Hylomorphism note (2)

So if “matter” is a recognition of the ability of things to be acted on it is an abstraction from the things themselves. Form is likewise an abstraction from the various ways that things can act. But there is an important difference: in acting on matter one and the same thing goes from one state to another, and so has an indefinite character as neither this thing nor that. But there is no form indefinite to “this”. Making form indefinite would simply make it a kind of matter. But then the abstraction picks out something real in matter that is not picked out in form, sc. its indefinite character.

But here we seem to fall into a trick of thought: because the abstraction is appropriate to the indefinite character of matter, it seems that matter exists in a continuous way. But in fact acorns make trees and trees make planks, but acorns can’t make planks. It is not the same ability to be acted upon that passes from one thing to the next. There is no matter running under all things. This is true even of prime matter, which is not (as alchemists seem to have thought) that which can become anything but only the recognition that the power to be acted upon sometimes includes the generation of new substance.

An analogy for prime matter. Say that the human auditory range is from 20 to 20k hertz. It follows that any sound falling in that range might be a word, and that no sound outside this range could be a word. We can therefore call the range 20 to 20k hertz “the prime word” (i.e. prime matter with respect to the domain of words in the same way that we speak of prime matter is matter in the domain of all natural things. There is something that can become every word, and every word is made from it, but it does not mean that there is some one thing in every word that can become any other. In the same way, prime matter is just the universe considered in all its possible ways of being acted upon.

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