I am seeking an understanding of the scientific term "matter". My research tells me that "hyle" and "materia" were both used. I am trying to create something of a timeline for the development of the idea of matter and struggling a bit with the etymology aspect. I am simply a homeschool parent. Don't judge me too harshly. Thanks!

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    $\begingroup$ Matter derived from Latin materia that in turn translated the Greeg hyle $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2020 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ Obviously, the philosophical usage of the Greek term was earlier than the Latin one. $\endgroup$ Sep 23, 2020 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ There is a rough sketch of the concept's evolution in What does “physical” mean to philosophers? post. It came a long way from Aristotle's original hyle as "pure potentiality. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Sep 23, 2020 at 19:24

1 Answer 1


It will be very difficult to trace who came up with the concept of matter. Why don't you start with the concept of atom for educational purposes. This idea is well researched.

The unabridged Oxford Dictionary (subscription based) traces the word origin of matter as

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman matier, matere, matire, mateire, Old French matere, matiere (12th cent.; French matière ) < classical Latin māteria (also māteriēs ) wood, timber, building material, material of which a thing is made, purulent matter, subject of discourse or consideration, also (in philosophical use) ‘matter’ in contradistinction to ‘mind’ or to ‘form’ < māter mother n.1 + -ia -ia suffix1 (usually explained as originally denoting the trunk of a tree regarded as the ‘mother’ of its offshoots). Compare Italian materia (12th cent.), Spanish materia (1220–50), Portuguese matéria (14th cent.), Old Occitan materia (14th cent.), Romanian materie, etc. The sense development of Latin māteria was influenced by that of ancient Greek ὕλη hyle n., of which it was the accepted equivalent in philosophical use.

The origin of hyle is

Etymology: < medieval Latin hȳlē, < Greek ὕλη wood, timber, material, by Aristotle and in later Greek ‘matter’.(Show Less)

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    $\begingroup$ I did trace "atom" and it was easy. I am more interested in illustrating natural philosophers developed their thoughts over time. I am tracing their thoughts via their writings. So, it is about the use of their language and when hyle became materia became matter. Thank you so much for your response. $\endgroup$
    – Janeasmith
    Sep 23, 2020 at 13:47

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