In Lucretious poem De Natura, he has

They [atoms] move through the void

In contemporary usage a vacuum is the the removal of all matter from space, it stems from Latin adjective vacuus for empty or void. What I am curious about is what was then (in Antiquity) understood by the void.

My understanding is that the greek atomists were forced to their theory by critiquing Parmenides monism where he denied the existence of the void (that is, is not) in his poem Of Nature:

the one, that is and that is not not to be,


but the other, that is not and that must not be,

this, I tell you, is a path wholly without report:

for neither could you apprehend what is not, for it is not to be accomplished,

nor could you indicate it.


but nothing it is not

It certainly seems that the Ash'arite atomists in Islamic Philosophy (the Falsafa) seemed to go that step further: understanding that space is something they atomised it too.

Certainly in contemporary physics there is no void. Space itself is something. Similarly in contemporary mathematics, for example: zero or nothing was first understood prosaically and negatively as the lack of something, and is now understood positively as a process (that is functionally), as the identity of the system within which these numbers inhabit. Another example: a manifold was first thought of inside euclidean space, this is the extrinsic view; now via a cut by Occams Razor a more parsimonius view, the more elegant view, is to remove the extrinsic euclidean space, this stage within which the manifold is placed and enacted and view it intrinsically, that is solely for-itself and in-itself.

Is there any evidence that any followers of Parmenides asserted this, that is Space is a something? Certainly it seems the obvious thing to assert if we take Parmenides seriously.


2 Answers 2


Space as an objective, sui generis reality was held by

  1. the ancient atomists
  2. Descartes (with his res extensa, "extended substance")
  3. Newton (with his geometric substance, which he endowed with divine attributes)

For a discussion on the plenum and the vacuum according to the ancient atomists, and how they were ulta-realists about the reality of absolute space, see P. Duhem's Système du monde, vol. 1, pp. 33-5 or D. Nys's La notion d'espace, ch. 1.


There's quite an apt paragraph in The Writings of Chuang Tzu, dating from the 4th century BCE :-

Starlight asked Non-entity, saying, 'Master, do you exist? or do you not exist?' He got no answer to his question, however, and looked stedfastly to the appearance of the other, which was that of a deep void. All day long he looked to it, but could see nothing; he listened for it, but could hear nothing; he clutched at it, but got hold of nothing.* Starlight then said, 'Perfect! Who can attain to this? I can (conceive the ideas of) existence and non-existence, but I cannot (conceive the ideas of) non-existing non-existence, and still there be a non-existing existence. How is it possible to reach to this?'

* A quotation from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 14.

The OP asks for "any philosophers in Antiquity". While obviously not greek, The Tao Te Ching (6th c. BCE) and Chuang Tzu (4th c. BCE) are quite contemporaneous with Parmenides, (5th c. BCE). Also, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose these ideas could travel.

The quoted text certainly seems to directly meditate upon the existence of space, rather than its non-existence. Elsewhere in the Tao Te Ching the void is a rather key phenomenon -- almost "the womb of possibility". However, it is difficult to gauge modern interpretation in the process of translation. (A chinese version can be found here.)

  • Great answer. Ancient Chinese philosophy counts as philosophy in antiquity - though the term does usualy seem to refer to Greek philosophy. Mar 3, 2014 at 12:38

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