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In the Aristotle-Aquinas tradition prime matter is the thing that underlies all other things in the world. It is described as completely indeterminate-pure potentiality, it was not created and cannot be destroyed. We cannot perceive it directly, as we perceive only the compounds of matter and form, the physical objects. All of these descriptions are negative, what prime matter is not.

Prime matter seems to be a substance without any properties, even Aquinas held that prime matter is unintelligible, it cannot be understood even by God.

How then should I understand or visualize prime matter? Or was Aquinas right and it is impossible to comprehend, but then why believe in it at all?

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  • Yes, the "best" descrption is what we have after devoiding reality of all qualities. Aug 18, 2022 at 7:19
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    It is disputed that Aristotle believed in prime matter, perhaps he rather just used it as an ideal limit to illustrate his relativized form-matter constructions, see SEP:"We call the box not wood, but wooden, nor do we call the wood earth, but earthen... But if there is something primary, which is no longer called that-en with respect to something else, this is prime matter." In any case, you can think of it by analogy, e.g. for bronze works bronze is "prime matter", or as a limit when all qualities are taken away one by one.
    – Conifold
    Aug 18, 2022 at 8:38
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    See unmoved mover: Aristotle, according to whom all matter exists in some form. There is no prime matter or pure elements, there is always a mixture: a ratio weighing the four potential combinations of primary and secondary properties and analysed into discrete one-step and two-step abstract transmutations between the elements. However, according to Aristotle's theology, a form of invariant form exists without matter, beyond the cosmos, powerless and oblivious, in the eternal substance of the unmoved movers... Aug 19, 2022 at 6:11
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    Leibniz told us that there are these monads, and they dance.
    – BillOnne
    Sep 18, 2022 at 1:47
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    Neti neti aka, in the Western world, apophasis. What a beautiful world? A methodology we're, some are, more than acquainted with. Find Mr. Josh, cogito that's his name. Where do they store the data? May 16, 2023 at 4:12

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Energy

This so-called Prime matter lines up with the abstract physical concept of energy. You cannot see 5 joules on its own. But you can see 5 joules of kinetic energy when an apple falls. Or the apple can have 5 joules of potential energy if you raise it above your head. Or you can have 5 joules worth of electrons if you convert the energy into mass.

  • completely indeterminate-pure potentiality. ✅

  • Cannot be created and cannot be destroyed. ✅

  • We cannot perceive it directly, as we perceive only the compounds. ✅

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    And e=mc^2 so energy is matter too. (Or is matter just held together with energy.) May 17, 2023 at 18:54
  • @ChrisDegnen That's the final bullet.
    – Daron
    May 18, 2023 at 6:24
  • +1 closest thing I can think of as well.
    – Annika
    Oct 14, 2023 at 22:42
  • Sounds like the famous description of The Dao.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 15, 2023 at 0:43
  • That is in fact a comment that Heinsenberg does in his book. The concept of today's physics that is more "close" to the aristotelian matter is energy. However, one does have to be carefull to not confuse matter with mass. Another point is that this two concepts are just analogous, but not equal. In the prime matter there is no quantity.
    – LAU
    Oct 15, 2023 at 1:20
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As mentioned in some of the comments, the medieval catholic interpretation of Aristotle in terms of "prime matter" has weak textual support in Aristotle himself.  Be that as it may, the simplest way of understanding the dichotomy prime matter versus form (hyle-morphism) is in terms of an analogy with a clay pot: the clay is analogous to the formless, property-less "prime matter" whereas the shape of the pot itself is the "form". 

The dichotomy became a theological issue ever since the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, which declared as canonical the transubstantiation interpretation of the eucharist in terms of hylemorphism, where the "morphism" part (including shape, taste, and smell) remains, whereas the "hyle" undergoes a miraculous substitution.  This interpretation was reinforced at the Council of Trent in the 16th century.  In the 17th century, this led to a traumatic clash with the emerging modern atomist science.

As to your question "was Aquinas right and it is impossible to comprehend, but then why believe in it at all?" : Thomas's goal was to provide (what was thought at the time to be) an intellectually respectable theoretical background for the eucharist. My guess is he would not have been particularly concerned with making the doctrine of prime matter accessible to the general public.

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  • Thank you for the background on how transubstantiation became doctrine. I always wondered about that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 6 at 12:45
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That bit about Aquinas denying the intelligibility of prime matter even in the light of God, is quite interesting. I'll use it as an indirect point of departure for my response.

The three "models" of creation that I'm familiar with are (A) creation "from nothing," (B) creation by emanation, and (C) creation by "organizing" pre-existent substance (which substance is not itself emanated). There's an LDS author, Brandon Sanderson, who penned a character in one of his novels as entertaining the thought that (A) and (C) can be had to coincide, but generally those two options are held to be quite distinct.

At its most extreme, exnihilation is the (internally contingent) creation even of "pure possibilities." Let us imagine a grid of variables, at the center of which is a single ultimate constant, 𝕲 (for God). Style creation as generically assigning a value to a variable (c.f. Quine's "to be is to be the value of a bound variable"). There is no other grid that we are working with in the background; this is the grid of all other grids. There is no source for assignments to the variables, besides what is available to God at the heart of this grid.

Per (B), then, we can also imagine 𝕲 itself as coding over a subgrid of Its own, let's say {X, Y, Z}. A popular pre/non-Trinitarian attempt to exalt Jesus (and the Holy Spirit, but less often...) is to hold that He was emanated from the Father, hence created modulo (B), but that 𝕲's creation of other things was either exnihilation (or maybe (C)) or "incomplete" in a way that the emanation of the Son was not. At any rate, let us hold Y = 𝕲, and say that God can quasi-create Itself, by emanation, in the sense of assigning values to X and Z from 𝕲. And then too, or instead, 𝕲 can create things through/in the rest of the universal grid, in some like way.

Alternatively, if the grid is pre-existent matter "surrounding" God (we're close to the relevance to defining "prime matter"), then maybe God can determine some variables according to other ones + 𝕲's own essence and character. By contrast, (A) requires that God decide even what the possible values of all the variables are. How could that be?

Worse, some extremists about divine sovereignty will go on to imply that not only are all the items imaged in the grid created from nothing, but that God created the grid itself from no grid at all, and decided that it would be a fact that things exist in terms of this grid. But leave those impious fanatics aside for a moment. If at least the grid in a way exists generally, no matter how 𝕲 has decided to determine the Xs, Ys, and Zs thereof, then this grid is functionally equivalent to the concept of prime matter: per the Aquinas bit, beyond 𝕲's understanding not by being a truth beyond 𝕲 so much as not sustaining (without contradiction) the predicate of intrinsic intelligibility at all. 𝕲 does not "understand" prime matter because there is nothing to understand: to know something, and to appreciate the ramifications/significance of this knowledge, there must be something to be known, but prime matter is as much as an array of question-functions so vaporous that God Itself does not need to care what the answers to said functions are, for there are no answers as such (the closest thing being, "Does X, or Y, or Z, exist?" which then for God is decided by the power of creation).


Addendum: a set-theoretic look at the matter

Suppose that "is closed under the predicate 'is open under all other predicates'" is meaningful. For sets, this would mean a couniversal set, I suppose. Now, I often wondered how prime matter could never be defined by a specific property (I think this was something like Locke's contention, or even Aquinas', among others), but is that to which properties variously "attach," since "is that to which properties attach" seems propertyish (at least). But so take the following list:

  • Is closed under the predicate "is closed under all other predicates"
  • Is closed under the predicate "is open under all other predicates"
  • Is open under the predicate "is closed under all other predicates"
  • Is open under the predicate "is open under all other predicates"

The first and fourth options defeat the point of the "all other" moment of quantification, I would think. However, if there is a set that is open on all terms aside from its own general status, and this is not pointless, could there not be elements that reciprocate this relation, and these would be prime matter? For they would not have any defining property other than having no other defining properties; they might be predicated of sets in a neo-Humean way, maybe (I tend to interpret Humean bundles as sets of tropes, and it turns out that that's not just me), or then properties would calcify, in sets, over these generic elements, perhaps. In other words, these elements would have only the fairly insubstantial property of being themselves as such, but when they were included in sets with more vivid tropes, they'd "glue" an object's qualities together, forming the object.

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  • "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made." So, Jesus, The Word, was not made by God, but was with God, from the start. Yes?
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 15, 2023 at 1:01
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    There is also the idea of Tiamat and Ma'at, which co-arose. Fertile ground for speculation, but also quicksand.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 15, 2023 at 1:03
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I would look to the idea of a state of low entropy, for a comparison. A black hole has been shown to have the absolute maximum disorder per unit space inside the event horizon. So, a White Hole as the inverse, would seem to be a modern understanding of Prime Matter.

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  • So are you trying to tell us that "white holes" underly all things?
    – BillOnne
    Sep 18, 2022 at 1:48
  • @BillOnne: Probably yes, in a sense, as a model of the Big Bang en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_hole#Big_Bang/… Although without a quantum gravity theory large uncertainties remain. Looking at Conformal Cyclic Cosmology, the equivalence of a universe with only (timeless) photons & a white hole, can explain the low entropy state of the early universe.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 18, 2022 at 11:03
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from the OP's link, page 636

whenever there is a form there must also be some matter that serves as its subject. On this conception, there will often be hierarchies of matter, with the most basic stuff ,prime matter, at the bottom, and various form-matter composites at higher levels, which may themselves be conceived as the matter for some further form. Wood, for example, is a form-matter composite that can itself serve as the matter of a bed (see Aristotle, Phys. II.1)

Switching to Kant, actual existence is a synthesis of form, matter and cognition. Now in Heidegger, World and Earth are metaphors respectively for things e.g. sculpture present in the intelligible world, excavated from earth, which withholds its secrets. Earth appears in world as the surface of the unknown, so when we look at atomic structure we are just taking a good look at the surface of the unknown. The atoms exist because we apply the concept or form to a material instance. Deeper than the atom (or strings, whatever) is unknown, undefined, indeterminate.

For Aquinas concept or quiddity is separate from existence. The undefined concept is concept without predicates: nothing, pure potentiality. A bare concept can have predicates added to turn it into anything, any form. Then if you find one, like a Higgs Boson, hey presto! it exists.

The kicker is that we know it existed before we found it, but really, before it was found it was a theory of the unknown. We always have the unknown, so I guess Aristotle's prime matter is Heidegger's earth.

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  • "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is truly emptiness, emptiness is truly form." - The Heart Sutra
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 15, 2023 at 0:50
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    @ScottRowe I would incorporate that in the sense that earth is the form and the noumenon beyond it is formless emptiness. The buddhist would already have dropped the discrimination of earth as world. For instance the statue of David would be just rockface (earth) and its consitution would be hyle (ὕλη): prime matter, noumenon. To the observer, unobservable, therefore empty nothing, although this seems dissonant, for example: to call unobservable space 'nothing', but that is in line with the formal meaning of existence in philosophy and science, not to ascribe existence to the unobservable. Jan 6 at 12:22
  • Ok, my comment was not strictly on-topic... So the Buddhist idea of emptiness is: empty of concepts. We bring the concepts to things, and we can stop doing that and make life better for ourselves. But where is the fun in that? The Heart Sutra is very engaging, have you seen it?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 6 at 12:53
  • @ScottRowe Yes, I also like the Diamond-Cutter. Jan 6 at 13:06
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The philosophic concept of "prime matter" does not exist in the field of physics. This means that it does not exist in the real world out there. This means that the concept of prime matter is not even irrelevant.

Note that arguing about the properties of something that does not exist is a waste of time. Have a sip of whiskey instead.

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  • +1 for "not even irrelevant". But it is large and grey, and doesn't matter.
    – Scott Rowe
    Oct 15, 2023 at 0:48
  • In this answer you are making some assumptions that many physicist and philosophers would never do. First of all, you are proposing that everything that exists in the real world has to be in a physical system. So, how about morals, or qualities, or love? The second point is that even a physical theory is not well defined in this days..... i don't think we have a clear cut concept of what a physicist does.
    – LAU
    Oct 15, 2023 at 1:24
  • niels, even if a theory of "prime matter" seems odd from the point of view of modern physics, one can still ask how to understand what Aristotle and his interpreters meant by this, and where such a theory may have come from; see my answer. Furthermore, believe it or not there is a recent article in a serious philosophy journal arguing that hylomorphism is better than atomism in explaining state-of-the-art modern physics! Oct 15, 2023 at 14:27
  • Do you mean "not even wrong"? Dec 18, 2023 at 15:14
  • @MikhailKatz it's the irrelevant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Just don't have too many sips of whiskey or it will turn pink.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 6 at 12:41

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