Ontic Structural Realism

Ontic Structural Realism, forms, and Aquinas’s philosophy of mind

In my last couple posts (first here and second here) I have been looking at what I now know is called ‘Ontic Structural Realism’ — the idea that all that exists are the structures of relationships between things, and that things have no meaningful existence beyond this — and its link to consciousness (which it seems had not been considered before, which is exciting!). I now want to very briefly look at how this idea works with Aquinas’s idea of forms (taken from Aristotle) and his philosophy of mind.


The form of a thing is simply the account of the “what-it-was-to-be-that-thing”. Eg a human is a bipedal animal that can talk. It’s those properties that make X to be X.

We should be careful not to reify it into something it’s not: it’s not a ghostly separate substance that’s added to the thing to make it what it is. It’s not exactly a thing at all. It’s more like the definition of the thing. And it’s not one more part of the thing, so much as it’s the thing as a whole. In the example of a bronze sphere, it’s the geometry of the sphere.

It’s counterpart is the matter that the object in question is made of. So a bronze sphere is made of bronze (its matter) and made into a sphere (its form).

Now considering the idea of forms from the perspective of OSR, there’s no difficulty in saying that forms are structures of relationships, as OSR says is true for all things. The account of X is the relations proper to X, that make X what it is, as X. So eg a house is a house because it is a man made habitation for humans – it is related to humanity as a product of human work, and as a home. These two relations create a structure of relations, and that relational structure is what we term a “house”.

The intellect, forms, and the brain

Aquinas tells us that, “a thing is known in as far as its form is in the knower” (ST I Q75 a5). It’s a great insight that knowledge of a thing is a question of its form being in the intellect. To know X is to comprehend its essential X-ness. We can say that X exists in the mind. But we have knowledge of things such as fish, and yet we know that there are no fish actually materially swimming around in our brains, such that a neurosurgeon might take one out and have it for dinner. So we can reasonably assert that things exist within the mind according to their forms, and therefore immaterially.

Aquinas took this point and reasoned from it that the intellect itself must be immaterial. But I think this step is unnecessary if you accept the claim that the form of a thing is simply the structure of its relations, and understand that it’s possible for these same structures to be instantiated in various mediums, eg the matter and or processes within the brain. The structures within the brain are capable, I suspect, of taking on any structure that is logically possible, including the structure of forms.

Let me know what you think!

‘Ontic Structural Realism’ and consciousness

I shared my last post, dealing with metaphysics and consciousness, on reddit and was kindly informed that the heart of what I was proposing is an existing theory in philosophy of science and metaphysics, known as “Structural Realism”, and in particular Ontic Structural Realism (as opposed to merely Epistemic Structural Realism, which limits itself to saying that all we can know about things is the relations between them, rather than that it is solely the relations that actually exist at all). Here’s the article on it from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for those who are interested (it’s really interesting stuff). It even strongly relies on the idea of group theory in mathematics, which I mentioned in my post and played a key part in my own thinking.

It’s a relief to see that much of my idea has already been conceived of by better educated people. It reassures me that I haven’t gone completely off the rails! Plus it provides a better foundation for me to work off of. The difficulty with self taught philosophy is that it’s often difficult to know if you are either reinventing the wheel or making an obvious error in your reasoning, or if you really have had an interesting and original thought.

Still, there seem to be a number of important differences, so that my theory remains distinct in a couple ways I find interesting. Firstly, it seems no one else has yet linked OSR with any attempt to explain or understand consciousness. It seems structural realism (in both epistemic and ontic forms) so far has been primarily concerned with philosophy of science, and especially with making sense of modern physics and the question of scientific realism in general (i.e. should we trust the scientific picture of reality, given that it’s had to be radically revised so many times previously?). Meanwhile I arrived at the idea mainly through considering consciousness, philosophy of mind, and especially “qualia“, and only considered it in relation to philosophy of science as an after thought (I may need to elaborate on how I arrived at the idea in this way in another post).

Amateur philosophy

I’m going to keep exploring this idea and sharing my thoughts, since it seems I may have still contributed something new to the discussion. Even if I haven’t, I think it’s still worthwhile because I believe in the value of amateur philosophy. I think philosophy is best approached as a dialogue, and it’s important for it to be open to all. We can’t tell where a new insight might come from, and the best way to test and refine ideas is through dialogue. The less informed can offer fresh perspectives, and give those better informed the chance to improve their understanding by teaching and being forced to explain their ideas in more fundamental terms. Even bad ideas and misunderstandings give the opportunity to make things more clear and approach the question from another direction.

I don’t think it’s possible to study philosophy passively. You have to listen carefully, and then respond and join the conversation. You cannot truly learn anything until you engage with it. And philosophy is an art you learn by doing.