Representation and Reality of the Self in Art
1. Aristotle's Concept Of Essence
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.  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.
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”.
 I will use the Latin term “essence” throughout this
thesis for the sake of simplicity.
is, for each thing, what it is taken to be per se.  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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.  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.
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.  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.
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.
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
4. Lawson-Tancred, Hugh. Introduction to Metaphysics,
by Aristotle (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1998), xxx.
5. Aristotle, Metaphysics (London: Penguin Books
6. ibid., 180.