Essence, Accident and the Problem of Identity Politics

The End does not justify the Means because
The End does not depend on the Means.

(CARROLLTON – Cradle of Civilization) – In times past, long past, when Aristotle or Plato were chatting about the meaning of life, they would speak of essence and accident. They would also talk about matter and form. In today’s parlance, essence would mean something similar then and now. But, the term accident doesn’t translate quite so well. Matter and form relate to accident and essence.

Put simply, an accident is not an essence. Put perhaps obscurely, an essence may be thought of as a universal but an accident is certainly not. So, ignoring the idea of a car accident for example, what is meant by accident? It applies to an aspect of something or someone that is not essential. Below, we have some items:

Most people have no trouble identifying this object. Based on the picture, it appears made of wood.So, what is this?

This looks to be made from some sort of composite or plastic, though it could be made of wood. But what is it? What if I said it was that same thing as the item below?

HINT: they both rock.

In case it is not obvious, this does not rock. But, it is made of rock, not wood or some composite. Not metal either. Does it matter?

I’m hoping we can all agree that we have four pictures of chairs, two of which are rocking chairs. I think we can see that a chair does not have to rock in order to be classed as a chair, and it does not have to be made of rock in order to be classed as a chair. And a rocking chair does not have to be made of rock.

Whatever it is that makes a chair a chair is its essence. Clearly, the material (matter) can vary wildly, as can the outward appearance, yet, somehow all the above are chairs. There is something essential, something universal that applies equally to the above images that makes them chairs. This something is their “form” – the universal that makes any and all chairs, chairs.

So, the incidental shapes, colors, materials from which made, those are all not essential to the universal chair, they are simply part of any individual chair. These non-essential aspects are what are called accidents by the aforementioned philosophers.

You might object that rocking is essential to rocking chairs and that rock is essential to rock chairs – but you would be missing the point. All such chairs are unique instantiated specifics of the universal chair. Because you can have things that rock that are not chairs, and things made of stone that are not chairs, those are not the essence of “chair”. The universal, the essence of “chair”, its form, is that which applies to all chairs that have ever or will ever exist. Because, simply, you cannot have a chair that is not a chair. (This is an application of the principle of non-contradiction: something cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner.)

So, what about humans? Look – more pretty pictures:

Human

A Human Being

A Human Being

A Human Being

Despite their wildly varying appearance – I contend that these are all human beings. I contend that it does not matter what skin color, how many legs, or what age a human being is – because those are accidents of particular instances of human beings. Some of these accidents change over time. For example the second example of human being above had natural legs at some time in the past before he got artificial legs. The third example of human being won’t always look like a baby. Most people would agree that the first  example of a human being will always be a black female human being – though for all we know looking at her now, she could be a white man in makeup. Or someone who had gender reassignment surgery and now has the appearance of a black female though at the chromosome level may in fact be a black male.

It should be clear that none of the above impacts whether or not they are a human being. If the outward appearance, age, number of limbs, etc., are all accidents, then what is it that make them all human?

It is the combination of their matter with their form. And what is the form of the human? According to Aristotle, it is the psyche – which in Latin is anima, the  principle that distinguishes the animate from the inanimate. In English, it is called the soul.

“The soul,” you ask? Yes. A defining difference between a rock and a tree is that one is not alive and one is. What makes something alive? For folks like Aristotle it was obvious that something animates living things and that non-living things lack this something. This animating principle is its form and it is also just simply called its soul.

What’s all this got to do with identity politics? Ah – the issue of identity of course. Which will be discussed in the follow-up post.

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2 responses to “Essence, Accident and the Problem of Identity Politics

  1. Pingback: Design Speaks « ElephantsWind

  2. Pingback: The Truth and All That | The Spiritual Advocate

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