Aristotle’s Concept of Matter and Form: definition and examples

Aristotle’s Metaphysics seeks, first of all, the principles and causes of all reality, so he called this science, whose object is being as a being, First Philosophy. We have seen that the concept of substance plays a central role in Aristotelian metaphysical thought.

For the Stagyrian, all reality is composed of matter and form. This metaphysical theory became known as hilemorphism.

But what is matter and form for Aristotle?

What is matter and form?

Aristotle observed that all things existing in our world are composed of two principles:

  • Matter (hyle, in Greek): what a thing is made of.

Everything that exists in the world is composed of this material principle: men, animals, a bacterium, a computer, etc.

According to Aristotle, matter is an indeterminate principle; its main characteristic is to be the foundation of all becoming, of all change. Therefore, he also identifies matter with potency.

  • Form (morphé, in Greek): is what determines matter.

Form is the principle that determines matter, making it an individual being: man, stone, animal, etc. One can say that form is what gives being to matter.

That is why matter and form are also related to the principles of act and potency: matter is potency, form is act.

It is worth pointing out that form, in this metaphysical sense, does not mean some kind of figure, for example, the rectangular or circular shape of an object.

Form and matter, for Aristotle, are intrinsic metaphysical principles of reality, and therefore cannot be understood as things.

The becoming for Aristotle

We always emphasize that these Aristotelian metaphysical concepts also have the objective of explaining the great problem of ancient philosophy, which is the becoming, the movement. In Aristotle’s view, when a thing changes it passes from potency to act, that is, matter takes on a new form, a new determination. For example, when a bar of gold is melted down and is transformed into a chain, it preserves its material substratum (gold) and receives a new form (chain).

Pure form and pure matter do not exist in nature

The material principle isolated from form does not exist in nature, nor does form alone. One depends on the other, because as already said, matter is pure potentiality, totally indeterminate.

What we find in our sensible world are only beings (substances) already composed of the material and formal principles

So, a word of advice: to understand all these metaphysical concepts discussed here, we should not try to imagine them, that is, try to create images of them. It is not possible, since they are obviously metaphysical concepts (beyond the physical plane).

Metaphysics is an invitation to pure thinking without imagination!

References

Aristóteles. (2001). Metafísica, ensaio introdutório, texto grego com tradução e comentário de Giovanni Reale, (Trad. Marcelo Perine). Vol. I e II. São Paulo: Edições Loyola.

Jolivet, R. (1975). Vocabulário de Filosofia. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Agir.

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