Aristotle's Chinese Counterpart

Is cross-cultural communication possible between the West and China? Present political and social issues might suggest that our differences are insurmountable. The consequence of this divide would be a deep alienation, an “othering” with serious ramifications on both sides. But if, despite present disagreements, commonalities can be found, then these might offer an opportunity for mutual understanding and, perhaps, hope for the future.      

One way to approach the question is by turning to our past and examining the philosophical traditions of east and west. James Dominic Rooney attempts this in his book, Material Objects in Confucian and Aristotelian Metaphysics: The Inevitability of Hylomorphism. Rooney examines central features of Chinese philosophy and argues that they are far more harmonious with Western thought than many have believed. Rooney broaches the topic by considering the concept of “hylomorphism,” which was foundational to Western metaphysics from the time of Aristotle onwards. Hylomorphism, in the Latin West, was the key not only to defining material things as such, but also to explaining why humans, as rational beings, could perceive and understand them. If there is a parallel to this in Confucian thought, then that would mark a substantial commonality between the two traditions, which might enable them to understand one another, as well as the very nature of reality itself. Though Rooney’s study is primarily a treatment of metaphysics, it has social and political implications. 

Often attributed to the great philosopher Aristotle, hylomorphism is regarded by both supporters and critics as one of the most significant teachings in the history of philosophy. This teaching directly touches on the nature of reality and offers us a way to distinguish real differences between different kinds of things. Simply put, hylomorphism maintains that any given material object is made up of some kind of ‘stuff’ (on account of its matter, or hyle), but is also a particular kind of thing (on account of its form, or morphe). So, for instance, humans, dogs, and cell phones are all material objects. They are each made up of some kind of material stuff (matter) and are particular kinds of things (in other words, they have different forms). But a human, for instance, is not just matter arranged in a different way than a dog or a cell phone. While each of these kinds of things is material, there are real differences (and so to treat a human as one would treat a dog or a cell phone is inappropriate). 

Hylomorphism is one of the most significant teachings in the history of philosophy both because it attempts to get at the fundamental natures of things (i.e., their forms) and because it pertains, in one way or another, to all material objects. While much has been written about this doctrine, Rooney brings a new voice to the discussion, citing evidence of an underlying agreement between classical western and medieval eastern metaphysics concerning the doctrine of hylomorphism. In this study, Rooney shows how:

a medieval Chinese Confucian philosopher, Zhu Xi, embraces an independent non-Aristotelian metaphysics that parallels in important ways the Aristotelian hylomorphic tradition. In particular, Zhu Xi’s metaphysics of material objects requires (and posits) substantial forms and therefore is a version of hylomorphism – one remarkably close to that of Thomas Aquinas.      

Rooney makes clear that the claims of his study are not primarily historical. Hylomorphism is treated as a proposal to explain the reality of objects here and now, not presented merely to explain how some distant thinkers might have regarded them. Yet, somewhat lamentably, Rooney also tells his readers several times that he is not presenting the hylomorphism of Aristotle, Aquinas, or Zhu Xi as beyond criticism or even as true. This is somewhat confusing. Rooney contents himself in showing that the account of Aquinas (there is no strong distinction drawn between the hylomorphisms of Aristotle, Aquinas, or the classical Aristotelian tradition) is “coherent and plausible” and that the account of Zhu Xi, one of the most significant figures of Neo-Confucianism, “illustrates a basic intuition about the nature of material composition shared by hylomorphists of various stripes.” Nonetheless, at the end of this study one receives a lucid, compelling argument for a fundamental agreement between two different traditions and a strong suggestion of the plausibility of their teaching on hylomorphism. 

Zhu Xi and Aristotle share common insight into the essential nature of reality, the reality that perdures throughout any political or social revolution.

A large part of Rooney’s study is dedicated to a technical presentation and criticism of “structural” hylomorphism, a contemporary theory put forward by thinkers like Kit Fine, Kathrin Kislicki, and William Jaworski. Rooney’s criticism of structural hylomorphisms is compelling and important. But a non-specialist—even one trained in classical metaphysics—might find his extended discussion difficult to follow. The terminology, argumentation, and objections are technical and assume a fair amount of background from the reader. Nonetheless, for the specialist, Rooney offers a fresh perspective on the issues surrounding this prominent, contemporary, take on hylomorphism. Rooney’s exposition of Zhu Xi’s account of material objects, by contrast, assumes less background on the part of the reader and, I believe, lays an important foundation for affirming a hylomorphic view of reality. 

Referring to the earlier explanation of hylomorphism in terms of matter (hyle) and form (morphe), Rooney shows the correlates in Zhu Xi’s thought: qi and li. He explains that li means “pattern” or “structure” while qi is whatever is patterned or structured. Taken in this way, li corresponds with morphe and qi corresponds with hyle. While there is a sense in which we could refer to all of these concepts as “things,” Rooney insists that such usage should not imply that they are “material things, as these principles would not constitute a material thing in their own right.” Both li and qi are, like morphe and hyle, principles of any given existing material thing. Importantly, while li can be translated as “structure,” Rooney’s exposition shows that Zhu Xi regards this concept much more in line with morphe or form. As Rooney explains, “li is what accounts for the essential nature, properties, and powers associated with particular kinds of material thing.” 

Rooney identifies several ways in which the “metaphysical intuitions” of Zhu Xi on hylomorphism are particularly important for us today. First, that the “difference makers” in different species of hylomorphism must, ultimately, be substantial forms. Second, he finds that “Zhu Xi illustrates a basic intuition about the nature of material composition shared by hylomorphists of various stripes.” Despite present political and social differences between east and west, therefore, Zhu Xi and Aristotle can be seen as allies against certain modern interpretations of reality. The fundamental agreement of Zhu Xi and Aristotle concerning the nature of reality suggests an important and deep-seated underlying commonality between their otherwise differing traditions. This significant point of agreement is not, of course, only of historical interest. Zhu Xi and Aristotle share common insight into the essential nature of reality, the reality that perdures throughout any political or social revolution. 

The claim that substantial forms must be the “difference makers” for any hylomorphic account of reality underscores that material objects have a particular kind of nature based on their substantial form. A substantial form is an intrinsic element of the thing, not something progressively acquired or resulting from cultural, social, religious, or any other extrinsic cause. So, for instance, I do not identify a running, barking, panting being as a “dog” because I have been conditioned to do so but rather because “dog” refers to what is real and essential about this being. Similarly, no society is the arbiter for determining who is or is not a “human.” One really and essentially is a human and it is society’s responsibility to acknowledge this reality. Substantial form, thus, is an essential and fundamental aspect of reality. In light of certain contemporary attempts to deconstruct the natures or essences of things—and, consequently, to reject purpose or finality—returning to substantial form is of critical importance. 

The natural law tradition depends on a robust conception of human nature. A robust consideration of human nature ultimately depends on a clear account of substantial form.

Most importantly, by finding underlying agreement between a classical Aristotelian and medieval Confucian account of hylomorphism, Rooney illustrates how, differences between these systems notwithstanding, eastern and western thinkers share a foundational conception of reality. Indeed, Rooney convincingly shows—but shies away from asserting—that this shared view of reality is in some sense “inevitable.” It is natural for humans to be curious about the world, and to attempt to explain the reality of material objects. Aristotle and Zhu Xi have come together because both thinkers recognized the same truths about the world. 

If that was possible for Aristotle and Zhu Xi, it might be possible for other thinkers, sharing other truths. Both of Rooney’s central claims could have significant political implications. As he has argued elsewhere, “the fact that Confucianism has allied itself to authoritarian or statist means does not entail that it must.” 

Rooney maintains that there is hope for overcoming the present political situation in China inasmuch as “classical natural law tradition offers an entrée for Confucians, as that tradition too affirms a benevolent purpose of government.” The natural law tradition depends on a robust conception of human nature. A robust consideration of human nature—that is, one which accounts for both the body and soul or mind of the human being and demarcates the difference between humans and other beings—ultimately depends on a clear account of substantial form. In other words, it depends on precisely the kind of hylomorphism that Rooney reveals in Confucian thought. 

The ethical and political importance of hylomorphism is what makes Rooney’s hesitation to defend the truth of this position somewhat unsatisfying. Nonetheless, he does gesture towards the veracity of hylomorphism, a view which, he says, “becomes more plausible if it is true that philosophers on either side of the planet, with no access to each other’s writings and living in very different cultural, linguistic, social, and religious contexts, arrived at an explanation of the material universe on which forms, or li, matter.” In sum, while stopping short of the conclusion that hylomorphism à la Aristotle, Aquinas, and Zhu Xi is true, Rooney’s study offers new warrant for doing so and, perhaps, thereby offers hope for overcoming the present differences between east and west.