Matter and Form Part II

Since in the first sense of matter or the material a thing is characterized by indetermination, we can consider it in two ways: either according to the indetermination as such, or according to the one determination that it happens to have now. In the first sense, we consider a two by four in relation to everything that it could make or become; in the second, we consider it as a wooden thing that happens to have a certain shape.

Matter can either be determined by only one form, or by many successively. As far as we know, there exists no matter which can only be one thing, which would require that the thing be eternal, for it could never break into a new shape, rot, be scattered, or be made into something else. The ancients belived- on good evidence- that the stars and planets were made of a matter that was determined to one thing, but that hypothesis was disproven.

Matter, then, while it may happen to be this thing, never looses its nature as a principle of becoming something else. When we consider something as material, we precind from considering it as a determinite thing- with a determinite shape, position, color, texture, even existence. Matter is a certain infinity; it can be this or that or some other thing. Matter, as such, is not fixed to any one particular.



  1. July 30, 2006 at 11:02 am

    Can you clear something up for me? – going to play the devil’s advocate here. With the advent of modern physics (and chemistry) this idea of a infinity of potency (matter) as an underlying is not really necessary.
    As an example, take a bell jar filled with a certain fixed amount of air (which is a certain fixed amount of Oxygen and NItrogen). Put also in the jar something to burn – of a certain fixed mass. Burn it. The mass of the total is the same as before, the molecules can be counted, and they are the same as before. But the thing burned has changed. You could say that its matter has taken on a new form (burnt). Or you could say that there has been a change in the configuration of its parts – namely the joining of oxygen to the parts it already had.
    If the configuration of parts is sufficient to explain the change, and if matter and form seem to be a notional distinction that assists us in understanding the world, but does not seem to determine the world, then wouldn’t Occam’s razor take care of matter-form?

  2. shulamite8810 said,

    July 30, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    I’m glad someone raised this objection- even though I suspect you already know at least the outline of the response- because it forces us to be clear about what we mean by matter and form. In every change, something newcomes to be from something else. The “something new” I call here “form”and the from something else” I call material or matter. Very often, the something new is nothing more than a new position or place. For example, the only difference between the board that we call “building material” and the thing we call a “building” is the position of the board. The only new thing that comes to be is a new place for the board. The board, taken along with its ability to be in a certain place, is called the material or matter. When it’s in the house, we don’t call it building material any more, or at least not qua building.

    The upshot of this is that the English word “material” describes something absolutely necessary for change as such, and it necessarily relates to a certain determination, which I here call “form”. Taken in this sense, trying to explain everything by “matter” without form amounts to trying either to explain every change by only the term from which, and/or saying that a change involves nothing new (denial of form). There is also a sense in which we might say that matter is “all that’s there” but then we are using the word material in a different sense, and not the one I wanted to deal with first.

    Even if no new substance ever came to be, and all change were merely a change of position, hylomorphism is still absolutely necessary; for English uses the word “material” as relating to what I call form to describe any change, even the change of place which the chemical combination might surely be. If two chemicals combine to form a third, the third is something new, a terminus ad quem, in much the same way as the house is. As you know, though, Chemistry distinguishes between this mere change of place change (physical change) and the sort of change whose terminus ad quem is a new substance (chemical change)

  3. July 30, 2006 at 9:26 pm

    To continue:
    Does this mean you have abandoned the strict matter/form composite of every being in the sense of Aristotelian physics? It seems that what you refer to as the material is in Aritstotle’s sense is the composite. Is this some analogy to Aristotle? Or are you trying to move analogically from those “materials” that have both matter and form (in the strict Aristotelian sense) to “matter” – that sort of infinity without form? If so, I don’t see how the chemistry objection does not stand.
    As an aside, I did see several outlines as to how the objection could be answered, but the unfortunate thing is that I believe that there must be some way that “unity” has to come into play or else this is all just a whitewash – skirting the issue or whatever.

  4. shulamite8810 said,

    July 30, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    I don’t see the objection. I disagree that my position is different from Aristotle, but I’m not interested in a textual dispute. I think the argument stands on its own.

  5. July 31, 2006 at 9:16 am

    Neither am I interested in a textual dispute. But I probably didn’t make myself clear. What I meant was not that chemistry “refutes” any of this but that there is a marked difference between “change” and “substantial change”. The matter and form that you have been referring to is always of the “change” variety. In you original response you have “even if no new substance came to be. . .” this is precisely the denial of substantial change and of the matter/form distinction in things as opposed to matter and form being supplied by the person who wants to build the house.
    And I think that if one could say that there is no such thing as substantial change, then the chemistry problem presents itself.

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