The unity of action: reviving a neo-Aristotelian case for hylomorphism
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In recent decades, a number of philosophers have sought to explain the nature of human action using Aristotle’s theory of material constitution. According to these neo-Aristotelian accounts, material objects serve as the paradigm cases for analysing the concept of action. As composites of matter and form, material objects—and, in particular, biological organisms—possess a kind of constitutive unity: they are “hylomorphic wholes”. The same kind of unity purportedly exists with regard to actions, which are constituted likewise. My task in this paper will be to give a precise articulation of this thesis and what it entails. If the neo-Aristotelian claim is right, then material objects really do serve as the paradigm cases for understanding the constitution of action. In Chapter III, I will simply presume the truth of this general claim, in order to focus my attention on the relative merits and weaknesses of specific arguments given in support of it. Before considering these arguments, however, we will need to first clarify Aristotle’s thesis concerning material objects. This will be my aim in Chapter II. In general, I will accept the conventional Aristotelian position that a material thing, qua concrete substance, is constituted by substantial form in matter, a unified whole. I will presume as correct the Thomistic conception of such composites, which employs the distinction between act and potency: matter is pure potentiality for the reception of form, and form is “a determinate actualisation of this potentiality”.