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Open Journal of Philosophy
2011. Vol.1, No.1, 35-36
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ojpp.2011.11006
Aristotle’s Definition of Place and of Matter
The Australian Catholic University, Fitzroy Victoria, Australia.
Received July 2nd, 2011; revised July 19th, 2011; accepted July 25th, 2011.
The accuracy of Aristotle’s definition of place is defended in terms of his form-matter theory. This theory is in
turn defended against the objectionable notion that it entails matter is ultimately characterless.
Keywords: Aristotle, Place, Matter, Metaphysics
Problems wi t h P la c e ?
Aristotle defines place as “the innermost motionless bound-
ary of what contains”. (Aristotle, 1952, Bekker, p. 212a20) “So
when what is in a thing which is moved, is moved and changes
its place, as a boat on a river, what contains plays the part of a
vessel rather t han that of place. Place, o n the other hand, is that
which is motionless; so it is rather the whole river that is plac-
ing, because as a whole it is motionless.” (Aristotle, 1952,
Bekker, p. 212a15-20) But, this is arguably not without its dif-
ficulties. For, it seems to entail that “[f]irst, a ferry plying be-
tween the two banks will not change its place (it is always be-
tween the same banks). Secondly, two ferries between the same
banks will be in the same place as each other. Thirdly, if the
tide stops, the nearest immobile surface (and hence the place)
will suddenly switch from being that of the banks to being that
of the water in contact with the boat.” (Sorabji, 1988: pp.
187-188) However, Aristotle is evidently seeking to define the
whatness of place, not the whereness of it. This is because “in
the river” answers the question “in what place?”, not the ques-
tion of “where in that place?” So, the latter might well refer to
coordinates, as in terms of the banks and the river bed. Fur-
thermore, whether it is moving or not, water is the matter of the
river; and according to Aristotle things are defined first and
foremost not in terms their matter, but in terms of their form.
Therefore, that the water is immobile does not mean that the
boat can now be said to be simply “in t he water”, becau se “the
innermost motionless boundary of what contains”, is a ri ver.
Problems wi t h P ri me Matter?
So, water is the matter of the river, but what is the matter of
the matter? For, Aristotle contends the basic elements—earth,
air, fire, and water—are not irreducible, holding as he does a
theory of prime matter. Yet, this is also not without its difficul-
ties if—as it is not uncommonly accepted—this means that
prime matter is featurel ess. Frank A. Lewis advances th is inter-
pretation: “[prime] matter is not itself a kind of stuff or a kind
of structure, in addition to the standard stuffs and struc-
tures—fire, flesh, flesh-and-bones—found among changeable
objects. Rather, we can usefully think of matter, in the standard
case, in terms of the property the standard stuffs or structures
of the changeable world must have in order to count as mat-
ter…what counts as prime matter is not any kind of stuff or
structure at all—it has no features of its own, beyond that it is
matter and, hence, that it is capable of receiving contraries in
generation and destruction …” (Lewis, 2008: p. 133) But, how
can something be thought of at all, without its being considered
to have some features of its own? For example, when we are
thinking of the matter of vapors, drops, puddles, ponds—and
rivers—we are thinking of water, which is a certain kind of
liquid. Therefore, the idea of something completely character-
less seems to be ab surd .
Aristotle and Pr i me M atte r
It is fortunate, then, that this account of prime matter turns
out in fact to dubiously be Aristotle’s. For, he says that the
apparently simple bodies of which all things are made—Earth,
Air, Fire, and Water—are in fact “not simple, but blended. The
‘simple’ bodies are indeed similar in nature to them, but not
identical with them.” (Aristotle, 1952, Bekker, p. 330b23-25)
And, in answer to the question of whether the matter of these
elements —Earth, Air, Fire, and Water—is the same, Aristotle
suggests that “[p]erhaps the solution is that their matter is in
one sense the same, but in another sense different. For that
which underlies them, whatever its n ature may be qua underly-
ing them, is the same: but its actual being is not the same.”
(Aristotle, 1952, Bekker, p. 319b [emphasis added]) That is,
what this basic material is, “is [that which is] ‘such-as-fire’”
and [that which is] ‘such-as-air’; and so on with the rest of
them.” (Aristotle, 1952, Bekker, p. 330b24) Yet, it has “no
separate existence, but is always bound up with a contrariety”
—namely, it is as Earth, Air, Fire, or Water. (Aristotle, 1952,
Bekker, p. 329a26) Hence, what he means is that the same basic
material can present to us in different ways. For example, sup-
pose that prime matter were bronze. Bronze, then, would be
that which is such-as-earth, and such-as-air, an d so-on. Hen ce,
the basic material—bronze —would be that which, as it exists,
does so in modified ways.
Defining Prim e Matt er
Aristotle says elsewhere that “my definition of matter is just
this—the primary substratum of each thing, from which it
comes to be without qualification, and which persists in the
result.” (Aristotle, 1952, Bekker, p. 192a32-33) For, again, if
the primary material were bronze, everything would basically
be bronze. And, “matter comes to be and ceases to be in one
sense, while in another it does not. As that which contains the
privation, it ceases to be in its own nature, for what ceases to
be—the privation—is contained within it. But as potentiality it
does no t cease to b e in its own n atu re, bu t is n ecessaril y outsi de
the sphere of becoming and ceasing to be.” (Aristotle, 1952,
Bekker, p. 192a25-28) That is, as bronze in a certain way—for
example, as earth—bronze can cease to be; but in itself in a
world of bronze it cannot, because if it loses that modification,
it will then just assume another.
The Character of Prime Matter
Therefore, it would appear to be wrong to attribute to Aris-
totle the doctrine that prime matter is featureless. For Aristotle,
prime matter is the basic material of which everything is ulti-
mately made, since it is the material constitution of Earth, Air,
Fire, and Water—as in the supposed case of bronze. This is
because unless we posit such a material, how could the ele-
ments “come-to-be reciprocally out of one another, i.e. contrar-
ies out of contraries?” (Aristotle, 1952, Bekker, p. 319b) Now,
Sheldon Cohen is a supporter the idea that prime matter must
have a character; however, he then says that “[t]he common
matter of the four elements is at various times hot, cold, dry,
and moist; it is never characterless”; (Cohen, 1996: p. 59) as if
hot, cold, dry, and moist constituted the features of prime mat-
ter. But, this surely cannot be right. For, according to Aristotle
these are determinations of something; and it is something
about which all we can say has the character of being unknown.
Aristotle (1952). On Generation and Corruption. In R. M. Hutchins
(Ed.), H. H. Joachim (Translate), The Works of Aristotle Volume 1
(pp. 407-441 ). Chicago, IL: Willia m Bent on.
Aristotle (1952). Physics. In R. M. Hutchins (Ed.), R. P. Hardie, & R. K.
Gaye (Translate), The Works of Aristotle Volume 1 (pp. 257-355).
Chicago, IL: William Benton.
Cohen, S. (1996). Aristotle on Na ture and Inco mplete Sub stance. Ca m-
bridge: Cambridge Univer sit y Press.
Lewis, F. A. (2008). What’s the matter with prime matter? Oxford
Stud ies in Ancient Philosophy, 34, 123-146.
Sorabji, R. (1988). Matter, Space and Motion. London: Duckworth.