Aristotle’s Theory of “Prime Matter” and Contemporary Physics

 Aristotle’s philosophy of nature has attracted less attention   compared with other aspects of his work largely due to the belief held   that the Greek philosopher thunderously failed to support his views. Is this true, though?

Demetra Sfendoni-Mentzou, professor at the School of Philosophy and Pedagogy of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and head of the recently established Interdisciplinary Centre for Aristotle Studies, presents her approach to the work of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle:

“Aristotle made significant contributions to science and philosophy and his writings formed a huge and varied corpus. Metaphysics, logic, ethics and politics are some of the aspects of his philosophy that have attracted the attention and interest of the scientific community. Unfortunately, an important part of his work, what is called today Aristotle’s philosophy of nature, has been largely ignored, as it was mistakenly believed that the Greek philosopher has failed to support successfully his views. Is this true, though?

My research focuses on a new reading of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature with the aim of promoting this aspect of his work and shed light on the conceptual relationship between Aristotle and contemporary scientific thinking. To be more specific, my aim is to approach the work of Aristotle taking into consideration the modern view of the natural world held by natural science; that is, the view that Newtonian conceptual frameworks do not provide the tools necessary for the interpretation of data resulting from empirical-experimental research. This paper focuses on Aristotle’s theory of matter and, more specifically, on his theory of “prime matter”. Most Aristotelians believe that his views on “prime matter” are incomplete, since Aristotle himself claims that “prime matter” is indefinite, imperceptible and pure potentiality.

However, such beliefs are not well-documented. Taking into consideration Aristotle’s writings, on the one hand, and contemporary findings in Quantum Physics, Particle Physics, and Cosmology, on the other hand, I strongly believe that “prime matter” is not just a concept, but it has the capacity to develop into reality. Certainly, it is not my intention to support that there are similarities between Aristotle’s view of the natural world and the view of the world prevalent in contemporary fields of physics; my purpose is to shed light on existing analogies. It should be noted that subatomic particles are no longer the solid, clearly defined, unchangeable “building blocks” of matter, as was the case with the Newtonian atoms; instead, they are unstable and transient, since –in Aristotle’s terms– there is a constant passage from potentiality to actuality.

It is clear that the approach of this paper to Aristotle’s philosophy is not conventional. It is rather radical in that: (1) it aims to falsify the traditional belief that Aristotle failed to provide a complete theory about the philosophy of nature, which is an important part of his work that includes Physics and many other writings, such as his treatise On the Heavens, On Generation and Corruption, and Meteorology, as well as his treatises on psychology and biology; (2) it does not examine only Aristotle’s writings, but various aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature under the light of findings in major fields of science; and (3) the resulting findings provide us with the ability to build conceptual bridges between the philosophical thought and scientific thought, promoting, thus, an interdisciplinary dialogue between various scientific fields, as well as between philosophy and sciences.

Finally, it should be noted that the abovementioned goal is part of a broader research plan in progress over the last fifteen years. Within this framework, I have published a great number of papers and articles on aspects of Aristotle’s philosophy of nature, have organized international conferences, have participated in conferences in Greece and abroad, have developed and carried out research programmes, and have supervised PhD and Ma theses on Aristotle’s work. The outcome of the efforts made was the “Interdisciplinary Centre for Aristotle Studies” (known in Greek by the acronym DIKAM:, which was established by the Senate of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in July, 2011.

The objective of the Center is to promote the work of Aristotle at international level, applying an interdisciplinary approach to connect the philosophy of Aristotle to contemporary thought, and encourage research on a wide range of relevant topics in: philosophy, the humanities, law and political sciences, health sciences, and technological sciences.”