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How Scholars Work and Some Thoughts on the Prime Matter Arguments

I just had one of those moments where all the things that I have previously read on a subject came together with clarity in a moment.  My epiphany was that I realized that several pieces of secondary literature that had become important to me were situated in a scholarly dispute that waged in the literature about forty years ago and this contextualization helped me see what they were actually fighting over.

When I was finishing my dissertation, I would watch The Wire sometimes as I worked.  One day I was slogging through and I was like, omg, I’m a philosophical detective!  I’m trying to figure out how to make a case with the facts in front of me.  That was my feeling this week working through arguments about prime matter.  It was like, I knew the facts of the case, but the way this argument got staked out made sense of things I had been staring out for months.  I think every scholarly new project involves pulling a bunch of pieces together and trying to find ways to fit them together.  This is why it feels like detective work: what allows all these different pieces to add up to some coherent sense?

When I was coming through graduate school arguments weren’t even really made about prime matter, people just kind of dismissed the possibility that there was prime matter.  It was like the case was solved, and everyone knew the answer so they didn’t have to prosecute their case anymore.  For a long time, I didn’t need to know how the case was solved against prime matter in order to do my work.  But now, it turns out, while I thought this was just a side part of my argument, it turns out the arguments about prime matter extend to and influence Aristotle’s metaphysics as a whole.  So to share some of my insight, I thought I’d just list the disputes that emerge from the question of prime matter – really this is for those of you who think that disputes over prime matter are peripheral to Aristotle’s metaphysics, which in some circles it really has become.

Prime matter is that underlying thing that must remain through change and makes change possible.  Aristotle’s references to a first matter or a common matter in a number of different places in the corpus are used to argue that he refers to an existing thing that remains and makes change possible.  If there is no prime matter, they argue, then the most basic elements seem to come to be from nothing, so there must be something that underlies them that explains how they change into one another.  But with it, the argument runs against inconsistencies for how to think about whether material is anything at all and therefore whether it can do the work it is posited in order to do.

Resistance to the Tradition, which supported the notion of prime matter, started in the 1950s with the work of Hugh R. King.  King argues that early interpreters who were trying to make Aristotle compatible with Plato are responsible for turning references to a first or common material in particular situations into a posited thing of its own as an ingredient.  King argues that these views made prime matter into Platonic khora — that which had no being of its own but was purely potential, capable of taking on any form, like a womb that had no meaning of its own but through which everything that came to be could come to be.  This interest in making Aristotle consistent with Plato made Aristotelian generation into a process of participation where matter dropped one form and took on another.  Barrington Jones in the 1970s and William Charlton in the 1980s sided with King.  Against King and in support of prime matter were Solmsen and Robinson.  In the 80s, Kosman enters the dispute against prime matter followed by Mary Louise Gill.  Sheldon Cohen and more recently Christopher Byrne join in support of prime matter. (This is in no way an exhaustive list, but these were some of the players.)

Their points of contestation, I would argue, are not about how to read any particular passage in Aristotle, but about how the whole of Aristotle’s account of natural generation works.  I’m sharing this list because I think many people just assume that there is prime matter in Aristotle and are unaware of the points of contestation, which shows I think how deeply positions on prime matter in Aristotle affect thinking on his metaphysics.  So here are at least some of the points of contestation:

  1. Whether matter and substratum are equated in Metaphysics Z 3: the traditional view as it that they are and thus both are dismissed as candidates for substance, the view against prime matter argues that form becomes the better candidate for substratum and that substratum as substance is what Aristotle is concerned with addressing in this chapter.
  2. Whether either material or substratum should be understood as that which is pure potentiality, being without character.
  3. Whether the elements have a common matter that explains elemental change in On Generation and Corruption: the traditional view is that they must in order to change into one another (a dispute remains over whether that must is a logical or temporal claim), the view against prime matter is that the elemental forces underlie the change and so what underlies is different in each change (dry underlies the change from fire to air, cold the change from air to water, etc.).  This dispute also depends on how to read the way that the elements are common or have something in common at De Caelo 312a30, a dispute that depends on translation disputes.
  4. Whether the material that a substance is made from is the same that it is made out of (generative vs. constitutive material, generic vs. functional material), a dispute that is situated in readings of Physics A 7.  This point differs for artificial things for whom the same material can be both generative and constitutive — a box is made from wood and the wood continues in the box, though as some argue the wood becomes different in the box, but the box can still return to wood.  By contrast a human being comes from a seed or an embryo but is not made up of seed or embryo and will not return to seed or embryo.
  5. How substratum is to be understood in accidental versus substantial change (this might be another way of arguing over whether substratum is material in all change or form in substantial change and some other composite in accidental change, whether of artifact or attribute, which is connected to whether substratum in artifice is analogous to substratum in natural generation).
  6. The degree to which a substratum is itself always a composite.
  7. The extent to which material in natural substances being wholly for form has its own character: as physical extended object (Byrne) or as in its generic elemental character (Gill and Lang).  This dispute is related to the the degree to which material as a cause can be understood on the same terms as modern matter — extended, movable and corporeal.
  8. Whether change from potential to actual for Aristotle is from privative to positive change or from positive to positive change.
  9. Whether Aristotle’s first definition of nature in Metaphysics V captures his view of nature or the way that people speak of it.
  10. Whether first matter means something more like closest material, the first matter of this particular thing, i.e., its proximate matter.
  11. Whether something insubstantial (prime matter) must persist through substantial change for it to be possible.

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