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Hylemorphism is a modern term for a central teaching in the philosophy of Aristotle , according to which finite substances consist of two different principles, namely the substance or matter (Greek hýlē ) and the form (Greek morphḗ ).

Concept history

The term hylemorphism comes from modern neo-scholasticism . It appears to have been formed towards the end of the 19th century and established itself in the history of philosophy literature in the course of the 20th century. In addition, the spelling hylomorphism occurs only sporadically in German , which is linguistically based on the term hylozoism , which originated in the 17th century . In English, the analogous word form hylomorphism is common.


Aristotle starts from the question of how becoming is possible. In this sense, becoming is understood to mean both emergence and change. The Eleatics had argued that becoming could neither take place out of an absolute being nor out of an absolute non-being. Aristotle therefore assumes a median between being and non-being as a prerequisite for a becoming can take place in the opposition of being and non-being. This mean, from which becoming proceeds, that is, that from which something becomes, must for Aristotle be something that is only in terms of possibility. He calls this matter which enables becoming and is thus underlying.

Accordingly, everything that arises or changes (be it by nature or through human art) must have matter in it. When a certain form adjoins matter and connects with it, a thing arises. Matter as that from which something becomes, offers what is becoming the possibility to be or not to be. Ore is a material from which a statue may or may not be made. As abstract principles, form and matter have never arisen and are immortal; Really and concretely, they do not exist independently on earth, but only together in their different emerging and disappearing compositions, which constitute things. These compositions are subject to constant change. Composition of matter and form is for Aristotle synonymous with variability.

The four types of change that Aristotle distinguishes correspond to four types of matter. The substantial change is becoming and passing away. It is not a question of an already existing substance assuming new accidental determinations, but of a substance itself emerging. This change corresponds to a matter of becoming and passing away ( hýlē gennētḗ kai phthartḗ ). Likewise, the quantitative change (growth and decrease), the qualitative change and the change of location each correspond to an associated matter. For the heavenly bodies, to which Aristotle ascribes substantial immutability, he assumes a matter of change of location ( hýlē topikḗ or hýlē kata tópon kinētḗ ) in order to explain their local movement, but not a matter of becoming and passing away.

The other types of change are necessarily connected with substantial becoming and passing away, but not the other way around. Hence the existence of the matter of substantial becoming includes the existence of the other kinds of matter. Where all kinds of matter are present, they do not exist side by side in reality, but are only separated from one another in terms of concept. For the hylemorphism only the substantial matter, the matter in the actual sense, is of importance.

The soul is the principle of motion for Aristotle. Therefore, "soul" movements such as emotions, perceptions and intellectual activity are not movements of the soul, which is unchangeable as a principle, but movements of the animated person. The soul itself is motionless, it does not arise and does not perish. Therefore, in and of itself (independent of the body) it has no matter; it is pure form, and the matter associated with it is that of the physical body. In Aristotle's philosophy, hylemorphism extends to man, but not to the soul as such.


The neo-Platonism combines Platonic philosophy with a partially influenced Aristotelian thinking and terminology. For the ancient Neo-Platonists the spiritual (“intelligible”) world actually exists; to it belong the nous and the world soul . The immortal souls of humans (and in Plotinus also animals) are part of the spiritual world in terms of their bodily existence. The spiritual world is the archetype of the sensually perceptible. According to the Neoplatonic conception, their existence is by nature completely independent of that of physical, sensually perceptible matter. Therefore, in Neoplatonism, the concept of a “spiritual” (“intelligible”) matter is introduced, with which both the ontological independence of the spiritual world from the physical and the image character of the physical world is preserved. In this system, purely spiritual substances (with the exception of the absolutely simple and unified one ) are composed of matter and form. In doing so, the Neoplatonists transferred the hylemorphism, which Aristotle only assumed for the physical world, to the spiritual world and thus made it a universal principle. Therefore one speaks of "universal hylemorphism".

Spiritual and physical matter are completely different in nature in Neoplatonism. They only have the name “matter” in common, which refers to the fact that in both the material principle, namely the indeterminate and immeasurable ( ápeiron ), combines with forms that limit it and make it something definite. Spiritual matter, like physical matter, is not something that exists only as far as possible, but an inherently unlimited power; when a limitation is added to it, an intelligible being is constituted. Some Neoplatonists ( Porphyrios , Iamblichus , Proklos ) assume a special spiritual matter of mathematics.

The Neoplatonic concept of matter influenced the thinking of the church father Augustine , who was one of the most important authorities in philosophy and theology in the Middle Ages. This was an essential requirement for medieval hylemorphism.

middle Ages

In the Islamic world, the philosopher Avicenna assumes a common matter for all bodies, so does not assign a different kind of matter to the celestial bodies than the earthly substances, as Aristotle does. Averroes, on the other hand, defends Aristotle's position.

The Jewish philosophers Isaak Israeli and Solomon ibn Gabirol (Avicebron), who lived in Muslim Spain, introduced a major innovation in the High Middle Ages . They assume a universal matter that is present both in the spiritual world (with the exception of God himself) and in the physical. This universal matter manifests itself in three ways for ibn Gabirol. In the purely spiritual realm it only connects with the substantial form (without quantity). In the heavenly bodies it is determined both by the substantial form and by the quantity. In the earthly bodies there is also the principle of opposition. In Ibn Gabirol's opinion, form and matter can never exist separately from one another, but are only conceptually separated for the purpose of analysis.

With this model, ibn Gabirol, whose main philosophical work "Lebensquelle" was written in Arabic and translated into Latin in the 12th century, became the most important source of inspiration for the universal hylemorphism among Latin-speaking Christian scholars ( scholastics ) of the late Middle Ages . Above all scholars from the "Franciscan School" belonged to this direction. Prominent representatives of the universal hylemorphism were the Franciscans Alexander von Hales , Bonaventura and Roger Bacon as well as the Dominican Robert Kilwardby . Opponents of this doctrine were both the Thomists , the followers of Thomas Aquinas , and the Averroists ; these two tendencies, which otherwise fought against each other, stuck to the traditional position of Aristotelianism on the question of spiritual matter. However, these opponents did not fight hylemorphism as such, which they rather advocated as Aristotelian himself; they only turned against its universal variant, which assigns the soul and the “intelligences” (angels) their own spiritual matter. Well-known opponents of the universal hylemorphism included u. a. Wilhelm von Auvergne , Johannes von Rupella († 1245), Albert the Great and Heinrich von Gent .


  • Heinz Happ : Hyle. Studies on the Aristotelian concept of matter. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1971 (Habil.-Schr. Univ. Tübingen).
  • Marcus Knaup: Beyond physicalism and dualism! The hylemorphism as a real alternative in a current dispute . In: Marcus Knaup / Tobias Müller / Patrick Spät (eds.): Post-Physicalism . Freiburg / Munich 2011. pp. 189–215. [1]
  • Frank A. Lewis: Form and Matter , in: A Companion to Aristotle , ed. Georgios Anagnostopoulos , Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford 2009, pp. 162-185
  • Ulrike Mörschel and Rolf P. Schmitz: Article Form / Materie , in: Lexikon des Mittelalters , Volume 4, Munich and Zurich 1989, Sp. 636–645
  • Josef Quitterer: What does the concept of the soul do to overcome physicalistic interpretations of personal identity. In: Marcus Knaup / Tobias Müller / Patrick Spät (eds.): Post-Physicalism. Freiburg / Munich 2011. pp. 216-233. [2]
  • Charlotte Witt: Hylomorphism in Aristotle , in: Journal of Philosophy 84 (1987), pp. 673-679
  • Jiyuan Yu: Two Conceptions of Hylomorphism in "Metaphysics," , in: Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy , Vol. 15 (1997), pp. 119-145

Web links

Wiktionary: hylemorphism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. For the history of the term see Ludger Oeing-Hanhoff: Hylemorphismus , in: Historisches Handbuch der Philosophie , Volume 3, Darmstadt 1974, Sp. 1236f.
  2. For the statements of the individual scholastics see Erich Kleineidam: The problem of the hylomorphic composition of spiritual substances in the 13th century, treated up to Thomas von Aquin , Diss. Breslau 1930 (also briefly deals with the development after the time of Thomas).