The Subject. Philosophical Foundations, Andy Blunden October 2005

Aristotle: The First Subject

Through the Middle Ages and early modern period in Europe, Latin was the lingua franca of philosophy, and much of the vocabulary of philosophy were Latin translations from Greek, which had been the lingua franca of philosophy in the ancient world. The word ‘subject’, as it is used in philosophy today, comes from the Latin translation (“subjectum”) of a Greek term coined by Aristotle, upokeimenon, hypokeimenon.

For Aristotle, ‘subject’ literally meant that which underlies an existing thing, its material substratum; in particular, in the philosophical sense of the fundamental ‘substance’ which makes the thing what it is rather than something else, and to which attributes (also called, in classical times, ‘accidents’) may be contingently attached. It also meant ‘subject’, more or less in the modern grammatical sense, in the context of simple assertive sentences, in which a predicate is said of a subject.

But Aristotle’s conceptions of ‘substance’ and ‘subject’ are something very different from what we moderns understand by those terms. To see how different we have to look further into Aristotle’s philosophy. In particular, we have to look at what Aristotle meant by ‘substance’ (ousia, literally “being,” translated into Latin as substantia, from which current English usages originate, literally “that which stands under”).

In early philosophical usage, ‘substance’ meant the fundamental kind of entity or “stuff” of which reality is made according to some philosophical system, its concept of the fundamental entity of reality. As Aristotle understood it, the ‘substance’ was that which persisted through all changes, that which shed attributes and acquired new attributes, as things changed shape, colour, position.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE), pupil of Plato and tutor to Alexander the Great of Macedon, summed up two centuries of the development of philosophy in ancient Greece beginning with Thales (624-547 BCE), and after Alexander’s rule, the Greek city-states were eclipsed by the great empires of Persia, Macedon and Rome. In Aristotle we find both the purest and most comprehensive summary of ancient thought. Furthermore, his account of substance, transmitted to Europe by the Arabs, was at the centre of thinking about substance and such matters in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and until the early modern period and was the context in which Descartes, Spinoza and Locke debated the nature of substance and the modern notion of subjectivity emerged at the beginning of the genesis of Western science and philosophy.

In each of Aristotle’s major works, his method is to begin with a review of the conclusions of all the other thinkers of antiquity and present his own view in the form of a critical summation of the whole development. Aristotle’s predecessors had proposed systems with very different concepts of substance. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle reviewed the opinions of these predecessors with regard to substances.

The ancients, he said, held that Tethys the God of the ocean had made the world from water; Anaximenes and Diogenes made air prior to water, while Hippasus of Metapontium and Heraclitus of Ephesus said that fire was the ultimate substance of the world, and Empedocles added a fourth, earth, and said that these four elements were together the substance of reality; Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, said that the principles are infinite in number, and are not in any sense generated or destroyed, but remain eternally.

All these then had understood the substratum of reality to be some kind of “stuff,” made up of “elements,” which were in themselves eternal and unchanging. Aristotle reasoned that matter had to have been set in motion itself by something which itself was unmoved, the ‘unmoved mover’. However, he did not ascribe the attributes of a Deity to this ‘prime mover’, far less on-going intervention. How then to account for change, destruction and regeneration? The ancients, said Aristotle, could account for a “first cause,” but a “second cause” was required.

Aristotle credited Hermotimus of Clazomenae with proposing that Reason was the cause of all order and arrangement in the world (followed in this view by Anaxagoras), and Empedocles with proposing love and strife, or good and bad as causes in nature. The idea of two opposing causes in the world culminated, he said, in Leucippus and Democritus who saw full and empty, or being and non-being, as the underlying causes, and on this basis arrived at the atomist view of substance. Aristotle belittled efforts to found a metaphysics on pairs of contraries as unclear.

These were the earliest concepts of what Aristotle called hypokeimenon, or ‘subject’, the underlying substratum of existence, the ‘subject of change’ which remains one through all the modifications manifested in reality.

According to Aristotle, the logical next step in the formation of the conception of substance came with the Pythagoreans who proposed number as the principle [archę, origin, first cause] of all things, both as matter for things and as forming their modifications. They held that the elements of number are the even and the odd, etc., etc., and that the entire reality is numbers. Aristotle traced from here schools who in various ways made a pair of opposing principles the foundation of existence.

Next came Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, who proposed two causes, the essence and the material cause; the causes of the essence of things were eternal Forms, with the One (matter) underlying all. By essence, Aristotle understood the definition or “formula” of a thing. With some good sense, Aristotle rejected the idea that Form or definition could constitute on its own the substance of reality, and developed what became known as hylomorphism (matter-shape-ism), the idea that the foundation of everything was a combination of form (or definition, principle, essence) and matter (oneness, elements). It important to remember that form is here regarded as something in, and in fact fundamental to, reality itself, and likewise essence and definition is talked of as belonging to the thing itself, not at all as the construction of a person thinking or talking about it. It is also important to recall that Aristotle is not talking of form as something which matter can exist without, but nor does he think, like Plato, of a form as having any kind of existence independently of matter of which it is the form.

The metaphor of a wax seal is used to discuss whether the form and the matter of the wax can have separate existences, and the conclusion is that the wax always has some form and the form is always the form of some matter capable of receiving the form, both are capable of being the subjects of change, and of being transmitted, but only some combination of form and matter can have reality. But that wax seal is only what it is so long as there is that combination of matter and form.

The way in which a formula or definition can exist in a thing can be seen for example if we take the definition of homo sapiens as a “knowing ape.” By this definition, we understand humans as the species of ape which thinks; based on this definition, we can understand how prehensile hands and two-footedness may result; this essence, by facilitating grasping and tool-using, produces under suitable conditions, the various contingent forms of humanness. ‘Hairlessness’, for example, would be an accidental predicate, and a hairy homo sapiens would still be homo sapiens, and not homo capillatus, because hairlessness is just an attribute of homo sapiens which is contingent and does not flow from its essence. Nowadays, Darwinian biology allows us to understand very easily how an essence can be in a species of living thing, but this idea is by no means limited to biology; perfectly secular teleological ideas can be found in modern science from evolutionary psychology to economics to molecular chemistry. For Aristotle, the formula or essence is what constitutes the inner dynamism of a thing, that which drives its movement, constituting the ‘second cause’.

Aristotle then enters into the question as to whether universals can exist in reality and ought to be counted as substances underlying individual things, or on the contrary, that only individual things may be counted as prior and underlying universals such as qualities like colour and shape, or groups of individuals like species and genus. Which is prior: the species of lions, or an individual lion? Aristotle argues that a universal cannot be regarded as substance because the substance of each thing is that which is peculiar to it, which does not belong to anything else, but the universal is common, and predicable of many subjects.

Given that universals cannot exist independently of individual things, the question arises to what can be ascribed the unity of things, and from whence comes their intelligibility?

This brings Aristotle to the question of ‘final cause’. Using a bronze statue of the statesman Callias as an example, he posits that in addition to a first cause (the bronze) and a second cause (Callias’s form), for the modification of substances there must be a ‘final cause.’ The statue of Callias would never exist, but for the fact that it is a statue in honour of Callias. This idea of ‘final cause’ is hardly controversial in relation to artefacts, but there is nothing of ‘divine intervention’ involved in Aristotle’s teleology in its application to Nature either. The parts of the body could not and would not exist but for the fact that they are part of a whole and play a role within that whole. In this way the species is seen as a final cause for its individuals, rather than an attribute: lion exists “for the sake” of lionhood, rather than lionness being one of the attributes of a lion. “For while man is the principle of man universally, there is no universal man.” Aristotle is able to argue this by distinguishing between different grades of existence: actuality and potency, or potentiality.

Aristotle sums up his historical review of substance by claiming that there are three kinds of substance: (1) sensible matter, manifested as appearance, composed of Elements, and which form a unitary material substratum; (2) the “Nature” towards which the movement of the thing takes place, which are eternal Forms, either binary or unitary, or essence (the principle or formula of the thing); and (3) the Particular substance (i.e. individual entity) which is composed of these two. In his own words:

“There are three kinds of substance – the matter, which is a ‘this’ in appearance (for all things that are characterized by contact and not, by organic unity are matter and substratum, e.g. fire, flesh, head; for these are all matter, and the last matter is the matter of that which is in the full sense substance); the nature, which is a ‘this’ or positive state towards which movement takes place; and again, thirdly, the particular substance which is composed of these two, e.g. Socrates or Callias.” [Metaphysics, Book M §3]

Thus reality is made up of individual things, not kinds of things. Things are made up of matter and having a sensual appearance, but genera and species, rather than existing as material and sensible entities, side by side with their individual members, belong to the form of individual things, ordering them intelligibly through teleology, and providing the ‘motive force’ for the development and shaping of the thing, its raisson d’ętre.

Note also that Aristotle takes some time to dispense with the idea of a pair of opposites constituting the ultimate substratum of reality (e.g. Good and Bad, Full and Empty), arguing that the absence of something cannot be understood as truly a self-subsistent other, and in any case, such pairs of contraries are always the qualities of something, not the subject itself. The ultimate material substratum he argues is One.

Nothing in Aristotle’s presentation of the problem of substance in the Metaphysics is suggestive of a ‘theory of knowledge’. Aristotle has plenty to say elsewhere about the methods by which knowledge can be attained, but the Metaphysics, constitutes these categories as categories of existence. It is only as a result, in Aristotle’s view, of these being categories of substance, that they are also categories of the knowledge of things.

In the Categories, Aristotle introduces us to the various notions which are to be fully developed in the Metaphysics, explicitly referring to them as ‘forms of speech’, but on reading, it is clear that what Aristotle is describing are not ‘forms of speech’ as we would understand them to be today, i.e., constructs of language, but rather relations actually existing in the object of which something is said. Indeed, “is said of” is itself a relation between things, a relation indicating the relationship between qualities & c. and a ‘subject’.

Aristotle’s grammar is in On Interpretation, the basic units of which are nouns and verbs and then affirmation and denial. It is remarkable that Aristotle regards affirmation and denial as two distinct relationships, rather than, in the modern way, seeing denial as simply an affirmation of the negative. Thus when we come to the structure of an affirmation or denial we have a subject, a verb and a predicate. The verb contains relationships of time and contrary to modern usage, is separate from the predicte. The predicate is therefore something which is “said of” a subject.

Grammatically speaking, it is possible to make the same statement about the same signified things, while reversing the various signifiers between subject and predicate. But Aristotle’s analysis is built just around straight-forward propositions in which something is asserted or denied of a subject. As a result, ‘subject’ becomes an existential or ontological category, not just a grammatical category.

The Organon (or Logic, of which On Interpretaion is a part), the Categories, the Metaphysics and the Physics, do not study separate groups of entities but one and the same field, but in different aspects, e.g., in their being or in their movement, and as part of a whole corpus. Aristotle’s “Psychology” (de anima, which concerns itself with all life-forms, not just human beings), Ethics and Politics, not only continue the same methodological commitments, using the same conceptual framework as the Metaphysics, etc, but are of a piece with the whole body of work.

‘Subject’ denotes not just a ‘part of speech’, but some entity existing in its relation to qualities, quantities, places and on, at some time, which persists through change. The notion of ‘subject’ for Aristotle is therefore not a notion specific to the activity of a knowing, moral agent, but rather a relation existing in reality as such.

What we have to do, to reconstruct Aristotle’s idea of subject in a way which can be compared to the modern notion of subject, is to examine his Psychology, Politics and Ethics, and deduce from that what we would call a notion of ‘subject’ if indeed Aristotle can be said to have had such a notion at all.

The tri-partite structure of substance – the matter, the essence and the individual – runs through all his work. So when we come to define Aristotle’s ‘subject’ it must be just such a tri-partite entity.

Let us start with de anima, sometimes referred to as “On the Soul.”

For a start, we should note that Aristotle’s writing on the soul is about all living things, and mind (that whereby the soul thinks and judges) is seen as one of the three grades of soul. This structure reflects the hierarchical arrangement of everything in Aristotle’s writing, which is intended to reflect the hierarchical “for the sake of” relationships between things in reality.

Aristotle proceeds in de anima in the same way he proceeded in the Metaphysics, by way of a review of the opinions of the ancients and the earlier philosophers, deriving his own position dialectally by a logical-historical critique of previous thinkers.

We need not recapitulate this derivation here; suffice to say that the first problem he has to resolve is what the soul (psyche) is: what is its principle or definition, and what is its material substratum. He notes that according to previous thinkers, the soul is characterised by three marks: movement, sensation and incorporeality.

The question of incorporeality and the separate existence of the soul and the body, he is able to solve in the basis of the notion of substance he has established in the Metaphysics. Every natural body which has life in it is a substance in the sense of being a composite of form and body; the soul is a form of the body, but only a living body can have soul, so the soul must be a substance in the sense of the form of a natural body having life potentially within it. But substance is actuality, and thus soul is the actuality of a certain kind of body, a living body. Thus the idea of a soul having a separate existence let alone immortality is as absurd as the shape of a wax seal having a separate existence from the wax.

Having done away with incorporeality, Aristotle turns to criticism of the notion that sensation and locomotion constitute the principle or essence of living bodies. He observes that sensation and locomotion are generally to be found in living things, but he does not accept that these attributes are essential, that they constitute the essence of life. After all, some animals do not have locomotion. Animals and plants have sensation for the sake of finding the things they need to live, and animals have locomotion for the sake of acquiring the things they need to live. He resolves instead, that it is nutrition and reproduction which are in fact the essential characteristics of living beings, and therefore the essence of soul. Sensation and movement are necessary for the sake of nutrition and reproduction, as are external things which constitute food for living things, and so on, which do not necessarily have soul. The soul is the source or origin of degeneration and regeneration, of movement and change; it is the ‘end’ and purpose of all the characteristics or attributes of living things, and the essence of the whole living body. The soul is also the final cause of its body. For Nature, like mind, always does whatever it does for the sake of something, which something is its end. Therefore, all natural bodies are organs of the soul.

From this methodological/ontological foundation, Aristotle is able to move to a more detailed analysis of the soul and its powers. He analyses each of the senses in turn, noting that each sense operates by means of a special substance (colour, sound, ...) acting directly on a corresponding sensation (sight, hearing, ...). Only touch can sense any body, while other senses can perceive only one substance. The senses however are only affected by the matter and its appearance, and cannot sense the essence or principle of an object. He further concludes that sensation exists for the sake of perception, which exists in turn for the sake of nutrition and reproduction, which in turn exists for the sake of the soul.

He asks “Why do we not perceive the senses themselves as well as the external objects of sense?” He concludes that it is the objects themselves that excite the sensory powers to activity. What sensation apprehends is individuals, though what knowledge apprehends is universals, and these are within the soul, which is such as to be able to receive the shape of any universal.

Moving on to his discussion of the thinking power of the soul, Aristotle considers how the mind may be mistaken. External bodies act on the soul through each sense,. Since the external object directly impresses itself on the corresponding organ there is little room for no error here. Imagination on the other hand, is not a sense and need not correspond to any real thing. Truth and error do not arise for imagination, which lies within our own power (e.g. we can call up a picture before our mind); but in forming opinions we cannot escape the alternative of falsehood or truth.

In a step which is surprising for the modern reader, Aristotle treats the power of thinking of a thing as just like any other power of perception:

“If thinking is like perceiving, it must be ... a process in which the soul is acted upon by what is capable of being thought ... The thinking part of the soul must therefore be ... capable of receiving the form of an object; that is, must be potentially identical in character with its object without being the object. Mind must be related to what is thinkable, as sense is to what is sensible.” [de anima, Book iii, §4]

So, the essence (principle or form), which exists in a real thing, is able to impress itself upon the soul just as do the qualities attached to its material substratum, such as colour and shape, provided only that the living body perceiving the thing has soul, that is, has fully actualised its potentiality for living – taking in nutrition, dying and reproducing. Like the senses, the mind might be damaged, might be immature or some circumstance might lead it to error, but in essence, for Aristotle, one person’s mind is just the same as another’s and will perceive the same ideas as the mind of any other person. (Not all human beings are equal for Aristotle of course, and in this context, he is talking about adult male citizens). In the Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle puts a great deal of thought into the growth and development of the mind and its training; essence is not equal to actuality. But in essence, all individuals are expressions of one and the same capacities, and even experiences.

In the second part of his Logic, On Interpretation, Aristotle observes:

“Just as all men have not the same writing, so all men have not the same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also are those things of which our experiences are the images.” [On Interpretation, §1]

For Aristotle, the essential identity of all human consciousness is in the same category of truth as the objective existence of things in the world, independently of our experience of them. Reason mirrors the objective world very much like an additional sense organ. The eyes can see that you are pale, and the ears hear that you are loud, but it is by means of reason that I recognise you as a human being. Aristotle showed that knowledge of what a thing is, is quite distinct from what can be gleaned from the five senses, which can apprehend the qualities attached to a thing, but not what it is.

There is for Aristotle no sense of the privacy of personal experience and the uniqueness of the individual. Far from denying the existence of individuals, particular things are substances and really exist, along with their form or essence and the matter of which they are composed. But the individuality of the person is, by modern standards, a relatively trivial individuality, just like that of animals, plants and for that matter grains of sand.

In contrast, we moderns are inclined to believe that although constrained by society to fit into certain forms, deep down we are all uniquely individual, with our private thoughts and inexpressible feelings. The surprising idea that, on the contrary, we are all the same “inside,” reminds one of the good-hearted commonsense conviction that foreigners or people of other times, despite their differences in language and custom, are all “just like us underneath.” Beneath a world of constant change, in essence, everything remains the same forever. What exactly this means can be understood by a review of the Nichomachean Ethics.

Aristotle was the first writer of antiquity to write a treatise on ethics, and in this writer’s opinion, it stands up very well today. Aristotle’s ethics is an ethics of virtue. He has nothing to say of rights and not only does he not provide a decision theory, but explicitly rejects the idea that it is possible to produce a table of ‘dos and don’ts’; only a mature person, whose capacity for practical reason had been fully developed, is capable of determining the right course of action in any real situation. Such a human being can only be the result of an upbringing directed towards the development of virtue, the training of the emotions and the development of the capacity for practical reason.

It is all about determining the nature of the good life for man, which means asking: living is for the sake of what? What is the role (ergon = work, task) of a man? And this leads to the practical question of how to create people who can live a good life and the conditions under which people can lead a good life.

Part of the puzzle Aristotle sets himself is to order goods in a hierarchy of importance, and determine which is the highest good. That highest good will be desirable for itself, and not for the sake of some other good, while all other goods are desirable for its sake.

Reviewing the opinions of previous philosophers leads Aristotle to consider the relationship between pleasure and virtue. Pleasure is a good, but by no means the only let alone the highest good. The relationship between virtue and happiness is complex. “Being virtuous” is for Aristotle something meaningless – there can only be virtuous activity; and in order to be able to act virtuously, certain conditions are required. One needs good fortune in order to lead a virtuous life. Although wealth, friends, children, power and so on will both make a person happy and provide them with the opportunity to engage in virtuous activity, happiness cannot be pursued for its own sake.

Nevertheless, Aristotle knows that the action of a person is directed towards objects of desire and avoids pain. The raising of children to be virtuous adults, then, means the training of the emotions so that people enjoy doing what is virtuous, just as the state must ensure that unethical actions are punished and people fear punishment for wrong-doing. The emotions need to be trained so as to cultivate an appropriate hexis (exiς, moral character or disposition, translated into Latin as habitus), induced by emotional responses. ‘Ethics’ and ‘ethos’ are derived from ethike (eqike), the Greek word for ‘habit’; hexis has a slightly different meaning, closer to ‘moral character’. Hexis meant learning how to apply practical reason in the judgment of concrete situations to determine the just course of action.

Two questions remain then: what is the highest good for man, and under what conditions can a person best live a good life? For Aristotle it is clear that:

“the city-state is prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually. For the whole must necessarily be prior to the part; since when the whole body is destroyed, foot or hand will not exist ...” [Politics, Book A, 1253a]

So, the good life for man is pursuit of the good of the state; but given the size of the ‘state’ which Aristotle had in mind, the word ‘community’ would more closely approximate his idea.

But we learn both from the Ethics and from the Politics, that the task of the polis is to create conditions for people to lead a good life, engaging in virtuous activity, activity which of necessity, will normally bring with it good fortune and happiness.

“even though it be the case that the Good is the same for the individual and for the state, nevertheless, the good of the state is manifestly a greater and more perfect good, both to attain and to preserve. To secure the good of one person only is better than nothing; but to secure the good of a nation or a state is a nobler and more divine achievement. This then being its aim, our investigation is in a sense the study of politics.” [Nicomachean Ethics, Book M, §2]


“A city too, like an individual, has a work to do; and that city which is best adapted to the fulfillment of its work is to be deemed greatest.” [Politics, Book A, §4]

There is no external standard against which the success of a polis in creating conditions for the good life can be rationally judged. Only citizens of a well-governed polis can develop the practical reason necessary to judge whether their polis is performing its work, and moving towards its end, of providing a good life.

At the peak of Aristotle’s series of “for the sake of” relationships stands the polis, a self-sufficient, politically independent collectivity of people endeavouring to live together virtuously. A person then is essentially an Athenian or a Spartan or a Thebian, or whatever, and this is the nearest we can come to an Aristotlean concept of the subject.

To sum up Aristotle’s concept of subject:

It should be recalled that according to Aristotle, the ideal size of a polis is such that the entire state can be seen from a single hilltop. Such free and independent subjects, in which the free male citizens were the individual components, disappeared as the Mediterranean fell under the sway of competing great empires. Perhaps for a time, something similar existed on the Italian peninsula, but on the whole conditions for the kind of society which Aristotle spoke for disappeared.

When the top of the “for the sake of” hierarchy was occupied by a distant Emperor or the omnipotent God of a monotheistic religion, Aristotle’s philosophy became something else. Via St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas and others, Aristotle’s legacy became integrated into the theology of the Church of Rome, a power which came to dominate every aspect of life in Europe for more than a thousand years.