Posted on 1 January 2020
Having rejected Plato’s Theory of Ideas, Aristotle decided that reality consisted of unified separate things.
The Form of a Thing Is Its Specific Characteristics
This unity was of form and substance. The ‘substance’ is what things are made of, while the ‘form’ is each thing’s specific characteristics. A chicken’s ‘form’ is precisely that it flutters, cackles and lays eggs. So by the ‘form’ of a chicken, we mean the specific characteristics of its species or in other words, what it does.
When the chicken dies and cackles no more its ‘form’ ceases to exist. The only thing that remains is the chicken’s ‘substance’, but then it is no longer a chicken.
Aristotle was concerned with the changes in nature. ‘Substance’ always contains the potentiality to realize a specific ‘form.’ We could say that ‘substance’ always strives towards achieving an innate potentiality. Every change in nature, according to Aristotle, is a transformation of substance from the ‘potential’ to the ‘actual.’
Imagine a sculptor is working on a large block of granite. The sculptor hacks away at the formless block every day. One day a little boy comes by and says, ‘What are you looking for?’ Wait and see,’ answers the sculptor.
After a few days the little boy comes back, and now the sculptor has carved a beautiful horse out of the granite. The boy stares at it in amazement, then he turns to the sculptor and says, ‘How did you know it was in there?’
In a sense, the sculptor had seen the horse’s form in the block of granite, because that particular block of granite had the potentiality to be formed into the shape of a horse. Similarly Aristotle believed that everything in nature has the potentiality of realizing, or achieving, a specific ‘form.’ Let us return to the chicken and the egg. A chicken’s egg has the potentiality to become a chicken.
This does not mean that all chicken’s eggs become chickens many of them end up on the breakfast table as fried eggs, omelettes, or scrambled eggs, without ever having realized their potentiality. But it is equally obvious that a chicken’s egg cannot become a goose.
That potentiality is not within a chicken’s egg. The ‘form’ of a thing, then, says something about its limitation as well as its potentiality. When Aristotle talks about the ‘substance’ and ‘form’ of things, he does not only refer to living organisms.
Just as it is the chicken’s ‘form’ to cackle, flutter its wings, and lay eggs, it is the form of the stone to fall to the ground. Just as the chicken cannot help cackling, the stone cannot help falling to the ground. You can, of course, lift a stone and hurl it high into the air, but because it is the stone’s nature to fall to the ground, you cannot hurl it to the moon.
Image from thefederalist.com/