Graham Renz

Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2023

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation develops and defends a deflationary or minimalist version of hylomorphism, the Aristotelian view according to which objects are composites of matter and form. According to hylomorphists, a house has various material components—bricks and timbers—and a special, non-material or formal component that makes the bricks and timbers to be a house. Hylomorphism is intuitively appealing and explanatorily powerful, but its primary posit—form—is hard to get a firm grip on. Because of this, contemporary hylomorphists have proffered myriad accounts of form. Forms might be structures, relations, principles of unity, inherent character-grounders, abstract offices, functions, emergent powers, configurational states, activities, processes, or mental projections. I argue that forms are understood best, not as special, non-material entities alongside matter, but, instead, as collective manifestations of the powers of matter. The form of a house is not some non-material component of the house, but the exercise of the capacities of the bricks and timbers to be a house. Such a view is painless in that it obviates the search for special, formal components of objects, relying on just matter and its powers. To accomplish this, I show the two primary approaches to form in the contemporary literature—the structural parts approach and the emergent powers approach—are subject to serious difficulties. In chapter one, I consider an influential argument offered by Kathrin Koslicki which purports to show that objects have formal components in virtue of unobjectionable principles of mereology. I argue the scope of Koslicki’s argument is much narrower than usually supposed, and that it supports the existence of formal parts only in a small domain of objects. The upshot is that we should be skeptical of conceptions of form according to which they are parts or components of objects. In chapter two, I present a more direct challenge to the structural parts approach to form. There I challenge hylomorphists to provide a plausible account of the generation of forms. That is, if forms are parts or components of objects, how and from where do they come to be? I argue that structural parts hylomorphists must claim forms come to be from an agent, ex nihilo, or must pre-exist in matter. I show that all of these options are implausible. The upshot is that we should abandon the structural parts approach to form (and any others that construe forms as parts or components of objects). Chapter three considers the emergent powers approach to form, and argues that it is suffers from issues of redundancy. On such approaches, forms are unifying powers possessed of emergent objects, higher-level entities that get on scene should the right material components be arranged thus-and-so. Since powers are properties, or aspects of properties, these approaches have it that forms inhere in emergent objects. But inherent entities require a unified subject to exist in. So, on the emergent powers approach, forms can only exist and do their unifying work if the objects whose unity they are meant to explain are already unified. This suggest that something besides form is doing the work of form, and so, that there is little reason to posit emergent unifying powers. In the fourth and final chapter, I lay out and defend my preferred approach to form. The motivation is straightforward: in accounting for the generation of an object, and keeping an object distinct from the mere sum of its parts, both the structural parts and emergent powers approaches to form overcomplicate things. Should we recognize that the material components of an object possess various powers which enable them to behave in various ways, we don’t need to posit special formal entities distinct from matter. What explains the unity of an atom of hydrogen is not something distinct from its material components, but the fact that protons and electrons have powers of charge which enable them to unite. And a proton united with an electron just is an atom of hydrogen. I lay out my conception of powers, show my view is genuinely hylomorphic, and argue that it can do the work more robust accounts of form can.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

John Heil

Committee Members

Eric Brown, Johnathan Kvanvig, Allan Hazlett, Kathrin Koslicki,