The Causal Priority of Form in Aristotle
Keywords:matter, form, cause, principle, priority, substance
In various texts (e.g., Met. Z.17), Aristotle assigns priority to form, in its role as a principle and cause, over matter and the matter-form compound. Given the central role played by this claim in Aristotle's search for primary substance in the Metaphysics, it is important to understand what motivates him in locating the primary causal responsibility for a thing's being what it is with the form, rather than the matter. According to Met. Theta.8, actuality [energeia/entelecheia] in general is prior to potentiality [dunamis] in three ways, viz., in definition, time and substance. I propose an explicitly causal reading of this general priority claim, as it pertains to the matter-form relationship. The priority of form over matter in definition, time and substance, in my view, is best explained by appeal to the role of form as the formal, efficient and final cause of the matter-form compound, respectively, while the posteriority of matter to form according to all three notions of priority is most plausibly accounted for by the fact that the causal contribution of matter is limited to its role as material cause. When approached from this angle, the work of Met. Theta.8 can be seen to lend direct support to the more specific and explicitly causal priority claim we encounter in Met. Z.17, viz., that form is prior to matter in its role as the principle and primary cause of a matter-form compound's being what it is.
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