Aristotle’s first answer to “what is being” is ousia. Rather than translating the term, it’s better to approach it through the various things that Aristotle says about it. So what does he say?
The question “what is being” clearly is a particular case of seeking an answer to the question “what something is”. But there is more than one answer to such a question. John, for example, is six feet tall, or two-hundred pounds, or ten feet from Billy’s cow; and “white” is a color on the French flag or an essential color in snow-globes. Now all of these answers can truthfully fill in the blank when we ask “John is ______” or “white is _____”, and so they all give an answer to the question of what John or white is; but none of them answers the question without qualification. Someone who is really in doubt about what John is or what white is (say, someone learning English or first investigating the physics of color) doesn’t want to be told just anything that can truthfully fill in the blank in a question, but something fundamental among the possible answers. Ousia is thus the answer that we give to the question “what is being” when the question is without qualification – whatever that is. Ousia in this sense is opposed to what truthfully answers what something is only in a qualified way. This can be called “the accidental” but we must point out right away that it is not (initially) the same thing as what Aristotle calls “an accident”. The unqualified answer to “what is white” is the ousia of white, even though white is an accident.
But though there is an ousia of white or jogging, nevertheless such things do not first answer the particular question “what is a being?” Just as an unqualified answer to “what is hot” requires us to speak of something that is hot by itself (and not, say, a coffee cup, that might be hot if something else heats it) so too the answer to the question “what is being” requires us to speak of something that can be by itself. Aristotle calls this being able to be koris, that is, “separable” or “independent” (as most translations put it), but it is simply the first condition for what an answer has to be to the question “what is being?” It would have to be what can be by itself, independently of the action or existence of something other. By such a criterion, qualities and relations and positions and privations and other things like them cannot be ousia, and ousia is opposed to them.
The intimacy between ousia and the unqualified answer to the question “what is being?” means that one f the first and most obvious answers to “what is ousia” is “whatever answers the question of what it is to be”. Aristotle refers to this thing all the time – it’s his to ti aen einai or, in Latin, quod quid erat esse. The crucial word in this constructed idiom is the to ti or quid, that is, “the what” (Latin was late in developing the definite article, and so a better idiom would be ly or illud quid erat esse.) This “ti” or “quid” is what makes it an answer to the question “what is being?” To save time, the Medievals used the term essentia to refer to this quod quid erat esse, which was fine since they knew what the term was standing in for. But for a contemporary English speaker to refer to it as essence from the get-go will assure that he has no idea what he is speaking about, or why Aristotle was saying anything true. Aristotle’s to ti aen einai is simply obviously an answer to what being is; an English speaker’s essence is not. Nevertheless, Aristotle’s idiom is not a mere repetition of “what is being” in another form, for Aristotle introduces the notion of einai, that is esse or “be” as an infinitive. Just as running is whatever it is to run, being is whatever it is to be.
But not all things are such that there is an answer to the question of what they are without qualification, and so not all have a to ti aen einai. The basic problem is that not every thing is a kind of thing. A green house is certainly a thing, but it does not follow that it is a kind of house. An enumeration of all the kinds of houses would speak of ramblers, colonials, split-entry, etc. but not “green houses”. It is not one of the divisions that architects or Realtors speak of. There are all kinds of things that exist but are not sorts of things. Here again, Aristotle is eliminating another sense of what is simply accidental from the notion of ousia. Being in this sense is what is specific or generic, though not in the biological sense of a “genus” or a “species” but in the sense of what is a kind of thing as opposed to a merely accidental unity – even if this accidental unity truly exists. Such a sense is not utterly unrelated to the biological sense (biologists would not study, say, “mice with at least two feet”, since this is simply not a sort of mouse) but it is not an answer to a properly biological question either.
Aristotle thus gradually – by a series of imperceptible steps, each of which is so obvious as to be almost banal – slowly isolates being by separating it from the accidental – first what is accidental in predication, then in being, then by lacking a proper kind. He then has to isolate the sense of “being” from the various candidates that are not accidental – matter and the universal or general kind. We’ll look at matter in part II; the universal in part III.