Sämtliche schriften und briefe series VI volume 4
Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften (ed)
pp 994-996

Date: September – December 1688 (?)

Translated from the Latin

View this translation in PDF format (251k)

Back to home page

Search texts by keyword(s):

(For search strings, just type the words; don't use quotation marks)


[A VI 4, p994]

     It is worth considering whether accidents have any reality other than modal, and in what that consists. And indeed, if we suppose real accidents then either their reality is part of the reality of a substance or it adds a new reality to a substance. If it is part of the reality of a substance then it follows that the substance itself perishes in accidental changes, that is, it becomes a different thing, and that yesterday I would not yet have existed but another did, albeit very similar to me, just as a ship that is repaired or a state or a river are the same in name but not in fact. For when a part is removed, a thing does not truly remain the same thing, even if with the principal part surviving it is still called the same; otherwise, it might happen that when all the parts now belonging to it are gradually removed, it is still sometimes called the same thing, like the ship of Theseus.1 But if a part is understood to remain always, [A VI 4, p995] then that part will indeed be the same though the whole will not be posited with it. For this reason, if someone claims that a persisting part of reality is a changeable part, they fall into the opinion of those who claim that something is added to substantial reality by accidents. But if someone grants that a substance perishes and arises by means of changes (which was the opinion of the Duke of Buckingham in his ingenious essay written on behalf of the truth of religion),2 they in fact destroy all changeable substance. For since the changes of things are continuous, such that nothing remains in the same state for the least interval of time, it follows that there no changeable substance ever exists and even lasts for the least time, for what arises and perishes in any moment is not said to exist or act, properly speaking, nor can it affect anything or be affected, since nothing is affected except during some time. It therefore follows that all changeable substances are removed from nature, and for this reason we fall into the doctrines of Spinoza, the Averroists, and some ancients, who consider God or Nature alone to be a substance, holding that created things are nothing other than modes of God. Yet in this way they do not avoid the problem; indeed, in this way they are forced to transfer to God the changes they have taken away from created substances (since they have been removed), and so God himself will not endure but will continuously perish and arise. From this it follows that, ultimately, nothing at all exists, for if anything should once perish, as follows from this, there will be nothing that restores it, for nothing comes from nothing and nothing arises of its own accord. Therefore, something must persist in the change of things. But if now a part of the divine reality remains and a part perishes, we return again to those who add accidental realities to substantial realities, and why shall we not admit in creatures what we now assert of God, and to the point that we abandon created substances?
      Let us come now to those who think that substances have a twofold reality, one substantial, the other accidental. These ideas are not without their difficulties either. For it will be asked why the superadded reality is said to be in a substance as a subject, and why it should not be considered as a thing in itself, albeit a non-permanent thing. But if that inherence really seems to affect the substantial reality, so that it consists in some real connection, it is not [A VI 4, p996] apparent how the accidental reality can perish without a change occurring in the substantial reality; therefore, it will in turn have to be divided into a perishing part and a permanent part, contrary to the hypothesis.
     On the other hand, if we deny any reality in accidents, as if they were nothing other than relations, we are at a loss once again. For since a relation results from the state of things, it never arises or perishes unless some change has occurred in its foundation.
     I do not yet see another way of avoiding these difficulties other than by considering abstracts not as things but as shorthand ways of speaking, just as when I talk of heat there is no need for me to mention some vague subject, that is, there is no need for me to say that there is something hot; and to that extent I am a nominalist, at least provisionally. Consequently, I shall say that a substance has changed or that its attributes are different at different times, for this brooks no uncertainty. And it is not necessary to ask whether any reality perishes and arises through change, and whether there are in a substance different realities that are the foundations of its different predicates; and if this is asked, it is difficult to determine the answer. It is sufficient to posit only substances as things and to assert truths about them. Geometers likewise do not use definitions of abstracts, but reduce them to concretes. Thus Euclid does not use a definition of "ratio", which he has, but one in which he explains which things are said to have the same, greater, or lesser ratio.3


1. The example of the ship of Theseus derives from a report on the life of Theseus by Plutarch: "The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus. They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel." Plutarch, Plutarch's Lives, trans. Bernadotte Perrin, 11 vols. (London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1959), I: 49.
2. George [Villiers], Duke of Buckingham, Short Discourse upon the Reasonableness of Men's Having a Religion or Worship of God (London: John Leake, 1685), 6: "I conceive that nothing can be properly said to endure, any longer than it remains just the same; for in the instant any part of it is changed, that thing as it was before, is no more in being"; and 9: "upon an Examination of the whole Matter, I am apt to believe, That there can be naturally no change of Accidents, but where there is a real change of Bodies."
3. See Euclid, Elements, book V, definitions 5 and 7.

© Lloyd Strickland 2019