Aristotle’s substance and accident

Bader asks:

I’m interested in Aristotle’s philosophy and I study his concepts of substance and accident. Aristotle says that an accident is that which exists through another or present in another and not in itself. My question is how exactly can I conceptualize the phrases “being in itself” and “being present in another” with some examples to clarify how something can be in another and what sort of relationship exists between them.

Answer by Craig Skinner

Aristotle’s metaphysics of potentiality/ actuality, substance/accidents, matter/ form, essence/ existence, and four causes/ causal powers is increasingly recognized as the framework underlying the physical and biological sciences, after a long period of misrepresentation and neglect beginning with early moderns such as Hobbes, Descartes and Locke, and I’m pleased you’re interested in it.

As regards substance and accident, these refer to the individual, naturally occurring, concrete items of the world (plants, planets, cats, humans, and so on) and their properties. So, a substance is a thing or object (consisting of prime matter taking the form of that particular thing), and its accidents are its properties (qualities, attributes, features), what can be said of it (predicated of it). For example my cat is a substance having the accident “black”, my grandchild is “female”, the tree in the garden is “leafy”. You can readily see that the substances (cat, grandchild, tree) are self-standing items, existing “in themselves”, but they cant be a property of something else – nothing can be “cat” or “tree”,  so they cant be “present in (as a feature of) another”. Accidents (“black”, “female”, “leafy”) on the other hand can only be present as features of things (substances) , they  are “present in another” not “beings in themselves”. Thus, you never come across a big or a black, an old or a female, it always has to be a big, black or old something. By the way, Plato thought that properties were instances in the everyday world of universals which exist in another heavenly world of Forms. So the black of my cat instantiates the Form of the Black (blackness). Even if every black thing in the world were destroyed, the Form of the Black would remain, just uninstantiated. But Aristotle thought blackness existed only as and in its instances. “Goodbye to the Forms, for they are nonsense” he said.

Some accidents can be lost but the substance remains the same thing. My dog, for example, is long-haired, but can be clipped and still be the same dog. Its shagginess is a contingent accident (one that could be otherwise). Other accidents are essential to a substance ie without them it wouldnt be the substance it is. Water for instance boils at 100°C at sea level, and dissolves salt. If it didnt have these properties, it wouldnt be water.

Some scholars take “accident”, to mean only non-essential features (accidental ones as it were), others take “property” to mean only essential attributes (“proper” accidents). And for Aristotle “accident” applies widely, including not just intrinsic qualities like colour or hardness, but also attributes such as place, position, length, relation to other things, actions being undertaken, in short the various categories he applies to things.

Note that only natural things are substances (or substantial forms). Artefacts, whether designed, such as knives or computers, or chance arrangements like a heap of stones which happens to be table-shaped, are not substantial forms but rather accidental forms (dont confuse the “accidental” here with “accidents” as discussed above). A natural form has an intrinsic, sustained tendency to maintain its identity, an artefact hasnt. So wood, say, when in the form of a tree, maintains and repairs its shape and function  (its form) over the years, but when in the form of a shed, it rots and falls apart with the years. The shed, unlike the tree, has no inbuilt tendency to become and remain a shed. And if you plant a bit of a tree, another tree may grow, but a planted bit of shed wont grow another shed. Of course, accidental forms, just like substantial ones, have attributes (accidents) as discussed earlier.

I agree with Aristotle’s view that things are a compound of substance and accidents. Modern rivals, such as the bundle theory and the substratum theory are incoherent. The bundle theory says that a thing just is all of its properties: take away all the properties and there is nothing left. But what is it, then, that binds these properties together to make a particular thing?. If on the other hand we say that there is a bearer of the properties, a bare substratum, what sort of entity can this be? If the substratum has no properties whatsoever, we could exchange the substrata of a dog and a stone say. But now the entity with all the properties of a dog is really a stone. Absurd.  No, the bearer of the properties is the substance itself.

I hope I’ve said enough to give the general idea:

  • Substance + accidents ­­=  thing + attributes.
  • A thing is a “being in itself” and cant be “present in another thing”.
  • Attributes arent beings in themselves and can only be present in, or exist through, (other) things.
  • The substance/ accidents view of the constitution of concrete things is superior to the bundle or the substratum views.

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