Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

There are two related aspects of substantialism, first, the view that substantial realities lie behind all pehnomena and, second, the the doctrine that matter is a real substance.

explanatory context

Substantialism is a term that has been used to describe (mainly) Marx's/Marxist materialism. As such, substantialism stresses the primacy of existence over consciousness and that social life is 'explained' by social conditions of existence.

analytical review

Kohl (undated, p. 3) describes substantialism as follows:

Substance is something that has independent existence. In Europe, substantialism is at the centre of traditional metaphysics, beginning with pre-Socratic philosophers (like Parmenides and Heraclitus, two critics of substantial thought) via Plato right up to Immanuel Kant. According to traditional metaphysics, substance or own being is something that has independent existence, something unchangeable, eternal and existing by itself. Substance is the underlying basis for the entire non-material foundation of the world in which we live. Plato made a distinction between two forms of being: particularly in the second part of his Parmenides he distinguished between, on the one hand, singular objects which exist exclusively through participation without own being and, on the other hand, ideas that do have own being.

Traditional metaphysics adopted Plato’s dualism. An independent own being is characterized in traditional metaphysics as something that, as an existing thing, is not dependent on anything else (Descartes); is existing by itself and subsisting through itself (More); is completely unlimited by others and free from any kind of foreign command (Spinoza); and exists of itself without anything else (Schelling). In traditional metaphysics, the highest substance was often understood as God or as a divine being. Since Kant's so called 'Copernican Revolution' the primary question of philosophy is no longer to know reality, but rather to know the mind or the source of perception and knowledge. For this reason the traditional metaphysics has lost ground in the modern world. In fact the central concepts of the traditional metaphysics, such as being, substance, reality, essence, etc. have been replaced by the reductionist modes of thought of modern sciences. Now atoms, elementary particles, energy, fields of force, laws of nature etc. are seen as the fundamental ground for everything else.

associated issues


related areas

See also




Kohl, C.T., undated, Pratityasamutpada in Eastern and Western Modes of Thought, originally available at, accessed 13 April 2013, not safely available 28 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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