The Ultimate Constitution of Matter

I believe that Aristotle's hylomorphic doctrine (matter and form) is the most difficult of all philosophical doctrines, but I am convinced that it is accurate and highly relevant. But the only way to understand this doctrine is through analogy. An analogy is a ratio of one thing to another. It is a comparison of two things that are the same in one respect, though they are different in other respects. For example, 3 is to 6 as 20 is to 40, or individual person is to the state as a toe is to the body. 20 and 40 are different numbers than 3 and 6, but there is similarity of proportion between them. So too, an individual person is more than a mere part of a whole; for he is a whole unto himself. But his relation to the whole state is similar to the relation of a finger to the entire body, even though there is much that is dissimilar. It is important to keep this in mind when thinking by analogy.

To come to a correct understanding of matter, let us begin by employing an analogy from the realm of art. Consider the bronze block that is sculpted by Auguste Rodin into The Thinker. Recall the doctrine of the four causes: a) agent cause, b) formal cause, c) material cause, and d) final cause. Two of these causes are intrinsic, while two are extrinsic:

Intrinsic causes:

  1. The Material Cause.
  2. The Formal Cause.

Extrinsic causes:

  1. The Efficient (or Agent) Cause.
  2. The Final Cause.

At this point, we will focus solely on the two intrinsic principles (material and formal cause) in order to come to an understanding of the two intrinsic principles of a substance, namely prime matter and substantial form. But understanding these two original principles of a substance is no easy task, which is why we begin by analogy. Let it be said at the beginning that even though we treat bronze as if it is one substance, it is in fact an alloy of three metals (zinc, copper, and tin, in various percentages). For purposes of demonstration, Aristotle calls this matter (that an artist would use) secondary matter -- what the modern science textbook usually refers to as matter, namely that which has mass and extension. The artist approaches the secondary matter, which has the shape (accidental form) of a cube. But the artist has another form in mind, namely the figure of The Thinker. He wishes to impose that form on the secondary matter. The matter (bronze), which is actually a cube, is in potentiality to a new form, namely The Thinker. It is not actually The Thinker yet, only potentially is it The Thinker.

The artist, who is the agent cause, begins his work and a few days later we have The Thinker. The matter has taken on or assumed a new form. It is no longer actually a cube, rather it is actually The Thinker. Still, it is potentially another sculpture. The artist may come along and chisel away at it, giving the matter the form of a banana, or a tree stump, etc.

Secondary matter (in this case, the bronze) is not what Aristotle means ultimately by matter. The reason is that for Aristotle, matter is pure potentiality. But the secondary matter, the bronze, is actually bronze. All secondary matter is actually some thing or substance. Pure matter is not actually anything, as I will try to explain. In the meantime, consider the relationship between the bronze and the various accidental forms that it (the bronze) is open to receiving. The bronze (material cause) is that which remains the same throughout the change. What changes is the form (in this case, the accidental form cube). But it is the bronze that has the form, that is, it is the bronze that is the subject of the form, and thus the subject of the entire change. It is always the material cause that endures (as the subject) throughout a change.

Moreover, the bronze is actually a cube by virtue of the form (cube) it possesses, but the bronze cube is potentially The Thinker not by virtue of the cube (the form), but by virtue of the bronze. It is because the cube exists in the bronze, which is the secondary matter, that it (the bronze cube) is potentially The Thinker. The secondary matter (the bronze) is the source of the thing's potentiality to be another sculpture. Hence, matter is openness to form. The form determines the work of art to be what it is, but it is the matter that is determined by the form. Once again, however, change is only possible because the form exists in matter. No one can change the form of cube to something else until that form exists in some sort of secondary matter, such as bronze, gold, or clay, etc. Matter, then, is the potential principle, and the potential principle is the subject of the form. On the other hand, form is the principle of actuality, that is, the determining principle that gives matter its intelligible structure.

Now let's move on to the realm of substantial change. A substantial change is an absolute change, that is, a change of the entire substance itself. In other words, it is the secondary matter that changes to a completely different substance. Examples of substantial change include the change from wood to ash, bread to living human tissue, iron to rust, etc. Consider the change from iron to rust: Fe changes to Fe2 O3 (Hematite). Iron is a substance. It has certain accidents, such as quantity, quality, place, relativity, etc. As an example of quality, iron is malleable, that is, you can twist it and turn it without breaking it, it can be hammered into sheets, it is ductile, that is, it can be strewn out into wire, and it conducts an electric current.

As secondary matter, iron exists in potentiality to certain accidental forms, such as wire, or the hood of a car, etc. It is the iron that will endure throughout all these accidental changes. But what happens when the iron itself changes? What underlies the change in that case? In other words, what is the underlying matter of a substantial change? What is the subject of the change from iron to rust? In this case, it is not a change of accidental form, such as the shape of the iron. It is the entire substance that is being transformed. The word "transform" is important here, because it indicates precisely what is happening when change occurs. In an accidental change, it is the accidental form that changes while secondary matter endures. In a substantial change, it is the substantial form that changes, while primary matter endures.

What is prime matter? It is the ultimate matter of a material substance, that is, it is pure potentiality. Prime matter receives its intelligible determination from the substantial form of the substance. The substantial form is the intelligible structure of a substance, or as in the case of iron, it is the ironness. Now ironness is just a word, but it expresses the intelligible structure that we apprehend when we know what iron is. The substance iron is itself a composite of prime matter (pure potentiality) and substantial form (the intelligible density or structure), or potency and act.

These two principles, potency and act, are not "things" that one can picture in the imagination. They are principles that can only be understood via analogy. The whole subatance iron is actually something, but potentially something else. It is actually something by virtue of the substantial form, but it is potentially something else by virtue of the prime matter. Or, to put it another way, prime matter is precisely that potentiality of the whole substance to be something else entirely. How are the two principles related? As bronze (secondary matter) is to the accidental form The Thinker, prime matter is to the substantial form ironness. As accidental form Thinker determines the bronze to be the sculpture that it is, the substantial form ironness determines prime matter to be what it is (the substance iron). As secondary matter underlies and is the subject of an accidental change, prime matter underlies and is the subject of substantial change. And just as a bronze statue is potentially something else by virtue of the bronze, a substance is mutable by virtue of its prime matter; for mutability is nothing but the potentiality to be something else. If a substance is potentially something else, for example, if wood is potentially ash, then wood has a potential principle. That potential principle of a substance is what we mean by prime matter.

But, though one can see and touch bronze, or wood, or soap stone, and actually observe the change over time, one cannot see and touch prime matter. And just as one does not find secondary matter without it possessing some sort of accidental form, i.e., planks, or board, or splinters, so too prime matter cannot exist without a substantial form of one kind or another. What exists in the world primarily are substances, which are potency/act unities, that is, composites of prime matter and substantial form. If prime matter, which is pure potentiality, could exist without a substantial form, which is the principle of actuality, then prime matter would not be actually anything. For a substance is actually something determinate and intelligible by virtue of the substantial form. Hence, it is not possible to know prime matter directly.

A Closer Look at Substantial Form

If we come to know a substance, we know what it is. Hence, a substance has a whatness. That is, a substance is always a certain kind of thing. That is why we can ask the question: what is it? In other words, it has form, or eidos (idea). It is has a certain intelligible nature (physis). According to Aristotle, the substantial form is in the substance, not in some separated World of Forms, as we saw in Plato. The substantial form is that principle that determines the substance to be what it is. This is not something that one can imagine or picture, rather it is intelligible. Just as one cannot picture beauty, for beauty is an intelligible idea, not something sensible, so too the substantial form is not something sensible, but is the intelligible content of a substance (i.e., bovine, feline, humanness, ironness, treeness, goldness, etc.) Hence, substantial form is not located in any place, rather, it is the total quantified and qualified substance that has place. The substantial form is not located in any part of the substance, rather, every part of the substance shares in the whole form. For example, every part of my body is human. Also, only an already constituted substance has parts, i.e., sub-atomic parts, molecules, etc. But the substantial form is not a part alongside other parts. It is a principle, not a part. The substantial form is prior to quantity, for it is the formal principle of the whole substance itself. The substance, for example, gold, carbon, hydrogen, or water, has a certain nature (physis), it is a certain kind of thing (genos), it has an essence that I can come to know by studying it. The substantial form is a real principle of a substance, the principle of actuality, the formal principle, or the formal cause of the substance.

A Closer Look at Prime Matter

Keep in mind that substance is not the same as quantity, the first accident of a material substance. Nor is it the same as quality. Quantity and quality, as well as every other accident, can change while the substance remains the same thing. Because iron has the accident of quantity, it has extension, that is, parts outside of parts that can be measured. The substance, though, is not itself the quantity. The substance considered in itself is prior to its quantity. So too is the substantial form; for the quantity of a substance, such as a living thing, may increase or decrease, but the living thing remains the same kind of thing (it is essentially the same thing).

And because the substance has accidental qualities, you and I can now perceive it, for it has color, solidity, smell, lustre, it is smooth, one can twist it, etc.,. These qualities can change, however, while the substance remains the same. A tree can change color, water can change to ice, a plant can begin to smell nice, etc. Hence, quality is a distinct mode of being from substance. Affective qualities enable us to see and perceive a substance. But the qualities inhere in the substance, and so they depend upon the substance just like quantity depends upon and inheres in the substance (there is no large in itself, only large things).

Consider too that one cannot picture the substance in itself. One can only picture the substance when it has sense qualities and quantity and the other accidents. The substance does not exist separately from the accidents. Nevertheless, the substance is distinct from its accidents.

But what is it in the substance that has the substantial form (ironness, or goldness, or feline, etc)? The answer is that it is always matter that has form. It is matter's nature to have, to receive, to be actualized by, to be determined by an act, a form, a determination. In our example above, the iron is not primary matter, for iron is a material substance. But it is prime matter that has the substantial form ironness, and the unity of the two constitutes the substance, which in itself is not something that one can see and touch (one can only see and touch a quantified, qualified substance). The source or principle that renders a new substantial form possible (thus a new substance) is prime matter.

The substance gold is nothing other than prime matter golding, that is, having the substantial form of gold. The substance iron is nothing other than prime matter ironing. Without prime matter, the substantial form of gold would be unchanging, because forms in themselves do not change. But the substance gold is mutable. Iron, too, changes to rust. The mutability of substances is nothing other than their potentiality to absolute change. This radical potentiality is what prime matter is.

Can one see prime matter? No, one can only see a qualified/quantified substance. Can one measure prime matter? No, one can only measure what is quantified. Can one see substantial form? No, one can only see a qualified/quantified substance. Can one measure substantial form? No, one can only measure a quantified substance. How do I know a substantial form is there if I can't see it? If there was no substantial form, one could not know what the substance is that one is trying to measure. Where is the substantial form located in a substance? It is not located anywhere. What has location is the whole quantified/qualified substance, or the internal parts of a substance, like the heart or liver. Location is place, an accident of an already constituted material substance. If the form is nowhere, could it be everywhere in the substance? Yes, the whole substance is gold, every part is gold. The form is found in every part, just as the substantial form of man is found in every part of man.

Why Reductionistic Materialism is Insufficient as an Explaination of Matter

Some people think that the parts determine a thing to be what it is. For example, some think that DNA determines man to be what he is. But this cannot be. "Parts" belongs to the accident of quantity. One part is not another part, which is not another part, which is not another part, etc. Your arm is not your leg, this cell is not that cell, etc. But the substantial form exists whole in every part. For example, your finger is not partially human, but wholly human. Your toe is not partially human, but wholly human. Hence, the form is not the parts. You have one form (you are one kind of thing), but many parts. Hence, atoms donŐt make things to be what they are, neither do cells, nor DNA, etc. Rather, the substantial form determines you to be what you are. Also, parts do not unify themselves anymore than the parts of an army unify themselves. Rather, they are unified by a unifying principle. A unifying principle is not many - that would be a contradiction. A unifying principle is one, but the parts are many. The unifying principle of a living organism is the substantial form. Now the substantial form of an organism cannot be many, otherwise a thing would "actually" be many things, which is a contradiction.

Let's look at this in more detail. Quantity is the first accident of a material substance. Quantity is not itself the substance, otherwise a change in quantity would amount to a change in substance. In itself the substance is not extended. It is capable of extension, but the substance becomes actually extended only through the accident of quantity. Matter, considered primarily, is not that which has mass and extension. Rather, that which has mass and extension is an already constituted substance (a matter/form unity). That which has mass and extension is an intelligible thing or substance, which itself is a potency/act unity. This thing or substance considered in itself is not something that the empiriological sciences can explain or even investigate directly. This is the first point that all mechanistic explanations fail to realize. The mechanistic approach takes quantified material substance for granted and attempts to explain the material world on that level alone. This makes for good science, but bad philosophy.

To get a better handle on this, consider that quantity is divided into continuous quantity (extension) and discrete quantity. Everything in the sensible world has size or extension. Any sensible object is spread out in the three dimensions of length, breadth, and thickness. As was said, the substantial form (nature) of the substance is found whole and entire in every part of the thing's extension (i.e., every part of a man's body is human, and every part of the iron is equally metal). Its extension, on the other hand, is not found whole and entire in each part. Rather, one part is not found in another, but outside the other. Every part of the human body will possess the same substantial nature as any other part, but not the same extension. The parts really coincide in nature substantially; but they do not coincide in their extension, for each part really lies outside the others. Hence, the substance is not the parts, nor the totality of parts that constitute the thing's extension or quantity. The substance has parts, but is not the sum of its parts.

Parts are divided into heterogeneous (i.e., bone, marrow, muscle, nerves) or homogeneous (as in iron or gold). Now it is not the bone, the muscle, nerves etc., that make up the human substance. These parts are already human parts; that is, they are parts of a human thing (person). The parts receive their nature, their intelligible structure (form) from the form of the substance, not vice versa. For example, it is not the DNA that makes up the substance. The DNA is part of a human cell, and it is already human DNA. It is the whole substance that determines the parts to be what they are.

The habit that inclines us to conceive of this the other way around (i.e., parts determining the whole substance) simply comes from the world of artifacts. We build things, for instance, as children we built things with blocks, Lego, and later on we build bookshelves, furniture, etc. But when it comes to constructing anything artificially, the parts that will determine the thing we are building pre-exist the whole. We have the Lego pieces in front of us, then we proceed to add part outside of part, increasing the quantity of parts, eventually building a wall, a floor, a roof, etc., until the whole comes into being. The whole is the result of bringing together the pre-existing parts, thus the whole is a conglomeration of parts. The artifact, however, is not really one entity, that is, it is not substantially one. It is not a thing in itself, or a substance. Rather it is accidentally one. The parts that make up the whole are themselves distinct substances. In other words, artifacts do not have a substantial nature that is whole and entire in every part. My computer screen is glass, the back of my computer is metal, etc.

The problem with atomism is that it treats what is radically and substantially one as if it were accidentally one, that is, as something that is merely the sum of its parts. But a dog, for example, is radically one, that is, it is one substance with one nature, found entire in every part of the dog. The paw is not partially canine, while the tail is partially canine, etc. Rather, every part is wholly canine, and every part is part of the whole dog. The substantial form of the dog is the principle that determines the whole dog to be what it is, namely a living sentient canine substance. Its DNA is responsible for the inheritable traits of the dog, but DNA is not prior to the whole, but posterior. The parts of a natural substance are not prior to the substance, but consequent upon the whole, that is, parts of the whole. And so it is the whole that determines the parts.

Moreover, atomism tends to beg the question. Consider the attempt to explain the whole by appealing to its material parts. The material parts, however, need explanation. If the matter is explained by appealing to its parts, how are the parts to be explained? If one continues to appeal to something outside the thing one are trying to explain, one will never end up explaining the thing one is trying to explain. Eventually one will have to come up against one thing that exists in itself -- remember, for the atomist, the cat is not a thing in itself, the atom is the thing in itself. But the atom itself needs explaining. How do we explain its intelligibility and its mutability? If we appeal to its parts, as if the atom were nothing but the sum of its parts and not a thing in itself, then we are left having to explain these parts. If we maintain that there is an actual infinity of constituents, then there is nothing that exists in itself. In the end, everything is simply a potential something, but not an actual anything. Everything is outside of itself, as a painting is something outside of its matter. And just as a painting has no intrinsic intelligibility, but has only what we re-cognize (a dog does not recognize its master in a photo, but a person recognizes his brother), similarly, the universe will have no intrinsic intelligibility or meaning.

Next Page: Chapter 17: A Brief Glance at Reductionism
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26