 18th, or 19th century values for the property-variables are introduced. Concerning 2.b., this either uninformative or misleading. It is uninformative when it constitutes no more than a decision to use the word ‘primary’ as an umbrella-word for all the properties contemporary micro-physics accords to fundamental material particles, whatever these may be. It is misleading when it turns on an implicit contrast between certain properties particles may be said to have when ‘harnessed’ to a detector, and certain other properties these particles have when free and unharnessed to any detector. This contrast does not exist. Quantum-theoretic information is always about particles-and-their-detectors-in-combination. Dissolve this combination and you destroy any possible knowledge of the particle. Hence the notion of ‘completely objectifiable properties of particles’ is in principle unsound. (Cf. Hanson, American Journal of Physics, 27 January, 1959).

Research Article
Copyright © Philosophy of Science Association 1962

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This paper was read in the symposium “Philosophy of Physics” at the 1961 meeting of the American Philosophical Association (Western Division).


1 W. Whewell, Astronomy and General Physics (London, 1834), pp. 211–12.

2 Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (A49, A1, section 45).

3 Theaetetus, 156e.

4 Opere, vol, IV, pp. 333 ff.

5 Essay (London, 1726), Book II, chapter 8, section 23.

6 Heisenberg, Die Antike, vol. VIII.

7 Boyle, Works (London, 1744), vol. III, p. 15.

8 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things (Oxford), Book II, p. 98, lines 703 ff.

9 Op. cit. Book II, pp. 94 ff., lines 842 ff.

10 Bacon, Works (London, 1824), Aphorism xxiii, vol. VIII, p. 222.

11 Birch, History of the Royal Society (London, 1756–7), vol. III, pp. 247 ff.

12 Stumpf, Uber den Psychologischen Urstrung der Raumvorstellung (Leipzig, 1873) p. 22.

13 Newton, Principia, p. xviii.

14 Euler, Anleitung zur Naturlehre (in Opere Posthuma, II, Leipzig and Berlin, 1911), vol. VI, section 50.

15 Heimholtz, Über die Erhaltung der Kraft.

“Divest matter of its powers of resisting and moving … and we can no longer reason upon it with any distinctness.” (Op. cit. loc. cit.)