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FMGM, the Form-Matter Ground-Motive

(Still in draft form)

The Form-Matter ground-motive is one of four ground-motives of European thought. It arose within ancient Greek thought and presupposes that all can, and should, be explained in terms of form and matter. Dooyeweerd traced its origin amalgamation of the early Greek nature religions which deified a formless, cyclical stream of life and blind fate, Ananke, with the culture religion of form, measure and harmony.

The Form-Matter ground-motive itself emerged as Greek thinking became more organised at the time Plato and Aristotle so that, for example, the being of a thing like a computer might be explained as matter (silicon, copper, etc.) in the form of a computer. To Plato, form and matter were separate while to Aristotle, they were in relationship [Tim Ingold 2010 offers a useful explanation of this.]

Either way, form-Matter became a dualism, because both Plato and Aristotle presupposed them as fundamentally distinct, the very building-blocks of all reality. Ingold and others call it "hylomorphism". Both he and Paul Klee dislike what they see as the static nature of form ("Form is death; form-giving is life" [Klee]) and try to emphasise process. This dichotomy they insert between stasis and change has its roots in the contention between Heraclitus (who emphasised change: "You cannot step in the same river twice") and Parmenides (who emphasised stasis: "all change is illusion" and that objects could only be comprehended if they existed to a certain degree outside of time and change).

In ancient Greece, form was seen as static, and matter as changeable and hence unreliable, so form became favoured by thinkers. Rational thinking was of form, irrational passion, of matter. (But today it is almost the other way round, in that matter is the seen as the changeless reality, while form changes with every whiff of human fashion.)

This elevated form (eternal, spiritual, reliable, pure) over matter (temporal, material, decaying, changing, impure). Form was seen as Good and matter, Evil (or, for those who enjoyed carousing, the other way round!), and the remedy was to rid one's life of as much matter as possible. Philosophers, as experts in Form should rule the State. We still feel its influence today in the mind-body dualism, in the assumed superiority of working with the mind over working with the hands, and also in the assumption of the autonomy of theoretical thought. Here are some of the things that we associate with form versus matter:

Form and Matter - How we see them manifesting themselves
Form Matter
Abstract thinking Doing
Work with the mind Work with the mind
Philosophers Ploughboys
Reason Passion
Mind Brain
Online store 'Bricks and mortar' store
Thinking Feeling
The 'higher' life of the mind The 'lower' life of the body and its sensations
Spirit, soul Body

Many thinkers over the past 2500 years have argued, sometimes bitterly, over which is better than the other. But both camps still presuppose the fundamental distinction between Form and Matter as the two fundamental parts to reality.

However, people have seldom been truly satisfied with the form-matter dichotomy. It only explains things if one closes one's mind to various aspects. There are many differences that cannot be explained in its terms, for example between management and workers in a knowledge company, between blue and yellow colours, between generosity and meanness in attitude, between frugality and waste, and even between male and female. (Though feminists over the past four decades have tended to associate masculine with form and feminine with body, this is merely a tacitly agreed association and one could argue the opposite.)

Dooyeweerd, on the other hand, is very critical of the entire presupposition and its implications. He believed in a reality that coheres and yet is diverse. The fundamentals of reality are not form and matter but rather multiple spheres of meaningfulness (law). If I understand Dooyeweerd correctly, 'matter' is what actually occurs; 'form' is related to law that enables and governs what actually occurs - and both occur in every aspect. In physics, the matter is mass and energy, and the form refers to how they are arranged and the laws by which these occur and arrange themselves. In language too we 'matter' - which is the content of what is signified - and 'form' refers to the syntax in which they are arranged in utterances, and the laws of said syntax. In juridicality, the 'matter' is the content of the case. Similarly with poetry (aesthetic aspect). And so on.

Notes and References

Ingold, T. 2010. Bringing things to life: Creative entanglements in a world of materials. Working Paper #15 of the UK ESRC Realities Programme.

This page, "", is part of The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Questions or comments are very welcome.

Compiled by Andrew Basden. You may use this material subject to conditions.

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