Material Objects in Confucian and Aristotelian Metaphysics: The Inevitability of Hylomorphism

Bloomsbury Academic (2022)
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Hylomorphism is a metaphysical theory that accounts for the unity of the material parts of composite objects by appeal to a structure or ‘form’ characterizing those parts. I argue that hylomorphism is not merely a plausible or appealing solution to problems of material composition, but a position entailed by any coherent metaphysics of ordinary material objects. In fact, not only does hylomorphism have Aristotelian defenders, but it has had independent lives in both East and West. I review three contemporary hylomorphic theories appeal to ‘structure’ to explain the unity of material objects. Each, however, accepts a controversial principle: that substances can have other substances as proper parts. Such a principle is implausible and severely threatens the coherence of the theory. I begin by showing that Thomas Aquinas’ account of form, which does not accept that substances can have other substances as parts, gives us a more coherent version of hylomorphism. Then I argue Zhu Xi, a Song dynasty Confucian thinker, developed a non-Aristotelian hylomorphism. Unlike Aristotelians, Zhu Xi’s metaphysics was formed in opposition to Buddhist versions of skepticism and gives us reasons to think that anyone who holds a view of objects stronger than Buddhists is committed to forms. In conclusion, I show directly, by appeal to some of those same considerations from Zhu Xi, why it is that all those who believe there are unified material objects will appeal to something like a substantial form. The traditional hylomorphic picture of material composition, then, remains a plausible framework for contemporary metaphysicians – and for good reason.

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James Dominic Rooney
Hong Kong Baptist University


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