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October 8, 2021 / Congau

Grammatical Essence (iii)

What is the substance, the underlying being of a thing, the basic element that constitutes something’s essence? It depends in what sense we understand the question. The pre-Socratic philosophers took it to mean the physical substance that makes up the matter of the world. A substance is then a building block that everything can be reduced to and which cannot be analyzed any further. Democritus’ atoms would then be the most concrete example of such an idea. But in another sense (and Aristotle always plays back and forth with different senses) the end point of an analysis is already reached the moment the immediate basis for something is found. 

A man may be musical (Aristotle says), but he is first and foremost a man and only by accident musical; the substance of the construction is the man and his musicality is an added condition like a product that comes into being when atoms start to combine. A musical man is not any more analyzable than the man and his quality – the man being primary and the substance. What the man might consist of is not accessible to this grammatical inquiry. Anything must be relative to the question asked and there is nothing more ultimate than what is within the framework of the subject matter. 

Irwin (1988) criticizes Aristotle for making “man” the substance of “musician” while refusing to go along with Democritus’ reduction of “man” into atoms. But actually Aristotle never talks about musicians but only “musical men” which might seem like just a trivial difference if any difference at all. However, a musician is a basis on his own and the concept does not necessitate that the individual is also a man (maybe there are monkey musicians or alien musicians). Also, all musicians are not necessarily musical. The grammatical construction “musical man” may seem trivial but it clearly marks the presence of two separate elements that don’t need to exist in the presumed combination. A musician is in itself an ultimate substance that cannot be further analyzed. We may assume that it conceals a man who is made up of atoms but that is just an assumption.

But even if there is no doubt we are talking about a musician or a man as we normally understand the concepts, the reduction into substance does not go any further than that. A man is just a man unless you specify in what sense it may be a quality of something. Things may differ in many ways, Aristotle says, (1042b14) like shape, position and order. Man is therefore not just a subgroup of animal, which is categorized under biological organisms etc. He might as well be a species of moving items, which would include winds and waves but exclude plants. When only “man” is stated, there is no way to know where he is to be placed. Therefore, without a context, he is a substance in himself. He is the quality of nothing but when he is the subject of a sentence, the predicate is a quality of him.

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