Isagoge: Chapter 10 — Of Community and Difference of Genus and Accident

Genus and accident, compare and contrast:

It is common to genus and accident to be predicated, as we have said, of many things, whether they (the accidents) be separable or inseparable, for to be moved is predicated of many things, and blackness of crows, and of Ethiopians, and of certain inanimate things. Genus however differs from accident, in that genus is prior, but accident posterior to species, for though an inseparable accident be assumed, yet that of which it is the accident is prior to the accident. Also the participants of genus participate it equally, but those of accident do not equally; for the participation of accidents accepts intension and remission, but not that of genera. Besides, accidents primarily subsist about individuals, but genera and species are by nature prior to individual substances. Moreover, genera are predicated of the things under them, in respect to what a thing is, but accidents in respect to what kind of a thing it is, or how each thing subsists; for being asked, what kind of man an Ethiopian is, you say that he is black; or how Socrates is, you reply that he is sick or well.

One of the things about Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy that I’ve had trouble wrapping my mind around is the notion of cause. I know what the four causes are: the efficient, the material, the formal, and the final, and I even think I mostly understand what they mean. But when I hear the word “cause”, my mind naturally assumes the efficient cause, often without any conscious decision on my part. Porphyry is helping with this, because he keeps pointing out that this is prior or posterior to that: which is equivalent to saying that this a cause of that or that is caused by this. Thus, genus G is a cause of species S within it; and species S is a cause of individual X which has accident A. The question remains, what kind of causes are these?

It seems to me that X is a material cause of A: if Socrates is sick, Socrates is the matter that is sick. X might be the efficient cause of A as well, as when Socrates is sick because Socrates has just chosen to drink a cup of hemlock. S seems to be the formal cause of X; and is G the formal cause of S? I dunno.

The second emphasized statement is also interesting. All beings which participate in a genus, that is, all beings which belong to the genus or of which the genus may be predicated, belong to it equally. All dogs, all cats, and all humans are animals to the same degree. But accidents support “intension and remission”. I’m not sure what he means by that. He might mean that accidents can come and go, but I don’t think so: for individuals which have a particular accident might have it equally, so far as they have it at all, and individuals which don’t don’t. I think he means that one can have an accident to a degree. A cat can be white, but also more or less white. Socrates can be sick, but also more or less sick, sick with a cold, or sick unto death (thanks to the hemlock).

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