Subject, Form, and Essence

  • Jiyuan Yu
Part of the The New Synthese Historical Library book series (SYNL, volume 52)


This chapter and the next present what I call the discussion of per se being in Meta. vii.3–16. My goal is to find the structure of argument in these texts and to make sense of this group of texts by themselves, rather than interpreting them by appeal to the ideas related to the potentiality/actuality analysis, which these texts do not address. Meta. vii has been acclaimed to be the most mature work of Aristotle’s metaphysics. If it has to be explained in terms of the ideas developed in other texts rather than in its own right, one has reason to wonder why it is so important.


Primary Substance Primary Subject Infinite Regress Core Argument Subject Criterion 
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  1. 1.
    Various views have been laid out. The first and prevailing view is that Aristotle’s criticism does not mean that he abandons the notion of substance as subject, but only suggests that some revision of this is needed. The substantiality of form consists still in its subjecthood, and to justify form as primary substance is to justify it as primary subject. Form can be primary substance because it has better credentials than matter and the composite to be subject (cf. M. Frede, 1985; T. H. Irwin, 1988, 204+; Frede and Patzig, 1988, i. 52; M. L. Gill, 1989, 19). The second view proposes that, according to vii.3’s criticism, the subject criterion on its own is not enough for substantiality and needs further additions of separation and tode ti (“a this”). To be primary substance a thing must be separate and tode ti, as well as subject (cf. M. Schofield, 1972, 97; R. Robinson, 1974, 185–6; J. Kung, 1978, 149). The third position argues that Aristotle is abandoning the notion of subject all together and shifts to the causality criterion developed in vii.17 (cf. M. Furth, 1988, 188; H. Granger, 1995, 136, 154).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Greek is eidos de legō to ti ēn einai. ROT puts it as “…the form (i.e. the essence)”.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Meta. vii.8, 1033b17–18, vii.10, 1035b14–16; vii.11, 1037a25, 29. Cf. Bonitz, 1870, 219a47–49.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    D. W. Hamlyn questions this identity but comes to the conclusion that ‘Form is, strictly speaking, not identical with essence, but it implies a reference to an essence.” (1985, 65) One discussion can be found in D. Graham (1987, 241ff). Based on his hypothesis that there are two systems in Aristotle (one in the Organon, and the other in the physical-metaphysical writings), Graham suggests that the identity of form and essence is a result of the combination or mixture of these two systems.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    In vii.3, it is because of the introduction of separation and tode ti as new criteria for substance that form and the composite are said to be more substance than matter. Yet it is rather ambiguous how form satisfies these two new criteria and why it satisfies them better than the composite. The phrase tode ti is translated as “this”, or “a this”, or “this something”, “thisness”, ‘this somewhat”, etc. In the Meta it is contrasted to toionde (“such”, or “a such”). These two terms will be discussed in great detail in the next chapter. Since they are crucial terms for interpreting Meta. vii., and there are no universally accepted and unambiguous translations of them, I tend to keep them untranslated. I will deal with these two notions and separation in great detail in the next chapter.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Cat.5, 2b15–17, 2b37–8.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Meta. vii. 13,1038b4–6, viii.2, 1043a5–6, ix.7, 1049a34–36, etc.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    It should be pointed out that it is the primary substance rather than substance that is in question. Aristotle says at vii.3, 1029a28 that it is “impossible” for matter to be substance, but in the meantime he still mentions matter as one of the three subdivisions of substance (vii.3, 1029a30–33), and still calls matter, alongside with form and the composite, substance (vii.10, 1035a1–2). This causes confusion. One should bear in mind that form, matter, and the composite are three divisions within the category of substance, and hence matter naturally is a substance. Therefore, Aristotle cannot deny that matter is a substance, or claim that it is the only substance. The real question is whether matter is primary substance, and it is for this claim that Aristotle says at vii.3, 1029a28 that “this is impossible”. F. Lewis is right when he says that “perhaps more often than not throughout Metaphysics Zeta-Eta,’ substance’ is shorthand for ‘primary substance’.” (F. Lewis, 1991, 151; cf. also E. Halper, 1989, 37)Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Cf. also Ph. iv.1, 209a5–6: “Now it has three dimensions, length, breadth, depth, the dimensions by which all body is bounded.”Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    One interpretation argues that the arguments from 1029a11–12 do not reflect Aristotle’s own view, and that Aristotle is presenting his own conception of matter beginning with 1029a20 (M. Schofield, 1972, 100–101; Frede and Patzig, 1988, ii, 42–51). However, it is not clear that 1029a20 is a turning point and this position also does not square with 1029a26–7, where it is explicitly said that the conception of matter in 1029a20 is for “those who consider in this way”. Another position suggests that in the whole core argument of vii.3 Aristotle is examining his opponents’ points of view (W. Charlton, 1970, 138; M. L. Gill, 1989, 13–26). If this is the case, then, since vii.3’s task is to compare Aristotle’s own three candidates (form, matter, and the composite), why does he bother with the argument of an opponent? What is the relation between this opponent’s view and vii.3’s target?Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Regarding the relation between these two kinds of matter, some commentators admit that they are different, but do not explain their joint presence in vii.3 (G. E. L. Owen, 1978,14; G. Hughes, 1979, 114; E. Halper, 1989, 41). Some commentators try to overcome this tension by saying that Aristotle’s meaning is not that matter has no properties, but that matter in itself has no properties (M. Schofield, 1972; J. Lear, 1987, 276–277). However, corporeal matter like bronze certainly has some properties in itself, for it is in its own right some mixture of the four elemental stuffs.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    E.g. J. Owens, 1963, 332; D. Graham, 1987, 63; Frede and Patzig, 1988, ii, 48. The oddity of this line with Aristotle’s standard two-level predication scheme is observed by M. Loux, 1991, 63, and F. Lewis, 1991, 295–6, but they do not proceed to discuss the implication of this abnormal presentation.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    See also, R. Dancy, 1978, 373.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Such a reading takes it that the core argument is a reductio ad absurdum argument (This is also held by W. Charlton, 1970, 139 and M.L. Gill, 1989, 19). It is always tempting to link this notion of pure matter to prime matter which Aristotle introduces as the common subject to elemental transmutations (DC. iv.5, 312a30–33). It has been a major debate regarding how to make sense of prime matter. Hence, whether and how to make the link between prime matter and pure matter in vii.3 are also disputed issues. My view is that, since the posit of prime matter is the result of driving home the theory that each change must presuppose a subject, it is possible that the idea influences Aristotle when he conceives the notion of pure matter in vii.3’s core argument. But they cannot be the same. Although prime matter as the subject of the change of elements is “formless and unshapen” (DC. iii.8, 306b16), this should be taken to mean that prime matter does not have the form or shape that it will be in-formed. No matter how difficult it is to describe this prime matter, Aristotle does not deny that it is in the category of substance. Yet in vii.3 pure matter is said to be separate from the categories. Since categories are the basic elements of reality, it becomes difficult to believe that Aristotle would actually commit himself to the existence of this kind of pure matter. Indeed, the stripping process in vii.3 cannot be taken with much seriousness. For Aristotle seems to ignore on purpose the role of form. He mentioned the stripping of attributes, products, and potentialities, and of breath, depth, and length, but he never mentions at what stage form is stripped, and how the same process of stripping could still continue when form is stripped. 15See note 1 of this chapter.Google Scholar
  15. 16.
    T.H. Irwin, 1988, 211, 214–215.Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    W. D. Ross, 1924, i, xciv. M. L. Gill also says that, in the chapters after vii.3, “the topic of form as subject seems to be quietly dropped” (1989, 17). Gill also declares in another place that the solution about how form is a subject “cannot emerge from Aristotle’s treatment in Metaphysics vii.” (ibid, 133)Google Scholar
  17. 18.
    W.D. Ross, 1924, ii, 164. Ross himself, however, does not seem to be so confident about his view. In another place he explains the transition from vii.3 to vii.4 in this way: “But, feeling perhaps the difficulty of treating form as a variety of subject, he [Aristotle] here makes a fresh start.” (1924, i, xciv)Google Scholar
  18. 19.
    F. Lewis, 1991, 153, n9; cf. also 300–304; D. Bostock, 1994,75, 250.Google Scholar
  19. 20.
    I wish to thank Michael Frede for pressing me to deal with this sentence in detail.Google Scholar
  20. 21.
    For a serious effort in this regard, see C. Shields, 1988. For a criticism of Shields’ explanation, see H. Granger, 1995.Google Scholar
  21. 22.
    It is a commonplace that “substance” is an unsatisfactory translation of ousia. This is not only because the word’ substance’ fails to catch the etymological relation between on and ousia [ousia is derived from ousa which, like on, is also a participle of the verb “to be” (einai)], but also because Aristotle uses ousia both in a concrete sense (denoting the particular thing) and in an abstract sense (denoting form or “essence”). The translation “substance” fits well the former but not the latter sense, which is more common in the Meta. Various attempts have therefore been made to find a more appropriate translation which can cover both senses, although no agreement has been reached. The point I wish to make is that, while the difference between ousia as “substance” (in the sense of subject) and substance as “essence” is well recognized and discussed, the difference between ousia as subject and ousia as a separate tode ti, which Aristotle himself makes explicitly, has not received the attention it deserves. In fact, the difference between the concrete sense and abstract sense of substance amounts to the difference between substance as a subject and substance as something separate and tode ti.Google Scholar
  22. 23.
    The word ‘form’ (eidos) occurs only twice: once at 1031b14–5, where it clearly refers to Platonic form, and the other in the phrase tōn genous eidōn at 1030a12. Most commentators agree that in the latter case it means “species”, although some commentators insist that eidos in this phrase means “form” which is not species but is Aristotle’s primary substance (e.g. F. Lewis, 1984, sect. 6.I will discuss this view in the next chapter). In any case, it is indisputable that the concept of matter does not appear, and so eidos cannot be a correlative of matter. There are no grounds to believe that the matter/form analysis is at work in the arguments of vii.4–6.Google Scholar
  23. 24.
    Aristotle uses an imperfect ēn (“was”), which is called by Buchanan the “philosophical imperfect”. Buchanan claims that it “imputes to the phrase a ‘back reference’ to a definition already agreed upon.” (1962, 30)Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    Following W.D. Ross, 1924, ii. 164. The genus is not mentioned any more in book vii. According to Ross, this is because the genus is assimilated into the universal. Since every genus is a universal, when it is argued that the universal cannot be substance, it is no longer necessary to argue separately against the genus (Ross, ibid.).Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    Cf. W.D. Ross, 1924, ii, 171. It is endorsed in F. Lewis, 1984, 93.Google Scholar
  26. 27.
    For a useful discussion, see D. Bostock, 1994, 88–90.Google Scholar
  27. 28.
    This same position is repeated at vii.5, 1031a8–14.Google Scholar
  28. 29.
    Another major argument to the same effect is to appeal to the absurd consequence that would follow if they were separated. Aristotle takes a Platonic Idea (Good) as an example of a per se term. The argument runs thus. If the Good itself is different (separated) from the essence of the Good (1031a30–32), that is, if there is a complete divorce between the Good and the Good’s essence, we would be led to the conclusion that besides the Idea Good, there are also other substances and Ideas (1031b1–2). Furthermore, because essence is substance, there would be substance prior to the Ideas (b2–3). If this were the case, there would be no knowledge of the Good itself (b4), “for there is knowledge of each thing only when we know its essence” (b7–8). To know x is the same as to know what x is. More serious, if the essence of the Good does not possess the attribute of the Good, it is not good (b12–13). Therefore, essence would not exist or have being, for if the essence of the Good is not good, in an analogous way the essence of being will not be. Given this reductio ad absurdum, Aristotle rejects the premise that the Good is different from the essence of the Good, and concludes the opposite to this premise: “The Good, then, must be one with the essence of Good, and the beautiful with the essence of beauty, and so with all things which do not depend on something else but are self-subsistent and primary.” (b13–14) This argument is traditionally taken to be a criticism of Plato. Yet, although Plato separates Ideas from sensible things, he never separates them from their essence. It seems that the text would make much more sense if we understood Aristotle to be using a Platonic Idea, Good, to illustrate the extreme absurdity of separating substance and essence, rather than to be making a polemical point against Plato. What Aristotle needs at this juncture in his text is a kind of entity which is clearly different from any accidental or sensible composite, and which can be described in terms of its essence. Plato’s ideas are convenient examples, for they are said to be “by themselves”. The whole argument is meant to show that a thing’s substance is precisely its essence. A separation between them will result in an infinite regress. The same result holds for anything that is “primary, and spoken of in its own right”, whether or not such things are Platonic forms. As a matter of fact, Aristotle makes it clear that the argument covers not only Ideas, but also other per se terms: “It is enough if they are thus, even if they are not Ideas.” (vii.6, 1031b14–15)Google Scholar
  29. 30.
    W.D.Ross, 1924, ii, 170.Google Scholar
  30. 31.
    Top. v.4, 133b24–6, cf. 31–2; SE. 178b39–179al; Meta. iv.2, 1004b1–3; v.9, 1018a2–3, v.29, 1024b29–31; vii.2, 1026b15–18.Google Scholar
  31. 32.
    For the most detailed discussion of accidental sameness, see F. Lewis, 1991, Part ii; cf. also G. B. Matthews (1982).Google Scholar
  32. 33.
    Somehow this problem still remains in today’s notion of “accidental compound” (substance plus accidents). What does the word’ substance’ refer to in this compound? F. Lewis suggests that it is the particular substance (i.e. primary substance) in the Cat. (Lewis, 1991, 85, 101). Then, what is the particular substance? If it contains accidents, the particular substance itself turns out to be an accidental composite. In that case, the notion of “accidental composite” will involve an infinite regress, for what we have will be “(substance + accidents) + accidents”. Hence, it makes more sense to say that the “substance” in “accidental composite” is the essence of substance, or the substance per se.Google Scholar
  33. 34.
    M. Frede, 1987, 74.Google Scholar
  34. 35.
    D. Bostock, 1994,75. Cf. also M. Furth, 1988, 232; F. Lewis, 1991, 101.Google Scholar
  35. 36.
    Cf. also viii.3, 1043b2–4: “For the essence certainly attaches to the form and the actuality. For soul and to be soul are the same, but to be man and man are not the same, unless indeed the soul is to be called man; and thus on one interpretation the thing is the same as its essence, and on another it is not.”Google Scholar
  36. 37.
    This follows W.D. Ross’ account of Alexander of Aphrodisias’s construction (Ross, 1924, ii.179).Google Scholar
  37. 38.
    This is also clear in the analysis of snub nose, for it can be viewed either as an accidental composite (vii.5, 1030b14–20), or as a hylomorphic complex (vii.10, 1035a5–6; cf. vi.1, 1025b31).Google Scholar
  38. 39.
    Meta. vii.10, 1035b29, vii.15, 1039b20, 24; viii.1, 1042a28, vii.4, 1044b12; DA. ii.1, 412b16.Google Scholar
  39. 40.
    This principle of the correlation is more frequently appealed in the Topics; cf. i.4. 101b21, i.5, 101b38;i.8, 103b10, vi.1, 139a33, vii.3, 153a15, vii.5, 154a31.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jiyuan Yu
    • 1
  1. 1.State University of New York at BuffaloUSA

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