DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N056-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 26, 2020, from

1. The canonical concept of substance

The definitive concept of substance is Aristotle’s, but it arose within an existing debate about what fundamentally ‘is’ in the world – meaning thereby not only what ultimately exists, but also what ultimately is such or such, as the subject of predication. The term employed, ουσια (being), was later translated in Aristotle’s use of it as substantia, substance. Another Aristotelian term applicable to substance, ηποκειμενον, was more usually translated substratum, substrate.

Aristotle (see Metaphysics I) identifies two extremes. The first, typified by atomism, takes matter to be ’that of which all things that are consist, and from which they come, and into which they are finally resolved’. For atomism, all change occurs through the motion and rearrangement of immutable material atoms (see Atomism, ancient). Plato (see Republic V–VII), on the other hand, held the sensible world, because in perpetual flux, to be less real than the eternal universal characteristics or Forms fleetingly manifested in that world. It is the Forms which, as the subject-matter of enduring knowledge, are in the strong sense. Aristotle’s middle way (see Metaphysics VI) takes unitary ’bodies’, both living things and homogeneous stuffs, to be the fundamental objects of knowledge and subjects of predication. Such substances comprise two elements, particularizing matter and universal form. An individual horse is the specific form of a horse embodied in this matter. Forms are the objects of universal science – teleological principles of activity and change within what is material and individual.

The Aristotelian theory has two aspects, as it figures in logic on the one hand, and in the theory of scientific knowledge and explanation on the other. In the former role, substance is the first of the ’categories’ or ’things said’ (see Categories). Substances, falling under such predicates as ’horse’ or ’wood’, are in the primary and most fundamental sense. Other ‘things said’, sometimes called ’accidents’, are somewhat arbitrarily listed under nine or ten heads. Such entities as a horse’s shape, colour, location or neigh are in a derivative sense. They can be subjects of predication, but are themselves ’said of’ and exist ’in’ something else (in this case, the horse), whereas substances are neither ’said of’ nor exist ’in’ anything else. The brownness or neigh of a horse exists just in so far as the horse is brown or neighing, but the primitive noun-predicate ’horse’ simply names the given individual, the horse itself. The horse is thus a logically independent entity, whereas its neighing or brownness is dependent on a subject or substrate. Aristotle called the individual horse the ’primary substance’, which cannot be ’said of’ anything, while the specific ’secondary substance’ horse can be ’said of’ (but does not exist ’in’) the individual, and the generic secondary substance animal can be ’said of’ both the individual and the species.

Only substances can be the subjects of contraries, that is endure through change, change explicable in terms of their natures or essences. Aristotle’s schema for scientific definition by genus and difference, later called the Doctrine of Predicables, applies primarily to substances. Non-substantial entities have definable essences in a sense, but Aristotle held, with reason, that only substances fall into natural species with genuine essences. Properties are attributes necessarily connected to essence, while accidents in the strict sense are those attributes of a substance which neither figure in, nor flow from, its definition. The Doctrine of Categories and the Doctrine of Predicables both encourage a question to which Scholastic Aristotelians gave a variety of answers: what is it for accidents to exist in a substance? The variety reflected the extent to which different philosophers were prepared to treat accidents as ’real’ (that is, really distinct, if naturally dependent) entities, as opposed to taking the view, which Epicurus had held, that they are merely conceptually distinct aspects of independent bodies. William of Ockham and Francisco Suarez wrote famous contributions to this debate (see Aristotle §§12–14; Epicureanism §§2–3; Plato §§2, 3, 8).

Citing this article:
Ayers, Michael. The canonical concept of substance. Substance, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N056-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

Related Articles