From the elements of nature to the chemical elements
"Elements" and "atoms" are two basic ways of describing the nature of matter through human history. The concept of "elements" developed out of and reflects primarily the "touch"-will experience of man, while the concept of "atoms" primarily reflects the "sight"-thought experience of man.

The "elements" of nature in the traditional sense "are" what since long ago in history (at least 2,300 years ago, since Greek Antiquity) were called "earth", "water", "air" and "fire".

These four terms were used to describe the basic components of the world as it was experienced, for a very long time, as something that "lived" between the basic touch experiences of degrees of warmth and humidity. While the touch qualities were described as "secondary" qualities, the elements were described as "primary" qualities of nature.

For a further discussion of the four elements, see an article on the concept of "Science" from a Philosophy of Science perspective.

A more "atoms"-oriented understanding and perspective on substances has developed only over the last 200 years, leading to the development and use of the term "chemical elements" to describe the basic elemental substances from the perspective of the number of protons in the core or nucleus of their atoms.

"Elements" and "atoms" constitute the two basic perspectives of substances, the first more reflecting the dynamic aspects of matter, the second more reflecting possible static aspects of matter.

Waldorf schools through the grades try to mediate an understanding of the development of humanity. In the lower grades the teacher builds an understanding of the "elements of nature", the basic dynamic aspects of matter, corresponding to an historically earlier perspective on human beings and nature. The Greeks are a major emphasis of Grade 5, and the Four Elements of the Greek philosophers would be taught at this time.

In the upper grades, in chemistry, the idea of elements is developed gradually from Grades 7 through 12 into an ever more differentiated understanding of the nature of substances. This development is done first from a chemical perspective, out of basic chemical processes, and leads finally to an understanding of the character of the different groups of chemical elements as they are reflected in the Periodic Table of chemical elements in Grade 11.

To understand matter in a deeper sense and the different ways it has been approached in history,  philosophy and science, you need both perspectives. Waldorf education tries to build an understanding for both in a systematic way.

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Copyright 2004-2006: Robert Mays and Sune Nordwall