Notes on Aristotle’s “Metaphysics” Book VII


[These are my notes on the seventh book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, also called book “Z” or “Zeta”. It concerns the concept of “substance” (ousia), or in other words “the most real sort of thing that is”. It shows how Aristotle defends his views against both idealism and materialism. In my view, this can be well adapted to modern debates concerning reductionism and physicalism and I hope that it is clear how I think this is so.

One item that puzzled me at first and that paid off my inquiry was the variety of things that were claimed by Aristotle as being “substance”. From a modern perspective, it seems that atoms and molecules are not at all substantial in the way that an organism is. But the funny thing is that there is a really interesting reason why some substances can include as material constituents other substances, even though substances are not merely matter. In the end, I think that there is an explanation for this that includes both Kantian and evolutionary ideas, but this will have to wait for another blog post. I think that this will address many of the concerns raised by the fact that the creatures who implement the highest categories of reason evolved through a contingent process in time and space. If you really pay attention to my description of the relation of elemental and biological substances but below and in a previous post on the “Physics”, you will see it.

It requires some understanding of the following:

  • Aristotle’s “categories” described in his work Categories.  I have not yet posted notes for this, but you can read this for now.
  • Aristotle’s “Four Causes” from Physics Book II.]

Ch. 1 – Being as Substance

  • ” ‘Being’ has many senses. (See Book V.vii)
    • But “being” denotes first “what a thing is” (its individuality) and only after the other categories.
    • All that is is either substance or “a determination of a substance” (some other category).
    • Non-substances (other categories) cannot exist independently or separated from substance.
  • How is substance primary?
    • “In definition”
      • “If we say something is ‘good’, that is not really meaningful unless we know the substance of which is is said.”
    • “In knowledge”
      • We cannot know is something is “x” or “y” unless we know what sort of substance it is.
    • “In time”
      • Because actual substance is always temporally prior to all its other categories.

Ch. 2 – Opinions on substance.

  1. Things commonly accepted as substance.
    • Organisms
    • Parts of Organisms
    • Elements
    • ‘And their different species’
    • “and their parts and what is compounded of them, e.g. the physical universe and its parts (the stars, the Moon, and the Sun).”
  2.  Are all of these subsatnces? Are there any other substances?
  3. Pythagoras says that geometrical forms are more substantial than matter.
  4. The physiologoi reject nonsensible substances.
  5. Plato
    1. accepts geomentry and adds Forms;
    2. rejects material substances.

Ch. 3 – Substance as Substratum

  • There are four strong candidates for substance:
    • Substratum
    • Essence
    • Universal
    • Genus
  • Possible substrata:
    • Matter
    • Sensible Form
    • Hylomorph – the matter/form compound.
  • Any of these could be “that which has predicates but is not predicated of another.”
  • If we define it over-simply thus, it seems that matter is the most likely substance.

Ch. 4 – What has essence?

  1. “Essence” is :
    • What a thing is of itself
    • What a thing is in virtue of itself.
  2. Essence is NOT:
    • “A musical person” – accidental quality of substance.
    • “A white surface” – accidental quality of form.
    • “A white man” – accidental quality of substance.
    • “A cloak”
      • artificial product.
      • compound
        • of material elements
        • of matter and form by skill, not nature
  3. Essence belongs to:
    • Substance “primarily and simply”
    • secondarily to all other Categories, which are said to “be”
      • By equivocation
      • In a qualified sense
        • We know that something is unknown
        • In the sense that nothing “is”.
      • Analogically as in:
        • “Surgical” (tools, practitioners, patients, supplies, rooms, schools, books, techniques, data, terminology)

Ch. 5 – Have coupled terms essence of definition?

This chapter deals with the essences of coupled terms like “white man”, white surface”, “musical man”, or “female human”. It is clear that the separated terms have essences in some sense; what about the compound terms taken jointly?

Essential attributes.

  • Noses are either concave or snub (per se attributes).
  • Animals are either male or female.
  • Quantities are either equal or not.

But whiteness is a NONessential attribute of man.

“Essence” is said analogously or in a different sense in both substance and other categories.

“Thus in one sense there will be no definition or essence of of anything except substances, while in another sense the remaining categories also have them. And so it is manifest that definition is the formula of the essence, and that essence belongs only to substances or to them alone in the proper, primary, and unqualified sense.”

[It seems that nonsubstantial essences are merely classificatory, while substantial essences have other senses:

  • Living essences have their form as their essence.
    • The genotype is the essence, in the following sense:
      • the genotype is nonsensible
      • the genotype is the cause of being is and temporally prior to the phenotype.
  • Molecular essences are the the molecules interface with other molecules; in other words, those aspects of the molecule that make it a suitable substratum for biology.
  • Atomic essences are the properties of the atom (atomic weight, outer electron shell configuration) that determine its chemical behavior.

Notes about these essences:

  • Lower-level substances (e.g. atoms )are “subsumed” into the essences higher level substances. (e.g. molecules).
  • The essence of the living substances is their encoded genotype (informed matter).
  • The essence of non-living substances is their interface with living creatures.]


Ch. 6 – Is a thing the same as its essence?

Two questions:

  • Does “The being” = “The being’s substance”?
  • Does “the being’s substance” = “the being’s essence”?
  1. Q: Why would the essence of the subjects of accidental predication be identical on the view that “a thing = its essence”? After all, it is its essence.
    • A: In one sense, the essence of “white man” and “black man” are the same, since both are “men” and the color is non-essential.
  2. What about per se expressions?
    1. Assuming the (Platonic)? Forms:
      • IF – Essence = Form
      • AND – Form = “ontos on” (thing in itself ?).
      • THEN – Essence is the things themselves. [substance?]
    2. “That each individual thing is one and the same as its essence. … is clear … from the fact that to know the individual thing is to know its essence.”


Ch. 7 – Analysis of the Generation of Substance.

  1. Things Belonging to any of the categories may come into being in many ways.
    1. From many types of causes
      1. nature
      2. art
      3. spontanaeity
    2. Genesis is effected:
      1. BY something (efficient cause)
      2. FROM something (material cause)
      3. FOR something (final cause)
  2. “Some artificial, like some natural, products are also produced spontaneously and by chance; for sometimes, even in the natural sphere, the same things are generated both from seed and without it.” (from History of Animals (eels, fish, testaceans, insects) as well as(Physics?)”2.9″”
    1. Processes of production are analyzed in this section in two ways:
      1. By process:
        1. First the thought
        2. Then productive action
      2. Modes of speech
        1. “From sickness to health” – (not a health from sickness)
        2. “Statue made from stone” – (not from stone to statue)

Ch. 8 – What is generated? The “Hylomorph”

Q: When a substance comes into being, what is it that does so? Form, matter or both?

A: The “hylomorph” (compound of form and matter) comes into being.

“… We do however, cause a bronze sphere to ‘be’ inasmuch as we produce it from bronze andsphere; we put the form into a given lump of matter and the result is a bronze sphere. But if the essence of sphere were produced, it would have to be produced out of something; for what is produced must always be divisible and be partly one thing and partly another – partly matter and partly form.” … “Clearly, then the Forms (if there are such things) do nothing to explain generation or substances, and therefore cannot be considered self-subsistent substances.” Because substances cannot be predicated of another substance.

“Living creatures indeed are more truly substances than anything else, and in their case, if in any, we might expect to discover forms. But no, the begetter is adequate to generating the product, i.e. to putting the form into the matter. The completed whole, a certain form in a certain flesh and bones, is Callias or Socrates; but they are different by virtue of their matter, but the same in form, which is indivisible.” [Note the contradiction with Charlotte Witt’s thesis of individual essences.]

“If then we make the spherical form itself, clearly we should have to make it from some thing, and the process will go on like that ad infinitum.” [But given that the form is ‘made’ (by phylogeny or stellar nuclear synthesis) is it not made from existing “relative form” or ‘intelligible form’?]

Ch. 9 – Production: Autotmaton and non-substances.

“And here is a peculiarity of substance: there must pre-exist in actuality some other substance which produces it, e.g. an animal in the case of animal generation, but a quality or quatity need not necessarily pre-exist otherwise than potentially.” [On the modern view of cosmic and biological evolution, this is not true; nuclear synthesis and phylogeny both generate substances without actual pre-existence.]

Ch. 10 – Parts and Whole

Q: Does the definition of a whole contain that of its parts? What parts are prior to the whole?

Ch. 11 – Parts of the Form / Concrete Whole

Q: Essence seems to be mostly about form. Are there essences which “include” matter? Circles clearly are the former, but “animal” clearly includes matter in the definition.

A: Living creatures are essentially animate. meaning the are defined by movement of matter in space and time. A dead hand is only a ‘hand” equivocally, for it lacks the essentiall principles of change needed for a complete substantial hand.

“With regard to mathematical objects, why are they not the definitions of the parts included in those of the whole; e.g. why is not the definition of the semicircle contained in that of the circle? Not because they are sensible objects, for they are not … semicircles, then, are not part of the universal Circle, but of particular circles,”…

We have stated generally:

  1. What essence is and how it is self-subsistent. (ch. iv)
  2. What sorts of definitions include parts of do not. (ch. v, x, xi)
  3. That material parts have no part in the definition. (ch. v, x, xi)
  4. “That primary substances (ch. vi) e.g., crookedness, (??????????) are the same as their essences, while concrete things involving matter are the same as their essences.”
    1. Concrete things cannot be defined, and all parts of the thing are parts of the thing
    2. But the definition or essence can be defined, and the parts of the concrete thing are not the parts of the essence.


Ch. 12 – [Nothing here folks, move along.]

Ch. 13 – Universal is not substance.

  1. a) A thing’s substance is peculiar only to it and nothing else. b) Substance is not predicated of a thing; whereas universals are always predicated of another.
  2. Perhaps universal is merely included in the essence as “animal” in “man” or “horse”. In that case either:
    1. It must be definable. [And thus contain another universal as defining element.] OR
    2. If not all elements are definable, then some are and thus a) above must be true
    3. It is impossible that individual of substance, if composite, should be composed not of substance or individuals but of qualities. [The qualities are not prior to substance in definition or time.]
    4. If “animal” were substance, then the substance Socrates would contain another substance “animal”.
  3. No common predicate denotes a “so-and-so”, rather “such-and-such”.
  4. A substance cannot contain “other substances existing actually”. [But does not a living substance consist of elemental substances?]

“Substance is definable in one sense and not in another.”

Ch. 14 – Forms are not substances.

This chapter looks at further problems with Platonism:

  • Making Forms substances.
  • Making Forms separate from concrete individuals.\
  • Resolving species into genera and differentia.

Ch. 15 – Forms are not substances, continued.

“Substance” is twofold:

  1. The “concrete thing” – the “hylomorph” (form and matter compound)
    • capable of destruction.
    • NOT demonstratable by reason.
  2. The Form – The substance of the concrete thing.
    • NOT capable of destruction.
    • Demonstratable by reason.
  3. Can the Form be defined?
    1. Each Form is singular.
    2. Which is the overlap of other universals.
    3. But universals apply to many, as do any set of universals.
    4. Even collections of universals that happen to have only one existing examplar COULD have more. (For example, if you created a copy of the Sun, it could still never be the Sun).
    5. [So if the Form is substance, then how could it be many? Since substance has predicates but never is a predicate.]

Ch. 16 –

  1. Of the substances, most exist only “potentially”.
    1. Parts of animals.
      1. Do not exist separately.
      2. When separated are merely matter, losing their form.
    2. Earth, fire, air – “None are one, but they are like a heap.”
    3. One might suppose that parts of animals exist “in act” (i.e. are substances?), YET:
      1. Parts exist only potentially.
      2. For parts are connected “by nature”, not “by violence” (biai) or by growing together.
  2.  Universal not substance of a concrete thing.
    1. On ‘x’ = an ‘x’ thing/itself.
    2. The substance of one ‘x’ is one.
    3. No universal can be a substance or the substance of a thing.

Ch. 17 – “The True View of Substance”

There are two ways of asking “Why is ‘x’ a ‘y’?”:

  1. “Why is man an animal?” – Because the from of  animal is in the form of man.
  2. “Why is this matter a man?” – Because the matter has taken the form of man.

A compound which forms a unity (“hylomorph):

  1. is not merely an aggregate of material elements. (Gk. “hyle“)
  2. but also includes something destroyed by dissolution. (The Form, “morphe” or “eidos“, not the form itself, but the particular instance of the form that was in the particular bit of matter.)

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