Primary matter, primitive passive power, and creaturely limitation in Leibniz

Studia Leibnitiana 46 (2):167-186 (2014)
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In this paper I argue that, in Leibniz’s mature metaphysics, primary matter is not a positive constituent which must be added to the form in order to have a substance. Primary matter is merely a way to express the negation of some further perfection. It does not have a positive ontological status and merely indicates the limitation or imperfection of a substance. To be sure, Leibniz is less than explicit on this point, and in many texts he writes as if primary matter were a positive constituent of a substance. It seems to me, however, that the view most in keeping with the thrust of his mature philosophical system is that captured by a striking remark of 1695: “Materia rerum est nihilum: id est limitatio [The matter of things is nothing: that is, limitation].” This becomes especially apparent in texts showing that Leibniz’s conception of primary matter corresponds to his conception of creaturely limitation. I start by discussing the notion of primary matter in the scholastic tradition. I then show that although Leibniz places the scholastic terminology of primary matter at a crucial juncture of his metaphysics, he thinks of primary matter in a way which significantly deviates from earlier scholastic views. I conclude that despite his adoption of distinctive terminology of Aristotelian scholasticism, instead of holding a broadly Aristotelian concept of primary matter as the ultimate subject of inherence, Leibniz thinks of primary matter according to a Neoplatonic blue-print in which matter is non-being, privation, mere absence of perfection.
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