Hylomorphism and Emergence

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:

  1. They are first-order properties, not higher-order ones; that is, they are not logical constructions with definitions that quantify over other properties.
  2. They are not epiphenomenal, but make distinctive causal or explanatory contributions to the behavior of the individuals having them.
  3. 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.


  1. Ken

    Hi, Bill,

    You write, ” a structured individual configures its composing materials”. This sounds as though you take there to be a “top-down” determination relation between whole and parts. Is this correct?


  2. William Jaworski

    Hi Ken,
    I’m reluctant to say yes or no here without first knowing how you define ‘determination’. People use that term in a variety of ways, and I think a lot of confusion in philosophy of mind has resulted from not keeping them straight.

    In the book, I define a few different determination relations and distinguish them necessitation, supervenience, explanation, embodiment, and other relations.

    Could you maybe elaborate a bit on what you have in mind?

    • Ken

      Hi, Bill,

      I don’t mean to box you in on with this question. I picked “determination relation” since it seemed to be the broadest notion. So, how about this? Do you have an explication or theory of this configuring relation between a structured individual and its composing materials?

  3. William Jaworski

    Hi Ken

    Sorry, didn’t mean to sound so suspicious, haha! I just try really hard not to be one of those guys who adds to philosophical confusion by using terms fast and loose.

    The short answer is yes: the bulk of the book is devoted to describing in detail what structuring involves.

    Full disclosure: the trend among philosophers is to try to boil everything down to a single fix-all, account-for-all relation (grounding, realization – whatever). The notion of structure does a lot of work, and in that sense it looks like it follows the trend. The discussion of it bucks the trend, however, insofar as providing a description of how structure accomplishes its work is pretty complicated in the end.

    There are hylomorphic theories that are “neater” and much more in line with the trend, but I argue that these don’t have much to offer the philosophy of mind. I think messiness is the price to pay for endorsing a theory that tries to be responsive to empirical matters.

  4. Catherine

    Several times you’ve mentioned living things as paradigmatic structures. This seems to suggest that structures are relatively rare, and may only emerge when things get complex. Am I reading too much in? Would something like two masses attracting one another gravitationally also count as a structure? That doesn’t have the problem of the example from a few comment threads back of two neurons synaptically connected oscillating. The masses could not in principle gravitationally attract alone, whereas the neurons could oscillate alone.
    I’m very sympathetic with the view as I’ve understood it so far, but would expect there to be many more structures that are considerably simpler than living things.
    Thanks for an interesting series of posts.

  5. William Jaworski

    Hi Catherine,

    Thank you for your comments. Let’s start here: “you’ve mentioned living things as paradigmatic structures.” I fear you’ll have to forgive me for being a stickler about metaphysical distinctions. A lot of confusion in philosophy of mind has resulted from ignoring them, and I don’t want to be party to further confusion.

    I didn’t say that living things were paradigmatic *structures*. The reason is that a living thing is not a structure at all. A living thing is an *individual* that has a structure. Structures aren’t individuals; they’re powers that individuals have. What I *did* say is that living things are paradigmatic *structured individuals*.

    For similar reasons, two massive individuals wouldn’t be a structure. They could *compose* something with a structure, but they couldn’t *be* a structure. I actually canvass many of these distinctions in my responses to Eric Thomson in a previous post. Your gravitational attraction example is like the tango example I discuss there. I also explain why that kind of example doesn’t yet tell us whether we’re dealing with a structured whole.

    But this is the comment I really want to get to: “This seems to suggest that structures are relatively rare, and may only emerge when things get complex… [I] would expect there to be many more structures that are considerably simpler than living things.”

    I was hoping someone would ask about this! I discuss it in Chapter 6 of the book.

    There are two different pictures of how structured individuals emerged on the cosmic scene. The first picture is similar to the one Peter van Inwagen defends in Material Beings. According to this picture, the only structured individuals are living things. Prior to the advent of life the universe contained only fundamental physical materials that were spatially arranged atom-wise or molecule-wise, but those spatial arrangements of physical materials composed nothing.

    The second picture claims that there are structured individuals other than living things: some spatial arrangements of physical materials, perhaps atoms or molecules or something else, are not *mere* quantities of fundamental physical materials standing in certain spatial arrangements; they instead compose individuals in their own right with individual-making structures that distinguish them from unstructured physical materials.

    The first picture takes the emergence of life to mark a sharp ontological break in the natural world, the first time in the universe’s history that there existed anything but fundamental physical materials. The second picture sees the emergence of life as part of a more gradual process in which the universe produced by stages increasingly complex structured individuals.

    Hylomorphism is compatible with *both* pictures. From a hylomorphic perspective, the choice between them is to be determined on largely empirical grounds. It involves determining whether, say, atoms or molecules have powers distinct from those which can be described and explained exhaustively by appeal to fundamental physical materials alone.

    • Catherine

      Not being much of a metaphysical stickler, I happily stand corrected on the distinction between structures and structured individuals.

      Hylomorphism being compatible with either rare or frequent structured individuals is fine. Which do you think is the case (or which picture did you build up the account with the intention of supporting)? This may involve some speculation since, as you say, it’s an empirical matter, but even a hunch would help get a grip on your account’s potential for dealing with other philosophical problems.

      The first picture, where the emergence of life marks an ontological break (and perhaps the emergence of consciousness a second ontological break?) seems a little too convenient at first glance, although the details of the argument for what is required for something to be a structured individual may fill in the gaps in a such a way as to make it a convincing solution to the mind-body problem.

      Looking beyond that philosophical problem, many other ontological breaks of this kind might also be handy, in particular for understanding causation. Scientists seem to be much more pluralistic about powers than are most philosophers, so it would be nice to have a way of making that pluralism philosophically respectable, assuming the scientists know what they’re talking about.
      I hope that makes sense.

      Thanks again!

  6. William Jaworski

    Hi Catherine,

    Thanks for the follow-up!

    When it comes to the two pictures, I don’t have a strong opinion either way, and the account I develop is compatible with both.

    I kinda hope the second, gradualist picture is true, but only because I find it more pleasing aesthetically (for something like the “convenience” reason you suggest). In terms of actual evidence, though, I can’t find anything clear. People seem to be very divided about the issue. Some insist that, for instance, H2O has powers that can’t be exhaustively explained by appeal to H, O, and their electrons; others deny this. I’m forced to withhold judgment because I just don’t know enough about the science of water to lean one way or the other.

    Note that consciousness would *not* mark another ontological break on the hylomorphic account for some of the reasons I rehearse in my earlier response to Jayarava’s post.

    Hylomorphists (of my stripe, at least) reject the idea that there is a single thing called ‘consciousness’ which must somehow be accommodated within a philosophical account of the world. The idea that there is such a thing is, from a hylomorphic standpoint, largely a byproduct of a fundamentally Cartesian way of viewing the world that rejects hylomorphic structure.

    On the hylomorphic account, thinking, feeling, and perceiving are structured activities in which we engage. We are able to engage in them because we have the ability to coordinate the ways our parts manifest their powers. Our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are just manifestations of the powers we have to impose structure on things.

    When it comes to prototypical examples of conscious experiences – perceptual experiences, say: these can be accommodated within a hylomorphic framework through an enactive account of perception like Alva Noe’s. I’m actually in the process of writing a book about this.

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