Skip to main content

Privation (Philosophy)


Privation is the lack of a quality or form normally required by the nature of a thing. It is a type of contrariety, and is thus to be distinguished from simple negation, which is based on contradictory opposition. Privation (Gr. στέρησις) is opposed either to possession (Gr. ξις, Lat. habitus ) or to form (ε[symbol omitted]δος) as to its contrary.

Historical Development. aristotle claims, with justice, to have introduced the concept of privation into philosophy (Phys. 192a 3). His dialectic concerning the principles of change and the changeable shows that monistic cosmologists, such as Anaximenes, and pluralistic ones, such as Anaxagoras, invoked a sort of contrariety, but that all failed, as did plato, to distinguish between privation and the underlying substratum of change. St. thomas aquinas defines privation as neither an aptitude for form nor an inchoate form, nor some imperfect active principle, but the lack or contrary of form itself (In 1 phys. 13.4). For Aristotle and St. Thomas privation is an incidental (per accidens ) principle of change.

A new note was added in the Renaissance philosophies of nicholas of cusa and Giordano bruno. They made privation a third essential principle of change and the changeable, together with matter and form. For them, privation implies matter and form and reconciles their contrariety: their position thus anticipates in a way the Hegelian "negation of the negation." Maurice blondel, in his philosophy of action, perceived in privation the foundation of the inexorable process of human will and action, regarding it as the principle from which one should start when investigating the origins of will and of man's theandric destiny [L'Action (Paris 1893) 293, 368].

Privation is here considered from the Aristotelian-Thomistic viewpoint as a principle of change and of changeable being, with emphasis on its relationship to matter, its role in Aristotle's astronomical theory, its ontological status, and its causality.

Principle of Change. Although the concept of privation can be investigated through logical and linguistic analysis (cf. Cat. 12a 2613a 36), its full richness is uncovered through the study of change. Here it is found that the coming-to-be of physical being requires three principles: an underlying subject or substrate that persists through the change; a determination of that subject, which is the term or end of the process; and a lack or absence of determination, which is its inception (see matter and form). Both the substrate (matter) and its determination (form) are essential or per se principles of the coming-to-be; the third principle, privation, is incidental or per accidens. The term incidental or per accidens, sometimes associated with the contingent, has a special meaning in this context. Although privation is incidental, it is not contingent, for while it may be contingent that a subject have this particular form, or be deprived of it, it is still necessary that it be in one state or the other. Thus privation is a necessary principle of change. Incidental (per accidens ) here has the meaning of "through another" (per aliud ). It merely "happens" (accidit ) that a subject lacks the form of which it is deprived, and therefore privation exists through this subject in an incidental or indirect way (In 1 phys. 13.3).

Relationship to Matter. The relation of privation to the subject can be understood only in terms of the pure potentiality of primary matter. Throughout the early chapters of bk. 1 of the Physics, Aristotle avoids the term matter ([symbol omitted]λη), speaking rather of subject ([symbol omitted]ποκείμενον). Only in ch. 9 does he clarify his usage: "For my definition of matter is just thisthe primary substratum of each thing, from which it comes to be without qualification, and which persists in the result" (192a 31). Until this point he has been concerned with change as it takes place in a determinate subject, e.g., in this gold or this man. Such a subject, while numerically one, must be twofold conceptually: it must contain an aspect that survives through change, a substratum, and an aspect that does not change, a privation (Phys. 190a 1320).

Privation and Potentiality. Privation is intimately associated with matter, but can be distinguished from it in terms of matter's potentiality and natural appetite for form (In 1 phys. 15). Potency and act divide being and every genus of being, including that of substance. Potentiality is not a property of matter, but matter itself as ordered to substantial form. Privation bespeaks no such ordering. It is nonbeing by its very nature, while matter is nonbeing in a qualified sense, precisely as lacking determination to a certain form. Molten bronze in a crucible is nonbeing only as it is amorphous: it becomes a statue when poured into a mold. Again, although primary matter is, in St. Augustine's phrase, "nearly nothing" (prope nihilConf. 12.6), it is for St. Thomas "nearly a thing" (prope remIn 1 phys. 15.4) because it is potency in the genus of substance. Privation, then, is not identified with the potentiality of matter.

Privation and Appetite. Aristotle describes matter as having a natural desire or appetite for form, as a woman desires a man, or the ugly the beautiful (192a 1724). The simile is Plato's, but the application is quite different from his. Under the Platonic confusion of matter and privation, matter was conceived as desiring its contrary (form), and therefore its own destruction. For Aristotle, however, matter is ordered to form as to an end, and this ordination constitutes its natural appetite. Yet matter stands in different relationships to different forms: (1) It looks to forms it has not yet had with a sort of desire, for desire bespeaks a tendency to an absent good. In primary matter this natural desire is purely passive. (2) With regard to forms once possessed, but later passed away, matter may be said to have an inefficacious desire. The proportion between matter and form remains, but there is no potentiality in nature for the past, and no natural agent is capable of reintroducing the same numerical form. (3) As to the form actually possessed, the natural desire is quieted, but not satiated, for no natural form is infinite in act. Since matter possesses infinite potentiality, it has an inclination to all forms not possessed; this non-possession is privation.

Principle of Changeable Being. A particular difficulty arises in connection with these distinctions. All scholastics agree that privation is a principle per accidens of change itself and of changeable being in coming-to-be. Several present-day manualists deny that privation is a principle of changeable being once it is constituted; for them, privation ceases with the coming of form. The position is understandable, but it is not that of Aristotle and St. Thomas. The latter states: "But someone could object that privation does not happen to a subject when it is under a form; thus privation is not a per accidens principle of existing. Therefore it must be said that matter is never without privation because when it has one form it is with the privation of another form. Thus the privation of the opposite form is the per accidens principle of existing" (In 1 phys. 13.4, tr. Kocourek).

It should be noted, however, that the privation that is a principle of coming-to-be is not to be entirely identified with the privation that is a principle of being. The first is the contrary of the form that is the term of the process; the second is the lack of every form not now actually informing the matter, but that could inform it. In the second case, privation is the unfulfilled potentiality of matter.

Privation, then, is always associated (per accidens ) with matter and changeable being, whether in coming-tobe or in being itself; it is a necessary principle of changeable being, furnishing the radical explanation of its changeability.

Aristotle's Astronomical Theory. Additional light is shed on privation by the use Aristotle makes of it in his astronomical theory. For him, privation is not found in heavenly bodies. Inadequate observational data and presuppositions now known to be untenable led him to assert a radical difference between sublunary and celestial bodies. The latter do not come to be, but are eternal and not subject to substantial, quantitative, or qualitative change. They are neither heavy nor light by nature, and hence have no natural motion, either upward or downward. Since the motion of terrestrial bodies, like all other kinds of change, is between contraries, the only type of motion possible to the heavenly bodies is rotation, which has no contrary.

Aristotle offered a reasoned explanation of these presuppositions in terms of hylomorphism. Since the heavenly bodies are eternal, they do not come to be, as do other bodies, in a subject and from a contrary. Nature has justly exempted them from the law of contraries. Thus there is no privation in their composition, and this can be learned from their rotational motion (Cael. 270a 1222). St. Thomas examined this position in light of the teaching of previous commentators such as Simplicius, john philoponus, and averroËs. In defending Aristotle's solution, he points out that heavenly bodies are indeed composed of matter and form, but their perfect forms so fulfill the potentiality of matter that no privation remains in them. Although matter is not act, in this case it has actuality completely; there remains only a certain privation of location (In 1 cael. 6.6). The entirety of this doctrine, of course, must be rejected.

Ontological Status. The problem of the ontological status of privation does not admit of easy solution. For some Thomists, privation has real existence. It is modally distinct from its subject, matter, and therefore is not merely a being of the mind (see mode; distinction, kinds of).

Others hold that the nonbeing of form, or the lack of form, is found in the nature of things and not merely in the mind. However, the privation or nonbeing that is a principle of changeable being is conceived after the fashion of a positive entity. Precisely as nonbeing, it is not positive and can have no real existence. It is a being of the mind, existing only as an object of knowledge, but with a foundation in reality. The foundation in the extramental world is the unactualized potentiality of matter, the unfulfilled natural appetite always present in changeable being. Privation exists incidentally to changeable being because it is incidental (per accidens ) to matter.

Is privation one or many? Since privation is the lack of form in an apt subject, there are as many privations as there are possible forms. Since the potentiality of primary matter for the reception of substantial forms is manifold, even when such matter is actually under a given form, privation must be multiplied according to the number of substantial forms.

Mode of Causality. Another problem is the mode of causality proper to privation. Although privation is an incidental principle of change, in that substantial change proceeds from the privation of form, it is difficult to see how causality can be attributed to nonbeing. It seems, then, that its mode of causality will be analogous to its mode of being. Just as privation exists through matter, as its unfulfilled potentiality, so too its causality is exercised in matter. The proper effect of privation is precisely the substantial mobility of changeable being. Privation is therefore in the order of formal causality, for it is the opposite of form, and its effect is produced in matter. Eadem est ratio oppositorum: opposites are to be defined by affirmation or negation of a common nature or note.

While the concept of privation is first considered in the philosophy of nature, its applicability is not limited to that science. The metaphysician makes extensive use of the concept in his treatment of evil and nonbeing.

See Also: evil.

Bibliography: v. e. smith, The General Science of Nature (Milwaukee 1958). j. gredt, Elementa Philosophiae Aristotelico-Thomisticae, 2 v. (13th ed. Freiburg 1961), j. p. anton, Aristotle's Theory of Contrariety (New York 1957). g. m. sciacca, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 3:162021.

[w. b. mahoney]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Privation (Philosophy)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 18 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Privation (Philosophy)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 18, 2018).

"Privation (Philosophy)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 18, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.