Being per se and per accidens
Avicenna opens book II with Aristotle’s first division of being from Metaphysics Δ, 7. Aristotle divided being into four senses: the accidental (e.g., musical builder), the categorical (e.g., substance, quantity, quality, etc.), the actual and potential, and the truth of propositions. Aristotle contrasts being as accidental or through another with being as through itself or per se; Aristotle correlates the latter with the division of being into the categories. Some interpreters take Aristotle to correlate being as per se with act and potency and the truth of propositions as well. It is unclear if Avicenna identifies being as per se with the other two senses of being, but it is certainly clear that he identifies it with the division of being into the categories.
Avicenna treats his own version of the being and its relation to the categories, the division of act and potency, and truth of propositions in Ilāhiyyāt I, 5–8. Avicenna placed these three topics at the beginning of his ordered division of metaphysics found in Ilāhiyyāt I, 4. In this chapter, Avicenna also writes that we must examine “the state of what is per se (bi-l-ðāt) and per accidens (bi-l-‘arḍ)” as well as “the state of a substance (al-jawhar) and [the number] of divisions it has.” (Ilāhiyyāt I, 4, 1) This is precisely the order in which Avicenna takes up these topics in book two, chapter one. Let us turn to the first division.
It is significant that here, in Ilāhiyyāt II.1, Avicenna reformulates Aristotle’s division of being using his own metaphysical primordial notions: being (mawjūd) and thing (šay’) (cf. Ilāhiyyāt I, 5). He writes “existence might belong to a thing in itself,” but existence might also belong to a thing by accident (est ei per accidens). Since per accidens or accidental existence is limitless, it can be omitted from the scientific purview of metaphysics—a point Aristotle established in Metaphysics Ε, 2–3. Aristotle had introduced the subject of metaphysics in E, 1 as being qua being, but—as E, 2 reminds us—there are at least four senses of being, so which is the sense proper to first philosophy? E, 2–3 and 4 are dedicated to eliminating accidental being and being as the truth of propositions, respectively. This leaves the division of being into the categories and act and potency as the remaining alternatives, which Aristotle addresses in Metaphysics Z–H and Θ, respectively.
This gesture to the Aristotelian distinction between per accidens and per se being shown that Avicenna aims to commence his metaphysical treatment of substance and the quasi-species of being in a way similar to Aristotle. Nevertheless, Avicenna does so by taking advantage of the metaphysical principles established in Ilāhiyyāt I, 5–8. Following Aristotle, he does not treat being as per accidens, because it is unlimited. Instead, Avicenna orients his metaphysical science to being (mawjūd) with the existence (wujūd) that belongs to things in themselves, that is, being with its existential perseity. In the next section being per se will be divided into substance and accidents, which, again, follows the topics proposed in Ilāhiyyāt I, 4.
(2) Being per se and its division into Substance and Accident
For Avicenna, the subject-genus of metaphysics is being as being and whatever falls upon it as quasi-species and quasi-properties. The metaphysical treatment of substance and accident (‘araḍ) is identified with the division of being into its quasi-species (cf. Ilāhiyyāt I, 1–3). Being admits of a twofold division into substance and accident. The “most prior division” of being per se is a substance (jawhar), a view that was briefly introduced before in Avicenna’s account of being as a primordial notion (cf. Ilāhiyyāt I, 5, 22 ).
An accidents is being (mawjūd) in another thing (fī šayʼ ʼākhar), which is akin to Aristotle’s formulation in Metaphysics Δ, 7; or, we might say, accidents are beings in a subject (al-mawjūd fī mawḍū‘), which is similar to the view introduced in Categories 3. Accidents are being in another, however, they are not in another in the way that substantial parts are in another, namely, in the whole composite substance. Finally, accidents cannot exist separate from the subject they exist in.
Substance does not inhere in any other thing; it is not in a subject at all. Substance is “that other thing,” which accidents are in. Substance realizes subsistence (mutaḥaṣṣal al-qiwām) and species in itself (al-naw‘ fī nafshu). Here we must take note of Avicenna’s metaphysical terminology. Being (mawjūd) has two prominent synonyms: “the realized” (al-muḥaṣṣal) and “the established” (al-muṯbat). Being means or indicates “established existence” (wujūd iṯbati) and “realized subsistence” (mutaḥaṣṣal al-qiwām); just as thing (šayʼ) means “quiddity” (māhiyyah) and “truthness” (ḥaqīqah). Substance as a beinghas realized subsistence or existentia, as we find in the Latin translation. Substance as a thing has “species in itself;” this is because every thing, considered in itself, has a quiddity or common nature which is shared by all members of the species. One might also correlate Avicenna’s “realized subsistence” with the “primary substance” of Aristotle, and “species in itself” could then be linked to the idea of “secondary substance.” We should, however, be careful not to identify “realized subsistence” with “primary substance” and for two reasons: First, Avicenna’s notion is broader and must be understood in terms of his own existential metaphysics. Second, the term “subsistence” (qiwām), like being, is broader than the term substance and can also apply to accidents. Even though Avicenna, like Aristotle, considers accidents to be called beings in a posterior way, he nevertheless dedicates a significant portion of the Ilāhiyyāt‘s ontology to a treatment of being per se as accidental. Whereas Aristotle’s ousiological ontology has little need to take up accidents at length. Like his treatment of being per se as accidental, Avicenna will frequently refer to the subsistence of the accident in the substance. Hence, the term subsistence should not be identified with substance, primary or otherwise, it has a wider metaphysical scope than the category of substance, even if its attribution to the substance is prior to its application to accidents.
It is significant that Avicenna does not accept Aristotle’s formulation of substance and accidents in toto. Whereas Aristotle did not distinguish between being and thing, Avicenna does. For Aristotle, substance or essence simply is “what the thing is said to be in virtue of itself” (Metaphysics Z 4.1029b14; cf. Δ 18), and this is being in the primary sense. Aristotle’s essentialist and ousiological ontology restricts being too much in the eyes of Avicenna’s metaphysical vision. This why Avicenna subtly alters the Aristotelian view and formulates his account of substance as a genus in light of his primordial metaphysical notions being and thing. Such alterations to the Aristotelian doctrine of substance will become clearer as we venture further into the Ilāhiyyāt (cf. Ilāhiyyāt, III.8 & VIII. 4).
This is substance