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Substance, in philosophy, has to do with the question or problem of what exists, and, more specifically, what exists by itself, underlying the changes that occur in things.

The origin of the term goes back to the ancient Greeks. The English term “substance” comes from the Latin terms sub (“under”) and stare (“to stand”). This is a translation of the Greek term hypostasis, from hypo (“under”) and hitasthai (“to stand’). So the term substance has to do with the “stuff” or existence that underlies change. But the term also has to do with the individual thing that is subject to change, and the Greek terms that best capture that notion are ousia and hypokeimenon. Ousia can mean both “substance” and “essence,” and hypokeimenon can mean the “concrete thing,” the “substratum,” and the “subject.”

Aristotle’s View

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's account of substance has been the most influential in the history of western philosophy. He used both the terms ousia and hypokeimenon—these are both translated into English as “substance”—and noted that this can be used to refer to four different things: the essence of something, the universal, the genus, and the subject. Some commentators have claimed that Aristotle's account of substance is thus obscure and probably inconsistent. But Aristotle was primarily concerned with what cannot be predicated of anything else, but is itself the subject of predication, so he reduced this to “first substance” (ousia prote), which is the subject of predication, and “second substance” (ousia deutera) which is all the other of his references.

The Atomists

Ancient atomists, such as Leucippus and Democritus, held that the real and substantial existents of nature are the atoms, out of which everything else is made. These atomists did not discuss the difference between substance and accident, but they did offer, by implication if not directly, an alternative to Aristotle's notion of substance as the "thing" underlying all existence, even though they came earlier than Aristotle and Aristotle was critical of Democritus.

Medieval Philosophers

Following Aristotle, medieval philosophers dwelt on the distinction between substance and accident. A substance, they held, is something that can exist by itself, not needing something else as a substratum for its existence. An accident exists, they held, by inhering in a substance. Thus a man, for example, exists by himself and is therefore a substance. But the man has color, health, attitude, weight, and so on. For example, the man may be brown, sick, sleeping, and weighs two hundred pounds. Those things—color, health, attitude, weight, and so on—can exist only if they are in a substance. Color does not exist except it is in a colored thing, and the same with health, attitude, weight and other accidents.

The Rationalists: Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz

French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650)—often called the father or founder of modern philosophy—used methodical doubt to attempt to reach a bedrock of something indubitable from which he could, he thought, rebuild the edifice of knowledge. His famous remark, “Cogito, ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am,” was the result of that process.

That phrase contains, in summary, an argument. Descartes's argument was based on the observation that doubt is a form of thinking, thus his process of doubting everything possible nevertheless yielded the existence of thinking. Since he accepted the substance-accident ontology and thinking (or doubt) is an accident, therefore his existence as a (thinking) substance is logically and ontologically necessary if he is thinking. So he could conclude “therefore I am" (i.e. I exist as a substance) from the premise “I am thinking” (i.e. the accident of my thinking exists).

Jewish, Amsterdam-born philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) drew interesting conclusions from the work of Descartes. If substance is what can exist by itself, then, Spinoza concluded, there is only one substance, which is God. Moreover, if by God “absolutely infinite being” is meant, then there can be only one such God or Being, and this Being exists necessarily and is eternal, not temporal. Its essence implies its existence. That statement—i.e. that God's essence implies His existence—is at the heart of the so-called Ontological Proof of God’s Existence, a proof that had been put forth by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) and also adopted and used by Descartes.

The concept of substance was fundamental to the philosophical work of German mathematician and rationalist philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). He used two of Aristotle’s criteria of substance—substance as subject and substance as the locus of change—and added the concept of simplicity. By simple he meant without parts. He concluded from the existence of complex things that there must be simple things or simple substances; he called them monads, and they were the basic elements of his metaphysical system. They were, he held, centers of change and the subjects of predicates. He also claimed that these monads do not interact with one another because “monads have no windows.” The seeming interaction between things occurs because of a God-given pre-established harmony between all monads. But this suggests that monads, as substances, cannot be known or apprehended. British philosopher Bertrand Russell made a study of Leibniz and concluded that, concerning Leibniz’s monads, “substance remains, apart from its predicates, wholly destitute of meaning.” (The Philosophy of Leibniz, p. 50)

The Empiricists: Locke, Berkeley, and Hume

British empiricist philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) followed closely the genealogy of the word "substance," saying that, on an empirical basis, one can know the qualities (what the medievals would have called the accidents) of the substratum. But that the substratum itself (what the medievals would have called the substance) is “something I know not what.” He pointed out that one observes groups of qualities that occur together in time and space, and we therefore presume that these qualities belong to one thing, to which we give a name such as “gold,” or “fish,” or “peach,” as a referent for that collection of perceived qualities. For Locke, substance, then, is not a positive concept but an “obscure and relative” notion about “the supposed but unknown support of those qualities we find existing, which we imagine cannot exist sine re substante without something to support them.” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Ch. 23)

Irish philosopher and bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753) pushed Locke’s work further, claiming that there is no such thing as material substance, but only ideas and minds. Berkeley did, however, say that there is a substantial soul.

Scottish-born empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776)—usually held to be the greatest of the empiricists—developed the full implications of the empiricisms of both Locke and Berkeley by denying the existence of any form of substance, either material or spiritual, since, he held, any conception that is not supported by sensory impressions is meaningless. Thus Locke’s “something I know not what” is, Hume held, without meaning.

Hume was consistent in this, denying that there is any human or personal "self" to be found. "When I enter most intimately into what I call myself," he wrote, "I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception." (Treatise of Human Nature, "Of Personal Identity," Book I, p. 525.) Descartes' "Cogito, ergo sum" is completely impossible in Hume's philosophy.

Kant’s View

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) transformed the notion of substance. In Kant’s philosophy “substance” does not refer to something in the objective world, but is the product of human thinking. For him, both substance and accident are synthetic a priori concepts, derived from the human understanding in its process of making judgments. Kant held that humans cannot help but structure their thinking and perceptions by using these concepts.


Phenomenalism as a philosophical movement or approach attempts to construe or account for reality without the idea of substance. Some representatives of phenomenalism include Berkeley, Hume, Charles Renouvier, Richard Avenarius, and Ernst Mach. Numerous members of the logical positivist movement went through a phenomenalist stage, although they may have eventually abandoned phnomenalism for some form of physicalism, which can be thought of as a substance-based position. That group includes Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap (in his Aufbau stage), Nelson Goodman, and some others.

Phenomenology, especially as developed by Husserl, can be thought of as a form of phenomenalism in that it “brackets” questions of existence while exploring the “essences” of phenomena.

Whitehead’s View

British-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) can also be thought of as an anti-substance philosopher in that in his Categories of Existence he presented what he called the Actual Entity or Actual Occasion, which replace the traditional idea of substance. These actual occasions are, according to Whitehead, the real things that make up the world. Instead of substances, however, these occasions are more like atomic events, so that Whitehead’s philosophy can be thought of as fitting in, at least partly, with the declaration “I Seem to Be a Verb,” the title of a book by R. Buckminster Fuller.

Non-Philosophical Usages

Substance may refer to:

  • Chemical substance, in chemistry, a substance is an element or compound with uniform composition. If a substance is not a mixture it is called a pure substance
  • Substance (medicine), in medicine, substance is any drug, chemical, or biologic entity, as well as any material capable of being self-administered or abused because of its physiologic or psychologic effects
  • Substance (Joy Division album), a 1988 Joy Division compilation album of songs recorded in 1977–1980
  • Substance 1987, a 1987 New Order album
  • Substance design, a London-based design company

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hume, David, and J.A. Selby-Bigge (ed.). A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.
  • Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690. Menston: Scolar Press, 1970; Facsimile of 1st ed., London: T. Basset, 1690; 2nd ed., London: Churchil and Manship, 1694. ISBN 0854174370
  • O'Connor, D.J., and Paul Edwards (ed.). "Substance and Accident" in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 8. 36-40, New York & London: Macmillan, Inc., 1967.
  • Reese, William L. "Substance," in Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion, New and Enlarged Edition. 740-741, Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, 1996. ISBN 0391038656
  • Russell, Bertrand. The Philosophy of Leibniz. Wakefield, NH: Longwood Academic, 1991. Reprint. Originally published: 2nd ed. 1942. ISBN 0893415480
  • Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality, An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Macmillan, 1960.

External links

All links retrieved February 26, 2023.

General Philosophy Sources


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