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Hypostasis (Greek ὑπόστασις hypóstasis , generally: "basis", philosophically: "level of being") is a term that has been used in philosophical texts since late antiquity , initially for the concrete existence of a thing. In the Christian doctrine of the Trinity , it is used to designate the three divine persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit ) from the point of view of their respective particularities, in contrast to their common essence , their ousia ("one being - three hypostases"). Immanuel Kant coined the verb hypostatize for the unsubstantiated assumption of a supposedly real object, which is believed to correspond to a mere thought as its objective correlate.

Origin and general meanings

The noun ὑπόστασις hypóstasis is derived from the verb ὑϕίστημι hyphístēmi (also: ὑπίστημι hypístēmi ), which means intransitive "to stand below" and more generally "to be present" or "to exist", transitive to "to place / place below" or "to support". Hypostasis has been a medical and scientific term since Hippocrates and Aristotle ; the main meanings are “base” and “support” as well as “that which collects below”: a sediment , a precipitate or, for example, resin trickling down from the tree. In the age of Hellenism , derived abstract meanings such as “basis” and “overall plan” or “basic concept” became common.

The philosophical usage is probably derived from the image of the sediment. The sediment is what was initially hidden in the liquid, but then sank and collected and condensed; this is how it has become visible and then remains, even if the liquid evaporates. Hypostasis here means “permanent existence” or “reality”, not just an apparent or imagined existence. In this sense, the word comes from the 2nd century BC. BC before. Initially, however, it was not a strictly defined technical term restricted to a specific meaning. Attempts in older research to prove a specific use of language by the Stoics or the Peripatetics have failed.

Only later was hypostasis used as a synonym for substance (Greek ousia ). However, as passages in the text show, there is a difference in meaning. Hypostasis denotes the emerging realization of the abstract being meant by ousia (literally the “beingness”), the concrete presence in reality. The Aristotle commentator Alexander von Aphrodisias writes that matter and form differ according to their being (kat 'ousían) , but are inseparable in their existence (hypostásei) and occurrence.

Philosophical term


In addition to its previous general, flexible meanings, the term hypostasis also acquired a concrete meaning as a technical term in Greek philosophy of the Roman Empire , especially in Neoplatonism . In this use, it describes an independent form of existence that is to be distinguished from other forms of existence. This does not mean the existence of individual things that are differentiated from other individual things of the same kind, but a special kind of existence, reality. The skeptic Sextus Empiricus viewed terms such as “white” and “sweet” as hypostases, but not forms of intensification such as “whiter” or “sweeter”. He also discussed the question of whether the line, the whole, or the number should be ascribed a reality of its own and should therefore be regarded as hypostases.

Occasionally, philosophers wrote that something was or was not hypostasis when they thought it had or no hypostasis. In Neoplatonism and later in Christianity this usage became common.

The founder of the Neoplatonic tradition, Plotinus , uses the term hypostasis frequently, but not yet in the sense of a special technical term . He speaks of three "natures" (phýseis) in the hierarchically structured area of ​​the spiritual: the one , the nous and the soul . He also calls the one “first hypostasis”. Plotinus sees matter as not actually existing and therefore not as hypostasis.

As a technical term specifically for “natures” in the sense of forms of being or stages of being, hypostasis is only familiar to Plotin's pupil Porphyrios . This designates the nous, the soul and the world body as whole and perfect hypostases below the One; in another context it becomes clear that he also regards the One itself as perfect hypostasis. In addition to these perfect hypostases in the purely spiritual world, he assumes imperfect hypostases that manifest themselves in space and time. The subordinate level of being appears in this Neoplatonic level model as an outflow of the next higher level; it emerges from the higher, without changing or diminishing it. In another context, Porphyrios, interpreting Plato , names the good, the demiurge (world creator) and the world soul, the three hypostases of the divine.

Apparently Porphyry is also the originator of the philosophical use of the opposite term parhypóstasis . This was used to designate the apparent existence of something that is not really there, but only represents a lack of something real. The ancient Neoplatonists, especially Proclus , ascribed such an unreal way of existence to evil , which they regarded as a mere lack.

Modern times

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the term hypostasis was not used in philosophical terminology, it was not dealt with in the specialist dictionaries. It was only Immanuel Kant who took up the root of the word by coining the verb hypostatize . By this he referred to the generation of an erroneous idea that arises when a mere thought is unjustifiably subordinated to objective reality, although there is no basis for the assumption that a real object outside the thinking subject corresponds to the thought "in the same quality". Kant found that reason is misled if one hypostatizes ideas, that is, if one takes a purely subjective maxim of reason for the objective determination of the objects of empirical experience and then thinks that one can recognize the objects corresponding to the hypostatized ideas. This is how you spend the thinking of an object on knowing it. Such a procedure is based "on a mere blind work". Not only thoughts, but also sensual ideas can be hypostatized.

Under the influence of Kant, the terms hypostatize and hypostatize entered philosophical usage. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that the human will produces theism : “[...] because so is to be prayed, a god is hypostatized; not the other way around. ”The neo-Kantian Wilhelm Windelband (1848–1915) described metaphysics as the“ hypostatization of ideals, in the purest case of logical ideals ”. Windelband stated that this hypostatization was based on the fact that philosophy had always claimed the right to think the world in such a way that "beyond all the inadequacies of its appearance, in its deepest basis the value determinations of the spirit should be a living reality". This right was denied by positivism , but it was not a "rooted out" endeavor. Rather, there is not only - as Kant said - a justification by practical reason, but also purely theoretical reasons that are entirely justified. Max Horkheimer criticized the “false self-confidence of the bourgeois scholar”, which found a particularly concise expression in neo-Kantianism. This had made individual features of the theoretical activity of the specialist into universal categories, "as it were to moments of the world spirit , of the eternal" logos "". That is a “hypostatization of the logos as reality”.

Christian theology and religious studies

The ancient Christians initially understood the term hypostasis in the then common philosophical sense; that is how it is used in the New Testament . In late antiquity , however, the term was reinterpreted in the discussion about the Trinity. The persons of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) were now referred to as hypostases, while their unity was called ousia (essence). The formula of the one being of God in three hypostases (persons) became part of Christian dogma. A fundamental difference to the non-Christian philosophical meaning of hypostasis is that in Christian doctrine the hypostases are not hierarchical, but are essentially identical: They have the same substance and are only different in relation to each other.

From the last quarter of the 4th century in the Christology of the term hypostasis , initially a synonym of nature (physis) had been increasingly recoined according to the new terminology. After the new meaning became established in the 5th century, a distinction was made between the one hypostasis (person) Christ and his two natures , the human and the divine. This distinction made a dogmatic formulation possible, with which both the diversity of natures and the unity of the person should be preserved. The formula adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 says that on the one hand Christ exhibits the two natures that are unmixed, but on the other hand the unity of God and man is realized in him on the level of hypostasis. This unity is called a hypostatic union in theology . The interpretation of the formula depends on the understanding of the relationship between nature and person and is controversial among theologians.

In religious studies, the concretization of different modes of action of a deity is called hypostasis.


Web links

Wiktionary: Hypostasis  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


  1. ^ Jürgen Hammerstaedt: Hypostasis . In: Reallexikon für Antike und Christianentum , Volume 16, Stuttgart 1994, Sp. 986-1035, here: 990 f.
  2. Alexander von Aphrodisias, Commentary on the Analytica priora of Aristotle 4.10 f. and 4.13.
  3. Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason A 384–386, A 392, A 395, A 580, A 692–694. See hypostatization, hypostatize. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy , Volume 3, Basel 1974, Sp. 1259 f .; Jindřich Karásek: Hypostatize. In: Marcus Willaschek et al. (Ed.): Kant-Lexikon , Volume 2, Berlin 2015, pp. 1058 f.
  4. Arthur Schopenhauer: Parerga and Paralipomena , ed. by Arthur Hübscher , 2nd edition, Volume 1, Wiesbaden 1946, p. 126.
  5. ^ Wilhelm Windelband: Introduction to Philosophy , Tübingen 1914, pp. 34, 38.
  6. ^ Wilhelm Windelband: Introduction to Philosophy , Tübingen 1914, p. 34.
  7. ^ Wilhelm Windelband: Introduction to Philosophy , Tübingen 1914, pp. 34–41.
  8. Max Horkheimer: Critical Theory. A documentation , ed. by Alfred Schmidt , Volume 2, Frankfurt 1968, p. 146 f.
  9. Notger Slenczka: Hypostatic Union. In: Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart , 4th, revised edition, Volume 3, Tübingen 2000, Sp. 1981 f.