Section 2


Chapter 1

"Substance and accident"

We have so far been dealing in metaphysics with the question of how one something (existence, or in the preceding section a form of existence) can be multiple; and we saw that the answer to how there can be many different instances of the same thing was that each of them was a limited case of whatever was limited.

We are now going to be asking the opposite question: How is it that something that is many realities can be really one something? What has not been clearly recognized in philosophy up to this point is that there are two senses to this question: (1) how it is that many parts can all exist together as a single whole, and (2) how it is that many behaviors can each be the behavior of a single object. It is not surprising that the two should be confused, because it isn't at first glance clear that there is a distinction between them (since a part as real has to be an act of some sort, and a behavior is also an act), and because in fact the second is a consequence of the first.

This is, of course, the "substance and accident" controversy, which has caused so much trouble philosophically throughout history. Because it is an effect, there have been any number of attempts to explain it away, some more successful than others; but even Kant, who did a pretty good (but unsuccessful) job, realized that we can't help thinking in terms of substances (bodies, things) that perform various acts (accidents, behaviors).

I suppose you could say that Plato was the one who provoked the issue, by holding, in a sense, its opposite: that what we call the "behaviors" of something or its "properties" were in fact Aspects in their own right, existing (in a spiritual way) independently of the objects that "had" them. The objects were nothing but participants in the Aspects, or visible examples of them. A given object could participate, however, in many Aspects at the same time, which made us think (erroneously, for Plato) that the body was what was "really real" and that the Aspects were characteristics of it, and not the other way round.

It was Aristotle (holding the "erroneous" view) who gave us "substance and accident," though these two terms in the Greek really mean "reality and the accompaniment" of it; "substance" (what "stands under") was a bad Latin translation based on what Aristotle said in some places, that the reality was "underneath" the accompanying acts; but in other places he indicated that what was "underneath," really, was matter, and the reality should be considered the power to perform the accompaniments; that it was the primary act, and the accompaniments were secondary acts that followed from it and revealed it.

Aristotle was interested in the question of how something can be some given thing without actually doing what was implied at the moment: for instance, how a human being can be a seeing thing when he has his eyes closed or is asleep. He is a seeing thing because he has the power to see, even if he is not performing the act of seeing; and this power (in this case, the life of the human) is some kind of act that makes the body the kind of body it is (remember, for Aristotle, the act is the form).

Scholasticism developed this into calling the "substance" what "exists in itself and not in something else as a subject of inherence," and the "accident" as what "exists in something else as in a subject of inherence." The idea here was that the "accident" had a kind of existence, but it was (as we would say today) the existence of the "substance," as color, for instance, never exists except as the color of some body (which is what "really exists").

Descartes interpreted "exists in itself" as meaning "exists independently," and so to him a "substance" was something you had a clear and distinct idea of (i.e. you knew what it was and your knowledge of it didn't involve your knowledge of anything else--it was independently known). Every substance, however, was known through an attribute which defined it; thus mind was a substance clearly and distinctly known through the attribute of thought, and body was a substance clearly and distinctly known through the attribute of extension, which had nothing to do with thought, and vice versa--hence, mind and body were distinct substances.

Now this has very little to do, actually, with what Aristotle was driving at with his distinction between the reality of something and its accompaniments; because the terms of the problem shifted, with Descartes, from how we are to account for what causes our perceptions into what the logical consequences are of our concept of "independent." And the result was, not surprisingly, that "substance" now took on different senses, depending on how "independent" was interpreted.

Spinoza, for instance, interpreted "independent" as meaning "needing nothing else to exist"; in which case, there is only one substance, God, and everything else is either a (dependent) mode or an attribute of that one substance. Leibniz interpreted "independent" as "not being affected by anything," and so there were many substances (the "monads,") which were created (willed to exist, so to speak) by God, the Monad of monads, but which had actually no effect on each other (though they were picked out so that they would "fit together" just as if they were acting on each other).

Also not surprisingly, this sort of thing was looked on as just a silly word-game by more down-to-earth philosophers, like Locke and Hume, who said that just because the notion "dependence" demands the "independent" this doesn't mean anything necessarily in the world we have experience of--and we certainly don't see "substances" walking around; we see collections of properties. So why bother with this invisible glue sticking them together? Why (to use Dewey's example) say that there is a "rose behind" the scent, the color, the texture, the shape, and so on? The rose is--and is nothing but--its scent, color, texture and all the rest. You lose nothing by this except some mystical, unchanging something-or-other that is supposed to be "behind" what we see.

(Incidentally, these empiricists thought of "substance" also as "what remains the same through a change," and thus produced another oversimplification of the sophisticated Scholastic position, and a straw man that it was easy to knock down. But we will see more of this particular effect in the next chapter; at the moment we are concerned with the effect that at any given moment it seems that we are confronted with multiple units.)

It was Kant who did most to discredit "substance," because he explained why we tend to think that there is a rose "behind" this set of characteristics (and there isn't just the set of characteristics that happen to be together). He asserted that when we organize the data of sensation into a perception, we necessarily have to organize it through time, putting one "dot" of sensation after another. But since the sequence of time is not important here (if you start with the scent and add the texture, you get the same perception as if you start with the texture and add the scent), the "time-through-which" you organize the sensations into a single perception shows up as a "something or other underneath" them, and gives us our inescapable conviction that the various properties are characteristics of one substance, which appears as a kind of mysterious, unchanging, "basic reality" of which the sensations are characteristics.

For all these reasons, the notion now of "substance" is looked on as one of those pseudo-issues that come from formulating the problem in the wrong way. This is another bit of damage Descartes did by his superficial understanding of the philosophical tradition he repudiated.

But that something like "substance" has to be reinstated is clear from the fact that, against Hume and Dewey, it is impossible to explain, if there are only sets of properties, why some of these sets belong together, and the properties can't trade each other off into new "substances" at the will of the perceiver. That is, why can't you pull the color and the texture of the rose out of the vase and leave the shape still there? Why is it that if you lift the rose out, then all of the properties that seem to "belong to" it come out together, and leave behind that "set of properties" that you call the properties "of" the vase? And why, if you lift the vase up, can't you make the table come up along with it, by calling the vase-table just one substance--if all the vase is and all the table is are just a set of properties that don't "stick together" in reality in any way?

And this, of course, refutes Kant also. If I am the one who organizes the sensations into a single perception, then why can't I organize the vase and the table into a vase-table? The fact that the vase's properties are organized only into this set and this set excludes any other properties that don't belong to it indicates that it is not the "universal subjective organizer" (the "I think" that accounts for the unity of the perceptions) that separates the various objects in my (single) visual field into different multiple units. The necessity to exclude the properties of the table from the properties unified into the vase must come from outside my mind, or my mind performs opposite tasks at once.