Hylomorphic view of the Human person

I was thinking about Substance dualism recently, given a conversation that I was having in which a friend identified me as (perhaps even ‘accused’ me of being) a ‘substance dualist’. Although I accepted the label, I also immediately cushioned myself against being characterized as a Cartesian with respect to the Soul by noting that I did not accept that the soul and the body were two different substances. My view is technically not one of substance-dualism, but rather one of hylomorphism (the standard view among Medieval theologians). According to the hylomorphic view, the substance of the ‘human being’ is comprised of form and matter, such that the soul is the form of the human being, while the body is the matter. Thus, the substance is ‘human-being’, the form is the ‘rational soul’, and the matter is the ‘body’. On this view of the human person there is no difficulty of interactionism, a difficulty which invited many innovative systems of philosophy in the early modern period.

After having briefly explained this view, it occurred to me that if one can speak of the soul apart from the body as an individual substance (thing) of some kind (such that we can speak about the saints in heaven as persons even if they aren’t properly ‘human’, at least until the resurrection), then we must explain how we can speak of the soul as an individual substance and also the form of a substance. It seems to me that we should be inclined to think something like Leibniz’ proposal is true: namely, that matter supervenes on substance. In other words, the material world is a result of the immaterial substances having relations of perception.

Problems with this view might exist. For instance, I wonder how to make sense of the commitment to Sensitive or Vegetative souls being entirely material souls (rather than immaterial), but it might be possible to make sense of that given an analysis of what we (can) mean by ‘material soul’. Moreover it isn’t as though we are bound to that Thomistic articulation.

In any case, it was just a thought.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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3 Responses to Hylomorphic view of the Human person

  1. mattd4488 says:

    Having been raised in a modern, western culture and having been educated in the sciences, my brain still has a hard time with hylomorphism. It makes sense on paper but I can’t seem to “own” it if you know what I mean. Nevertheless, I often come across this problem too. If we can intellectually and verbally distinguish the soul and the body as different things, how is it that they are not actually different things? Of course, they don’t exist on their own, but nevertheless, I can’t seem to understand the distinguishing factor.

    • I know how you feel, and prior to reading Leibniz I would have sympathized. However, what we have to appeal to, I think, is semantic context. In other words, I think that the soul is an individual substance, and that matter or the body is something both real and different from the soul, and yet it supervenes on the soul; thus we can speak of the soul as a substance in one context, and of the soul-body composite as a single substance in another context. This idea would probably be easier to communicate if you were familiar with Leibniz’ monadology. The basic idea is that it is impossible to have physical atoms (indivisible particles) since for any object extended in space, if it takes up any measure of space, it can be divided. However, it is absurd to think that things are infinitely divisible without any smallest particles. Leibniz suggests that there must be ‘atoms of substance’ which he calls monads. These are small perceiving atoms. The atoms, in some sense, perceive each other according to their relations, and this produces the overall phenomenon of the perception of bodies as well as space. Thus, physical things are not infinitely divisible but ‘infinitely divided’ (and actual infinite in place of a potential infinite). This view gets pretty crazy, but it also solves philosophical and theological paradoxes like it’s nobody’s business. I’d recommend, if you find yourself so inclined, to take the time to read through some of Leibniz’ monadology, and then come back to the same kind of questions. Even if one doesn’t accept Leibniz’ monadology, it is useful for demonstrating how a coherent account of things like hylomorphism might go.

      Here’s a link: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/leibmona.pdf

      That short tract of his is only about 13 pages long.

      • mattd4488 says:

        Thanks, I’ll have to check out his philosophy. So far, I’ve been going in chronological order. I’m pretty familiar with Aristotle and getting more and more familiar with Aquinas. I am planning on reading both of them, and Plato and a few others, this summer.

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