Matter and Prime Matter

It’s unfortunate that there is an overlap between the way that we talk about the “stuff” of which things are made (namely, “matter”) and the “matter” which, when it receives a form, becomes something real. It generates confusion. Ed Feser provides a useful explanation for the beginning Thomist or Aristotelian (or for the man who simply wishes to understand A-T thought) in his book Aquinas. It’s helpful to distinguish the two by naming the latter (the “matter” that receives a form) prime matter. Unlike the “stuff” of which things are made, which comes down in the end to molecules and atoms, prime matter does not actually exist independently of a form. It is pure potentiality. This potentiality must be distinguished from what is in act, or actual: potentiality stops being merely potential when it becomes actual. Cold water, for example, ceases to have the potentiality for being hot when it is actually hot. The potentiality is gone, replaced by actuality. See page 14 of the book. What scientists mean by “matter” and what A-T philosophers mean by it overlap a little (at least, they overlap when prime matter receives some substantial form), but for the most part they differ. So the new reader of Aquinas or Aristotle needs to be be careful not to import his notions of matter from science (or from Star Trek).

And speaking of overlap, this post overlaps a lot with this other one.

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Posted in Aquinas - Philosophy, Aristotle
7 comments on “Matter and Prime Matter
  1. olivianus says:

    “It’s unfortunate that there is an overlap between the way that we talk about the “stuff” of which things are made (namely, “matter”) and the “matter” which, when it receives a form, becomes something real.”

    Unfortunate? May I say incoherent.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Drake,

    Unfortunate? May I say incoherent.

    Yes, you may say it. Oh, wait. You weren’t asking for permission. :-)

    I don’t think there is anything incoherent about it; it is simply a consequence of the way that language has developed, such that common usage now denotes something different than the word meant originally/etymologically. The effect is that terms have to be carefully defined, or misunderstandings will arise as a result of equivocation.

    Fred

  3. olivianus says:

    Ok, so if you believe in Aristotelianism, and you believe that God is one substance, doesn’t that mean that he can only be one person? The substance is the subject and is never a predicate. Aristotle, Metaphysics,

    Book 7 Part 3

    “Now the substratum is that of which everything else is predicated, while it is itself not predicated of anything else. And so we must first determine the nature of this; for that which underlies a thing primarily is thought to be in the truest sense its substance….By matter I mean that which in itself is neither a particular thing nor of a certain quantity nor assigned to any other of the categories by which being is determined. For there is something of which each of these is predicated, whose being is different from that of each of the predicates (for the predicates other than substance are predicated of substance, while substance is predicated of matter). ”

    I have had another Aristotelian admit that substance taken in the prime matter sense would mean One Person in the Godhead but he takes substance to mean matter. That is, what God is made up of is one thing. If in fact you admit that the second sense of matter “comes down in the end to molecules and atoms” do you then admit that your God is not transcendent but a materialistic construction? That would go well with being the first physical mover would it not?

  4. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Drake,

    Ok, so if you believe in Aristotelianism, and you believe that God is one substance, doesn’t that mean that he can only be one person?

    As far as I can tell this question is pretty much off-topic for this post. However: knowledge of the Trinity is not something that can be attained by means of reason; it can only be received by the assent of faith. So it is not possible to demonstrate that there are three persons in the Godhead. Aquinas devotes 17 questions (27-43 of part I, linked here) to the subject of the Trinity. I can’t do justice to an adequate summary of them. The best I can do is refer you to them for an overview of what Thomists say about this. Sorry.

    I have had another Aristotelian admit that substance taken in the prime matter sense would mean One Person in the Godhead but he takes substance to mean matter. That is, what God is made up of is one thing.

    I don’t know for sure of course, but it doesn’t seem as though your Aristotelian was a Thomist. It has been a few years since I read the Metaphysics, and I might be mistaken about this, but I doubt that Aristotle would have said that matter is in any way part of the Prime Mover, precisely because the Prime Mover must be fully in act. In any case, that is surely the Thomistic understanding: matter is the principle of potency or potentiality, and there is no potentiality in God: He is pure Act. Consequently He is not composed of matter and form the way that material beings are. This being the case, the answer to your last two questions are: No, for the reasons just adumbrated, and No, because the Prime Mover is not a physical mover (for the reasons just adumbrated).

    Fred

  5. Hi,

    I would agree that there is an unfortunate equivocation in the way the word ‘matter’ is used sometimes; in particular by philosophically-minded scientists who would prefer to do without a four-causes view of reality.

    However, isn’t it the case that matter always has a form? Form is prior to matter in the sense that it can exist without matter (as in the case of thoughts, abstractions, angels etc) but matter cannot exist without form. Ever.

    If this is so then your distinction between the two types of matter is slightly tangential to the criticism you are making. Although you are right that prime matter is pure potentiality, I would nitpick with your implication that prime matter is that which receives form when a thing ‘comes to be’. I do not see that an understanding of prime matter is necessary at all to clear up the materialist’s misunderstanding.

    The reason the misunderstanding exhibited by many materialists is especially unfortunate is that when they speak of matter-atoms, quarks, Higgs bosons etc- they are in fact, contrary to their belief that they are speaking of something so elementary that it is beyond form, still speaking about composites of form and matter; all these fundamental physical particles possess the forms of whatever particle they instantiate. A hydrogen atom possesses the matter necessary for a hydrogen atom as well as the form of a hydrogen atom for example.

    Very interesting topic in any case.

  6. aquinasetc says:

    Hi Frank,

    Thanks for stopping by. I don’t particularly disagree with anything that you say. But I do think that there is still opportunity for confusion just because what the materialist and the Aristotelian or Thomist mean by matter are two different things.

    This sort of problem has been addressed by Feser in other posts. Some materialists think that the concept of nothing is not incompatible with the existence of natural/physical laws.

    Anyway, I apologize for the delay in replying.

    Fred

  7. chriz- Lazarus Asiyo says:

    thank you for making me understand

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