Substantial form

Substantial form

A theory of Substantial forms asserts there are things called Forms (or Ideas), and they are what organizes matter and makes it intelligible. Substantial forms are the source of order, unity, and identity of objects. Substantial forms are what is delivered to us through sensation and thus are a solution to the problem of universals.

The idea of substantial forms dominates greek philosophy and medieval philosophy, but has fallen out of favour in modern philosophy. [David Banach. What Killed Substantial Form? [] ] The idea of substantial forms has been abandoned for a mechanical, or “bottom-up” organization. [Benjamin Hill. Substantial Forms and the Rise of Modern Science [] ]


Platonic Forms

Plato maintains in the Phaedo regarding our knowledge of equals: “Do they [equal things] seem to us to be equal in the same sense as what is Equal itself? Is there somedeficiency in their being such as the Equal, or is there not?
* [Simias] -A considerable deficiency. Whenever someone, on seeing something, realizes that that which he now seeswants to be like some other reality but falls short and cannot be like that other since it is inferior,do we agree that the one who thinks this must have prior knowledge of that to which he says it islike, but deficiently so?
* [Simmias] Necessarily. … We must then possess knowledge of theEqual before that time when we first saw the equal objects and realized that all these objectsstrive to be like the Equal but are deficient in this.”

Aristotelian forms

Aristotle was the first to distinguish between matter ("hyle") and form ("morphe"). To Aristotle matter is the undifferentiated primal element: it is rather that from which things develop than a thing in itself. The development of particular things from this germinal matter consists in differentiation, the acquiring of particular forms of which the knowable universe consists (cf. causation for the Aristotelian formal cause). The perfection of the form of a thing is its entelechy in virtue of which it attains its fullest realization of function (De anima, ii. 2). Thus the entelechy of the body is the soul. The origin of the differentiation process is to be sought in a prime mover, i.e. pure form entirely separate from all matter, eternal, unchangeable, operating not by its own activity but by the impulse which its own absolute existence excites in matter.

Early adoption

Both Platonic and Aristotelian forms appear in medieval philosophy.Medieval theologians, newly exposed to Aristotle's philosophy, applied hylomorphism to Christianity, such as to the transubstantiation of the Eucharist's bread and wine to the body and blood of Jesus. Theologians such as Duns Scotus developed Christian applications of hylomorphism.The Aristotelian conception of form was adopted by the Scholastics, to whom, however, its origin in the observation of the physical universe was an entirely foreign idea. The most remarkable adaptation is probably that of Aquinas, who distinguished the spiritual world with its subsistent forms (formae separatae) from the material with its inherent forms which exist only in combination with matter.

cientific rejection

The scientific alternative is that the order we observe is the result of a conglomeration of different properties and forces. All can be reduced to Mechanism, Physicalism, Atomism.

Mixtions and Monsters

A mixtion is a special kind of mixture, a mixture of the strongest sort in which the result of the mixing is a completely new substance rather than some mere blend of the mixed ingredients. Such examples come upmost frequently in chemical experiments whose results have radically different and new properties, properties that none of the ingredients previously exhibited.

Being abstract universals, substantial forms are immutable and incorruptible andought always to operate in the same way, or at least within a narrow range of “normal". A monster is a creature that does not follow this rule.

Explanatory power

The ancients tried to use the substantial form of a thing to explain its actions - ie. 'Glass breaks because it has the form of brittle.' However, since we have no independent access to the form, we only know the substantial form of a thing by its actions. Thus this explanation is circular; as Moliere jokes:

Explaining something by its substantial form is like explaining that opium puts you to sleep because of its dormative nature.Fact|date=August 2008

Descartes concurred. Referring to substantial forms, he says:

They were introduced by philosophers solely to account for the proper action of natural things, of which they were supposed to be the principles and bases . . . But no natural action at all can be explained by these substantial forms, since their defenders admit that they are occult, and that they do not understand them themselves. If they say that some action proceeds from a substantial form, it is as if they said it proceeds from something they do not understand; which explains nothing. [Descartes. “Letter to Regius,” January 1642, in Ouevres de Descartes. ]

Efforts to return

Leibniz made efforts to return to forms.

Morphic field- Rupert Sheldrake proposes that there is a 'field' within and around a morphic unit which organizes its characteristic structure and pattern of activity.


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