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Substance in Aristotle

May 15, 2019

Aristotle tells us that a substance is that which is the subject of predication and which cannot be predicated of something else.

Now this idea much maligned idea by 20th century analytic philosophy and linguistic philosophy needs to be reinstated in some form if we are to end this recent turn in human thought in the 21st century of going from the sublime to the patently ridiculous.

Of course we must reframe it in some key ways. Like Leibniz made an attempt as did many others before the 20th century. The sceptical turn about substance begins I think with Kant who reduces it to an unknowable thing in itself. This was a clear error.

So how to reframe it? Well, rather than straw man Aristotle for starters, we should maybe consider he had some good reasons for coming to a view of this kind. One immediately that comes to mind is that he is trying to set up an asymmetrical relationship at the heart of being. A means to provide us a hierarchy of forms within which we can make a lot of things make a lot of sense.

Take away that backdrop, suddenly there a lot of things that don’t make any rational sense anymore. Just look at the absurdities of a Wittgenstein to see how much we lose without a good framework, and how quick the slide is towards a comfortable and equally ridiculous relativism and postmodernism.

It did seem for a while that we could do without a substance framework, as the amazing advances in physics in the early 20th century seemed to provide us all the ontology we could possibly need. But now that this view has become somewhat of a rigid belief system itself, people have lost touch completely with the notions of substance that originally inspired its formation.

Add to this all the riddles of Quantum mechanics, and its enough to make anyone timid of stepping into an ontological discussion. Except unfortunately for the scientific specialists in these regions who have now claimed for themselves some sort of ontological privilege despite their clear lack of philosophical understanding. Stephen Hawking comes to mind.

So, I say, rather than a self congratulatory, lazy relativism stewing in your own self assuredness while sitting in front of the tv letting Stephen hawking tell you what to think about ontological reality, we would be better off to reinvigorate aspects of Aristotle’s analysis of substance and reopen this debate about substance.

This is the heart of all our problems in this modern world, a lack of substance, literally, metaphorically, and Aristotally too.

Take even a figure like Thomas Nagel. He bandies around a notion of matter and the objective world like he knows precisely what he means by this. But how can he possibly know precisely unless his view of it is informed by an ontological understanding of substance. Such an understanding does not exist for Nagel, he is just going along with the common sense, or scientific communities supposed consensus on physical and material reality. But is he talking here about matter as quantum mechanics tells us it or as Einstein or Newton tells us it? As there are at least these three different layers to the ontology of physics believed at different levels and certainly by consensus. Not to mention that the view of physics at the pioneer side is changing all the time. So where are we to begin a reasonable discussion here about the matter that Nagel postulates? Am I to go and argue with quantum physicists, string theorists, or with some mythical, fuzzy consensus that exists nowhere in particular but everywhere in general and embraces multiple different views at different times, depending which side of bed it got out of?

This is the point though, if we are not clear in our ontology of substance then there is no opportunity for a free and reasonable debate. This was what Aristotle had in mind with his notion of substance, securing a free and reasonable discussion about reality. It is what we have abandoned in favour of enforced consensuses, mono narratives, relativistic idleness and a specialist myopia. Call me crazy, but I think maybe we could do with a bit more substance in our society right about now.

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