Home > philosophy > Substance, Subject, and Essence (Metaphysics Z 3-6)

Substance, Subject, and Essence (Metaphysics Z 3-6)

Professor Cohen said last semester that you know you’ve made it as a philosopher when you are assigned a standardized number system. For those not familiar with this concept, I assure you that you are familiar. It’s one of those Rumsfeldian unknown knowns, you just don’t know that you know it. For instance if I write Ecc 1:17 you can find exactly the sentence that I am talking about. It doesn’t matter what translation of the bible you have it will be roughly the same thing. This standardized numbering system is wonderful because page numbers aren’t always exact. Even the same translation can have different editions with different type, font size, etc. that make page tracking difficult. In Aristotle they are called the “Bekker numbers” after German philologist August Bekker. No matter what version being used “1028b” refers to the same section of approximately 35 lines. The Stephenus system for Plato is much clearer but it is still inherently useful. The only bad thing about these numbers is that so far I have not found an E-Version of any Aristotelian work that includes them. I am quite surprised by this omission.

Today we continue our discussion into the nature of substance. Closely related to the topic of substance is also the concept of essence. We shall discover whether or not these two things are related, similar, or completely different. We can apply “substance” to four main objects: the essence, the universal, the genus, and finally substratum.[1] We have already discussed substratum previously as that which underlies. Everything is predicated of the substratum, while the substratum cannot be a predicate of anything.[2] Does this mean that Prime Substance is also to be considered substratum?

Possibly, because we need to find the thing that remains while all else is stripped off. If we take, color, name, size, mass, etc. away from a thing that is, we need to know what is left. The remainder would ultimately be the substance. What we can say that is left, is matter.[3] Matter being neither a thing, quantity, nor a category by which we can determine being.[4] Since we can not determine being from matter, but we know that by knowing substance would allow us to know being, the final substratum cannot be matter.[5]

The being of a thing must be that which is propter se (in virtue of itself), we can then a throw out any compound or complex subject, what Aristotle terms “cloaks.” These cloaks are thus denied because they possess both other things which make them up, i.e. they can be further broken down. E.g. “Black pencil” does nothing for us because we can independently define both “black” and “pencil,” without reference to the other word. Counter to that we cannot define “female” from “animal” which gives us the understanding that there is some essence which connects them making them inextricably intertwined and not a cloak as we have been using the term.[6]


However that does little to clear up what substance is. So far our best course of inquiry is to search the entirety of that which is, to find some category that represents the closest to essence that we can get. The most obvious contender is that which is that of self-subsisting entities.


These are things that do not rely on anything else for their own existence. Where the black pencil, needs both black and pencil to exist, and indeed even a pencil is made of several composite parts; a thing that is self existing would be the closest to essence that we have. Self-existing should not be taken to mean self-creating, but rather existing without reliance on another thing. Examples of this are hard to come by, we can say that tree relies on nothing else, but then we can also say that trunks, branches, leaves, and such are parts of trees.


Yet, we can also skip examples waiting for another time to get into that (possibly another book as well) and just talk about the category of self-subsisting things. That which must be considered self-subsisting must be the same as their individual essence. We can say this definitively because we have already proven it. Since substance is that which underlies all things, and from which all things are derived from, then that which is not derived from anything else must also be a substance propter se.[7]


We must also be clear that there needs to be some underlying final substratum. For if there were not nothing would be knowable. There would be an infinite regress of attribution and definition.[8] Although it can be claimed that this is not a logical argument but merely a practical one.

[1] 1028b33-35

[2] 1028b35-37

[3] 1029a10-16

[4] 1029a20-22

[5] 1029a26-30

[6] 1030b25-37

[7] 1031a28-1032a5

[8] 1031b32-1032a4

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