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October 7, 2021 / Congau

Grammatical Essence (ii)

The underlying subject, the thing itself that has certain properties, is in one sense a mere grammatical category. Whenever something is given a name, it is indicated that it is considered a thing in its own right. The sentence “That man is a bachelor.” tells us that we are talking about a certain something which is essentially a man and just happens to be a bachelor. If we say “The bachelor wears a hat”, the essential thing about the thing in question is that it is a bachelor, and it just happens to wear a hat. We don’t need to consider if there is something ultimately essential about being a bachelor or even a man, the mere grammar of the sentences informs us what is essential and what is accidental.

We might of course have reason to believe that Aristotle thinks there is something slightly more important about being a man than being a bachelor, but importance is always relative to something; always in reference to a fixed point or an underlying subject. Irwin (1988) assumes that Aristotle considers biological individuals to be “paradigmatic subjects” although that view is not defended in the Metaphysics or the Categories. However, such a “paradigmatic” preference would just mean that we are more ready to grasp biological entities as underlying subjects, not necessarily that it represents a more absolute reality. An individual bachelor, Peter for example, is just as much a primary being as Peter the man.

Irwin criticizes that Aristotle fails to take account of the way a subject like a bachelor is relative. It refers to the spouse he does not have and therefore to something outside of himself. A slave (this is Aristotle’s example) is what he is, not in his own right, but because he has a master. Therefore a slave, according to Irwin, is essentially a man who stands in a certain relationship with another man. Instead of “slave” it could be called “subordinate man” adding an adjective or a qualification and thereby indicating that the essence is actually “man” and not “slave”. But Aristotle’s point is that any substance has its essence defined as relative to something. “Man” could for instance be defined as “having two feet” and whether something is a man would thereby be relative to the number of feet the item had. A substance (being) is what it is relative to a limited description and any other characteristics that being might have are only coincidental.

It is correct that Aristotle regards all secondary substances to have a grammatical reality. Slaves and dentists are just as much substances as men are. Only at the individual level, as a primary substance, does a thing acquire immediate reality. An individual man is a substance, but no less so is an individual dentist. In fact, as an individual it does not really matter what you call it. It is a “this”, whether a man or a dentist or both, and as such it has an irreplaceable essence that makes it what it is.

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