Author: Erik Åkerlund
Part of: Suárez’s Philosophy of Nature (coord. by Simone Guidi)
Published: October, 26th, 2019
The latest version of this entry may be cited as follows: Åkerlund, Erik, “Francisco Suárez, Theory of Prime Matter”, Conimbricenses.org Encyclopedia, Mário Santiago de Carvalho, Simone Guidi (eds.), doi = “10.5281/zenodo.3521061”, URL = “http://www.conimbricenses.org/encyclopedia/suarezs-theory-of-prime-matter/”, latest revision: October, 26th, 2019.
Table of Contents
Prime Matter as a Material Cause
Suárez’s treatment of prime matter is set within his treatment of causes in the Disputationes metaphysicae (DM). This treatment of causes comprises around on third of the whole DM (disputations 12 through 27). The placement of his treatment of prime matter – as a material cause – is important for understanding it, and prime matter plays a role in at least three ways in Suárez’s philosophy.
First, Suárez’s treatment of the prime matter is “vicarious” for the treatment of material causation per se. As he writes,
Praetermitto disputationem in communi de causa materiali, ut abstrahit a causa substantiae, vel accidentis: quoniam potissima ratio hujus causae cernitur in materia prima: et, si in illa declaretur, facile erit reliqua cum proportione intelligere (DM 13, Prologue)
I leave aside a general discussion of the material cause, as this abstracts from a substantial or accidental cause, because the nature of this cause is best discerned in prime matter. And if the nature [of the material cause] were to be shown on account of this [i.e., of prime matter], it would be easy to understand in the remaining [kinds of material causes] by proportion.
So, what Suárez writes about the prime matter should be understood also as a treatment of material causation, generally.
Second, and connected to the first point, the treatment of prime matter shows what it means for something to be a subject of something else in general. When treating accidents, for example, Suárez writes that
Explicata causalitate materiali in prima radice et causa illius generis, facile est eam applicare ad omnia subjecta quae hujusmodi genus causalitatis exercent circa accidentia (DM 14, Prologue) .
Having explicated material causality with regards to the primary root and cause of that kind, it is easy to apply it to all subjects that exert this kind of causality on accidents.
The subject of an accident is, basically, the substance in which the accident inheres.
Dico ergo, substantiam per seipsam […] posse esse causam materialem immediate in se recipientem aliquod accidens (DM 14, s. 2, § 4).
I, therefore, say that a substance in itself […] can be the immediate material cause that receives in itself some accident. (In the left-out parts of the quote, Suárez denies that there is something distinct from the substance in or through which the accident is received. This denial is not relevant in the present context, though, as it is clear enough from the quote as it stands that a substance can be a material cause of an accident).
This is one of the senses in which a substance can also be a material cause, then: as a subject of accidents.
Third and last, Suárez’ treatment of prime matter can be understood from the point of view of the treatment of the form-matter-composition of substances, and the search for the “ultimate” subject in which forms inhere.
Cum ergo omne naturale compositum ita per se sit, ut secundum se totum non pendeat in genere causae materialis ab aliquo subjecto, quod extra ipsum sit: necesse est ut intra se habeat aliquod subjectum, quod sit primum respectu omnium aliarum entitatum ex quibus constat, et in subjecto sunt. Sic igitur evidens est dari materiam primam, seu subjectum primum in rebus naturalibus (DM 13, s. 1, § 4).
As therefore every natural composite is in itself so, that in itself as a whole it does not depend on any subject in the order of material causes beside itself, it necessarily has within itself some subject which is primary with respect to all other entities, of which it consists, and which are in the subject. So it is therefore evident that there is prime matter or a first subject in natural things.
So, from the causal role it plays in the form-matter-composite, prime matter can serve as a paradigm of material causes and material causality in general.
The Actuality of Prime Matter
Prime matter is a kind of cause, namely, the material cause of a substance. However, in order for something to exert causal influence, it must exist.
Materia ut praesupponitur formae, et est subjectum generationis, non est omnino nihil, alias generatio fieret ex nihilo: est ergo aliqua entitas creata: ergo entitas actualis et existens, quia creatio non nisi ad actualem entitatem, et existentem terminatur (DM 13, s. 4, § 13).
Matter, as presupposed by form and as it is the subject of begetting, is not wholly nothing, otherwise the begetting would be from nothing. It is, therefore, some created entity, and therefore an actual and existing entity, since creation does not end up in anything but an actual existence and entity.
Prime matter, then, exists. But what does this existence consist of, and how does it relate to the essence or nature of prime matter?
According to Suárez, the existence of a thing is not really separate from its essence, and these are – in their turn – not really separate from the thing itself. The distinction between these is only rational or mental.
Unica et eadem actione fit res existens et existential ejus (DM 31, s. 9, § 18)
By a unique and identical action, an existing thing and its existence is produced.
Essentia, quæ es tens actu, formaliter et intrinsece includit existentiam (DM 31, s. 3, § 5)
An essence, which is a being in act, formally and intrinsically includes existence.
For prime matter, this not only means that it has existence, but it also means that it has its own proper properties and is something in and of itself, to some degree (more on this below, in chapter 3).
Materia prima etiam habet in se et per se entitatem seu actualitatem existentiae distinctam ab existentia formae […] Fundamentum hujus conclusionis supposita praecedenti est, quia esse existentiae nullam rem vel modum realem addit supra entitatem essentiae ut actualem, et extra causas positam, quia, hoc ipso quod entitas concipitur actualis extra causas, concipitur existens (DM 13, s. 4, § 13).
Prime matter also has in and of itself entity or actuality of existence distinct from the existence of form […] The basis of this conclusion, supposing the preceding, is that existential being does not add anything or real mode beyond the essential entity, as actual and posited outside of its causes, because, in virtue of being conceived as actual outside its causes, the entity is conceived as existing.
Hence, since prime matter plays a causal role, it also has its own existence and actuality. But what of the dictum regarding the prime matter that it is “pure potentiality”? Suárez interprets this so that it regards the “physical,” rather than the “metaphysical,” order. That is, considered in itself, prime matter has some actuality, otherwise, it would not even exist. But in relation to form, it stands as potentiality to actuality, since form completes matter.
Non est enim nobis negandum quin materia sit pura potentia, cum in ea assertione philosophi omnes convenire videantur: sed verus sensus illius locutionis explicandus (DM 13, s. 5, § 1).
It is not for us, therefore, to deny that matter is pure potency, as all philosophers seem to agree on this assertion, but [rather] to explicate the true meaning of this expression.
Est autem propter usum verborum considerandum, aliud in rigore significari, cum dicitur materia pura potentia; aliud, si dicatur esse in pura potentia. Primum enim simpliciter verum est, et habet legitimum sensum expositum; secundum vero, ut minimum, est ambiguum; nam esse in pura potentia in rigore significat privationem actualis existentiae: unde solum dicitur de eo quod actu nihil est, esse tamen potest, quod dici non potest de materia, postquam creata, vel concreata est. Nam licet sit prope nihil, non tamen nihil, sed vera res, ut supra cum Augustino dicebamus (DM 13, s. 5, § 12)
The use of words should be considered, though; in a way matter is signified rigorously, as when it is called pure potency, in another, if it is said to be in pure potency. For the first is simply true, and has a legitimate, explained sense; the second, however, is at least ambiguous. For to be in pure potency rigorously signifies the privation of actual existence. Wherefore it is only said of that which actually is nothing, but which can be. This cannot be said of matter after it is created or co-created. For although matter is almost nothing, it is not nothing, but a true thing, as we have said above with Augustine.
Materia est entitas realiter separabilis a qualibet forma particulari determinata, quod satis est ut a forma sit in re ipsa distincta: non distinguuntur autem solum modaliter: nam forma substantialis non est modus, sed res vera habens propriam entitatem: unde interdum naturaliter etiam conservari potest separata a materia, ut anima rationalis, et per potentiam absolutam quaelibet forma potest separata conservari. Distinguitur ergo materia a forma tanquam res a re. Et confirmatur, nam compositio substantiae ex materia et forma est realis et physica, et non ex re et modo, ergo ex duabus rebus (DM 13, s. 4, § 5).
Matter is a real entity really separable from whichever particular, determinate form [it may have], which is sufficiently [shown] as it is distinct from the form in the thing itself. They are not, however, only modally distinct, because the substantial form is not a mode but a true thing having proper entity. Wherefore [the form] can in some cases naturally be conserved separately from matter, as the rational soul, and any form whatever can be conserved separately [from matter] by [God’s] absolute power. Matter is therefore distinguished from form as a thing from another thing. And this is confirmed, for the composition of the substance from matter and form is real and physical, but it is not from a thing and a mode – therefore from two things.
Prime matter, then, has some actuality considered in itself. This makes prime matter look peculiarly much look like a thing in itself. What is its status in relation to substances?
Prime Matter as an Incomplete Substance
Suárez does not go so far as to call prime matter a substance. Indeed, it is primarily through the analysis precisely of substances – of form-matter-composites – that we come to know of prime matter. Prime matter is an integrated part of substances.
On the other hand, as was seen, prime matter does exhibit many substance-like qualities in the final analysis. Hence, Suárez goes so far as to call prime matter a “partial” substance – partial, because it is with form (another “partial” substance) that it constitutes a substance in the most proper sense of the word.
Materia prima essentialiter componit substantiam. […] Substantia autem non componitur nisi ex substantiis, saltem incompletis. Item substantia composita aliquid rei addit praeter formam, et illud non est accidens: est ergo aliquid substantiale. Denique materia prima eo modo quo est ens, non est in subjecto: nam hoc maxime repugnat illi, cum sit primum subjectum (DM 13, s. 4, § 4).
Prime matter essentially composes a substance. […] A substance is not composed, however, but from substances, although incomplete. Likewise, a composite substance adds something besides form, and this is not accidental; it is, therefore, something substantial. Finally, prime matter, in the way in which it is a being, is not in a subject, for this is maximally repugnant to it as it is the first subject.
Connected to this partial substantiality, matter is also sometimes said to have “partial” essence and “partial” existence (see also above, chapter 2).
Existentia, et essentia actualis non re, sed ratione, distinguuntur: ergo materia ut est actualis entitas realiter distincta a forma, in sua entitate includit propriam partialem existentiam, in re etiam distinctam ab existentia partiali formae (DM 13, s. 4, § 13).
Actual essence and existence are not separate in the thing, but in mind. Therefore matter, as it is an actual entity really distinguished from form, in its entity includes a proper partial existence, also really distinguished from the partial existence of form.
Nos opinemur habere materiam suam partialem existentiam: et existentiam non distingui a parte rei ab actuali essentia, sed tantum modo concipiendo nostro’ (DM 13, s. 5, § 6).
We are of the opinion that matter has its partial existence, and existence is not distinguished from the side of the thing from an actual essence, but only in our way of conceiving.
Connected to prime matter’s partial substantiality are its partial essence and partial existence, partial because they all tend to completion by uniting with form.
Addendum: Prime Matter and Heavenly Bodies
What has been written above goes basically for sublunary things in the more immediate world around us. But does this analysis also hold for heaven and the heavenly bodies?
The brief answer is “yes.” Heavenly bodies are also form-matter-composites, and therefore require an ultimate subject for the form to inhere in.
Nihilominus tamen, quantum ex signis et effectibus nos judicare possumus, verisimilius est, caelum esse compositum ex materia et forma. Primo quidem, quia in illo sunt omnia accidentia, quae materiam consequuntur, excepta corruptibilitate, ut sunt quantitas, quae ejusdem rationis est in omnibus corporibus. Deinde est in caelis rarum et densum, quae per materiam definiuntur: est enim densum, quod sub parva quantitate multum habet materiae (DM 13, s. 10, § 8).
Nonetheless, however, insofar as we can judge from signs and effects, it seems to be true that heaven is composed of matter and form. First, then, because all accidents that follow upon matter are in it (excepting corruptibility) as quantity, which is of the same nature in all bodies. Thereafter, there is scarcity and density in heaven, which are defined through matter. For that is dense which has much matter under little quantity.
True, prime matter does not play exactly the same role with respect to heavenly bodies as it does for sublunary ones. And more proximately, there are many differences between heavenly matter and earthly matter. However, as for prime matter, the need for an ultimate subject is the same for heavenly as for sublunary bodies.
Licet prima cognitio materiae primae inventa fuerit per viam motus et transmutationis, tamen, semel cognita hac compositione ex materia in inferioribus corpori- bus, inde ratiocinatum est ad superiora, et ex aliis similitudinibus et accidentibus talium corporum intellectum est, hanc compositionem communem esse omnibus corporibus (DM 13, s. 10, § 9).
Although the first cognition of prime matter is found by way of motion and change, it is nevertheless the case that once this composition from matter has been cognized in the lower bodies, it is afterward deduced with respect to the higher and it is understood from other similarities and accidents of such bodies that this composition is common to all bodies.
Although prime matter is first “found” in its causal role in the changeable world around us, the need for it is more universal than this, and it also has its causal role to play in the unchanging heavens.
- Åkerlund, Erik, “Material Causality – Dissolving a Paradox: The Actuality of Prime Matter in Suárez”, in Jakob Leth-Fink (ed.), Suárez on Aristotelian Causality, Leiden: Brill, 2015; pp. 43–64. (Contains more elaborate arguments for points stated in the above article.)
- Des Chene, Denis, Physiologia. Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996. (Treats Suárez, among others, at length in chapter 4, “Matter, Quantity, and Figure”; particularly relevant to the question of prime matter is subchapter 1, “The Essence of Matter.”)
- Hattab, Helen, Descartes on Forms and Mechanisms, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. (Chapter 3, on Suárez and substantial forms, also contains a good analysis of prime matter.)
- Heider, Daniel, “Suárez on Material Substance: Reification of Intrinsic Principles and the Unity of Material Composites”, Organon F 15 (2008), pp. 423–38. (Contains an analysis in the same line as that above, but with some differing conclusions.)
- Pasnau, Robert, Metaphysical Themes 1274–1671 , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. (Chapter 3, “Theories of Prime Matter”, mentions Suárez briefly. Gives a good background to Suárez’ discussion on this subject matter.)