The Philosophy of Logical Atomism

The Philosophy of Logical Atomism

The Philosophy of Logical Atomism

The Philosophy of Logical Atomism


The best way to understand a philosophical theory is nearly always to try to appreciate the force of the arguments for it. Logical atomism is no exception. It is a theory about the fundamental structure of reality and so it belongs to the main tradition of western metaphysics. Its central claim is that everything that we ever experience can be analyzed into logical atoms. This sounds like physics but in fact it is metaphysics.

In The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, given as a series of lectures in the winter of 1917–18 and republished in this volume, Russell says that his reason for calling his doctrine logical atomism is because:

the atoms that I wish to arrive at as the sort of last residue
in analysis are logical atoms and not physical atoms. Some
of them will be what I call ‘particulars’—such things as little
patches of colour or sounds, momentary things—and some
of them will be predicates or relations and so on. The point
is that the atom I wish to arrive at is the atom of logical
analysis, not the atom of physical analysis.

His negative point is clear enough: they are not physical atoms. Their positive characterization is not so obvious. What exactly are logical atoms? He tells us that they are particulars, qualities, and relations, and he is evidently

They were first published in The Monist, 1918, and reprinted in Russell: Logic and Knowledge, ed. R.C. Marsh, Allen & Unwin, London 1956.

p. 37.

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