Perˆ tÅj oÜsˆaj ½ qewrˆa

This is a speculation on substance.

(Aristotle, Meta. 1069 a 18.)




Essence is the name of one of the central themes of every metaphysics. The Latin word essentia is a sophisticated term; it is the abstract form of a presumptive present participle essens (being) of the verb esse (to be = ser). Morphologically, therefore, it is the exact homologue of the Greek term oÜsˆa, which is, in its turn (or at least was so perceived by the Greeks), the abstract form of the present participle feminine oåsa of the verb enai (to be = ser). This homologous relationship might lead one to think that oÜsˆa meant essence. Nevertheless, such is not the case. The Greek word, in ordinary linguistic usage, is very rich in meanings and relationships; and Aristotle employed the term in all of them. When, however, the philosopher employed it as a technical term, it meant not essence but substantial substance. By contrast, what this Latin term translates exactly is the Greek term Ûpokeˆmenon, that which "lies underneath", or that which "is the support of" accidents (sumbebekÕta). This is no mere complication of linguistic accidents; the fact is that, for Aristotle himself, the oÜsˆa, the substance, is above all and in its first meaning (m§lista) the Ûpokeˆmenon, the subject, the sub-stante. Essence, on the contrary, corresponds more to what Aristotle called to tˆ Æn enai and what the Latins called quidditas, that which, or what, the oÜsˆa, the substance, is. For Aristotle, what is real is radically substance, and the essence is a moment of substance. The essence is, therefore, always and only, essence of the substance.

This implication or mutual reference between essence and substance, within their undeniable distinction, has run, as cannot be {4} denied, through the whole course of the history of philosophy, though [42] taking on a different character (at different times). During the Middle Ages, the ideas of Aristotle on this point were repeated without fundamental alteration. From the end of the fourteenth century, however, and culminating in Descartes' idea of it, essence begins to be dissociated from substance and remains referred to substance in what might be called a loose manner. Actually, Descartes did not doubt that immediate evidence, of itself, guaranteed that the essence of the ego is to be a res cogitans, a thinking something, while the essence of the world is to be a res extensa, something extended. In this context, however, res does not mean thing, that is, substance, but only what scholasticism understood by res, that is to say, essence in its widest meaning, the "what;" for this reason I have translated res by the term "something." This res or essence is so different from "thing", or substance, that, in order to apprehend the former (i.e., essence), evident cogitation would be sufficient. In order to be sure, however, that the essence is found as realized in "things or substances", not only was evidence insufficient for Descartes., but he held it necessary to take the problematical, roundabout way of invoking the divine veridiciousness. Essence and substance remain implicated with each other, consequently, but only in the loosest conceivable way: only by the mere potentia Dei ordinate, that is, by the "reasonable" power of God.

From this moment, this link breaks down from its own weight and substance remains something beyond essence; it could not have happened otherwise. Still, essence continued to be referred to a, special substance, namely, thinking substance, which, insofar as it was thinking, would be a substantial subject. Essence would be, consequently, a formal act of conception of this thinking, or at least its merely objective term; it is idealism of the essence in its different forms and contexts.

In contemporary philosophy, it is true that even this implication seems to be disappearing. Thus Husserl, faithful to the spirit, it not to the letter, [43] of Cartesianism, and following a scholastic thinker, Brentano, will affirm that essences have nothing to do with substances, because consciousness itself is not substance but pure essence. As a consequence, the entire world of essences rests solely on itself. Substances are nothing but the uncertain and contingent realizations of these essences. This is the most Cartesian deformation of Cartesianism. One step more and consciousness, having been desubstantialized, remains reduced to being "my consciousness", and this "my" takes on the character of being simply "my own existence." The result is that, what before was called thinking "subject", consciousness, etc., is nothing but a kind of existential impetus (impulse) whose possibilities of being realized within the situation in which it finds itself are exactly the essence, something like an essential precipitate of the pure to exist. This is the thesis of all forms of existentialism. What is real has become desubstantialized and essence realized only in a purely situational and historical form.

It might be thought, then, that the intellectual transformations have fallen more heavily on substance than on essence, as though the identical concept of the latter had been preserved imperturbably identical in philosophy. Nothing could be more mistaken. Still, it is an error which can be explained, because these terms, consecrated by a centuries-long tradition, can produce, by the mere fact of this consecration, the deceptive impression that, when they employ them, everyone understands them in the same sense; whereas the truth is that, many times, they involve different concepts. This is what does in fact occur in the present case. In the wake of the transformation of the concept of the "what" this reality is, namely, the essence. By a singular paradox, consequently, we find ourselves confronting the same problem which, from the beginning, Aristotle himself had to debate: the implication between the radical structure of reality and the character of its essence.

This is the reason why I have set up as the motto of the present {6} work the phrase with which Aristotle opens the twelfth book of his Metaphysics: "This is a speculation about substance." In this passage Aristotle reaffirms his idea of reality as substance, and undertakes in a formal manner to find its causes. Nevertheless, nothing prevents us-quite the contrary-from applying that phrase to an investigation about the essence of substance such as is carried out in the seventh book. In invoking this phrase I do not take it as an indication of my intention to repeat Aristotle's ideas but as a reminder that Aristotle was the very first to broach the problem and as an invitation to posit it anew. There is no question here, consequently, of taking two concepts which are already complete and fully formed, that of substance and that of essence, and of trying to couple them in one [44] way or another, but rather to lay out the problem which underlies these two terms, the problem of the radical structure of the real and of its essential moment.




Before all else, let us indicate the form in which, in a first attempt to focus it, we shall confront the problem of essence. Let us call essence-later we shall enter upon the matter of its more precise determinations-as "that which" or "what" a real thing is. And this "what" can constitute a problem under three clear-cut aspects.

Along a first line of inquiry we can put the question of the "what" with respect to the fact that it has existence. Every real thing, as a matter of fact, can be stated or conceived from two points of view: either by saying of it "what" it is or by saying that that which it is, is an existing reality. These are two perfectly distinct points of view. I can, as a matter of fact, understand what a thing is while completely abstracting from whether or not it has existence; and I can understand the fact of its existence without intellection, or at least without any precise intellection, of what it is. Hence it results that, conceptively, the essence (the "what") and the existence are two moments of our exposition or conception; even more, they are two moments of the real thing as it is the term or subject of the conception in question. Of these two moments, each refers to the other: in every thing, the existence is the existence of "something" and the "something" is something "existing", for if this were not the case, it would not be anything, but rather a pure nothing. As a consequence, when once the real thing has been considered as the term of a lÕgoj, of a conception, it is undeniable that essence and existence are two [46] {8} distinct moments of the thing qua legÕmenon, that is, of the thing insofar as it is expressed in a predication. It is possible, therefore, to ask why every thing possesses this "conceptive" duality. Here, then, we have the first form in which the problem of the essence with respect to the existence can be stated. Classical philosophy will tell us that the foundation of this conceptual duality is found at least in the fact of "causation": because it is caused, everything justifies our asking this question concerning the very fact of its existence (since it has acquired it through causation) and concerning the character of that which exists. And this is the precise point at which, along this line of inquiry, a serious problem arises: the problem of whether the two suppositions from which the point of departure has been taken are correct. First: is this duality primarily and formally "conceptual" in character, that is to say, does it consist in the manner of stating a thing by way of the lÕgoj? Second: is "causality" the radical foundation of this duality? This is a question of transcendent importance. Nevertheless, it is evidently not a question which has reference to things in themselves but rather to our manner of confronting them intellectually.

Once this question has been solved another arises, a graver one, though still in this same line of inquiry, concerning essence under the aspect of the manner in which it differs from existence. Does the fact that there may be two conceptually distinct and grounded moments in the same thing mean that the real thing, precisely as it is real, that is to say, in its own "physical" I structure, possesses two characters both physically and actually distinct, independently of all possible intellectual considerations? For the structure of a thing, insofar as it is the term of the predicative lÕgoj and the internal "physical" structure of the thing taken in and for itself, are not the same-and I will insist upon this point at great length in the course of this work. Every reality can be made the term of a predicative lÕgoj; this does not mean, however, that it is physically "composed" {9} of an attribute and a subject. Is the essence something physically distinct or different from the existence? Here we have the second aspect under which the problem of essence may be stated. It may be supposed that essence and existence are only two moments or [47] aspects which an identical and single thing offers to conception or to the predicative lÕgoj. Independently of all intellection there would be purely and simply the thing, and nothing but the thing. Only a false conceptism would have led one to transform these two conceptual aspects of the reality into two physically distinct moments of it. Basically, it would be a question of the fact that all things are caused; nothing more. And, as a matter of fact, historically only the idea of creation ex nihilo has led to the contra-position of essentia and existentia. By contrast, in other philosophies, the essence-existence duality is a physically real duality. The essence, therefore, would have a physical relationship toward existence and the question of what this respect might be would arise. The essence would be the internal potentiality of the thing for existence, at the same time that the existence would be the actuality of that potentiality.

It is evident, consequently, that no matter what solution may be given to this problem, that is to say, whether or not it be true that the essence involves a real respect to existence, the essence is something in itself; quite otherwise, it could not even be asked whether or not it is really respective to the existence. Consequently, prior to the problem of essence with regard to existence, there is a problem of the essence under another aspect, namely, the essence considered in and for itself. This is the third aspect under which the problem of essence can be brought to a focus. Let us take any real thing whatever. We say of it that it is this or that other. It may be that not all that it is, is essential to it. Our immediate problem, then, consists in ascertaining what, within all that a thing is, is essential to it. This is a problem internal to the "what" itself, the problem of the essence as the moment of the "what". What is it that is essential to a "What?" This essential moment is a real moment in the thing itself, is a real moment of its "physical" {10} structure. What we are trying to ascertain is, then, in what the real character of this physical lo structural moment of the thing, which we call "essence", may consist.

Precisely we are asking, in the first place, for the essence considered, not as the term of our way of confronting real things, but rather as a moment of those things themselves. In the second place, we are asking to get inside this moment considered in itself and not in its eventual relationship to existence. In the third place, we are, [48] finally, inquiring about this moment as structural and physical moment of the real thing. Such is the line of inquiry along which we are going to confront the problem of essence. At first glance, it might appear that this is a reduction of the metaphysical problem of the essence of the thing to the "merely essential" element of it; that is to say, solely to the most important element of what the thing is. We will see in the course of this study, however, that not this, but the exact contrary, is the actual situation.

Let this, then, be the first step on the path of our investigation. Anticipating some ideas, I will begin by a provisional determination of the concept of essence, which will, at the same time, be a more precise formulation of our problem. Thereafter, I will examine some of the most important concepts of essence that have been given in philosophy, and this not so much through a desire for information, legitimate though that be in itself, but rather as a means, in a certain sense dialectical, of bringing the vision of essence into focus. We shall then be in a position to undertake a direct and positive confrontation of the problem of essence.



Throughout this work the term "physical" will appear continuously. A reader who is not familiar with the history of philosophy may find himself disoriented, because this word does not have, in ancient philosophy, the same meaning that it has in modern philosophy and science. "Physical" has designated, for some centuries now, the character proper to a clearly determined class of real things: namely, inanimate bodies. In itself, however, this meaning is nothing else than a restriction or specialization of a much wider and more radical meaning, linked to the etymology of the term and to the concept originally signified by it. This latter is the meaning which the term possessed in ancient philosophy. As this meaning is enormously expressive I believe that it is necessary to recover it and to introduce it into contemporary philosophy. More than through definitions or theoretical considerations, what I am trying to say will be understood by appealing to concrete examples. [49] "Physical" does not designate a circle or class of things, but rather a mode of to be. The word comes from the verb fÝein, to be born, to increase, and to germinate. As a mode of to be, then, it means to proceed from a principle intrinsic to the thing which is born or grows. In this meaning it stands in opposition to "artificial." The "artificial" has an entirely different mode of to be; its principle is not intrinsic, but extrinsic to the thing, since it is found in the intellect of the artificer. Hence the word took on the form of a substantive and the intrinsic principle itself from which the thing proceeds "physically", that is, "naturally", came to be called fÝsij; the same term was applied to the intrinsic principle of a thing from which all its properties, whether active or passive, proceed. Everything that belongs to the thing in this form is physical. The physical, consequently, is not limited to what we today call "physical", but embraces the biological and the psychic as well. The emotions, all modes of understanding, the passions, the acts of the will, habits, perceptions, etc., are something "physical" in this strict sense. Such is not necessarily the case with what is understood or what is desired, for these may be merely intentional terms. A centaur, non-Archimedean space, are not physical things but, as we tend to say, intentional things (I will be excused from entering at this point into the rigorous distinctions which would be absolutely necessary if we were treating this theme explicitly). That which is understood, taken in this precise character, is not a physical part of the intelligence; by contrast {12} however, the act of understanding, itself, is something physical. Here, consequently, the "physical" is being set over against the "intentional." And hence "physical" becomes the synonym of "real" in the strict sense of this latter term.

What has been said may become clearer if we pay attention to the notes or properties of things. The weight and the color of an apple tree are physically distinct; they are, in effect, two real notes each in its own right, (and) which contribute to the "integration" of the reality of the apple tree. They are at the same time an act of memory and one of passion. By contrast, two notes such as the "life" and the "vegetation" of an apple tree are not notes which are distinguished physically, because in the apple tree we do not have "life", on the one hand, and "the vegetative functions", on the other. Life and being a vegetable do not make the apple tree one whole thing. Rather than [50] notes possessed by it, these are aspects which the apple tree, taken as a totality, offers to us according to our mode of looking at it, that is, according as we consider it as a thing which possesses a mode of being different from a stone or as a thing endowed with the constitutive functions proper to this mode of being and different from those of a dog. They are not distinguished in the apple tree independently of my mode of considering it; by contrast, in the apple tree, its weight and its color are, each one, what it is, even though there may be no intelligence considering them. For this reason it is customary to say that these last properties are physically distinct, while the aspects mentioned above are distinguished only "logically" (I would prefer to say "conceptively"). In order to have a real distinction and physical composition it is not sufficient that two concepts be independently of each other; it is also necessary, further, that what is conceived be notes actually and formally independent in a "physical" thing. Evidently "integration" is not the only type of physical composition. It is enough to consider, for example, two constitutive principles of a thing such as prime matter and substantial form in the Aristotelian system.

Physical and real, in the strict sense, are synonyms. The word "reality", however, also has many different usages in our languages, usages which do not contribute in any precise manner to the clarification of the ideas involved, above all, in the post-Cartesian centuries, which are so little demanding in matters of precision. Sometimes those things we earlier have called "intentional" are also called real; {13} for example, when one speaks of real numbers, etc. It is clear that numbers and figures, etc., are not realities as are a piece of iron, an apple tree, a dog, or a man. For this reason, in order to underline that one is treating of realities of this last type, I am accustomed to call them sometimes "physical realities" or "physically real" things. This is a pure pleonasm, which is, nevertheless, very useful.

In order to be exact, it would be necessary to go on to make more precise distinctions at every level. These few lines, however, may prove sufficient at least to orientate the reader who finds himself unprepared. [51]





Let us begin by delimiting the concept of essence in a provisional manner. Unless we hold before our eyes the essence itself, all our considerations would run the risk of falling into the void, and above all we would lack a point of reference to give a basis for those considerations and enable us to discuss them. Naturally, this demands that we have recourse to ideas which will acquire adequate clarity and justification only at the end of our discussion, precisely because they will be the proper result of that work. Nevertheless, nothing impedes our anticipating, in a summary manner, though rather vaguely, some of the characteristics which, as I view the matter, what we call the essence of something, must possess.

Taken in its most originative meaning, the word "essence" means that which responds to the name or to the question "what" something is, its quid, its . In a wide sense, the "what" of anything comprises all its notes, properties, or characteristics (it matters little which term we employ). These notes are not free-floating or detached, but constitute a unity, not by external addition, but an internal unity, the unity in virtue of which we say that all of these notes belong to "the" thing and, reciprocally, that "the" thing possesses such and such notes. The notes, therefore, possess unity, a unity which is internal. If they lacked this unity and if each one stood by {16} itself, we would not have "one" thing but a number of things. If the [52] unity were merely additive or external, we would have a conglomerate or mosaic of things, but not, in any strict sense, "one thing." In this very wide sense, the "what" means all those things which the thing in question, as a matter of fact, is, with the totality of notes which it possesses hic et nunc, including this very hic and this very nunc. Thus it is as though each thing were present to us in our first apprehension of it and is, in this apprehension, the term of a deictic function, that is, of mere nominal indication: it is "this".

The "what", however, may have a more restricted meaning. In apprehension itself, if not in first apprehension, in the strict sense of the terms, at least then in the simple apprehension (we must not confuse the "mere apprehension" of something with the "simple apprehension" of it; apprehension simple / simple apprehension), that is, in that which includes the apprehension of a real thing among other real things, this thing presents notes which rapidly take on a function which is characteristic or distinctive of it, differently from other notes which it possesses, so to say, indistinctly in a real, though indifferent, manner. It is an apprehension of the thing as being "the same", despite the fact that these indifferent notes may vary; even more, to apprehend them as a mere "variation" of the "same" thing is something congenerous with the apprehension of those notes as characteristics "of it". The respect under which this sameness exists, however, matters little: it may be the sameness of a class (man, dog, apple, etc.) or a sameness proper to an individual (it is the same person with different garments, hairdo, etc.). However, in this case we do not possess a mere this has rather been transformed into a true "denomination" or naming, whether proper or specific. The "what", understood in this manner, does not respond to the question of a deictic quid, but rather to the demand for a demonstrative quid: it is now no longer "this thing" but rather Peter, a man, a dog, etc. This quid does not embrace the totality of the notes that the thing {17} comprehends hic et nunc, but rather only the conjunction of those notes which it possesses as its distinctive properties; not those which are indifferent, but only those which constitute its characteristic sameness. We are not accustomed to calling this "what" essence, but [53] it should be called essence, because it is absolutely necessary to refer to that "what" in order to understand how, from the first meaning, its widest meaning, the problem of the essence in a third sense, essence in a strict sense, arises.

To take a step further, also in the "what", understood in the second sense, the thinking intellection has to carry out a difficult task in order rigorously to conceive the essential "what" of anything, because the strict line of distinction between those notes which characterize the sameness of a real thing and those others which are indifferent or accessory to it under this aspect is very vague and fluctuating. We have to understand whence those characteristics of the notes begin and end; that is to say, which may be the notes which, taken in and a for themselves, not only characterize a thing more or less so that it may not be confused with other things, but rather, that they can in no sense fail or that they can in no sense be absent from a real thing without this latter, in a strict sense, ceasing to be what it is. It is these last notes which, in a strict sense, ought to be called the essential notes. The essential (esencial) of anything is precisely the minimum of that which it must possess in order to be what it is in the second sense. The unitary conjunction of all of these essential notes is what in the strict sense I shall call essence. In order to be exact, let us add that the essence, understood in this sense, is not only the unitary conjunction of the notes that the thing necessarily possesses, but rather that, in this unitary conjunction, its unity exhibits an extremely precise character. This unity, as a matter of fact, is not only internal, but, even more, is primary and radical, that is to say, it is a unity such that, with respect to it, the notes are nothing but moments in which, so to phrase it, the unity in question exhaustively {18} is deploys itself. In the classical example of man as rational animal, we would say that he is an animal and rational because he is man, and he is not man because he is rational and animal. Animality and rationality are the moments in which what we call being a man is exhaustively deployed. Therefore, the unity of animality and rationality is not only intrinsic but is also "primary". The essence, therefore, is a primary necessitating unity. It is clear that the essence is, then, the principle of some other necessary notes of the thing even though the latter are not strictly essentials (esenciales). Under this aspect, the essence is, further, the primary unity, the principiating unity of the [54] non-essential. For the nonce, let us be content with this provisional determination of the concept of essence. We will soon add some additional characters.

In this third, and strictest, sense, the conceptualization of essence presupposes the apprehension of the "what" of something in the second sense. Precisely because we already know what the thing is (Peter, dog, man) we find ourselves compelled, by the thing itself, to seek out the concept of its strict essence. That is to say, we know what the thing is, but we do not understand, in conceptual terms, what its essence consists in. However, since we already know (in the second sense) what the thing is, we also know whither we must direct our mental gaze, in order to assure the correctness of each one of the further steps in our investigations. The "what", in the second sense, is that, then, which forcibly confronts us with the problem of essence in the strict sense and, further, that which makes its treatment possible.

To sum up, the question concerning the essence in itself is nothing else but the quest for the principiating unity of the real thing. {19} Of what kind is this unity? What is its character? What is that which is inessential to something? That is our question.

Responses to this question have been forthcoming in distinctive ways according to the interpretation given of the principiating, necessitating unity. Before undertaking to treat the problem of essence directly, it is necessary briefly to review the most important of these answers, and to examine them with some rigor.