Aristotle's Motivation for Matter

See my current work here.

David Ebrey's Dissertation

(Copyright by David Ebrey, 2007)

Complete text of dissertation as pdf: DavidEbreyDissertation.pdf

Complete text of dissertation as doc (Greek should appear correctly on a Mac): DavidEbreyDissertation.doc

Chapter 1: EbreyChapter1.doc

Chapter 2:EbreyChapter2.doc

Chapter 3:Ebreychapter3.doc

Chapter 4: EbreyChapter4.doc


The heart of this dissertation is an interpretation of matter in Aristotle. I argue that in order to understand what matter is for Aristotle we need to appreciate his reasons for making matter central to his natural philosophy. There is an extensive literature on matter, supporting many incompatible interpretations. Looking at Aristotle’s reasons for giving matter a prominent role allows us to resolve this tension by determining what features are crucial to matter. On the reading I offer here, Aristotle makes matter central to his natural philosophy because something is needed in order to be able to understand change. Specifically, what is needed is something that, properly speaking, (i.e., per se) undergoes change. Matter is not a separate thing in the universe; to call something matter is to pick it out in terms of this fundamental role in change.

After introducing this interpretation in the first chapter, the second chapter argues for it through a close reading of Aristotle’s Physics I. The most crucial passages appear in the midst of a complicated discussion that is often misread: Physics I.5 to I.7. Aristotle portrays himself in I.7 as solving a problem as to whether the principles of nature are two or three. Understanding this problem, I claim, is the key to understanding the crucial passages in Physics I.5-7.

The third chapter develops and defends the interpretation by clarifying matter’s role in change through a study of Aristotle’s use of the term “enhuparchein.” When used in connection with matter, this term is normally thought to support rival interpretations, according to which matter is a constituent of the product of a change. I offer an alternative reading according to which Aristotle uses “enhuparchein” to tell us that matter is an internal cause of change, rather than an external one.

The final chapter examines how Aristotle’s account of matter differs from analogues to matter found in his predecessors’ natural philosophies. I first argue that Aristotle does not think that any of his predecessors truly understand matter. Then, I examine how and why two of Plato’s analogues to matter are different than Aristotelian matter.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1: Introduction                                                                                                1
      The Basic Proposal                                                                                                   1
      The Sheer Replacement Motivation                                                                     18

Chapter 2: Finding Aristotle’s Motivation for Matter in Physics I                        30
      Introduction                                                                                                             30
      The Search for Principles of Nature                                                                      35
      The Tension between Physics I.5 and I.6                                                             38
     The general-conditions tension                                                                              39
        The from-what tension                                                                                          43
        The Two versus Three Puzzle                                                                                55
      Structure of Physics I.7                                                                                           59
        The first half of I.7: 189b30-190b17                                                                    62
        The second half of I.7: 190b17-191a22                                                                68
            Aristotle’s account of matter                                                                             70

            Countable and more of a this thing here                                                         72
            What things come to be from per se                                                                75

    Physics I.8                                                                                                                    87

Chapter 3: Matter as an Internal Cause                                                                      97
      Introduction                                                                                                               97
      The Ross-Waterlow Interpretation                                                                         101
      Matter as an Internal Cause, Internal Principle, and Element                          103
      Adjudicating between the Readings                                                                      111
    Physics I.8: the lack as not something which enhuparchei                                  113
Physics I.9: matter as something which enhuparchei                                              122
      What does it Mean that Matter Enhuparchei?                                                     126
      Appendix: Aristotle’s different uses of “enhuparchein”                                     129

Chapter 4: Precursors of and Obstacles to Aristotelian Matter                                135
      Aristotle Categorizing his Predecessors: a Poor Understanding of Matter       136
      Phaedo                                                                                                                         149
      Timaeus                                                                                                                       161
Why bring in the receptacle?                                                                                         164
What is the receptacle? How and why is it different than matter?                         169

Works Cited                                                                                                                     178