Responding to a post by Matthew of Footnotes2Plato, Michael of Archive Fire nicely critiques the notion that we must presuppose formal causality as a distinct sort of causality. Defending forms, Matthew writes:

Forms can have no cause or effect independently of their realization in and through some actual occasion. But still, form cannot simply be reduced to its material instantiations, either. Forms, in Whitehead’s terms, are possibilities of definiteness. They determine (or allow occasions to determine) how an occasion will be characterized. If we dispense with forms as ontologically basic, we have not at all sided with concrete reality over abstraction. On the contrary, without the participation of eternal objects (Whitehead’s term for forms in his reformed Platonism), “matter” and “energy” can take on no definite quality. They remain vague abstractions lacking all particularity.

To this, Michael responds:

Here I think Matt is presupposing the function of the term in dispute (i.e.‘form’) prior to explaining why “matter” is incapable of expressing structure of itself.

Quite right. The central assumption of Matt’s critique of materialism– which is one I see quite often and not unique to him –is that matter is formless. The argument runs that because matter is formless (though this assumption is seldom stated outright), form must descend from elsewhere and be imposed on matter to give it structure. Continuing the argument, if this is the case, then it is because having already established that matter is formless (and this is never established in an argument by anyone) it is chaos, and because it is chaos, it could not give rise to form out of itself. Therefore form must come from elsewhere. And since we cannot imagine how form might descend on formless matter of its own accord, we are led to conclude that matter must take on form through the agency of a Demiurge or God that both contains the forms in its intellect and imposes them on matter giving it structure.

Such is the theory of hylomorphism that originated with Aristotle. It’s likely that Aristotle himself was not guilty of this crass form of hylomorphism where form and matter get reified and treated as distinct entities, yet this sort of hylomorphism is perhaps one of the most persistent tendencies of all speculative thought. We can readily see how people arrive at this idea and why they find it so persuasive. When looking at someone making clay bricks (or the equivalent) they note that the clay takes on a new shape as a result of the wooden form that the clay is pressed into. They thus reason

See! the clay was formless and now it has form. That form could have only come from the imposition of a form from without, and that imposition required the agent that both fashioned the form– in his intellect when he imagines and then in other matter when he makes the wooden form –that then imposes the form on the formless matter.

The problem is that clay is not formless. In fact, clay has quite an exquisite and determinate form at the molecular level. Indeed, it even has form at the molar level as a heap of clay. It’s just not the form that we would like it to have. What takes place between the wooden form and the clay is not an imposition of form on the formless, but an encounter between structured matters that generates a new structure as a result of the interplay of both of the matters interacting with one another. It is not an “active principle” (form) being imposed on a “passive principle” (matter) from without. Rather, both matters are structured, and both matters are simultaneously active and passive in relation to one another.

Invariably I find some variant of the hylomorphic assumption in every argument against materialism. It’s always the same old saw: matter is un-form-matted or unformatted and thereby in need of form. The problem is that those who advance this argument never give us any reason to suppose that there’s anything like unstructured or unformatted matter. Everywhere we look in the world we find matter that is exquisitely structured. We never find anything like a pure hyle. This is one of the central reasons that I find the process philosophy of Deleuze far more persuasive than that of Whitehead. Deleuze is able to do more with less. He doesn’t make recourse to ad hoc transcendent entities (forms, Demiurge, God) arrived at through analogical reason to rather inaccurate observations of how craftsmen craft– inaccurate because inevitably these models of craft presuppose the myth of the author where the author has everything planned out in his intellect in advance and simply fashions matter according to the model in his mind –but rather Deleuze sees structure as immanent in matter. Matter is pervaded by structure and singular potentialities. It’s never unformed, though it is always formable… In and through encounters between matters.

If I had a list of top five philosophical errors to avoid in metaphysics, hylomorphism would be among them. Everywhere we encounter the hylomorphist temptation in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. We find it in the way that Kant talks about the relationship between concepts or the categories of the understanding and the sensibility. We see it in the way that Chomsky talks about deep grammar. We see it in the way that so many people talk about genetics as a blueprint of the organism and phenotype. We see it in the way that people talk about art and artists, implying that the meaning of the work is in the author and that he had an image in his mind that he merely “embodied” in the formless matter of paint. We see it in the way that many talk about society, suggesting that the social can only take on plan, structure, order, through the agency of a leader/king (the mirror of God on earth). We see it in the way that people often talk about society as a system of rules or laws, as if these rules and laws weren’t effects and formalizations of much fuzzier structures immanent to social relations. Examples could be multiplied endlessly. It’s extremely difficult to think in non-hylomorphic ways, but hylomorphism is certainly mistaken. And as the example of genetics, law, and the king indicate, it’s also dangerous. Matter is both structured and anarchic. Order does not descend from above, but is rather always a communistics or anarchistic result… Which is to say it is always the result of the collaborative interplay structured matters that are simultaneously passive and active. It’s hard to overcome our will to mastery (which is really, I think, what hylomorphism is libidinally about), but hylomorphism is metaphysically mistaken, epistemically mistaken, and politically and ethically dangerous. Bergson famously argued that there’s no such thing as disorder, but rather “disorder” is just the absence of order that we’d like to have for the sake of our own action or aims. Simondon and Deleuze make similar points, though in a far more refined way. These arguments continue to hold today, yet they still, I think, have not been heard. Ontology, politics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics have still not become flat… Which is to say, anarchistic and communistic.