In a previous post I explained some of the various ways that things can be understood. We can speak of a thing as a whole or as a part. We can speak of what that thing has in common with other things and what it does not have in common. These distinctions create four different ways of speaking about things. There are also different ways of speaking about matter. Matter is either matter generally, or it is a specific kind of matter.
When we speak of matter generally, we are speaking of stuff. Whether that stuff is ethereal or common, it is still matter as long as it is a kind of stuff. When we speak of matter generally, it has no traits at all. It is not “that” or “this” because that would assign a particular trait (belonging to this thing) to matter. So we can only speak of matter in this way as a matter of metaphysics. In reality, all matter has traits of some kind or other because it belongs to a particular thing.
The other way of speaking of matter is to speak of it specifically. For example, when we say that a chest is wooden, we are claiming that the chest is made out of “wood stuff”. A kind of stuff is a kind of matter. Therefore, wood is one kind of matter. Stone, plastic, dirt and air are other examples of kinds of matter. When we speak of a kind of matter, we speak of the matter having traits. It is “this” matter, it has a particular color, it of a particular hardness and has other traits as well.
Let’ s call the matter that has no traits prime matter. The matter that is a specific kind of matter we can call proximate matter. We can speak of prime matter only as a part of matter generally. What is common to all kinds of matter is prime matter. Prime matter cannot actually exist as prime matter though. If it did, then there would be something that existed that also existed at no place, no time and had no traits at all. This is contradictory. Therefore, prime matter cannot exist on its own. Proximate matter is the way of speak of the matter of a thing apart from the thing itself. So when we are talking about the wood of the wooden table, the table would still be a table if it were made of stone instead of wood. Therefore, the woodenness of the table is something separate from the tableness of the table. There are some traits that the table has because it is made of wood and other traits that it has because it is a table.
There is one final thing to mention in any discussion of the differences of matter. Whenever proximate matter has a trait that does not exist because of the thing this matter is a part of then it exists because of a previous thing that it was a part of. So the traits of wooden things are such because these wooden things were once part of trees. Trees have these traits because trees are the kinds of things to have those traits. Regular matter is composed of atoms because regular matter is the kind of thing to permit the existence of atoms. (There are ways that the world could be in which atoms do not exist. Check out theoretical physics for some of these odd states of matter.)