What Material Is.Let’s start with

What Material Is.Let’s start with what we know. “Material” means “something that can make something”. When my Mom goes to Jo Ann Fabrics to get material, she buys cloth so she can make into quilts. When I go to Home Depot to get material, I get boards so I can make crown molding.


Distinction 1.

When I’m at Home Depot, I might also buy a hammer, finishing nails, and a DeWalt compound mitre saw (someday…). but I call the saw or the hammer “tools” and not “materials”- but yet I do say that a hammer or a saw is “something that can make something”, so have to make a qualification to my original account of “material”. It seems enough for now to point out that “materials” become the thing that is made, whereas tools don’t.

distinction 2.

Materials become what is made, but not always in the same way. Cloth becomes clothing by being cut up and given a new shape, as do my moulding boards. Nails and paint and thread, however, aren’t given a new shape so much as they are put in a certain place (give a nail a new shape when you pound it, and you’re usually in trouble). Now the first kinds of things tend to be called “materials” more readily, even though the second kind are also so called. Again, the first kinds of things undergo a certain change in shape, and so the things that undergo this are most properly “material”. What is common to both the first things and the second things is that some process or activity has to be put upon them, some process to which they are passive.

Distinction 3.

Materials become something else, and so considered as material they are indeterminate. The degree of this indetermination is not always the same. A crown moulding board is more or less only good to be turned into crown moulding, although it could become something else. An eight-foot two by four, however, can become a great many things. This determination must come from another (the carpenter, etc.)- and so we may say that in a certain sense material is wholly indeterminate, since it does not get determination to something from itself, but from another

Distinction 4

Material is capable of being regarded in two ways: per se and per accidens. We have dealt with material per se up until now. Per accidens, however, we may look at material as having a certain determination. The two by four can be regarded not as an undetermined thing that becomes a something else, but rather simply as a two by four. It is a thing which we buy for X number of dollars and load into a truck. When we consider it in this way, however, we are not considering it as material, but rather as a determinate thing with certain properties. In fact, the two by four might be viewed as the thing that came to be from a certain kind of material, namely the tree, or simply from wood.

Distinction 5

We can also distinguish among material something persistent and something non-persistent. A two by four might be said to come to be from either a tree, or from wood. The frame of the house might be said to come to be either from the a.) an eight foot two-by four, or b.) from wood, or c.) from the two by four as cut and/ or positioned and fastened or d.) from the tree.

a.) may remain or may not remain, depending on whether we identify it with c.)
b.) remains simply speaking.
c.) c remains simply, although in a way that can be distinguished from b.)
d.) does not remain.

Distinction 6

What comes to be from art must presuppose some given quality of a natural thing- wood is firm and keeps its shape, yet soft enough to take a nail. In other words, some quality of things occurring naturally is presupposed to all of the things we use as material. We encounter certain natural givens and use these givens to our advantage. Yet these things we take as givens could not be givens to the nature from which they come to be- otherwise they would have to exist before they came to be. What our art takes as a given is term from which we work- but it is a term to which the nature of the thing works. This terminal point is the dividing line between our art, and the work of nature. We are simply incapable by definition of ever having our art pierce through to the other side of this term.

We are, therefore, incapable of making something that “has a nature” in the same sense as natural things have a nature. What we make will always carry with it certain natural givens- i.e. the nature of something that is not reachable by our art. What comes to be from us is incapable of being one in the same way that natural things are one- or of “having a nature” in the same exact way that natural things have a nature.


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