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Hylomorphism in General

In De Anima, Aristotle makes extensive use of technical terminology introduced and explained elsewhere in his

writings. He claims, for example, using vocabulary derived from his physical and metaphysical theories, that the

soul is a “first actuality of a natural organic body” (De Anima ii 1, 412b5-6), that it is a “substance as form of a

natural body which has life in potentiality” (De Anima ii 1, 412a20-1) and, similarly, that it “is a first actuality of a

natural body which has life in potentiality” (De Anima ii 1, 412a27-8), all claims which apply to plants, animals

and humans alike.

In characterizing the soul and body in these ways, Aristotle applies concepts drawn from his broader

hylomorphism, a conceptual framework which underlies virtually all of his mature theorizing. It is accordingly

necessary to begin with a brief overview of that framework. Thereafter it will be possible to recount Aristotle’s

general approach to soul-body relations, and then, finally, to consider his analyses of the individual faculties of


`Hylomorphism’ is simply a compound word composed of the Greek terms for matter (hul?) and form or shape

(morph?); thus one could equally describe Aristotle’s view of soul and body as an instance of his “matter-formism”.

That is, when he introduces the soul as the form of the body, which in turn is said to be the matter of the soul,

Aristotle treats soul-body relations as a special case of a more general relationship which obtains between the

components of all generated compounds, natural or artifactual.

The notions of form and matter are themselves, however, developed within the context of a general theory of

causation and explanation which appears in one guise or another in all of Aristotle’s mature works. According to

this theory, when we wish to explain what there is to know, for example, about a bronze statue, a complete account

necessarily alludes to at least the following four factors: the statue’s matter, its form or structure, the agent

responsible for that matter’s manifesting its form or structure, and the purpose for which the matter was made to

realize that form or structure. These four factors he terms the four causes (aitiai):

The material cause: that from which something is generated and out of which it is made, e.g. the bronze of a


The formal cause: the structure which the matter realizes and in terms of which the matter comes to be something

determinate, e.g. the Hermes shape in virtue of which this quantity of bronze is said to be a statue of Hermes.

The efficient cause: the agent responsible for a quantity of matter’s coming to be informed, e.g. the sculptor who

shaped the quantity of bronze into its current Hermes shape.

The final cause: the purpose or goal of the compound of form and matter, e.g. the statue was created for the

purpose of honoring Hermes.

For a broad range of cases, Aristotle implicitly makes twin claims about these four causes: (i) a complete

explanation requires reference to all four; and (ii) once such reference is made, no further explanation is required.

Thus, when appropriate, appeal to the four causes is both necessary and sufficient for complete and adequate

explanation. Although not all things which admit of explanation have all four causes, e.g. geometrical figures are

not efficiently caused, even a brief overview of his psychological writings reveals that Aristotle regards all four

causes as in play in the explanation of living beings. A monkey, for example, has matter, its body; form, its soul;

an efficient cause, its parent; and a final cause, its function. Moreover, he holds that the form is the actuality of the

body which is its matter: an indeterminate lump of bronze becomes a statue only when it realizes some particular

statue-shape. So, Aristotle suggests, that matter is potentially some F until it acquires an actualizing form, when it

becomes actually F. Given his overarching explanatory schema, it is hardly surprising that Aristotle should

advance a hylomorphic account of soul and body; this is, for him, standard explanatory procedure.

Still, it is noteworthy that this four-causal framework of explanation is developed initially in response to some

puzzles about change and generation. Aristotle argues with some justification that all change and generation

require the existence of something complex: when a statue comes to be from a lump of bronze, there is some

continuing subject, the bronze, and something it comes to acquire, its new form. Thus the statue is, and must be, a

certain kind of compound, one of form and matter. Without this type of complexity, generation would be

impossible; since generation in fact occurs, form and matter must be genuine features of generated compounds.

Similarly, but less obviously, qualitative change requires much the same apparatus: when a statue is painted, there

is some continuing subject, the statue, and a new feature acquired, its new color. Here too there is complexity, and

complexity which is readily articulated in terms of form and matter, but now of form which is evidently inessential

to the continued existence of the entity whose form it is. The statue continues to exist, but receives a form which is

accidental to it; it might lose that form without going out of existence. By contrast, should the statue lose its

essential form, as would happen for example if the bronze which constitutes it were melted, divided, and recast as

twelve dozen letter openers, it would cease to exist altogether.

For the purposes of understanding Aristotle’s psychology, the origin of Aristotle’s hylomorphism is significant for

two reasons. First, from its inception, Aristotle’s hylomorphism exploits two distinct but related notions of form,

one of which is essential to the compound whose form it is, and the other of which is accidental to its subject. In

advancing his view of the soul and its capacities, Aristotle employs both of these notions: the soul is an essential

form, whereas perception involves the acquisition of accidental forms. Second, because Aristotle’s hylomorphism

was initially developed to handle puzzles of change and generation, its deployment in philosophical psychology is

sometimes strained, insofar as Aristotle is not immediately willing to treat every instance of perception and thought

as a straightforward instance of change in some continuing subject.

Hylomorphic Soul-Body Relations

In applying his general hylomorphism to soul-body relations, Aristotle contends that the following general analogy


soul : body : : form : matter : : Hermes-shape : bronze

If the soul bears the same relation to the body which the shape of a statue bears to its material basis, then we should

expect some general features to be common to both; and we should be able to draw some immediate consequences

regarding the relationship between soul and body. To begin, some questions about the unity of soul and body, an

issue of concern to substance dualists and materialists alike, receive a ready response. Materialists hold that all

mental states are also physical states; substance dualists deny this, because they hold that the soul is a subject of

mental states which can exist alone, when separated from the body. In a certain way, the questions which give rise

to this dispute simply fall by the wayside. If we do not think there is an interesting or important question

concerning whether the Hermes-shape and its material basis are one, we should not suppose there is a special or

pressing question about whether the soul and body are one. So Aristotle contends: “It is not necessary to ask

whether soul and body are one, just as it is not necessary to ask whether the wax and its shape are one, nor

generally whether the matter of each thing and that of which it is the matter are one. For even if one and being are

spoken of in several ways, what is properly so spoken of is the actuality” (De Anima ii 1, 412b6-9). Aristotle does

not here eschew questions concerning the unity of soul and body as meaningless; rather, he seems, in a deflationary

vein, to suggest that they are readily answered or somehow unimportant. If we do not spend time worrying about

whether the wax of a candle and its shape are one, then we should not exercise ourselves over the question of

whether the soul and body are one. The effect, then, is to fit soul-body relations into a larger pattern of explanation,

hylomorphism, in terms of which questions of unity do not normally arise.

It should be emphasized, however, that Aristotle does not here decide the question by insisting that the soul and

body are identical, or even that they are one in some weaker sense; indeed, this is something he evidently denies

(De Anima ii 1, 412a17; ii 2, 414a1-20). Instead, just as one might well insist that the wax of a candle and its

shape are distinct, on the grounds that the wax could easily exist when the particular shape is no more, or, less

obviously, that the particular shape could survive the replenishment of its material basis, so one might equally deny

that the soul and body are identical. In a fairly direct way, though, the question of whether soul and body are one

loses its force when it is allowed that it contains no implications beyond those we establish for any other

hylomorphic compound, including houses and other ordinary artifacts.

One way of appreciating this is to consider a second general moral Aristotle derives from hylomorphism. This

concerns the question of the separability of the soul from the body, a possibility embraced by substance dualists

from the time of Plato onward. Aristotle’s hylomorphism commends the following attitude: if we do not think that

the Hermes-shape persists after the bronze is melted and recast, we should not think that the soul survives the

demise of the body. So, Aristotle claims, “It is not unclear that the soul?or certain parts of it, if it naturally has

parts?is not separable from the body” (De Anima ii 1, 413a3-5). So, unless we are prepared to treat forms in general

as capable of existing without their material bases, we should not be inclined to treat souls as exceptional cases.

Hylomorphism, by itself, gives us no reason to treat souls as separable from bodies, even if we think of them as

distinct from their material bases. At the same time, Aristotle does not appear to think that his hylomorphism

somehow refutes all possible forms of dualism. For he appends to his denial of the soul’s separability the

observation that some parts of the soul may in the end be separable after all, since they are not the actualities of any

part of the body (De Anima ii 1, 413a6-7). Aristotle here prefigures his complex attitude toward mind (nous), a

faculty he repeatedly describes as exceptional among capacities of the soul.

Still, in general, the soul is the form of the body in much the same way the form of a house structures the bricks

and mortar from which it is built. When the bricks and mortar realize a certain shape, they manifest the function

definitive of houses, namely that of providing shelter. Thus, the presence of the form makes those bricks and that

mortar a house, as opposed, e.g., to a wall or an oven. As we have seen, Aristotle will say that the bricks and

mortar, as matter, are potentially a house, until they realize the form appropriate to houses, in which case the form

and matter together make an actual house. So, in Aristotle’s terms, the form is the actuality of the house, since its

presence explains why this particular quantity of matter comes to be a house as opposed to some other kind of


In the same way, then, the presence of the soul explains why this matter is the matter of a human being, as opposed

to some other kind of thing. Now, this way of looking at soul-body relations as a special case of form-matter

relations treats reference to the soul as an integral part of any complete explanation of a living being, of any kind.

To this degree, Aristotle thinks that Plato and other dualists are right to stress the importance of the soul in

explanations of living beings. At the same time, he sees their commitment to the separability of the soul from the

body as unmotivated by a mere appeal to formal causation: he will allow that the soul is distinct from the body, and

is indeed the actuality of the body, but he sees that these concessions by themselves provide no grounds for

supposing that the soul can exist without the body. His hylomorphism, then, embraces neither reductive

materialism nor Platonic dualism. Instead, it seeks to steer a middle course between these alternatives by pointing

out, implicitly, and rightly, that these are not exhaustive options.

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