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A Philosophical and Literary History

From ancient philosophy to Tristram Shandy and Buster Keaton movies, this book tells the engaging history of accident as an idea.

An accidental glance at a newspaper notice causes Rousseau to collapse under the force of a vision. A car accidentally hits Giacometti, and he experiences an epiphany. Darwin introduces accident to the basic process of life, and Freud looks to accident as the expression of unconscious desire. Accident, Ross Hamilton claims, is the force that makes us modern. Tracing the story of accident from Aristotle to Buster Keaton and beyond, Hamilton’s daring book revives the tradition of the grand history of ideas.

Accident tells an original history of Western thought from the perspective of Aristotle’s remarkably durable categories of accident and substance. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s distinction underwrote an insistence on order and subordination of the inessential. In a groundbreaking innovation, Hamilton argues that after the Reformation, the concept of accident began to change places with that of substance: accident became a life-transforming event and effectively a person’s essence.  For moderns, it is the accidental, seemingly trivial moments of consciousness that, like Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” create constellations of meaning in our lives. Touching on a broad array of images and texts—Augustine, Dante, the frescoes of Raphael, Descartes, Jane Austen, the work of the surrealists, and twentieth-century cinema—Hamilton provides a new way to map the mutations of personal identity and subjectivity.   

320 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2007

History: History of Ideas

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Philosophy: General Philosophy


"That [Hamilton] has alighted on a strikingly original vein of inquiry, to which he brings remarkable intellectual resources, is not in doubt. One wonders whether the idea of the book just idly struck him, or whether it loomed up with a certain implacable necessity."

Terry Eagleton | London Review of Books

Accident is a considerable achievement. An informative, fascinating and thought-provoking book, it results from a bold and original undertaking and is the fruit of an impressive amount of research and reflection. In tracing a history of Western thought, it grapples with the difficulty of perceiving and conceptualizing historical change itself. It successfully relates particular configurations of thought to broad cultural developments and to the mutations of subjectivity. In opening up new perspectives on the power of accident, Hamilton addresses nothing less than the question of what it means to be human.”

Romantic Review

"From St. Augustine to Buster Keaton, through Tristram Shandy and Alien, Hamilton follows his own radical line of inquiry into the nature and meaning of accident, almost creating in the process an entire new philosophical discipline."

Barnes and Noble Review | James Parker

"Readers will get the impression that an excellent teacher . . . . is guiding them across millennia. . . . Specialists in English and comparative literature and those teaching undergraduate humanities courses will be well served by this book." .


"Hamilton presta atención a lo accidental [. . .] lo cual da lugar a este muy sugerente recorrido por el concepto, sus transformaciones, y el subrayado de la total dependencia de su génesis aristotélica."

Sixto J. Castro | Estudios Filosóficos

 “This book is a remarkable contribution to a comprehensive definition of modernity. It deserves the greatest attention, for it takes full account of the background and the main symptoms of the modern mind, both in philosophy and in literature.”

Jean Starobinski

“Sigmund Freud told us there were no accidents. Everything that could happen to us was already ourselves. Ross Hamilton’s extraordinary book both confirms and subtly extends Freud by showing that his was only a partial truth. In Hamilton’s vision, we are a living labyrinth in which accidents do happen but are never as gratuitous as they may seem.”

Harold Bloom

“I am impressed by the diversity and range of the learning Ross Hamilton applies to a difficult and varied topic, largely invented by himself. A new topic, a new way of dealing with it, and a philosophical/literary treatment by a good writer—surely it will attract informed attention.”

Frank Kermode

“Beautifully and lucidly written, Accident balances a series of elegant and convincing close readings—­always supported by an impressive command of the critical terms—­of texts from Oedipus Rex through Musil’s Man without Qualities with a compelling and closely reasoned narrative arc. This is one of the most exciting, imaginative, and original books I’ve read in years, as well as one of the most accomplished and learned: it is truly innovative literary criticism grounded in solid literary scholarship.”­—Helen Deutsch, University of California, Los Angeles

Helen Deutsch

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Shock of Experience
ONE / Accidental Origins: Defining Accidental Qualities and Events
TWO / Divine Substance: Assimilation of Accident within Christian Theology
THREE / Skeptical Accidents: Secularization of Accident during the Reformation
FOUR / Accidental Experience: Radical Enlightenment and the Science of Accident
FIVE / Novel Accidents: Self-Determining Accidents in Print Culture
SIX / The Textual Self: Opportunity and Emotion in the Creation of the Individual
SEVEN / The Accidental Sublime: Returning Substance to Accidental Events
EIGHT / Altered States: The Macroscopic Impact of Accidental Qualities
NINE / The Form of Accident: The Boundaries of Perception
TEN / Envisioning Accident: Searching for Substance in an Accidental World
Conclusion: Pattern Recognition


American Comparative Literature Association: Harry Levin Prize

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