Friday, November 4, 2011

Hylemorphism and modern mechanism


I refer rather frequently to hylemorphism, which is the Aristotelian view that nature is made of substances comprised of form and matter. Hylemorphism was adapted by Thomas Aquinas, as well as by Maimonides and Averroes, and became the basis for much of Western metaphysics during the High Middle Ages.

Hylemorphism is a metaphysical viewpoint, not a scientific theory, per se. Like all metaphysical views, it doesn't make quantitative predictions. Rather, it is a framework for understanding nature, and it succeeds or fails in accordance with the rigor and application it provides.

The hylemorphic view of nature is basically simple, although its implications are not simple.

Nature is composed of substances. A rock is a substance. A tree is a substance. A man is a substance. A substance is an individual intelligible thing that exists.

Every substance is a composite of form and matter. Form and matter in hylemorphism are not what we moderns take these words to mean.

Matter and form are principles, not things, and they don't exist independently of substances.

Form is the intelligible principle of a substance. That is, it is the aspect of a thing that can be understood. The form of a tree is its biology, its weight, its shape, its color, etc.

Matter is the principle of individuation. It is what makes a substance a particular existing substance. The matter of a tree is the principle of the tree that makes it this or that specific tree, rather than a generic tree.

There is much more to hylemorphism, such as the nature of change, issues of teleology, the nature of the soul/mind, the existence of God, etc.

By the 16th century, particularly with the work of Descartes and his followers, hylemorphism was truncated, and eventually hylemorphism fell into disuse and even into disrepute.

"Matter" came to mean stuff with extension in space, and came to include some aspects of the hylemorphic concept of substance. The concept of form was largely cast aside, to be replaced with vague reference to laws of nature, etc.  We moderns have pretty much forgotten the classical understanding of nature, although even our language retains reference to it (e.g. "information" refers to the process by which a form-- an intelligible principle-- is understood).

It has been said, with justification, that this shift in metaphysics was the most profound intellectual change in the West. We live with the consequences of the abandonment of hylemorphism today, and in fact we are so profoundly altered by the consequences of this abandonment that we have difficulty understanding it.

I believe that the hylemorphic understanding of nature was far superior to modern mechanism, both from a metaphysical standpoint and from a scientific standpoint. Hylemorphism incorporates mechanism, but provides a deeper understanding of nature. There is a movement in the philosophy of science called New Essentialism that is reexamining modern science-- especially quantum mechanics-- from the standpoint of classical hylemorphic metaphysics.

Over time I'll try to post quite a bit on this topic. It fascinates me.

(For a great introduction to hylemorphism, you can't do better than philosopher Ed Feser's blog and books. Highly recommended.)


  1. Hi Mike, I am looking forward to these posts. On the principle of individuation... The question of what individuates a thing from another and how to apply it to hylemorphism can be very complex. When you say "matter" is the principle of individuation it is important to qualify that statement. Is it prime matter? Proximate matter? Designated matter? Determinate designated matter or indeterminate designated matter? The answer to that appears to be still somewhat debated and it would be interesting to see how different people see the answer to the question of individuation for hylemorphism. And also how it is related to 3-dimensionalsm and 4-dimensionalism views.

    Fascinating stuff indeed.

  2. Michael,

    Your discussion convinces me that hylemorphic dualism is just gibberish, and we haven't lost anything by discarding it.

    I seem to remember that in a previous thread you recommended a book by Ellis on New Essentialism. It was published in 2002, and no Amazon reader has thought it worth reviewing. Care to review it?

    Whenever someone mentions quantum mechanics in relation to their preferred philosophy, I know that they are woo artists of high degree. Just because quantum mechanics appears counterintuitive to our subjective view of the macro world doesn't mean we are then allowed to discard any critical thinking and accept any nonsense.

  3. Techne:

    Very good point, and one about which I have a lot to learn. My intent here is to associate prime matter with individuation.

    I'm not well acquainted with proximate matter, designated matter, etc. I've realized that discussion of matter is a very complex issue, and that prime matter, as central it is to the concept, doesn't exhaust the ways in which we can coherently speak of matter.

    Any references for a beginner like me would be much appreciated.



  4. @bach:

    Since when is taking classical metaphysics seriously "discard[ing] any critical thinking"?

    That's pretty funny. Even if I were not acquainted with hylemorphism, I'd take a statement like your as such clear evidence of imbecility that I'd want to have nothing to do with the philosophy (mechanical) that inspired it.

  5. Michael,

    Reread my comment. I used the expression 'discard any critical thinking' in relation to peculiar interpretations of quantum mechanics. Applying arbitrary artificial concepts such as substance, form and matter to the counterintuitive world of quantum mechanics, where subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons are composed of 3 quarks and a sea of virtual particles (quarks/antiquark pairs and gluons, which flash into and out of existence, and make up the major proportion of the mass of the respective nucleon), and to even imagine that purpose is involved, is woo of major proportions.

    I'd regard your fascination with hylemorphic dualism as being the imbecilic one.

  6. Mike,

    Oderberg has a pretty good article:
    Hylomorphism and Individuation @

    Also check his book "Real Essentialism" and his website for material.

    Lol @ bachfiend, he appears to have a fundamentalist attitude towards Aristotle and co. He almost sounds like a YEC making comments about evolution, but that would be insulting the YEC too much :p.