The terms form and matter describe a basic duality in all existence, between the essence or "whatness" of a thing (form) and the stuff that the thing is made of (matter). That such a duality exists is widely held, but the definitions of form and matter have differed throughout the history of philosophy; hence a precise definition of each will differ depending on the specific philosophical system.
In general, though, the terms form and matter derive from classical philosophy, most significantly from Plato and Aristotle. In Plato form comes from the Greek word eidos and is often translated as idea or essence and refers to the basic "whatness" of a thing. Aristotle likewise links form to essence but distinguishes between form and matter where form refers to the essential determination or organic structure of a thing while matter is that which the thing is made of. The Scholastics incorporated the use of form and matter while making certain developments.
Modern philosophy has largely rejected the classical Aristotelian concept. Empiricism has not felt the need for this classical approach. In the philosophy of Kant, form and matter shift to the realm of epistemology and cognition; the form of things is determined more by our reason or understanding which shapes the matter given by our senses. The classical Aristotelian-Scholastic concept further declined throughout the nineteenth century because of scientism, materialism, and humanism. But the rise of new schools such as vitalism, panpsychism, objective idealism, and Neo-Thomism shows the general re-appreciation of it in new ways, especially in the twentieth century.
In Plato, form has often been translated as idea (eidos), which is the basis for Plato’s famous "Theory of Forms." In short, for Plato the Form or Idea is the permanent reality which makes a thing be what it is. It contrasts with the particulars of that Form which are finite and so subject to change. Although it was Aristotle who first explicitly made the distinction between form and matter, it can be helpful to draw the distinction here for it is implicit in Plato’s Theory of Forms. For Plato, any particular material thing, such as an actual dog, is subject to change; for the particular dog can die and when it does, it is no longer "a dog"—it is merely dead matter. The Idea of dog (Dogness), however, does not change. It is eternal. Thus, for Plato, the Idea or Form enjoys a higher (seemingly ontological) status. The particulars or all actual dogs, then, merely participate in the one unchanging and eternal Form.
Although this theory can be difficult to grasp, it is often helpful to think of it in relation to mathematics, to which Plato himself often linked the theory. One can think of a perfect triangle, whose exact definition is a three-sided figure whose angles add up to precisely 180 degrees. All particular triangles that are drawn on paper, or constructed out of some kind of material, will always fall short of perfection. For, the most precise instruments will reveal that the lines or angles are not quite exact, even if only by the slightest margin of error. For this reason, the particular, material "triangles" are not "real" triangles; for they do not fulfill the definition of a triangle, strictly speaking. The only real triangle, then, is the perfect or ideal one that one knows in his mind. Plato used this same theoretical model to contrast all particular things (trees, cats, human beings), which are perishable, and their Ideas or Forms, which are imperishable. Whether Plato understood these Forms as actually existing apart from all the particular examples (in some higher Sphere), or as simply being the intelligible nature of immutable physical laws, is a matter of controversy that scholars continue to debate over today.
As already mentioned, the distinction between form and matter first became explicit with Aristotle. For Aristotle, form and matter are the co-principles of which all real or actual things (substances) are composed. Aristotle criticized Plato’s Theory of Forms for positing this higher realm where the eternal Ideas were supposed to exist. In contrast, Aristotle argued that the forms (which he often equated with essences) exist in real things. Human minds are equipped with the rational power to abstract these essences out of real things in order to know them (as universal). For Aristotle, then, form is the determinate structure (morphe) which gives things their essential characteristics or attributes. Matter, on the other hand, is the ultimate substrate or "stuff" (hyle) out of which all (physical) things are made. From this, Aristotle developed his theory of hylomorphism which explains all actual things or substances in terms of the principles of form and matter.
In Aristotle’s metaphysics, though, it is form rather than matter which enjoys priority. For although matter is the undifferentiated primal element out of which all things are made, it is not itself a "thing." For in order to be a thing it would have to possess some kind of form. Thus, matter without form cannot exist. Or, to put it in more Aristotelian language, matter is pure potentiality, rather than actuality. Pure, or "prime," matter is the potential from which things develop or emerge without being an actual thing itself. The development of particular things from this germinal matter consists in differentiation, that is, in the acquisition of particular forms or natures which make up the entire intelligible universe. In this way, Aristotle developed his theory of causation in terms of formal causation and material causation. Both contribute to the emergence of the concrete particulars of specific species. Again, matter is the stuff out of which things are made while form is that which gives them their definite shape and structure and determines its various powers and functions. Aristotle uses the example of the birth of animals or humans where the menstrual fluid of the female provides the material, while the seed of the male gives the form. Together they form a new being of the particular species. Aristotle is able to account for the eternal nature of these forms (the essences of species) without falling into a Platonic idealism because he followed the ancient cosmology in viewing the universe as eternal. Therefore, there have always been trees, birds, and human beings. Moreover, the perfection of the form of a thing is its entelechy in virtue of which it attains its fullest realization of function. The entelechy of the body, then, is the soul which provides the determinate structure and so actualizes (forms) the potential (matter). Ultimately, the priority of form, as well as the origin of the differentiation process, is found in the prime mover (or the "unmoved mover"). The prime mover is the pure form, entirely separate from all matter, and it is eternal and unchangeable. It is its own activity and so is both the efficient (or moving) cause which moves all things, as well the final cause (telos) to which all things are directed.
The Aristotelian conception of form and matter was adopted by the Scholastics. The most famous appropriation and further development of Aristotle’s basic metaphysical categories was made by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas posited that it was matter that provided the principle of individuation. That is, what distinguished one dog from another was its matter rather than its form. Thus, an individual dog is distinguished by all the accidental features which can be attributed to its material make-up (its color, size, etc.) as opposed to its essential features which derive from its form (its powers of sensation, movement, reproduction, etc.). Moreover, Aquinas distinguished the material world, which is inhabited by inherent forms that exist only in combination with matter (the embodied beings of this world), from the spiritual world, which is inhabited with subsistent forms (formae separatae) that are immaterial and so separate from matter (spiritual beings or angels). Unlike Aristotle, however, Aquinas argued that although these spiritual beings are immaterial, they nevertheless possess potential. For although all matter possesses potential, not all potential involves matter. Because angels are immaterial though, and matter is the principle of individuation, each immaterial being has to be its own form or essence; in other words, there are as many species as there are immaterial beings. By contrast, St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), a contemporary of Aquinas, wanted to argue for the individuality of each spiritual being in the spiritual world; so, he believed that each spiritual being is a composite of form and some kind of "spiritual body."
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one of first philosophical practitioners of the modern scientific method that rejected an Aristotelian and Scholastic approach to philosophy. In contrast, Bacon advocated that all true research must restrict itself to an empirical method of induction by which one searches for the true form of physical things such as light, heat, and so forth, by analyzing the external form given in perception. In this way, one can discover the underlying structure of phenomena by breaking them into simpler forms and distinguishing their differences. For example, Bacon collected all possible instances of hot things in order to discover that which is present in all of them. By excluding the accidental qualities of each, he could determine the form or essence of heat by the residuum that remained and so was common in all of the instances. Such a method is necessarily open-ended since some future instance, positive or negative, might affect the data and so alter the determined form of the particular phenomenon under investigation. Other modern empiricists, such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), also challenged hylomorphism. Needless to say, the soul/body dualism of Rene Descartes (1596-1650), a rationalist, was also instrumental in defeating the interdependence of form and matter.
The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) radically transferred the notion of form and matter through his transcendental method, by which he analyzed the conditions for the possibility of experience. In considering these conditions for experience, he attributed pure form to what the mind or reason brings (a priori) to the entirety of human perceptions and judgments. The pure forms of sensibility (space and time) determine or form the entirety of sense experience. In contrast to form, Kant called the manifold of sense intuitions that people receive from outward things the matter. There is no essential order to the matter of this manifold of sense intuitions and so when one receives them, it is reason which orders or synthesizes them into a particular form of understanding. Kant divided the pure forms of our understanding into twelve categories, three each under the headings of quantity, quality, modality, and relation.
The Aristotelian-Thomistic exposition on form and matter continued to decline perhaps till the end of the nineteenth century because of the empirical, scientific, materialistic, and humanistic approaches that prevailed during the period. But, one can observe at the same time that it has been gradually re-appreciated through the rise of movements such as vitalism, panpsychism, and objective idealism, and Neo-Thomism. Charles Peirce (1839-1914) and Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), understanding the importance of spirit as well as matter, represented objective idealism. In the twentieth century, there emerged respectable Neo-Thomist philosophers such as Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), and Yves Congar (1904-1995), who reintroduced the relevance of hylomorphism.
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