What exactly are hylomorphic structures? According to traditional hylomorphists like Aristotle, as well as some contemporary hylomorphists such as Mike Rea (2011) and myself (2012, 2014, 2016), structures are powers. More specifically, hylomorphic structures are powers to configure (or organize, order, or coordinate) things.
Structured individuals are essentially and continuously engaged in configuring the materials that compose them. I configure the materials that compose me, and you configure the materials that compose you. Our continuous structuring activity explains our unity and persistence through the dynamic influx and efflux of matter and energy that characterizes our interactions with the surrounding world. This is what it means to say that structure counts: it explains the unity of composite things.
The hylomorphic view of composition I defend in Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind is very similar to the one Peter van Inwagen defends in Material Beings (Cornell University Press 1990). Hylomorphists claim that composition occurs when and only when an individual configures materials. Composite individuals are emergent individuals on the hylomorphic view. There are empirically-describable conditions that are sufficient to bring into existence new structured individuals where previously no such individuals existed.
How do we know which arrangements of physical materials correspond to emergent structured individuals and which are mere spatial arrangements of materials? Here hylomorphists take a cue from van Inwagen: structured individuals have non-redundant causal powers that mere arrangements of physical materials do not have. There is nothing going on in the region we take to be occupied by a table that cannot be exhaustively described and explained by appeal to physical materials alone. But living things like us are capable of doing things that can only be done by unified composite wholes. We are thus forced to grant that there are such wholes (Material Beings, pp. 118, 122).
Emergent individuals have properties of at least two sorts: properties due to their structures (or their integration into individuals with structures), and properties due to their materials alone independent of the ways they are structured.
Subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules have physical properties such as mass irrespective of their surroundings. Under the right conditions, however, they can contribute to the activities of living things. Nucleic acids, hormones, and neural transmitters are examples. They are genes, growth factors, and metabolic and behavioral regulators. Each admits of two types of descriptions. They can be described in terms of the contributions they make to a structured system, but they can also be described independently in non-contribution-oriented terms. Descriptions of the former sort express the properties characteristic of structured individuals such as organisms and their parts. Descriptions of the latter sort express the properties things have independent of their integration into structured wholes. A strand of DNA might always have various atomic or fundamental physical properties regardless of its environment, but it acquires new properties when it is integrated into a cell and begins making contributions to the cell’s activities. It becomes a gene, a part of the cell that plays a role in, say, protein synthesis.
Some philosophers and biologists call the new properties acquired by structured systems emergent properties. Emergent properties have three characteristics:
- They are first-order properties, not higher-order ones; that is, they are not logical constructions with definitions that quantify over other properties.
- They are not epiphenomenal, but make distinctive causal or explanatory contributions to the behavior of the individuals having them.
- They are possessed by an individual on account of its organization or structure.
Notice: it is not a characteristic of emergent properties (at least not on the hylomorphic view) that they are generated or produced by lower-level systems—a claim endorsed by classic emergentists and epiphenomenalists.
Describing the way a structured individual configures its composing materials is something that hylomorphists say is an empirical undertaking—one left largely to biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, and other biological subdisciplines. When we look at these disciplines, we find that they describe living activity in terms of the operation of functional parts—the kinds of parts revealed through the method of functional analysis.
Even though it is possible to divide a human along, say, spatial lines into thirds, or fifths, or tiny metric cubes, empirical practitioners are typically more interested in dividing them into functional parts—parts that perform activities that contribute in empirically-describable ways to the activity of the whole (Bechtel 2007; 2008; Craver 2007). 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 functional parts give us prima facie reason to think that those are the kinds of parts that structured individuals have. Those parts are subsystems that contribute in empirically-specifiable ways to the activities of the wholes to which they belong.
In the next post I describe how hylomorphism solves a particular mind-body problem: the problem of mental causation.
Bechtel, William. 2007. Reducing Psychology while Maintaining its Autonomy via Mechanistic Explanations. In The Matter of the Mind, Maurice Schouten and Looren de Jong, Huib, eds. (Blackwell Publishing), 172–198.
Bechtel, William. 2008. Mental Mechanisms: Philosophical Perspectives on Cognitive Neuroscience. Routledge.
Craver, Carl F. 2007. Explaining the Brain: Mechanisms and the Mosaic Unity of Neuroscience. New York: Oxford UP.
Jaworski, William. 2012. Powers, Structures, and Minds. In Powers and Capacities in Philosophy: The New Aristotelianism, edited by Ruth Groff and John Greco (Routledge), 145-171.
Jaworski, William. 2014. Hylomorphism and the Metaphysics of Structure. Res Philosophica 91: 179–201.
Jaworski, William. 2016. Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem (Oxford University Press).
Rea, Michael C. 2011. Hylomorphism Reconditioned. Philosophical Perspectives 25: 341–58.