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Outline of Hylomorphism


The following was written last fall for an introductory philosophy of mind course.

In chapters 10.1 through 10.5 of Philosophy of Mind, William Jaworski works through a summary of the philosophical/psychological position of Hylomorphism. Hylomorphism is the metaphysical theory, stemming from Aristotle, that objects are composites of matter and form. This means that physical objects exist as matter (the material out of which they are arranged) ordered into forms (the order according to which that matter is arranged.) Hylomorphism uses the idea of structure, the form of an object, as the criterion by which things are organized and ordered according to type or kind.

Hylomorphism is based on the idea that a full understanding of an object arises from understanding both its matter and form. According to the Hylomorphic worldview, the qualities of objects are determined by these two features, and they have a direct causal impact on the objects which have them. Hylomorphism describes an understanding of objects according to emergent properties, or properties which an object has because of the organization of its components. These properties are held only by the object, according to its form, not by the components which make that object up. They are also not simply ways of describing the activity of lower-level matter. Hylomorphism and emergentism both posit the existence of features of the universe which exist only in the sense that the constituent parts making them up are ordered in a specific way so as to produce those features.
A property is said to be emergent (as per emergentism) if

  1. A system possesses the property in virtue of its components organization.
  2. The system possesses the property but none of the components possess the property.
  3. The property has causal powers which explain the system’s behavior.
  4. It is not a higher-order property constructed out of lower order properties.

This way of conceiving of properties in objects is distinct from Aristotelian Hylomorphism in terms of its understanding of causation, which in Hylomorphism is based on a “functional analysis” of the object to see the relationships between its parts. The parts of an object are the things which contribute to its overall activities.
The argument for Hylomorphism follows

  1. Structure is a real and irreducible explanatory principle. (Premise)
  2. If structure is real and irreducible as an explanatory principle, then the best explanation for structure being real is that Hylomorphism is true. (Premise)
  3. If the best explanation is that Hylomorphism is true, then it is true. (Premise)
  4. The best explanation is that Hylomorphism is true. (— E, 1,3)
  5. Hylomorphism is true. (— E, 2,4)

This way of conceiving of the objects in a system appears to be valid by modus ponens. I think Hylomorphism seems to be a sound explanation of the relationship between lower and higher-order components and their structures, though I question whether perhaps premise 2 is not overly generous toward a Hylomorphic understanding of matter and form. I think the potential for the premises to be flawed is the biggest issue with the argument, as presented in the text. Assuming Jaworski’s argument is sound, I would generally agree with his ultimate conclusion about the relationship between the material components of a whole and the whole itself, as well as how that relationship relates to seeing objects as composites of matter and form.

Jaworski, William. Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction. Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2011. print.


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