Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Contingent

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(Lat. contingere, to happen)

Aside from its secondary and more obvious meaning (as, for instance, its qualification of the predicable accident, of a class of modal propositions, and so on), the primary and technically philosophical use of the term is for one of the supreme divisions of being, that is, contingent being, as distinguished from necessary being. In this connexion the meaning of the term may be considered objectively, and the genesis of the idea subjectively.


Objectively (ontologically) the contingent may be viewed:

  • (1) in the purely ideal or possible order, and it is then the conceptual note or notes between which and existence in the actual order there is no contradiction, and which consequently admits of, though it does not demand, actualization. It is thus coextensive with possible being and is called the absolutely contingent.
  • (2) Considered in the order of actual existence, the contingent is that being whose essence, as such, does not include existence and which, therefore, does not, as such, demand existence but is indifferent to be or not to be. This is called relatively contingent and the term is usually employed in this sense. Every finite existent being is thus contingent, though likewise hypothetically necessary, in that having existence it cannot at the same time and under the same aspect not have it; inasmuch, too, as it is determined by proximately, and hence relatively, necessitated antecedents.
  • (3) In regard to its subject - be this substance or accident - contingency may relate to action as well as to existence, and it then signifies that the subject (agent) is as yet undetermined, either intrinsically, as in the free agent, or extrinsically, as are necessitated causes.
  • (4) Since the essence of the contingent does not contain the reason of its existence, that reason must be sought in an outside efficient cause, which cause, if in turn contingent, must show reason for its existence in some other antecedent cause, and so on until ultimately a being is reached whose essence includes existence, a first cause whose existence is underived, a being which is necessary and absolute.

This argument from contingent to the necessary being is not, as Kant maintained, the well-known ontological argument formulated by St. Anselm and others to prove the existence of God. The latter argument passes illogically from the ideal concept of the infinite to the objective actual existence of the infinite, while the argument from contingent (finite) to the necessary (infinite) being, proceeds from the objective actual contingent (dependent, conditioned) to the existence of an adequate cause thereof. The inference is based on an objective application of the principle of causality and involves no leap from a subjective phenomenon (idea) to an objective realized content. The argument supposes, it is true, the real existence of contingent being and that existence is denied by many thinkers, notably by pantheists. materialists, and determinists generally. Kant reduces both contingency and necessity to mere mental forms or categories under which the mind views the world of phenomena but which it has no means of knowing to be objective. Necessary being, therefore, ontologically and objectively precedes the contingent, since the latter has the sole ultimate reason both of its intrinsic consistency (possibility) and of its actual existence in the former - actus absolute prœcedit potentiam. In the order, however, of man's knowledge, the contingent falls primarily under experience.


Like every other concept, that of the contingent is originally derived from external and internal experience. Adverting to the changes occurring in the world of sensuous phenomena and to the interdependencies thereof, the intellect easily, almost intuitively, discerns that, while the given events are the necessitated consequences of similarly necessitated antecedents, each number of the series, by the very fact of its being thus conditioned, does not contain within itself the adequate ground of its existence. The intellect having spontaneously abstracted this note of dependence and ontologically reflecting thereon sees its application to every finite subject not only existent but likewise possible; sees, at least by an easy process of reasoning, that no such subject contains within itself the reason why it exists, under the precise limitations of substance and accidents which it actually possesses. However, to assure this concept and to discern precisely and explicitly the contingency of the finite and the consequent indifference of its essence to exist or not to exist, the sciences, physical and biological, are called to testify; and each declares the dependence and conditionality of its respective object-sphere and attests that all things observed and searched into have a borrowed existence. This idea of contingency is then further assured by the witness of consciousness to the conditioned, and hence contingent, character of its own states, a testimony which is reconfirmed by the facts of birth and death.

Against this statement of the genesis of the contingency-concept it may be objected that experience does not extend beyond the field of sensuous phenomena. On the other hand, however, the intellect, motived by the principle of sufficient reason, discerns the underlying noumenon, or essence of things material, Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, at least sufficiently to pronounce with certitude on their essential conditionateness and contingency. But it is urged by materialistic monists that the underlying substrate of the sensuous world is one homogeneous, eternal, necessary being, essentially involving existence. To this objection it may be answered that no finite thing, much less a finite material being, can contain the ultimate reason of its existence. The definite limitations, spatial, integral, positional, etc., and the inertia of the hypothetical primordial matter shows that it is conditioned by some limiting and determining cause, while its passage from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous state, into which it is supposed to have evolved in the actual universe, equally demands an extraneous active agency. It should, however, be noted that the argument from contingent to necessary being does not explicitly prove the existence of God. A further analysis of the objective concept is necessarily required in order to show that the latter concept includes that of underivedness (aseitas) and that this in turn includes completeness, absence of any potentiality for further perfection (actus purus), hence infinitude. The failure to note this limitation of the argument seems to have led Kant to deny its validity.

BALMES, Fundamental Philosophy (New York, 1864); DRISCOLL, Christian Philosophy - God (New York, 1904); AVELING, The God of Philosophy (St. Louis and London, 1906); EISLER, Würterbuch der phil. Begriffe (Berlin, 1904); BLANC, Dictionnaire de philosophie (Paris, 1906); URRABURU, Institutiones Phil. (Valladolid, 1899).