Identity and the Per Accidens

Identity and the Per Accidens

We get this identity of the one and the many cropping up everywhere as a result of the sentences we utter, in every single sentence ever uttered… as soon as a young man gets wind of it, …he is beside himself with delight, and loves to try every move in the game. First he rolls the stuff to one side and jumbles it into one, then he undoes it again and takes it to pieces, to the confusion first and foremost of himself, and second to whatever neighbors are by him at the moment… he has no mercy on his father or mother or anyone by him.


Philebus, 15e.

A sentence is one in meaning, but composed of more than one word. Beyond this there is a sort of manyness in the difference between the thing and the sign of the thing in speech. The young play with this meaning as soon as they find it, playing a game which in our present age is called “deconstruction”, or as Socrates puts it: first he jumbles all things into one, then he undoes it again.

“First he jumbles all things into one”. This is the creation of some false definition, which, since it is a “jumble” is really just a heap of the per accidens. These false definitions are not always false statements (and the best ones are true), but they are always partial or distorted truths that leave out a good deal of the thing one is speaking about, and certainly leave out the thing that is most fundamental*. Hence we get statements like “I think, therefore I am” or “All philosophy is a game of linguistics” or “to be is to be perceived” or “There is nothing known outside the realm of empirical experience”. There is no problem with any of these statements as truths that may find there justification in philosophy. It is inarguable that my thinking proves my existence, or that every statement of or advancement of philosophy will happen with words. Nor is there any problem in saying that all being is perceived by some intelligence, nor with saying that there is no supra-sensible being that we must derive philosophy from. The problem with all of these principles is not that they are false, but rather that they are taken as fundamental. Any one of them would merit some mention in philosophy, but the attempt to found a whole philosophy on them is bound to fail. None of them get to the heart of what it is to exist, do philosophy, to be, or to be known.

The problem is that any part of the many can be confused with the one: the words of a sentence, for example, are in a certain sense “all that there is to a sentence”: certainly the sentence would not exist without the words that compose it. Being, as St. Thomas shows, would not exist without some action of an intelligence, and this action might certainly be called “perception” after a manner. So too with the other opinions. All of them claim to grasp something essential, but they merely grasp the accidental. That they grasp something true is inarguable; that they grasp something fundamental is ultimately ridiculous.

But I have wandered away from the point (again). Why is it that the accidental has such power over the youth? The accidental does have this going for it: it is infinite. Any clever person can find some corner of the per accidens and claim it as uniquely his own. The youth are eternally neurotic about their own identity, and they would prefer just about anything that was their own to something true- if that true thing did not distinguish them from their elders. This is not true of all youth- some prefer the conformity of common of traditional ideas, which are almost all common or traditional because they have gotten to the essence of something- but the aorit o youth, or at least the most vocal of the youth, are not content with the traditional or common. Anything but that! I would have to think just like my parents! And so the per accidens lends its assistance, with its claims to make them independent and unique.The per accidens allows us to have a philosophy that is uniquely our own, even if it has no value outside of our own skulls.


*We are most familiar with the per accidens principles that have a moral tint: Sex is for people who love each other- drinking is okay under certain circumstances- There’s nothing wrong with dressing so that boys will take an interest in you- People have got to have a good time…etc. All these statements are perfectly true. To take them as fundamental is a recipe for disaster. Please don’t think that I figured this out by reading some book.


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