Student Question

What is a primary substance according to Aristotle?

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In very basic terms, "primary substance" refers to individual things, whether they're individual human beings, dogs, cats, trees, rocks, or anything else. Primary substances are specific things which are not predicable or attributable to anything else.

To illustrate this point, let us take an example (which, I hasten to add, is not used by Aristotle). Suppose I have a cat called Mr. Tiddles. Mr. Tiddles is the primary substance, whereas "cat" is the secondary substance. In other words, Mr. Tiddles, as an individual cat, isn't attributable or predicable to any other thing.

We can say certain things about him; that he is fat, lazy, no good at catching mice, and so on. But those qualities are said to be in him, not of him. They are a part of him, but he is not a part of them—that is, he isn't predicable of them. What we can say of Mr. Tiddles is that he is a cat (his secondary substance). Secondary substance, then, which in this case is "cat," can be said of Mr. Tiddles as a whole. Animals in general, like human beings, are secondary substances.

To take a further example, Aristotle is a primary substance, an individual thing. He's also a human being, and human being is the secondary substance of the individual Aristotle, as with all individual human beings. As we can see here, primary substance refers to specific individuals; secondary substance, to genera and species.

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