Monday, May 07, 2007

Form and Matter - Inseparable Duo - A glimpse of the immaterial.

I have been convinced for some time that it is imperative to translate the philosophy developed by our great medieval thinkers into contemporary language and concepts. The theology they developed was not dependent on the science they knew but was appended to it. In the back of their minds they knew that they did not have all the answers to the questions that confronted them, with the science of their time just as we know that we do not have them either with the science of our time. Therefore it is my contention that they were teaching us, by example, how to integrate theological thought with the reality at each step in the development of man’s knowledge and understanding of his surrounding. Here is my attempt to describe the concept of Matter and Form in a language that we can relate to in our contemporary mode of thinking. I leave it to the reader to go the final step and visualize it in the current scientific reality.

The concept of Matter and Form in Aristotelian physics is foreign to our contemporary understanding of science. It was a way of explaining how the non-physical “idea” or “concept” interacts with the physical world[1]. It visualized everything material as composed of the physical entity and the concept behind it. The example used[2] is a table where the artisan who has the picture of the final product in his mind takes a formless piece of wood and molds it into its final form. The “picture in his mind” is the Form which is now actualized as part of the final object. Looked at it relatively, Matter is controlled by Form. Matter will not change without Form acting on it, in fact it will not “exist” without Form, or concept preceding its existence. Form will also not be actualized without interacting with Matter. They are always interdependent[3]. Matter also has the propensity to change[4]. It takes on a certain form and with time it starts to deteriorate, return to its original and is now ready to receive a different Form. Rambam understands that this concept of Matter is represented metaphorically as a promiscuous woman who is impregnated by different men and constantly seeks out new companions.

"How wonderfully wise is the simile of King Solomon, in which he compares matter to a faithless wife: for matter is never found without form, and is therefore always like such a wife who is never without a husband, never single; and yet, though being wedded, constantly seeks another man in the place of her husband: she entices and attracts him in every possible manner till he obtains from her what her husband has obtained. The same is the case with matter. Whatever form it has, it is disposed to receive another form; it never leaves off moving and casting off the form which it has in order to receive another. The same takes place when this second form is received." (MN3:8)

The importance of this discussion as it relates to theology is that the concept of Form is the prototype of non-material existence. The difference between Form and the First Cause idea is that Form and Matter are interdependent while First Cause by definition is the ultimate concept of independence. However it opens our mind to thinking in the direction of the possibility of non-material existence. It is at the cusp of the transition between physics and metaphysics.

[1] The mind – body relationship is an old philosophical debate that is still ongoing. The Self and its Brain, an Argument for Interactionism, Karl Popper and John C. Eccles is a good starting point. Also see Yeshayahu Leibowitz excellent booklet Guf Venefesh.
[2] See Milot Hahegayon, Magnes Press, chapter 9.
[3] רמב"ם יסודי התורה ד:ז
לעולם אין אתה רואה גולם בלא צורה או צורה בלא גולם, אלא לב האדם הוא שמחלק גוף הנמצא בדעתו ויודע שהוא מחובר מגולם וצורה, ויודע שיש שם גופים שגולמם מחובר מארבעת היסודות, וגופים שגולמם פשוט ואינו מחובר רק מגולם אחד, והצורות שאין להם גולם אינן נראין לעין אלא בעין הלב הן ידועין, כמו שידענו אדון הכל בלא ראיית עין.
[4] Of course there has to be an entity that conceptualizes the Form that will be appended to Matter but that is a different subject.


  1. David,

    I have nothing approaching a yeshivish chinuch, but my reading of Ramban's perush on the first few verses of Bereishit is that he set out to restate the relationship between matter and form in the context of Torah. Tohu v'vohu are the analogs for the Aristotlean concepts, although the Torah a) predates Greek philosophy and b) establishes that Hashem is both the cause of causes and the prime mover. Hashem alone can create something from nothing. What is fascinating is that the Ramban cannot discuss this concept without relying on terms introduced by Hebrew translations of Greek philosophy, even as he sets out to establish the hierarchies of wisdom.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  2. Steve, thank you for the compliment.

    Of course you are 100% right and Ramban as did Ibn Ezra, R.Yehuda Halevi and R. Sa'adyah Gaon use Greek philosophy to explain the "secrets" of the Torah. That is exactly my point. They all tausght us that Torah needs to be interpreted in light of our reality. It is made relevant only in that context. It does not teach us what reality is but how to relate to it in theological terms.

    I will be posting about Ramban's approach and how it differs with Rambam in coming posts. But as you point out they all deal with reality as they saw it unlike our contemporary "gedolim" who insist the Torah supercedes reality! What nonsense and belittling of Torah!

  3. Well, we have the mekubalim to blame for the otherworldy view of Torah, or more specifically the Zohar. Interesting essay by Menachem Kellner on the subject accessible here: .

    My qualm with the "gedolim" you refer to, is that is confounding the timeliness of Torah with ahistoricity, or the idea that Judaism is immutable. Again, my knowledge in this area is less than solid, but it seems to me that the Ramban is the pivotal figure in the debate over where the the study of Torah begins and ends. He looks to refute the Aristotlean schema and then argues that every single element of the Torah bears cosmic significance. And, in his commentary on Bereishit 12:6, he sets the stage for the idea that linear time is an illusion - the complete opposite of the conclusion that Ibn Ezra comes to (and that Spinoza leveraged for his argument that the Torah was written in stages).

  4. I think it would be helpful to also distinguish between artificial and natural forms. Additionally, I think you might want to clarify that form and matter are only interdependent in the material world (olam havaya v'hefsed). Form in metaphysics is not interdependent with matter - although, perhaps the term form in metaphysics must be taken as only analogous to form in physics which makes this statement : "However it opens our mind to thinking in the direction of the possibility of non-material existence."
    all the more salient.

    By the way, I am very much with you in believing in the tremendous benefit of these concepts to "modern" Jews.

  5. Incidentally, Mortimer J. Adler provides an excellent layperson-friendly exposition of these concepts in Aristotle for Everybody.

  6. Yehudah, I have to think about your comment. I think you conflate Rambam with ramban. Rambam does not differentiate between Olam Havayah vehefsed in any of his writings. To me I understand that they are integrated and exit bekefufah Acaht.

    Rabbi Maroof thank you for the reference. i will try to get it and read it.

  7. But the Rambam does speak of form separate from matter. I used the term olam havaya vhefsed to refer to the mutable physical world - I will take your word for it that he does not use this term. However, he certainly does use the concept that term refers to.

  8. Yehudah, read the rambam in the quote in the post; והצורות שאין להם גולם אינן נראין לעין אלא בעין הלב הן ידועין,

    You will argue that they are not seen but exist. I will argue that existence is just a term used just like we use existence when we talk about God which is the end of the halacha.

    I see where you are going and yes I agree when I say it opens the mind to immaterial existence. The problem that I have with this existence in a diffeent realm is that it is not absolute enough. I prefer to stay with describing it as a concept as thoght exists but is immaterial.

    I think the Ramban sees it more like you suggest. I have not yet completely grasped his thinking. I am planning to revisit Sha'ar Hagemul in the near future wher the discussion is centered.