restricted access Prime Matter and Actuality
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Prime Matter and Actuality CHRISTOPHER BYRNE ATFIRSTGLANCE,the question concerning the nature of prime matter seems to be one of the more arcane and marginal points of Aristotelian scholarship. After all, it concerns the ultimate material cause out of which all perishable substances are made, and this turns out to be the material cause of just the four sublunary elements, since, on Aristotle's account, the heavenly bodies are eternal and indestructible. Thus, prime matter isjust one part of only some of the material elements, and the latter, in turn, seem to play only a subordinate and derivative role in Aristotle's analysis of substances and nature. Nevertheless, as the longevity of the controversy surrounding prime matter suggests, there are, in fact, few questions that touch at once on so many central aspects of Aristotle's metaphysics and natural philosophy.' For this ultimate material cause is held to be the substratum that persists throughout the generation and destruction of the sublunary elements. As the persisting substratum of these changes, it is also the subject that underlies the contrary properties that distinguish these elements from one another. Because these contrary properties are the ones that Aristotle uses to define the sublunary elements, prime matter is also the material cause that is conjoined with the defining, formal causes of these elements. Thus, determining the nature of prime matter requires the application of Aristotle's doctrines on the nature of change in general, on generation and corruption in particular, and on the composition and definition of perceptible substances; it clearly also requires the application of his general theory of explanation, the doctrine of the four causes, especially the formal and material causes. The latter, in turn, are crucial to Aristotle's doctrine of potentiality and actuality as applied to the understanding of substances. Thus, understanding the nature of prime matter requires the application of several of the most general and fundamental principles of Aristotle's metaphysics and natural philosophy. ' Accordingto RichardSorabji,Matter, Space, and Motion: Theoriesin Antiquity and Their Sequel (Ithaca: Cornell UniversityPress, 1988), ch. l, the debate about prime matter isat least as old as Theophrastus, Aristotle'syounger contemporary. [197] 198 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 33:2 APRIL 1995 Because the doctrine of prime matter arises out of the application of these more general doctrines to certain specific questions about the material elements , disputes about the nature of prime matter soon raise questions about these more general doctrines themselves. If a certain account of prime matter turns out to be problematic, then we have grounds for calling into question the interpretation of the general principles which generated this account. It may be that our view of prime matter is flawed, not because of any particular difficulty in our understanding of the material elements, but because we have misunderstood the general principles we are applying to them. Such is the case, I believe, with one very widespread view of prime matter, a view generally referred to as the traditional doctrine of prime matter. In the following, I undertake to show that the traditional doctrine advances an account of the role of prime matter in the generation, composition, and definition of the four sublunary elements which is untenable. This view of prime matter, I argue, arises from a misunderstanding of the more general principles mentioned above. In addition to this negative task, I undertake the positive one of showing what, in fact, the material substratum of the sublunary elements must be, and what implications this account has for the understanding of the more general principles of Aristotle's metaphysics and natural philosophy which are involved in this question. 1. PRIME MATTER AND PURE POTENTIALITY At first glance, the question of what prime matter is seems straightforward enough. In several places, Aristotle speaks of the "prime matter," or perhaps better, "first matter" (prote hyle) of various perceptible substances. ~Sometimes by this he means the proximate material cause of these substances, that is, the immediate raw materials out of which they are made, for example, the wood of a table or the bronze of a statue. Sometimes, however, 'first matter' refers to the ultimate material cause of a substance, in the sense of the...


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