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Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI
10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 19, 2018, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1

14. What are substantial forms?

The conclusion that primary substance and form are closely connected, however, explains only why some substances are essentially formal; it does not explain why form itself is substance. To explain this further claim, we need to decide whether Aristotle regards a substantial form as (1) a species form (shared by all members of a given species, for example, the form of man or horse), normally taken to be a universal, or as (2) a particular form, proprietary to (for example) Socrates. (See Metaphysics VII 10–16, XII 5, XIII 10, Generation of Animals IV 3 for important evidence.)

Some points favouring the ‘universal solution’ are the following. (1) Aristotle often contrasts the form with the compound of form and matter, and describes particulars as compounds; hence he apparently does not regard particulars as forms. (2) Similarly, he says that a particular differs from a universal in having both form and matter; hence no particular seems to be simply a form. (3) He says the form is what is specified in a definition, but there is no definition of a particular; hence a particular apparently cannot be a form. (4) He says that substance is prior in knowledge to non-substance, but scientific knowledge of particulars is impossible; hence they apparently cannot be substances, and only a universal can be a substance.

In favour of the ‘particular solution’ it may be argued: (1) a substance must be a subject, whereas all universals are said of subjects; (2) a substance must be a ‘this’, as opposed to a ‘such’, and hence, apparently, some sort of particular; (3) Aristotle argues at length that no universal can be a substance.

We might be tempted to conclude that Aristotle’s position is inconsistent. His conviction that substance as ‘this’ and substance as ‘what is it’ must be the same thing leads him to insist that the successful candidate for substance must satisfy the criteria for being both a this (a subject, and hence a particular) and an essence (a property, and hence a universal). If one and the same thing cannot satisfy both criteria, then no one thing can satisfy all Aristotle’s conditions for being a substance.

We need not draw this conclusion, however. We can maintain that Aristotle consistently favours the universal solution, if we can show: (1) a ‘this’ need not be a particular; (2) some universals are subjects; (3) a species form is not the sort of universal that cannot be a substance.

We can maintain that he consistently favours the particular solution, if we can show the following. (1) The contrast between form and matter does not imply that they are always mutually exclusive; some forms may be constituted by, or embodied in, particular bits of matter. Sometimes, indeed, Aristotle speaks as though a form is a subject that can persist and perish and can exchange its matter. (2) The sense in which particulars do not allow definition and scientific knowledge does not prevent them from also being, in an appropriate sense, prior in definition and knowledge to universals (Metaphysics XIII 10 may attribute the relevant priority to particular substances).

These two solutions are different ways of expressing Aristotle’s belief that substances are basic. Both his metaphysics and his natural philosophy express and defend the conviction that natural organisms and their kinds are substances because they are fundamental; they are fundamental because they are irreducible to their constituent matter. It is more difficult to decide whether the individuals or their kinds are more fundamental. Perhaps, indeed, we ought not to decide; different things may be fundamental or irreducible in different ways.

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Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. What are substantial forms?. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/aristotle-384-322-bc/v-1/sections/what-are-substantial-forms.
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