Substantial form

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A theory of substantial forms asserts that forms (or ideas) organize matter and make it intelligible. Substantial forms are the source of properties, order, unity, identity, and information about objects.

In philosophy, intelligibility is what can be comprehended by the human mind in contrast to sense perception. The intelligible method is thought thinking itself, or the human mind reflecting on itself. Plato referred to the intelligible realm of mathematics, forms, first principles, logical deduction, and the dialectical method. The intelligible realm of thought thinking about thought does not necessarily require any visual images, sensual impressions, and material causes for the contents of mind. Descartes referred to this method of thought thinking about itself, without the possible illusions of the senses. Kant made similar claims about a priori knowledge. A priori knowledge is claimed to be independent of the content of experience.


The concept of substantial forms dominates ancient Greek philosophy and medieval philosophy, but has fallen out of favour in modern philosophy. [1] The idea of substantial forms has been abandoned for a mechanical, or "bottom-up" theory of organization. [2] However, such mechanistic treatments have been criticized for the same reasons atomism has received criticism, viz., for merely denying the existence of certain kinds of substantial forms in favor of others (here, that of atoms, which are then thought to be arranged into things possessing accidental forms) and not denying substantial forms as such, an impossible move.

Ancient Greek philosophy

Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BC and continued throughout the Hellenistic period and the period in which Ancient Greece was part of the Roman Empire. Philosophy was used to make sense out of the world in a non-religious way. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including astronomy, mathematics, political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric and aesthetics.

Medieval philosophy

Medieval philosophy is a term used to refer to the philosophy that existed through the Middle Ages, the period roughly extending from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century to the Renaissance in the 15th century. Medieval philosophy, understood as a project of independent philosophical inquiry, began in Baghdad, in the middle of the 8th century, and in France, in the itinerant court of Charlemagne, in the last quarter of the 8th century. It is defined partly by the process of rediscovering the ancient culture developed in Greece and Rome during the Classical period, and partly by the need to address theological problems and to integrate sacred doctrine with secular learning.

Mechanism is the belief that natural wholes are like complicated machines or artifacts, composed of parts lacking any intrinsic relationship to each other. Thus, the source of an apparent thing's activities is not the whole itself, but its parts or an external influence on the parts.


Platonic forms

Plato maintains in the Phaedo regarding our knowledge of equals:

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece and the founder of the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He is widely considered the pivotal figure in the history of Ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: "the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."

Phædo or Phaedo, also known to ancient readers as On The Soul, is one of the best-known dialogues of Plato's middle period, along with the Republic and the Symposium. The philosophical subject of the dialogue is the immortality of the soul. It is set in the last hours prior to the death of Socrates, and is Plato's fourth and last dialogue to detail the philosopher's final days, following Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito.

"Do they [equal things] seem to us to be equal in the same sense as what is Equal itself? Is there some deficiency in their being such as the Equal, or is there not?
  • [Simias]-A considerable deficiency.
Whenever someone, on seeing something, realizes that that which he now sees wants to be like some other reality but falls short and cannot be like that other since it is inferior, do we agree that the one who thinks this must have prior knowledge of that to which he says it is like, but deficiently so?
  • [Simmias] Necessarily. ...
We must then possess knowledge of the Equal before that time when we first saw the equal objects and realized that all these objects strive to be like the Equal but are deficient in this."

Aristotelian forms

Aristotle was the first to distinguish between matter ( hyle ) and form (morphe). For Aristotle, matter is the undifferentiated primal element: it is rather that from which things develop than a thing in itself. The development of particular things from this germinal matter consists in differentiation, the acquiring of particular forms of which the knowable universe consists (cf. Formal cause). The perfection of the form of a thing is its entelechy in virtue of which it attains its fullest realization of function (De anima, ii. 2). Thus the entelechy of the body is the soul. The origin of the differentiation process is to be sought in a prime mover, i.e. pure form entirely separate from all matter, eternal, unchangeable, operating not by its own activity but by the impulse which its own absolute existence excites in matter. [3]

Aristotle philosopher in ancient Greece

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist born in the city of Stagira, Chalkidiki, Greece. Along with Plato, he is considered the "Father of Western Philosophy". Aristotle provided a complex and harmonious synthesis of the various existing philosophies prior to him, including those of Socrates and Plato, and it was above all from his teachings that the West inherited its fundamental intellectual lexicon, as well as problems and methods of inquiry. As a result, his philosophy has exerted a unique influence on almost every form of knowledge in the West and it continues to be central to the contemporary philosophical discussion.

Matter is the substrate from which physical existence is derived, remaining more or less constant amid changes. The word "matter" is derived from the Latin word māteria, meaning "wood", or “timber”, in the sense "material", as distinct from "mind" or "form". The image of wood came to Latin as a calque from the Greek philosophical usage of hyle (ὕλη).

In philosophy, hyle refers to matter or stuff. It can also be the material cause underlying a change in Aristotelian philosophy. The Greeks originally had no word for matter in general, as opposed to raw material suitable for some specific purpose or other, so Aristotle adapted the word for "wood" to this purpose. The idea that everything physical is made of the same basic substance holds up well under modern science, although it may be thought of more in terms of energy or matter/energy.

Early adoption

Both Platonic and Aristotelian forms appear in medieval philosophy.

Medieval theologians, newly exposed to Aristotle's philosophy, applied hylomorphism to Christianity, such as to the transubstantiation of the Eucharist's bread and wine to the body and blood of Jesus. Theologians such as Duns Scotus developed Christian applications of hylomorphism.

Transubstantiation Catholic doctrine that the body and blood of Jesus are present in Eucharist

Transubstantiation is, according to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, the change of substance or essence by which the bread and wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Mass, become, in reality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Jesus central figure of Christianity

Jesus, also referred to as Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ, was a first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader. He is the central figure of Christianity and is widely described as the most influential person in history. Most Christians believe he is the incarnation of God the Son and the awaited Messiah (Christ) prophesied in the Old Testament.

Duns Scotus Scottish Franciscan friar, philosopher and Catholic blessed

John Duns, commonly called Duns Scotus, a Scotsman, is generally considered to be one of the three most important philosopher-theologians of Western Europe in the High Middle Ages, together with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham. Scotus has had considerable influence on both Catholic and secular thought. The doctrines for which he is best known are the "univocity of being", that existence is the most abstract concept we have, applicable to everything that exists; the formal distinction, a way of distinguishing between different aspects of the same thing; and the idea of haecceity, the property supposed to be in each individual thing that makes it an individual. Scotus also developed a complex argument for the existence of God, and argued for the Immaculate Conception of Mary.

The Aristotelian conception of form was adopted by the Scholastics, to whom, however, its origin in the observation of the physical universe was an entirely foreign idea. The most remarkable adaptation is probably that of Aquinas, who distinguished the spiritual world with its subsistent forms (formae separatae) from the material with its inherent forms which exist only in combination with matter.


Descartes, referring to substantial forms, says:

"[...] They were introduced by philosophers solely to account for the proper action of natural things, of which they were supposed to be the principles and bases ... But no natural action at all can be explained by these substantial forms, since their defenders admit that they are occult, and that they do not understand them themselves. If they say that some action proceeds from a substantial form, it is as if they said it proceeds from something they do not understand; which explains nothing. [...]" [4]

Response to criticism

Leibniz made efforts to return to forms. Substantial forms, in the strictest sense for Leibniz, are primitive active forces and are required for his metaphysics. [5] [6]

In the Discourse on Metaphysics (§10):

"[...] the belief in substantial forms has a certain basis in fact, but that these forms effect no changes in the phenomena and must not be employed for the explanation of particular events. [...]" [7]

Related Research Articles

Metaphysics branch of philosophy

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between possibility and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among the [study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Ontology study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

In metaphysics, the problem of universals refers to the question of whether properties exist, and if so, what they are. Properties are qualities or relations that two or more entities have in common. The various kinds of properties, such as qualities and relations, are referred to as universals. For instance, one can imagine three cup holders on a table that have in common the quality of being circular or exemplifying circularity, or two daughters that have in common being the female offsprings of Frank. There are many such properties, such as being human, red, male or female, liquid, big or small, taller than, father of, etc.

Substance theory, or substance–attribute theory, is an ontological theory about objecthood, positing that a substance is distinct from its properties. A thing-in-itself is a property-bearer that must be distinguished from the properties it bears.

In philosophy, rationalism is the epistemological view that "regards reason as the chief source and test of knowledge" or "any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification". More formally, rationalism is defined as a methodology or a theory "in which the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive".

Hylomorphism is a philosophical theory developed by Aristotle, which conceives being (ousia) as a compound of matter and form. The word is a 19th-century term formed from the Greek words ὕλη hyle, "wood, matter", and μορφή, morphē, "form".

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<i>Metaphysics</i> (Aristotle) work by Aristotle

Metaphysics is one of the principal works of Aristotle and the first major work of the branch of philosophy with the same name. The principal subject is "being qua being," or being insofar as it is being. It examines what can be asserted about any being insofar as it is and not because of any special qualities it has. Also covered are different kinds of causation, form and matter, the existence of mathematical objects, and a prime-mover God.

The active intellect is a concept in classical and medieval philosophy. The term refers to the formal (morphe) aspect of the intellect (nous), in accordance with the theory of hylomorphism.

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Dynamism is a general name for a group of philosophical views concerning the nature of matter. However different they may be in other respects, all these views agree in making matter consist essentially of simple and indivisible units, substances, or forces. Dynamism is sometimes used to denote systems that admit not only matter and extension, but also determinations, tendencies, and forces intrinsic and essential to matter. More properly, however, it means exclusive systems that do away with the dualism of matter and force by reducing the former to the latter.

Minima naturalia were theorized by Aristotle as the smallest parts into which a homogeneous natural substance could be divided and still retain its essential character. In this context, "nature" means formal nature. Thus, "natural minimum" may be taken to mean "formal minimum": the minimum amount of matter necessary to instantiate a certain form.


  1. David Banach. What Killed Substantial Form?
  2. Benjamin Hill. Substantial Forms and the Rise of Modern Science
  3. Wikisource-logo.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Form"  . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  4. Descartes. "Letter to Regius," January 1642, in Oeuvres de Descartes.
  5. Adams, Robert Merrihew. Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist, February 1999, pp. 308-341 (34)
  6. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  7. G W Leibniz. "Discourse on Metaphysics". Archived from the original on 12 June 2002.