Aristotle’s Theory of Substance

How do you know that something is “real?” More than abstract speculation, this question should drive us to the Creator of everything that exists. In this brief clip, R.C. Sproul examines how Plato and Aristotle wrestled with the question of “being” and “becoming.” Today, watch the entire message for free.


In addressing the problem of dualism, and in trying to bring everything into unity, Aristotle developed what we call his “theory of substance.” Plato had his theory of ideas. Aristotle had his theory of substance. And what Aristotle meant by this is that all individual entities, everything that exists in this world, exists as a primary substance. Now, he said two very important things about these individual entities. Remember the concrete entities that we find in this world according to Plato were called “receptacles.” They were imperfect copies of the real ideas that exist in this other world, in the ideal world. For Aristotle, the individual objects, entities, and things that we encounter in this world are real. And they are substantial. And every substance is comprised of two aspects, or two things: matter and form. Sometimes Aristotle’s philosophy is referred to as the “theory of form.” And, I would say that there is no element of Aristotle’s thought that has been more perplexing to later philosophers, who have sought to analyze and understand the depths of his thinking, than his concept of form. And I’ll just mention in passing that even to this day, there is an ongoing debate among experts in Aristotelian philosophy about exactly what Aristotle meant by his concept of form. But in this idea of substance that he distinguishes between matter and form, he finds the resolution of the ancient problem of “being” and “becoming.” Now, remember in Plato, “being” is found in the idea up here, and “becoming” in the receptacle or material things down here. For Aristotle, “being” and “becoming” are found in each individual entity. Every substance that there is, contains within it both matter and form. “Form” is that which gives the object, or the subject, its being. Without participating in being, without containing being, whatever is couldn’t be, so that you couldn’t have any real things or real objects unless there was some being within them. But also, things in this world, physical things, “material things” as we know them, also have elements of change, elements of “becoming.” That is part of the matter of a thing. Let me see if I can illustrate this in our own contemporary ways of thinking. We talk as Christians about a human person as being made up of two distinct substances. This is what we call a “substantial dichotomy,” a duality. This is not a dualism, but a duality of body and soul. And if you don’t have a body, then something is lost from your entity, and if you have no soul you couldn’t live at all. So, for Aristotle, within each object, there was matter and form. The “form” is the eternal being and the “matter” is that which is changing and is the locus of potential.


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