Aristotle has given us the language of philosophy by way of refiguring, delimiting, and, yes, inventing a number of Greek words. And he has likewise gifted us with the concept of matter. Or, rather, not quite a concept, and not exactly of matter, at least in the literal register implied in our translation of this term from Latin into English.
Perhaps more than other expressions lifted out of their everyday context and borrowed for philosophical use, matter remained profoundly marked and incompletely separated from the (immemorial) place and time of its initial enunciation. What we call “matter” in an adaptation of the Latin materia is first denominated by Aristotle with a common Greek noun hulē, referring to wood. A paradox is already apparent in this semantic choice: a particular kind of “stuff” whence something can be made stands in its singularity for any material and, finally, for all the “stuff” of which the world is comprised. Just as the growing plant that, a being among other beings in nature, condenses (thanks to the growth it embodies) the whole of nature in the pairing phutō-phusis, so vegetal matter comes to define matter as such. Synecdoche reigns supreme.
It would be advisable, nonetheless, to lower the pace at which we are proceeding and to loosen the associative links between “matter” and “stuff,” to which we are so accustomed. The Aristotelian hulē is not only timber, not only the dead wood left behind as a trace of past vitality after a tree has been chopped down, but also the woods, that is, living vegetality in its flourishing multiplicity as an ecosystem. The late Russian philosopher Vladimir Bibikhin dedicated an entire seminar to the woodiness of Aristotelian matter; major sections of that text appeared in my translation in English two years ago.[i]
There are, certainly, signs of life in the matter Aristotle’s philosophy uncovers or discovers, encounters or invents—the signs that are absent insofar as we, the ultra-moderns, are concerned. The living character of matter as vegetal helps explain the ancient view of kosmos, as well: a shining order breathing with vitality in each of its parts. Whereas for us life is an exception in the cosmic scheme of things, for ancient Greeks it was death that stood out from the general rule of a living totality. At the same time, the inherent ambiguity of hulē should complicate this black-and-white caricature: as the woods and wood, as the trees themselves and timber, matter is both living and dead, the line between life and death (not to mention nature and culture) rendered indeterminate in it. And, as soon as its constitutive ambiguity dissipates, it changes beyond recognition. Separated, if only for analytic purposes, from a living form with which it has co-originated, such unambiguous matter cannot help but reflect the absence of life, a feature that has gradually become predominant in our thinking about it.
How did hulē get transformed into materia? Did that transformation have anything to do with the deadening of matter? Note that the meaning of materia is overdetermined, insofar as the Greek ambiguity persists in it. On the one hand, it names the mother, mater, vis-à-vis whom form is gendered or engendered in the masculine; on the other hand, it invokes madera, wood as timber, in a selective inheritance of Aristotle. The emergent conceptual matrix is, consequently, that of assigning to the feminine a passive-receptive attitude, and to the masculine—the principle of individuation, of an active form, of forming activity to be received by materia-mater-madera. The flora, too, is understood in terms of a passive mode of existence, entirely subservient to animal and human needs and desires, which is why, as this line of thinking goes, it is so propitious for figuring matter.
Though undoubtedly influenced by Aristotle’s philosophical formalization of hulē, the Latin grasp of that quasi-concept misses the point of his take on the Platonic khōra as the “material” receptacle, the womb of the world, the place that takes place in and with the taking place of everything. In the paradigm operating with the category materia, the segregation of form from matter has already happened, such that the latter has received the imprint of the former from the outside. In Aristotle, however, unless hulē obtains a form (morphē) from itself alone, in forging a relation to itself as other to itself, hylomorphism (i.e., the co-originariness and co-belonging of “matter” and “form”) makes little sense.
After a brief sketch of the idea of matter, we are prepared to contemplate both the roots and the branches of its affinity to the vegetal world. Crucially, a turn to plants does not lead to a naïve, because insufficiently abstract, perspective on materiality; what it suggests is a middle path between the Scylla of interpreting matter as a chaotic agglomeration of atoms or subatomic particles and the Charybdis of its determination as a rigid, teleologically-inflected order. Rolling the theoretical dice and seeing whether matter is purely alive or purely dead is not enough, since the purity of these respective qualifications invariably deadens by representing that which they in each instance qualify as either a direct or an inverted reflection of the ideal, non-material form. The question is, rather: What sort of life is proper to matter?
The response seems obvious: Every sort is. Yet, in its blatant indifference to the unique, this curt reply pre-decides, before offering a cogent argument, against hylomorphism. To respond in this manner is to blind oneself to “the proper” of matter, which is an extension of the pre-ontological hospitality to what is other to it, namely to “the improper.” Vegetal life welcomes all the other modes of living, as well as a non-life, into its midst; hence, the doubling of hulē into the living woods and dead timber. (In another context, in his as yet unpublished seminar from the 1970, Jacques Derrida has baptized this condition la vie la mort, or “life death,” without, he insists, the hyphen that could have mediated between the two.) This self-expropriation, this self-subtraction of the vegetal from essence (indeed, from the very essence of essence) gives it the right to be the synecdoche that it is.
Now, if matter is vegetal, wooden and of the woods, then it must partake of the phenomena and movements characteristic of the plant world: growth, decay, metamorphosis. While it will be fairly uncontroversial to assert that matter is in a constant flux, lending itself to ever-new forms, the ascription to it of the first two vegetal markers will raise eyebrows. Within the limits of the prevalent metaphysico-scientific framework, regardless of all the changes that take place in them, matter and energy themselves, as such, do not change, uncreated and indestructible as they are. But what if matter and energy, the one as the other, grew and decayed, plant-like? Over one hundred years ago, Gustave Le Bon alluded to this possibility, when he retracted from the two concepts their “privilege of immortality” and argued that they “also must enter into the cycle of things condemned to grow old and die.”[ii]
Wooden and woody, materiality is finite also in the sense of its aesthetic delimitation; far from amorphous, matter is replete with its own forms. Its infinity lies in its infinite finitude and an open-ended chain of synecdochal variations, prompting Leibniz, for instance, to define it as a garden within a garden within a garden… But all this—growth and decay; the stain of finitude; delimitation by material forms—conveys the corruption of pure ideality in the most intransigent strains of the metaphysico-theological tradition (e.g., Gnosticism). Matter becomes evil, the evil that ought to be expunged for the ideal and unburdened spirit to triumph. As Clement of Alexandria puts it: “the gnostic soul must be consecrated to the light, stripped of the integuments of matter, devoid of the frivolousness of the body and of all the passions, which are acquired through vain and lying opinions, and divested of the lusts of the flesh” (Strom. 5.11). The element of light, to which the plant-hulē tends above ground, denotes the pure spirit St. Clement wishes to preserve in its purity at the expense of vegetal matter, the indwelling of the flesh with its sinfulness, falsehood, and “frivolousness.”
Much of the same happens in the post-revolutionary Terror in France, with Robespierre decrying “corruption,” “l’excés de la corruption humaine,” his preferred term for the materiality of existence.[iii] Like the Gnostics, he bemoans the fall of spirit into matter, the loss of the human in the wooden and woody density of existence, the corruption of our rational dimension by its entwinement with the opaqueness of the body. If the ensuing purges were of such a total, totalizing nature, that is because their target was, besides the corrupt public officials and institutions, everything corruptible—matter taken as a whole, whether in its actual or potential aspect. Valid as they are, current complaints about political corruption, presupposing the vanished Golden Age or the utopian ideal of purity, either run the risk of falling flat as vague attempts to blow off the steam of discontent, or, provided that they are substantive, flirt with a maximally anti-material posture, culminating in the purges.
To be clear, this does not mean that we should fatalistically accept the ever-worsening abuse of power wielded for the sake of private interest. Instead, working with the hylomorphism of vegetal matter within the political sphere (which cannot rot infinitely just as it cannot grow indefinitely), we should help along those changes in its materiality that would bring with them new forms of organizing a shared existence. The choice we face is, therefore, stark:
-to excoriate corruption by setting the wooden and woody body of the world and body politic on fire, the element of choice for rituals of purification, or
-to cultivate or to craft—depending on when it shows itself as the woods and when as wood—hulē in a different manner, letting alternative forms to emerge from it, while fully accepting that they, too, are destined to metamorphose, grow, and decay.
There will be always something “rotten in the state of Denmark”; the problem is how to turn this rottenness into a fertile ground for another growth.
I began by stating that Aristotle gave us the language of philosophy—a claim that is, on the face of it, open to the charges of Eurocentrism. I would go a step further and argue that philosophy is not just Eurocentric: it is Hellas-centric. Despite its global spread and influence, it remains an endeavor tied, for better or for worse, to its Greek beginning. Medieval thinkers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, took this for granted and nicknamed Aristotle, precisely, The Philosopher. But, needless to say, the language of philosophy is not the same thing as the languages of thinking, untethered to whatever we call “Europe” or “Greece.” There is nothing wrong in admitting that these languages are not those of philosophy, especially now that philosophy, at the close of its unfolding as the history of metaphysics, is caught up in internal turmoil and disintegration, all the while keeping the hope that from its end would germinate a “beginning of thinking.” On the contrary, to impose the form of philosophy on other traditions is to disrespect the materiality of their thought, to violate the hylomorphism of their thinking, to excoriate the plant in them.
Still, the languages of thinking often resonate with that of philosophy, participate in intellectual cross-pollination, borrow its insights or lend theirs to it. The wooden-woody notion of matter is one such resonance site. Consider the following. In the Indian milieu, Jainism ascribed great significance to plants, so much so that it espied in them the fifth elemental building block of the universe, alongside the other classical elements of earth, water, fire, and air.[iv] We might leap into the thickets of conceptual translation and surmise that, for the Jains as well, matter is partially vegetal. Except that such a leap would impute to Jain thinking a foreign notion, whose hollow form is transposed, without giving this theoretical act much thought, from a certain Latin rendition of Aristotle. The Jain discernment can communicate with the philosophy of hulē, albeit on the condition that the two hylomorphic units grow (transplanted, perhaps) side-by-side, each faithful to its vegetal self-shaping. And that is the heart of (the) matter.
[i] Vladimir Bibikhin, The Wood(s), Chs. 1, 6, 8, translated by Michael Marder. Stasis, 3, 2015, pp. 8-52.
[ii] Gustave Le Bon, The Evolution of Forces (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1908), p. 10
[iii] Maximilian Robespierre, Textes Choisis, Volume III (Paris: Éditions Sociales, 1958), p. 60.
[iv] Sibajiban Bhattacharya, The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Vol. X: Jain Philosophy (New Delhi: The American Institute of Indian Studies, 1970), p. 165.