At the core of the debates between naturalistic and theistic pictures of the world is the question of dualism and universals. Though those two issues are distinct, in Thomistic thought they come together at their root through the philosophical doctrine of hypemorphism. This doctrine is perhaps the second most important and indispensable Scholastic principle within the Scholastic intellectual Tradition (the first being the general distinction between act and potency). And it is my contention that this doctrine is fully demonstrable and that it simultaneusouly accounts for Dualism and a realist approach to universals. Not only that, it also bears ethical and theological implications. Three main arguments will be presented in support of this doctrine coupled respectively with a refutation of one seemingly persuasive objection to each.
First, an explanation of what this doctrine is. Hylemorphism is best defined in reference to its etymology. Hylemorphism is a derivative of two Greek words: “Hyle” and “Morphe”. Hyle refers to matter, or the underlying substratum of created being that is receptive to some actuality or form. Form, or Morphe, refers to the individual actuality o fa thing, designating its quiddity (whatness) as really distinct from some other thing. Taken together, Hyle and Morphe constitute an essence, or an individual thing, that is, a thing essentially composed of an underlying substratum or subject that is receptive to its quiddity (as will later also be referred to as potency) and the actual quiddity itself (which will later be referred to also as act). According to this view, essences are merely composed of these two metaphysical principles of nature and nothing more, though indeed many scholastics such as St. Thomas Aquinas have believed there to be essences merely composed of pure subsistent form alone (angels), though this would be an exception and not the rule (ST Ia Q. 50, art. 2, s.c.), but that will not be further discussed in this paper. Lastly, before progressing on to the actual arguments for this doctrine, a clarification is in order for the modern reader as regards the colloquial understanding of the terms matter and form. Matter and form must not be understood as referring to these colloquial understandings. Matter qua its Aristotelian definition does not refer to the aggregate of corporeal objects in space, as is commonly understood. It merely refers to the underlying potency or substratum that of itself is receptive to some actuality. Similarly, form is not to be understood as merely referring to a thing’s shape, or size, or physical limitations. Indeed, these things are included, and the colloquial sense of the word is not wholly equivocal to the Aristotelian understanding, but form strictly speaking qua its Aristotelian definition refers simply to the actuality of an individuated reality, determining its quiddity and essential limitations, acting as the giver to the receiver that is matter, which considered in itself has no existence, since it is merely in potency to reception of its compliment. Now that this clarification has been made, it is now appropriate to continue on to the arguments in support of this doctrine.
The first argument in defense of this doctrine is taken from limitation. Given the principle of participation whereby a thing’s quiddity is its perfection, and its individual existence is an imperfect participation in its quiddity (as a drawn triangle is an imperfect participation in the quiddity of triangularity as such, say), we can derive from this a hylemorphic duality by way of implication. For within the essence of the triangle, there is both its quiddity and its participation. If there were no quiddity, the triangle would not be intelligible to the intellect, and since pure quiddity in itself (form) is merely an intelligible abstraction, there must also be the actual subject in which the quiddityinheres, or in in which the quiddity is received. Thus can we refer to the subject which receives the quiddity (triangularity) in which it participates as matter and the quiddity itself which serves as the determiner of the subject that makes the triangle truly a triangle as form. For, in truth, the subject that imperfectly participates in triangularity is the potency that is receptive to its quiddity as is implied by the very notion of participation, which perfectly matches the definition of matter as stated above, which is the potency to be receptive of a specific actuality or quiddity. Similarly, form as understood in this doctrine is truly appropriate since by form we mean the actuality or quiddity of the subject that imbues within it intelligibility (Feser 162).
One foreseeable objection to this argument could be stated thusly. From what demonstration can it be definitively held that there exists a quiddity to any given thing? To this, one could respond in a variety of ways. One shall be offered here. Given the demonstrable reality of change, we can establish with certainty the reality of abstract quiddity that inheres in the outcomes of change (Feser 160). In order for change to be possible, there needs be an outcome that in some manner exists already in that which brought about the change in question, for it is impossible for that which does not exist to begin existing ex nihilo, for from nothing comes nothing. Thus, the outcome of a given instantiation of change must already exist in some manner in order for that outcome to be brought about, else the outcome would have come from non-being which is impossible. Its manner of existence within the efficient cause of such change can only be abstract, for the outcome cannot actually exist in the cause. It can therefore be definitively held that any outcome of change, whether it be a substance or an accident, must pre-exist virtually in the cause, and this pre-existence is none other than the quiddity of the very outcome itself, which persists inherently in the essence of the outcome itself, whence comes the distinction between form and matter wholly intact as defined above.
The second argument in support of this doctrine is taken from the reality of multiplicity. From the senses it is manifest that things are distinct from one another, and that the distinctions perceived through the senses are real distinctions as opposed to purely logical or virtual distinctions. Now in order for two things to be different from one another, they must be common as to their common individuality and thinghood. This is because difference of itself necessarily implies that preceding the difference between things underlies a common reality that serves as the basis upon which such things are differentiated. For while they are contrary to one another in certain respects, they are the same insofar as they are both contrastable instantiations of thinghood as such. In this respect, they are similar, and therefore the same, for similitude is understood inasmuch as two things are the same, and difference is understood inasmuch as two things have contrariety with respect to one each other. Since this is so, whence comes differentiation? If at the most fundamental level of their being, two different things are the same, what room is there for true differentiation? Would not differentiation be an illusion of the underlying reality of the two things, since their common thinghood which lies at the fundament of their existence would render them one and the same? This absurdity can only be avoided if one breaks into two halves every essence. That is, the subject (matter) and the principle of distinguishable quiddity (form). Matter serves as the underlying principle whereby an essence is individuated and form serves as the principle of distinguishability between one instantiation of individuation and another. Were this not so, then differentiation would be an illusion and real distinctions between actual things would be reduced to absurdity, which is manifestly not the case.
There is an objection one could raise against this argument, however. That is, if the determinable substratum that is open to the reception of change is given existence through the determiner, that is, the quiddity that imbues intelligibility and actuality in matter, and if the actual existence of the quiddity itself is dependent upon the subject that is receptive to it, since form considered apart from matter is a mere abstraction, then how can either hylemorphic component be said to exist at all if they are mutually dependent upon one another for their respective existence as a composite essence? To this, it must be conceded that indeed form apart from matter does not exist considered in itself, and nor does matter apart from form. Form considered in itself is the merely abstract quiddity of a thing that cannot have actual existence prior to the subject that receives the quiddity, since the quiddity of this or that thing presupposes the existence of the subject in which it inheres. Similarly, designated matter considered in itself, that is, matter that is receptive to a specific form, can have no existence apart from form. For its designation presupposes the existence of that which imbues actuality into the matter (potency) itself. How, then, can either hylemorphic component of a composite essence be said to exist at all, if they mutually depend on one another for their existence?
To this, it is necessary to bring up a traditional Thomistic distinction that will doubtless be of help in solving this quandary. That is, the distinction between a thing’s essence and its act of existence. In De Ente et Essentia, Saint Thomas Aquinas draws a sharp distinction between what a thing is and its act of existence, such that considered apart from the thing’s act of existence which is really distinct from the thing itself, the essence of itself has no existence to speak of. Therefore, it is necessary, according to the reasoning of Saint Thomas, that one posit the existence of some reality whose essence and existence is merely one and the same thing, such that is subsistent existence alone (De Ente et Essentia, Caput IV). This Saint Thomas ultimately refers to as the Divine Essence, or He Who Is. The existence of this reality is necessary, for its absence would entail the essential nonexistence of any given essence that is distinct from its act of existence.
Now, referring to the inter-contingent components of a hylemorphically composite essence, the logic is no different. For the inter-contingency of these two halves entail the essential nonexistence of each half, for without matter there is no form and without form there is no matter. Therefore, in order to justify rationally the existence of any given thing, we must posit some reality whose essence and act of existence are one and the same thing, such that it is subsistent existence alone in order for any given thing to exist at all, and this is what all men call God.This objection, therefore, apart from demolishing the entire edifice of scholastic thought actually inadvertently supplies the scholastic philosopher not only with a sound defense of the coherence of hylemorphic dualism but also with a means of demonstrating the very existence of God, a doctrine which is also if not more indispensable to the edifice of scholastic thought.
In conclusion, the doctrine of hylemorphic dualism far from being some long refuted memory of the medievalists is a doctrine that is very much demonstrable and rationally defensible. From the reality of limitation, that is, the quidddity of a thing being limited by the underlying particularity of a thing’s imperfect participation in the quiddity, we can divide an essence into two metaphysical hemispheres: the qiuddity itself and the individual subject that participates in the quiddity, which is indistinguishable from the traditional definitions of form and matter, respectively. From the reality of change, that is, the reduction of potency to act, we can also establish with certainty the hylemorphic constituency of essences given the fact of proportionate causality. Finally, we can establish hylemorphism from the demonstrable reality of multiplicity itself, since the common underlying basis upon which two things are differentiated can only be made sense of by breaking reality into the two metaphysical hemispheres as argued for above. There is indeed grandeur in this metaphysical picture of the world. It makes room for the existence of God as well as the basis for the natural law conception of ethics, Truly it is indispensable to Western Civilization, and given the arguments stated above, it is also indispensable to rationality itself.
Aquinas, Thomas. "De Ente Et Essentia." Thomas Aquinas: De Ente Et Essentia: English. Dominican House of Studies Priory, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars 50-119. Vol. 2. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. The Aquinas Institute, 2012. Print.
Feser, Edward. Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introdiction. Heusenstamm: Eitiones Scholasticae, 2014. Print.