Hylomorphism and Mind-Body Problems

Mind-body problems are persistent problems in understanding how thought, feeling, perception, and other mental phenomena fit into the natural world described by our best science. Hylomorphists take mind-body problems to be symptomatic of a worldview that rejects hylomorphic structure.

Hylomorphic structure carves out distinctive individuals from the otherwise undifferentiated sea of matter and energy described by physics, and it confers on those individuals distinctive powers. If hylomorphic structure exists, then the physical universe is punctuated with pockets of organized change and stability—composite physical objects (paradigmatically living things) whose structures confer on them powers that distinguish what they can do from what unstructured materials can do. If those powers include the abilities to think, feel, perceive, and act, then hylomorphic structure provides a way of locating mind in a physical world: if structure is uncontroversially part of the physical world, and mental phenomena are species of structural phenomena, then they must be uncontroversially part of the physical world as well.

A worldview that rejects hylomorphic structure, by contrast, is a worldview that lacks a basic principle which distinguishes the parts of the physical universe that can think, feel, and perceive from those that can’t, and without a basic principle that carves out zones with distinctive powers, the existence of those powers in the natural world can start to look inexplicable and mysterious.

If there is nothing built into the basic fabric of the universe that explains why Zone A has powers that Zone B lacks—if nothing explains why you, say, have the power to think, feel, and perceive, while the materials surrounding you do not, then the options for understanding the existence of those powers in the natural world become constrained: either those powers must be identified with the powers of physical materials taken by themselves or in combination (as panpsychists and many physicalists claim), or their existence must be taken as an inexplicable matter of fact (as many emergentists and epiphenomenalists claim), or their existence in the natural world must be denied altogether (as substance dualists and eliminative physicalists claim).

If there is hylomorphic structure, however, the options are no longer constrained in the foregoing way. Distinctive powers like yours and mine exist in the natural world because structure exists in the natural world. Moreover, because structure is a basic principle on the hylomorphic view, this does not simply push the demand for an explanation back a step.

A framework’s basic principles stand in need of no further explanation within that framework. Structure and things that get structured are both basic on the hylomorphic view. Nothing must explain why the former exists any more than something must explain why the latter does. As a result, the view leaves it unmysterious why and how mental phenomena exist in the natural world. Someone is free to reject the hylomorphic framework wholesale—to deny there is such a thing as hylomorphic structure, but if one accepts the framework, there is no way for the problem to arise. In addition, hylomorphism’s ability to solve the problems that beleaguer its competitors is itself something that weighs in its favor.

The key to understanding the hylomorphic approach to mind-body problems is the notion of an activity-making structure. The structures mentioned above are structures that make individuals the unified wholes they are; they are individual-making structures, the kinds of things traditional hylomorphists called ‘substantial forms’. But individual-making structures are not the only structures that exist. The activities in which structured individuals engage have structures as well; these are activity-making structures.

The idea that there are activity-making structures is based on the observation that the activities of structured individuals involve coordinated manifestations of the powers of their parts. When we walk, talk, sing, dance, reach, grasp, and engage in the various other activities we do, we are imposing an order on the ways our parts manifest their powers. On the hylomorphic view, these structured manifestations of powers include thinking, feeling, and perceiving. These activities, like the ones just mentioned, are essentially embodied in the physiological mechanisms that compose us, yet it is not possible to reduce descriptions and explanations of them to descriptions and explanations of physiological mechanisms. The reason is that there is more to these activities on the hylomorphic view than the operations of physiological mechanisms; there is also the way those operations are coordinated or structured, and structure in general is something different from things that are structured. Structure is what unifies simpler lower-level entities and occurrences into more complex ones. Higher-level biological, psychological, and other structures are what delineate the subject-matters of special sciences such as biology and psychology, and what secure the autonomy those sciences enjoy.

The kind of hylomorphic theory I defend in Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind is thus antireductive and naturalistic, but since it rejects both physicalism and some of the central tenets of emergentism it makes a unique contribution to the ongoing effort to articulate an acceptable nonreductive naturalism. It is nevertheless similar enough in its outlines to these more familiar theories that their exponents are likely to see in hylomorphism a congenial alternative or a worthy competitor.

Hylomorphism also has unique resources for solving the problems that beleaguer competing theories; these include the problem of emergence, the problem of downward causation, and the problem of other minds. I’ll describe the hylomorphic solution to the problem of downward causation in a later post.



  1. This series is very interesting! I look forward to the next installment. How would you say that this position is related to the one developed by Christian von Ehrenfels in his Cosmogony, based on the concept of Gestalt? I get the impression that his later use of Gestalt is quite similar to a hylomorphic theory like the one you outline, including mental causation based on layered structures than explain stepwise downward causation.

    • William Jaworski

      Carlo, thanks for the comment. I’m not familiar with the von Ehrenfels view you mention, so I can’t say how the hylomorphic view is related to it, but it sounds very interesting.

  2. I suppose the problem I have with this is that while I recognise that there is structure and that it plays an important ranges of roles, and differently at different scales, the mere fact of there being some structure does not explain anything. *How* does structure provide for what we call “consciousness”? It’s certainly not implausible that structure contributes, but if no one knows how it contributes, then why adopt the view that it explains everything?

    • William Jaworski

      Thank you for your stimulating comments. I think the thing to say in response here is that the way you’ve formulated the problem already presupposes that the hylomorphic view is false; it assumes that there is no such thing as structure in the hylomorphic sense. Another way to think of it: the notion of structure you appeal to when you ask how structure provides for consciousness is a notion of structure completely different from the hylomorphic notion.

      To appreciate these points let’s start with the way the problem is set up: there is the world described by physics, and in that world there does not appear to be a place for consciousness, so the philosophical task is to explain how consciousness fits into that world despite the appearance to the contrary. This is precisely the picture of the world that hylomorphists reject.

      Hylomorphists reject the picture in at least two ways. First, they deny that physics by itself succeeds in giving an exhaustive characterization of the physical universe. We arrive at physical descriptions and explanations of the world by ignoring or bracketing the various ways in which matter and energy is structured. This kind of bracketing is necessary to discover the basic materials that can be structured in any way whatsoever, but bracketing structure doesn’t mean it’s not there playing the roles that hylomorphists describe. Failing to appreciate this, say hylomorphists, is the mistake that motivates physicalism: forgetting that physics is able to do its work only by bracketing the structures that exist. From a hylomorphic perspective, physicalists mistake the limited task of accounting for one thing (the basic materials that get structured in any way whatsoever) with the unlimited task of accounting for everything.

      Second, hylomorphists reject the idea that there is a single thing called ‘consciousness’ which must somehow be accommodated within a philosophical account of the world. We think, we feel, we perceive – these and related phenomena are structured activities in which we engage. We engage in them because we have the ability to coordinate the way our parts manifest their powers. Our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are just manifestations of the power we have of imposing structure on things. On a hylomorphic view, this is where some kinds of explanations come to an end – that’s what it means to say that structure is *basic*.

      In particular, structure matters, on the hylomorphic view, and structure counts; it operates as a principle of being and unity: some individuals and activities simply are things composed of diverse lower-level things with a structure that unifies them into composite wholes. These theoretical roles are taken as primitives within the hylomorphic framework. Taking them as such implies, among other things, that it is illegitimate to ask for an informative account of how structure accomplishes its unifying, individual-making and activity-making work.

      We can ask legitimately how this or that structure got imposed on these or those materials. We can ask, for instance, how the materials composing Socrates came to be structured humanwise. Depending on exactly which materials we have in mind, the answer will have to do either with Socrates having ingested them and made them part of himself by structuring them, or else it will have to do with the reproductive activity of Socrates’ parents which was responsible for imposing human structure on the materials composing Socrates in the first place.

      What we *cannot* ask legitimately on the hylomorphic view, however, is how Socrates’ structure manages to work up the materials composing him into one. That is simply what structure does on the hylomorphic view – or more precisely what a structured individual does. The best we can do is to provide a description of its unifying work, and this is an empirical undertaking left largely to biologists who could describe the complex variety of metabolic and homeostatic processes that mark an organism’s continued existence through the constant influx and efflux of materials composing it.

      Likewise, we can ask legitimately how on a particular occasion the states of Socrates’ nervous system and the surrounding environment got to be coordinated in the ways we call thinking, feeling, and perceiving. What we *cannot* legitimately ask is how that coordination manages to unify that complex range of physiological and environmental factors into the single event that is Socrates’ thinking, feeling, or perceiving. Again, that is simply what structure does. The best we can do is to describe its unifying work – a job that in this case is left to psychologists, neuroscientists, and others.

      Within a hylomorphic framework, then, the kind of how-question you ask cannot legitimately arise. To take the question to be legitimate presupposes that the hylomorphic view is false. Of course you’re free to reject the hylomorphic view out of hand. Anyone who takes the hard problem of consciousness seriously implicitly does. But that problem cannot be the basis of an objection to the hylomorphic view since it implicitly begs the question against it. It doesn’t prove that the hylomorphic view is false; it assumes that it’s false from the outset.

      Consequently, when you say that structure contributes to an explanation of consciousness, it’s clear that you must be using the term ‘structure’ to refer to something other than structure in the hylomorphic sense, for if there is structure in the hylomorphic sense the hard problem of consciousness never gets off the ground.

  3. Ken

    Hi, Bill,

    Perhaps you could say a bit more about what you mean by “hylomorphic structure”. Most interesting for me, how does “hylomorphic structure” differ from, if at all, something like Gillett’s Dimensioned realization? Is DR, for example, one kind of hylomorphic structure?


  4. William Jaworski

    Hi Ken,
    Thanks for the comment. Here are some bullet points about hylomorphic structure:

    Structure are things that play the theoretical roles I described in the previous post: they matter, they make a difference, and they count.

    Beyond that, on the hylomorphic view I defend, structures are tropes. Tropes are particularized properties (I reject universals for familiar reasons which I discuss in the book). This apple’s redness is a numerically distinct from that apple’s redness even if they are exactly similar. Trope theory takes exact similarity to be a ground level fact that doesn’t need to be explained by appeal to something that is identical in both cases, namely a universal redness that both apples instantiate.

    If we turn now to structure: I structure the materials that compose me and you structure the materials that compose you. My structuring and yours are numerically different tropes even if they closely resemble each other.

    In addition, structures are powers. I defend an identity theory of powers similar to the one articulated by C.B. Martin and John Heil; although with some differences that I discuss in the book. According to the identity theory, powers are essentially directed toward their manifestations. Fragility, for instance, is essentially directed toward breaking, and a fragile object will break if conjoined in the right conditions with a thing that has the reciprocal power to break it – a reciprocal disposition partner, to use Martin’s term.

    What sets structures apart from other powers is that they are their own reciprocal disposition partners; they are reflexive manifesters, and as a result, they are essentially manifested. A structured individual is essentially engaged in the activity of structuring the materials that compose it. For that individual to cease structuring those materials is for that individual to cease to exist. Think likewise about activities: for you to engage in the activity of throwing a baseball is for you to structure your limb movements throwing-a-baseball-wise. For you to cease structuring your limb movements that way is for your baseball throwing activity to cease to exist.

    Regarding the similarities and differences with Carl Gillett’s DR view: I’ve found the conversations I’ve had with Carl on these matters to be very fruitful – as fruitful as the conversations I’ve had with anybody. We use different vocabularies, and approach the topics with different emphases, but from what I can tell there’s a great deal of convergence in our views – in particular on the claims he calls Mutualism and Machresis, which have to do with interlevel relations.

    In general, I think it’s fair to say that we agree much more than we disagree; although sussing out the details might take some work. My sense is that he might be better positioned to comment on this than I am. I’d really like to know his thoughts, and I’m looking forward to reading his book.

    • Ken

      Hi, Bill,

      Thanks for your replies. I’m not really familiar with much of the metaphysics you describe, but it seems to me that structure (non-technically speaking) has a lot to do with (intralevel and interlevel) relations among individuals. All of your examples, however, seem to be of properties. Do you mean to have relations count as properties?

  5. William Jaworski

    Hi Ken,
    Yes, I lay out all the metaphysical machinery in the book. Briefly, like many metaphysicians, I take properties to be ways that things can be, and I take these ways to be expressed by predicates. Those predicates needn’t be monadic. Standing 3 ft from your front door is a way that you and the door could be, so it’s a property.

    If you want to call that a relation and reserve the term ‘property’ for the ontological correlate of a monadic predicate, that’s fine, but for most of the purposes I have in mind in the book it’s not necessary to draw this distinction, so for simplicity I just use the term ‘property’.

    The more important distinction for my purposes is between sparse properties and abundant properties in Lewis’ sense since most of the latter aren’t going to count as genuine properties if properties are sparse. So the more important distinctions are between (sparse) properties and predicates and (sparse) properties and classes.


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