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What it Means to Be a Human Person – Part 10 – Hylomorphism

         The Aristotelian, and the Thomist, recognizes a little bit of truth in the Platonist account of change, a little bit of truth in the Naturalist account of change, as well as a little bit of error on each side. The Thomistic or Aristotelian Philosopher, therefore, sits in the middle and responds to the problem of change by claiming that change is real; but, that there is something that persists through change, and maintains the identity of the thing in question. That which persists through the change, in order for us to be able to know it, must be in the changing thing. If it is not in the thing itself, then we can have no knowledge because every time we think that we know the thing in question,  it has once again changed and is totally different. We are material beings, and are dependant on our senses in order to gain knowledge of the mind-exterior world. Our knowledge, however, is not restricted to that knowledge which we gain through our senses; we are also capable of deducing truths about the world from the knowledge that we gain through our senses. Therefore, knowledge begins with sensible knowledge of the particular,[1] and through deduction it develops beyond what our senses are capable of telling us.

           In all change, that is, every time one thing becomes another (or different), there must be some common element, a beginning point, and a point of termination. Without this common element, no change is possible; all that can be said, is that at Time, t1, we observe thing 'A'; at t2 we observe thing 'B'; at t3 we observe 'C', and so on. Without that common element there can be no continuity between each instance, and, therefore, each new instance must be taken as a new entity (This is the claim that David Hume makes, as we saw in the preveious posting). This is where hylomorphism comes in. All sensible, material things are composed of matter and form, not as “two things joined together, but one thing consisting of two constitutive principles, each of which plays an essential role in bringing the other, and hence the whole, hylomorphic entity into being.”[2] In other words, material things are composed of matter and form, act and potency, soul and body, not as two substances that are somehow joined together in an accidental unity (as with Platonism, and the Cartesian view of man, known as Substance Dualism), but as two substantial principles which together compose one complete substance. We discussed important terms in a previous post, but, just by way of reminder, substance can be defined as "the same essence considered as that which renders a being apt to exist in itself and not in another - i.e., not as a part of any other being - and which therefore functions as the principle of unity holding together all its various accidental attributes and the abiding principle of its self-identity down through all its accidental changes across time."[3] Therefore, what we are saying above is that the human being, as a material being which is composed of two 'substantial' principles (a principle can be defined as that from which another thing flows, the source of that thing), matter and form, is one substance. 

            It should now be evident how this description of the human being both agrees and disagrees with  the Platonic, and Materialist (Naturalistic), views of human nature. We affirm, along with the Materialist, that humans are one substance. We disagree with the claim that Matter alone is the principle of this substance. We affirm, along with the Platonist, that there are two principles to human nature, the material and the immaterial. However, we disagree with the claim that these two principles are separate substances. Hylomorphism, when it is properly understood, entails some very important consequences.

First of all, with respect to the object of man’s knowledge (sensible things, and that which can be deduced from our sensible knowledge), it can be known, because the form of the thing known is that which makes the object a substantial being which is able to persist through change. Therefore, a human-being is able to know the thing through its form (nature, or essence). Klubertanz explains change as follows, “first of all, a real change involves a subject which is present throughout the change…Secondly, after a process of real change, the thing which changed is different…The subject of change must have either acquired something which it did not have in act before or lost something which it had in act or lost one characteristic and acquired another.”[4] We are able to know material things through change because of their forms, which are abstracted from the material thing by the human intellect.

Second, it is the human form which is the principle of knowledge in humans, and that which makes the human a rational animal. Matter is not capable of receiving any form without actualizing the form, as matter is pure potency, and formless. It is only when matter becomes a principle of man by being informed by the rational form of man that it can be said to be capable of knowledge, but even in this case it is the substance, the form-matter composition, man, that is capable of knowledge, and not matter itself. Therefore, it is the form which is the principle of knowledge in humans.

Third, it is the form-matter composition that makes a material thing to be what it is - this particular substance. Therefore, if we can be permitted to describe it this way, as soon as matter and the human form are conjoined, forming one substance, a human person exists. We will discuss 'matter' in the next blog post.


[1]This includes even the first principles and laws of logic. As Aquinas says, “At first, all our cognition consists in knowledge of first undeducible principles. But the cognition of these arises in us from sense, as is clear from the Posterior Analytics. Therefore, all our knowledge arises from sense.” (Aquinas, Truth, 26.)

[2]John Wild, Introduction to Realistic Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), 295.

[3]W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many : A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (2001; repr., Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2007), 159. 

[4]George P. Klubertanz, Introduction to the Philosophy of Being (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955), 70.

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