Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 19, 2018, from

13. Why is form substance?

In claiming that form is substance, Aristotle relies on the connections between form, cause, essence and identity. He rejects the eliminative view (§8) that the so-called ‘coming-to-be’ or ‘perishing’ of an artefact or organism is simply an alteration of the matter. According to the eliminative view, this alteration does not involve the existence or non-existence of a distinct substance, any more than Socrates’ coming to be musical involves the existence of a distinct substance, musical Socrates. Aristotle replies that the production of an artefact and the generation of an organism introduce a new subject, a substance that is neither identical to nor wholly dependent on the matter that constitutes it at a time (see Identity §2). Although this statue of Pericles has come into being from a particular piece of bronze, we may repair the statue by replacing damaged bits; we preserve the same statue but we cause a different bit of bronze to constitute it. Similarly, an organism remains in existence as long as it replaces its matter with new matter: it persists as long as its form persists (Generation and Corruption I 5).

When Aristotle speaks of the relation of form to matter, he may refer to either of two kinds of matter: (1) the proximate, organic matter (for example, the organs and limbs making up the organic body); and (2) the remote, non-organic matter (for example, blood, earth, water) of which the organic body is made. Remote matter can exist without the form of the organism, but the organism can persist without any particular piece of remote matter. Proximate matter cannot exist without the form (since it is the function of an arm or heart that makes it the limb or organ it is); the form is the actuality of which the proximate matter is the potentiality (On the Soul 412a10; Metaphysics 1038b6, 1042b10).

The role of the form in determining the persistence of an organism results from its role as the source of unity. The form, including the organism’s vital functions, makes a heap of material constituents into a single organism (Metaphysics VII 16). A collection of flesh and bones constitutes a single living organism in so far as it has the form of a man or a horse; the vital functions of the single organism are the final cause of the movements of the different parts. The organism remains in being through changes of matter, as long as it retains its formal, functional properties. Since the structure, behaviour and persistence of the organism must be understood by reference to its form, the form is irreducible to matter (see §9); the organism, defined by its form, must be treated as a subject in its own right, not simply as a heap of matter.

These facts about organisms explain why Aristotle sees a close connection between primary substance and form. Organisms are substances primarily because of their formal properties, not because of their material composition; hence we cannot identify all the basic subjects there are unless we recognize the reality of formal properties and of subjects that are essentially formal.

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Why is form substance?. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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