- Ordinary — or at least extra-philosophical—language. Perception, knowledge, causation1, and mind would be examples of this. But the concept of substance is essentially a philosophical term of art. Its uses in ordinary language tend to derive, often in a rather distorted way, from the philosophical senses. (Such expressions as ‘a person of substance’ or ‘a substantial reason’ would be cases of this. ‘Illegal substances’ is nearer to one of the philosophical uses, but not the main one.) There is an ordinary concept in play when philosophers discuss ‘substance’, and this, as we shall see, is the concept of object, or thing when this is contrasted with properties or events. But such ‘individual substances’ are never termed ‘substances’ outside philosophy.
- There could be said to be two rather different ways of characterizing the philosophical concept of substance. The first is the more generic. The philosophical term ‘substance’ corresponds to the Greek ousia, which means ‘being’, transmitted via the Latin substantia, which means ‘something that stands under or grounds things’. According to the generic sense, therefore, the substances in a given philosophical system are those things which, according to that system, are the foundational or fundamental entities of reality. Thus, for an atomist, atoms are the substances, for they are the basic things from which everything is constructed. In David Hume's system, impressions and ideas are the substances, for the same reason. In a slightly different way, Forms are Plato's substances, for everything derives its existence from Forms. In this sense of ‘substance’ any realist philosophical system acknowledges the existence of substances. Probably the only theories which do not would be those forms of logical positivism or pragmatism which treat ontology as a matter of convention. According to such theories, there are no real facts about what is ontologically basic, and so nothing is objectively substance.
- The second use of the concept is more specific. According to this, substances are a particular kind of basic entity, and some philosophical theories acknowledge them and others do not. On this use, Hume's impressions and ideas are not substances, even though they are the building blocks of — what constitutes ‘being’ for — his world. According to this usage, it is a live issue whether the fundamental entities are substances or something else, such as events, or properties located at space-times. This conception of substance derives from the intuitive notion of individual thing or object, which contrast mainly with properties and events. The issue is how we are to understand the notion of an object, and whether, in the light of the correct understanding, it remains a basic notion, or one that must be characterized in more fundamental terms. Whether, for example, an object can be thought of as nothing more than a bundle of properties, or a series of events.
- Underlying Ideas
- History of the philosophical debate on substance
… 2.1 Substance before Aristotle
… 2.2. Aristotle's account of substance
… 2.3 Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz
… 2.4 Locke
… 2.5 Hume and Kant on substance
- Contemporary controversies
… 3.1. How substances are distinguished from things in other categories
… 3.2 Bundle theories versus substratum and ‘thin particulars’
… 3.3 Substances and sortals2
… 3.4 Substance and teleology
Other Internet Resources
- First published Sun Oct 3, 2004;
- Substantive revision Wed Dec 16, 2009;
- See Link (Defunct).
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