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substance, in philosophy, term used to denote the changeless substratum presumed in some philosophies to be present in all being. Aristotle defined substance as that which possesses attributes but is itself the attribute of nothing. Less precise usage identifies substance with being and essence. The quest of philosophers for the ultimate identity of reality led some to define substance as one (see monism). Frequently the monist has identified substance with God, an absolute existing within itself and creating all other forms (Spinoza). According to dualism there are two kinds of substance. Descartes, for example, held that mind and matter constitute the two kinds of finite substance. Others have defined substance as material (Hobbes) or mental (Lotze), as static (Parmenides) or dynamic (Heraclitus), as knowable (Aristotle) or unknowable (Hume). Kant argued that our cognitive faculties require that we conceive of the world as containing substance, i.e., something that remains constant in the face of continuous change.


See D. Wiggens, Sameness and Substance (1980).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



objective reality considered in terms of its internal unity. Substance is matter taken in the unity of all its forms of motion, the ultimate principle by which sensuous multiplicity and the variability of properties can be reduced to something constant and relatively stable that has an independent existence.

Monistic philosophies posit the existence of a single substance, dualistic philosophies the existence of two substances, and pluralistic philosophies the existence of a multiplicity of substances. In the history of philosophy, substance has been variously interpreted as a substratum, as the concrete individual, as an essential property, as something that can exist independently, as an object’s foundation and center of change, or as a logical subject.

The Greek and Roman philosophers distinguished various substances, regarding them as the material substratum and fundamental principle of change in things; such were the atoms of De-mocritus and the four elements of Empedocles. For Aristotle, substance was identical to prime essence, constituting a foundation inseparable from a thing itself and from its individual being. In addition to the ontological characteristics of substance, Aristotle identified its logical properties as well: for example, he viewed substance as the subject and not the predicate of judgment and as having the capacity to be manifested in the species and genera of objects. Aristotle’s interpretation of form as first cause, determining the attributes of objects, gave rise both to the distinction between spiritual and corporeal substance and to the dispute about “substantial forms” that permeates medieval philosophy as a whole—for example, in the opposition between nominalism and realism.

In modern philosophy, the analysis of substance developed along two lines. The first line of analysis, which began with F. Bacon’s empiricism, was linked to an ontological understanding of substance as the first principle of being; it was based on a qualitative description of substantial forms and an identification of substance with the form of actual things. In place of this qualitative interpretation, R. Descartes proposed the theory of dual substance: a material substance, which is extensional as well as quantitatively measurable, and a spiritual or mental substance. The difficulties inherent in a dualistic explanation of the relationship between the two substances were overcome in the pantheistic monism of B. Spinoza: in his view, the mental and the extensional are not two substances but rather two attributes of a single substance. G. von Leibniz in his monadology posited the existence of a multiplicity of simple and indivisible substances that are independent, active, and changeable.

The second line of analysis of substance is represented by an epistemological interpretation, which considered the concept of substance in view of its potentiality as indispensable for scientific knowledge. This approach was first adopted by J. Locke, both in his analysis of substance as one of the complex ideas and in his critique of empirical and inductive conceptualizations of substance. G. Berkeley rejected the concept of material substance altogether, although he admitted the existence of a spiritual substance. D. Hume denied the existence of either material or spiritual substance, regarding the notion of substance as merely a hypothesis—an attempt to group perceptions together into a whole, as it were—that is characteristic of commonsense knowledge but not of science.

I. Kant, who further developed the epistemological line of analysis, noted that the concept of substance is essential to the explanation of phenomena on the basis of scientific theory. The category of substance, according to Kant, is a necessary condition for any possible synthetic unity of perceptions, that is, of experience (Soch., vol. 3, Moscow, 1964, p. 254). In contrast to the nondialectical conception of substance as an unchanging material substratum, Kant viewed substance as subject to internal change (ibid, p. 257). This approach was carried still further by G. Hegel, who pointed out the internal contradictions of substance and its self-development. Hegel, however, failed to substantiate in any consistent fashion the dialectical view of substance as a subject that expands in content, inasmuch as he considered substance a stage in the evolution of the “idea” rather than of being.

Contemporary bourgeois philosophy tends to take a negative attitude toward the category of substance and its role in cognition, partly because of science’s increasing attention to the study of concentration systems, connections, and relationships. Nevertheless, attempts are still being made in the natural sciences today to identify a single substance, or prime matter. In the various neopositivist schools of thought, the notion of substance is seen as an element of commonsense knowledge that passed over into scientific usage, representing a dualistic concept of the world and a naturalistic treatment of perception that are methodologically unjustified.

The critics of the concept of substance are aligned on the one hand with critics of materialism and on the other hand with those who reject causality and causal explanation; they try to replace these concepts with description, as P. Duhem does, or with the functional relations of E. Cassirer. In some schools of contemporary bourgeois philosophy, such as existentialism and the philosophy of ordinary language, substance is taken as the starting principle, or point of departure, of a naturalistic metaphysics; the emergence of the concept of substance is explained in terms of the specific structure of European languages, which characteristically contrast the subject to the predicate of judgment. Other schools of thought, such as neo-Thomism and neorealism, have retained the traditional interpretation of substance. Some idealist schools of 20th-century bourgeois philosophy have attempted to identify the substance of culture and of human existence, as exemplified by values in neo-Kantianism or by vital activity in life philosophy.

K. Marx developed a dialectical-materialist doctrine of substance in his analysis of capitalist production and forms of value. In Das Kapital, abstract labor represents the substance of exchange and other forms of value. For dialectical materialism, the category of substance is one of the universal logical characteristics of matter—matter being the effective cause of its own changes—and embodies a causal explanation of the objective world. In contrast to the phenomenalist rejection of the category of substance, Marxism emphasizes its indispensability for a scientific theory of reality, as called for by V. I. Lenin: “On the one hand, knowledge of matter must be deepened to knowledge (to the concept) of Substance in order to find the causes of phenomena. On the other hand, the actual cognition of the cause is the deepening of knowledge from the externality of phenomena to the Substance” (Poln. sobr. soch, 5th ed., vol. 29, pp. 142–43).


Istoriia marksistskoi dialektiki. Moscow, 1971. Chapter 10.
Il’enkov, E. V. Dialekticheskaia logika. Moscow, 1974.
Orynbekov, M. S. Problema substantsii v filosofii i nauke. Alma-Ata, 1975.
Heidmann, K. Der Substanzbegriff von Abalará bis Spinoza. Berlin, 1890.
Hessen, J. Das Substanzproblem in der Philosophie der Neuzeit. Berlin-Bonn, 1932.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Tangible material, occurring in macroscopic amounts.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. material density
2. Philosophy
a. the supposed immaterial substratum that can receive modifications and in which attributes and accidents inhere
b. a thing considered as a continuing whole that survives the changeability of its properties
3. Christian Science that which is eternal
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005