Aristotle’s weirdness is not a mark against him, but rather an indication of his greatness as a philosopher. However, things do not start out being weird. Every science investigates a specific object distinguished by the properties unique to that object. Thus, for example, economics investigates exchange and exchange is distinguished from all other phenomena by a specific set of qualities or properties. However, when we abstract from all differences between specific types of objects, we are nonetheless left with the insight that all of these objects are. Consequently, we can ask ourselves what is the “beingness” or the “existenceness” of being? What is it that is common to all these beings, despite their differences, such that they are beings? Such is the question of metaphysics or ontology. Aristotle’s answer to this question is the rather common sense conclusion that being is composed entirely of primary substances. I’ll say a bit more as to what primary substances are in a moment, for now, while Aristotle begins with a common sense hypothesis, things very quickly become weird when we begin to work through just what a primary substance might be.
Although being is said in a variety of senses (quality, quantity, relation, place, time, position, state, action, and affection), the primary sense of being, and the one upon which all these others are dependent, is that of primary substance. Take the example of a quality such as the color of my hair. If qualities like the color brown are secondary substances, then this is because they cannot exist in their own right, but can only ever exist in primary substances. Brown has never been encountered floating about as a being in its own right. Likewise, a relation like “being-a-student” does not exist in its own right, but only exists in and through the primary substances that enable it to exist (institutions like schools, teachers, etc). Consequently, when asked “what color is Levi’s hair?” or “what is Jordan?”, it is perfectly appropriate to answer “brown” (quality) and “student” (relation), so long as we understand that these senses of being are dependent on a more primary and fundamental sense of being: primary substance.
By now what a primary substance is becomes obvious. A primary substance is just any individual thing. Here are some examples of primary substances: that tree, Ian Bogost, my glasses, the sun, the planet earth, this tardigrade, a burrito, my coffee cup, the United States of America, a corn thresher, etc. A primary substance is just any individual thing or entity. Within the Aristotlean orientation, the primary sense of being always refers back to things or objects, such that all other senses of being are rooted in, and dependent upon, this primary sense of being.
Primary substances have certain key features. First, and foremost, primary substances are characterized by the feature of independence. A substance is not a primary substance unless it is independent of other primary substances. Thus, for example, if I am destroyed Timothy Morton does not cease to exist. Second, primary substances are units, unities, and the universe is composed of units. Whenever referring to primary substances articles such as a, an, and the are used, and likewise, indexicals such as this and that are used. This is because primary substances are always units or unities. As a consequence, the universe is a universe composed of units. Third, no primary substance is more or less a primary substance than any other primary substance. This is the thesis of flat ontology or equal being, announcing a veritable democracy of objects. The humble tardigrade is no less a substance than the sun, nor is a Graham Harman any more a substance than a burrito. All of these substances are just that, substances, no more nor less a substance than any other substance.
Fourth, primary substances are that which is predicated of nothing else. Where is brown is always predicated are “said of” a substance (such as a tree), and where a relation is always said of the substance(s) that it relates such as being-a-student being predicated of Jordan, substances just are themselves and are not said of or predicated of anything else. This is merely another way of saying that substances are independent individuals. Fifth, primary substances are distinct from the matter in which they are embodied. While it is likely that primary substances cannot exist without some sort of material embodiment, primary substances nonetheless cannot be equated with their material embodiment. Suppose, for example, that Ian Bogost loses his arm in some bizarre, freak programming accident. While Ian has lost some of his matter– his arm –he nonetheless remains the primary substance that he is. There is thus an intimate relation between matter and primary substances, yet the two are not the same as one another. Indeed, we need not think anything as exotic as poor Ian losing his arm to see this point. Ian is constantly losing the cells that compose his being and producing new cells. It is said that every seven years our body is composed of entirely new matter. Yet despite these material changes, Ian nonetheless remains Ian.
Finally, sixth, primary substances are that which can possess contradictory qualities at different points in time while remaining one and the same primary substance. In a rather odd decision, Harman decides to winter in Alaska, enduring the three month night that constitutes a vampire paradise there. When winter concludes, Harman now decides to summer in Key West. Graham now has the quality of being pale, now the quality of being tan. While Graham undergoes a qualitative change, he nonetheless remains the same substance. There is thus an important sense in which Graham, qua substance, is distinct from his qualities.
It is in relation to features two, five, and six, that we encounter the weirdness of Aristotle. Aristotle begins with a rather common sensical conception of being. Being, Aristotle says, is composed of things or individuals. However, when we begin to think through the thingness of things, of what, precisely, constitutes the substantiality of substance, it seems as if the substantiality of substance perpetually slips through our fingers. Ordinarily when we seek to determine what a substance is, we refer to the qualities of a substance. We give a list of qualities to define the being of substance. Yet we have seen that a substance is that which remains the substance that it is, despite the fact that its qualities can change. Suppose that Morton is transformed into a zombie vampire like those depicted in The Passage by Cronin. Would Morton still be the substance Morton? This would indeed seem to be the case. Despite the fact that Morton has become a mindless zombie vampire, he still remains the substance Morton, because the substantiality of Morton does not reside in his qualities, but rather in something else. “Being-human” is thus not the substantiality of Morton because “being-human” is a quality. Likewise, were Morton to have a stroke, go into a coma, or get a terrible blow to the head causing him amnesia, he would nonetheless remain the substance that he is, despite the fact that his personality has disappeared or completely changed.
We thus say that it is the matter of a substance that makes that substance what it is. Despite the fact that Morton has become a mindless zombie vampire, Morton remains the substance Morton because he is composed of matter. Yet as we’ve seen, the matter of a substance can significantly change while the substance remains the same. Bogost, in a freak programming accident loses his arm, yet remains Bogost. I lose weight, yet remain the substance Levi. While Morton, Bryant, and Bogost cannot exist without some sort of material embodiment, that material embodiment does not constitute the substantiality of our being. Thus, as Bateson argues, it may be the case that neural networks are not material entities, that they are pure processes that only exist in enacting themselves, but this processual nature in no way undermines the substantiality of that network or process. And if this is so, it is because the substantiality of substance was never its matter to begin with.
Further, if substances are units or unities, where do we draw the line between substance and non-substance? It seems obvious that my computer is a substance, and likewise that the planet earth is a substance, however, what about my course Philosophy 1301.P04, Fall 2010. Is the class qua class a substance, an individual, a unit, an entity in its own right? If not, why not? Because it is composed of units that are separate from one another and are units in their own right (students and the teacher)? But why should that exclude the reality of the class as a substance? The computer is composed of all sorts of parts that are substances in their own right, yet is still this computer. Likewise, the rock is composed of all sorts of atomic entities and these entities are predominantly filled with void or space, so why should an atom have more a claim to being a substance than the class? “But”, you object, “the class can only exist insofar as there are linguistic acts that bring it into existence (the declaration of the administrator, the agreement of the professor, the signing up of the students) and insofar as their are institutions like the college!” “Therefore, the class cannot be a substance because it is constructed!”
Yet why should these conditions undermine the being of the class as a substance? I can only exist insofar as I was conceived and born, insofar as I have air to breath, insofar as the gravity of the planet earth is not too strong or weak, insofar as the air pressure is not too weak (causing me to decompress) nor too strong (causing me to be crushed), and insofar as the temperature of the planet is not too hot or cold. There are all sorts of ecological relations I require to sustain my existence as a substance. Given this, why is the fact that the class requires certain ecological relations to sustain its existence a mark against its status as a substance? Why is there a marked difference than a moss that can only exist in certain regions of the South American rain forests because of the unique ecological relations serving as its conditions, and any social entity?
Yet if we say that the class is a substance, all sorts of fascinating questions emerge. First, we can ask what sort of enduring existence the class has. The class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00 to 11:15. Does the class only exist when the students and professor come to class, such that it ceases to exist on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and outside these times? In other words, does the class have a punctuated or flickering existence that perpetually passes in and out of existence, but as the same substance or unit? Or does the class have a continuous existence between the beginning and the end of the semester, even when it is not meeting? If so, what is the nature of its existence when the class is not in session during these other times and days? And finally, what is the relationship between the other substances that contribute to the existence of the class (students, professor, textbooks, etc) and the class as a substance in its own right? Insofar as all substances are units in their own right and are independent of one another, it follows that the students are, in an important sense, independent of the class. How, then, are we to think the relation between parts and wholes?
Finally, how are substances destroyed? Clearly substances come into being, change continuously, and are destroyed. When I eat that burrito it ceases to exist. Yet if the substantiality of the burrito can’t be equated with its matter or its qualities, how, exactly, does the eating of the burrito destroy its substantiality? Clearly there must be some relation between matter, qualities, and substantiality, yet what this relationship is is very difficult to pin down.
Aristotle begins in a very obvious place, yet this obviousness quickly generates a series of weird questions and implications. Far from being a mark against Aristotle, this strangeness, this weirdness, is testament to Aristotle’s greatness. It is here that philosophy takes flight.