The nature of prime matter

Is prime matter nothing but pure potentiality for reception of form or does it have some minimal degree of actuality? I believe, for reasons I will not get into now, in the former view. However, I came across an argument today for the latter view which I admit moved me. The argument is from 13.5.9 of the Metaphysical Disputations of the Jesuit Aristotelian philosopher Francisco Suarez (d. 1617), who held the latter view, and is directed at Aquinas and his followers, who held the former view. I’m not sure how to respond to it. It has persuasive force, but I’m not sure if it is demonstrative; I have to reflect more on it.

Suarez’ argument can be stated in this way:

What gives some perfection to x has some actuality
Prime matter gives some perfection to x
Therefore, etc.

Proof of the minor: material substances are composites of prime matter and form; as such, form without matter cannot constitute a complete material substance. From this it follows that prime matter, as constituent of a composite, gives some perfection to it that form by itself does not, in order that it exist as a complete material substance. And the conclusion follows.

The proof is both elegantly simple and powerful, but is it also sound? If not, where does it go wrong?

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9 thoughts on “The nature of prime matter

  1. Salam.

    I believe the major premise is not related to the prime matter because prime matter (or matter in general) is pure potentiality, and a potentiality cannot actualize something, but it is a mode or a vehicle through which actualization occure (via another agent – in this case, let’s say, God).

    Therefore, I believe the [WHAT] in ‘What gives some perfection to x has some actuality’ cannot be related to the matter but to an agent becuase only the agent CAN GIVE SOME PERFECTION to something.

    Regards and peace.

    1. Salam friend,

      “I believe the major premise is not related to the prime matter because prime matter (or matter in general) is pure potentiality […]”.

      right, but this is precisely what the argument challenges. So it’s question-begging to just assert otherwise.

      “Therefore, I believe the [WHAT] […] cannot be related to the matter but to an agent because only the agent CAN GIVE SOME PERFECTION to something.”

      Again, Suarez’ argument challenges precisely this claim. So you’re question-begging if you just assert, without providing an argument against his minor premise, that ‘prime matter does not give perfection but only the agent does’.

      1. salam.
        I believe the statement itself – that only an agent can cause something, not a potentiality, in so far as it is affirmed that matter IS potentiality – is one of the premises that could defend the argument and falsify suarez’s claim.

        An agent can cause x.
        Agents are actualities, not pure potentialities.
        Matter is pure potentiality.
        Therefore, matter cannot cause x.

        salam

      2. salam,

        “that only an agent can cause something, not a potentiality, […] is one of the premises that could defend the argument and falsify Suarez’s claim.”

        Suarez doesn’t disagree with that. what his argument shows is that prime matter is an agent because it (partly) causes something, i.e., the material substance. to say, as you do, that matter doesn’t cause because it’s not an agent is, again, just question-begging.

        there are at least two problems with your syllogism; (1) it’s not valid and (2) it’s, again, question-begging. it’s (1) because you’re missing a premise, i.e., matter is not an agent, which you need in order to validly derive your conclusion. it’s (2) because it assumes as true the premise which Suarez thinks he has just shown to be false, i.e., that matter is pure potentiality. and even with the added premise that ‘matter is not an agent’, it would still be question-begging; for his argument shows that, if by agent, just to agree with you, we mean something that causes, then prime matter is something that (partly) causes, which entails that it’s an agent. we can easily see this if we substitute the word ‘agent’ for the word ‘actuality’ and the word ’cause’ for the word ‘perfection’ in the original syllogism. we would then have basically the same argument:

        What partly causes x is an agent
        Prime matter partly causes x
        Therefore, prime matter is an agent

  2. In addition, this I think is problematic:

    [… From this it follows that prime matter, as constituent of a composite, gives some perfection to it that form by itself does not, in order that it exist as a complete material substance.]

    That is because giving perfection does not necessarily entail causation in this sense, because, as stated earlier, something potential cannot and does not have the capability to cause something. It (the prime matter) is simply a mode utilized for form-matter to get actualized.

    The word ‘gives’ is also in question here. In the major premise, the ‘give’ entails a causation while in the minor premise it does not entail causation but the state of compresence, meaning that the prime matter is just there so form and matter composite can be actualized on it.
    For example, man has hands and intellect, but he does not cause his hands and intellect: both intellect and his hands are compresent with man.

    Peace and regards.

    1. “[…] perfection does not necessarily entail causation in this sense, because, as stated earlier, something potential cannot and does not have the capability to cause something.”

      again, question-begging. the argument shows, in the proof for the minor premise, that prime matter does make some causal contribution to the existence of a material substance because that substance consists of the two factors of form and (prime) matter, which entails that one without other isn’t sufficient for that. All Peripatetics agree with that claim.

      “[…] it does not entail causation but the state of compresence, meaning that the prime matter is just there so form and matter composite can be actualized on it.”

      No, prime matter isn’t just there, waiting, so to speak, for a form-matter composite to be “actualized on it” (as you say). by itself without any form it does not exist. by itself, it is only (some of them, i.e., Ibn Sina, Aquinas, think and Suarez’ argument is against them) a potentiality for the reception of form; and once it receives form, a material substance comes into existence. it is not, as you seem to think, something in addition to the form-matter composite; it is one of the two elements or factors (the other being the form) that a material substance is composed of.

      1. ok.
        let me reword it.
        [The word ‘gives’ is also in question here. In the major premise, the ‘give’ entails a causation while in the minor premise it does not entail causation but the state of compresence, meaning that the prime matter is just one of the composites in the form-matter composition, and when form is presented to it or vice versa), a substance if formed. For example, man has hands and intellect, but he does not cause his hands and intellect: both intellect and his hands are compresent with man.]

        I believe the notion of ‘causation’ is also in question because for me, to cause something is to act on actualizing that thing by an actual agent, not a mere potential entity (I have already given the syllogistic way of putting this above).

        salam

  3. And I need not necessarily provide a syllogism, because there is induction and analogy, which also provide support to a sound judgement, and analogy and induction vindicates that only an agent (by agent I mean an actual entity) can cause something, not a mere potential thing.
    TO give another example, the sun is the cause of light in the world. Sun is an actual agent that has the ability to provide light. Now take out the form of the sun from its matter (in mind) and one can conceptualize that there is no light since the essence of the sun is no more (of course in the mind, not in external reality).

  4. Greetings!

    Three (perhaps unrelated) reactions to the major and minor premises. I will preface it by a comment about the discovery of prime matter: Because we only know prime matter by analogy to enformed composites, our notions of its “pure potency” are posterior to our knowledge of actual substances. That is, prime matter’s discovery only occurs once we recognize a principle of pure potency as the solution to the paradox of substantial change. So, it is not question begging to begin with prime matter being pure potency. If it’s not that, we haven’t discovered or aren’t discussing prime matter. So, it is sound to distinguish senses of “give” (in the sense of “cause,” I take it) in the minor premise. Just because a cause “gives” to the effect does not mean that the cause has act in itself. (Potency is still a being.)

    1. The major premise seems to conflate the necessary and the sufficient. Matter is a necessary element of the composite, but not a sufficient one. Thus, matter does “give” something to the composite, but it is not sufficient to cause the entire composite—just as form is. However, form is more sufficient than the matter, as is clear from the existence and knowledge we have of composites. So “gives” in the major premise is too vague: a cause can “give” in the sense of “be necessary for a complete composite” but it does not follow that prime matter has an act. Because of the order of discovery, and perhaps because secondary matter is imaginable, we attribute to prime matter what it does not have.

    2. As to the minor premise, if matter is a principle of limitation of form, then matter does not intensively perfect form but limits it. Matter ‘perfects’ the composite only in the sense described in (1), by being a necessary component.

    3. Prime matter is defined by its order to form (Physics I. 9, where Aristotle discusses prime matter’s “appetite” for form, prime matter *is* sheer capacity or ‘desire’ for substantial actuality). In this sense, St. Thomas argues that prime matter can even be called “good,” namely because it shares in the notion of an end.* Perhaps because of this it seems more plausible to attribute some act to prime matter.

    * See Physics I, lect. 15, http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Physics1.htm#15, nn. 136–138, and Q. D. de Malo, q. 1, a. 2, c., http://www.corpusthomisticum.org/qdm01.html: “Now, everything which is in potency to the good, by the fact that it is in potency to the good, has an order to the good. For to be in potency is nothing other than to be ordered to act. Thus, it is clear that what is in potency, by the fact that it is in potency, bears the ratio of the good. Thus, every subject, even prime matter, insofar as it is in potency to what perfection soever, by the fact that it is in potency, bears the ratio of the good.” (“Omne autem quod est in potentia ad bonum, ex hoc ipso quod est in potentia ad bonum habet ordinem ad bonum; cum esse in potentia nihil aliud sit quam ordinari in actum. Patet ergo quod id quod est in potentia, ex hoc ipso quod est in potentia, habet rationem boni. Omne ergo subiectum in quantum est in potentia respectu cuiuscumque perfectionis, etiam materia prima, ex hoc ipso quod est in potentia, habet boni rationem.”)

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