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From Process Studies, 14:4, Winter 1985, 224-236.  “Insofar as Whitehead interpreted Aristotle’s theory of Entity [ousia] as if it were practically indistinguish-able from a Lockean or even a Cartesian notion of substance, he was simply and radically mistaken. . . . [T]he (perhaps) Lockean notion of an anonymous stuff enduring without internal change beneath a transition of superficial qualities has nothing to do with Aristotle’s concept of Entity.  Whitehead’s withering attack on the Lockean type of substance-philosophy proves nothing, therefore, against the Aristotelian concept of Entity.”


Whitehead’s Misconception of “Substance” in Aristotle

James W. Felt, S.J.


And indeed the question which was raised of old and is raised now and always, and is always the subject of doubt, viz, what being is, is just the question, what is substance?


Aristotle’s memorable sentence1 seems as true today as when it was written.  Far from settling among themselves on a metaphysical description of the world of experience, philosophers do not even agree on how Aristotle himself conceived “sub-stance.”  At any rate it will be argued here that Whitehead radically misunderstood Aristotle’s con-cept.  This misconception, which has ever since flourished unquestioned among Whiteheadian philosophers, proved a powerful factor, I think, in Whitehead’s ultimate adoption of an atomic or epochal theory of becoming.

Whitehead’s interpretation of Aristotelian “substance” figures in a classic exchange between Leonard J. Eslick and Charles Hartshorne in the late Fifties.  In his paper Eslick asserted:

I think it can be shown that Whitehead’s equation of Aristotelian primary substance with Descartes’ definition rests upon a gross misunderstanding. It is, furthermore, a travesty to depict Aristotle’s substance as static and inert, hermetically sealed off from the causal efficacy of other entities and devoid of any internal becoming. (SCCW 504)

Recognizing that Whitehead’s exegesis of Aristotle is not of primary importance in evaluating Whitehead’s own metaphysics, Eslick did not bother in that essay to show what he had said could be shown, and went on to other issues.  Hartshorne’s, however, took the time to respond with some vigor that no such misinterpretation of Aristotle on Whitehead’s part was evident.

Hartshorne’s instinct that this point is worth arguing was sound.  I suspect that Whitehead’s interpretation of “substance” in Aristotle had a stronger influence on the formation of his own metaphysics than is generally supposed.  It was one of several factors which coalesced to convince Whitehead that no metaphysics of essentially self-identical and enduring fundamental entities is viable.2  It encouraged him to develop a counter-theory of epochal, successive units of becoming. This alternative, for better or for worse, draws a radically different picture of the human person, for instance, than does that of Aristotle.  Man himself is at stake in what one takes the fundamental constituents of being to be.

Whitehead evidently read Aristotle (or perhaps W. D. Ross’s book about Aristotle) with the specter of modern materialistic mechanism haunting his mind, and thought he recognized in Aristotle’s “substance” its remote but unmistakable ancestor.  And if, as seems natural, Whitehead took Aristotle’s philosophy as paradigmatic of any substance-type philosophy, his turn to another alternative is not surprising.

Whitehead’s understanding (or, as I shall argue, misunderstanding) of Aristotle’s concept of “sub-stance” has continued to flourish, entrenched and unquestioned, among subsequent Whiteheadian philosophers.  It is taken for granted, so that the word “substance” is used as a term of opprobrium. But whether this dogmatic antisubstance bias of modern process philosophy is well-founded or, rather, stems largely from an ill-examined myth, depends on the accuracy of Whitehead’s interpretation of Aristotle’s concept of substance.

Here, then, is what I propose to do.  I shall argue that Whitehead did in fact badly misinterpret Aristotle’s concept of substance, as Eslick claimed, and I shall suggest that, far from amounting to an inconsequential error in historical exegesis, this misconception was a strong influence in turning Whitehead’s metaphysics in the direction of an epochal theory of becoming.  I shall maintain that Aristotle’s theory conceives substances as dynamic and interrelated, contrary to what Whitehead supposed, but I shall not claim that, had Whitehead realized this, he would have been satisfied with Aristotle’s conception.  I shall only ask that we accept Aristotle at his own word and not transform his theory into a caricature he demonstrably never intended.  I shall also suggest that a recovery of the real Aristotelian view casts doubt on the currently accepted repudiation of the very possibility of any sort of substance metaphysics.


1. Whitehead’s Conception of “Substance” in Aristotle

We begin with Whitehead rather than with Aristotle, for Whitehead’s assessment of Aristotle flows out of Whitehead’s own philosophic concerns. We also take special note of what Whitehead was concerned to avoid.  Bergson’s observation still holds:

Is it not obvious that the first step the philosopher takes, when his thought is still faltering and there is nothing definite in his doctrine, is to reject certain things definitively?  Later he will be able to make changes in what he affirms; he will vary only slightly what he denies. (CM 110)

Appropriately, Eslick writes: “It is likely the polemic against substance was originally motivated by Whitehead’s reaction against mechanistic materialism, in which substances are inert, vacuous pieces of matter or stuff” (SCCW 504).

Whitehead’s polemic against materialistic mechanism is too well known to require much elaboration here.  The “matter” of such a mechanism was, by its nature, static, passive, and incapable of supporting internal relationships to other bits of matter.  This incapacity of relationship had its counterpart, Whitehead thought, in Descartes’ definition of substance, and that in turn was a direct consequence of Aristotle’s notion.  In a key passage Whitehead writes:

All modern philosophy hinges round the difficulty of describing the world in terms of subject and predicate, substance and quality, particular and universal.  The result always does violence to that immediate experience which we express in our actions, our hopes, our sympathies, our purposes, and which we enjoy in spite of our lack of phrases for its verbal analysis.

The true point of divergence is the false notion suggested by the contrast between the natural meanings of the words “particular” and “universal.”  The particular is thus conceived as being just its individual self with no necessary relevance to any other particular.  It answers to Descartes definition of substance: “And when we conceive of substance, we merely conceive an existent thing which requires nothing but itself in order to exist.”  This definition is a true derivative from Aristotle’s definition: A primary substance is “neither asserted of a subject nor present in a subject. . . .”

The principle of universal relativity directly traverses Aristotle’s dictum, “A substance is not present in a subject” . . . . The philosophy of organism is mainly devoted to the task of making clear the notion of “being present in another entity.” (PR 49f./78f.)

Whitehead’s assertion that Descartes’ definition of substance is a true derivative from Aristotle’s was based, claimed Eslick, on a “gross misunderstanding” of Aristotle.  Hartshorne promptly countered this claim by providing the following formal derivation of Descartes definition from Aristotle’s:

Suppose, contrary to Descartes’ formula (inconsistently qualified with respect to God), a substance S requires another substance S, in order to exist; then S, just in being itself, is related to S, and since related-to-S includes S, S itself must include S. Otherwise, it must be possible for it to exist without S, external relations being those not necessary to a thing.  It follows that S is predicable of S as a necessary relatum for its intrinsic relation. (SCCW 514)

Thus, argues Hartshorne, denying Descartes’ definition of substance logically entails denying Aristotle’s, so that affirming Aristotle’s entails affirming Descartes’.  Aristotelian substances, therefore, are in principle mutually independent, hence intrinsically unrelated to one another.  It would follow that Descartes, in defining a substance as needing nothing else in order to exist (Principles of Philosophy, I, 51) only spelled out what was already implicit in Aristotle’s definition.  This apparent incapacity of Aristotelian substances to enter into intrinsic relations with one another seems to have struck Whitehead as distinctive of matter or stuff, hence to lend itself readily to the viewpoint of materialistic mechanism.

Whitehead also saw ethical significance, says Hartshorne, in the rejection of substance.  For if each person is self-sufficient to himself and intrinsically independent of all others, have we not a prescription for selfishness and self-centeredness?  As Hartshorne put it:

All genuine interests and purposes transcend the mere self.  Egoism rests on a superstitious absolutizing of self-identity and consequent absolutizing of nonidentity with other persons. . . . Whitehead once humorously summed up the ethical objection to substance theories by remarking, “I sometimes think that all modern immorality is produced by Aristotle’s theory of substance.” (RFP 72)

In addition to this apparent intrinsic separateness of Aristotelian substances, Whitehead was bothered by what he took to be their static nature.  He conceived Aristotle’s “substances” as stolidly, changelessly, enduring through time (whatever that could mean!), while yet acquiring or losing various accidental qualities.  This is the impression he got from Aristotle’s Categories—or perhaps, instead, from W. D. Ross’s Aristotle.3  For Aristotle says it is distinctive of a substance that it remains numerically one and the same while nevertheless taking on varying, even contrary qualities (Categories, Ch. 5).

This suggested to Whitehead a notion of “undifferentiated endurance” (a favorite phrase) almost indistinguishable from that of passive matter or “stuff.”  The tenacity with which the latter concept held the minds of philosophers for centuries was due, Whitehead thought, to (1) the influence of Aristotelian subject-predicate logic, and (2) a careless misconstrual of what is given in sense experience—an instance of misplaced concreteness, as we see in the following passages:4

The baseless metaphysical doctrine of “undifferentiated endurance” is a subordinate derivative from the misapprehension of the proper character of the extensive scheme.

. . . In the perception of a contemporary stone, for example, . . . the immediate percept assumes the character of the quiet undifferentiated endurance of the material stone, perceived by means of its quality of color. . . .

Thus in framing cosmological theory, the notion of continuous stuff with permanent attributes enduring without differentiation, and retaining its self-identity through any stretch of time however small or large, has been fundamental.  The stuff undergoes change in respect to accidental qualities and relations; but it is numerically self-identical in its character of one actual entity throughout its accidental adventures.  The admission of this fundamental metaphysical concept has wrecked the various systems of pluralistic realism.

This metaphysical concept has formed the basis of scientific materialism. . . .

As for Aristotle’s logic, its dominance over several centuries “imposed on metaphysical thought the categories naturally derivative from its phraseology” (PR 30/45).  Its pattern of attributing varying qualitative predicates to stable, self-contained subjects was mistakenly taken for a metaphysical description of the structure of the real.  “The evil produced by the Aristotelian primary substance is exactly this habit of metaphysical emphasis upon the “subject-predicate” form of proposition” (ibid.).

Furthermore, the notion of the purely numerical identity of an unchanging subject of change seems vague or even incoherent.  How can something endure changelessly, and in what would its supposed self-identity consist?  “Numerical identity,” writes Hartshorne, has no strict meaning, once accidental qualities are admitted such that they can alter, but the thing remain that very thing” (SCCW 515).

In sum, Whitehead interprets Aristotle’s substances (1) as self-contained, self-sufficient units of actuality, lacking the possibility of internal relationships to one another, and (2) as entities whose individual histories consist in acquiring or losing various accidental characteristics, while they, the subjects of these accidental changes, remain themselves unchanged.  This interpretation arises essentially from (1) Aristotle’s definition that a substance is never “present in” another substance, and (2) Aristotle’s doctrine of the relation of substance to accident: that it is characteristic of substance that it itself remains numerically one and the same while nevertheless taking on various accidental qualities.


2. Whitehead’s Conception a Misconception

Preliminary word-problem

Before taking a closer look at the evidence for Aristotle’s own conception of “substance,” it is necessary to ask whether that is even the most appropriate English word.  Aristotle’s actual word is ousia (accented on the second syllable), etymolo-gically a derivative of the Greek word “to be” (einai). In a long and careful analysis of what ousia would mean to the Greek ear, Joseph Owens sets down the following characteristics of any near-equivalent in English:

What is required is an English word which

a) implies no prejudices in favor of any post-Aristotelian theory of Being,

b) is more abstractive in form than “Being,”

c) can denote the individual, both concrete and incomposite,

d) and express to English ears an immediate relation with Being.  (DBAM 72)

Owens concludes that the English word “entity” comes closest to satisfying these requirements, especially if written with an uppercase “E” whenever it is being used to translate Aristotle’s term, ousia.

Beyond argument, however, “substance” is exactly the wrong term to use, and that for several reasons:

(1) Etymologically it does all the wrong things.  For it has nothing to do with the verb “to be,” and derives rather from the Latin, “substantia,” denoting something “standing under” another, although, as we shall see, this is in a crucial sense not what Aristotle meant by ousia!  “Substantia,” as the Latin rendition of the Greek term, was chiefly popularized by Boethius in his Latin translation of the logical works of Aristotle, in which the primary meaning of the term is the subject of predication. In his theological works, on the other hand, Boethius was careful to use “essential” to translate the same term. It was, however, by his logical works that Aristotle first became widely known to the Western world, so that the Boethian logical term, “substantia,” stuck (DBAM 68).

(2) Historically it conjures up exactly the wrong ideas—or at the very least loads the dice against an impartial examination of Aristotle’s real meaning. It is especially misleading to anyone acquainted with the history of Western philosophy, as Owens points out: “Because of Locke’s influence, substance in English philosophical usage strongly suggests what its etymology designates.  It conjures up the notion of something ‘standing under’ something else.  The background is the view of accidents ridiculed by Malebranche.  Such a perspective inevitably falsifies the Aristotelian ousia, and ends up by reifying the accidents as in Locke” (DBAM 69).

I shall, therefore, hereafter adopt Owens’ recommendation and usually write “Entity” (with an upper-case “E”) to denote Aristotle’s term ousia, rather than continue to use the unfortunate term “substance.”  Let us then examine Aristotle’s own explanations of what he means by “Entity.”

Not “present in a subject.”  

Here is what Aristotle actually said:

Entity, in the truest and primary and most definite sense of the word, is that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject; for instance, the individual man or horse.  But in a secondary sense those things are called Entities within which, as species, the primary Entities are included; also those which, as genera, include the species. For instance, the individual man is included in the species “man,” and the genus to which the species belongs is animal; these, therefore—that is to say, the species man and the genus “animal”—are termed secondary entities . . . .

Everything except primary Entities is either predicable of a primary Entity or present in a primary Entity, . . . and if these last did not exist, it would be impossible for anything else to exist. . . . (Categories, Ch. 5, 2a11-2b6, with substitution, here and henceforth, of “Entity” or “entity” for “substance.”)

This is the first of the key Aristotelian definitions which bothered Whitehead, and which he and Hartshorne think leads straight to Descartes’ definition of substance as “needing nothing else in order to exist.”  It seemed to Whitehead to insulate Aristotelian Entities from one another, so as to prevent any kind of inherence of one in another.  Aristotle goes on to add: “It is a common characteristic of all Entity that it is never present in a subject” (3a6f).  Do not such statements vindicate Whitehead’s conception of the apartheid of individual Entities in Aristotle?

No, they don’t.  To see this, one must first examine what sort of work the Categories is, and what Aristotle’s intention was in writing it.

The Categories is the first of Aristotle’s ordered set of treatises on the foundations of logic.  In this first book he inquires into the significance of the terms (or, as Ross suggests, “linguistic facts” [AR 26], in which propositions are couched.  In the subse-quent book, On Interpretation, he inquires into the relationship between multiple terms in the form of propositions.  Aristotle is in effect asking, in the Categories, what different sorts of entities are named by the different terms in propositions.  He refers back to this initial treatise when, in Book Delta (V) of the Metaphysics, he writes: “The kinds of essential being are precisely those that are indicated by the figures of predication [i.e., the categories]; for the senses of ‘being’ are just as many as these figures” (1017a23-25).

In the Categories, then, Aristotle is not yet concerned to work out a metaphysics; he simply wants, as a necessary preliminary clarification, to distinguish among the many different senses in which something can be said to “be.”  He notices that at least the following sorts of entities or kinds of being can be distinguished: Entity, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection (Ch. 4).  And among these diverse kinds of being Aristotle notices a fundamental distinction logically dividing them into two distinct classes.  One class has only a single member: Entity.  It alone, of all the kinds of being, enjoys a sort of logical autonomy, whereby it can be said to “be” in its own right, whereas all the other kinds of being have an intrinsic dependence on Entity for their own being. “White” or “tall” do not exist in their own right (except as pure abstractions, and even then, as abstractions in someone’s mind): they have to belong to Entities, such as a man or a tree, for instance, if they are to be at all.  But “man” and “tree,” as kinds of being, are not thought of as needing to inhere in some other kind of entity.

Aristotle works out in precise, technical terms the relationships I have just roughly sketched, and does it in terms of two careful definitions which he has already provided in Chapter 2.  These exact definitions are essential for understanding what Aristotle later says about Entity.  (He is, after all, writing a careful, technical essay.) He says:

Forms of speech are either simple or composite.  Examples of the latter are such expressions as “the man runs,” “the man wins”; of the former “man,” “ox,” “runs,” “wins.”

Of things themselves some are predicable of a subject, and are never present in a subject.  Thus “man” is predicable of the individual man, and is never present in a subject.

By being “present in a subject” I do not mean present as parts are present in a whole, but being incapable of existence apart from the said subject.5

These statements define what Aristotle had in mind when he later asserted that “entity, in the truest and primary and most definite sense of the word, is that which is neither predicable of a subject nor present in a subject” (Ch. 5).  When, therefore, we predicate “man” of Socrates, man is entity not in the primary but only in the secondary sense; it is a universal, a class.  It denotes the essential nature common to Socrates and all other men.  Only entity in this secondary sense is predicated, and then only of “Entity” in the primary sense (never vice-versa). Roughly: classes are predicated, people aren’t.

On the accidental level, however, to say that Socrates is shrewd or homely, is not to attribute to him extrinsic qualities which cling to him in about the same way as his cloak.  It is to say something about Socrates himself.  In saying, therefore, that “Entity” is never present in another as a in a subject, Aristotle is not at all concerned to deny that (or even to ask whether) actual primary Entities relate efficaciously to one another.  In the Categories he is simply not concerned to do that kind of metaphysics.  He is asking, rather, how the terms of proposition denote different kinds of being, and he points out that, alone among other kinds of entities, primary Entity is conceivable, and can be discussed, without its having to be thought of as essentially inhering in some other kind or category of entity.  Colors and shapes and relations, on the other hand, are kinds of being which of their very nature must be thought of an inhering in primary Entities, if they are to be thought of as being at all.  True, primary Entities do require the other kinds of entities—a man, for instance, must have some shape, yet not with that same relation of inherence.  Shape is clearly in the man in a way in which it would be absurd to say that the man is in his shape.

One must conclude, therefore, that Aristotle’s stipulation that one Entity is never “in another” provides no warrant for the supposition of radical, mutual exclusiveness which Whitehead read into it. And indeed there is plenty of evidence to show that Aristotle himself never supposed that primary Entities could not be related to one another.  For instance, in Physics, Bk. III, Ch. 2, he says:

The solution of the difficulty that is raised about the motion—whether it is in the movable—is plain.  It is the fulfill-ment of this potentiality, and by the action of that which has the power of causing motion; and the actuality of that which has the power of causing motion is not other than the actuality of the movable, for it must be the fulfillment of both.  A thing is capable of causing motion because it can do this, it is a mover because it actually does it. But it is on the movable that it is capable of acting.  Hence there is a single actuality of both alike, just as one to two and two to one are the same interval, and the steep ascent and the steep descent are one—for these are one and the same, although they can be described in different ways.  So it is with the mover and the moved. (202a12-22)

And a few lines farther down, in reply to an objection he has posed to himself, Aristotle responds: “It is not absurd that the actualization of one thing should be in another.  Teaching is the activity of a person who can teach, yet the operation is performed [on] some patient—it is not cut adrift from a subject, but is of A on B” (202b6-8).

This is Aristotle’s way of saying that the “agent” is in the “patient”; that the Entity effecting change in another is, precisely in that respect, in the other.  The resulting activity in the affected Entity is the actualization of both Entities together.

In Metaphysics, Book Lambda (XII), he writes:

All things are ordered together some-how, but not all alike—both fishes and fowls and plants; and the world is not such that one thing has nothing to do with another, but they are connected. For all are ordered together to one end, but it is as in a house, where the freemen are least at liberty to act at random, but all things or most things are already ordained for them, while the slaves and the animals do little for the common good, and for the most part live at random. . . . (1075a16-23)

In the face of such passages one can suppose either that Aristotle was inconsistent in wedding his notion of primary Entity with other aspects of his system, or that interpreting Aristotle’s concept of Entity in a Lockean manner is, as Eslick suggested, a “gross misunderstanding.”  All the evidence points toward the latter view.

Or does it?  What about Hartshorne’s precise logical derivation, quoted above, of how Descartes concept of “substance” is entailed by Aristotle’s definition of Entity as “never in another”?  The derivation, in fact, fails!  Instead of attending to Aristotle’s own careful preliminary definition of what he means by “(present) in another,” Hartshorne allowed this notion of “presence in” to float ambiguously, unexamined, until it became implicitly transformed into a notion of sheer logical inclusion. But that is demonstrably not what Aristotle had in mind when he used the phrase.

There is a special irony in Hartshorne’s providing this derivation.  For not only was Aristotle highly sensitive to the perils of determining the real by means of the logical—this was, after all, his chief criticism of Plato’s theory of the Forms6—but Whitehead himself tirelessly attacked the tendency to mistake logical relationships for the structure of the real, an ultimate case of what he called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”  Yet in proposing this derivation Hartshorne succumbs exactly to this fallacy, since he thereby deals with the metaphysical relationship between actual Entities as if it were simply that of logical inclusion.


Entity and qualities: undifferentiated endurance.

The other key aspect of Aristotle’s definition of “Entity” which bothered Whitehead is the relation Aristotle proposes between Entity and qualities, between “substance” and accidents.  Aristotle says:

The most distinctive mark of Entity appears to be that, while remaining numerically one and the same, it is capable of admitting contrary qualities. From among things other than Entity, we should find ourselves unable to bring forward any which possessed this mark. Thus, one and the same color cannot be white and black.  Nor can the same one action be good and bad: this law holds good with everything that is not Entity. But one and the self-same Entity, while retaining its identity, is yet capable of admitting contrary qualities.  The same individual person is at one time white, at another black, at one time warm, at another cold, at one time good, at another bad. (Categories, Ch. 5, 4a10-21)

We saw in Section 1 that, given the background of later Western philosophic thought, this definition provoked Whitehead to attribute the notion of “undifferentiated endurance” to Entity itself, conceived as a substrate of diverse accidental qualities which come and go.  It is, he writes, “the notion of continuous stuff with permanent attributes, enduring without differentiation, and retaining its self-identity through any stretch of time. . . . The stuff undergoes change in respect to accidental qualities and relations; but it is numerically self-identical in its character of one actual entity throughout its accidental adventures” (PR 78/120). This notion, Whitehead thought, has wrecked the various systems of pluralistic realism and also formed the basis of scientific materialism.

Whitehead’s clearly Lockean concept of “substance” in Aristotle, besides supposing the mutual isolation of Entities one from another, seems to include at least the following characteristics:

(1) Substance is conceived as intrin-sically unchanged, or unchanging, even amid its acquiring or losing accidental qualities.

(2) Substance is therefore rightly thought of as both static and passive, hence as lending itself immediately to the notion of an inert stuff or matter.

(3) Similarly, substance enjoys a kind of independence of existence from its accidental qualities; it becomes a kind of “thing” even apart from those quali-ties.  And in a somewhat different way, qualities must enjoy a kind of ontological autonomy of their own.

I submit that attributing the above characteristics to Aristotle’s notion of Entity is a mistake on every count!  For Aristotle says that it is a distinctive mark of Entity that, while remaining numerically one and the same, it is nevertheless capable of admitting contrary qualities.  If we read on in that same Chapter (5) of the Categories, we find him indicating the manner in which this comes about, thereby clarifying his whole concept of “alteration” (“accidental” change, in which an Entity remains itself while undergoing change of qualities).  This clarification arises in the context of an objection which Aristotle poses to himself.  Propositions—which are not Entities in the primary sense—appear also to satisfy the characteristic, supposedly peculiar to Entities, of admitting contrary qualities, since the proposition that someone is sitting passes from true to false when the person stands up.  But there is a key difference, says Aristotle, between the proposed counter-example and what he has said of Entities. The difference is that the proposition changes its truth-value because of a change in something else, something other than itself—namely, the person who stood up.  But it is different with Entities:

It is by themselves changing that Entities admit contrary qualities.  It is thus that that which was hot becomes cold, for it has entered into a different state.  Similarly that which was white becomes black, and that which was bad good, by a process of change; and in the same way in all other cases it is by changing that Entities are capable of admitting contrary qualities. . . . It is the peculiar mark of Entity that it should be capable of admitting contrary qualities; for it is by itself changing . . . that it does so. (4a30-4b3.0; emphasis added)

There is, therefore, no undifferentiated endurance for the Aristotelian Entity!  There is, on the contrary, intrinsic development, change, becom-ing.  It is the Entity (the man or woman, for instance) which does the changing in passing from thin to fat or pale to tan.  The reason, says Aristotle, why it is legitimate to predicate contrary predicates of the same Entity at different times is precisely because the Entity itself has changed: George himself, or Martha herself, has become tan, so that as a result “tan” is truly predicated when it would have been false before.

To identify Aristotelian Entity, then, with “undifferentiated endurance” (characteristic (1) above), is, contrary to the received Whiteheadian tradition, simply anti-Aristotelian.  It deserves the “pincushion” comparison used by Eslick (SCCW 506). For on that view Entity never intrinsically becomes in any way; it only extrinsically acquires or loses qualities, as one might acquire or lose books.  But in that case it is clear that characteristics (2) and (3) would also follow.  For by (1), Entity has no alternative to being static and passive (2) and there must therefore be a kind of independence of existence of Entity on the one hand, and of accidental qualities on the other.  For if contrary qualities do not affect Entity, and if they can successively be “admitted” by Entity, it seems clear that Entity and qualities all get along quite well by themselves (3).

It would be possible to construct a litany of other Aristotelian texts which indicate that for Aristotle, Entity is dynamic and changing, rather than passive and static.  Recall only that natural things, especially animals, are examples par excellence of Aristotelian Entities.  Yet they not only change, they even move themselves to their own activities.  In Aristotle’s view, the self-same squirrel, by its feeding activities, moves itself to its own growth while nevertheless remaining a single, enduring Entity.  Leclerc writes:

The Aristotelian doctrine is that the physical existent, by virtue of its inherent activity, is necessarily involved in internal change, while . . . the denial of internal change in matter is the one feature of the modern conception of matter which has persisted until this century. (NPE 257f.)

Whitehead might also have found a clue to this in Ross’s Aristotle, with which we are certain that he was acquainted.  In his chapter on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Ross explains:

Aristotle does not offer in the Metaphysics any treatment of the categories as a whole.  The categories other than substance [Entity] are, as it were, mere “offshoots and concomit-ants of being.”  Substance is prior to them in three ways—(1) “because it can exist apart while they cannot.”  This does not mean that it can exist without them while they cannot exist without it. A qualityless substance is as impossible as a quality which does not presuppose a substance.  The substance is the whole thing, including the qualities, relations, etc., which form its essence, and this can exist apart.  It implies qualities but these are not something outside it which it needs in addition to itself.  A quality on the other hand is an abstraction which can exist only in a substance.  Obviously, if this is his meaning, Aristotle is thinking of substance as the individual thing. (AR 162f.)

The substance is the whole thing, and its qualities are not something outside it but rather a part of itself—that is exactly the point which Whitehead missed.


3. Conclusion

Insofar as Whitehead interpreted Aristotle’s theory of Entity as if it were practically indistin-guishable from a Lockean or even a Cartesian notion of substance, he was simply and radically mistaken. Descartes’ definition of eremitical substances is not a “true derivative” of Aristotle’s statement that an Entity is never “present in another.”  And the (per-haps) Lockean notion of an anonymous stuff enduring without internal change beneath a transition of superficial qualities has nothing to do with Aristotle’s concept of Entity.

Whitehead’s withering attack on the Lockean type of substance-philosophy proves nothing, therefore, against the Aristotelian concept of Entity. Furthermore, of itself it furnishes no antecedent evidence whatever against the viability of at least some form of metaphysical system which would postulate a world of interrelated, dynamic Entities which endure in time as essentially self-identical individuals, which move themselves to their own activities, and which, precisely by themselves changing, change their accidental qualities over time.



AR—W. D. Ross, Aristotle (New York: 1960).

BWA—Richard McKeon (ed.), The Basic Works of Aristotle, trans. W. D. Ross (New York: 1941).

CAT—J. L. Ackrill (trans.), Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione (Oxford: 1963).

CM—Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (Totowa, New Jersey: 1965).

DBAM—Joseph Owens, C.Ss.R., The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics (Toronto: 1951).

MET—Richard Hope (trans.), Aristotle: Metaphysics (Ann Arbor: 1952).

NPE—Ivor Leclerc, The Nature of Physical Existence (London & New York: 1972).

RFP—Charles Hartshorne, “Recollections of Famous Philosophers—and Other Important Persons,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, 8 (Spring, 1970), 67-82.

SCCW—Leonard J. Eslick, “Substance, Change, and Causality in Whitehead,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 18 (June, 1958), 503-13; and Charles Hartshorne, “Whitehead on Process: A Reply to Professor Eslick,” ibid., 514-20.

WTCS—Ivor Leclerc, “Whitehead’s Transformation of the Notion of Substance,” Philosophical Quarterly, 3 (July, 1953), 225-43.



1 Metaphysics, Zeta, Ch. 1, 1028b2-4.

2 The other principal factors, as far as I can judge, are Zeno’s arguments (PR 68-70/106-08), and the tendency in modern science to view nature in terms of quanta (SMW, Ch. 8). If, as I think can he argued, neither of these considerations is a cogent argument against the possibility of any sort of metaphysics of Entity, then the question of the validity of Whitehead’s rejection of Aristotle’s notion of substance takes on special importance.  It may be the last substantial foundation, so to speak, of the modern anti-substance bias.

3 Eslick points out that at the crucial passage in Process and Reality in which Whitehead says Descartes’ concept of substance is a true derivative from Aristotle’s, Whitehead refers the reader not to Aristotle’s Categories but to W. D. Ross’s book about Aristotle (SCCW 504).  Partly for that reason I have in this essay used Ross’s own translations of Aristotle (in BWA).

4 PR 77f./119f. Leclerc points out (WTCS 225) that the notion of substance which Whitehead was most concerned to attack was that of Locke.  It is also clear that Whitehead saw in Aristotle’s notion the clear forerunner of that of Locke, as well as that of Descartes.  Leclerc in effect grants as much in his subsequent explanation (WTCS 225f. and n. 6).

5Categories, Ch. 2 (1a17-23).  Confusion readily arises from this passage inasmuch as Aristotle here intermixes a linguistic relation (‘predicable of” a subject) with an ontological relation (“present in” a subject).

6 This relation to Plato was called to my attention by Professor Richard J. Blackwell of Saint Louis University, to whom I am also indebted for other suggestions concerning an earlier version of this essay.

Posted March 7, 2009

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