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Substance, mode, and accident in modern philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA084-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries inherited, and were witness to, the decline of the metaphysics of substance, mode, and accident of the Aristotelian tradition. The causes of this decline can be gleaned from an investigation of various puzzles which arose during the period, and of the ways in which different philosophers reacted to these puzzles.

One such puzzle concerns independence. A substance is meant to be something that exists independently – but what meets this standard, other than God? Another puzzle concerns identity. A substance is meant to be something which in some sense supports (etymologically, stands under) its modes or accidents – but how can we penetrate to the nature, or identity, of the substance itself? A third puzzle concerns unity. A substance is meant to be unified in a way that a heap of stones is not – but what qualifies as a genuine unity?

The puzzles were initially raised by those, such as Descartes and Locke, who did not intend for them to radically modify our understanding of substance, mode, and accident. But radical changes followed shortly thereafter nonetheless. Spinoza maintained that God or Nature is the only substance, all other things being mere modes of God. Conway, Leibniz, and Berkeley argued that the world is fundamentally spiritual or mind-like. And eventually, Hume and Kant questioned whether the notions of substance, mode, and accident were, in some sense, unavoidably problematic.

As an investigation of this debate reveals, theories of substance, mode, and accident were intertwined with many other enduring philosophical themes, including the nature of reality, the mind–body relation, and the limits of human knowledge.

Citing this article:
Silverman, Alex. Substance, mode, and accident in modern philosophy, 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA084-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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