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Who is Democritus? - Contributions to Philosophy & Experiments

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  • 0:01 Who Was Democritus?
  • 0:38 Seeking Knowledge
  • 1:15 Using Reason
  • 2:11 Contributions
  • 3:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

The life and contributions of the Golden Age Greek Democritus will be explored in this lesson. We'll touch upon his philosophy about life and his contributions to mathematics and the social sciences.

Who Was Democritus?

Democritus was a scholar of the Greek Golden Age, born in approximately 460 BCE, twenty years after the Battle of Salamis, in the city of Abdera. Democritus is considered by some to be the father of science because he and his mentor, Leucippus, were both materialists, or someone who believed that there were natural laws that governed all actions. Democritus was also remembered as 'The Laughing Philosopher' and among his fellow Abderans as 'The Mocker.'

Seeking Knowledge

Democritus is often pictured as laughing. Abderans believed he was mocking the follies of men, but none of the maxims about him or from him say anything about his contempt for other people. Instead, there is one clear message: a love of learning and understanding. During his youth, Democritus traveled to India, Egypt, and other places in search of knowledge. Legend has it that he even blinded himself so that he would not be distracted from his pursuit of knowledge and understanding. That's probably a little excessive and not really true, but it seems reasonable that he might have gone blind in old age.

Using Reason

Following Leucippus, Democritus believed that the world could not be explained simply through the senses. He called any knowledge like that bastard knowledge, because it was knowledge that had not been filtered with reason. For example, most people would have seen the sun rise in the East and set in the West and then concluded that the sun was moving.

In his view, legitimate knowledge used all the senses, but then had to be elaborated on through reasoning. From the obvious, a person could come to understand the not-so-obvious in a process used today in science called inductive reasoning. To take the sun observation a step further, Democritus noticed other things that didn't fall into that observation. A ship sailing away would eventually disappear and that suggested that the Earth was curved. Days grew longer and shorter with the season. These observations made better sense if it wasn't the sun that was moving, but the Earth.

Contributions

Democritus is famously believed to have said, 'Nothing exists except atoms and empty space. Everything else is opinion.' His most famous idea is known as atomism, which states that all things are made up of basic parts that cannot be broken down any further. Modern science has confirmed his hypothesis concerning atoms and their status as the building blocks of all matter. The discovery of the positron, neutron, and electron, however, has proven that they aren't exactly indivisible though.

Democritus was often cited in the ancient world for his contributions to mathematics, especially in the field of geometry. He was one of the first people to discover that the cone's volume was one-third that of a cylinder of the same length and base size.

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