Now, according to Aristotle, matter (œëç) is the absolute subject, that which can never become a predicate of anything. But as a pure subject matter cannot be described, or assigned any semantic content

I just googled 'absolute subject' and got this. Why can it not be predicated of anything: what is matter for it to be absolute in this way?

  • 1
    As absolute subject or "substance" matter, in and of itself, with no other properties whatsoever, would be indescribable, meaningless, or, to put it another way, "without semantic content." However, to say that matter "can never become a predicate" is not the same as saying "we cannot predicate anything of matter," such as, say, divisibility. But I am not vouching for the statement or any interpretation of Aristotle. Jan 6 at 17:29
  • sure @NelsonAlexander.thanks for the comment!
    – user57343
    Jan 6 at 17:35
  • Hello and welcome to philosophy.stackexchange. Please add some detail to your question. Where is that quote from? What was the discussion about? Also, I'm pretty sure it wasn't Aristotle who said that matter has no semantic content; that was probably a conclusion by whoever wrote that passage you quoted. Jan 6 at 19:34
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    Aristotle uses "matter" relativistically, what is matter in higher matter-form compound can itself be a lower matter-form compound. For example, clay is matter in a statue, but is itself decomposable and has essential properties. What this refers to is only the prime matter, his "pure potentiality", that can receive any form whatsoever. That, by its conception, is indeed devoid of any essential properties ("semantic content"), but accidents are predicable of it, e.g. when discussing the forms it receives.
    – Conifold
    Jan 7 at 1:52
  • Where does Aristotle use the phrase "semantic content"?
    – Geremia
    Jan 8 at 2:17

3 Answers 3


The word used for matter by the article (not peer reviewed) and equated with the absolute subject is "ὕλη", hyle, matter. But "it is unclear what has to be taken as Aristotelian matter", so likewise its never being a predicate.

  1. The traditional view is that matter precedes substance, and it is the substratum of substantial change only.
  2. Others claim that, in both substantial and accidental change, matter is a substratum of sensible substance (it just persist or doesn't).

According to wikipedia, what cannot be a predicate of other things, for Aristotle, is the Hypokeimenon.

Matter is especially and primarily the hypokeimenon which is susceptible for generation and corruption [when nothing accidental remains of the other], but in a way also the hypokeimenon for the other changes, insofar all hypokeimena are susceptible for contraries. (320a2-5) [ibid]

So in the second view, matter is the hypokeimenon in all change, because it is their substratum.

In the former view, matter is the hypokeimenon even when not the substratum: it is a "third thing" that accounts for e.g. the persistence of a body that becomes unwell.

  • I did my best, got quite absorbed in answering my question myself... sorry if it didn't work out.
    – user57343
    Jan 8 at 22:24

Aristotle uses the terms prote hule and proton hupokeimenon meaning 'prime matter' and 'primary underlying thing' several times in his Physics amd Metaphysics. The secomd term explaims ehat it means for mattervto be 'absolute'.

It has no 'semantic content' becaise it is pure potentiality. It can take on any form.

It's well that the chemical elements were thought to be elemental - they remained unchanged. But then it was discovered that they were changeable when the 'atom was split'.

Aristotle is saying that the primary underlying matter is not quarks as such, as they have a specific identity, althpugh they can decay. But another form of matter that is pure potentiality. It may be that a future theory of quantum gravity, which is expected to help explain the physics of the Big Bamg might show that Aristotle to be correct after all. Its easy to imagine that at infinite densities and energies all identity is erased - and only pure potentiality is left.


By "matter" here it seems you mean "prime matter", which is matter completely devoid of form.

St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Principles of Nature (cf. Bobik's commentary):

  1. […] existence is twofold: one is essential existence or the substantial existence of a thing, for example man exists, and this is existence simpliciter (simply). The other is accidental existence, for example man is white, and this is existence secundum quid (in a certain respect).
  1. […] that which is in potency to substantial existence is called prime matter, but that which is in potency to accidental existence is called the subject.
  1. […] bronze [in a bronze statue] is not called prime matter, even though it has matter. However, that matter which is understood without any form and privation, but rather is subject to form and privation, is called prime matter by reason of the fact that there is no other matter before it. This is also called hyle, [which means chaos or confusion in Greek].

Perhaps by "semantic content" you mean Aristotle's notion of form, the principle of . From the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "form":

This use of form (Aristotle's μορφή or εἶδος) and matter (ὕλη) is a metaphorical extension of their popular use. In ordinary speech, a portion of matter, stuff, or material, becomes a 'thing' by virtue of having a particular 'form' or shape; by altering the form, the matter remaining unchanged, we make a new 'thing'. This language, primarily applied only to objects of sense, was in philosophical use extended to objects of thought: every 'thing' or entity was viewed as consisting of two elements, its form by virtue of which it was different from, and its matter which it had in common with, others.

For more info and references, see "Please contrast Aristotle's 'material' vs 'formal' aitia" and "Understanding the Four Causes of Aristotle". Brian Kemple's Introduction to Philosophical Principles: Logic, Physics, and the Human Person is a good intro, too.

  • I should have linked to the article. dunno why you got upset about it
    – user57343
    Jan 8 at 20:49
  • can you link your answer to 'absolute subject' and not being predicated of anything? that would be helpful
    – user57343
    Jan 8 at 21:02
  • @anon It seems "absolute subject" means prime matter, though prime matter does not exist on its own, unless it's united to a (substantial) form.
    – Geremia
    Jan 8 at 22:22

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