Limits of matter/form analysis

A colleague asked me yesterday what exactly the division of matter and form explained about, say, vocal chords. The basic answer is that it explains how they could both be beings and come to be. It also explains why, when we consider them qua bodies, they are not alive. But all this is to say that matter and form are answers to questions that no one is asking. In fact, we find it terribly difficult to take the Parmenidean problem seriously enough to look for a solution. This is not to say the Parmenidean problem should be dismissed, but it rings hollow to us, and so Aristotle’s solution to it seems superfluous.

A deeper problem is that composition of matter and form was only designed to explain things so far as they come to be, and so it runs into problems when we try to use it to explain things that don’t come to be. But all the main physical theories demand the existence of physical things that don’t come to be, and so matter and form can only be a partial account of physical things. This was less of a problem on the ancient/ medieval theory, since they thought the non-generated beings were the celestial bodies, and so the matter-form schema was easy enough to translate over to them. But the Newtonian idea of absolute space or the contemporary idea of EM waves as purely formal do not admit of the same simple translation. Again, an idea like inertia seems to mean that every body participates in the sort of eternal action that was once only imputed to the celestial bodies, which means we should broaden the quondam account of the celestial bodies to include all bodies. In fact, even our idea of gravitational action of gravity requires this (remember that, for Aristotle, if a body reached the center of the universe its impelling tendency would cease, but gravitational attraction does not cease when the bodies are in contact). But no one has even suggested the outlines of a coherent account of such corruptible/eternal composition.

But even of we could figure out the problem of the physical first mobiles being somehow distributed throughout things, a more pressing problem for us is the fact that the human person is neither wholly physical, nor is he exhaustively explained by natural generation. Direct creation is also a necessary principle of his existence, and creation is not any sort of motion or generation. An adequate understanding of a person will therefore require understanding him in opposition to hylemorphic compositionBut we cannot do this in the most simplistic way, sc. by denying that the person is a hylemorphic composite. Persons are hylemorphic composites, but they aren’t only this. But what are we saying here? Isn’t this just a dressed up way of saying that persons are, like, totally sorta hylemorphic?


  1. sancrucensis said,

    November 23, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    “But no one has even suggested the outlines of a coherent account of such corruptible/eternal composition.” Sean Collins?

    “the human person is neither wholly physical, nor is he exhaustively explained by natural generation. Direct creation is also a necessary principle of his existence, and creation is not any sort of motion or generation.” I don’t get this–isn’t creation involved in the coming to be of any substance? Creation is a matter of efficient causality. How does it follow from something being caused by the most universal efficient cause entail that it’s not also caused by matter and form?

    • November 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

      It makes a difference because for created forms the form is not educed from matter and, as such, it can’t be viewed as one terminus in a substantial change. Though I’m pretty sure you’re not saying this, it’s like you’re suggesting that God only creates what might just as easily be educed from matter. This isn’t so, and the difference is important: form arising from a material subject just is hylemorphism.

      True, everything has a direct relation to the universal cause, but the cases of things that are not educed from the potency of matter are unique. We don’t invoke creation to explain rabbits or carbon, but STA does invoke it to explain the heavenly bodies, the human soul, the angels, the elements, etc. When I speak of creation I don’t mean to speak of the act of creation as a source of being, which even generated things depend on, but of those things that are created as opposed to being generated.

  2. November 23, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    Like sancrucensis, I think the account of how creation enters the picture is a bit off. In the account of human persons, creation is distinguished not from hylemorphic composition but from generation, and while hylemorphic composition is part of the account of generation, and you are probably right that this is its most important explanatory function (it certainly is its originary explanatory function), the two are nonetheless not the same thing — generation and creation involve a relation to an extrinsic cause, and hylemorphic composition by definition only concerns intrinsic causes. And even the distinction between generation and creation is not an outright opposition: human persons do come to be and are generated, it’s just that generation is necessarily not the complete account of how they come to be.

    • November 23, 2013 at 3:24 pm

      We might be speaking past each other, but the creation of the human soul is invoked precisely because of a relationship between the intrinsic causes in the person that is different from a hylemorphic composite, sc. form is seen as unable to be educed from the potency of matter.

      I’m mulling over your last sentence, since I clearly agree that man is both created-as-opposed-to-generated and generated, but it’s this opposition that fascinates me and that I find a blinding confusion, in the same way that every physical body has both a finite operation (by tending to a definite term) and an intrinsically infinite operation (by its inertial and gravitational motion).

      • November 23, 2013 at 5:27 pm

        Well, eduction of forms from matter is, again, not hylemorphic composition, but generation, and the difference for generation in the case of a human person has nothing to do, as far as I can see with hylemorphic composition itself but simply with the fact that the soul qua rational exceeds any generating cause. I would deny that this means that the relationship between form and matter in human persons is different from a hylemorphic composite. Yes, it means that the human form considered in itself is different, but this is not itself a matter that seems to have much to do with hylemorphic composition. It doesn’t make man a kinda-sorta hylemorphic composite; he’s straightforwardly one, which is why (for instance) the soul doesn’t pre-exist the body.

        Indeed, I’m not sure that the fact that our souls are created rather than produced from matter has much in the way of implication at all: all it establishes is that, not being completely generable, we are not completely corruptible (and vice-versa, since the two go together). We see this at least strongly suggested in the case of heavenly bodies, which are through-and-through hylemorphic composites, just not corruptible-generable ones.

      • November 24, 2013 at 8:05 am

        Though it might not be fair to grab a hold of a small example at the end that differs from your main point, I’m going to do that:

        We see this at least strongly suggested in the case of heavenly bodies, which are through-and-through hylemorphic composites

        But that’s just what I want to deny. Consider Venus: according to the demands of the theory, it is unable to be anything but Venus, and yet to make it a hylemorphic composite means to introduce a principle into it that is able to be something other than Venus. This may seem like I’m beating the same old generation-not-hylemorphism drum – and I see the point in dividing them – but I’m less willing than you are to see a raison d’etre for hylemorphism apart from the role it plays in generation.

      • November 25, 2013 at 7:44 am

        But as you say, this seems to be based on the assumption that because the primary means of determining the principles for hylemorphic composition are based on generation and corruption that this is just what hylemorphic composition is, so that it applies only insofar as generation and corruption apply. But as far as I can see this is simply not tenable; not only would it result in a purely operational definition, it would require that the only, rather than the primary, explanatory value of hylemorphism is explanation of generation and corruption. But hylemorphic composition explains, or at least structures the explanations of, other kinds of composition, kinds of change other than generation and corruption, the possession of features associated with corporeity, certain kinds of individuation, etc. If all it explained were generation and corruption, then it really needs to be thrown completely out except for talking about generation and corruption.

        And this is indeed what we get with incorruptible bodies; Aquinas says outright that the matter of incorruptible bodies is a different kind of matter than the matter of corruptible bodies (e.g., 1.66.2). This doesn’t make heavenly bodies in any way non-hylemorphic; they are just hylemorphic in a different way than generable and corruptible bodies.

  3. sancrucensis said,

    November 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I don’t know whether it’s just been too long since the last time I read Aristotle and St. Thomas on these things, but mulling this over it seems to me that one could just as well draw the opposite of your conclusion from the special creation of the human soul. Not that human persons are “sorta hylomorphic,” but rather that human persons are really hylomorphic and it’s rabbits etc. that need the qualification “sorta.” It’s true that hylomorphism is meant to explain how a thing can be and not be, and so generation is key. But it is also meant to show how there can be knowledge (eternal, unchanging knowledge) of things which have in them a principle of indeterminacy. Form is the solution, but by that measure it is only the quasi-subsistent form of man that gets you the kind of determination that you need for episteme in the strict sense (why is there no satisfactory definition of “rabbit”?).

    • November 24, 2013 at 8:22 pm

      This would be one answer to the argument of the original post, or, more generally, pointing out things that hylemorphic theory explains in addition to the intrinsic principles necessary for generation. Another response might be that hylemorphism, in responding to Parmenides, was meant not just to explain becoming and generation but everything that Parmenides denied, viz. multiplicity, accidental changes, difference in being, temporality, etc.

      Still, it seems to me that natural beings which are created-as-opposed-to-generated are a third option different from both the Parmenidean and Aristotelian accounts of natural things, and I think that to see them in opposition to hylemorphic composition might open up some new approaches to old problems. The old problem of the agent intellect seeming both eternal and temporal; or the newer problem of the difference between an individuated rational nature and a person; or the more blasé problem of why Naturalists can’t give a satisfactory definition of nature (IMO, it’s because nature is a two-tier reality of the hylemorphic and the transcendent in nature.)

      • sancrucensis said,

        November 25, 2013 at 1:10 am

        I guess you are right.

        (Small pedantic note on English morphology: it’s hylomorphic not hylemorphic. A lot of people use an e because the nominative singular ending in Greek is e, but in English compound adjectives derived from classical words are formed according to this pattern: stem of first word+thematic vowel+second word. And the thematic vowel for hyle is actually o (probably because of apophony), See the entry for “hyl” here: )

      • November 25, 2013 at 6:51 am

        Ahh, but the number one rule for English spelling is that no thoughtful, intelligent rule gets to determine how we’re gonna spell.

        I’ll still go with the o though.

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