What the Hell is Substance?

Is a horse a substance? Is a man? What about a statue of a horse and a man? Is its underlying matter the substance, or is it its form? Or is it the compound of both matter and form what a substance really is? Maybe there is no substance. Doubts, doubts and more doubts…

For the vast majority of my life, I have favored reading nonfiction over fiction, using the argument that since “truth is stranger than fiction”, why waste my time with “invented truths”? Needless to say that I was profoundly wrong. But I say that now just to explain why, during that same stretch of my life, I have read nonfiction as if it were fiction. I read it page by page, enjoying the mystery of understanding gradually unfold in front of my eyes, yearning to reach the end of the book as if the murderer of an Agatha Christy’s story would be revealed. It was this naive (not to say stupid) that I made a feeble attempt to face Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” three years ago. The trauma was so strong that only now I am recovering. Boy, I wish I believed in God or any lesser superstition! Because now I’ll need all the help I can muster to wrestle with this tome.

So, a few days ago, I began my crucible by cheating “a little”. I had learned that the core of the “Metaphysics “is contained in books Zeta, Eta and Theta, so I thought I could start right there. Yeah, right! That’s utterly impossible. The problem is not that Z (Book Zeta) mentions A or B (Books Alpha or Beta); the problem is that it presupposes an understanding of, at least, Aristotle’s “CategoriesandPhysics”. Thankfully, I had the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[1] (SEP) to tell me that soon enough. And since it was Carnival in Rio and I am a married man, what was there better to do in times like these than to breathe, drink and eat the Corpus Aristotelicum?

Book Zeta, Chapter 1 (Z1)

Aristotle begins Z1 by trying to sort out which sense of “being” substance corresponds to. Qualities and quantities and actions are all said to “be”, but they also need something underlying to them for them to exist. You can’t see “whiteness” by itself, only something which is white. Neither can you see any quantity of anything apart from the things themselves that you are counting or measuring. In the same vein, you can’t look at the world and see “to walk” out there, only someone doing the walking. In other words, “that which is primarily, i.e. not in a qualified sense but without qualification, must be substance”. Therefore, he concludes, “what being is, is just the question, what is substance?”.

Book Zeta, Chapter 2 (Z2)

Now, in Z2, Aristotle considers the viable candidates for what could be classified as substance. Bodies of all kinds, for sure, like animals, plants, water, fire, planets. But there are also those who think simpler objects are substances — and even more so — like surface, line, or point. Some consider only sensible things, while others (like Plato) think there are suprasensible substances, like the Forms or numbers, existing apart from the sensible ones. Which of them is right? That’s what Aristotle is after when the chapter ends: What is the nature of substance? So far so good, but now in Z3 that’s when the “snake will smoke”, like we say it in Brazil.

Book Zeta, Chapter 3 (Z3)

He begins by stating four things commonly held to be substance: the essence, the universal, the genus, and the substratum. That immediately signaled to me I was in trouble, but I couldn’t imagine how much.

Then he indicates that, for now, he will be focusing on just the last possibility, namely, that substance is the substratum, which seems to be in consonance with his conclusion at the end of Z1. But first he defines substratum:

“Now the substratum is that of which everything else is predicated, while it is itself not predicated of anything else.”

Although I’ve learned the basics of Logic, that expression “to be predicated of” makes things hard for me. The enormously helpful SEP article on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” translates it as “to be said of”, which sounds much better. I kept going.

Aristotle then seems to equate substratum with matter, but he also says that it could be associated instead with form (or shape) or the compound of form and matter:

“And in one sense matter is said to be of the nature of substratum, in another, shape, and in a third, the compound of these.”

Here again I felt I had to dig up the true meaning of these terms, even though I thought I knew the basics of them. But I still kept going.

By using a similar argument to that of Z1, he goes on to conclude that matter must be substance, for “When all else is stripped off evidently nothing but matter remains.” However, he immediately disregards his own conclusion with a hugely enigmatic statement:

“But this is impossible; for both separability and ‘thisness’ are thought to belong chiefly to substance.”

It seems that by “separability” he means matter should be able to stand alone as such, while by “thisness” he means it should be possible to regard it as an individual entity even when “separated”. But how could that not be so? I saw no problem, at first. Because if you stick, say, a horse into a really powerful mixer and grind it into its primary constituents (whatever that may be) and you leave it all by itself on the floor as a mound of ex-horse matter, it would still be something, and individual mound standing alone on the floor — a this existing on its own. Why can’t that be?

Aristotle makes it even worse for me by concluding instead that “form and the compound of form and matter would be thought to be substance, rather than matter.” Why? How can there be form standing alone by itself as an individual? To me, that’s even less possible than matter standing alone. And what is a compound of form and matter but an individual per se? If you consider form and matter together, you wouldn’t be stripping anything from the thing, but instead you would be keeping it as it is! What the hell does he mean?

But to make things even worse (yeah, if I am suffering so much, you will too), there is something he said that I’ve intentionally left out until now. As we saw in Z2, he seems to consider individual things as substances, like a horse or a plant or a planet, but at the very first sentence of Z3, he tell us those four candidates (essence, universal, etc.) “are thought to be the substance of each thing.” So he now seems to be looking for the “substance of substances”!

I would never noticed that if it weren’t for the SEP article, and I admit I was tempted to ignore it here. But I have a nagging feeling that if I do so, I will get embroiled in such an intellectual mess that soon enough I will be jumping Carnival in search of any metaphysical enlightenment as long as it comes with a high dose of alcohol.

So what I’ll do now is follow the lead of my SEP friends and first go understand what are the “things that are” — beings — as described in the “Categories”, especially its account of substance, and then go grapple with the concept of form and matter in the “Physics”. Maybe then I will be able to grasp what a mound of ex-horse really is.



1. You can get nicely formatted PDF versions of SEP’s articles by becoming a “Friend of the SEP“; it costs a meager $10 a year for all this wealth of extremely high-quality studies on all philosophical subjects, so I urge anyone interested in philosophy to support them and greatly improve one’s own bibliography with their articles.

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