substance and accidents


Aristotle distinguished between “substances” and “accidents,” this second ground being those properties that substances happen to have, but which could come and go without affecting their “essence” and, hence, existence. We can change height without ceasing to be who we are, say: We do so as we grow up, or grow older. But we cannot change species: If I cease to be a human being, I cease to exist. Accidents in this sense need not be truly accidental: There may be good scientific reason for me to be the height I am, even if a shorter or taller version would still have been me. Aristotle’s idea would therefore not figure in a history of accidents in the vernacular sense. His accidents are closer to what we call “properties,” such as speaking Greek, or having brown eyes, whereas our “accidents” tend to be events. It may even be an accident that we have the one word for the two different ideas. In “Accident: A Philosophical and Literary History” (University of Chicago Press, 320 pages, $35), Ross Hamilton’s vast, serious canvas is wide enough to include both notions, brought together by the paradoxical idea that it is the accidents that happen to us that determine our essential nature. In the modern consciousness, apparently, it is “spots of time,” or moments, that create meaning and structure, defining who we are. Mr. Hamilton has assembled testimony from a panoramic array of writers, philosophers, and French theorists in support of this diagnosis of the modern way of looking at things: Dante is defined by his chance encounter with Beatrice, for example, and Wordsworth by an equally rapturous encounter with a daffodil.

In the face of such a chorus, it is difficult to dissent, yet I find the idea dubious, a product of our tyrannical narrative impulses.

more from the NY Sun here.