Introduction to Classical Christian Metaphysics – Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 we introduced the metaphysical principles of act and potency. In part 2 we introduce the metaphysical principles of form and matter.

Ordinary objects of our experience are composed of two metaphysical principles – form and matter.  Edward Feser explains these principles, again using a rubber ball:

The rubber ball of our example is composed of a certain kind of matter (namely rubber) and a certain kind of form (namely the form of a red, round, bouncy object). The matter by itself isn’t the ball, for the rubber could take on the form of a doorstop, an eraser, or any number of other things. The form by itself isn’t the ball either, for you can’t bounce redness, roundness, or even bounciness down the hallway, these being mere abstractions. It is only the form and matter together that constitute the ball.

The form thus determines what a thing is.  In this sense, the form of an object is sometimes called its essence or nature.  Feser explains that matter

will always have some substantial form or other, and thus count as a substance of some kind or other; . . . The notion of prime matter is just the notion of something in pure potentiality with respect to having any kind of form, and thus with respect to being any kind of thing at all. . . . [W]hat is purely potential has no actuality at all, and thus does not exist at all.

It should be noted that the Aristotelian-Thomistic notion of “form” is not the same as Plato’s notion.  Plato held that forms only exist in a realm wholly apart from the material world.  For Aquinas, the forms are instantiated in individual substances which exist in the world.  Apart from substances, forms are abstractions, but they are nonetheless real things, not mere human inventions.

Feser comments, “When we grasp [forms such as] ‘humanity,’ ‘triangularity,’ and the like, what we grasp are not mere inventions of the human mind, but are grounded in the natures of real human beings, triangles, or what have you.”

In part 3 we will look at the famous four causes.

  • sean

    I am very intrigued by these posts. I don’t think this is an idea I’ve come across before in my conversations with Christians. Let me make sure I have it straight.

    Act: describes the way an object is, It’s traits.
    Potency: Describes the potential for a thing to be, but isn’t. If some aspect of potency becomes an actual characteristic of something, we stop describing it as potency, and start describing it as act.
    Matter: describes what an object is made of
    Form: describes how those elements are arranged

    I think I understand these concepts individually, and let me know if I’m wrong, but I’m curious how they relate to each-other. (Maybe this is the topic of your next post, and if so, I’m more than happy to just wait for that and have the discussion then)

    I’m not very confident in my interpretation here, but from my current understanding;

    Potency is at the top, organizationally. It describes all the ways a thing can be.

    Within the subset of that are the things that it currently is: acts.

    Acts describe what/how a thing is. So form and matter are a sunset of this, describing different aspects of how a thing is, namely, the stuff it’s made of, and how it moves in spacetime.

    How’s my understanding?

  • Sean,
    Your definitions at the top of your comment are more or less correct. All four of these principles describe an aspect of being (or existence).

    Act is the principle that refers to the state of actually existing.

    Potency is the principle that refers to the state of potentially existing.

    Form is the principle that refers to what an existing thing is.

    Matter is the principle that refers to what the existing thing is made of.

    Subsequent blog posts will continue to expand on these principles and introduce others. In order to keep these things straight, I would recommend continually going back to Feser’s application of these principles to the rubber ball. That always helps me!

  • Hello Bill.

    In what sense can we say that these notions are specifically relevant for Christianity?

    Moreover, hasn’t such a metaphysics been made obsolete by the modern scientific method and worldview?

    I do like philosophical questions related to science and faith and deal with them on my blog.
    I’m eager to reading your next thoughts!

    Kind regards from Germany.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Paradox

    Edward Feser more or less articulated something I myself have been trying to put into words for some time now; even though matter is continuous (according to Aristotle), we should still expect the existence of atoms, electrons, quarks, and so forth: the atom is just a form that matter takes on, and the same is true for all other kinds of particles.

    I should definitely get an account on Amazon, if only for the books you recommend. Better yet, get a Kindle while I’m at it.