Recent posts have discussed hylomorphic dualism in the philosophy of mind. It is a serious contender in the arena of competing positions -- unlike say, eliminative materialism, which is not. (If you think I'm just gassing off about EM, read the entries in the eponymous category.) But now I want to take a step back from the special topic of the mind-body problem to the more general theme of hylomorphic ontological analysis as such. In this post I examine some ideas in John Haldane's "A Return to Form in the Philosophy of Mind" in Form and Matter: Themes in Contemporary Metaphysics, ed. David S. Oderberg, Blackwell, 1999, pp. 40-64. But first some background.
In the 20th century Anglosphere, most philosophical analysis has been conceptual and linguistic. Moore and Russell were major practitioners. Decidedly less popular has been phenomenological analysis. Think Husserl. And least popular has been ontological analysis. The Iowa School (Gustav Bergmann and Co.) and Thomism are the two major representatives of it. Ontological analysis takes as its object the (mind-independently) existent. It operates on the assumption that ordinary particulars have ontological constituents, and it tries to specify what these constituents are. These constituents are of course not spatial parts and they 'lie deeper' (whatever exactly this means) than the targets of chemical and physical analysis. They are items like these: universals, tropes, non-relational ties, Castaneda's ontological operators, Armstrong's thin particulars, Bergmann's bare particulars, and others besides.
2. Hylomorphic analysis is one type of ontological analysis. One analyzes meso-particulars such as a statue or a horse into form (morphe) and matter (hyle) among other constituents. These constituents are sometimes called principles, using the word in an old-fashioned way. Thus one speaks of the principium individuationis, the principle of individuation, or of the soul as life principle. The principle of individuation is not a statement or proposition but a real factor 'in' things that accounts for their numerical difference.
3. What motivates the hylomorphic approach? John Haldane has something interesting to say on this point:
. . . a condition of there being something for thought to take hold of is that the something has structure. Equivalently, a condition of there being thought is that there be relevant structuring principles (sortal and characterizing concepts plus logical constants.)
So we arrive at hylomorphic analysis. Every particular may be understood in terms of the instantiation of a formal principle. Its form makes it to be the kind of thing it is, providing its definitive structure, its characteristic powers and liabilities, and so on. However, since, ex hypothesi, things of the same specific sort have formally identical principles there arises the question of numerical difference. The analysis is completed by introducing the idea of matter as that which is structured and is the basis of numerical individuation within species. (49-50)
The motivation for hylomorphism is something like this. Thinking, in virtue of its intentionality, refers beyond itself to what it is not, namely, to 'objective' things and states of affairs. Whether thinking succeeds in referring beyond itself to things that exist independently of thought is of course a further question; but it is clear that thinking and indeed all forms of intentionality purport so to refer. For example, my perceiving of a distant mountain purports to reveal a physical object that exists whether I or anyone perceives it. This purport is part of the very sense of outer perception. Borrowing a line from the neglected German philosopher Wolfgang Cramer, outer perceiving is of objects as non-objects. The meaning, I hope, is clear: in outer perceiving the object is intended as more than a mere intentional object or accusative of awareness; it is intended as precisely something that exists as a non-object, as something that exists in itself, apart from the consciousness that posits it as existing in itself.
Now if one, setting aside skeptical worries, simply assumes that thought sometimes makes contact with reality, then one can ask: what must real things be like if thought is to be able to make contact with them? What must these things be like if it is to be possible for thought to "take hold of" them as Haldane puts it? The answer is that these mind-independent things must be conformable to our thought, and our thought to them. There must be some sort of isomorphism between thought and thing. Since we cannot grasp anything unstructured, reality must have structure. So there have to be principles of form and organization in things. But these formative principles must form something or determine something which, in itself, is at least relatively formless or indeterminate. There must be something which, in itself is (relatively) formless, is susceptible of being informed, or receptive of formation. In this way matter comes into the picture.
4. But now let's consider some puzzles. The proximate matter of a chair consists of its legs, seat, back. But this proximate matter itself has form. A leg, for example, has a shape and thus a form. (Form is not identical to shape, since there are forms that are not shapes; but shapes are forms.) Suppose the leg has the geometrical form of a cylinder. (Of course it will have other forms as well, the forms of smoothness and brownness, say.) The cylindrical form is the form of some matter. The matter of this cylindrical form is wood, say. But a piece of wood is a composite entity the parts of which have form and matter. For example, the complex carbohydrate cellulose is found in wood. It has a form and a proximate matter. But cellulose is made of beta-glucose molecules. Molecules are made of atoms, atoms of subatomic particles like electrons, and these of quarks, and so it goes.
The idea is that hylomorphic analysis is iterable. The iteration has a lower limit in prime or primordial or ultimate matter (materia prima.). Ultimate matter, precisley because it is ultimate, has no form of its own. As Haldane describes it, it is "stuff of no kind." (50)
Now one puzzle is this. Prime matter is not nothing. If it were nothing, then there would be no proximate matter either. Consider the lowest level of proximate matter. Consider a particle whose matter is prime matter. If prime matter is nothing at all, then this smallest particle could not exist, (since it is built up out of its components and one of them does not exist), and nothing having it as a component could exist. So prime matter is not nothing. But it is not something either. For if it were something it would have form or structure or organization. Obviously nothing can exist that is not definite and determinate. If you say the indeterminate, the apeiron, exists, WHAT are you saying exists? WHAT are you talking about? There has to be a whatness, a form, for it to be intelligible to say that something exists. 'X exists' says nothing. Recall the isomorphism between thought and reality that is part of the motivation for hylomorphic analysis. Something bare of determinateness is unthinkable and hence nonexistent.
We are driven to the conclusion that prime matter is not nothing and also not something. This certainly looks like a contradiction. But it is a contradiction apparently forced upon us if we embrace hylomorphic ontological analysis. For this analysis is iterable. One cannot stop shy of primate matter, for if there is no ultimate matter then there is no proximate matter either.
To avoid the contradiction one might say that prime matter, though not something actual is not nothing in that it is pure potency: the pure potentiality to receive forms is essentially the way Haldane puts it. (50) Does this help? Not much. What exactly is the difference between a pure potentiality to receive any form and nothing at all? Something that is not F or G or H, etc. but is receptive to these forms has no determinate nature. Without a determinate nature, how can it be anything at all?
5. Furthermore, a pure potency cannot be an ontological building block out of which to construct something actual. So should we say that prime matter is a mere abstraction? But then forms free of matter would also be mere abstractions. How can a substance be built up out of abstractions?
This second problem concerns the status of the so-called 'principles' form and matter. They don't have an independent existence, else they would be substances in their own right. Is their status then merely mental? That can't be right either since a hylomorph (a hylomorphic compound) cannot be compounded of components whose status is merely mental. Why not? Well, the typical hylomorph enjoys extramental existence, and it is difficult to see how such a thing could be built up out of constituents whose status was wholly intramental.