Substance according to Aristotle

The concept of substance plays a central role in Aristotle’s metaphysics. In fact, the Stagirite himself defines the science of metaphysics as the theory of substance.

In his metaphysical investigations, Aristotle sought to categorize all senses of being, hence his famous phrase, “being is said in many ways.”

Aristotle goes in the opposite direction to the metaphysics of the Eleate philosophers: Parmenides and Zenon, who believed that being was One, that is, it could only be said in a single way.

But after all, how to understand the concept of substance in Aristotle?

Definition of substance in Aristotle

The word οὐσία (ousia) is derived from the present participle of the Greek verb to be εἶναι (einai). Latin philosophers translated this Aristotelian term as essentia (essence) or substantia (substance).

Aristotle in book V of the Metaphysics, defines substance as follows:

ultimate substratum, which is no longer predicated of anything else;

In this sense, substance is that on which all other properties depend for existence. It is like the foundation of all predicates.

However, our Greek philosopher does not stop there. Like being, the idea of substance has other meanings.

Matter, Form, and Synolus

In Book VII, the Stagirite presents 3 other meanings that substance can have, namely:

  • matter: e.g. marble;
  • form: the formal configuration of something;
  • synolus: that is, the combination of matter and form;

However, Aristotle ponders by stating that only in a rather improper sense, substance can mean matter. Whereas form and synolus, better express the idea of substance.

The ancient problem of becoming: from potency to act

Aristotle also seeks, with the idea of substance, to solve the problem of movement/change (kinesis).

Not satisfied with the opinion of the Eleate philosophers, who claimed that the changes occurring in the world were illusory, nor with the opinion of Heraclitus who claimed that “everything flows,” Aristotle introduces the concepts of act and potency to explain how becoming actually exists in reality.

According to Aristotle, all change implies a passage from potency to act. A blank paper has the potency (possibility) to receive any drawing. By drawing it, it changes from paper drawn in potency to paper drawn in act.

As a substance made up of matter and form, the paper remains the same in this change; what only changed in it was to receive an accidental modification.

In other words, not everything is static, as Parmenides argued, nor is everything constantly changing, as Heraclitus believed.

In this way, Aristotle also preserves the principle of identity: everything is identical to itself, even in changes, to a certain extent. For example, the paper on which the poet writes will always be identical to itself, even when crumpled. Change, contrary to what the Eleatics believed, does not alter the substantiality of something.

The very word substance, which comes from the Latin (sub, stare: to be under; to stand firm), conveys this idea of a permanence in change.

Substance vs. Accident

One can say that substance is that which is fit to exist in itself.

Whereas accident is that which exists only in another, in other words, the accident depends on the substance to exist.

For example, whiteness is an accidental quality; white cannot exist in itself. We will never see whiteness itself in reality; it will always depend on something else to exist.

Furthermore, an accidental quality can cease to exist without the substance, in which it inhere, ceasing to exist. A white wall can cease to be white without ceasing to be a wall. In this sense, accident is a characteristic that is not part of the essence of a thing.

Aristotle’s Categories

In the introduction we talked about the various senses of being. According to Aristotle, being is divided into ten categories:

  • substance (essence)
  • quantity
  • quality
  • relative
  • action
  • passion (suffer)
  • place
  • when
  • lie
  • having

The idea of substance in Aristotle has a certain ontological priority, because it is on it that all other modes of being depend for existence. Quantity, or quality, for example, will always be properties of a substance.


The concept of substance in Aristotle is, therefore, the foundation of all reality. It is through it that the Stagyrite also formulates other fundamental concepts of his metaphysics, such as the notion of matter and form, potency and act, essence and accident.

The Greek term ousia carries some linguistic difficulties, because historically the translation as substantia tends to mean subject (ὑποκείμενον – hypokéimenon), while essentia would tend to mean what Aristotle coined τὸ τί ἦν εἶναι (to ti ên einai), meaning quiddity.

The fact is that ousia is employed by Aristotle really in these two senses. In this case, further hermeneutical investigation is warranted to determine the more exact correspondent in modern languages.


Aristóteles. (2001). Metafísica, ensaio introdutório, texto grego com tradução e comentário de Giovanni Reale, (Trad. Marcelo Perine). Vol. I e II. São Paulo: Edições Loyola.

Reale, G., & Antiseri, D. (2007). História da filosofia: filosofia pagã antiga. São Paulo: Paulus.

Mesquita, A. P. (2005). Obras completas de Aristóteles: Introdução geral. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda.

Cite This Work

Vieira, S. (2021, August 02). Substance according to Aristotle. Filosofia do Início. Retrieved from

Vieira, Sadoque. “Substance according to Aristotle.” Filosofia do Início, August 2, 2021.

Vieira, Sadoque. “Substance according to Aristotle.” Filosofia do Início, 2 Aug. 2021,


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