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The Paradox of Prime Matter DANIEL W. GRAHAM TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATIONS OF Aristotle hold that he posited the existence of prime matter--a purely indeterminate substratum underlying all material composition and providing the ultimate potentiality for all material existence. A number of revisionary interpretations have appeared in the last thirty years which deny that Aristotle had a concept of prime matter, provoking an even larger number of vigorous defenses claiming that he did have the concept? The traditionalists are clearly in the majority, but some obstacles stand in the way of a general acceptance of prime matter as an Aristotelian concept. In a recent contribution to the debate, William Charlton , an opponent of prime matter, has pointed out that the opposing parties have reached a stalemate in large measure because most of the relevant texts are ambiguous; consequently, "the question whether or not [Aristotle] believed in prime matter really comes down to the question how far, if at all, it is demanded by his philosophy as a whole. "~ It seems to me that Charlton is right to shift the focus of the debate from questions of textual exegesis to questions of systematic relevance. However, within the context of Aristotle's general theory of change, the challenge implicit in his statement can be met, for the concept of prime matter and its associated doctrine is the product of a series of ontological and scientific i Friedrich Solmsen, "Aristotle and Prime Matter," Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (a958): 243-52 and A. R. Lacey,"The Eleatics and Aristotle on Some Problems of Change," ibid. 26 (1965): 451-68; reply to H. R. King's argument against prime matter, "Aristotle Without Prime Matter," ibid. 17 (1956): 37o-89; H. M. Robinson, "Prime Matter in Aristotle," Phronesis 19 (1974): 168-88 and C. J. F. Williams, Aristotle De Generatione et Corrpuptione, Oxford (1982), Appendix reply to an appendix rejecting prime matter in W. Charlton's Aristotle's Physics Books I-H (Oxford, 197o). See also Alan Code, "The Persistence of Aristotelian Matter," Philosophical Studies 29 0976): 357-67, who defends the traditional interpretation of matter against Barrington Jones, "Aristotle's Introduction of Matter," Philosophical Review 83 (1974): 474-5~ See also Russell M. Dancy, "Aristotle's Second Thoughts on Substance," Philosophical Review 87 (1978): 372-413 9 William Charlton, "Prime Matter: A Rejoinder," Phronesis 28 (1983): a97-2a a, 197. [475] 476 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY ~5:4 OCT 1987 commitments made by Aristotle. At the same time, opponents of prime matter have a legitimate basis for criticizing the tradition, for there is something fundamentally wrong with the doctrine. Given Aristotle's assumptions and commitments, the doctrine of prime matter is not only dialectically inevitable but also systematically incoherent. In this paper I shall not defend the existence of a doctrine of prime matter in Aristotle's philosophy, although my argument will provide an incidental justification for it by exhibiting its function within Aristotle's system. My aim here is to explain what is wrong with the doctrine of prime matter. (1) I shall examine a problem concerning prime matter--a problem of which Aristotle was aware and which he thought he had solved. (2) I shall argue that he did not solve the problem, for the doctrine of prime matter entails a paradox for his system. (3) I shall reply to some objections, and (4) I shall offer a tentative diagnosis of how Aristotle could have come to embrace a paradoxical position. 1. According to Aristotle's theory of change, there is a substratum which underlies every change (Ph. 1.7.19oa33ff). When a thing changes its features, we call that accidental change and identify the substratum as substance. When a thing comes into being or ceases to be, we call that substantial change3 and identify the substratum as matter.4 The most simple bodies of the Aristotelian cosmos are the four traditional "elements": earth, air, fire, and water.5The elements are characterized by the contrary powers hot, cold, wet, and dry. Each element has one member of the contrary pair hot-cold, and one of the contrary pair wet-dry (Gen. Corr. 2.2-3). For Aristotle, it is...


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