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The substance ( latin stare sub , including stand ' ) is, what something is made. In philosophy , substance is the term for the unchangeable, persistent and independent being , that which “ stands” under the changeable properties or accidents . Since Descartes at the latest, it has mainly been understood to mean individual objects (this house, this person), the category of which is substance.

In colloquial language and in the natural sciences , substance is also used for basic chemical substances , in chemistry for solid substances. Both terms can be traced back equally to Aristotle , who introduced the name ousia for it and, in addition to the individual things, also considered a materia prima as a substance.



Early (especially pre-Socratic ) approaches to ancient ontology attempt to describe a principle that is constant over time ( arche 'principle'; hyle 'substance') that explains the diversity of the world of appearances. The Eleates speak of an actual being as opposed to appearance. It is against this background of the problem that Plato creates his theory of ideas . The basis of the appearances are ideal entities . In this context he speaks of the underlying ( hypokeimenon ). According to Plato, this underlying is what is captured by a definition, and he occasionally refers to it as ousia .

Aristotle, on the other hand, uses this expression systematically, even if he does not share Plato's theory of ideas, insofar as he does not want to allow ideal entities to exist independently. According to him, the constancy of objects and their properties comes about through ideal, substantial forms; changeability is constituted by its counterpart, matter; only units of matter and form have real existence. He calls independently existing individual things (e.g. Socrates) primary substances. He calls species (e.g. humans) (species) and genera (e.g. living beings) (genera) secondary substances. They are not first and actual beings ( ousia prote ), which is reflected in the fact that they can be not only sentence subject, but also predicate nouns . A form corresponds to one and the same species, while the diversity of individuals of a species is constituted by matter.

A single thing has genus-specific (e.g. soulfulness) and species-specific (e.g. common sense) properties "constitutive" , i.e. i.An object would not be the same without such a property; the set of these properties is therefore called essential or essential or substantial properties; they make up the substance of an object. Furthermore, properties that necessarily belong to an object but are not assigned to the essence or substance can be identified, propria (Gr. Idion , Latin proprium , translatable as characteristic, peculiarity).

“Insignificant” properties that may or may not belong to one and the same thing are called accidents . You need a base, a substrate - the substance. Matter is the principle of change and thus of realizable possibilities, form and substance the principle of constancy and thus of the ever realized reality and the effectiveness that brings about the possibilities, the bearer of changing affections ( symbebekota ). This ontology explains how one and the same thing can “change”.

The structure of thinking (i.e. concepts) and language (i.e. words) has a systematic correspondence: The substance is that "of which" something (a property) is stated (i.e. the sentence subject) - but not the other way around. Since all other predications have their unit reference through the substance, this has the first place in the Aristotelian system of categories . Since substance is the determining principle of conditions and determinations, the less it is conditioned, the more substance there is; in the truest sense, therefore, substance is God.

In addition to ousia , the Hellenistic school philosophy also speaks of hypostasis , to which substantia is the Latin equivalent. In the Stoa , the concept of substance is interpreted in a more natural-philosophical way: substance is matter. Seneca takes this up. Substance is the physical, material in contrast to what is represented and pictorial. With him and Quintilian there is an early occurrence of the Latin expression substantia .

middle Ages

Early Christian theology also uses the basic ontological concept of substance, albeit often in an unorthodox way compared to the established systematics, v. a. if this tries to protect faith mysteries such as those of the Trinity or transubstantiation from simplistic ontological reconstructions: for example, it is neither a question of three gods nor a mere accidental participation in Christ's body and blood.

The Arabic, Jewish and Latin scholasticism largely follows the ancient usage and discusses a wide variety of positions on the concept of substance (some aspects of this can be found in the article Universal Problem.)

Modern times

The early modern period also largely used ancient and medieval terminology and conceptualizations. Descartes, for example, calls substance an independently existing object and distinguishes uncreated, real (i.e. only God) and created (i.e. non-God) substances. The latter are after all only dependent on God - unlike, for example, relations and accidental properties that only exist in and through created substances. The created, improper substances include, on the one hand, extensive, physical and, on the other hand, space and placeless, spiritual objects (mental faculties , acts and contents). (For this and the subsequent problems, see, for example, Philosophy of Mind and the articles linked there.) Properties must be ascribed and assigned to substances, just as, conversely, substances are only conceivable by assigning properties, because thinking always moves in the structure of substance and attribute.

Baruch de Spinoza gives the following definition: Substance means that which is in itself and is understood through itself; Attribute means what is grasped in the mind as the essence of a substance. If there were two substances, one would have to be understandable from the other - contrary to this definition. There can therefore only be one substance. Spinoza calls this god or nature. Both the spatial and the mental are fundamentally only divine attributes. Spinoza thereby erases Descartes' dualism of material and spiritual entities and reduces it to a strict monism (there is not only one type, but also only one object among beings). Spinoza's position is often attributed to neutral monism and panpsychism .

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz , on the other hand, posits an infinite variety of substances, which he calls monads . Substances that are mutually compatible and compatible with the fundamental concept of a world concept form possible worlds, of which God only updated one, namely the best possible. Monads are indeed created, but exist independently, and, in accordance with an inherent law of series that is identical to their essence, also independently produce all of their properties, which corresponds to the semantic analysis on the linguistic and conceptual level that all predicates of a true sentence to be understood as contained in the subject. Just as in principle - for an omniscient mind also really - relations to all other objects can be truthfully stated for an object, so monads in their own essence represent all truths about all other substances, although they only access them to a different degree can. All phenomena of the phenomena can be traced back to these atomic substances, in particular space and time do not have an independent existence; rather, space is constituted by the relations of the monads.

John Locke criticizes the classic concept of substance because the property carriers assumed in it ultimately remained unknown; George Berkeley argues similarly . Even David Hume is the concept of substance from empirical reasons: Only states are perceived by the senses; About natural laws, future truths and especially object constancy is not certain, d. i. in particular experience-based knowledge possible.

Immanuel Kant tries to formulate an intermediate path between empiricism and realistic rationalism. He sticks to the fact that substance means what is opposed to accidents as a persistent substrate. However, knowledge about things in themselves is not possible - only about the structures of our cognitive faculties, which precede object knowledge as enabling conditions (Kant calls such possibility conditions transcendental ). These transcendental structures also include the fact that we only have knowledge at all insofar as our understanding structures reality into constant property carriers, that is, subordinates substances; their essence and separate existence, however, are not in themselves knowable, but only their dispositions to produce certain phenomena for us like cognizers.

The Kantian project of orienting metaphysics and epistemology to the analysis of the structures of reason is pursued in German idealism in such a way that Kantian realism is given up in favor of an idealistic point of view. For Johann Gottlieb Fichte , there is no real substance at all; this only denotes the totality of relational members.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is based on Spinoza's concept of God as the one, absolute substance. But he describes its philosophy as rigid substance metaphysics. For him, God or spiritual substance is essentially spirit. This is characterized by its activity. He demands that absolute substance must accordingly be thought not only as an object, but also as a subject at the same time. The spirit is also the substance of the morality of individuals.

Friedrich Schleiermacher continues the Kantian relativization of ontology to the conditions of our knowledge by discussing divergent schematisations of individual things and properties, in particular their relativity to language circles, i.e. i. especially cultures and conceptual schemes.

Arthur Schopenhauer criticizes the concept of substance as an erroneous abstraction from matter. No reality ( existentia ) can emerge from the being ( essentia ) , i.e. H. no existence can be inferred from a mere concept.

20th century and present

In the course of the 20th century, the metaphysical criticism of the 19th century was tightened in large parts of continental philosophy and thus the concept of substance was further discredited, similar to how early representatives of analytical philosophy further developed the empirical metaphysical criticism of the 17th and 18th centuries. For example, in line with the empirical thesis that substances are only identifiers of property bundles, attempts have been made to replace singular identifiers with predicate expressions (together with the usual predicate and quantor logical means of expression). Since the middle of the 20th century On the other hand, numerous analytically trained philosophers have increasingly turned to metaphysical questions again - an interest that has led analytical philosophy interested in reconstructing traditional systems such as B. Anscombe had not given up even under the influence of Wittgenstein .

Early approaches that were still being pursued a. formulated by Peter Strawson . This tries to use the reference of certain subject expressions as fundamental u. a. for the use of quantifiers. Wiggins developed a theory of sortal predicates , which to a certain extent modernized the Aristotelian theory of secondary substances. Other still important analytical classics with substantial contributions to the concept of substance are, for example, David K. Lewis and David M. Armstrong . I.a. In connection with a theory of truth makers and a formal ontology in general, ontological concepts are discussed that elaborate a substance concept in the roughly Aristotelian sense.

Natural sciences

In the natural sciences, substance stands for

Word usage in the figurative sense

The term substance is often used in the sense of important substances, for example in the phrase something goes to the substance . this means

  • in the material or medical sense, that the body's supplies have been used up and the basics are now being tackled, and
  • in the psychological sense that the personal protective mechanisms ( defense , repression , etc.) no longer work.

In a business sense, substance describes the quality of resources and the value of a company's assets .


In theology the concept of substance is u. a. used in the doctrine of God , the doctrine of the Trinity , Christology and the doctrine of transubstantiation . The classical theological position understands God as simple substance (not composed of parts of being), but triune, whereby this trinity precedes any numerical distinction. The divine and human nature of Jesus Christ is understood to be substantially united. Classically, an exchange of the substances of bread and wine by those of the body and blood of Christ is taught, while the accidental properties (to taste like bread, etc.) remain superficially. A development of these teachings is presented in the relevant main articles.

See also


  • Joshua Hoffman, Gary Rosenkrantz: Substance - Its Nature and Existence . Routledge, London / New York 1997
  • Michael J. Loux: Substance and Attribute . Reidel Publishing, Dordrecht 1978
  • Benjamin Schnieder: Substances and (their) properties . Berlin u. a. 2004
  • Käthe Trettin (editor): Substance. New reflections on a classic category of beings. Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 978-3-465-03441-4
  • Gutschmidt Holger, Lang-Balestra Antonella, and Segalerba Gianluigi (Hers.): Substantia - Sic et Non. A history of the concept of substance from antiquity to the present in individual contributions . Ontos, Frankfurt 2008, ISBN 978-3-938793-84-8

Web links

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

Individual evidence

  1. Käthe Trettin, in the introduction to the book she edited: Substance. New reflections on a classic category of beings. Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 1.
  2. Met. IV, 8, 1017b
  3. Categories 5, 2a
  4. Met. VI, 3 1029a
  5. Met. VI, 3 1029a are called matter, shape and both the unity of substance
  6. To. post. I, 21, 83a
  7. Inst. Or. 3, 6, 8
  8. a b cf. for example, "A substance composed only of molecules of the same type is called a [...] element or [...] compound". Quotation in Peter Paetzold: Chemistry: an introduction. Verlag Walter de Gruyter, 2009, ISBN 978-3-11-020268-7 , p. 33 ( limited preview in Google book search); or “Normal ice or water or water vapor are homogeneous substances in themselves, but a mixture of ice and water is not.” ibid., Chapter 3.2.3 Homogeneous and heterogeneous systems, p. 150 (there are further examples of word usage).