Aristotle, a Founding Father of Greek Philosophy


Aristotle is considered one of the founding fathers of Greek and western philosophy. A student of Plato, he pondered and wrote about a wide range of topics from poetry to metaphysics and the first to create a comprehensive system of morality, politics, science and logic as well as metaphysics.

While Aristotle aimed at the universal level, he established focus on particular things he called essence so that study ascends from a particular phenomenon to the knowledge of essences. Form is instantiated in a particular substance and the basis for phenomena. This paper shall try to clarify what Aristotle may mean when he characterized that qualities are incapable of independent existence, whereas substances can exist independently, whether this is right or wrong, and why is it so. It will consider what sort of things would count as independently existing individuals such as beauty, justice, soul, trees, clouds, rainbow, rocks, rays of light, molecules, electrons, among others.


It has been suggested by Nieuwenburg that Aristotle’s public discourses engage the attention due to its lack of presumption of autonomy and skewed standard answers “to test by himself whether his ‘subjective determination of the will’ are universal rational principles of action,” (p 450). This paper will proceed with this premise to define substance, quality and independent existence as well as provide light on Aristotle’s characterization of substance and quality and their dependence or independence.

The definition of substance in consideration of ancient Greek philosophy is dependent on analysis of philosophers and their language. This is further subdivided to “perception, knowledge, causation, and mind” with the concept of substance considered as “essentially a philosophical term of art,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ¶ 1). Substance may be the concept of object or a thing as contrasted with properties or events and it was observed that individual substances are never called ‘substances’ outside philosophy (SEP, ¶ 2).

Furthermore, there are two distinct ways of characterizing the philosophical concept of substance: first is the generic Greek ousia meaning being which in Latin becomes substantial meaning “something that stands under or grounds things”.

They become foundational entities of reality and basic construction of things such as atom for atomists. The second is a specific concept points out that an issue that is living, regardless of whether the fundamental entities are substances or another including events, and properties located at spacetimes (SEP, ¶ 4). This is complicated by the manner of understanding the notion of an object such as if it is perceived as “nothing more than a bundle of properties, or a series of events,” (SEP ¶ 4).

According to Aristotle’s Categories, primary substance is marked with:

  1. Being objects of predication but not being themselves predicable of anything else […]
  2. Being able to receive contraries. A substance can go from being hot to being cold or from being red to being blue, but the instance of blue in an object cannot similarly take on and lose a wide range of attributes.
  3. If substance did not exist it would be impossible for things in any of the other categories to exist. There could be no instances of properties if there were no substance to posses them,” (SEP, ¶ 11). This leads to the understanding that the substance exists first prior to anything else that may be derived about the substance.

There is a long list of respected philosophers who have either embraced or rejected Aristotle’s postulations in Categories among them are enumerated by Studman as Plotinus, Porphyry, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Brentano and Heidegger (Studtman, ¶ 3), and it has become a continuing debate as to what his exact position in his writings about substance, or its qualities. Quality is a category which has been classified by Aristotle to be divided as Habits and Dispositions, Natural Capabilities and Incapabilities, Affective Qualities and Affections, as well as Shape according to Studtmann (¶ 9).

It was pointed out by Charles Peirce that the categories are vague and lacks specific meaning thereby courting contradictory ideas (Neville, p 13) such as this discussion. It was suggested by Nicholson (533) that it is left to the scholar to formulate and translate these vague categories into particular ideas as vague categories usually “generate unbiased and illuminating comparisons between traditions.”

It is to be understood that substance eventually evolved as substratum or the Greek hupokeimenon, essence or to ti en einai, the universal or katholou, and genus or genos. In addition, Nicholson clarified that there is the difference between the reality seen in terms of the underlying substrate against the reality of “thisness” and “whatness” (p 544). There is the general acceptance about the changeable nature of the word as a more stable and enduring structure of speech in reality is clamored for. Qualities are perceived to depend on their being on the substance and that they are inherent of the substance.

The intelligibility criterion refers to the understanding of that what is real in a thing is what corresponds to the definition of what that thing is (Neville, 13). While substance answers the questions “What is it?”, quality answers the question “What has in it?” It is therefore safe to assume that substance is the “matter” or “thing” in contemporary language while quality is the attributes or characteristics of a substance.

Aristotle has also been perceived as providing no specific argument about habits and dispositions and lacked the criterion for deciding about a given quality as habit or not a habit or disposition (Ackrill, p 7). Ackrill further suggested that Aristotle’s division of quality is unmotivated while Studtmann suggested that it was a bit odd. According to Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologiae as quoted by Stuntman, subject may be determined via accident and may be taken through to the very nature of the subject action or results of its natural principles matter and form (Studtmann, ¶ 14).

Considering the above discussion, this paper will proceed to identifying that which may be considered as possible to exist individually and those which are considered qualities of the substance, thereby interdependent of the substance. This notion may provide an obscuring of Aristotle’s characterization of “quality.”

Beauty is an attribute, that which is perceived as aesthetic and can be seen possessed by an object or person. It is a quality or a characteristic of an object such as a painting or any work of art, or even a woman. It is interdependent on an object: the painting or the women. Therefore, it cannot exist alone but must be associated to something that posses it. In fact, as one quote associated to the 3rd century Greek, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” (The Phrase Finder, ¶ 1).

Justice is dependent of a concept of what is right, correct, or fair in a given society or governance. The word “justice” is dependent on the concept and the society. A form of justice in one jurisdiction such as wearing of veils by women in a given state or country may not be considered as imposition on another, thereby, a form of dictation.

Soul or spirit is considered a part of a being, the unseen force of an individual. Without the living body, it cannot be said that a soul exists, therefore, it is interdependent of the living body.

Trees are objects that exist as they are. While trees may have classifications, forms or specific families in the study of biology, it does not discount that one tree is a tree. It is an independent entity with qualities, thereby, a substance. A tree may be leafy, sturdy or graceful, young or old. These are its possible qualities that can be said only about a tree.

Clouds are considered objects thereby a substance with classification and qualities. It exists independently in the philosophical understanding of Aristotle’s position on substance and quality. Clouds’ characteristics or quality include being dark, or white, light or heavy, among others. Its two general categories are layered and convective although its altitude also distinguishes its other forms of classification such as high clouds of cirrus, cirrocumulus or cirrostratus clouds, and so on.

Rainbow is an object, that which exists and can be described as translucent or vivid, high or low depending on its location, and it may also cease to exist after a while. It is an independent substance.

Rocks are considered each a substance with its own quality: rough, smooth, round, edged, white, gray, or brown. Rocks are further subdivided into types as igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic, each having a quality that may or may not be present with the other types. In fact, a rock may transform from one type to another and this is called the rock cycle. Its qualities, therefore, may change.

Rays of light are a dependent of the light, a portion if needed from a source that is the light. It cannot exist without the light, therefore, an attribute and dependent. It may in its own have qualities such as length, brightness, translucence, among others.

A molecule is a part of a substance, considered a breakdown of a matter. It becomes an issue here as to its independence but this researcher would like to argue that it is interdependent of the matter. It is a part of a matter and cannot exist without its source matter although may assume various forms as the matter transforms, such as that of a living matter to a dead and decaying matter which may be the same matter in various forms or level of existence.

An electron is defined a subatomic particle carrying a negative charge, therefore, a portion or which constitutes an object. It participates in the process of gravitation, as well as electromagnetic and weak interactions. It cannot exist alone as it is a part of an object which also carries a positive charge.

Aristotle’s characterization, therefore is relative and of changeable notion. It cannot be considered permanent, thereby could not be acceptable as truths in themselves as can be reflected on the above descriptions of substance and objects.


If current studies were to continue returning to the arguments and proposal of Aristotle in all or many schools of thought the philosopher has touched and merge everything on a single discussion, there can be an indefinite end as to the debate of its merits and practicability. The same may be said about Aristotle’s discussion on substance or quality and their dependence and interdependence.

One topic or discussion may only be approached in certain manners as may be deemed fits, such as that on the philosophical level, or physical level. These two schools of thought are today separate and almost independent of each other.

Humanity and nature in themselves have posed unending discovery and bodies of knowledge and it must be clearly understood that Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and the earliest Greek philosophers started very vast bodies of knowledge that although they were partly aware o, were not able in their lifetimes provide all the answers that until today still defy human knowledge and understanding. This, despite the continuing search and research for answers that academics deem fit and worthy of discussion.

This paper then ends with the conclusion that each dependence, interdependence and independence of qualities, essences as well as objects be discussed in their limited concept or use. Aristotle opened up a wide discussion on matter and metaphysics in general which today are found no longer correct or applicable such as his characterization of “quality”. The best studies and schools of thought could do is to move forward from Aristotle’s definite and proven proposals and refrain from returning again and again to ideas that have been proven as obscure.


Ackrill, J.L. (trans.) “Categories 5.2a12.” Aristotle’s Categories and De intepretatione. Clarendon Press, 1963.

Neville, Robert Cummings. Ultimate Realities, Comparative religious Ideas Project: State Unversity of New York press, 2001, pp 12-20.

Nicholson, Hugh R.. “Specifying the Nature of Substance in Aristotle and in Indian Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 54, No. 4 (2004), pp. 533-553.

Yu, Jiyuan. “Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 2 (1998), pp. 323-347.

Nieuwenburg, Paul. “Learning to Deliberate: Aristotle on Truthfulness and Public Deliberation.” Political theory, Vol. 32, No. 4., 2004, pp 449-467.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). “Substance.” 2004. Howard Robinson. Web.

Studtmann, Paul. “Aristotle’s Categories.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.

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