They're all important notions in Philosophy. They seem different but are easily mixed up. Substance can mean essence but also existence. Entity seems to be a special being.

So my question: What's the exact distinction between them?

Concrete instances would be good.

  • 1
    For the record, different philosophers will tend to have their own definitions for many of these terms; there is not always one single agreed upon meaning for them.
    – stoicfury
    Jan 11 '13 at 7:36
  • Personally, I would begin with the classical philosophers. Contemporary philosophy being what it is, it's a good idea to get acquainted with the thinking of Aristotle all the way through Aquinas. For the record, substance and essence are not the same. The latter can be said of the former. Also, existence and essence are not identical, as Averroes shows, because it would imply only one essence, whereas there are many. Substance most certainly is not existence.
    – danielm
    Jan 14 '13 at 19:17

I feel like there's a lot of resources on the net where you can easily find your answer. SEP and Wikipedia have solid articles for most of the concepts you ask about. Is there a particular definition or overlap between definitions that troubles you?











  • As far as the essence/existence distinction, Gilson is also a good resource.
    – danielm
    Jan 14 '13 at 18:39

You're not going to find a uniform usage. The best you can do, probably, is to fix upon particular schools of thought and see how they used the terms.

You can find all of these terms in Antiquity, and I'd venture to guess that most of them were at least popularized by Aristotle. For more on them, read the SEP entry on Aristotle's metaphysics.

Here is my understanding of how these terms are used in contemporary (analytic) philosophy. I will include references where they come to mind:

  1. Substance: the fundamental kinds of things. It comes up in Philosophy of Mind, for instance, when we speak of Substance Monists (who believe in only a single sort of substance, most commonly physical substance) or Substance Dualists (who believe in two sorts of substance, most commonly mental and physical substance; Descartes is commonly taken to be a substance dualist).

  2. Essence: often brought up in discussion of essential properties see Plantinga's Nature of Necessity for a contemporary discussion of essences. Kit Fine also has some articles on essentialism. An essential property is (at least) one that an object possesses necessarily. It will sometimes be said to be definitional of that object. To give a plausible example, it is an essential property of a chair that it be able to be sat upon.

  3. Existence: I've never really seen this defined, and contemporary analytic metaphysics tends to make no distinction between existing and being. The Meinongians famously distinguished between different kinds of being, where some things with being might not exist. Contemporary analytic metaphysicians tend to follow Quine in holding that there are no things that have being but do not exist. You might be interested in criteria for existence, in which case you could look at the literature on Ontological Commitment, which is the study of when a theory (or person) is committed to a certain kind of thing. Quine famously said "to be is to be the value of a (first-order) variable". See Quine's "On What There Is".

  4. Entity: I am aware of no special usage of this term. As far as I know, an entity, a being, a thing, an object, etc. are all used more or less interchangeably, with the exception that "being" (and possibly "entity", depending on author) might be reserved for living things.

  • Thanks. Btw, for the entity, I felt it is exactly structure, constituted by atoms with relations. So for a structuralist being can be changed by entity for everything is structure they believe.
    – Popopo
    Jan 11 '13 at 10:33
  • I'm not sure how Meinong exactly treats existence, but perhaps Avicenna was of similar mind by making existence a property (i.e. essence precedes existence), which was attacked by Averroes on the grounds that it was absurd to talk about an essence which is prior to existence because it would need to exist before it could be anything we could consider.
    – danielm
    Jan 14 '13 at 19:00

1.essense is the set of properties which makes up an individual 'things' identity. its best thought of with relation to the 'essence-accident' distinction.


2.a substance is a basic, durable and fundamental 'thing' .

the different 'modes' (or forms) of a substance would be called properties of the substances 'kind' (physical substance has physical properties, mental substance has mental properties, etc)

  • [note: there is debate on whether there is more than one substance, and on what 'kinds' of substance there are]

3.existence is a hard term to pin down but in general, if there are a set of things which are 'logically possible' something exists if it is in the subset of those logical possibilities called 'actual' or at least 'real' things.

(the difference between the two comes from something called modal realism, which makes the conversation a little odd)

4.being and entity are often used interchangeably (along with words like 'object' and 'thing') a good way to think about them are as 'subjects of conception'. if you can conceive of it, its an entity. we would also say that if there is something which exists, but it can't be thought of, it is still an 'entity' or 'being'.

  • [note: depending on the author, 'being' will more often be used to refer to living things and 'entity' to refer to animate things.]
  • 3
    First off thanks for coming to philosophy.se and adding an answer... unfortunately, there's a lot of things that are hard to pin down with all of these terms. E.g., for a class for students with limited English, I used Sophie's World which butchered what substance means for Aristotle by confusing a common definition with a technical one. Similarly, being and entity will take very different meanings for say Aquinas and Heidegger or even Augustine and Kant. Similarly existence is a term that didn't exist at all for the ancients.
    – virmaior
    Nov 4 '14 at 13:31

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