Accidents and Incidents: A Phenomenologist Reads T. S. Eliot
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Accidents and Incidents
A Phenomenologist Reads T. S. Eliot

There is a fittingness, a congruence, an aptness between the presented themes and the presenting structural devices, an aptness which is the source of the proper, the distinguishing, the discriminating pleasure we take in the work.

thomas prufer, on evelyn waugh’s brideshead revisited1

The philosopher and theologian Robert Sokolowski has produced an important body of work, to which he continues to add. Using insights of phenomenology, he makes fresh approaches to classic questions of philosophy and theology, while also raising provocative new questions, questions, for instance, about the kinds of identity to be found in pictures, words, and quotations.2 He does all this in a clear, nontechnical prose that continually engages the reader’s attention anew. A noteworthy feature of this prose is its occasional evocation of the philosophical poetry of T. S. Eliot, which it sometimes quotes, sometimes comments on, and sometimes simply echoes. What follows is a brief discussion of one such evocation. [End Page 169]


Among the accomplishments of Sokolowski’s Phenomenology of the Human Person (2008) is to have made the ancient doctrine of predicables live again, in order to clarify the central activity in thinking, which is the activity of predicating, that is, of saying something about something.3 According to the doctrine, the general form of predication is specifically determined by differences in the relation of predicate to subject. What is said of a subject is either accidental or essential; and if it is essential, it is either a property or an essence. Susan was smiling as she entered the room (117). This is accidental, because she is not smiling always, and she was not smiling of necessity then. But, whether actually smiling or not, she always retains a potentiality for smiling; ability to smile is a property she has, essentially. And she is, essentially, the kind of thing—the human kind—that is recognized by its possession of this and other human properties. To say She is human is to predicate her essence by naming her kind or species; one may also predicate her essence by naming the genus to which her species belongs (She is animal) or the difference that distinguishes her species in the genus (She is rational). The smiling, the ability to smile that is the source of the smiling, and the rational and animal humanity that is the source of the ability, are attributed to her as, respectively, accident, property, and essence. The doctrine of predicables is metaphysical as well as logical: accident, property, and essence are forms of predicates because they are aspects of beings as beings, insofar as they are spoken of.

Sokolowski rescues this analysis, not just from history, but also from abstraction, by identifying conversation as the natural setting of predication. “When we converse with others,” he says, “most of our statements are of the first kind, accidental predications” (118). Accidental predications are news, as it were, in contrast to unchanging properties and essences, which are usually left in the conversational background, because people are usually eager to tell and hear what is new, for instance, that The dog next door was barking loudly today. Periodically, however, conversation will shift to predication of a property [End Page 170] or an essence, in statements such as A dog will do that sort of thing, and It is, after all, a dog. Sokolowski teaches us to listen for modulations between predicables whenever we hear people conversing.

A still more remarkable accomplishment of Phenomenology of the Human Person is to have associated the doctrine of predicables with mystery and with art. A section of the book titled “Properties and Essences as Mysterious and Obscure” suggests that accidents, properties, and essences are situated at different levels of depth in a situation, and that artists exploit intervals between these levels to “call up auras of mystery and hidden depths” and “hint at things that are hard to name directly” (129). Artists present accidents in order to imply properties and essences that are invisible, but that seem, in art, to be almost visible, just beyond the range of vision. Sokolowski gives the artistically chosen...