Vallicella’s challenge to hylemorphic “dualism”, part II

Bill Vallicella repeats his charge against hylemorphic “dualism“, saying that Ed Feser’s response fails to give him a reason to decide between the following arguments (I’ll label the premises):

Argument A:  (minor) The human soul can exist apart from its body; (major) the human soul is the form of the human body; therefore, there are forms that can exist apart from the matter they inform.

Argument B: (minor) The human soul can exist apart from its body; (major) no form can exist apart from the matter it informs; therefore, the human soul is not the form of the human body.

The major of argument B is simply false, and when true, is true only accidentally and not in virtue of form.

The doctrine of hylemorphism is that all changeable things resolve into a form giving existence to matter. Just how form relates to existence is a dispute that still continues, but all sides agree that form gives existence to matter and not vice versa, and so if we define “real relation” or “categorical relation” as Aristotle did (when one relative depends on the other for its very existence and not merely for its being known) then there is a real relation from matter to form but no real relation from form to matter. So the major in argument B therefore mistakes a logical relation for a real one.

Form, as Aristotle says in Physics 1, is divine, and one aspect of this divinity is that it lacks an intrinsic dependence on matter, and the consequent real relation that arises from such dependence. Example: the creator does not need creation in order to exist (for this is a pure contradiction, and would remain one even if there were no God) but one cannot understand creation except as a relation to a creator. In Aristotle’s language, there is a categorical (real) relation from creation to creator, and a logical relation going the other way.

This does not mean that all forms are indestructible, but only that the reason for their ceasing to be cannot be taken from the fact of their separation from matter. While it is self-evident that matter cannot exist actually as some X after the decomposition of the thing X, it is not self-evident that the same is true of form. These various degrees of destructibility of form required a  doctrine like St. Thomas’s “immersion in matter” as a necessary development of hylemorphism, though little work was done by subsequent Thomists to work out exactly what this immersion consists in.

(On a side note, one of the ways in which Platonism gives a better look at form than Aristotelianism is in this clear presentation of the independence of form from matter. Aristotle has a harder time making this independence clear, and it’s fair to say that he overemphasized the concrete physical thing to such an extent that this independence of form was obscured, though not entirely suppressed. Nevertheless, his doctrine becomes incoherent if one says that there is a relation of dependence from form to matter.)

I’m aware that I’m giving a novel opinion here, and that it gives rise to any number of new problems for hylemorphism. But its high time to face the problems and see where they leave us. History has shown that disciples have rarely been faithful enough to their teacher in trying to be as critical of the theory as the master was.


  1. E.R. Bourne said,

    August 11, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Is the danger here the possible equivalence of form and matter inasmuch as they are principles of substances? In Bk. II of the Physics, when Aristotle is discussing what the nature of substance is, he first says that most think that matter is the nature of things. He then, however, goes on to say that form is the nature too. Indeed, he says that form is more the nature than matter is. Without form there can be no act but only potency and hence no actual substance. Even though he says that form is only separable in account, he still wants to eliminate the idea that form and matter are equally important in the composition of things.

    Act, being prior to potency, does not depend upon potency for its existence simply, so if form (act) is that which gives actual existence then perhaps we can say that the degree to which something is in act it can conceivably subsist as a form. How, then, do we reconcile the idea that form can only exist separately in the intellect (in the account), a central Aristotelian notion, with the fact that form is prior to matter and is therefore not necessarily destroyed when the form-matter compound is? Does the solution lie in distinguishing between the forms of material substances and the forms of other things like humans, angels, and God?

  2. August 11, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    I don’t know that there are solutions that will preserve everything Aristotle says. It’s a matter of figuring out what is most defensible and necessary and working out from there. The destruction of form is a tricky subject anyway – forms (even the particular form of “this”) can’t come to be or pass away, since this is exactly what we are trying to explain by appealing to form (even “this” form).

    St. Thomas was probably on track with his idea of “immersion of the form in matter”, which seems to be in play on the level of second act or operation. Note that the pure separation of the soul from any “immersion” in matter follows its operation – for this operation is not the action of an organ. Though operation follows existence, it does not follow that what is separate from matter intrinsically (all forms) are separate from matter in operation. This is why a consideration of subsistence follows the consideration of operation, and we must demonstrate both the subsistence of the humans soul and the non- subsistence of forms exiting in different ways (say, animals, plants, stones). STA does not take the non-subsistence of any soul or form as a given. Presumably, he thought that if he proved his case with animals the rest of the forms could be determined by an argument a fortiori.

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