Scott Roberts e-mails in reference to my post Hylomorphic Ontological Analysis and the Puzzle of Prime Matter:
I have also been perplexed at hylomorphism's dependence on something called [prime] 'matter', for the same reason as you give. But I think there is a way out, though perhaps not one a hylomorphist will like. You say "Something bare of determinateness is unthinkable and hence nonexistent." But I can think of three words that refer to something one might consider real yet bare of determinateness, namely mass (or energy), consciousness (considered apart from all intentional objects of consciousness), and God (of classical theism). In each case you have something that can be thought of as giving form actuality. But that leads to an inversion of hylomorphism, namely, that now it is form that is potential, and what was formally [formerly?] thought of as matter is now Pure Act. For example, a mathematical object which is not being thought of is a potential form that consciousness gives actuality as a thought. [. . .]
The reader is right to point out that there is something dubious about my claim that "Something bare of determinateness is unthinkable and hence nonexistent." Of the three counterexamples he gives, the clearest and best is "consciousness considered apart from all intentional objects of consciousness." Consciousness so considered is not nothing, and yet it is indeterminate since all determinations fall on the side of the objects. Consciousness is no-thing, a Sartrean theme which is also developed by Butchvarov.
The reader has made me see that there is a certain structural analogy between prime matter and consciousness conceived of as pure of-ness bare of all determinacy. For one thing, both, considered in themselves, are indeterminate or formless, and necessarily so. If consciousness were determinate, it would be an object of consciousness and not the consciousness without which there are no (intentional) objects. And if prime matter were determinate, it would be formed matter and thus not prime matter. Second, neither can exist apart from its other. There is no consciousness without objects, and there is no prime matter that exists on its own in the manner of a substance. So, while consciousness is other than every object, it cannot exist except as the consciousness of objects (objective genitive). And while prime matter is other than every form, and in itself formless, it requires formation to be something definite and substantial.
A third point of analogy is that both consciousness and prime matter give rise to a structurally similar puzzle. Consider a mind-independent hylomorph A whose matter (H) is prime matter and whose form (F) is composed of lowest forms. Which is ontologically prior, A, or its ontological parts H and F? If the parts are prior in the manner of pre-existing ontological building blocks -- think (by analogy) of the way the stones in a stone wall are prior to the wall -- then H could not be a 'principle' in the scholastic sense but would have to something capable of independent existence. And that is unacceptable: surely prime matter cannot exist on its own. If, on the other hand, A is prior to its parts, then the parts would exist only for us, or in our consideration, as aspects which we bring to A. But that won't do either because A ex hypothesi exists extramentally and so cannot in its ontological constitution require any contribution from us.
The consciousness puzzle is similar. Is consciousness (conceived as pure diaphanous of-ness of objects in the manner of Sartre, Butchvarov, and perhaps Moore) something really existent in itself or is it rather an abstract concept that we excogitate? In other words, when we think of consciousness transcendentally as the sheer revelation of objects, are we thinking of a really existent condition of their revelation, or is consciousness so conceived merely a concept that we bring to the data? If consciousness really exists, then we substantialize it (reify it, hypostatize it) in a manner analogous to the way we substantialize prime matter when we think of its as something capable of independent existence. And that is puzzling. How can something exist that is not an object of actual or possible awareness? If, on the other hand, consciousness is not something that exists on its own but is a concept that we excogitate, then how do we account for the real fact that things are apparent to us, that things are intentional objects for us? Besides, if consciousness were a mere concept, then consciousness as a reality would be presupposed: concepts are logically subsequent to consciousness.
So the two puzzles are structurally similar.
Let us see if we can abstract the common pattern. You have a term X and a distinct term Y. The terms are introduced to make sense of a phenomenon Z. Z is the analysandum whose analysis into X and Y is supposed to generate understanding. X cannot exist without Y, hence it cannot exist on its own. The same goes for Y. The terms cannot exist without each other on pain of (i) hypostatization of each, and (ii) consequent sundering of the unity of Z. (The diremption of Z into X and Y gives rise to the ancient problem of the unity of a complex which no one has ever solved.) That the terms cannot exist without each other suggests that the unitary phenomenon Z is split into X and Y only by our thoughts such that the factoring into X and Y is our contribution. On the other hand, however, the terms or factors must be capable of some sort of existence independent of our conceptual activities if the explanation that invokes them is an explanation of a real mind-independent phenomenon.
Here is a sharper form of the common aporia. Both prime matter and pure consciousness are real. But they are also both unreal. Nothing, however, can be both real and unreal on pain of violating Non-Contradiction. How remove the contradiction without giving rise to a problem that is just as bad?
I don't say that the aporiai are insoluble, but I suspect that any solution proffered with give rise to problems of its own . . . .