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Matter and Aristotle's Material Cause

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Christopher Byrne*
St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, NS, CanadaB2G 2W5


If by the term ‘matter’ is meant the extended, movable, and corporeal stuff out of which perceptible objects are made, then, according to one interpretative tradition, there is nothing in Aristotle's account of the world that corresponds to matter in the above sense of physical stuff. Aristotle does indeed describe certain things as extended, movable, and corporeal: for example, the five elements, earth, water, air, fire, and ether, as well as everything made out of them. He also has the concept of a material cause, that is, the raw materials out of which something can be made or generated, and he makes frequent use of this concept in his analysis of perceptible substances. Still, the fact that Aristotle thought about what perceptible substances are made of is insufficient evidence for attributing to him the concept of matter as physical stuff. In addition, we would want to know whether he thought that all perceptible substances are extended, movable, and corporeal precisely because they are made out of matter, and whether any aspect of their behavior is to be explained simply by virtue of their nature as material objects.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 2001

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1 Jaeger, Werner Aristoteles (Berlin: Weidmann 1923), 408Google Scholar; Mansion, A. Introduction a la physique aristotélicienne, 2nd ed. (Lou vain: Institut supérieur de philosophie 1946), 154–5Google Scholar; Ross, W.O. Aristotle, 5th ed. (London: Methuen 1949), 66, 69 & 73;Google Scholar Solmsen, FriedrichAristotle and Prime Matter: A Reply to Hugh R. King,’ Journal of the History of Ideas 19 (1958) 243–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Aristotle's Word for “Matter,“Didascaliae, Prete, S. ed. (New York: B. Rosenthal 1961), 393408Google Scholar. In The Concept of Matter (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press 1963), see McMullin, E. ‘Introduction,’ and ‘Matter as a Principle,’ esp. 201–3Google Scholar; FitzGerald, J.J. “'Matter” in Nature and the Knowledge of Nature: Aristotle and the Aristotelian Tradition,’ esp. 86Google Scholar; J. Owens, ‘Matter and Predication in Aristotle'; N. Luyten, ‘Matter as Potency.’ See also Grene, Marjorie A Portrait of Aristotle (London: Faber & Faber 1963), 196 & 200Google Scholar; Wieland, W. Die aristotelische Physik, 2nd ed. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1970), 140 n.29, 173-87 & 209–11Google Scholar; Williams, C.J.F. Aristotle's De gen. et corr. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1982), 211–19Google Scholar; Fine, K.Aristotle on Matter,’ Mind 101 (1992) 3757CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Hankinson, R.J. Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought (New York: Oxford University Press 1998)Google Scholar, writes: ‘Matter is, for Aristotle, a relational concept (Physics 2.2.194b8-9), and there is no such thing as matter as such: matter is the matter for something’ (130).

2 Phys. II 3, 194b23-195a25. In his Substance, Form and Psyche: An Aristotelian Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988), Montgomery Furth nicely defines a material cause as ‘something susceptible of those more specific determinations not excluded by the degree of differentiation it already incorporates’ (165).

3 Phys. II 3, 195a16-21

4 Meta. V 4, 1015a7-10; VIII 4, 1044a15-25; IX 7, 1049a18-27; Phys. II 1, 193a9-21

5 De gen. anim. I 1, 715a5-12; De part. anim. IT 1, 646a13-24

6 De caelo III 3, 302a16-28; De gen. et carr. I 5, 320b12-14; II 1, 329a8-13, 24-32

7 De caelo I 7, 275b5-7

8 De caelo I 7, 275b7-12. Here Aristotle states both that all bodies that occupy a place are perceptible, and that if something is not in a place, it is not a perceptible body. Taken together, these two statements imply that all and only perceptible bodies occupy a place.

9 At De gen. et corr. I 6, 322b21-24, Aristotle says that action (π?ιϵî?) and affection (π?σχϵι?) require contact, and, at I 6, 323a10-12, that mutual contact is possible only for those things that are discrete magnitudes, capable of moving, and being moved by, one another. Even when the initial efficient cause is not in direct contact with the thing affected, the proximate efficient cause must be, as when a doctor heals a patient by means of a drink: I 7, 324a24-34. At I 7, 323b29-34, he argues that not everything can be affected by just anything else, but that the proximate agent and patient must be the same in genus; in particular, he says that bodies can be affected only by other bodies.

10 De anima II 5, 416b32- 417a6, 14-20, b19-28; 7, 418b4-13, 419a7-15; 11, 423b27-424a5; 12, 424a21-32; III 1, 424b27-30; 12, 434b11-14 & 434b27-435a10; 13, 435a11-19, b7-19

11 De anima II 7, 419a13-21

12 At De anima III 7, 431a4-7, Aristotle says that the sense organ is not affected or altered when perceiving; rather it is brought from a state of potentiality to actuality, in the sense that it comes to exercise its previously inactive capacity. Nevertheless, he wants to preserve his prior claim that perception requires an external object, which is, in some sense, moving and affecting the perceiver. The way he does this is to introduce a special kind of alteration, namely the transition from potentiality to actuality as described above, as distinct from the usual kind of alteration, which always involves the destruction of one state of affairs when its opposite comes to be. The special kind of alteration he introduces, however, still presupposes contact; as a result, the sense organ, indeed the animal itself, can be destroyed if the sense impression is too violent. See De anima II 5, 417a2-b16,418a1-6; 7, 418b4-13,419a12- 15; 11, 424a1-5; 12, 424a21-32; III 1, 424b27-30; 12, 434b11-14 & 434b27-435a10; 13, 435a11-19, b7-19.

13 At De caelo II 7, 289a20-35 and Meteorologica I 3, 341a13-32, Aristotle explains the heat and light produced in the sublunary world by the stars, especially by the sun, as arising from the rubbing of the eternally revolving heavenly spheres against the next contiguous sublunary element, fire, which in turn rubs against air, a process which causes these sublunary elements to ignite. By way of confirmation of this explanation, Aristotle appeals to the heat and light produced in sublunary projectiles by the friction between them and the air through which they move. The comparison between these two instances of rubbing, or friction, suggests that physical contact takes place in the same way in all five elements. Again, at De anima II 7, 418b4-13, Aristotle says that the perception of color presupposes the property of transparency in the intermediate bodies, and that this property is common to water, air, and the ether of the heavenly bodies. Moreover, both fire, in the sublunary world, and ether, in the celestial world, produce light in the same way. Another example of Aristotle's application of terrestrial mechanics to celestial bodies is found in his argument against the Pythagorean theory of the musical harmony of the heavenly spheres. At De caelo II 9, 290b30-291a28, he argues that the motion of the stars is silent because they are surrounded by ether moving in the same direction and speed, just as the motion of a ship drifting downstream in a river is noiseless. Sound, he argues, is produced by a body in motion only if the moving body strikes surrounding bodies that are not in motion or are not moving in the same way.

14 De caelo I 2, 268b15-17; 9, 278b22-279a5; Phys. III 5, 205a10-12, b31-35; IV 4, 211a2-6.

15 Phys. III 1, 200b12-25; Meta. XIII 3, 1077b22-7

16 Phys. VI 4, 234b10-235a10, bl-4; VII 1, 242a40; VIII 6, 258b24-5; 10, 267a22-3

17 Phys. IV 5, 212b28-9; 4, 212a6-7

18 Phys. IV 1, 209a7; 6, 213b20; Degen. et corr. I 5, 321a7-9, b15-16; De anima II 7,418b17

19 De gen. et corr. I 2, 315b24-33; 316b19ff.; 5, 320b14-17, 22-8; II 1, 329a13-24; De caelo III 1, 299a2-11; 7, 306a23-30

20 At Phys. IV 1, 208a31-3; VII 2, 243a39-40; and VIII 7, 260a20-261a28, Aristotle argues that locomotion is the principal and most common kind of change. In particular, at Phys. VIII 7, 260bll-13, he argues that generation and destruction take place by virtue of things coming together (σúγκρισις) and going apart (διάκριοις), which in tum require locomotion. At 261a1-7, he argues again that generation cannot take place without locomotion, there because the efficient cause of the generation must itself move in order to produce its effect. See also De gen. et corr. II 10, 336a20-26; Meta. VIII 1, 1042b2-6; XII 7, 1072b8-9, 1073a12.

21 Meta. II 3, 995a14-18; VI 1, 1025b28-1026a10; Phys. II 2, 193b22-194a27; III 4, 203b30- 204a2; De anima I 1, 403a24-b19; III 7, 431b12-16; De caelo III 1, 299a14-17; De part. anim. I 1, 641a25-27; Post. anal. I 13, 79a7-10

22 Meta. II 3, 995a14-18

23 Degen. anim. IV 10, 778a5-9;Meta. II 3, 995a14-18; Decaelo III 1,298a27-b6;alsoMeta. VI 1, 1025b25-1026a10; Phys. II 2, 193b22-194a27

24 Meta. VI 1, 1025b26-1026a6; De anima I 1, 403a24-b19; De caelo I 9, 277b32-278a10; Phys. II 2, 194a1-7

25 This argument is made by Mansion, A. Introduction, 154-5Google Scholar. It is also made by those who claim that any concept of matter, both now and in the past, is a purely functional one, e.g., McMullin, E. The Concept of Matter, 1-6Google Scholar.

26 Phys. II 2, 194a1-7; Meta. I 8, 989b31-33; VI 1, 1026a2-10; VII 7, 1032a20-2; 10, 1035a24-b3; VIII 5, 1044b27-9; XII 2, 1069b24-6; 3, 1070a15-17

27 De gen. et corr. I 7, 323b18-324a14; Phys. I 5, 188a30-4

28 De gen. et corr. I 6, 322bll-21; Phys. I 7, 190b33-5

29 De gen. et corr. I 7, 324a34-b4; 10, 328a19-22

30 De gen. et corr. I 7, 324b18-22

31 De gen. et corr. I 7, 324b4-6

32 De gen. et corr. I 7, 324a26-b4

33 De gen. et corr. I 6, 323a9-12, 22-5

34 De caelo I 9, 278a10-12, b3-4; also Meta. VIII 1, 1042a25-6

35 Phys. IV 1, 208b22-25; 5, 212b28-9

36 Phys. IV 4, 212a6-7; 5, 212b28-9

37 Phys. IV 2, 209b6-11 & 30-2

38 De caelo III 8, 306b3-29; De gen. et corr. I 5, 320b14-17

39 Phys. III 7, 207b34-208a4

40 Phys. I 7, 190b10-17, 191a12-22

41 Phys. I 5, 188a30-189a10; 7, 190b30-2, 191a15-19; Degen. et corr. I 4, 320a4-5

42 De gen. et corr. I 4, 320a2-3; Phys. I 9, 192a31-2; Meta. VII 7, 1032a15-20; VIII 1, 1042a32-b6

43 Meta. VII 8, 1033a24-b19; 9, 1034b7-19; VIII 1, 1042a29-31; XII 3, 1069b35-1070a4; Phys.I 9,192a25-34

44 Meta. VII 7, 1032a20-5; 15, 1039b27-31; VIII 1, 1042a27-9; 2, 1042b9-11; IX 7, 1049a23; 8, 1050a15, b27; XI 2, 1060a20-1; XII 2, 1069b14; 4, 1070b12; 5, 1071a10; 10, 1075b22; XIV 1, 1088b1; 4, 1092a3; De anima II 1, 412a7-8

45 Meta. VIII 4, 1044b1-3; IX 7, 1049a1-3, 14-16; XII 3, 1070a19-20

46 Phys. II 9, 199b34ff.; De part. anim. I 1, 639b21-640a10, 642a2-b4; De anima I 1, 403b17-18; Meta. VIII 4, 1044a25-9

47 On the relation of hypothetical necessity between material and formal causes, see Cooper, JohnHypothetical Necessity,’ in Aristotle on Nature and Living Things, Gotthelf, Alan ed. (Pittsburgh: Mathesis Publications 1985)Google Scholar. Cooper argues that the material cause is necessary in the way that certain means are required to realize a particular goal: in this case, the actualization of a certain formal cause. Thus, far from explaining the nature of whatever acts as the material cause, this kind of hypothetical necessity presupposes that a certain determinate nature is already found in the material cause, which is then used to achieve the goal in question. In terms of Aristotle's example, one might make this point in the following way. The purpose of the saw, the cutting of wood, explains why it must be made out of something hard, such as iron; the need for something hard, however, does not explain why the material used is hard in the first place.

48 At Meta. VI 1, 1026a2-4; VIII 5, 1044b27-9; VII 7, 1032a20-2; and XII 3, 1070a13-17, Aristotle states that where there is no hyle, there can be no change, and whatever is not subject to change lacks hyle. In other words, there is change if and only if there is hyle. As we have seen, not every material cause will do here because he also tells us that there are many things, such as particular mathematical objects, that are not subject to change, but have material causes. Given his systematic requirements for change, the material cause here must always be something physical, and, ultimately, be made out of matter of some kind.

49 De gen. et corr. II 2, 329b7-24

50 De gen. et corr. I 3, 319a29-b4; 7, 323b29-33; Phys. I 7, 190b33

51 Thus my position does not require that one of the four specific contraries must persist whenever one sublunary element is generated from another. In this I differ from King, H.R.Aristotle without Materia Prima,’ Journal of the History of Ideas 17 (1956) 370–89CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Charlton, W. Appendix to Aristotle's Physics I & II (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1970), 129–45Google Scholar, and ‘Prime Matter: A Rejoinder,’ Phronesis 28 (1983) 197-211; and Gill, M.L. Aristotle on Substance (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1989Google Scholar), who deny that there is a persisting substratum and material cause of perishable substances more fundamental than the four sublunary elements. Gill argues that the material elements are not composite substances, with a material and formal cause of their own, and that the role of the substratum persisting through the generation and destruction of these elements is taken over by their defining contraries because the nature of a composite substance is ‘exhausted by its form’ (see esp. 40,65-7, 163-7). Gill's account is incorrect, I believe, because Aristotle's requirements for change and generation necessitate a persisting substratum that is extended, movable, and corporeal in its own right, independent of the four defining contraries of the sublunary elements. Thus I agree with those commentators who argue that prime matter must be extended and occupy space, e.g., Sokolowski, R.Matter, Elements and Substance in Aristotle,’ Journl of the History of Philosophy 8 (1970) 263–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cohen, S.Aristotle's Doctrine of the Material Substrate,’ Philosophical Review 93 (1984) 171–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and J.W. Dye. One aim of my argument is to show that we first have to be clear about the relation between matter, the material cause, and change, especially locomotion, before we can determine what prime matter is.

52 For the claim that prime matter is pure potentiality, see the authors cited above in note 1, esp. Jaeger, Solmsen, Owens, Luyten, and Grene; see also Robinson, H.M.Prime Matter in Aristotle,’ Phronesis 19 (1974) 168–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Elsewhere, for reasons arising from Aristotle's theory of the elements, I have argued that prime matter cannot be pure potentiality (see my ‘Prime Matter and Actuality’ Journal of the History of Philosophy 33 (1995) 197-224); above I have argued that such a view of prime matter is untenable already on the basis of the general principles of Aristotle's natural science.

53 De gen. et corr. I 4, 320a2-5; Meta. VII 7, 1032a15-17. I would argue that Phys. I 9, 192a31-2 should also be read as referring to the substratum of generation.

54 Phys. II 2, 193b22-35, 194a7-12; De anima II 1, 412a6-9

55 De anima I 1, 403a16-25, b17-19

56 De caelo III 3, 302b5-9; IV 4, 311a30-b3; De gen. et corr. II 8, 334b31-34; Phys. VIII 4, 254b18-20

57 Phys. I 7, 190b10-13

58 Phys. I 7, 189b30-190a13; V 1, 224b1-7; De gen. et corr. I 3, 319b2-4

59 Phys. I 7, 190a14-17, 190b10-17, 22-5, 33-191a3; 9, 192a3-6; Meta. VII 8, 1033b12-13; De gen. et corr. I 3, 319a29-b2; 5, 320b12-14

60 On the indeterminacy of the material cause, see Phys. I 7, 191a8-14; IV 2, 209bl-11; Meta. IV 4, 1007b28-9; VII 3, 1029a20-6; VII 11, 1037a21-34; IX 7, 1049b2; XIII 10, 1087a16; on its potentiality: Meta. VIII 1, 1042a27-29; IX 6, 1048b3-6; 8, 1050a15; XII 2, 1069b14-15; 4, 1070b12-13; De anima II 1, 412a7-10.

61 Phys. I 3, 186a28-34; 7, 190a14-17, b23-5, b36-191a3; 9, 192a3-6, 20-5; De gen. et corr. I 3, 319a29-b4.