In general usage, contingency represents the possible occurrence of future events or conditions that have the character of accidents or emergencies. Viewed as possible or even as probable, although never as certain to occur, contingency involves variability and dependence, and antecedent or concurrent causes or conditions. Because sometimes unforeseen or outside the intention of an agent, it may be identified with chance; in a derived meaning it may be associated with freedom and choice.
Modes of Being. In its metaphysical meaning, contingency represents one of the four modes of being: ne cessity, contingency, possibility, and impossibility. It can therefore best be explained by relating it to the other modes.
Contingency and Necessity. In its opposition to necessity, that condition of fixed, unchangeable being, which is not subordinate to antecedent conditions or prior causality, contingency may be viewed either as actual or possible. In terms of possible existence, contingency represents the state of an essence or nature that admits of, but does not demand, actualization; and in this meaning, contingency is coextensive and synonymous with possibility. In terms of actual existence, contingency represents the condition of an essence which, although actualized, is equally disposed toward nonexistence. In short, necessity represents that which cannot not-be; contingency represents that which can be or not-be. In this sense contingency is predicable of all finite being that has a beginning, is subject to change, and can perish; that is to say, of all things the mind can conceive as either existing or not existing without thereby falling into contradiction.
Contingency and necessity, however, are not mutually exclusive. The most contingent of things involves at least existential necessity, in the sense that having being it cannot at the same time and under the same aspect not have being. By the same token, contingency involves certain essential necessities: for a triangle to exist, for example, it must have three sides. It may also involve necessity in the sense that certain effects or conditions are relatively necessitated by determined causes or antecedents. This co-presence of necessity and contingency in concrete beings is significant, for it enables the mind to achieve knowledge of the necessary, ranging from universal laws of nature to the existence of God, from the analysis of contingent reality.
Contingency and Possibility. Contingency is sometimes confused with possibility, which also involves the capacity for being. The two may be distinguished in this way: possibility is that which does not imply any contradiction, or that which is not impossible; contingency, on the other hand, is that whose opposite does not imply any contradiction, or that which is not necessary.
Logical Contingency. The logical meaning of contingency closely parallels the metaphysical meaning. In classical logic, it represents one of the modal propositions, i.e., propositions that express a mode of agreement or disagreement between two terms. Necessity and impossibility represent universal modes since the necessary always is and the impossible never is; possibility and contingency represent particular modes, with contingency as the contradictory of necessity, the subcontrary of possibility, and the subaltern of impossibility. In this way the contingent mode of the necessary proposition "It is necessary that S be P " would read: "It is not necessary that S be P and it is possible that S be not P. " Modern symbolic logic tends to avoid the metaphysical implications of modal propositions and identifies the contingent proposition with tautology. (see logic, symbolic; opposition.)
Greek Views of Contingency. Considered historically, contingency in the universe is generally recognized by all philosophers, even those basing their speculation on determinism or necessity. For aristotle, contingency meant that which is neither necessary nor impossible, or that of which affirmative or negative predication can be made (Anal. pr. 46b 40–47b 14). Certain phenomena indicate that the determinate series of causes (formal, final, efficient, and material) does not dominate reality completely, but points to a fifth cause, chance (Physics 195b 31–198a 13). Events that thus form exceptions to the usual laws of nature are characterized as happening "neither always nor for the most part" but per accidens. Other events seem superficially to conform to purposive causality, but defy analysis to determined principles, as when a farmer plowing his field uncovers buried treasure. Because they are outside of purposive action, such events are attributed to chance (ibid.; Metaphysics 1025a 13–34).
Although one need not hold that contingency is treated by Aristotle in his Physics, since many of the phenomena referred to are attributable to human ignorance of the determined causes involved or to defects in the material cause, his Metaphysics presents a somewhat different view. Here we read that a train of necessary causation may be traced back to a certain point, but cannot be traced further, i.e., to a point that has no cause. There are, for example, conditions already existing which require that all men die, although the time or cause of death cannot be preestablished (Metaphysics 1027a 29–1027b 17). All such events are attributed by Aristotle to indeterminate spontaneous forces that derive their existence neither from "nature" nor from "art," but rather "from themselves" and from "chance" (Metaphysics 1032a 12–1034b 19). Perhaps, however, the most explicit affirmation of contingency, from both the logical and metaphysical standpoint, is found in the De interpretatione, where Aristotle suspends the principle of the excluded middle for statements regarding individual future events (17a 25–19b 4). Here he affirms that no proposition with a singular subject concerning the future is necessarily wholly true and its contrary wholly false; otherwise nothing would happen by chance, contingency would be denied, and all events would occur by necessity.
For democritus and the atomists in general, a modification in the size and shape of atoms, reflecting itself in a modulation of their movements, made possible a complex of contingent realities. For epicurus, however, the necessary derived from and was contained within the contingent. For he assumed that atoms, unpredictably and for no assignable cause other than self-movement, had the power to deviate from their path of perpendicular descent, and so to form a world of perceptible compounds. This power of declination in the atom, the clinamen, he saw as analogous to will power in man through which movements in the body are initiated.
Contingency in the physical order fortified for Epicurus, as it did for Aristotle, psychological and moral indeterminism by which the human agent retains his freedom and preserves his moral responsibility.
The Aristotelian view of contingency as defect in material causality was continued and developed in the Greco-Arabian tradition, wherein contingency in the universe is due solely to matter, which by lack of proper disposition may prevent effects from taking place.
Medieval Development. The medieval notion of contingency may be summed up in the thesis of St. thom as aquinas, for whom contingency meant "that which can be and not be" (Summa theologiae 1a, 86.3). This definition, however, raised for the scholastics many problems, particularly over the relation between creatures and Creator. Those who defended the real distinction between essence and existence in all created being emphasized the contingent character of such being to show more clearly its dependence on the Creator (see essence and exis tence). Some, like St. Thomas, used contingency as the basis for a demonstration of the existence of God. Since the essence of the contingent does not itself contain the note of existence, the reason for its existence must be sought in an extrinsic efficient cause. This cause, if in turn contingent, must show reason for its existence in some other antecedent cause. Ultimately a being is reached whose essence includes existence, a first cause whose existence is underived, a being that is necessary and absolute. Such a being is called God. (see god, proofs for the existence of.)
The Epicurean analogy between contingency and will reappeared in the Middle Ages in the voluntarism of John duns scotus and the nominalism of william of ockham. The strain of voluntarism in the outlook of Scotus, however, must be seen in its proper perspective. In the Scotist conception of god there is no voluntarism, for the divine will is not elevated above the divine intellect, determining the eternal truths it contains. The essences of creatures are independent of the divine will, for they are necessary and unchangeable, as are the eternal truths deducible from them. Thus, there is a body of necessary speculative truths outside the scope of the divine will. Particular contingent events, however, cannot be explained by such necessary causes as God's intellect and ideas. To account for the actual existence of contingent beings, recourse must be had to His will. God freely chooses certain possible creatures and wills them to exist. In this way God's infinite will accounts for the contingency of creatures. Similarly, in the moral order, certain natural laws are rooted in the very nature of things, the first three Commandments of the Decalogue, for example, but other moral laws are more arbitrary; God simply wills that they should be observed; of such a character are the remaining seven Commandments.
It was William of Ockham who took the final step and reduced the whole moral code to the arbitrary will of God. To do so he found it necessary to eliminate those elements of Scotism that introduce some necessity into God and the universe, namely the divine ideas and the notion of common natures. His efforts in this direction led to charges of nominalism and skepticism (see ockham ism).
Modern Thought. Among modern philosophers as well, these problems are given considerable attention. For leibniz there subsists in God an infinite number of possibles. All pure essences taken by themselves are subject to an absolute necessity; they are immutably determined and cannot become other than what they necessarily are. Yet ours is a universe of change and contingency. Hence a question arises about the passage from eternal necessity to existential contingency. Leibniz was now placed in a delicate position between descartes and spinoza. He sided with Spinoza in removing essences and eternal verities from the free decree of the divine will, yet he did not care to follow Spinoza in affirming that the world emanates from God by absolute necessity. It is a fact that not all possibles are actualized, for certain essences, possible in themselves, are yet incompatible with each other. Such considerations led Leibniz to a position not much different from that of Scotus, wherein the transition from essential to existential existence is through the mediation of the divine will. God created the universe according to a plan, and chose this world as the best of all possible worlds. His choice assures the entrance into existence of the richest system of compatible natures.
With kant, the orientation of the problem of contingency deviates from its realistic and metaphysical basis. By denying the possibility of metaphysical knowledge and limiting knowledge to the order of phenomena, Kant sees in the modes of contingency, necessity, possibility, and impossibility pure concepts or categories of the understanding that are not derived from experience, but which are a priori and transcendentally deduced from the table of judgments.
In the last half of the 19th century E. boutroux, in an effort to preserve human freedom, proposed a complete "philosophy of contingency" according to which bodies and spirits are governed by no laws of absolute necessity. The supreme principles are rather moral and aesthetical laws; these are expressions of the perfect spontaneity of God in which all creatures participate to varying degrees
See Also: indeterminism; chance; fortune.
Bibliography: c. carbonara, Enciclopedia filosofica (Venice-Rome 1957) 1:1208–17. r. eisler, Wörterbuch der philosophischen Begriffe (Berlin 1927–30) 1:849–850. e. boutroux, De la contingence des lois de la nature (8th ed. Paris 1915). c. de koninck, "Thomism and Scientific Determinism," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 12 (1936) 58–76. c. fabro, "Intorno alla nozione 'tomista' di contingenza," Rivista di filosofia neoscolastica 30 (1938) 132–149. j. maritain, "Réflexions sur la nécessité et la contingence," Angelicum 14 (1937) 281–295. p. h. partridge, "Contingency," Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy 16 (1938) 1–22. p. h. van laer, Philosophico-Scientific Problems, tr. h. j. koren (Pittsburgh 1953).
[w. h. turner]
con·tin·gen·cy / kənˈtinjənsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) a future event or circumstance that is possible but cannot be predicted with certainty. ∎ a provision for such an events or circumstance: a contingency reserve. ∎ an incidental expense. ∎ the absence of certainty in events: the island's public affairs can be invaded by contingency. ∎ Philos. the absence of necessity; the fact of being so without having to be so.
A proposition is necessary when there is no possible case in which it is false ("a vixen is a female fox"). A proposition is contingent when it is true in some cases and false in others ("it is raining now"). By extension, a state of affairs is contingent if it could have been other than it is. A state of affairs is necessary if there is no possible alternative to it. Most philosophers think that all physical states are contingent. Some physicists argue that the universe has to exist, whereas some theologians argue that God has to exist, but creates a contingent universe.
See also Chance