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Form and Matter


FORM AND MATTER (Heb. צוּרָה, ẓurah, and חֹמֶר, ḥomer), according to Aristotle, the two constituents of every physical substance, form being that which makes the substance what it is, and matter being the substratum underlying the form. In substantial change the form is that which is changed, while the matter remains constant throughout the change. Matter is defined by Aristotle as "that which in itself is not a this," form, as "that which is precisely in virtue of which a thing is called a this" (De Anima 2:1). Insofar as form makes the object what it is, it is equated with actuality, while matter is equated with potentiality. Insofar as form determines the nature of a substance it is likened to the species, while matter is likened to the genus.

*Plotinus, the first of the neoplatonists, accepting the Aristotelian notion of form as species and matter as genus, maintained that immaterial substances, since they can be defined in terms of genus and species, are also composed of matter and form. There exists, he maintained, a spiritual matter out of which incorporeal substances are formed. Only God is not composed of matter and form.

Among Jewish philosophers those who tended toward Aristotelianism generally followed the Aristotelian notion of form and matter, while those who tended towards neoplatonism, followed the Plotinian notion.

Solomon ibn *Gabirol devoted his major work, Mekor Ḥayyim (Fons Vitae), to a discussion of form and matter. He accepted the view that form and matter are constituent elements of corporeal and incorporeal beings alike. However, while Plotinus believed that there exist two types of matter, spiritual and corporeal, Gabirol held that matter is in itself incorporeal, and is common to corporeal and incorporeal substances. Gabirol, regarding form and matter as more than just the component parts of individual substances, saw them as cosmic forces – the two primary elements, which constitute intelligence, the highest of the emanated substances. Ibn Gabirol is not clear concerning the origin of matter and form. At times he holds that matter emanates from God, and form, from an intermediary being, known as the divine will, while at other times he holds that both form and matter emanate from the divine will.

Joseph ibn *Ẓaddik, while he generally follows Aristotle in his natural philosophy, differs from Aristotle in his definition of matter and form. Matter, since it bears the form, is, for Ibn Ẓaddik, the one real substance, while form, insofar as it inheres in something else, has the same status as accidents (Olam Katan 1:2). For Aristotle, matter is that "which in itselfis not a this."

Abraham *ibn Daud, the first of the Jewish Aristotelians, in his discussion of the concepts of form and matter, presents the example of a golden scepter, which is changed into a golden coin, then into a ring, and finally into a nose ring. He points out that gold is the matter underlying all these objects, while the scepter, the coin, the ring, and the nose ring are different forms that are imposed on the same matter. He deduces the existence of first matter and form from the reciprocal transmutation of the four basic elements. Having shown how the various elements are changed into one another he writes: "We thus know by observation that these elements are changed into one another… But it is inconceivable that the form, after passing away, should become the recipient… Hence we infer that they have a common underlying matter, which matter we call first matter" (Emunah Ramah 1:2). First matter is not in itself the matter out of which the four elements are formed, but rather first matter conjoined with the corporeal form. Maimonides, following Aristotle, maintains that "every physical body is necessarily composed of two things,… form and matter…" (Guide 2, intr., prop. 22). He maintains, further, that all privation and destruction of physical objects results from matter and not from form: "All bodies subject to generation and corruption are attained by corruption only because of their matter" (3:8; see also, 1:17). In the case of man, body is the matter and soul, form. It is the body, therefore, which is subject to destruction, and only the soul, which can attain immortality.


Husik, Philosophy, index, s.v. matter; Guttmann, Philosophies, index; H.A. Wolfson, Crescas' Critique of Aristotle (1929), index; idem, in: jqr, 38 (1947/48), 47–61; idem, in: Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Philosophy (1926), 602–7; A. Altmann and S. Stern, Isaac Israeli (1958), 159–64.

[Alfred L. Ivry]

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