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Pri me Matter and Actual i ty CHRI S T OP HE R BYRNE AT FIRST GLANCE, t he quest i on concer ni ng t he na t ur e of pr i me mat t er seems t o be one o f t he mor e ar cane and mar gi nal poi nt s of Ari st ot el i an schol arshi p. Af t er all, it concer ns t he ul t i mat e mat er i al cause out of whi ch all per i shabl e subst ances are made, and this t ur ns out to be t he mat er i al cause of j us t t he f our s ub
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  Prime Matter and ctuality CHRISTOPHER BYRNE AT FIRST GLANCE, he 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 is just 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 mat- ter 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 mat- ter requires the application of several of the most general and fundamental principles of Aristotle s metaphysics and natural philosophy. According to Richard Sorabji, Matter Space and Motion: Theories in Antiquity and Their Sequel (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988 , ch. l, the debate about prime matter is at least as old as Theophrastus, Aristotle s younger 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 ele- ments, 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 gener- ally 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 men- tioned 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 most fundamen- tal and primitive materials out of which that substance is made. This distinc- tion between the proximate and the ultimate material cause arises because something that serves as a proximate material cause may turn out to be analyz- able itself as a composite object, with a formal and a material cause of its own. The wood out of which a table is made, for example, is itself made out of something more primitive, say, water and earth. The result is a hierarchical arrangement of substances, in which something can both act as the material cause for some other, higher-level substance, as well as having a material cause of its own. Aristotle evidently sees this hierarchical ordering as finite in both Meta. V.4.1ol5a7--10 24.10~3a26--~9; VIII.4.1o44a15ff.; IX.7. xo49a18-27; Phys. II.1. 193a9 t.  PRIME MATTER AND ACTUALITY 99 directions; at the highest level, it results in something to which no further formal cause can be added, and, at the lowest, in something which does not itself have a material cause. The latter is the first material cause simply, that is, the ultimate material cause of all the superordinate substances made out of it. The debate about prime matter concerns the ultimate and most fundamen- tal material cause out of which perceptible substances are made. Knowing that prime matter, in this sense, is a material cause does not yet tell us what kind of thing it is. As set out within Aristotle s doctrine of the four causes, a material cause is defined simply as that out of which something is made or put to- gether.3 As such, it is one of a pair of correlative causes or explanatory factors, the other being the formal cause: the material cause consists of the raw materi- als out of which something is made; the formal cause determines the nature of the object in question, in the sense that it determines how these raw materials are to be put together to produce an object of a certain kind. Thus, within Aristotle s theory of explanation, the terms material cause hyle) and formal cause eidos), or, as they are often translated, matter and form , do not by themselves refer to any particular kind of thing.4 Something acts as a material or a formal cause only with respect to a certain object or class of objects, and it does so solely by virtue of the role it plays in the composition, generation, or definition of those objects. Thus, calling something a material cause does not, by itself, attribute any intrinsic properties to it. In particular, a material cause is not always matter, in the sense of physical stuff. The material elements do seem, for Aristotle, to be the best examples of material causes inasmuch as they are the examples he typically uses. Nevertheless, he also refers to certain things as material causes which are clearly not material objects, for example, the letters of the alphabet or the premisses of a syllogism. The notion of a material cause, then, is not restricted to physical substances, and even with respect to the latter, it is not restricted to just one kind of thing. Something is a material cause simply because it serves as that out of which something else is made. Something is prime matter if, and only if, it serves as the ultimate material cause out of which one or more substances are made. The passages in which Aristotle explicitly uses the term first matter do not indicate whether there is any one thing which acts as the ultimate material cause of all perceptible substances. Different formal causes require different proximate material causes for their actualization, and the doctrine of the four 3Phys. II.3.194b16-a95a25. 4 Since my main contention is that prime matter, in the sense of the ultimate material cause of the elements, must be matter, in the sense of physical stuff, henceforth I shall translate hyle simply as material cause , and not as matter . I hope this way to avoid both confusion and simply begging the question at issue.
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