Typically hylomorphists discuss their theory historically in terms of what Aristotle, Aquinas, or some other philosopher of the past has claimed. That is not my approach!
The hylomorphic theory I defend dovetails with current work in metaphysics, philosophy of mind, and scientific disciplines such as biology and neuroscience. I argue that there are good philosophical and empirical reasons to endorse hylomorphism’s core notion of Organization or Structure.
Many philosophers appeal to a notion of organization or structure very like the hylomorphic one without fully appreciating what those appeals imply. They include David Armstrong, William Bechtel, Nancy Cartwright, John Dewey, John Heil, Philip Kitcher, and Michael Ruse.
More interesting than the philosophers, however, are the scientists who make frequent appeals to organization or structure in describing and explaining the phenomena they study. Here is one example taken from a popular college-level biology textbook—note the references to organization, order, arrangement, and related concepts:
“Life is highly organized into a hierarchy of structural levels… Biological order exists at all levels… [A]toms… are ordered into complex biological molecules… the molecules of life are arranged into minute structures called organelles, which are in turn the components of cells. Cells are [in turn] subunits of organisms… The organism we recognize as an animal or plant is not a random collection of individual cells, but a multicellular cooperative… Identifying biological organization at its many levels is fundamental to the study of life… With each step upward in the hierarchy of biological order, novel properties emerge that were not present at the simpler levels of organization… A molecule such as a protein has attributes not exhibited by any of its component atoms, and a cell is certainly much more than a bag of molecules. If the intricate organization of the human brain is disrupted by a head injury, that organ will cease to function properly… And an organism is a living whole greater than the sum of its parts… [W]e cannot fully explain a higher level of order by breaking it down into its parts” (Campbell, Neil A. 1996. Biology, 4th Edition (San Francisco, CA: Benjamin Cummings Publishing), pp. 2-4).
This passage suggests that the way things are structured, organized, or arranged plays an important role in them being the kinds of things they are, and in explaining the kinds of things they can do. It suggests, in other words, that organization or structure is an ontological and explanatory principle.
If we are committed to countenancing the entities postulated by our best descriptions and explanations of reality, and we think those descriptions and explanations derive from empirical sources such as the sciences, then scientific appeals to structure make a serious ontological demand. The most direct way of meeting that demand, I argue, is to take scientific appeals to structure at face value—to claim that structure really exists, and that it plays the theoretical roles those appeals imply. We can express those roles with some slogans:
Structure matters: it operates as an irreducible ontological principle, one that accounts at least in part for what things essentially are.
Structure makes a difference: it operates as an irreducible explanatory principle, one that accounts at least in part for what things can do, the powers they have.
Structure counts: it explains the unity of composite things, including the persistence of one and the same living individual through the dynamic influx and efflux of matter and energy that characterize many of its interactions with the wider world.
In Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind (Oxford University Press 2016) I articulate and defend a hylomorphic metaphysic built around a notion of structure that plays these roles. I then go on to show how that metaphysic can be applied fruitfully to solve problems in the philosophy of mind. I outline how it does this in future posts.