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Short philosophy essay on metaphysics and the term substance

How can metaphysics be understood as the study of being and what part does the term “substance” have to play in it?

Metaphysics is about existence and in order to exist, an entity must be. Metaphysics is the study of being. Entities or substances exist, and Aristotle is the philosopher who gave birth to the term “metaphysics” in his work Metaphysics where he wrote about substances in an attempt to explain existence. I will explain what Aristotle meant by this term and what role the term has to play in this field today. I will go in more debth about my introduction hereabout how metaphysics can be understood as the study of being. Finally, I will defend the opinion that the field is important for other reasons than to answer the questions raised within the field itself. (Conee, Earl & Sider, Theodore, 2014, 230-233) (Bøhn Duenger Einar 2020) (C.D.C. Reeve, 2016 , 536)

The aim in Aristotle’s Metaphysics is to understand existence and living organisms. Today, other philosopher’s contributions are also a part of the field which we call metaphysics. Some of these philosophers have their own ways to define the word “substance”, but today the term substance is a basic concept within the field and it means “something that stands under or grounds things”. ( 2019) (Robinson Howard 2018) Sciences such as biology or physics for example have developed since the time of Aristotle, but metaphysics is not a field that attempts to stand as an isolated alternative to science, but rather as something that compliments it. (Bøhn Duenger Einar 2020) This is because science still cannot answer all of the questions of existence, so until the time when science perhaps will be able to answer them, one can argue that metaphysics has purpose. Then again, fields such as bilogy or physics seem to have better ways of searching for answers. While we can ask whether metaphysics is really only about describing reality because we have no other means of reaching the answers about reality. (Conee, Earl & Sider, Theodore, 2014, 240) Unachievable goals or not, metaphysics is still important for various reasons, such as personal growth. It is perhaps, a matter of principle. Philosophers feel the need to ask unanswerable questions because we believe that seeking the truth/ and knowledge is right. Aristotle cared about the truth and we will now take a look at how he viewed existence, but after that I will point to what we are now about to go through in order to put forth other reasons beside mer principle to defend the importance of metaphysics. (Føllesdal Dagfinn og Walløe Lars, 2019, 46-76)

Aristotle writes about the term substances mainly in VII and VIII of the Metaphysics. The term in Aristotle’s Metaphysics means the form or essence of the individual entity. Which is understood as both the form and matter of this entity. This is because matter can’t be separated from the form. So, this would mean that a substance is both an entity’s shape, it’s matter and it’s essence. Which in turn could include an entire person, a dining room table or a flower and so on and so forth. (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 31-32) Substances are the most fundamental of all. Both organisms, the elements, that is- fire, water, soil and air and things of this sort, and what is composed of these, such as perhaps the moon or the stars- are all substances. Lastly, artefacts. That is- arteficial/ human made entities. (Metaphysics, VII.2 1028b10) Substances are in possession of properties like dryness, heaviness or lightness, redness, softness or any other property, but they are also to be viewed as separate from these. Think of any random property of being cold, rough or perhaps wet and think of what happens if you remove any of these properties from a substance. Because you could remove the property “cold” from a stone and yet the stone would still be there. It would still be a substance. (Metaphysics VII.6 1031b25)

Substances also remain a substance through change and this change is always caused by something. A fact that Aristotle finds that it is important to attempt to understand. Entities change. In order to understand all of reality, one must also understand not only the individual entities, but also the concept of change. A concept which is still highly relevant within metaphysics today. A substance can change in different ways and Aristotle mentions four of these. We can use a human as an example to represent our substance in this case. This human might move from one place to another, hence changing it’s location. It might change it’s size either by growing older and taller, by gaining weight or by losing weight. A human might also acquire a new property by changing the softness of it’s muscles through exercising vigorously, by turning red-ish from heat or by removing a bad odor by taking a bath and so on and so forth. Finally, a human might seize to exist by dying and hence turning into a different substance like ash. (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 33-34)

He considers different candidates for substance, such as the genus to which each substance belongs (a genus is like an umbrella that collects a group of different kinds of things because they are similar), the essence, the universal (what substances have in common, for example the redness within different substances like a red apple and a red berry) or matter (substance is incidentally not the genus or the universal) and he states that matter has to be a part of what defines a substance because it would be impossible for there to be a substance without matter. (VII.3 1028b35) For instance, if you removed all the marble from a marble staircase you would be left without a staircase, but matter can’t be substance on it’s own either. (VII.7 1033a5) One could make a heart-shaped cheese, but it wouldn’t function as a real heart. And since essence is a part of substance alongside matter, Aristotle explains to us about “the essence” of each thing. (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 31-32)

It is no more or less, what it is for you or me to be the being that we are in our natural way. So whatever it is to be a flower, that is the essence of a flower. Whatever it is to be a cat in a natural way, that is the essence of a cat, whatever it is to be a spoon, that is the essence of a spoon and so on and so forth. Which means that the essence is fundamental to substance. It’s also clear to see, how these kinds of definitions of substance can’t really be parted off without the substance then seizing to be a substance. Your essence defines you. You can have properties, such as being kind or sporty, but it doesn’t define you. Being a human being just like you are is what defines you. At least, that’s a more correct way to put it in terms of essence. This is because you are a human being in a natural way, whereas being intelligent for example is something you might have learned throughout life due to your environment and hence that would be a mere property and not fundamental, like essence. (VII.4 1029b15)

What Aristotle has done is to write down his own definitions of reality, attempting to put everything into an ordered system, and the term “substance” is a key part in this project. The way that this work is to be understood is not a perfect picture of how we view the world today, but a great deal of this is still relevant. Philosophers within the field of metaphysics are still attempting to write down their own definitions of reality. We’ve seen how concepts such as change or properties become important when Aristotle looks at existence and sure enough, these concepts turn up within metaphysics today as well. Questions asked within the field are questions like “What is consciousness?”, “What is the fundamental reality of time?”, “What is free will?” and more of this sort (Bøhn Duenger Einar 2020) In riddles of existence, the subject matter distinctive of metaphysics is described as “ultimate reality”. (Conee, Earl & Sider, Theodore, 2014, 233) When looking at existence as a concept in an attempt to get to the bottom of it, it makes sense to look at entities because they exist.

Ontology for example is a part of metaphysics that is about the most basic kinds of things. (Conee, Earl & Sider, Theodore, 2014, 156) This can serve as an example of a branch within metaphysics that can make it seem like philosophers are merely describing their own impression of reality. Within ontology, nominalists perhaps give a fairly simple description, but some philosophers discussing something called “universals” give more complicated descriptions. (Conee, Earl & Sider, Theodore, 2014, 178) Universals within philosophy means, an entity used to explain what it is for things to share features, qualities or attributes, or to be under the same sort. For example, the color yellow is an example of a universal, while a yellow flower is just an example of that same universal. (Tranøy, Erik Knut og Svendsen Händler, Fredrik Lars 2018) This is an example from riddles of existence about how confusing things can turn when discussing universals:

Does the universal itself have a color? There appears to be trouble for universals, no matter how this question is answered. Suppose that the universal is colored red. Then it seems unproblematic that we see red when we see that universal. We see the color of the apple, and now we are saying that this color, the universal being red, is colored red. On this alternative, though, there seem to be too many red things. There is a red apple and a red universal. We are supposed to be seeing the color of the apple. But now another red thing seems to get in the way, the color of the red universal. If that is what we see, when we look at the apple, then it seems that we are not really seeing the apple’s color after all, but rather we are seeing it’s color’s color. And does that color have a color, or is it colorless? (Conee, Earl & Sider, Theodore, 164)

Describing our own persception of reality is perhaps all that Aristotle or universalists or any of us can do no matter how this description turns out, but eventhough our attempts sometimes turn absurd, metaphysics is still important because of intellectual growth. Metaphysics can compliment other sciences. It’s challenging to think in new and unexpected ways and through trial and error we learn to move at a slower pace. (Conee, Earl & Sider, Theodore, 2014, 240- 242) Also, we can’t know that metaphysics isn’t leading us closer to the truth. Perhaps, by walking hand in hand with science, metaphysics is making real progress? We have now looked at Aristotle and how he viewed existence and eventhough we are different people from for example Aristotle, going through our very own experience of life (and during a very different time to boot), his attempt at describing existence still resonates with many of us and with our perception of reality, at least to some extent. We recognize something commonsenseical and logical. There’s a reason we pay Aristotle so much attention in philosophy. However the reality might actually be, humans seem to have a somewhat similar idea of many aspects of it at least. This simple fact might make it worth putting our heads together. It doesn’t seem to hurt to try? Also, we are existing entities too, so maybe exploring existence with the aid of ourselves in addition to science is right?


Nina Titternes

©Nina Titternes,

Actually I got some exemplary feedback on this essay. It wasn't perfect, but very nearly and I've never recieved praise like what I received for this short essay, not while at uni. Now I'm motivated to study some more. :)


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