Lucretius - Not Accidents, Not Incidents, But "Contextidents"

  • http://newepicurean.com/lucret…idents-but-contextidents/


    Here is a word issue that has troubled me for a long time. One of the most important sections of Lucretius (near Book 1, line 424) deals with the nature of combinations of elemental properties, which Lucretius divides into two categories. The first category is “properties,” which Lucretius defines as that “which can in no case be disjoined and separated without utter destruction accompanying the severance, such as the weight of a stone, the heat of fire, the fluidity of water.” (all translations here are Munro). The second category is given a name in English which I find inappropriate – it is translated as “accident” by Munro, by Bailey, and by Martin Ferguson Smith. These “accidents” are defined as “things which may come and go while the nature of the thing remains unharmed.”


    Here is a clip of the passage describing this:


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    Subtleties of definitions of words is very personal to the background of the speaker and hearer, but in my own case I come from a background in which “accidental” necessarily implies “fortuitous,” which implies happening by chance, as in lucky, or unlucky, or some work of “fortune.” It concerns me that many English-speakers reading this section of Lucretius may also be reading the same implication, and I don’t think that is what Lucretius intends.


    Here is the Latin of the key part of the passage, again from Munro, and it appears to my non-expert eye that the Latin word being used is “eventa” (eventus -us m. [consequence , issue, result; event, occurrence, experience]) :


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    I have not had time before writing this post to look for other passages in Lucretius, nor have I done a detailed study of “eventa” in Latin. Also, I want to check this discussion by earlier texts in Greek, especially the letter to Herodotus. If others have access to information that would help with this discussion, I would appreciate their comment.


    But until I see other evidence to the contrary, I would suggest that the meaning that Lucretius is conveying here has nothing to do chance, fortune, or luck. I would go further to suggest that it is a major reversal of meaning to suggest that “luck” has any necessary connection with the qualities that are being described as “things which may come and go while the nature of the thing remains unharmed.


    I suggest that what is being conveyed here is that the qualities of bodies are not “accidental,” or even “incidental” as I have sometimes heard used. Rather, what Lucretius is saying here is that the qualities of bodies are CONTEXTIDENTAL (to coin a word, if it does not yet exist.) In other words, the attributes that we observe in objects that come and go while the nature of the thing remains unharmed are determined by the CONTEXT. The attribute is determined by the circumstances that exist at the time that we observe the attribute to exist, including the body itself, the conditions under which we observe it, and the process of our observing it.


    The key point that I think deserves to be made is that if we interpret the Epicurean position to be that the major two categories of attributes of a thing are (1) unchanging properties, and (2) things that are “lucky” or “fortunate” or the result of “chance,” then we are missing the main point in a major way. Epicurean physics replaces the laws of God with the laws of Nature – all properties and qualities of bodies arise from the nature of the elements of which they are composed, and the context in which they are assembled. The qualities that result from the combinations of the elements are most certainly not CHANCE but in fact the opposite – they are necessarily determine by the nature of the elements which have come together at a particular time, at a particular place, and in a particular way.


    The word “contextual” fills the need for most discussion of this issue, and I think properly conveys was Lucretius was intending. We can say that the weight of stone is a property, and the color of a stone is contextual. But as to the words used to describe the categories themselves, the word “contextual” is an adjective, while “property” is a noun. I would suggest that, for those of us who are concerned that “accident” and “accidental” implies fortuity, – that it is confusing at best and erroneous at worst to refer to “properties and accidents.” Maybe there is a better word, but until a better noun comes along, I will try out “accidents and contextidents.

  • Epicurus talks about enduring qualities (properties) and temporary qualities (accidents) in letter to H. in DL X,069-071

  • I don't have the page reference but I think you are probably referring to this part, in the translation at Epicurus.net, where it appears there is no mention of the qualities being "accidental":


    Moreover, we must hold that the atoms in fact possess none of the qualities belonging to things which come under our observation, except shape, weight, and size, and the properties necessarily conjoined with shape. For every quality changes, but the atoms do not change, since, when the composite bodies are dissolved, there must needs be a permanent something, solid and indissoluble, left behind, which makes change possible: not changes into or from the non-existent. but often through differences of arrangement, and sometimes through additions and subtractions of the atoms. Hence these somethings capable of being diversely arranged must be indestructible, exempt from change, but possessed each of its own distinctive mass and configuration. This must remain.

    For in the case of changes of configuration within our experience the figure is supposed to be inherent when other qualities are stripped of, but the qualities are not supposed, like the shape which is left behind, to inhere in the subject of change, but to vanish altogether from the body. Thus, then, what is left behind is sufficient to account for the differences in composite bodies, since something at least must necessarily be left remaining and be immune from annihilation.

  • Later in the letter:


    "Moreover, shapes and colors, magnitudes and weights, and in short all those qualities which are predicated of body, in so far as they are perpetual properties either of all bodies or of visible bodies, are knowable by sensation of these very properties: these, I say, must not be supposed to exist independently by themselves (for that is inconceivable), nor yet to be non-existent, nor to be some other and incorporeal entities cleaving to body, nor again to be parts of body. We must consider the whole body in a general way to derive its permanent nature from all of them, though it is not, as it were, formed by grouping them together in the same way as when from the particles themselves a larger aggregate is made up, whether these particles be primary or any magnitudes whatsoever less than the particular whole. All these qualities, I repeat, merely give the body its own permanent nature. They all have their own characteristic modes of being perceived and distinguished, but always along with the whole body in which they inhere and never in separation from it; and it is in virtue of this complete conception of the body as a whole that it is so designated.


    Again, qualities often attach to bodies without being permanent concomitants. They are not to be classed among invisible entities nor are they incorporeal. Hence, using the term “accidents” in the commonest sense, we say plainly that “accidents” have not the nature of the whole thing to which they belong, and to which, conceiving it as a whole, we give the name of body, nor that of the permanent properties without which body cannot be thought of. And in virtue of certain peculiar modes of apprehension into which the complete body always enters, each of them can be called an accident. But only as often as they are seen actually to belong to it, since such accidents are not perpetual concomitants. There is no need to banish from reality this clear evidence that the accident has not the nature of that whole—by us called body—to which it belongs, nor of the permanent properties which accompany the whole. Nor, on the other hand, must we suppose the accident to have independent existence (for this is just as inconceivable in the case of accidents as in that of the permanent properties); but, as is manifest, they should all be regarded as accidents, not as permanent concomitants, of bodies, nor yet as having the rank of independent existence. Rather they are seen to be exactly as and what sensation itself makes them individually claim to be."

  • I am definitely going to have to ask for help from friends with Greek experience ... It looks like line 70 is key, and do the asterisks indicate missing text and/or other aspects of interpolation of what the text is really saying here? [Furthermore, there often happens to bodies and yet do not permanently accompany them (accidents, of which we must suppose....)

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  • Alexander RiosGroup Admin But doesn't the word "event" includes all accidents, incidents and all intentional coincidents. Every collision, every emission, and every absorption and every beginning or end of a interlacing is an event. Agreed?



    And of course they have context.

    What is special about "contextident"?

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin Yes definitely agreed. But the point I think is significant here is that "events" and "symptoms" clearly are words of logical / natural ***connection** which we can investigate and predict through science, as against "accident" which implies randomness and unpredictability.

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin In other words, the reason I think this is significant is that Epicurus is saying that the atoms provide us predictability and natural explanations for what we see. They do that through their "properties," which are eternal and unchangeeable, and through their qualities, which do change according to circumstance, but which change in logical / natural / predictable ways that are wrapped up in their circumstances. Atomic theory therefor allows for science to explore and understand phenomena. What I am rejecting is the use of terms like "accidental" which implies that the things around us are determined "accidentally" or "randomly" or "without explanation" which would make science impossible.

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    Alexander Rios
    Alexander RiosGroup Admin Determined randomly????

    That makes zero sense.



    That means not determined.

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin Correct. That is what I meant. It would make no sense to say that qualities are detemined randomly, and yet that is what the term "accidentally" implies. I am suggesting that Balley and the others who use accidentally are spoling the philosophical point. They are not commenting here on swerves of the atom, they are implying that colors and things we see contextually are RANDOM, which they certainly are not.

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    Cassius Amicus

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    Alexander Rios
    Alexander RiosGroup Admin Yeah. So what? At this level of few particles and few interactions we're not applying statistics. And we know that the trajectories depend both on properties (deterministic) and swerve (indeterministic) which is not predictable (modeled by chaos).

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin The "so what" is that at the observable level (which is where qualities ocur) the qualities ARE predictable and understandable (if we have the tools and experience and knowledge to dig deep enough)

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    Alexander Rios
    Alexander RiosGroup Admin Of course. Because at the body/quality level we are applying statistics and averages. Too many particles to count and keep track of.

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    Alexander Rios
    Alexander RiosGroup Admin Sounds to me like you are denying the swerve of individual particles.

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin No! But I am suggesting that Balley and the others who use accidentally are spoiling the philosophical point. They are not commenting here on swerves of the atom, they are implying that colors and things we see contextually are RANDOM, which they certainly are not.

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    Alexander Rios
    Alexander RiosGroup Admin Only when we have huge populations of particles is it that the swerve of each washes out, for the body, and applying averages makes sense, and the body/system becomes more deterministic.

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin Right! And that higher level is exactly the level that Epicurus is talking about, because it is at that level that humans see and feel and hear and taste and touch etc...

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin At the level of color and weight as humans measure it, we are talking about huge populations of particles, and at this level, the color and other qualities that we observe flow scientifically / chemically / etc from the order and arrangement and placement etc of the atoms

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin If what we see and touch and here were "random" or "accidents' then we could knew predict from one moment to the next what color an orange might appear to us on the tree

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    Alexander Rios
    Alexander RiosGroup Admin Ok. That is mostly true. But the swerve is not 100% washed out. Because bodies are made of parts, and some of those parts are like islands, isolated from the mob of particles, and to those the swerve still plays a non-ignorable role.

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin RIght. I am in no way attacking the swerve itself. I am saying that properties and qualities are the two major steps up from atoms to our real world in which we experience things, and that at our real level world the swerve does not ordinarily come ...See More

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    Alexander Rios
    Alexander RiosGroup Admin In a city each person moves at their own will. Yet when we consider the whole population, we can apply averages and predict, deterministically, and be right in our predictions more often then not.

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin Yes I completely agree with the individual vs city population analogy. To sort of return full circle to the original point, the strength of Epicurean philosophy in replying to religion is that we have a predictable science of nature which is based on atoms/particles which have natures which allow us to explain nature, through science, and show that nature does not rely on Gods to direct her. If we had no predictable mechanism, we would not succeed in convincing people that we had a viable theory. To suggest that an important step in the process is "accidental" is to break the chain of causation that makes the system work. That is no concern to Bailey and many other translators who are theists and anti-Epicurean, but it should be of great concern to us to maintain the integrity of the Epicurean system.,

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    Cassius Amicus
    Cassius AmicusGroup Admin Thank you Alex for continuing to talk about this because I want to be sure I am not overstating or understating the issue. I want to incorporate the swerve and properties and qualities into a coherent whole that makes the system understandable.

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    Manage Alexander RiosGroup Admin The chain of causation cannot ignore the swerve when the population count is small. Or has isolated islands of paricled. Only when the population of particles is "too large to count" does it "wash out" so that the population's model is "in effect" modelled effective ly by a deterministic system. Like  · Reply · 1  · 9 mins · Edited Manage Cassius AmicusGroup Admin I think that is a very valid point, but at the qualitative level at which humans observe the world around us, the number of particles are too large to count, do you not agree? Is not science based on the reproducibllity of experimentation that produces same results under same circumstances? I understand that does not apply at the subatomic level in all cases, but it does apply at the macro level we see and touch and feel with our natural senses, correct? Like  · Reply · 8 mins Manage Cassius AmicusGroup Admin In other words if we are at home and we take an icecube from our refrigerator, and apply a blowtorch to it, EVERY TIME that ice cube is going to melt, regardless of the fact that the swerve of atoms also exists. Like  · Reply · 1  · 6 mins Manage Cassius AmicusGroup Admin And if we set our freezers to cool down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit, EVERY TIME our water-filled cube holders are going to freeze and produce ice, again regardless of the fact that atoms continue to swerve at the same time. The point being once again that at the macro level at which we live, we do not rely on gods nor do we throw up our hands in helplessness against accidental chaos , but we build our lives on an understanding of the universe based on atomic science built on the macro understandable properties of atoms and the qualities of the bodies that atoms form when they come together. Like  · Reply · 1 min · Edited Manage Alexander RiosGroup Admin Yes. The physical models that we use for everyday human scale, phenomena is usually deterministic. Classical physics can be derived from quantum physics when the count of particles in the population of the bodies is very large. Like  · Reply · 1  · Just now Manage Cassius AmicusGroup Admin And there I think we can rest for the night - i better turn in - thanks!

  • Interesting discussion but I think offtopic. Issue of wheather quality is permanent property or accident is related to nature of a thing. For example. Life is property that permanently belongs to nature of human beeing since loss of it is also destruction of that nature. Human that is dead is not human strictly speaking. On the other hand slavery is something accidental to human nature since we can conceive a human that is not a slave.

  • I think we probably are not on the same topic, agreed. The issue is that I think is of concern is when it might be proper to use terms like accidental, which imply fortuity, to combinations of atoms into bodies, and it seems to me that those circumstances would be extremely rare, given that the changes in bodies also operate according to the movements of the combinations of atoms of which they are part. Words implying events and symptoms in normal speaking imply causation and natural relationships, while words implying accident and fortuity imply breaking of exactly those expectations. I think that Epicurus would have wanted to stress that while slavery is not a permanent attribute it most certainly is not "accidental" either, but rather a result of a sequence of events that was not initiated either by gods or by chaos. To observe that some attributes of human life are changeable is not particularly useful unless one is looking to draw conclusions about the nature of that change, i.e. was the change caused by gods? Was it totally chaotic? If either of those alternatives is true, then successful happy living by studying nature is impossible.

  • Slavery in not accidental in the sense that it has causes itself. But in relation to human nature it is accidental because human nature can be imagined without it. Human may or may not be a slave. That is all to it. Word may be at first glance misguiding but it is used to denominate in english aristotle distinction between essential and accidental properties. And epicurus one is very similar to it. I am prettysure that they both use symptomata to denominate temporaty/not essential properties.

  • Yes now we are getting to the point. When you say: "in relation to human nature it is accidental because human nature can be imagined without it" that may be a technical philosophical definition (I don't know; would be interested if you have a cite) but that definition is totally divorced from the real world of ordinary people have speak of "accidental" as involving fortuity. And it is in the real world of ordinary people that I want to talk about Epicurus' philosophy to people who need it.

    So to restate when you say: "Word may be at first glance misguiding but it is used to denominate in english aristotle distinction between essential and accidental properties." I would reply that you may indeed be right in the academic classrooms - I don't know - but I (don't want this to sound harsh) but have very little interest in their technical word games when it serves to confuse the general public.

    Maciej as always thank you for discussing this with me as always, because this is exactly the point I wanted to pin down. I want to be accurate in discussing these things, and I know that "accurate for the technicians" may not be the same as "accurate for the general public." When the academic translators want to use a word a certain way I don't need to make a judgment as to whether their intention is fair or foul, but when I want to talk to real-world people about issues they should understand, I want to use whatever words will lead to accurate understanding. And in this case fortuity I would contend is the furthest thing from Epicurus' mind in describing how the atoms come together so as to emerge into the real world - the "shores of light."

  • You can use world occurence. But then you will blur the meaning of symtomata as not-necessary quality. You can invent the new word but then you will not meet your general public requirement. Every choice have its good and bad. Now u have at least a word that enables philosophical discussion and can be explained to general public in one sentence with examples.

  • Maciej you mean "now" as referring to "accident" or to "occurrence." I do believe that occurrence would be far superior to "accident." And you are again making the point that I understand - that with "accident" we have a current context in speaking with "professional" philosophers. The problem with that is that I have no real desire to talk with "professional" philosophers, at least those who have no interest in making philosophy understandable to and usable by the general public. The public can understand "events," symptoms" and "occurrences" as not being accidental. The word "accidental" itself is fatal to the Epicurean point - and I am not at all sure that is not why professional philosophers adopted it in the first place.