I find the idea of substance as form and matter very interesting (form being actualized potential, matter being potential form). Even further, I find the idea of potential, itself, interesting. Clay does not have the potential to be a live cat, so a live cat could never be clay. But are we not also the result, or consequence, of unactualized potential?
I have much potential that I do not actualize. I have the potential (or opportunity) to smoke crack every day, but I choose not to. Surely, who I am is partially the non-actualization of this potential.
I think it bears significance that there are potentials that are actualized and those that are not. Surely, both make us who we are (as much as who we are not), and some are very much under our control, and are thus a choice on our part. Why do some people actualize some potentials that others do not? It surely is not simply because those people have potentials that others do not—it is not that simple. And yet, people do not all have the same potential, or at least opportunity. They may have the same potential but different opportunity. A girl born in, say, rural China may have within her the potential to be a world-class pianist, but if she never is exposed to a piano, if she is not afforded with the opportunity to actualize that potential, it will most likely lie dormant and escape notice at all. But, we can say that she has the opportunity to get herself out of China and get to a place where her potential may be actualized. It is not necessarily impossible. And so, in this way, she does have some control. Either way, it seems to me that what we are (a human, a cat, a tree, etc.) is much less of a choice than who we are. While we cannot completely separate what we are from who we are, we certainly control the latter more than the former.
Can there be a who without a what? Can there be matter without form? Form without matter? Which is form and which is matter: the ‘who’ or the ‘what?’ Or, is it not limited to these choices? This brings up interesting yet problematical issues. It also could be connected in some way to illusion vs. reality, in the sense that if reality (who we really are) is the absence of illusion (who we (think we) are), we could see who we are as the matter (the potential) and who we really are as the form (the realized potential, though accomplished via negativa—, i.e., who we really are is (‘revealed’) in the absence of our conditioned ego-self), and this is how our paths of ego-illusion are our paths to reality, the self as the path, that the illusory self is the path; it is the potential of the reality of its own absence. It is interesting to combine these ideas, because one is metaphysically positive (form and matter), and one is metaphysically negative (illusion vs. reality).
We can also ask if there can be matter that is not itself formed matter, the actualization of previous potential. Would this be pure potential? Is form physical or metaphysical? Is matter physical and form (shape) metaphysical? It is hard to say that shape is physical. It has to do with physical material, but it itself is more of a force than physical matter. There can be no shape without something shaped. Of course, this is a great debate between the Platonists and Aristotelians—can shape exist independently of matter? Plato says yes, Aristotle says no.
This has everything to do with our understanding of existence. Can form exist without matter? How? Where? Aristotle says there cannot be form without matter (can you imagine matter—anything—that does not have some sort of form?) There cannot be ‘square’ without there being a thing in that shape. And yet, Plato might have said that an example of a circular object is but an actualization of the potential form that had to exist in order for that object to take that shape in the first place. It is not an easy issue to resolve. And as usual with such impasses, I always like to look at the basic assumptions involved, for it is most likely our own lack of understanding is causing the problem. One of these basic assumptions is the metaphysical existence of physical matter as noun-things, something which may not actually be true, which we can see at a quantum level.
Anyhow, it seems to come down to how a thing exists, as opposed to simply whether it exists. Is a line in circular form a circle, or is a circle 2πr (the mathematical expression of “circumference”)? But we speak of the circumference of a circle, so circumference itself cannot be a circle. But—and this is an important point—perhaps we are mistaken to speak of the circumference ‘of’ a circle because maybe ‘a circle’ is really circumference, and it is a grammatical error to speak about a circle’s circumference. It is absurd and meaningless, for it is like speaking about a circumference’s circumference, which is impossible. If this is indeed true, then there is not ‘circle,’ only ‘circumference.’
This is yet another instance of the importance of not mistaking grammar for reality: we make certain metaphysical assumptions when we talk about ‘the circumference of a circle.’ This grammatical way of talking about ‘a circle’ has, itself, defined for us the metaphysical parameters. But, grammar does not make metaphysical reality, does it? We mistakenly make assumptions based on the metaphysical assumptions inherent in the grammar we use to talk about things. This is a major mistake, and a source of great confusion.
In fact, we might say that it is incorrect to speak of a ‘circle’ at all; rather it is more accurate to speak of something being circular—in the above example, it is a line in circular form. And actually, circle, or any shape at all, is a wholly abstract concept, for such concepts are not physical things at all, but rather forms. There is no physical circle, only a physical thing that may be circular, only matter in the form, or shape, of what we call ‘circle.’ Thus, we can say that there are only examples of circle, the circular form. And to Aristotle, there are only examples, only examples are, only examples exist. Examples are what is real. And, in fact, it is incorrect to use the word ‘example,’ for that implies an example of something. Now, when that thing is just an illusory, abstracted concept, as it is to Aristotle, then that’s fine, but it is a problem when that thing is imagined to be a real thing (in fact, the only real thing in the equation), as it is to Plato.
To go with the form and matter discussion, our physical bodies are not all of our ‘matter’—if we take matter to be more than simply material and see it more as potential—for who we are is not simply our physiology. In fact, the form and matter theory becomes problematical in regards to natural, as opposed to created, things. In the brick analogy, the matter of the brick is the clay. A human’s matter would seemingly be his flesh and bone, etc., the material, in other words, of which he is formed. But when we answer the ‘whatness’ question, we answer with this material, for all humans are made up of this material. So the material (matter, thus understood) is the form, if the whatness is the form. What, then, is the matter of organic things?
Anyhow, who we are is more a product, or the process, of our ‘karma’, our choices, the circumstances of our lives. If this is the case, then matter follows form, which doesn’t fit into the theory. It seems, then, that the Aristotelian substance explains ‘what,’ but not ‘who.’ But, in the way that every end is a beginning and every beginning is an end, we can also say that every formed matter is also matter to be formed, every realized potential is also itself potential to be realized—for it is our minds that separate into ‘this’ and ‘that’ what may in reality not be separate.
We can also talk in terms of causes, that everything has a material cause (its whys, where and what it came from) and formal cause (its purpose, function, how it ends up). It is a question of what is behind and ahead of a thing in time. Where do we draw the lines of the thing, if it is itself the material cause of something else and the formal cause of something else? Where does death and birth fit into this?
What does all this have to do with the ‘real world?’ Well, I think that we can see people as being form and matter, as having potential to actualize. I think that we can see this matter as that potential, both in a physical and ‘spiritual’ sense. In that way, this potential, this matter, is who someone is. This matter can be formed in many ways, many of those ways existing as illusions. It seems to me that our formal cause can partly be understood as the realization of that matter, that potential. And in other terms, it could be called ‘enlightenment’—the process of knowing and being who you really are. It really does have a lot to do with my overarching themes and ideas about the difference between ‘who someone i’s and ‘who they really are’, between illusion and reality.
The interesting thing about potential is that if there is such thing as potential, a form as yet unrealized, then Plato is right about his notion that form can exist without matter. For matter enters a mold that was already there. How else could it take on that form if the form was not already there for it to take?
Again, I think the shortcoming here is in my lack of true understanding. For it is simply impossible for us to think about potential without there being something having (that) potential.
Again, I think the solution to the riddle is in the ‘logic’ of reality being the absence of illusion. Such an idea is not within a framework of time, of one being before the other, which is how we think about form and matter, potential either unrealized or realized.
From my personal notes 8/1/00