Lesson 5: The Physical or Natural Thing

What would you select as an example that could stand for any changeable thing such that your analysis of it would be applicable to any of them?

Just as the child's confused knowledge of adults employs 'father' and 'mother', so the analysis of things that come to be as the result of a change, physical objects, we proceed in terms of particular examples. But it is not what is particular or peculiar to them that is at issue, but what they convey that would be true of any other physical object.

Thomas wrote a careful commentary on the Physics of Aristotle late in his career, and as a quite young man he wrote On the Principles of Nature which is a swift summary of what is found at the outset of Aristotle's Physics.

After the preliminary remarks discussed in our previous lesson, Aristotle as is his custom, reviews what his predecessors have had to say on the question before him. This is a serious inquiry. Many of the accounts of natural change he brings forward might strike us as bizarre, but there is nothing condescending in Aristotle's treatment. Elsewhere, in the Topics and in the Metaphysics he discusses the propaedeutic value of exhibiting a decent respect for the opinions of mankind when undertaking an inquiry. It is his conviction, developed in Book Two of the Metaphysics, that no one can completely miss the truth of the matter, that even a false position can be beneficial to the later student. And, once he has completed his survey, which seems to have turned up a hodgepodge of opposed and conflicting views, Aristotle, acknowledging this, nonetheless asks if, beneath the surface differences, all these views contain any common notes. He finds that they do. Those common notes are two. Change takes place between contrary states, and it involves a subject of those states.

If these ideas force their way through what is opposed and distinctive in the opinions related, there is a chance they are well-founded. Of course, the claim is not that they are true because many have thought them to be true, however implicitly. Rather, the suggestion is that people have thought these things as if forced by the truth of the matter, that is, by the things being thought about. Nonetheless, all such a review and discernment of common elements is meant to provide is a suggestion as to where the truth of the matter may lie. Now Aristotle is prepared, taking into account the methodological remarks with which he began, to offer his own analysis.

We will now give our own account, approaching the question first with reference to becoming in its widest sense; for we shall be following the natural order of inquiry if we speak first of common characteristics, and then investigate the characteristics of special cases. (I, 7)
In order to do this, he needs an example. It is this: Man becomes musical.

It will be noted that, in seeking to analyze natural change, Aristotle selects an example of a human being acquiring a skill or art. He will of course distinguish art and nature, but at this point confusion is not to be disdained, and the fusion of the natural and artificial is all right, the distinction to be made later. The example has the great advantage of being more accessible than, say, a heliotrope turning sunward. "Man becomes musical" is of course generic, and could stand for little Lulu learning to tap dance, little Oliver acquiring competence on the harmonica, Ludwig taking lessons on the pianoforte. Some such concrete instance will be in our imagination as we proceed.

Man becomes musical is taken to stand for any change whatsoever, any instance of becoming. The first step in the analysis is to notice that the change can be expressed in a variety of linguistically different ways:

1. Man becomes musical.

2. What is not musical becomes musical.

3. The not-musical man becomes musical.

That is, the subject of the sentence expressing the change may be simple, e.g. 'Man' and 'not-musical', or complex, e.g. 'Musical man' or 'not-musical man.'

Another simple point. All the above expressions of the change exhibit the form "a becomes b." But we also say, 'from a, b comes to be.' Is it possible to restate 1-3 in this second form?

1' From man musical comes to be.

2' From what is not musical the musical comes to be.

3' From the not-musical man the musical comes to be.

If we feel any hesitation about these restatements, it is due to the fact that 'from a, b comes to be' suggests that a does not survive the change, and in the case of 1' such an understanding would be quite wrong. Little Oliver does not cease to be when he has learned to play Taps on his mouth organ.

On this basis we can distinguish two senses of subject. On the one hand, there is the subject of the sentence expressing this change. On the other, there is the subject of the change itself. Here is a definition of the latter.

The subject of the change = def. That to which the change is attributed and which survives the change.

Only the grammatical subject of 1 expresses the subject of the change. In all other cases, what the grammatical subject expresses ceased to be when the change has occurred.

Any change involves a subject.

In any change, the subject comes to acquire a characteristic it did not previously have, indeed lacked. But being deprived of a characteristic and having that characteristic are contraries.

Thus, on the basis of his own analysis Aristotle concludes that, at a minimum, any change involves a subject and contraries. This coincides with what he took to be the implication of the various views of his predecessors. It is what they and he are talking about that explains this.

Another example produces a terminology which would characterize the thought of Aristotle and of St. Thomas Aquinas. When one whittles wood he gives it a shape it did not previously have. The wood is the subject, the shape is the new characteristic of which the wood was deprived prior to the activity of the whittler. What is new is the fact that the term wood (hyle), and shape (morphe) become canonical. And wood being materiel for construction, hyle comes into Latin as materia (though in the 12th century, the more literal sylva is found).

If change or becoming involves at least these three, a subject or matter, privation and form, the product of change is the compound of subject or matter and shape or form. That is the upshot of the analysis. Anything that has come to be is complex, made up of subject and shape, matter and form.

Substantial Change

The subject of a change survives the change and the changes we are likely to begin thinking of are such that their subjects are individuals in the world, like Oliver and Ludwig and Lulu. Because the subjects exist before and after the change, the change is not all that radical. Little Oliver comes to be such and such, musical, as the result of the change, but he does not become Oliver tout court.

Sometimes the changes individuals undergo are qualitative, sometimes quantitative, sometimes they have to be with location. Because the subject exists prior to the change and survives it, such changes can be called incidental changes. That is, they involve things which are incidental to, rather than constitutive of, the subject. And soon we find ourselves asking about the subject. Is it possible to speak of it becoming or ceasing to be -- not coming to be such-and-such (here or there, hot or cold, musical) but just coming to be.

Well, Oliver and Lulu and Ludwig were all born. There was a time when they absolutely were not. And though they are loath to think of it a time will come after which they absolutely are not. Is there substantial change as well as incidental change?

The response to that question is not to undertake to prove that there is such a thing as substantial change, but to point out that we already know there is.

We know that there are numerically distinct things in the world, things, substances. These are not mere aspects of other things; they enjoy an autonomous existence.

Furthermore, we know that such things come into being and pass out of being.

The task is not to prove these things, but to give an account of them. How should we proceed? On an analogy with the incidental changes we have already examined.

Prime Matter

What we have to get clear on is the subject or matter of a non-incidental or substantial change. In the case of incidental change, the matter is a substance that preexists and survives the incidental change. If substances come to be, and they do, and if our analysis of incidental becoming is any guide, we must be able to speak of the subject of substantial change.

By comparison with incidental change, we know that it cannot itself be a substance. If it were, whatever it acquired would be incidental to it, and the change would not be substantial. It would result in a substance having some incidental trait it previously lacked. But we are trying to speak of the absolute emergence of the substance.

If there is substantial change, and if every change involves a subject, and if the subject of substantial change cannot itself be a subject, it must be a subject without substantial determination. In order to underscore this and to distinguish it from the matter that is the subject of incidental change, we will call it Prime Matter.

Prime Matter is of course not an object of direct experience. It is a subject inferred from the givenness of the fact of substances and the fact that they come to be and cease to be. Added to this is taking the analysis of incidental change to be regulative, suggestive, analogous.

The Basic Vocabulary

One could go on. Suffice it for now to make two fundamental points.

First, these analyses, if they work, do so independently of anything we nowadays would call science. They are not put forward as the last word on anything, but the first word, the least we can say about becoming, incidental or substantial.

Second, the terminology that emerges will enjoy a long career in the philosophy (and theology) of St Thomas Aquinas.

By the second I mean that 'matter' and 'form' will take on a series of different but related meanings such that later meaning will rely on our grasp of the analyses we have just looked at. Indeed, we can see that already in the case of incidental change, insofar as we use 'form' in speaking of change of place and size, a term whose primary sense is qualitative -- the shape of a thing -- is extended to place or magnitude.

When Aristotle explicitly says that we come to know the subject of substantial change on an analogy with that of incidental change, this is brought home to us. What we shall be seeing is that these terms and a handful of others are used analogically throughout and provide a unifying and clarifying feature to Thomas's thought.

Act and Potency

Another couplet that shows up when becoming is analyzed is this. The subject of the change, prior to the change, can acquire, can have, potentially is, the state it acquires as the result of the change. Then it is said to have or be actually what before it was only potentially.

These terms as well, emerging from these quite simple and immediately accessible examples, will be with us throughout our presentation of Thomas's thought.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Thomas Aquinas, On the Principles of Nature. Penguin Classic Thomas Aquinas, p. 18 ff.


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