A reader writes:
I recently bought a book on Thomism called “A Christian Philosophy,” and it’s some pretty heavy stuff! Would you mind answering a few of my questions about substance, matter, and form?
On the one hand, all I can do is wait for the questions. On the other hand, there is a preliminary remark to any discussion of the key terms of perennial philosophy. There are two fundamentally different ways of looking at philosophical terms, which correspond to the main division in the history of thought between the via antiqua and the via moderna. The via moderna feels most natural to us, but we have to learn a new way of looking at terms to see what substance, matter and form are.
The modern way wants clarity and distinctness in terms from the very beginning. This tends to make definitions either too simplistic or overly obscure. When those of us with modern mindsets try to define the terms given by perennial philosophy we are tempted to say “what exists in itself and not another” or “that which underlies accidents and confers being upon them”, (both accounts are both obscure and too simplistic- obscure by their wording and simplistic because they can’t account for the subtle nature of an integral part, like a foot or a hand). This is something like the old thomistic manual approach- which pproved fatal to the manuals since the words were seen as part of a specialized vocabulary as opposed to being drawn from our immediate concrete experience.
Unlike us, the ancients or medievals did not experience the terms in their philosophy as jargon. When we come across words like “matter” in ancient texts, we first ask “what is matter?”. For us, the word is jargon, and all one can do with jargon is seek a precise sense. To ask a Greek contemporary of Aristotle “what is matter” would have been a silly question- the word for ”matter” (hyle) simply meant “lumber”- but everyone knows what lumber is, and if not a few examples are enough to grasp what it is you are talking about. “Hyle” is not jargon in Greek. Neither is “organon” or “syllogism” or “substance” or “predication”. Aristotle often began with a consideration of concretely given artifacts- lumber, tools, signet rings, medical instruments, and medicine, words- and moved from the artifact to nature. He started with a concrete, easy to understand term which then grew to take on more abstract meanings, though it would never loose its reference to the real which consisted in its ability to be led back to the concrete.
The difficulty in explaining the word “matter”, or in Greek, ”lumber” is that in English the word “lumber” can’t take on the same number of later, more subtle meanings that it can take on in Greek. It’s helpful to compare it to an English word that can take on many later, more subtle meanings, like ”paper”. Everyone knows what paper is- but consider all the shades of meaning it takes on in phrases like or “do you have your papers?” or “it looks good on paper” or “We need to get this on paper” or “you get all the paper rights you want in Communist countries” etc. All these are very subtle, later meanings of the word “paper” but a native English speaker will grasp them straightaway. This is how perennial philosophy heard the terms that are translated as “substance” or “form” or “matter”. They could understand later meanings in light of a concrete artifact whose name was particularly good (for whatever reason) at taking on more abstract meanings. The via antiqua lived off of words that started off as concrete and obvious, but could grow to the abstract. This “growth of a word” is what is now called “analogy” or “an analogous term”.
Words that can grow- or words that are one by analogy- were the beating heart of the via antiqua. What is called “perennial philosophy”, of which thomism is the most illustrious representative and closest approximation, intentionally sought to express itself in growing words. The via moderna, which starts with William of Ockham, intentionally denied the value of such words. On their account, a words most have one meaning or they are worthless for philosophy or any other kind of discourse. Hence the dogmatic insistence on total clarity, and a single meaning of terms from the beginning. By the time Descartes comes along, this sort of approach to philosophy is taken for granted. The philosopher is called upon to create the whole “philosophical world“ with bright yellow lines setting apart terms with one and only one meaning. The use of analogous terms used to allow a way to transition from the concrete, sensible world to the abstract world- but with these terms definitively thrown out, all philosophy became either overly concrete and unable to transition to the intelligible (Empiricism, Positivism, and much of Analytic thought… or anything English) or it became overly abstract and alienated from any roots in experience.
Thomism demands that we see a great value in terms that can grow from concrete to the abstract. If we can’t experience this growth in our own use of the term, we have to come to see it as a term that grows. We have to hear matter growing from “lumber” to “that which is changing per se”. This is the first thing we need to see about words like “substance” and “matter” and “form”.