Saturday, 29 July 2017

A Few Thoughts on Form

These reflections might not all be perfectly lucid or sound; they are just reflections. No cohesive or systematic program of thought went into any of this, just a flow of thought about logical possibilities. Later, when I am able to devote more of my time explicitly to texts and research, I will hopefully provide much more in-depth thought on these subjects, and more. Critical commentary welcome below.

Note: What follows applies principally to the forms of sensible things. Beings such as angels are a discussion of their own.

Form, in Plato, is the intelligible identity and the reality of a things. A thing is not its form; but its reality, its actuality, its whatness, is indeed its form. A thing is distinct from that which makes it what it is; it is distinct from its whatness. Its whatness, its form, is thus distinct from itself; it is separate. Is it a mistake to interpret Plato's theory of forms as a theory of “two worlds”? Must the separation of form imply a distinct “world” of intelligibles parallel to the world of sensibles? Or does separation mean anything more than the distinction between a thing and its essence? In sensible things, even St. Thomas admits this distinction, without feeling the need to hypostasize the essence or form of a thing. This is St. Thomas' (and Aristotle's before him) critique of Plato, that the forms seem to acquire the status of individual hypostases. Perhaps this is an easy mistake to make, in interpreting Plato. We note, further, that Thomas himself had very little direct experience of Plato's texts. Perhaps, however, if he himself had read the dialogues of Plato, he might have approved of Plato's intuitive grasp of the distinction between things and their forms or essences; he might also have very much approved of Plato's insistence that this form or essence constitutes the very reality of the thing itself, more so than its matter constitutes this reality – and more, perhaps, than the composite itself of form and matter?

This last thing remains to be settled in my mind: Which is more real: form, or the composite of form and matter? In an absolute sense, to be sure, the mode in which anything exists as purely formal, that is, as Pure Act, is more real than the mode in which it exists as composite; i.e. its existence in the mind of God is, simpliciter, more real than its existence in itself as composite. (This is not to exclude other senses, secundum quid, in which the composite existence is more real; but that is for another discussion.) The doctrine of the divine ideas is St. Thomas' appropriation of the Platonic theory of forms. The divine ideas are the formal exemplars of things, as they are conceived in the divine intellect. Their existence in the divine intellect is the absolute condition of their existence and intelligibility as composite beings, the condition of their entire being – in themselves and in the intellects of non-divine beings. They exist as composites of form and matter – or in the case of immaterial substances such as angels, of essence and existence (either way, composites of act and potency) – only because they exist in the first place as purely formal, or purely actual, in the mind of God. The Platonic doctrine of form is really based on an intuition of the absolute priority of actuality, which is a priority admitted by both Aristotle and Thomas. This absolute priority of actuality is the condition for all posterior modes of existence – and modes of intelligibility.

Therefore, Plato asserts that the reality of things, namely their form or essence, is something divine. It is, in a sense, other-worldly – not to literally posit a “two-world” theory of forms, but rather drawing attention to the transcendence of form that is, at the same time, immanent in things. For anything to be real is for it to participate in something transcendent and divine, something more than the mere composition of form and matter that makes it to be “this thing.” To attend to the most real reality of a thing, one would do better to attend not merely to what constitutes it as this or that individual thing, but to what constitutes it as this kind of thing; and even better, one would attend to the relation which it bears, not merely to the principles of its own inner constitution, but to the divine reality which is its exemplar. There is here a process of ascent: first one perceives the thing in its own individuality, its existence as a composite, a “this” or a “that.” Second, one abstracts from the phantasm of this object its intelligible form, by means of the agent intellect, thereby distinguishing it in kind from all other kinds. Thirdly, one rises even from this form, the intelligible species, to the divine species of which it is but a participation and a reflection. In this threefold process, one ultimately knows God, in whom things exist in the most real way, absolutely and unconditionally, through the limited and conditioned existences of things which one encounters in the world of perception. One discovers the divinity of pure form, pure actuality, which is itself the very reality and condition of all composite things, as well as of the understanding of such things.

But the composition of form and matter – or existence and essence, or any act and potency – is not the composition of God with things. For God does not enter into composition; He is not the actuality of any composite. St. Thomas perceived another danger in the Platonic account as he understood it, namely that it entailed a certain pantheism. But could not one avoid this, while maintaining the essential elements of the theory of forms? St. Thomas himself admits of many modes of existence, even of a single thing. As a composite being, it exists in a state of actuality, but an actuality which is the act of some potency (hence its composition). Or it may exist in a state of potency in the unformed matter of which it is partly composed, along with form; it is form which bestows actuality upon this matter, thereby bringing about its actual composite existence. But there is also a mode of existence which is actual – not the act of any potency, but purely actual and uncomposed. This is the mode of existence which belongs to God. In this mode, all beings exist as ideas in the divine intellect. This is a purely formal mode of existence. In the coming to be of a composite mode of existence, God, or God's idea, does not enter into composition with matter, but He impresses His idea upon matter as a seal upon wax, such that the form received by the wax is an image of the divine idea itself. The potential existence of that being in matter is actualized by the reception of a form from the stamp of a divine idea. There is almost some truth to the claim that the form in the wax is the form of the seal; it is at least its image. Indeed, one would say that the pattern of the seal is the same pattern received in the wax. One does not distinguish the pattern of a patterned thing – in the patterned thing – from the pattern “itself by itself,” even if the seal is a separate entity from the formed wax. There is neither a straightforward sameness nor a straightforward separation from the two things, but a relationship of image to the paradigm; and the paradigm is both transcendent and immanent to its images.

Form, then, comes to refer to both the paradigm and the image of the paradigm which inheres in the composite being(s), not by a mere equivocation, but by a real analogy. The richness, and perhaps the very ambiguity, of Plato's doctrine of form lies in the simultaneous (and perhaps confused?) awareness of the analogy of paradigm and image. It is an awareness which, though perhaps confused, is quite necessary to the philosopher: that there is a Unity responsible for the commonality of many. The philosopher knows by abstraction a commonality amidst multiplicity, a form or a species of many composite individuals. It is a common pattern which they all follow, a nature which gives them their very reality. It strikes the eye of his mind with such a force that it almost seems more real than they, for it is their very meaning – it is their reality. The more he is aware of it, the more mysterious does it seem, the more intensive is its being, the more powerful is its influence; it seems something divine. At this point the attention of the mind is less to the things of his experience than to the unity of form that makes them what they are. Certainly, things in his experience have led him on this voyage of discovery, but what he has discovered is not them, but a reality that transcends them. He is here witnessing the very impression of the divine seal upon things, the relationship of image to paradigm. By attending ever so closely to the meaning and mystery of things, it is as if he has been sucked in to the mystery to gaze upon the startling, blinding light that casts all images. Form, as the image of a paradigm, is the portal through which the paradigm itself may be glimpsed; and the whole symphony of earthly forms together, a magnificent symbol by which the terrifying Unity of all Form is simultaneously concealed and revealed. Through form-as-image, we know the God who is pure form-as-paradigm, who is present in all and absolutely beyond all things.

These reflections have not been systematic. They have just been a train of thought. The hope is to arrive at a conception of form that unifies, or harmonizes, the Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions. Plato's conception of form need not be a hypostasized version of form, such that each among the multitude of forms acquires its own individuality; though he rightly emphasizes the separateness and distinction between form and the formed: the one a unity and the other a multiplicity of composite individuals. Form is accordingly something transcendent, because it is a paradigm distinct from all its instances; it is also something immanent because it is a paradigm that is realized – in only a participated fashion – in all its instances. (What I mean by “a participated fashion” I hope to explain in a later post.) Whereas Plato emphasizes the transcendence of form, though by no means prescinding from its immanence, Aristotle explicitly emphasizes its immanence, and the necessity of attending to the particular in order to gain true knowledge. After all, abstraction is only from particulars; knowledge begins from sensation. Form is encountered first in composition, individuated by matter. The grasping of intelligible form begins with sensible form, but is itself ordered to the contemplation of subsistent Being Itself.


  1. After reading your post, I am wondering if you are familiar with the work of Fr. Stephen L. Brock. He has posted an article on entitled "Formal Infinity, Perfection, and Determinacy in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas". The article explores quite a few of the points about the general metaphysics of form and substance that you mention.

  2. I am indeed aware of Brock and his work, and that particular article, though not too familiar with it. I think I will sit down today and have a read!