Heisenberg and Atwood Compared

Here are some remarkable points of identity between Heisenberg’s Physics and Philosophy (1954) and Mary Atwood’s Suggestive Inquiry (1850). It is worth pointing out that Heisenberg is no minor figure in modern physics, but contemporaneous with the remaining eminent figureheads of 20th century physics, i.e. Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Planck, Bohm, etc. Atwood is known for compiling an exhaustive survey of the alchemical tradition in connection to the wider continuum of philosophical inquiry. Both have entirely different orientations – indeed, would disagree as to the proper interpretation of the theoretical basis – yet they come out saying the same things, or exceedingly similar things, on very specific topics of abstruse physical processes.

Heisenberg: “…All the elementary particles can, at sufficiently high energies, be transmuted into other particles…All the elementary particles are made of the same substance, which we may call energy or universal matter; they are just different forms in which matter can appear.”

Atwood: “…the true ground of metalline transmutation, and of every other, is the homogeneity of the radical substance of things; and on the alleged fact that metals, minerals, and all diversified natures may be reduced into their common basis or mercurial first matter… nor does ordinary analysis at all discover this Universal Matter of the adepts.”

Heisenberg: “The probability wave was a quantitative version of the old concept of `potentia’ in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.”

Atwood: “Neither should it be considered by any one as incredible that there is a certain pure and divine Matter mediately subsisting between primary and secondary causes and their gross effect. The First Matter is a middle substance partaking of extremes celestial and terrestrial… and though it may seem contradictory so to speak of a fist matter, as of a middle, or third; yet this is done in respect to its generation by active and passive relations whence it proceeds as a third, yet homogeneal from its radix.”

Heisenberg: “When the task is set to test the final unity of matter we may expose matter to the strongest possible forces, to the most extreme conditions, in order to see whether any matter can ultimately be transmuted into any other matter.”

Atwood: “If any skillful minister shall apply force to nature, and, by design, torture and vex it in order to its annihilation, on the contrary, being brought to this necessity, changes and transforms itself into a strange variety of shapes and appearances; And that method of torturing or detaining will prove the most effectual and expeditious which makes use of manacles and fetters; i.e. lays hold and works upon matter in the extremist degree.”

Heisenberg: “All that we perceive in the world around us is formed matter. Matter is in itself not a reality but only a possibility. The matter of Aristotle is certainly not a specific matter like water or air, nor is it simply empty space; it is a kind of indefinite corporeal substratum, embodying the possibility of passing over into actuality by means of the form.”

Atwood: “Form indeed subsists according to quality and body in manifestation; but matter according to the subject which is indefinite, because it is not form. That which receives the forms and reflects them always remains the same, proceeding and receding continually into itself.”*

The last Atwood excerpt is an abbreviation of Plotinus, showing that the idea of matter as an indefinite substrate is not altogether Aristotelian. This is also illustrated in Plato’s Timaeus.


Attraction is the first principle of motion in nature; this is generally admitted, but the origin of this universal attraction is occult and incomprehensible to the ordinary human understanding. Repulsion is the second principle, and a necessary consequence of the first by reaction. Circulation is the third principle, proceeding from the conflict of the former two.

All motion is derived from this threefold source in its reciprocal relations, which are diversified according to its qualifications with the matter. The attraction, repulsion and circulation in the sun and stars move the planets in their orbits; the same principle in each globe performs the rotation on its axis, and the satellites partake the same motion from their primaries. Every quantity of matter, solid, fluid, or gaseous, when separated from the rest by its quality or discontinuity, is possessed individually by the same principles, however infinite the variety of substances, natural or artificial, great or small; vegetable and animal forms and motions are no less evidences of these three principles than the heavenly and earthly bodies. Hence chemical affinity, called Elective Attraction, is ruled by the same laws; and it is found that when two matters unite, one is attractive and the other repulsive; when either attraction or repulsion predominates in a matter, the circulation is in ellipse; but when they are in equilibrium, a circle is produced.

Repulsion, being produced in its origin by attraction, equals it, as reaction equals action: but in nature one principle is everywhere more latent or inert, or weaker than another; and there are degrees accordingly, in which either predominates in external manifestation; hence the different degrees of natural affinity for union.

There are also degrees of strength, from harshness to mildness, and in the operation of the Three Principles, from the compactness of a hard rock to the loose adherence of the particles of a globule of mercury or dew, from explosion to expansion, and from a violent whirling motion to a gentle evolution. But the medium is always in the circulation produced from the action and reaction of centrifugal and centripetal forces, and the equality of these forms a circle, as was before observed, and which labors to harmonize the conflict of these two, and will succeed if the matter be duly qualified for it.

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