Disputation 5, Section 3:
Is designated matter the principle of individuation in
- I. The meaning of the question (nn. 1-2)
- We have already seen that we can think of the individual as adding
something real to the common nature in such a way as to constitute the
individual. The composition itself is a 'metaphysical' composition in which
the specific nature is contracted by the individual difference in such
a way as to formally constitute the individual--in a way strictly analogous
to that in which the generic nature is contracted by the specific difference
to constitute the species. Thus, some philosophers, most notably Scotus,
have assumed that once we understand this relation between the specific
nature and the individual, we see that the principle of individuation is
the individual difference, and so there is no need to look for any further
principle of individuation.
- But, of course, on Suarez's view the composition in question, while
grounded in reality, is itself merely a conceptual composition. So there
is, he insists, a further question: What is it within the thing itself
that grounds the concept of the individual difference? And to motivate
the question, he notes, first, that philosophers often say, in the case
of the definition of a species, that the genus is taken from the matter
whereas the specific difference is taken from the form--and this even though
the species is composed 'metaphysically' of the genus and specific difference.
Second, and perhaps more illuminating, we can understand what is meant
by saying that among the predicates true of a given substance, say the
man Socrates, (i) some are taken from his matter (e.g., 'material
substance', 'snub-nosed', 'six feet tall'), (ii) some are taken from his
form (e.g., 'rational', 'capable of free decision'), and (iii) some
are taken from the composite (e.g., 'human being', 'tentmaker').
So the search for a principle of individuation is a search for the physical
component or components grounding the concept of the individual difference.
- II. Matter as the principle of individuation: initial exposition
and objections (nn. 3-7)
- A. The lure of matter: It is easy enough to see why matter might
at first seem relevant to the question of what distinguishes individuals
of the same species from one another. It seems that two red oaks, for instance,
are distinct from one another because they are or include distinct 'packets'
of matter. Aristotle seems to have been of this view, as well as St. Thomas.
As a matter of fact, though, Suarez thinks that the authorities appealed
to by this position are a lot more impressive than the arguments usually
adduced for it. Let us look briefly at the three arguments and Suarez's
reply to them. (It should be noted that unless otherwise indicated, the
term 'matter' is being used here to denote the bare primary principle of
determinability in material things, prior to and independently of its receiving
quantity, i.e., determinate geometrical dimensions. Matter as subject to
determinate dimensions is materia signata a quantitate or designated
- B. Arguments and objections
- Argument 1:
- (1) Matter is the principle of multiplication and numerical distinctness
among individuals within the same species.
- (2) But that which is the principle of numerical distinctness is also
the principle of individuation.
- Therefore, matter is the principle of individuation.
- Someone could readily reply that (1) is false. For that which is the
principle of distinctness is also the principle of multiplication, and,
as St. Thomas himself says, the first principle of distinctness is not
matter, but form. The idea is something like this: In the division of,
say, armadillohood into distinct individuals, a given individual's having
armadillo-like geometrical dimensions is metaphysically prior to and explains
the division of the relevant matter into distinct armadillo-like packets.
Some Thomists accept this and claim that numerical unity has two aspects,
viz., (i) incommunicability to inferiors and (ii) distinctness from other
individuals, and that matter as such is the principle only of the incommunicability,
whereas quantity is the principle of the distinctness. The idea is that
matter, taken as completely bereft of form, itself stands in need of some
form, viz., determinate quanititative dimensions, in order to be chopped
up into distinct packets, as it were. These authors must thus disavow Argument
1. Note that Suarez does not endorse this objection without qualification.
However, he does take these Thomist arguments to show at least that there
is no reason why the whole notion of numerical distinctness should
be attributed to matter rather than to form. For Suarez himself will try
to show that even matter as such has some 'entitative act' that distinguishes
one matter from another.
- Argument 2:
- (1) It is that which is incommunicable to similar inferiors that is
- (2) But matter is the first ground and principle of this incommunicability
(given that form is an act and so is of itself communicable to something,
- Therefore, matter is the principle of individuation.
- In reply Suarez claims that (1) is equivocal and goes on to distinguish
no fewer than five possible sorts of communicability and corresponding
- (a) x's communicability to y insofar as y is a
subject which x informs or in which x inheres
- (b) x's communicability to y insofar as x is a
cause of y
- (c) x's communicability to y insofar as x is a
part of y
- (d) x's communicability to y insofar as x is a
nature had by the suppositum y
- (e) x's communicability to y insofar as x is a
superior shared by y, which is inferior to it or subordinated to
- Matter is indeed incommunicable to anything in sense (a). But this
sort of incommunicability is not necessary for individuation, since accidents
(and substantial forms) lack it even though they are individuals. Nor is
it sufficient for individuality, since matter is incommunicable in this
sense by dint of its species and yet is not an individual by dint of its
species, but is instead by dint of its species common to many numerically
- In sense (b) matter is communicable to form in the sense of sustaining
it and in that way being a 'cause' of it.
- In sense (c) matter is communicable to the composite substance as a
part to a whole and as a (material) cause to its effect. For it communicates
actual entitas intrinsically (as opposed to extrinsically, like
an efficient cause) to the composite.
- In sense (d) matter, as a part of the nature of a composite substance,
is communicable to its own suppositum, i.e., to the substance qua ultimate
subject of predication.
- Finally, in sense (e), which is the sense relevant to individual unity,
matter is as such communicable to many inferiors, which can be its subject
in the order of predication--as when we say that Socrates has matter and
Plato has matter. Someone might object that it is matter in general, and
not the designated matter of the individuals, that is communicated
in this way, and that designated matter, by contrast, is not so communicable
and can thus be the principle of individuation. The reply is that designated
matter does not have its incommunicability by virtue of its being the first
and most basic subject, which is the notion appealed to by Argument 2.
So if it is incommunicable, it gets this incommunicability from something
other than its being matter. But this 'something other' will be a feature
that it shares with form (see below). This is borne out by the fact that
God and angels are 'first subjects' in the relevant sense even though they
have no matter.
- Argument 3:
- (1) The individual is the first subject in a metaphysical (categorial)
ordering (since all the superiors are predicated of it).
- (2) Therefore, the first principle and ground of the individual as
such must be that which is the first subject among the physical principles
or components of the individual.
- (3) But this is matter.
- Therefore, matter is the first principle and ground of the individual
- Being a subject of inherence (as matter is) is far different
from being a subject of predication (as the individual is). Even
though there is an analogy between the two, one sees in the case of simple
substantival forms a subject of predication without any subject of inherence.
And an individual is as such a first subject of predication: "Thus
it is not necessary for that which is the first subject in the order of
generation and imperfection to be the first principle and ground of the
individual, which is the first subject in the order of predication, containing
within itself all the perfection of the superiors and adding something
proper by which it, as it were, completes and brings to fulfillment those
- III. The three modes of explaining designated matter (nn. 8-33)
- A. Introduction (n. 8): Despite the fact that the foregoing
arguments do not establish that matter is the ground or principle of individuation,
the authority of Aristotle and St. Thomas is great enough that this position
would at least be a reasonable one if it could be plausibly, even if not
absolutely convincingly, defended. The first difficulty is that matter
is itself common--common not only in the sense that it is communicable
to many individuals at once as a quasi-species but also in the sense that
numerically the same 'chunk' of matter can exist 'under' many forms successively
in time. This is why the Thomists claim that it is not matter as such,
but rather designated matter, i.e., matter 'signed by quantity'
and possessing determinate geometrical dimensions, that is the principle
of individuation. But the explication of this notion is subject to many
difficulties and disagreements. Suarez's strategy is to distinguish three
different accounts of designated matter and to show that each of them fails
as an account of the principle of individuation.
- B. First analysis (nn. 9-17)
- "The first explanation is that matter signed by quantity is nothing
other than matter with quantity or matter affected by quantity; they think
that the principle of individuation is, as it were, wholly made up of these
two things, so that matter confers incommunicability and quantity confers
[numerical] distinctness, as was explained above."
- (1) In order for matter to be the principle of individuation, something
is required that distinguishes this matter from that matter.
- (2) But this something is not matter itself, since distinctness must
be brought about by an act, whereas matter as such is pure potentiality.
- (3) Nor is this something the [substantial] form, since, to the contrary,
this form is distinct from that form precisely because it
is effected and received in a distinct matter.
- Therefore, this something is quantity.
- (1) On the assumption that the proponents of the argument hold,
as they do, that quantity inheres in and is an accident of the whole composite
substance and not the matter of the substance, so that the same quantity
does not perdure through generation and corruption: The substance qua
individual is metaphysically prior to quantity in the way that a substance
is metaphysically prior to its accidents. Hence, the quantity cannot constitute
the substance as an individual. "From this it follows that at first
numerically this form is introduced into this matter, and that the quantity
follows upon this."
- (2) On the assumption that the proponents of the argument mean to
claim that the quantity inheres in the matter prior to its inhering in
the composite substance, so that the quantity perdures through generation
and corruption: On this view designated matter, as well as matter as
such, can exist under diverse forms and hence in numerically distinct individuals.
So just as they argued above that common matter cannot be the principle
of distinctness, so by the same argument it follows that designated matter
cannot be the principle of distinctness or the principle of individuation.
The Thomistic reply to this objection plunges us into the labyrinth of
St. Thomas's commentary on Boethius's De Trinitate. For the claim
is that it is matter with indeterminate dimensions (perhaps: matter
with some determinate dimensions or other) that is thus common,
whereas matter with determinate dimensions (perhaps: matter with
these particular dimensions) is not common in this way. In response,
Suarez asks: What do these determinate dimensions add over and beyond quantity?
If they add only a certain width, breadth, and depth, the same problem
arises since such dimensions can be common to many individuals. If they
add in addition certain dispositions, causal properties, and other qualities
that together determine the matter to one individual substantial form rather
than another, then, to be sure, designated matter in this sense cannot
be common to another. But this cannot be what the Thomists mean and, in
addition, it cannot be true. For, first, if this were so, then it would
be more than quantity that is the principle of individuation; it would
be "quantified matter as signed by these qualities". Second,
on this view the accidents by which the matter is disposed for this
form would be intrinsically included in the principle of individuation;
but the accidents of a substance, in contrast to its principle of individuation,
cannot be intrinsically and formally included in the substance itself (thought
of as distinct from its accidents). Rather, they presuppose the substance
and as such are posterior to it.
- (3) "By abstracting from [the above assumptions] we argue in a
third way: Even though a thing's existing in itself as one thing is prior
in nature to its being distinct from other things, still, the latter follows
intrinsically from the former without any positive addition that comes
to the thing that is one; rather, it follows just through the negation
by which, once the other term is posited, it is true to say that this
is not that. And so the same positive thing which grounds the unity
as regards the first negation, i.e., the intrinsic indivisibility, consequently
grounds in addition the second negation, i.e., the distinctness from another.
On this score it is often said--and absolutely correctly--that a thing
is distinct from others by virtue of that through which it is constituted
in itself, since it is distinct by virtue of that by which it exists ...
Therefore, in the case of individual unity, that which is the principle
of the individual as regards its constitution and its incommunicability
or indivisibility in itself is also the principle of its distinctness from
others. And, conversely, whatever is the principle of distinctness must
also be the principle of constitution. Therefore, if matter, by itself
and excluding quantity, constitutes an individual that is in itself incommunicable
and one, then it also makes it distinct from others; alternatively, if
it cannot confer distinctness, then it cannot confer the incommunicability
of individuation, either ... And the same argument can be made with regard
to quantity as well." Suarez goes on to make a distinction among three
different kinds of distinctness and corresponding unity:
(a) distinctness with respect to quantity (distinctio quantitativa):
Quantity first gives its substance quantitative unity, "which consists
in its being the case that one substance exists under quantitative limits
distinct from those of another substance, in such a way that the one is
not continuous with the other by a proper continuity of quantity."
Suarez has already argued that quantitative unity presupposes the individual
unity of the substance it modifies and hence cannot be the ground for that
(b) distinctness with respect to position or place (distinctio situalis):
Quantity then (i.e., later in the order of nature) makes it the case that
"one substance exists outside the position or place of another."
The corresponding sort of unity is obviously extrinsic to a material substance,
since such a substance can change its place without ceasing to exist as
the same individual.
His claim is that (c) is prior to (a) and (b). Indeed, this account
of the relation between individual or numerical unity, on the one hand,
and quantitative and positional unity on the other leaves open at least
the following conceptual possibilities: that a material substance should
exist without any quantity at all, i.e., without determinate dimensions;
that a material substance should exist without being in a place; that a
material substance should exist at one and the same time in two discontinuous
places; that two material things should exist in exactly the same place.
As a matter of fact, Suarez has theological reasons for thinking that God
can actualize each of these possibilities. But even someone who is sceptical
on that point can at least appreciate the fact that there are distinct
concepts involved in the three sorts of distinctness and that we can ask
coherently whether, say, two distinct material bodies can occupy the same
place, or whether one material substance can simultaneously be in two distinct
places. Suarez ends this section by accusing Soncinas and Ferrariensis
of conflating the transcendental unity which is the subject of the present
disputation and the categorial unity or oneness which is conferred by a
substance's quantity and which, as we have seen, presupposes transcendental
- C. Second analysis (nn. 18-27)
- "The second explanation is that matter signed by quantity includes
quantity itself not intrinsically, but rather as the terminus of the matter's
disposition toward quantity. For matter is by its nature susceptible to
quantity, but it cannot as such be the complete principle of individuation.
For it is indifferent to any given quantity, just as it is indifferent
to any given form. However, by the action of the agent previous to generation
the matter is determined in such a way as to be susceptible to this
quantity and not another; and it is this matter which, as such, is called
the principle of individuation. By 'quantity' here we mean not just mathematical
quantity but physical quantity, i.e., quantity affected by physical qualities
and dispositions." So on this view matter signed by quantity is matter
as predisposed by an agent for this determinate set of dimensions. Thus,
the objection to the first analysis is circumvented by the fact that on
this analysis the principle of individuation precedes the actual inherence
of quantity in either the matter or the substance. Rather, the matter is
signed by virtue of the fact that the agent imparts to it a disposition
for this set of quantitative dimensions.
The ensuing discussion becomes fairly complicated, but is interesting
because it gets to the heart of Aristotelian anti-reductionism. To see
this, ponder the following question: What is it that distinguishes a unified
living organism at the instant of its generation from an agglomeration
of the preexisting substances that provide the new substance's matter?
On an Aristotelian view, the general ontological answer to this question
is that at that instant the matter in question is informed directly and
primarily by the new organism's substantial form or form of the whole.
It is this principle which unifies the substance and to which all its characteristics,
dispositions, and powers are subordinated. But in order for this to be
the case, and in order for it to be the case further that the accidents
of the new organism are primarily its accidents and not the accidents of
the other substances from which it was formed, we must conceive of the
matter that is so informed by the substantial form as being, at the instant
of generation, a materia nuda that is wholly receptive and wholly
non-resistive with respect to the form. We should note immediately that
this does not entail that it is naturally possible that just any substantial
form should inform the matter at that instant, since, as Suarez puts it,
there is "a natural sequence by which this agent here and now
is determined by a natural ordering to introduce this form, immediately
after this alteration." Nor does it entail that materia
nuda can ever exist on its own as such. Nonetheless, if substantival
generation is indeed possible, it must be the case at the instant of generation
that (i) the previous substances, now altered in such a way as to prepare
for the generation of the new substance, cease to exist as such, along
with their accidents, and that (ii) the matter of the old substances comes
directly under the unifying function of the new substantial form.
- Given this picture, it is easier to understand the dialectic that unfolds
as Suarez criticizes the second analysis. The proponents of this analysis
agree that what makes the organism an individual cannot be quantity insofar
as quantity is one of its accidents, and this for the reasons set out above.
Thus if designated matter is to be the principle of individuality, it must
be conceived of as naturally (even if not temporally) prior to the generation
of the substance as an individual. This is why, on the second analysis,
matter as the ground for individuation is the matter insofar as it is conceived
of as (i) naturally prior to the generation, (ii) in the immediate or last
preparation (or disposition) for the form, and (iii) predisposed for the
particular quantitative dimensions which will characterize the substance
itself. Much of Suarez's argument is meant to show these three requirements
are in conflict, since (i) and (ii) entail that what we are talking about
is materia nuda, whereas (iii) entails that this matter has positive
dispositions. All the attempts to avoid this basic contradiction are found
- D. Third analysis (nn. 28-33)
- This analysis in effect gives up the claim that designated matter is
in any way an intrinsic principle of individuality. Suarez attributes four
theses to the proponents of this analysis:
Thesis 1: "Thus, first of all, speaking of the principle
that constitutes the individual in reality and from which is truly taken
the individual difference that contracts the species and constitutes the
individual, this position denies that designated matter is the principle
Thesis 4: "Fourth, this position adds that 'matter signed
by sensible quantity' expresses the principle of individuation with respect
to us, since it is through this principle that we have cognition of the
distinction of material individuals from one another."
- Suarez accepts Thesis 1, and he also accepts a version of Thesis 2
according to which matter as such (rather than designated matter) is the
principle of multiplication among material substances. There is a long
discussion of Thesis 3, in which Suarez poses two interesting questions:
(b) Is matter the explanation for the fact that in a given instance
of efficient causality, it is this rather than some other possible
individual, whose essence would include just the same matter, that is produced?
- He answers yes to (a). And he also gives a tentative yes to (b), as
long as the matter is thought of as designated and affected by other dispositions.
He also accepts Thesis 4, but worries in the end about whether this third
analysis of designated matter is really what St. Thomas had in mind, since
it gives no rationale for St. Thomas's insistence that angelic species
cannot be multiplied in many individuals.