Form, Content, Expression

Form constitutes the shape of any given entity, along with the various elements or properties by which the shape is composed. It can be analysed in terms of part-to-whole relations, where the form can be divisible into a multitude of parts as well as being apprehended as a whole. It is what gives something its unique character, distinguishing it from others things.

Content is the basis underlying form, as the source from which the value and meaning of form is derived—it is the generative base for the production of form. Content is always beyond form, for one can readily observe that the same thing can appear to take on many forms, and so while the content is always dependent upon a given form, it is independent of the particular form by which it appears. Content always exceeds its form; content is beyond what is merely given. It is what is more than what appears to be the case.

Expression is the way in which existence is constituted through forms of appearance—the “is” of “it is,” of existence as such. Without form, the content gains no expression. Without content, form has no way of being. Neither can be wholly understood independently of each other, for they are mutually implicated in one another: content is nothing other than the essence of form, and form is nothing other than the expression of this essence as its content.

A form presented as being over and above or beyond any content is illusory, for that would be to take what is merely given in appearance to stand in for what is truly real. In this illusory mode of presentation, form functions in such a way as to obscure its essential content, attributing basis for existence on itself alone without dependence on an underlying content. It cannot absolve itself from any content, and so the content of this illusory form is that it reflects upon its form.

But if the true nature of content relative to form is to exceed form, then form which fully expresses the essential nature of this content through the mode of its presentation is the best or highest expression of reality in its ultimate truth.

Evaluation of form on these terms of judgement is based on multiple factors: its relevance to social practice, the relations by which it is designed/designated and composed/constituted, and the function it fulfills in the relational context. For forms to succeed in the adequate expression of the essential nature of content, which is the exceedance of form, it must be both receptive to transformation of nature by others and responsible for transference of nature to others—a sharing of powers or abilities to form and to be formed.

Form should not, and ultimately cannot, function primarily in terms of its self-reproduction, by which what is antecedent (what has gone) is given precedence over what is in excess (what is beyond). Instead it should be the reverse: functioning primarily as a support for forms outside itself, to support other forms in their role in the realization of the ultimate expression of the essential nature of content. In this way, forms which adequately express their content by way of the mutual conditioning of each other’s natures assist each other in an exponentially ascending manner: support by one for the other enhances the other’s ability to support the one, which reciprocally determines one’s ability to enhance the other, in a cyclical-spiral interplay of mutual transcendence. In this process, forms become a part of one another through their role in the pursuit of establishing the highest expression of reality, as their separate and enclosed private existences gradually recede in order to open up space for truly interdependent existence.

One can anticipate, ideally, the trans-formation of form through its ultimate transcendence, which is not an absolute negation of form as such—but an expression of it that transcends reflection, positioning it beyond anything hitherto given. Form would be perfected to such a manner that it could only be apprehended through the complete harmony between the mode of presentation/relations of production and the basis of establishment/forces of production. The perfection of this transcendent form would be an attribute of its functioning as that which exceeds what is merely given, fulfilling the ultimate expression of the essential nature of the underlying content, which is the nature of transcendence, liberation, freedom.

2 Replies to “Form, Content, Expression”

  1. I agree with your argument that expression cannot take place without form, and that content has no way of being without expression in a form. But I disagree with your definition of content as “the basis underlying form, as the source from which the value and meaning of form is derived” and “content is nothing other than the essence of form, and form is nothing other than the expression of this essence as its content.”
    I contend that content has no essence; there is no essential ‘meaning’ or essence of content except that which we ascribe to it, depending on its context with other content/forms. That doesn’t mean it’s without truth: it’s truth evolves from the process of ascribing meaning-in-context. My understanding of content would be closer to “content is form; form is content.” If content has no being except in form, then it has no ‘essence’ except in form, because it could be any form. As you say, and I agree, the possibility of content exceeds any particular form, because it can take many different forms.


    1. Thank you for your response 🙂

      I intended the phrase “content is nothing other than the essence of form, and form is nothing other than the expression of this essence as its content” to be another expression of the formulation that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Perhaps I didn’t make that clear.

      I use the word “essence” here in a more deflated manner than is conventionally conceived. Content is the “essence” of form in that form has no basis without content, and that content can (and does) include the observer who is holding that form in their awareness.

      The key here is that the “essence” of content is not a “thing,” for if it were a thing then that would mean that we are positing some absolute ground, which from a Madhyamaka analysis, is not possible, either logically or existentially. I am also not speaking of any *particular* kind of content, but am speaking of content in *general*. The general characteristic of content, relative to form, is to both underlie as well as go beyond, any given particular form. This would mean that the “essence” of content in general, is that which is both the condition for the possibility of form as well as the unconditioned element that exceeds or transcends any given form.

      This would also mean that the real “essence” of content cannot be expressed in language, because the moment we express something in language, we are speaking of forms. The real “essence” of content is lived in experience, and it is the Tathagata who best expresses this content, for the Tathagata can come in any form but always transcends any given form.

      “… any form by which one describing the Tathāgata would describe him: That the Tathāgata has abandoned, its root destroyed, made like a palmyra stump, deprived of the conditions of development, not destined for future arising. Freed from the classification of form…the Tathāgata is deep, boundless, hard to fathom, like the sea.” —Aggi-vacchagotta Sutta


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