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No common statement on the nature of substance is acceptable to all philosophers, the more famous of whom range from a full treatment of its nature to an outright rejection of its existence. From the variety of their views, however, a descriptive statement of the meaning of substance can be pieced together: it is something basic and independent in existence, standing under other realities, and a source of activity. To explain and develop a fuller definition, this article presents the early history of the term substance, a detailed analysis of its nature according to St. Thomas Aquinas, a survey of the views of modern philosophers, and a summary critique and evaluation.


The word "substance" is a transliteration of the Latin substantia, the components of which give the root meaning of standing under. In popular usage, substance is often interchanged with essence since both terms have the same general connotation. This popular usage of the term witnesses to a constant factor in the historical development of the philosophical notion.

Greeks. Early greek philosophy was a search for something basic or fundamental in the cosmos, something that would explain stability within the context of change. The primary formulation of the term to express this reality was the work of parmenides, who denied change and affirmed the real as unchanging. To express this unchanging reality Parmenides used various forms of the verb "to be," ε[symbol omitted]ναι.

Pre-Socratic philosophers, while accepting change as real, continued to refer to a stable reality in some derivative form of ε[symbol omitted]ναι. Decisive formulation in the tradition of ε[symbol omitted]ναι was given by plato in his attempt to solve the problem of stability versus change. Confining the stable and unchanging to his world of Ideas, Plato named such things ο[symbol omitted]σία, from the feminine participle of ε[symbol omitted]ναι.

The Platonic term ο[symbol omitted]σία with its connotation of perfect stability was, however, inapplicable to various entities that, although substances, are subject to substantial change. To allow for the dynamic character of substance, Aristotle therefore expanded the meaning of ο[symbol omitted]σία and applied it to things in the sensible, changing world. He applied ο[symbol omitted]σία in a fourfold way: to the essence, τ τί [symbol omitted]ν ε[symbol omitted]ναι; to the universal, τ καθόλον; to the genus, τ γένος; and to the subject, τ [symbol omitted]ποκείμενον (Meta. 1028b 3335). This last term is translated into Latin as subjectum. Concerning it, Aristotle says, " for that which underlies a thing primarily is thought to be in the truest sense its ο[symbol omitted]σία" (Meta. 1029a 3).

Latins. The term ο[symbol omitted]σία, especially with the Aristotelian connotation of underlying or basic, is the word the Latins rendered philosophically as substantia (Seneca, Epist. 58). St. Augustine writes that "essence [ο[symbol omitted]σία] usually means nothing else than substance in our language" (Trin. 7.4.7).

St. Augustine emphasized not only the sustaining role of substance, but also its mutability. Because he regarded mutability as proper to substance, he considered it an abuse to call God a substance. Properly God is called an essence (Trin. 7.5.10), "to whom existence itself, whence is derived the term essence, most especially and most truly belongs" (Trin. 5.2.3).


In treating of substance, St. thomas aquinas provides for both the mutable and the immutable, the composite and the simple. While he appears merely to repeat Aristotle in many of his divisions of substance, and especially in the division of being into substance and accident, Thomas introduces a distinctive difference. The perfection of being for Thomas is existence (esse ), and in all finite beings existence is other than essence. St. Thomas contributed to the clarification of the notion of substance by a synthesis of this special insight with the various insights of Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine. For him, the reality in any thing that is substance must be primary and fundamental and thus the basic and independent source of its subsequent and dependent characteristics and properties. St. Thomas does not demonstrate that nature exists, since this is manifest to the senses (In 2 phys. 1.8). But he does demonstrate that in any thing there must be something basic, primary, and independent to account for the unity of that thing. The alternative is a meaningless regression to infinity. That which is the basic and independent source of a thing's unity and the ultimate subject of all predication is substance (Summa Theologiae 1a, 11.1 ad 1; In 4 meta. 7.630).

Definition. St. Thomas thus acknowledges the supporting or underlying role that substance plays in reference to accidents, but he does not identify this as primal. "There are two things proper to substance as a subject. The first is that it does not need an extrinsic foundation in which it is sustained, but is sustained in itself; and thus it is said to subsist, as existing per se and not in another. The second is that it is itself a foundation sustaining accidents; and as such it is said to stand under (substare )" (De pot. 9.1). The primary characteristic is embodied in his definition: "Substance is essence to which per se existence is proper" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 3.5 ad 1). The definition emphasizes the absolute and independent character of substance. It also gives the reason for substance's capacity for supporting accidents, whereas the etymology of the term emphasizes only its function of support.

In the definition both essence and existence appear. Hence the definition must be judged in the context of St. Thomas's position on being. For him, in all things other than God existence is other than essence (Summa Theologiae 1a, 44.1; Quodl. 3.8.20); thus, in all substances other than God, the substance is other than its existence (De subs. sep. 8). He states, "To exist per se is not the definition of substance; because by this we do not manifest its quiddity, but its existence; and in a creature its quiddity is not its existence" (In 4 sent. ad2).

The proper formality in a finite substance is therefore identified as the essence in its capacity for per se, or independent, existence. By so identifying the formality of substance in the creature, St. Thomas provides the basis for distinguishing finite substance from God as substance and for distinguishing substance from essence, nature, and accident (Summa Theologiae 3a, 77.1 ad 2).

Distinctions. The creature substance is distinguished from God as substance in that every finite substance has its existence as act in relation to which substance is po tency, whereas "only in God is His substance the same as His existence" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 54.1; C. gent. 2.53).

Substance is distinguished from essence in that substance signifies the basic principle in a thing in its reference to a per se mode of existence, whereas essence signifies reference to existence without specifying independent or dependent mode. Hence essence, as such, is applicable both to substance and to accident, though primarily to substance (De ente 2).

Substance is distinguished from nature in that nature signifies the substance as a principle of activity. Hence, in one and the same thing substance, essence, and nature can express the same reality but differ in connotation by a virtual distinction (see distinction, kinds of).

Substance is, however, really distinct from acci dent, which it underlies and sustains, and by which substance is enabled to operate and manifest itself in a variety of ways. The precise difference between the two is that substance is of such perfection that it can exist per se, whereas accident is so imperfect a principle that it has need to exist in another (In 4 sent. ad 2).

But if substance is other than accident and finite substance is other than its existence, this does not mean that existence is an accident. "The substantial existence of a thing is not an accident, but the actuality of an existing form, either without matter or with matter" (Quodl. 12.5.1). The existence is contingent but not an accident.

Characteristics. Strength and durability are often considered as characteristic of substance, but this judgment, if unqualified, is false. A soap bubble is as truly substance as is a steel bar. And a subatomic particle with its minimal duration does not cease to qualify as a substance, whereas the intellect with its immortal duration is still a power of the soul, and hence an accident. Substance should therefore be considered in its proper formality, which permits a variety of substances with proportionate properties and characteristics. The fact that substance, essence, and nature express the same reality in a thing provides a basis for understanding substance as dynamic and varied.

The basic reality that is the essence or substance is not constituted by some element called substance plus some other element whereby this element is made specific. "For when we say that some substance is corporeal or spiritual, we do not compare spirituality or corporeity to substance as forms to matter, or accidents to a subject; but as differences to a genus. Thus it is that a spiritual substance is not spiritual through something added to its substance, but is such through its own substance. In the same way, corporeal substance is not corporeal through something added to substance, but according to its own substance" (De subs. sep. 8).

Substance and Accident. A substance is always a specific substance in existing reality. Furthermore, every finite existing substance has need of further perfections that are called accidents. But finite substance and accident must be considered in correlation. Accident, in St. Thomas's teaching, is neither a perfect being nor an individually existing being, but a principle that complements substance and together with it, through their existence, constitutes the individually existing thing. An accident is a being of a being.

The substances of human experience are existing things with varieties of accidental perfections. As is detailed below, the errors about substance in modern philosophy stem in part from a singular failure to treat of substance and accident in this mutual relation. To treat of substance either exclusively in terms of its basic perfection of subsisting or exclusively in terms of its etymological signification of standing under is thus to distort the finite reality that is the existing substance. The finite substance does not simply subsist; it needs proper and common accidents. But it must not be considered merely as a support for phenomena. It is much more than a foundation for a kind of superstructure of accidents. Substance as cause of accidents gives them entitative support; the existence (esse ) of accidents is existence in (inesse ). In finite, natural conditions, accidents are never present without their substance. And even in cases of supernatural intervention and support of accidents, as in the Holy Eucharist, accidents do not cease to have an aptitude for inherence in a subject. They never cease to be accidents (Summa Theologiae 3a, 77.1 ad 2).

Presence in Things. It is the nature of substance to be in every part of a thing as whole and entire. As foundational for a thing's independent existence, substance is present wherever the thing is in independent existence, which is total. Even in the phenomenal or accidental phases of its being, the thing in its substantial existence sustains the accidental existence (C. gent. 4.14). Substance, therefore, should be understood as neither exclusively interior nor exclusively exterior, but everywhere present to the thing. To speak of stripping off accidents from the substance is without meaning (Descartes, Réponses aux quatrièmes objections ) for that could happen only if there could be an existence in self simultaneously and essentially committed to existence in other. Even in divine intervention these two opposites are not united.

First and Second Substance. The proper focus for understanding both finite substance and accident is to consider them as correlated, as mutually involved. This is how they exist in reality. St. Thomas stresses this by teaching that all idea of substance is taken from substance of actual existence, which he calls first substance. First substance is the individually existing substance with all its attributes and accidental modifications. When precision is made from individual existence and substance is taken in the abstract as a class or category, as universal, it is called second substance.

Complete and Incomplete Substance. A complete substance is one that can exist per se. This terminology can be misleading because substance is said to be essence in its capacity for independent existence, and this would seem to apply to any substance. However, there are composite substances, as evidenced by substantial change, and as a consequence there must be substantial components. Further, the reconciliation of a plurality of substantial components with a unity of substantial nature requires that there be only two components, one of which is potential, the other actual. The one is primary matter, the other substantial form (see matter and form). Each requires the other for actual existence. Each by itself is incapable of actual existence. Each is thus called an incomplete substance because by itself it cannot exist per se. The composite substance is a complete substance.

There is another type of complete substancea simple substance or one that lacks composition in its essence or nature. Such a substance is spiritual, and its nature is perfect enough to exist per se. In this class are angels and also the human soul. The latter, however, constitutes a special case. The human soul is complete as substance since it can exist per se when separated from matter, but it is incomplete as to species since only with matter does it constitute a complete human nature (see SOUL, HUMAN, 4).

Person and Subsistence. person is intimately related to substancea relation that has special interest because of the doctrine of the incarnation. The theology of the Incarnation teaches that there is a complete human nature in Christ in hypostatic union with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. There is no human person in Christ. As already noted, any specific substance is the same reality as the essence, or nature, of the thing. Moreover, St. Thomas accepts the definition of person by Boethius: "An individual substance of a rational nature" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 29.1). The question centers therefore on the precise formality of person and its real distinction from substance.

Despite the variety of answers proposed by scholastic theologians and philosophers, there is general agreement that what is called supposit at the infrahuman level is called person in the human species. A supposit is an individually existing substance. When a particular substance is a human nature the supposit is a person.

subsistence is generally accepted by theologians and philosophers as that which together with substance constitutes the supposit. At the human level, subsistence and substance constitute the person. St. Thomas, Duns Scotus, and F. Suárez differ as to the precise meaning of subsistence. Among the followers of St. Thomas, different developments of his teaching are made by cajetan, L. billot and J. maritain.


Much of contemporary philosophy tends to dismiss substance as irrelevant. This dismissal is the culmination of a variety of teachings in modern philosophy wherein the notion of substance was either distorted, its nature considered unknowable, or its existence denied. Common to this variety of rejections of substance is a constant failure to treat of substance in its mutual relation with accident, while yet preserving the proper distinction between the two. This fault is actually an inheritance from late scholasticism out of which modern philosophy developed. Suárez, for example, taught an exaggerated view of the individuality and absolute character of accident. "Being (ens ) can be predicated absolutely and without qualification of the accident" (Disp. meta. 32.2.18). The scholastic philosophy known to modern philosophers from the 16th to the 18th centuries was principally the philosophy of Suárez. Descartes and Leibniz both read him, and Kant knew his teaching through the Ontologia of C. wolff. Wolff unfortunately presented the teaching of Suárez as though it were the same as that of St. Thomas.

Descartes. Substance is a key notion in the philosophy of R. descartes. Inspired by the clarity and certainty of mathematics, Descartes searched for a new philosophy whose criterion of truth would be the clarity and distinctness of ideas. He defined substance as "a thing which so exists that it needs no other thing for existence" (Principles of Philosophy 1.51). His criterion was applied to kinds of substance, and he concluded that there are "two ultimate classes of real thingsthe one is intellectual things, the other is material things" (ibid. 1.48). For "there is always one principal property of substance which constitutes its nature and essence, and on which all the others depend. Thought constitutes thenature of thinking substance. Extension in length, breadth and depth, constitutes the nature of corporeal substance. For all else that may be attributed tobody presupposes extension, and is but a mode of this extended thing" (ibid. 1.53).

Descartes made two errors whose influence has been decisive in modern philosophy. First, he equated substance and its property, allowing only a logical distinction between them (ibid. 1.6062). Second, he applied his notion of substance to man's nature and concluded that man is constituted of two substances, soul and body, which are so distinct that man has no direct access to knowledge of the corporeal world (Meditations 3, 5, 6). Much of modern philosophy is an attempt to solve the problem of knowledge thus posed by Descartes. The reality and notion of substance have suffered distortion in the process.

Spinoza and Leibniz. B. spinoza corrected the notion of a soul too distinct from body by making the Cartesian thought and extension two modes of one infinite substance. For him, multiplicity and finiteness are mere modifications of the two attributes of the one substance that is divine. Thus there is only one substance, which he defined as "that which is in itself and is conceived through itself, that is, the concept of which does not need the concept of another thing by which it ought to be formed" (Ethics 1, def. 3). For G. W. leibniz, substance is a "being capable of action" (Principles of Nature and Grace 1 [ed. Wiener, 522]). He called the substance a monad to emphasize its unity. He proposed an elaborate system, a calculus of reality, in which each monad is self-contained with its particular function, without direct causal interaction among monads and without direct perception of the rest of the universe. Sensation is only the occasion for the intellect's development of innate truths whose whole cause is in the understanding. As Descartes justified man's intellectual knowledge of corporeal reality by an appeal to the divine veracity, and Spinoza by a type of pantheism, so Leibniz guaranteed the truth by a divinely preestablished harmony with God as "a perfect Geometer" (On a General Principle, ed. Wiener, 66; New System of Nature and of the Communication of Substances, ed. Wiener, 11415).

Locke and Berkeley. British empirical philosophy reacted to the rationalism of the Cartesian philosophy. John locke rejected Descartes's innate ideas and sought his answers to reality in terms of the senses and a mind that are acted upon by sensible objects. In treating of substance and accidents, Locke sought to avoid the Cartesian identification of substance with its property while accepting Descartes's criterion of clear and distinct ideas. When he applied this criterion to quality as distinct from substance, Locke concluded that quality could be considered absolutely by itself and that consequently substance was unknowable in itself. Since "qualities cannot be the real essence of a substance, man does not know what substance is in itself." Substance is an unknown "standing under or upholding" of qualities (Essay Concerning Human Understanding 2.31; 2.2).

George berkeley probed Locke's thought on quality. Since Locke explained primary qualities, such as color and sound, as the product of man's sensations and rejected any role for quality in providing for the knowability of substance, Berkeley went a step further and denied the need for any material substance. "From what has been said it is evident there is not any other Substance than Spirit, or that which perceives" (Treatise Concerning Principles of Human Knowedge 1.7).

Hume. David hume took the question still further by challenging the need of any substance to account for the qualities. Like Descartes, Locke, and Berkeley, Hume taught that the immediate object of knowledge is one's perceptions or ideas (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1.2.6). Hume then contrasted the perception or impression with what is called substance and concluded that substance is unknowable. He reasoned: "For how can an impression represent a substance, otherwise than by resembling it? And how can an impression resemble a substance since, according to this philosophy, it is not a substance, and has none of the peculiar qualities or characteristics of substance? We have no perfect idea of any thing but a perception. A substance is entirely different from a perception. We have, therefore, no idea of substance" (ibid. 1.4.5). By concentrating his analysis on perceptions as the only objects of knowledge, Hume rejected the "opinion of the double existence of perceptions and objects. For as to the notion of external existence, when taken for something specifically different from our perceptions, we have already shown its absurdity" (ibid. 1.4.2).

Finally, Hume turned the definition of substance back upon its proponents. He declared that the same definition could apply to both substance and accident and that since "every perception may exist separately, and have no need of anything else to support their existence, they are therefore substances, as far as this definition explains a substance" (ibid. 1.1.5).

Kant. Hume carried empiricist philosophy to the dead end of skepticism with his doubt of the existence of an objective world beyond the knower. Rationalism in the person of Descartes and Leibniz confidently affirmed the existence of such an objective world. But both the empiricists and the rationalists were in agreement that man had no immediate intellectual access to the object outside the knower. Immanuel kant tried to find a middle path between empiricism and rationalism by his critique of the grounds of knowledge. Yet his final conclusion had this in common with the extremes he sought to mediate: man has no immediate intellectual access to the thing in itself. Modern philosophy thus found common ground in making the perception or the idea the object of knowledge. Kant wrote: "Now since without sensibility we cannot have any intuition, understanding cannot be a faculty of intuition. But besides intuition there is no other mode of knowledge except by means of concepts. Since no representation, save when it isan intuition, is in immediate relation to an object, no concept is ever related to an object immediately " (Critique of Pure Reason A 68, B 9293). By restricting man's immediate knowledge to the realm of sensibility, and this sensibility to the phenomena or appearances only, Kant rejected human knowledge of the thing in itself, the noumenon or substance (see noumena). "How things may be in themselves, apart from the representations through which they affect us, is entirely outside our sphere of knowledge" (ibid. A 190, B 235).


The problem of substance in modern philosophy is basically the problem of an adequate theory of knowledge. Empiricism, rationalism, and Kant's critical philosophy all fail to evaluate the data of both sense and understanding in terms of the evident unity of man as knower. St. Thomas, using Aristotle's insight of man as a substantial composite, could deal realistically with the problems that are raised by sense knowledge but that remain unanswerable at the sense level. Man is not hopelessly divided into two realms of sensibility and understanding. The solution to the apparent division and opposition is found in the unifying function of the soul as form of the body, with the human intellect serving as a power of the soul (Summa Theologiae 1a, 85.1).

False Conceptions. A corollary of modern philosophy's inability to know the thing in itself was its repeated characterization of substance as an unknown, inert, and permanent underlying ground of phenomena, appearances, or qualities. This false description of substance has contributed in large measure to its rejection by recent philosophy (see The Problem of Substance, University of California Publications in Philosophy, v. 9, 1937). As Henri bergson noted, the rejection turns against the false stereotype. "I reject an ego-thing, that is, an immobile ego, and in a general way a substance which would be an inert and undefinable support. But to define substance and the ego by their very mobility, this is not to deny them."

St. Thomas's definition and analysis of the meaning of substance provides sufficiently both for the mobility that Bergson stressed and the permanent subject within the manifold of alterations called for by Kant (Critique of Pure Reason A 182, B 225). Unlike both Bergson and Kant, Aquinas provides for an intellectual knowledge of specific substance by abstraction. There is a hierarchy of substances, some of which are simple, some composite. The composite, whether of short or long duration, are mobile. Yet they serve as a subject of manifold developments. Moreover, substance as a real principle within the concrete reality of the finite individual nature is always to be treated in relation to its various accidents. Far from being static or abstract, the actual substance is dynamic and concrete. St. Thomas repeatedly warns that it is a falsification to identify the mode of existence of a thing in nature with the mode of existence it has within the mind in abstraction.

However, a false conception of substance continues to be dominant in contemporary philosophy. As a result, substance is not so much denied as ignored. Substance for linguistic analysis is a "factually meaningless verbalism." Science and naturalism in philosophy speak more of system than of substance. But within their systems there are entities, particles, which continue to be designated by the descriptive terms once used to describe substances. The philosophical problem of science is how to reconcile the unity of a nature with the plurality of particles (see atomism). As St. Thomas stressed, only substance can so guarantee unity as to prevent a meaningless regression to infinity.

Role in Theology. In theology, substance is important not only for the doctrine of the Incarnation, as noted above, but it is also central to an intelligible expression of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. The Council of Trent, treating of the eucharist, teaches the "change of the whole substance of the bread into the Body and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood (of Our Lord Jesus Christ) which change the Catholic Church most suitably calls transubstantiation" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1652). Pope Pius XII, in humani generis, took occasion to remind Catholic teachers of the validity of the notion of substance as used in the doctrine of transubstantiation and warned against rejecting substance as though it were "an antiquated philosophic notion."

See Also: being; categories of being; knowledge, theories of; realism.

Bibliography: c. arpe, "Substantia," Philologus 94 (1940) 6578. g. capone braga, Enciclopedia filosofica, (Venice-Rome 1957) 4:804815. h. blumenberg, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 195765) 6:456458. r. e. mccall, The Reality of Substance (Washington, D.C. 1956). c. a. hart, Thomistic Metaphysics: An Inquiry into the Act of Existing (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1959). l. de raeymaeker, The Philosophy of Being, tr. e. h. ziegelmeyer (St. Louis, Mo. 1954). m. m. scheu, The Categories of Being in Aristotle and St. Thomas (Washington, D.C. 1944). a. j. osgniach, The Analysis of Objects (New York 1938). j. owens, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics (Toronto, Ont. 1951). t. j. ragusa, The Substance Theory of Mind and Contemporary Functionalism (Washington, D.C. 1937). a. j. reck, "Substance, Language and Symbolic Logic," The Modern Schoolman 35 (March 1958) 155171. l. rumble, "Science, Substance and Sacrament," Homiletic and Pastoral Review 59 (1959) 638648.

[r. e. mccall]


views updated Jun 08 2018

sub·stance / ˈsəbstəns/ • n. 1. a particular kind of matter with uniform properties: a steel tube coated with a waxy substance. ∎  an intoxicating, stimulating, or narcotic chemical or drug, esp. an illegal one.2. the real physical matter of which a person or thing consists and which has a tangible, solid presence: proteins compose much of the actual substance of the body. ∎  the quality of having a solid basis in reality or fact: the claim has no substance. ∎  the quality of being dependable or stable: some were inclined to knock her for her lack of substance.3. the quality of being important, valid, or significant: he had yet to accomplish anything of substance. ∎  the most important or essential part of something; the real or essential meaning: the substance of the treaty. ∎  the subject matter of a text, speech, or work of art, esp. as contrasted with the form or style in which it is presented. ∎  wealth and possessions: a woman of substance. ∎  Philos. the essential nature underlying phenomena, which is subject to changes and accidents.PHRASES: in substance essentially: basic rights are equivalent in substance to human rights.


views updated Jun 08 2018

substance essence XIII; a being XIV; (philos.) that which underlies phenomena; material, matter; means, wealth. — (O)F. — L. substantia being, essence, material property, f. substāre, f. SUB- + stāre STAND.
So substantial XIV. — (O)F. substantiel or ChrL. substantiālis; see -AL1. substantially (-LY2) XIV. substantiate give substance to XVII. f. pp. stem of medL. substantiāre; see -ATE3. substantive self-existent XV; (gram.) denoting a substance XVI; having substance XIX; sb. for noun s. (late L. nomen substantivum) XIV. — (O)F. substantif, -ive or late L. substantīvus.


views updated May 21 2018


Essence; the material or necessary component of something.

A matter of substance, as distinguished from a matter of form, with respect to pleadings, affidavits, indictments, and other legal instruments, entails the essential sufficiency, validity, or merits of the instrument, as opposed to its method or style.