Table of Content


1. Aristotle’s Concept of Essence

2. Likeness as
Representation of the Self

3. Wittgenstein’s
Concept of Family

4. Likeness as
of “self”

5. Master of Arts Art Exhibition




The Representation and Reality of the Self in Art

Chapter 1. Aristotle's Concept Of Essence

In this chapter I will discuss Aristotle’s concept of essence, which supports the claim that the representation of likeness in self-portraits is at the same time the representation of the essential self of the artist. Aristotle discusses essence in Metaphysics, as a part of his answer to the ontological question of being. The concept of essence appears in a rather tangled discussion of substance in Book Zeta, first as a criterion for the substantiality; later essence is identified with the substance.

The ontological question of being is one of the fundamental questions in all Greek philosophy. Aristotle starts his analysis of being with the observation that being is spoken of (1) as that which is, the item with thisness; or (2) as quantity, quality or any category that can be predicated. In Aristotle’s opinion being is that which is, the thing with thisness. Thisness is something that a thing has that allows us to determinate it as “this”. We can determine a particular dog as “this” but we can also determine a whole species of dogs as “this”.

All categories, except substance, have existence only as being predicated. Only substance has existence independent of its predications, while qualities, quantities, and any other categories that may be predicated, depend on substance for their existence. Therefore, being is substance. [1]

Aristotle first defined “substance” in Categories, where substance was posited as the primary category, to which other categories may be predicated. Substance is what has qualities. Qualities belong to substances. For example, if we say that Socrates is musical, then Socrates is a substance that has the quality of being musical. Socrates has being as substance, while musicality has being as quality. The being of quality depends on substance, while the being of substance is independent of quality. Socrates does not need to have the quality of musicality, but musicality has to belong to an entity, such as Socrates. [2]

After substance is defined, there still remains a question of what substance is. In Metaphysics Aristotle provides a list of previous candidates for substance in Greek philosophy, such as natural beings, Plato’s forms etc. [3] Unsatisfied with any of the previous candidates, Aristotle continues the investigation of substance applying subject, essence, genus and universal as criteria of substantiality. I will focus on his analysis of the criterion of essence.

Aristotle’s term for essence in Greek literally means “what-it-was-to-be-that-thing”. In the middle ages it was translated in Latin as “essence”. [4] I will use the Latin term “essence” throughout this thesis for the sake of simplicity.

Essence is, for each thing, what it is taken to be per se. [5] An essence only belongs to those things for which an account is definition. Essence applies primarily to substances, and secondarily to other categories. The being of quality Aristotle compares with non-being, for which one would say that it is, because it is not.

In the Categories Aristotle divided substances into particular and general substances. General substances are further divided into genus and species. So, the genus of animal can be further divided into the species of men, horse etc.

In the Categories Aristotle held the position that particular substances are fundamental. In Metaphysics he refuted that standpoint. As I said above, essence only belongs to those things for which an account is a definition. (See below.) To be definable, something must have a certain kind of unity –- it must be single thing with only substantial features. Only a species meets these requirements. Therefore, species are the most fundamental substances, because only species can be defined.

Species may be understood as a bridge between genus and particular. Species and particulars share the characteristic of thisness, while genus does not have the characteristic of thisness. We cannot determinate the genus of animals as “this”. Species are entities unitary in a certain way, whose essences exhaust their substances.

We may say that Aristotle assigned a fundamental role to subspecies of natural kinds. The reason why Aristotle decided to prefer species over particulars may be because substance has to play a double role of being both a fundamental level of hierarchy of being and a role as the root of intelligibility of the world.

Aristotle goes on to say that essence is what is definable in a thing. So, for Aristotle, essences are just the species of genus, and nothing else. [6] The essence of the thing is that which is intelligible about it, because it is the essence of something that is described in the definition of it. Only essence can be defined. The essence of a thing is those per se features that are mentioned in the definition. Aristotle’s claim is that the essence of something is its substance. Therefore, substance is essence. The claim that essence is substance means that what is ontologically fundamental is also conceptually prior, i.e., ontologically prior in a sense that the being of everything depends on the essence, conceptually prior in that it is in terms of essence that everything has to be understood.

Defining substance as species still leaves open the question of how particular beings can have essence. Aristotle equated species to that which the particulars belong with the form that is ingredient in the composite nature of particular entity. Form is equated with species (therefore with substance and essence). The soul is the substance of a living being. [7] In the case of species of humans, the form is the soul that is expressed in flesh and bone. The form of a human being is his soul realized in flesh and bones. Therefore, the essence of man is his soul expressed in the body. Therefore, representation of likeness is also representation of essence.

Aristotle’s position had a profound influence on the history of philosophy, and also on the interpretation of art. If essence is understood as form expressed in matter, it is obvious why the traditional interpretations of portraits and self-portraits hold that self (the essence) of the particular person may be represented through realistic representation of the likeness of that person. I will in the next chapter show that this position was present in art history.


1. Aristotle, Metaphysics (London: Penguin Books Ltd.,1998), 168.

2. Lawson-Tancred, Hugh. Introduction to Metaphysics, by Aristotle (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1998), xxvi-xxvii.

3. Aristotle, Metaphysics (London: Penguin Books Ltd.,1998), 171.

4. Lawson-Tancred, Hugh. Introduction to Metaphysics, by Aristotle (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1998), xxx.

5. Aristotle, Metaphysics (London: Penguin Books Ltd.,1998), 178.

6. ibid., 180.

7. ibid., 203.


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