From Aristotle's Metaphysics, translation Reeve 2016, Z1:

What is being?---is just the question, What is substance?

This statement is a lot more obvious in Greek:

Ousia is a noun formed from the present participle ousa of the verb einai ("to be"). "Substance" is the traditional translation. (note 58, pg 272)

(Of course Aristotle has a lot more to say about why the two questions are the same. But surely etymology has something to do with his word choice.)

If I understand Aristotle correctly (not likely), a substance is a combination of form and matter (aka a hylomorphism). Now anything with both form and matter seems to me to be just a thing, an object, a being. And it also seems like any thing, object, or being just is matter in a certain form, and therefore a substance. Then it seems like all these words mean the same thing. If these alternatives exist, "substance" seems to me to be a bizarre choice to translate ousia.

Who first translated ousia as "substance", and why did they choose that word?

And can I rephrase Aristotle's equation as

What is being?---is just the question, What is a being?

(which has the virtue of maintaining the etymological tie between einai and ousia) or

What is being?---is just the question, What is a thing?

and still keep his meaning intact?

  • Latin substantia is formed from substō, to stand under, to exist, in the same way that ousia is formed from einai. It does mean being or essence. Why is it a bizarre choice for translation (regardless of Aristotle)?
    – Conifold
    Jun 13 '18 at 21:22
  • @Conifold It sacrifices the etymological connection between einai and ousia making the connection between being and substance obscure, and it replaces a common word, about which I have lots of intuitions, with a technical one, about which I have very few.
    – Canyon
    Jun 13 '18 at 21:37
  • In medieval Latin it was an obvious connection and a common word. And it is highly unlikely that your intuitions match Aristotle's from a different culture of over two millenia ago, let alone the technical sense he gave to "ousia" in his philosophy. So "substance" might be a blessing in disguise.
    – Conifold
    Jun 13 '18 at 21:45
  • That makes sense; translating eudaimonia as "happiness" used to cause me trouble, because I couldn't separate Aristotle's technical usage from my intuitions. But Aristotle wasn't above coining terms ("the what-it-is"). So I guess my real question is, What intuition was Aristotle drawing on when he chose ousia as the technical term for the subject of predication? But I should open a new question for that. @Conifold: thanks
    – Canyon
    Jun 13 '18 at 22:03
  • I'm with Heidegger, who comments that most of our philosophical problems come from confusing Being with beings. In the language here this would be confusing substance (form and matter) with Being. I share your confusion over the translation of 'ousia' but am not sure whether the issue is the translation or Aristotle himself. . .
    – user20253
    Jun 14 '18 at 11:40

There are several senses in which a thing may be said to be, as we pointed out. [Met, Book Z, 1028a9]

there are many senses in which a thing is said to be, but all refer to one starting-point; some things are said to be because they are substances, others because they are affections of substance, others because they are a process towards substance, or destructions or privations or qualities of substance, or productive or generative of substance, or of things which are relative to substance, or negations of some of these things or of substance itself [Met, Book Gamma, 1003b].

Thus, following Franz Brentano's dissertation : On the Several Senses of Being in Aristotle (1862), page 3 :

The various sorts of being which are here enumerated can be reduced to four kinds:

(1) Being which has no existence whatever outside the understanding (privation, negation);

(2) The being of movement and of generation and corruption (process toward substance, destruction);

(3) Being which has complete but dependent existence (affections of substance, qualities, things productive and generative);

(4) The being of the substances (ousia).

And see Cat, 5, 2a13 :

A substance —that which is called a substance most strictly, primarily, and most of all [protai ousiai (πρῶται οὐσίαι), "primary substances"] — is that which is neither said of a subject nor in a subject, e.g. the individual man or the individual horse.

Substance is from Latin : substantia :

From substāns, present active participle of substō (“stand under; exist”), from sub + stō (“stand”).

See also hypostasis :

From ecclesiastical Latin hypostasis, from Ancient Greek ὑπόστασις (hupóstasis, “sediment, foundation; substance, existence, essence”), from ὑπό (hupó) + στάσις (stásis, “standing”).

And see : John Marenbon, Boethius, Oxford UP (2003), page 71 :

Boethius, however, goes out of his way to link his definition of persona to an Aristotelian understanding of hupostasis. He is helped by a linguistic accident. In order to explain this, it is useful to introduce a new term — one obviously different from any word Boethius himself uses — for things that belong to Aristotle’s first category (ousia): I shall accordingly speak of ‘first-category things/individuals/universals’.

The linguistic accident consists in the fact that the usual, Latin translation of hupostasis was substantia. But substantia was also the Latin word used by some, including Boethius himself, as the word for first-category things.

For a linguistic analysis regarding Ancient Greek use of the terms regarding being (εἶναι, οὐσία) see :

For a philosophical analysis, from the point of view of modern formal logic, see :


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