In 1777, Joseph Priestley wrote a book called Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit, in which he says:

It is maintained in this treatise, that neither matter nor spirit (meaning by the latter the subject of sense and thought) correspond to the definitions above mentioned. For that matter is not that inert substance that it has been supposed to be; that powers of attraction or repulsion are necessary to its very being, and that no part of it appears to be impenetrable to other parts. I therefore, define it to be a substance possessed of the property of extension, and of powers of attraction or repulsion.

From what I understand, both Descartes and Newton believed matter is "inert", or has "no power of its own" until an outside force causes it to go into motion. Priestley talks about both men in his essay. Was Priestley describing fundamental interactions the only way he knew how?

  • $\begingroup$ According to Priestley's time science or according to modern science ? $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2016 at 11:33
  • $\begingroup$ Hello @MauroALLEGRANZA. I'd like to know according to modern science, but giving Priestley a little leeway since there is no way he could have known what we've discovered. Basically, I'm wondering if he was on the right track, or if he was right but limited to the available vocabulary of his time. If there's a way this question could be better worded to give that sense, please feel free to edit it. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – Cannabijoy
    Oct 7, 2016 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ According to modern point of view : YES, matter is endowed with interactions. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2016 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, I knew that =) I don't know why I even asked, but I needed confirmation. Perhaps a better question would be "Was Priestley the first to theorize fundamental interactions". Thank you @MauroALLEGRANZA. If you'd like to summerize this I'll make it the accepted answer. $\endgroup$
    – Cannabijoy
    Oct 7, 2016 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ The "inert matter" notion goes back to Aristotle and neo-Platonics, but even before them some pre-Socratics, like Empedocles and atomists, imbued matter with motive powers. This became popular again in the 17th century e.g. in Descartes's natural philosophy as well as Newton's. Priestley, like Hartley before him, was a devout Newtonian. However, relating this to the modern notion of "fundamental interactions" is a big stretch. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Oct 7, 2016 at 19:22


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