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In the previous unit, we pointed out to you some of the problems and concerns of philosophy. I believe you have understood what knowledge, truth, belief, skepticism and agnosticism are from the point of view of philosophy. In this unit, we want to lead you to some of the main themes of philosophy. I am sure you have been hearing some of the teachers and students of philosophy talk about essence and existence, potency and act, matter and form. What are these concepts? You will know them in this Unit.


The objectives of this unit are to: clarify the meaning of concepts that are often used in reference to being which the main object of philosophy is. You will come to know that these terms do not refer any concrete being but that they are within the structure of being. Pay attention to their meanings and explanations.


3.1 Essence and Existence

The concept of being is the first of all concepts. When we know anything at all, it is being that we primarily know. Whatever the knowledge, whatever the name, whatever the definition, it is nothing else but the knowledge, the name or the definition of being – what already exists. All other concepts are various modes and determinations of the concept of being. That is to say that the concept of being is implicit in all other concepts. However, the concept of being includes within itself essence and existence. But we must emphasize from the outset that essence and existence are not things. They are not two things coming together to form one thing. They are rather principles of being, principles from which the actual existent or being is constituted. It must be clear also that essence and existence are not identical. There is a distinction between them. Such a distinction is minor real distinction since it concerns the absence of identity in the principles or elements of being. Though the intellect can distinguish essence and existence, yet in concrete reality or being, essence and existence can never be isolated. They constitute an indissoluble entity.

What then is essence? Essence is that by which a thing is what it is. The essence of a man, for instance (human), is that by which he is human as distinct from stone or beast or plant. An essence of a thing is the whatness or the quiddity of that thing. In On Being and Essence (1983),

Thomas Aquinas states that “The essence is that by which the thing is constituted in its proper genus or species, and which we signify by the definition which states what something is.” Aristotle refers to essence as “what something was to be”. It is also referred to as quiddity or form because form signifies the determination of each thing. Another term used for essence is “nature”. In this sense, a thing is called nature which the intellect can grasp in any way, for a thing is intelligible only through its definition and essence. In the existential order or in reality, essence is  individual or concrete, but when considered in the intellect, essence is specific and abstract. The intellect grasps what an individual has in common with other individuals of the same class
Existence, which is a co-principle with essence of being, is that by which something is or that by which something has being. Existence is that which manifests essence thus making reality actual. Again Thomas Aquinas has this to say: “Being furthermore is a name of an act, for a thing is not said to be because it is in potency but because it is in act” (cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, 1,22). The act of existing is the highest act in which all things can participate, but the act existing itself does not participate in anything at all. “It is evidence that existence is other than essence or quiddity, unless perhaps there is something whose essence is its very existence” (On Being and Essence).

3.2 Potency and Act

Potency and act are yet another concepts which are essential to being. They are metaphysical principles which can be mentally distinguished but which in themselves do not exist as two things. They constitute each created being. Like essence and existence, they have no identity. They are useful in explaining changes. What is act? In philosophy, the term act signifies the primary act of all.

It means the act of existence. Whatever exists is in act. Every existing being is in act. Every being exercises the act of existence. The chair on which you sit, the table on which you write, and the book you are reading are all actual chair, actual table and actual book. They are beings  in act. Truly speaking, act means being. In other words, every being is itself and nothing else, it is a particular thing, and it has its own identity. But this identity or particular-thing-ness of the being does not chain or enclose or confine that being to remaining only that being and all the time. This brings us to the concept of potency. In other words, in addition to being the particular being that a thing is, that being or thing possesses a power or capacity or ability to become or to be made into something else. It is this power or ability or capacity that is called potency in philosophy. That is to say that the being is itself, but it has in itself what enables it to acquire a new determination or perfection or a new being.

This power or capacity or ability, however, is yet unrealized. It is not active but a passive power. It is not yet something or being, at the same time it is not nothing or non-entity. It is a medium or an intermediary between actual being and absolute nothingness. This is what is called potency. I suspect that your brain is turning upside down by these difficult concepts. Let us use an illustration to try to explain them. Take for example a log of wood which exists in itself; it is an actual log of wood and nothing else. This log of wood has something that we do not see but is inherent in it. It has a power or capacity to be carved into a statue. Right now it is not a statue; it is only a log of wood. It is a log of wood in act but a statue in potency. The carvable nature of the log of wood is referred to as the potency. Let us take another example, Think of the maize that we plant and eat. It is a maize in act. But this maize has within itself an ability to be made into pap (akamu). Maize is not pap. Pap only exists in the maize potentially. It is maize in act and pap in potency. With these examples, I am sure you can make a distinction between potency and act and you know that there is actual being and potential being – that which already is and that which can be – the actual existing lock of wood and the possible or potential statue; the actual existing maize and the possible or potential pap. Every created being therefore is constituted of potency and act. In addition to being the particular thing that it is, it possesses a capacity to become what it is not yet.


  1. Philosophically, what is another name for Act? 
  2.  What other terms would you use for the word Essence? 
  •  Simple 
  •  Clear 
  •  Down-to-earth 

3.3 Matter and Form

As you have seen above, we have emphasized that potency and act are co-principles of being and they extend to every created being and is not limited to or by any class or category of being within the realm of created reality. However, in corporeal things (things that have bodies), a
further distinction is made between primary matter and substantial form. Primary matter and substantial from or simply put, matter and form, are co-principles of corporeal being. They are metaphysical in nature in that they are not things that can be seen, touched or felt. They constitute material reality. Every material thing is composed of matter and form. They are not two identical things united into one but complementary aspects of a corporeal being.

Considering the things of our experience, for example, hibiscus flower, banana, cow, John, Zuma rock, etc., one may ask: What is it that makes a thing what it is? That is to say what makes a particular thing manifests qualities and perform certain activities distinguished from other things?
What makes a thing the kind of thing that something is? The answer to these questions is simple. It is the substantial form of that thing. It is the form that distinguishes one thing from another and makes the thing the kind of thing that it is and not another. Substantial form makes a thing

what it is. If we are to define it, we can say: “A form is that which makes a thing to be what it is. Matter on the other hand is that of which a thing is made.
Primary matter, however, is entirely without form – it is amorphous, undetermined but determinable. The best way, I believe, to explain these two terms, is in the context of change and I mean substantial change in ]which one thing becomes something different in nature. That is to say,
one substantial form gives way to another substantial form. In every change, we must remember that there are two distinct termini – the beginning point and the end point. Let us consider maize, for example, which is to be made into pap. The maize is the beginning point and pap is the end point. What makes maize to be maize is the form of maize and matter is that of which the maize is made. Now when the maize is made into pap, what makes pap to be pap is the form of pap and matter is that of which the pap is made. In this change, one form gives way to another.

There is a common factor that links the two forms. This factor is the matter (the material aspect of maize and the material aspect of the pap).

In this explanation, we must note that substantial change involves a discontinuity, for example, at one point maize and at another point, pap. But the discontinuity here does not imply annihilation and creation. That is, maize is not annihilated (reduced to nothing) and pap is not created (from nothing); we must rather say that there is an element of continuity which persists throughout the change. This is a permanent substratum – it is the foundation and carrier of the change. It is common both to the beginning and the terminal points. This is what is called primary matter. When maize is changed into pap, the substantial form of maize disappears, but the primary matter which underlies that form does not disappear. In this change the primary matter loses the form of maize, and acquires a new form, that of pap. This means that primary matter can pass under several forms in succession and it means that primary matter is in potency to all forms. Therefore, primary matter is a pure potentiality and noting else. Primary matter can only be defined negatively: it is not nothingness; it is not privation of form, not quiddity, not quantity or anything of this kind. It is noumenon, the basis of all phenomena. Primary matter is distinguishable from form but it cannot exist deprived of form. It is capable of existing successively with an indefinite multiplicity of forms. Just as the distinction between potency and act makes possible the explanation of change, becoming and multiplicity in being, so does the distinction between the primary matter and substantial form makes possible the explanation of substantial change.


  1.  Matter and form are two concrete things. True or false? 
  2.  What kind of change takes place when maize is changed into pap? 


Being is rich and complex. The richness and complexity of being revealed that being is all there is. Being is not a quality or like a concept that is added to a thing. The notion of being is the only existing notion. Every concrete being is being in itself but a possibility to many others. But in all, being is what is most striking and what is deepest in everything. We shall never exhaust the notion of being.


In this unit, you have learnt that everything of our experience is constituted of metaphysical principles called essence and existence. What a thing is and the fact that it is. Again you have learned that in addition to what a thing is, that thing has a power or a capacity to become something else. In other words, every being of our experience has some potentiality. And finally, we have told you that every material or corporeal being is a composite of matter and form. But do not forget that being in itself is one.


  1.  Explain what you understand by potency and act? 
  2. What do you understand by the terms matter and form? 


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