What is Hylomorphism that We Should be Mindful of it?

The recent discussions at Vallicella’s website got me thinking of this again.  Roughly, there are two opposing schools of thought in the philosophy of mind: materialism in its various forms, and dualism—usually substance dualism, something akin to Descartes view given in his Meditations.  One version of dualism that has been virtually ignored since Descartes (along with other early-modern thinkers) rejection of it is hylomorphic dualism (or Thomistic dualism). 

Substance dualists seem to find the view as bizarre as materialists do, but this, I think, is due to the general rejection of the metaphysics that underlie it.  Hylomorphic dualism derives from hylomorphism (from the Greek words hyle, meaning “matter,” and morphe, meaning “form”), the view that all material objects are composites of matter and form.  Matter and form unite to form a substance, the only things that exist in their own right (a ball, this cat, this tree, this computer, etc.).  Some substances (according to hylomorphism) are entirely immaterial, but these unique and I shall set them aside for now.  Physical substances however, are matter form composites.  The form of an object just is its organizational structure.  It is the precise arrangement or configuration of the material parts of a thing into a certain whole.  The substantial form in turn speaks of the configuration of material parts of a thing so that that thing is (actually) what it is.  So form is the answer to the question “What is it?”—Something abstract and universal.  Now because a material object would not be the kind of thing it is without its specific form, no material thing can be composed simply of matter.  In fact, matter can only be distinguished from form logically.  So distinguished, it is prime matter

One consequence of this view is that a proper understanding and explanation of material entities cannot be approached without appeal to formal and final causes.  When someone asks ‘what’s a hammer?’  The hearer ordinarily takes the question as an inquiry into the things nature (formal cause), and its end (final cause).  ‘Well it is such-and-such a thing, used for doing such-and-such,’ is the common response.  Now early-modern thinkers emphatically rejected any notion of substantial forms.  Descartes, in particular did not hesitate to voice his suspicion:

If you find it strange that I make no use of the qualities one calls heat, cold, moistness, and dryness…, as the philosophers [of the schools] do, I tell you that these qualities appear to me to be in need of explanation, and if I am not mistaken, not only these four qualities, but also all the others, and even all of the forms of inanimate bodies can be explained without having to assume anything else for this in their matter but motion, size, shape, and the arrangement of their parts.

For Descartes, a proper understanding of nature does not require any notion of substantial forms and the implied notions of formal or final causes.  Instead, identity, motion, and change in material entities can be understood in purely physical terms.  Material and efficient causes are sufficient—hence, of course, his purely mechanistic account of the universe in Le MondeBut Descartes aside, what I find interesting about hylomorphism is its strictly commonsensical account of the world around us. When a child strolls into his father’s room and sees a guitar on the table, he asks “what’s that?”  The appropriate response is “that’s a guitar.”  But the child might follow with another question, “what’s a guitar?”  Here, no lecture on the physics of the wood in the guitar, or its, length, depth, sturdiness, etc., will do as an appropriate response, for the child’s question is an inquiry into the nature of guitars, and their ends.  “Son, a guitar is such-and-such a thing used for doing such-and-such” would be the proper response.  


8 Responses to What is Hylomorphism that We Should be Mindful of it?

  1. Susan says:

    Doesn’t this open up a can of worms, though, when it comes to determining the nature of something? Do we determine nature according to function (a thing is a guitar if and only if it does such-and-such) or is nature independent of ‘doing’ ? Does, for instance, a human cease to be a human if it can no longer be “used for doing such-and-such” and which “such-and-such”‘s shall we require as definitively human?

    Or, does function tell us the nature of something? (have you ever used a butter knife for a screwdriver?… be honest now…)

    How does one rightly discern the nature and its proper end?

  2. Xavier says:

    I like your observation. I think it does open up a can of worms, however, only if we interpret the final cause in a purely utilitarian sense or if we suppose that the final cause of a thing is its function. But on hylomorphism, this is not so even though the two may coincide, for formal causation operates primarily on the level of the species and not on the individual members.

    The final cause answers the question ‘for the sake of what does this effect come to be?’ The question comes up as we see in nature things regularly acting towards certain goals or purposes—even, non-intelligent things tend (as a species) towards certain ends, e.g. acorns tend to become oak trees, and so on.

    Part of understanding what it means to be human means understanding what the end or purpose of man qua man is. Aquinas, for instance argues that God has so ordered man that his ultimate end is to know and to love, and to live in community—the highest expression being the knowledge and love of God and being in communion with Him. But even if we could point to an individual who does not know or love anything, or lives his whole life by himself, it doesn’t mean that he isn’t human since it belongs to man qua man (man as a species) to know and to love, etc.

    Hence the guitar analogy: Part of understanding what a guitar is means understanding what its end is—it is for making music. But even if we never play the guitar, or never write any music with it, it doesn’t mean that it is not a guitar.

  3. Susan says:

    Is it Aristotle who uses the word praxis to roll being/doing/ends into one thing?

  4. Xavier says:

    Susan, I’m not familiar with Aristotle using the term praxis to mean being/doing/ends so you’ve got me there. I do know, however that he uses the term in his Nicho. Ethics and Politics in a more specialised way.

    According to him, humans in societies engage in three activities: Theory, praxis, and Production. Aristotle thought that something should stand between theory and production (technological/commerce) since we ought not to make practical judgement without having ethical virtue. The theoretical sciences (physics and metaphysics) pursued truth while the productive science sought to produce what was good or useful. praxis on the other hand is a practical science in that it is interested in right living (ethics, politics).

  5. Susan says:

    Thanks, Xavier! That is a helpful summary, very helpful!
    In my reading this week, these things came up and you’ve confirmed the authors’ points.

  6. Hi there may I use some of the material found in this post if I reference you with a link back to your site?

  7. Glenn says:

    This has got to be the best succinct explanation of Thomistic Dualism that I’ve encountered.

  8. source says:

    Have you considered including several social bookmarking buttons to these sites. At least for youtube.

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