Potestas Essendi

A Virtual Space for Thoughts on the Middle Ages, by Nicola Polloni

Medieval Matter

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Matter: From Medieval Philosophy to the Early-Modern Science

‘Che bella materia sarebbe quella del cielo per fabbricar palazzi, 
chi ne potesse avere, cosí dura e tanto trasparente!’
Galileo Galilei, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, First Day

Often left aside by the contemporary debate, the problematic concept of matter is pivotal on our everyday experience of the world. Matter, as the apparently most evident implication of the body, is the subject of our common ethical actions, aesthetic fruitions, gnoseological abstractions. Even if its role seems to be such absorbing and ubiquitous, matter is still a philosophical, and even scientific, challenge.

The problems of ‘matter’ accompany the very emergence of this concept in the history of philosophy. And the emergence of matter as a philosophical concept can be traced back to the very beginning of Western philosophy, with the search for a common arche of the whole existent pursued by the pre-Socratic thinkers. Nonetheless, the history of this concept is also characterised by a structural lack of univocity of the term ‘matter’, directly related to the historical genesis of this concept in Greek antiquity.

Plato’s discussion of the material substrate,  played a crucial role for the subsequent elaboration of the concept of matter. Plato dealt with this problem almost exclusively in his Timaeus, where the substrate is posited in a threefold characterization: as chora, or space in which the images of the transcendent ideas are reflected; as elementary substrate (the Platonic solids); and as irrational subject (‘necessity’) opposed to the Demiurgic rationality. Defined through these considerations, matter is the object of a ‘spurious reason’, that is different from both the doxastic knowledge of the eidetic images and the rational knowledge of the ideas.

A similar polyvocal discussion of the concept of matter is in place with Aristotle, with an even more pervasive history of the effects. Matter can be said regarding the subject of logical predicament, but with this sense Aristotle meant something different than an ontological substrate. At the same time, matter can be said of the material cause of every natural body , but this meaning does not seem to be coincident with the ontological sense of matter .  Indeed, by a strict ontological viewpoint, matter for Aristotle is the undetermined and potential substrate of change, that persists while a substantial form is removed and substituted by a new form. This is the formulation of Aristotle’s hylomorphism, for which any corporeal being is composed of matter (the potential substrate) and form (the actualised essential content). The hylomorphic composition of bodies embrace the whole universe (celestial and Earthly bodies), beyond which there is no place nor void , since matter is the very common substrate of the elements, which has no separate existence without the composed body .

Aristotelian matter is, thus, a complete and eternal passivity, that is not generated nor can be corrupted , and is opposite to the first agent which acts without being acted upon. Nonetheless, matter is also the origin of the individuation of the form: it is thanks to matter, indeed, that a singular thing, for instance, a horse, is that horse and not another horse. How can something completely passive perform this ontological task? To answer this, Aristotle has to state that matter has always at least a minimal degree of ontological determination as substrate of everything, and a certain possibility of knowing matter is opened, since it can be known through its correlation to form . Moreover, Aristotle is not very consistent in his reference to the number of matter/matters of the bodies, and he seems to oscillate between claiming that only one matter exists for the bodies, and the admission of individual matters for every corporeal being : a problem that will become crucial in the philosophical debate for centuries.

A third fundamental moment for the medieval and early-modern discussion of matter is the thematization of this concept by the Greek Neoplatonic tradition, and especially Plotinus. Even if a Latin translation of the Enneads will be available again to the medieval authors only through Ficino, Plotinus’s (and Proclus’s) doctrines are disseminated throughout the Latin West by the Muslim, Jewish, and, later, Byzantine Neoplatonic works translated into Latin.

Plotinus’s concept of matter is extremely problematic. On the one hand, matter is the very limit of the emanative and causative process from the One. It is non-being, or better, privation of being, a shadow unable to cause anything nor to properly sustain the images coming from the hypostatic Soul, that reflect on matter as into a mirror. By this viewpoint, since being and good are equivalent, matter is evil as privation of good , and for matter is complete alterity, it cannot be properly known, since its knowledge is like the vision of the obscurity.  On the other hand, Plotinus seems to attribute to matter some specific determination: a quantitative extension, a capacity of resistance to the hypostatical causation, a certain degree of negative causality as the origin of all evil. Moreover, this oscillation between absolute passivity and minimal ontological determination is accompanied by the unsolved problem of the origin of matter, which all the same has to be part of the cosmic progression , and by the position of two different kind of matter, the sensible matter as limit of the causal progression, and the intelligible matter, as first effect of the causality of the One, an intelligible and undetermined alterity (to genomenon) which in a third logical moment becomes the hypostatical Intellect.

Plotinus’s discussion of matter as ontological substrate—a peculiar development of Plato’s and Aristotle’s positions—was to be criticised and developed by the subsequent philosophers of the Late-Antiquity, starting with Proclus . Further, fundamental developments will be provided by Simplicius and John Philoponus , the former strengthening the bond between matter and the form causing the body, the latter through its denial of any prime undetermined matter besides the corporeal matter which is the substrate of elementary transmutation. These various and different thematizations of matter, and the doctrinal tension accompanying them, will be disseminated throughout the four Mediterranean philosophical traditions (i.e., the Latin, Byzantine, Islamic, and Jewish traditions), with different outcomes and peculiarities. And by this, the philosophical and scientific discussions on matter will be characterised by a polyvocal meaning and a series problematic theoretical points throughout based on the three main Greek thematization of this concept up to the Early Modern period, and beyond.

Trying to amend the equivocal semantics of this term, the matter with which this project deals is the ‘ontological substrate of a specific region of caused being’, the ontological subject of essences, forms, and eidetic images, characteristic of a specific region of existence whose extension differs from author to author. Matter, indeed, can be the substrate of the images of the ideas, of corporeal beings, or even the ontological subject of every caused being, as in Ibn Gabirol. In all these cases, matter is the substrate of a caused being, defined by the matter itself and a formal or eidetic content.

More to come, soon!