sexual metaphysics


Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (c. 1761).

“What else can I do but examine the abrupt ending of a discourse in which we all entered?”

—Jacques Lacan (after the death of Merleau-Ponty in 1961) (71).

“O charming sex, you will be free: as do men, you will enjoy all the pleasures of which Nature makes a duty, from no one will you be withheld.”

—D.A.F. de Sade / “Philosophy in the Bedroom” (323).

Human sexuality had to run through the 18th century gauntlet of the Marquis de Sade. Then, it became poignantly reified with Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his short chapter “The Body as a Sexed Being” from his Phenomenology of Perception of 1945. It is with the unlikely circumstance to pair Sade to Merleau-Ponty where we can see what is to be found when they are bound together. The unholy union should demonstrate that Merleau-Ponty’s elegant words can be used to contemplate problems with Sade the super-libertine, his life, his perpetual incarceration and his literary exploits. This should offer an excuse to think of a brief phenomenological approach to the repellent Sade.

As it was, phenomenology after Edmund Husserl just couldn’t stay harnessed in its full complexity as he originally conceived it. There were many transformations it took on, and it seemed destined to become modified in new and highly innovative ways, probably as a result of the difficulties reading Husserl. There were Heidegger’s modifications, Sartre’s existentialism, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological embodiment, along with other thinkers along the way. After reading Husserl’s philosophy, it makes sense that anyone would want to find a reason to divorce precious parts of its essence away from the frustration of his admirable philosophical entanglements. Merleau-Ponty’s variation of phenomenology loses all the insurmountable Germanic summits as it warms and flows into a rush of philosophical sensations, perceptions, and observations about the lived body. This is coupled with a literary style that explores and identifies supposed boundaries of the body and into a field of description, investigation, and elaboration of the body as existing consciousness. To read Merleau-Ponty is to think of essential comportments of the body as vital to the way we understand the world, aside from the presupposition of a pure mind that is somehow separate from the body. Saying it another way, stale Cartesian dualism is dethroned in favor of aiming to resituate the understanding of our world as sensuously occupied by this ever changing corporeal matter we call the flesh.

“The body is our general means of having a world” (Merleau-Ponty 147). Only when we start to take him seriously on this point will the meaning of what it is to be a whole body comes to fore of our experience. It is for this reason we have to include our sexual comportment as it is a fusion with the everyday physicality of existence. The Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa in her paper “The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir” tells us that it is only through Merleau-Ponty’s “[…] study of sexual and erotic relations can we come to understand how objects in general are given to us in experience” (142). She adds later that “[h]er erotic life realizes the style that is also manifested in her other relationships, practical, theoretical and aesthetic” (143). We already know, the instant we read it, what she means to describe here, and that’s the remarkable part of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy: we are sexed beings who engage the communal world that cannot be unsexed. We (effortlessly or strenuously) work to define ourselves within the perplexing confines what it means to be a man or a woman. If sexuality goes beyond the vulnerable nudity of the bedroom then we have the opportunity to find its self-given power in the recesses of our day-to-day activities. In other words, sex is both profound and trivial as it inscribes itself onto everything from our romantic pursuits then into our intellectual involvements. A style of life is a way of life. We as sexual creatures are profoundly affected by the absence of sex when it’s withheld from us, and we are greatly affected by the presence of it materialized in the sexual act. Sex is an excellence of the corporeal exchange with another’s body.

This helps to explain why we can bring in the aberrant Sade. Sade represents a defiled version of Enlightenment ideals. An idealization of reason becomes a reason to use others to satisfy the pleasures of the flesh. We are reluctantly acquainted to Sade by his monstrous sexuality as it made itself known via the perilous extremes of his writing style. In a two-page essay from the 1964 book, Signs by Merleau-Ponty, he writes about literary eroticism, alluding to Sade “[c]onsider the fact that our great erotics always have [a] pen in hand: the religion of eroticism could well be a literary fact” (310). Yes, there is no doubt that Sade was a libertine par excellence, but most of all, he was an incredibly prolific writer. His fervent imagination often ran away with itself. This was no academic coming to us from a cloistered Parisian university, his debauched writing happened behind the bars of various prisons, including the Bastille during the French Revolution, and his noteworthy stay at the insane-asylum at Charenton. To be sure, if his sexual exploits went unpunished, if his debauchery remained hidden, or if his voracious sexual appetites were satisfied (try imagine that impossibility), it is questionable that his writings would’ve reached the voluminous depravity that they did. The literary critic/philosopher Maurice Blanchot (a friend of Merleau-Ponty’s) wrote of the effect Sade’s paradoxical incarcerations had on Sade’s fame “[n]ow the strange thing is that if the guardians of morality who, by containing Sade to solitary confinement have thereby made themselves the most faithful accomplices of his immorality” (38). Hiding Sade away from potential victims redirected his sexual enforcements onto the page and into the words of those endless perversions.

We try to make sense of Sade with respect to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, for instance in the explicit way he (Merleau-Ponty) writes about the sexual body inhabiting an environment “[t]here must be an immanent function in sexual life that guarantees its unfolding, the normal extension of sexuality must rest upon the internal powers of the organic subject […]” (158). This normal sexual extension becomes Sade’s radical profligacy. Sade took total advantage of his aristocratic birth to ab/use people in whatever way he saw fit. But what use is Sade’s horrible example? The avowed philosophical radical Georges Bataille, (also a friend of Merleau-Ponty’s), was keen to ask this very question in his dark essay “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade” to which he simply answers “[t]he life and works of D.A.F. de Sade would thus have no other use value than the common use value of excrement […]” (92).

In a later chapter from the Phenomenology of Perception, where Merleau-Ponty is doing the phenomenological work of freeing up the ‘cogito’ from the entrenched parochialism of Descartes, he mentions sexual perversion and its direct relation to desiring “[w]hat is desiring if not consciousness of an object as valuable (or valuable precisely insofar as it is not valuable, in the case of perverse desire) […]” (396). In one charged example from the Philosophy in the Bedroom, among the thousands, we find Sade’s characteristic sexual derangement to compare with Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion of how the ‘not valuable’ is valued in perversion “[i]s incest more dangerous? Hardly, it loosens family ties and the citizen has that much more love to lavish on his country […]” (324). We almost can’t believe certain lines like this. It must in that relished provocation where Sade got his salacious power. There are plenty of reasons to hate him, and this overshadows our ability to understand him.

We do find piquant echoes of Sade with Merleau-Ponty, of course, in reference to the objectification of body that is so hugely problematic in our sexual relations with other people and other bodies. “To say I have a body is thus a way of saying that I can be seen as an object and that I seek to be seen as a subject, that another person can be my master or my slave” (170). We don’t have to look for long to find similarities to this sexual objectification with Sade,

The act of enjoyment is a passion which, I confess, subordinates all others to it, but which simultaneously unites them. This desire to dominate at this moment is so powerful in Nature that one notices it even in animals (345).

As if he were reacting to Sade’s overly confident stratagems, Merleau-Ponty readily attests to the ambiguity of sexuality (171). We already know what’s meant when he binds sexuality to ambiguity, since our sexualized body is never fully comprehended at face value. All we have to do is recall the full range of problems and misunderstandings about sex, to know, or at least partially grasp the implications. Once we think we can grasp the permutations of sexual appetites we must acknowledge that parts of the field will remain oblique and irrational. We strain to think of the manifestations sexual perversion encompasses. To be sure, we find it tough to reconcile our distaste for someone like Sade. He becomes the best of the worst examples. His libertinage promised freedom, but granted him decades of institutional confinement.

Merleau-Ponty also offers the idea that sexuality is metaphysical “[t]he importance attached to the body and the paradoxes of love are linked […] to […] the metaphysical structure of my body, at once an object for others and a subject for me” (170). We can hardly ever promise to know the ‘paradox of love’ as it plays out in the drama of a sexual deployment and romantic fulfillment. The enormous and ungainly fantasy of sex will be exponentially thrown out of any conventional proportion under Sade’s domain. The metaphysical for Merleau-Ponty is “[…] the emergence beyond nature […]” (171). Sade writes “[i]s it not to wish to linger in a burning fever [of lust] which devours, consumes us, without affording us other than metaphysical joys […]” (285). The metaphysical, in Sade’s clutches, becomes something like madness. And for all intents and purposes he was mad.

We couldn’t walk away without mentioning freedom. Which, in a way, becomes that all important paradox in Sade’s life. He was a libertine, an atheist, a perverse anti-hero, but most of all he was a prisoner. In the last chapter of the Phenomenology of Perception entitled “Freedom”, Merleau-Ponty wants to demonstrate the way in which freedom is also embodied. “We are mixed up with the world and with others in an inextricable confusion” (Merleau-Ponty 481). We are mixed up with the world and so our freedom is likewise mixed up in the world. Our particular circumstance is a bounded condition for any freedom we might envision. The decisions we make have to take into account all that surrounds us, our friends our family and our community. In an effort to talk about freedom as inseparable from our lives, and to dispel the illusion the consciousness itself is free (unencumbered by situation, the body, people, etc.), Merleau-Ponty writes about a resistance to talk under torture, whereby the tortured remains silent. The choice to stay silent is not some pure freedom. It choice has to do with the man to cling to his cause and his group’s agenda. He can also have an arrogant wish maintain an idealized solitude whereby his problem becomes amplified and enclosed “[i]t is, of course, the individual alone in his prison who reanimates these phantoms each day, and they give him back the strength that he had given them […] (Merleau-Ponty 480). This is Sade’s recurrent dilemma. His demons dis/comfort him and us. “Harken only to these delicious Promptings, for no voice save that of the passions can conduct you to happiness” (180). This is Sade’s dubious promise from the opening lines of his Philosophy of the Bedroom. Sade’s unbridled freedom was a fantasy. It takes the morals of his day as a challenge to destroy them.

The intellectual and artistic (Surrealist) circles of Merleau-Ponty’s day were concerned with Sade for a reason. Sade represents a conflict of interest between a conservative morality and a libertine freedom, but there has to be more than that. We have to (again) stay with Merleau-Ponty “[i]f the sexual history of a man gives us the key to his life […] this is because his manner of being toward the world […] is projected in his sexuality” (161). Sade’s writing has everything to do with his past and his over-sexed ways. It is in his extreme sexualized creativity where we find fascination and repugnance, an ambivalence we have with own bodies. We can only touch parts of his sexualized hell, because most of it was locked away in his body.

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade.” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2003. Print.

Blanchot, Maurice. “Sade”. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse, 37-72. Print.

Heinämaa, Sara. “The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir.” Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy. Eds. L. Alanen and C. Witt. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, 137-151. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “Merleau-Ponty in Memoriam.” Merleau-Ponty: Critical assessments of Leading Philosophers. Ed. Ted Toadvine. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006, 74-81. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Donald A. Landes. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. Print.

—. “Eroticism.” Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964, 309-310. Print.

Sade, the Marquis de. “Philosophy in the Bedroom.” The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. New York, NY: Grove Press Inc 1965, 177-367. Print.

if husserl then quine

husserl quine

The confined space of philosophical inquiry is the work of doing philosophy. It is where we can witness philosophy’s involvement in our lives as it positions or eludes itself upon deliberate reading. In the 1950s W.V.O. Quine subdued key problems with logical empiricism. Sometime before that, Edmund Husserl founded and elaborated phenomenology around the turn of the last century. Both thinkers will be brought together here to find any unique confluence along with their differences, and then to think about how the a priori/ a posteriori, along with the analytic-synthetic, are reconciled by both thinkers.

Husserl, in the Logical Investigations set forth the momentum to solidify a philosophy of “pure phenomenology” (Husserl2 86). “This phenomenology […], has, as its exclusive concern, experiences intuitively sizable and analyzable in the pure generality of their essence […]” (Husserl2 86). This statement underscores Husserl’s phenomenological project as it is directly related to essences, or better said: the eidetic. “Phenomenology is an eidetic science because its descriptions are not empirical” (Moran, Cohen 93). Because Husserl thought of the eidetic in this fundamental way, he had to purify certain philosophical methods of knowing the world essentially. Husserl occupies that unique place somewhere at the origins of continental philosophy and analytic philosophy. This blend is made evident, not necessarily in his methods, but rather in a few of his major concerns, re: logic, language, mathematics, science and so on. There is considerable evidence that he corresponded with Gottlob Frege, the well known analytic philosopher/mathematician, on thorny arithmetical issues. To this relationship, Michael Dummett in his preface to The Shorter Logical Investigations suggests that there was an antagonistic break between the two thinkers and that this could possibly be where the split (between analytic philosophy and phenomenology) took place. One philosophy (phenomenology) fractures with the other philosophy (analytic philosophy) where the former was “[…] investigating intuitions of essences, [and the latter was] analyzing language […] (Husserl1 xxii).

The mention of Frege is not gratuitous since it offers us the excuse to make the turn ourselves, that is, to look at, and to possibly restore, a fundamental (a priori/ a posteriori and analytic/synthetic) link from phenomenology to the analytic tradition. In W.V.O. Quine’s celebrated 1951 paper Two Dogmas of Empiricism, he seeks to eradicate a major problem with the single-track empiricism had taken, as he clearly states in his opening paragraph “[m]odern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is the belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic […] and truths which are synthetic […] (455). It is precisely in Quine’s labor to dispel this dogma where we are led to what might be an uncanny reconciliation between phenomenology and what Quine does to “analyticity” (457). The other dogma Quine speaks of is reductionism “[…] the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience” (455). Although different on the surface, the “two dogmas” do overlap as each addresses common assumptions. But what are Husserl’s implications for Quine’s project thereof? Quine made use of the analytic-synthetic distinction to dissolve it and Husserl brought the a priori down to earth. If these terms are said to be related to any additional claims about the a priori/ a posteriori, then we will now look at the terms themselves to show how there are obvious affinities. One set is semantical (analytic/synthetic) and the other set is epistemological (a priori/a posteriori).

Defined together, the a priori and the a posteriori, accompanied with the analytic and the synthetic, make complementary pairs. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (hereafter CDP) defines the a-priori as “prior to or independent of experience; contrasted with ‘a posteriori’ (empirical)” (35). Then the CDP defines the so-called analytic-synthetic distinction,

[…] the distinction made famous by Kant, according to which an affirmative subject-predicate statement (proposition, judgment) is called analytic if the predicate concept is contained in the subject concept, and synthetic otherwise” (26).

The a priori, then, is traditionally characterized as the operation of mind that works with such things as mathematics and formal logic. This means that the a posteriori are things that need experiential evidence to be verified. Likewise, the analytic can be seen as the semantic variant of the a priori whereby the concept is suspended within a word like ‘triangle’ as it contains its own definition within the way a word means ‘three sided figure with angles adding up to 180°’. This should explain what the synthetic is, as again, the semantic equivalent to the a posteriori where we have to verify a claim by reaching to an actual account of, say, ‘a six inch equilateral triangle’—it’s not verified by the self-contained analytic account. As for the difference between the four terms, in the CDP’s explication of the analytic-synthetic distinction we find that “Kant’s innovation over Leibniz and Hume lay in separating the logosemantic analytic-synthetic distinction from the epistemological a priori-a posteriori distinction […]” (27). This helps us to see that if the analytic-synthetic is ‘logosemantic’ we will have to recognize it as strongly connected to the logical components of semantics. Said differently, the analytic-synthetic has to do with the way words, facts and statements logically mean something. This might suggest a slight hierarchy of the a priori over the analytic, but we have no conclusive evidence on this. Of significance here will be to notice how the four terms are combined, since the combination becomes the question toward what’s at stake. In short, we might be mistaken to think of these arbitrary and clear-cut lines of demarcation that neatly partition one from the other—since, we already know our world to consist of these seemingly contrary terms in tandem.

In Quine’s paper he tells us that “Kant conceived of an analytic statement as one that attributes to its subject no more than is conceptually contained in the subject” (455). With this said, Quine tries to move from such a claim to offer a critique that questions how such a term is related to meaning. He throws off an idea that meaning has to do with naming (after Frege) and reference (after Russell) (455). As soon as he clarifies these distinctions, he soon finds the ‘dogma’ pushed in a corner. “Once the theory of meaning is sharply separated from the theory of reference, it is a short step to recognizing […] the synonymy of linguistic forms and the analyticity of statements […] as obscure intermediary entities […]” (Quine 456). He must be showing us that if we are to take logical empiricism’s dogma seriously, all we are left with is synonymy. Basically, we are left with other words that are merely synonymous to the original terms. This posits a defect in the idea since it doesn’t make sense that we can have this sterile analytic strictness logical empiricism tacitly asks for. All we are left with are the words said to be synonymous with each other and this renders meaning to simply changing the words around whereby equivalencies can be mismanaged, entangled and distorted.

Quine moves to definition. When we set out to define a bachelor, he “[…] is defined as an ‘unmarried man’” (Quine 457). This example too has to succumb to the problem with synonymy because a dictionary still has to rely on empirical facts that break away from logical empiricism’s supposed analytic stringency. Quine desperately (though with informed measure) turns to ‘interchangeability’ to see if he can solve the problem from there. This too is soon brushed aside with regard to the fact that this too begins to look a lot like synonymy. Then in a sharp last ditch effort, he tries on the notion of semantical rules, i.e. can we solve the original problem of defining analycity strictly on its own terms without recourse to extra-analytical terms (re: synthetic terms)? This just sends us into another digression with Quine as he admits the difficulty of bringing in meta-languages and the like. It is as if he’s asking, who has the energy for a fruitless appeal to a meta-language to solve a problem (that couldn’t be solved with the original language to begin with)? In a welcome flash of frustration Quine throws up his hands “[i]t is obvious that truth in general depends on both language and extralinguistic fact” (462). This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is the harmony we craved from the start. Quine had to put his philosophical weapons down only to conclude that the analytic can’t be as logical empiricism assumes it to be–compartmentalized from the synthetic. In spite of all the pain getting to this, this is good news.

While making a point on how philosophy confuses meaning with extension and how Aristotle’s notion of essence does not answer this problem, Quine shows that man cannot be reduced to basic meaning in and of itself, something like an idea that man is en-mattered and essentially rational. Then we find two of Quine’s extraordinary sentences: “Things had essences, for Aristotle, but only linguistic forms have meanings. Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word” (456). This is important for our shift to Husserl because Quine, via Aristotle, refers to essences, which are central to phenomenology but not as much for Quine. But other than this ‘essentialist’ problem, there’s a deeper relevancy to be found, which is explained by Husserl’s concept of the ‘synthetic a priori’. This includes essences and brings in a law of “parts and wholes” (177). These parts and wholes constitute a priori laws that are “laws of essence” (177). The parts and wholes must be meant to represent a general way that we categorize the world by means of the a priori. In Husserl’s aggressively opaque writing he has to then extend the a priori to matter, to the “synthetic a priori, as opposed to laws which are analytically a priori […]” (178). Why is this important with respect to Quine? Again, because Quine makes the elaborate but incredible point that the analytic can’t be cut away from the synthetic. Husserl makes a similar move, yet in his radical phenomenological idiom. This turn of the a priori to the synthetic started with Kant. The Husserl Dictionary indicates “Thus for Kant ‘7 + 5 = 12’ is an a priori synthetic truth. Similarly, Kant argued that every event has a cause’” this also belongs to his way of thinking about an a priori synthetic truth (Moran, Cohen 41). From this we have found the master link upon which Husserl offered some of the above refinements that took the a priori away from the distillations that logical empiricism wanted to impose on it.

In Husserl’s late work The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Sciences (hereafter The Crisis), where his phenomenology became more crystallized, we find him calling upon other varieties of the a priori. There’s the a priori of the “life-world” (Husserl1 140). There’s an “objective a priori”, and a “universal a priori” (Husserl1 140). Most radical is his “universal pre-logical a priori” (Husserl1 140). This is Husserl pushing and extending away from the a priori as limited to only mathematics and logic and fully welcoming it to the life world. Husserl summarizes this move as such: “[…] all that counts is the distinction in principle between the objective-logical and the life world a priori […]” (141). Turning back to Quine, under his entry from the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (hereafter REP), we find him credited with “dethroning the a priori” (6). This has the above mentioned reasons, whereby he works to dissolve the analytic/synthetic polarity. This nexus, although slight, has to be in the way Husserl ‘materializes’ the a priori brought together here with Quine’s ‘dethroning’.

A crucial step would have to be to make the clarification with Quine’s resolve to language “[o]bservational sentences serve as both the starting point in human language learning as well as the empirical grounds for science” (REP 5). The approach is considered to be a feature of Quine’s holism, whereby,

[…] one relies […] on two components which are already part of the naturalist’s ontology: the physical happening at the nerve endings, the neural input or stimulus; and the linguistic entity, the observational sentence” (REP 5).

This reserves the observational sentence to a primary way to know the world before we are taught any scientific knowledge. In other words, the observer has direct contact to observation. This is awfully close to Husserl’s conception of a scientific way of knowing the world getting in the way of actual experience. In The Crisis, Husserl talks at length of such problems “[…] what is still lacking, is the actual self-evidence through which he who knows and accomplishes can give himself an account […]” in spite of the scientific accounts that are muddled by “[…] sedimentation or traditionalization […]” (52).

Given any of the above conclusions, we should not surmise that Quine was a phenomenologist, or that Husserl was an analytic logician. Although admittedly, Husserl took a profound interest in analytic and logical problems, there does seem to be a distinguishable affiliation. Incidentally, we did find a 1994 paper by David Woodruff Smith that is humorously titled “How to Husserl a Quine—and a Heidegger, Too.” In the paper Smith takes a totally different path from ours to compare the philosophers. Smith rightly concerns himself with ‘intentionality’ a cherished term for phenomenology. Intentionality roughly translates as consciousness always comported with something—consciousness is the lived world. This term (intentionality) was borrowed by Husserl from his mentor Franz Brentano. Smith deftly shows Quine writing on Brentano and admitting to a philosophical use of the intentional via his (Quine’s) “web of belief” (163). This web of belief is definitely a part of Quine’s holism, whereby observational sentences are not suspended in a vacuum. These sentences are reliant on other observational sentences and are inextricably related in elaborately known and obscure ways, thus holism.

Thanks to Quine, some of the problems of logical empiricism have been torn away from their original hubris or naiveté. Our prerogative resembles Husserl’s urging to “return to the things themselves” (Moran, Cohen 250). This philosophical maneuver enables us to return to the world itself, seen, touched, observed, spoken of etc. And we can then do this in all of Quine’s holistically observational circumstances.

Although Husserl and Quine worked in seemingly disparate fields of philosophical research, upon further exploration we have found a probable blending that uses the a priori/a posteriori and the analytic/synthetic to show us that, in general, our ways of speaking and experiencing the world cannot be compartmentalized into neat inseparable drawers. If Husserl materialized the a priori, then Quine dissolved the arbitrary partition logical positivism placed on the synthetic/analytic question.

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, 1999. Print.

Husserl, Edmund. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Trans. David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970. Print.

—. The Shorter Logical Investigations. Trans. J.N. Findlay. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Moran, Dermot and Joseph Cohen. The Husserl Dictionary. New York, NY: Continuum Books, 2012. Print.

Smith, David Woodruff. “How to Husserl a Quine and a Heidegger, Too.” Synthese 98, 1994, 153-174. Print

“W.V.O. Quine.” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 8. Ed. Edward Craig. New York, NY: Routledge, 1998, 3-13. Print.

W.V.O. Quine. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.” The Philosophy of Language. Eds. A.P. Martinich, David Sosa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 455-457. Print.

what is possible?


1890 Wood Engraving of Aristotle Sculpture.

Sometimes we hold the view that time is enough to change the static nature of things. Yet, when we start to inquire into the nature of change, we’ll find that we don’t understand it as well as we thought of to begin with. A inquiry of this kind could easily be diluted into nonsense and opinion. We soon discover that our quest is bounded in the work we take to explore what has been actualized in the words and paragraphs of others. Is it enough to know what is possible, and then to, in turn, notice what’s undone, broken and unfulfilled? Once being is substantiated will it suffice to speak of the virtual as always transient, ephemeral or unreal?

It should go without saying that doing philosophy is an investigative act. When one chooses to delve into ideas, concepts and explanations, not only will we ask why things are the way they are, but we also have to pay heed to how possibility resides in the multiplicity of things before us. Of the ancients, Aristotle stands as our guide to begin a philosophical search into the source of these things qua being. In this short paper we will start by looking at Aristotle’s emphasis on potential and actuality as it relates to being in the world. An attempt will be made to demonstrate that there have been other thinkers who have contributed resonant echoes of Aristotelian potential, accompanied with any residual dissonance accumulated across time for us to question and investigate. This will lead to Giorgio Agamben’s unique reinterpretation of Aristotle’s original ideas, to then lead us back to an essential questioning about potentiality and actuality. From there, we will look to the early 20th century philosopher Henri Bergson’s concept of the possible and the real which will blend with Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Bergson. Lastly we’ll end by briefly looking Deleuze modification the Bergsonian concept of the virtual as a part of his (Deleuze’s) ontology of difference. The variety of ways that the potential and the actual can be considered will be reason enough to appreciate their scope and application only when we bring the ideas to mind, and thus, into our actions.

Once being is announced by Aristotle in “Book α” (little alpha, or II) of the Metaphysics, with elegant, far reaching phrases such as “[h]ence the principles of eternal things must always be most true […] so that as each thing is in respect to being, so is it in respect to truth” (993b, 25). Being has to then be arduously qualified and quantified. As Aristotle will indicate later in “Book Θ” (Theta, or IX) we can also ask of being’s “[…] potency and complete reality” (Aristotle 1045b, 35). Now would be a good time to quickly look at some of the important terms Aristotle uses, so as to emphasize the meaningful depth of the words as they were possibly used by him, and how we can see roots to other English words we use nowadays. Our English equivalent for the word “potency” is translated from the Greek δύναμις / dunamis (think: dynamic, potential, force, power, virtual, etc.) and “complete reality” is translated from ἐντελέχεια / entelechy (Liddell, Scott 181, 224). “Actuality” is associated, but not entirely equivalent to entelechy and is translated from the Greek word ἐνέργεια / energeia (think: energy, active, efficient, etc.) (Liddell, Scott 228).

“Book Θ” opens by introducing the terms potency and actuality, then Aristotle isolates potency “[…] these so-called potencies are potencies either of purely acting or being acted upon, or of acting or being acted on well […]” (1046a, 15). We can say that there are differences in potency when something is acting on something else and when it is acting in its own nature and on its own accord. Then we’ll notice that something can also be “acted on” which in a simple way Aristotle means that its movement can be caused by another active force, or force of will. “For the one [potency] is in the thing acted on; it is because it contains a certain originative source” and “but the other is in the agent […]” (1046a, 20, 25). An array of examples can be found everywhere in the world around us, as with the wood-worker sawing the wood to find the potentiality of his chair within the rigidity of the wood. Then, we can think of a tree from where the wood originated, that had to move on its own accord, in its own time, to grow before it was chopped down to cut into useful pieces to make things like chairs. Aristotle shows that if we are to consider potency, we must in turn account for “impotence” (1046a, 30). Surely, things which are capable of happening are also capable of not happening. Further specifications show Aristotle recognizing that “[…] clearly some potencies will be non-rational and some will be accompanied by a rational formula […]” (1046b). This is one of Aristotle’s qualifications that is has fallen into disuse. We rarely admit the full spectrum of the non-rational way things change, transform, breakdown, fail, etc. Aristotle gives other instances of potential, as when “we say that potentiality, for instance, [is] a statue of Hermes […] in a block of wood and [as] the half-line is in the whole […]” (1048a, 34). The statue has to be articulated through the wood by the sculptor who has honed his ability to impart formal restraint to an idea of a deity carved in wood.

Aristotle changes focus from potentiality to actuality, from δύναμις to ἐνέργεια, from the potential to the actionable where the movement of potential is found and where actuality becomes ἐντελέχεια “complete reality” (1050a, 20). Actuality is like waking is to sleeping, therefore “[…] let actuality be defined by one member of the antithesis and the potential by the other” (1048b, 5). When we are asleep our potential is dormant, but our potential is still actualized by life. Aristotle writes that “[…] it is clear that actuality is prior to potency” (1049b, 5). Importantly, potency has to be made possible by the thing itself if the potential is to become possible. Potential is made possible in matter and in substance. The possible happens in the energy of the actual “[…] man is prior to boy and human being to seed” (1050a, 5). The actuality of mankind is within the boy and the actuality of a human being is contained in the possibility of the sperm and egg unifying to be a man.

In Giorgio Agamben’s 1999 collection of essays titled Potentialites, he wrestles with this prescient concept of the potential as it was presented by Aristotle in the Metaphysics (and also in De Anima). In his essay “On Potentiality” Agamben succinctly recognizes that potential might be articulated by the question “What do I mean when I say ‘I can, I cannot’?” (177). Potential is a “faculty” as with the faculty of vision (Agamben 178). This faculty also comes about by nature of its incapacity to be fully actualized, since as we’ve noted above, recall that Aristotle deftly considered impotency to be a part of potency. Therefore “[w]hat is essential is that potentiality is not simply non-being, simple privation, but rather the existence of non-being, the presence of an absence; this is what we call ‘faculty’ of ‘power’ (Agamben 179). To this we’ll say, actuality has to pass through the possible that is constantly on the forefront of not happening. In other words, we make something happen unified against something not happening. It is as if the ‘I can’ becomes realized in spite of the ‘I cannot’. “[…] [P]otentiality, maintains itself in relation to its own privation […] its own non-Being (Agamben 182). The active denial of privation fuels the mode of becoming actualized and fulfilled. Potentials, for us, are made from our ability to embrace our failure of not actualizing, thus propelling us onward. We become assured when Agamben suggests that against our ignorance we strive for knowledge, and so, as against mortality we strive to live. The resolution of the dichotomy between the potential and the actual culminates in the volition of “freedom” (Agamben 83). To be free is […] to be capable of one’s own impotentiality, to be in relation to one’s own privation” (Agamben 183). In order for us to move toward our potential, we have to have a measure of our very incapacity to do it. To know what we’re capable of means to know what we can’t do. It is only when are limited can we be free to project possibilities into the “[…] abyss of impotentiality” (Agamben 182). Remembering that these are only some of the qualities of Agamben’s faculty of the possible in our lives should be enough to understand that things are incomplete, even Aristotle says this “[…] for every movement is incomplete […]” (1048b, 30). Then to become complete we have to manage with the humility of the undone. Perhaps it’s not as if this is play on how the dichotomous parts are manifested, rather it’s the way the two are not in opposition—henceforth a necessary conjunction—potential is locked to its ability to be impotent.

With regard to all this, we have suddenly arrived at Gilles Deleuze’s reading of Henri Bergson’s possible and the real, or better yet, the virtual and the actual. In his provocative 1966 book Bergsonism, Deleuze offers his idiosyncratic take on the philosophy of Bergson—including Bergson’s concept of the virtual as it is distinguished from the actual. Unfortunately, Delueze nor Bergson make the direct link to Aristotle, but it’s clear that δύναμις and ἐνέργεια are ever-present in their work into our contemporary world and into perpetuity. With Deleuze’s continued philosophical insistence on the ontology of difference he has to find ways to constitute difference as it is virtually enacted in the world. Deleuze traces Bergson’s possible whereby “—the possible is a false notion, the source of false problems” (98). This is because Bergson positioned the possible contrariwise to our typical way of thinking of it. We usually think of the possible as preceding the actual, whereby we make the mistake of thinking that if it were not for the possible the actual couldn’t be. Bergson turned this around, for example, in his collection of essays titled The Creative Mind, he writes “For the possible is only the real with the addition of an act of mind which throws its image back into the past, once it has been enacted” (118). When we notice something actualized, we perform a kind of retroactive possibility to the action. This takes us back to how Aristotle put it in the Metaphysics, where he repeatedly stated, in varying ways that “[…] it is clear that actuality is prior to potency” (1049b, 5). Perhaps Bergson (and by extension Deleuze) channeled Aristotle without a direct reference, but the mechanism is evident. “In fact, it is not the real that resembles the possible, it is the possible that resembles the real, because it has been abstracted from the real once made, arbitrarily extracted from the real like a sterile double” (Deleuze 98). In a step that exemplifies Deleuze’s above mentioned idiosyncratic interpretation of Bergson, Deleuze distinguishes the real and possible with the virtual and actual “[t]he reason for this is simple: while the real is in the image and likeness of the possible that it realizes, the actual, on the hand does not resemble the virtuality that it embodies” (97). This allows Deleuze to claim that it is the difference between the virtual and the actual whereby the virtual is actualized in difference. It is the virtual that differentiates the actual in a way that substantiates multiplicity—since Deleuze, by means of Bergson, was working away from conventional absolutions. It must be that the virtual is difference in actuality, turning against the same. Again, from the real to the possible and from the actual to the virtual must be, for Deleuze, how to understand difference which is pivotal to a Deleuzian world view.

Aristotle couldn’t have anticipated all these extraordinary reevaluations of δύναμις and ἐνέργεια, only hinted at here, nor can we do the same looking foreword into the philosophy of the future. Yet, when we conclude anything about the movement of change, we soon find that we don’t understand it as we did to begin with. Being and becoming have been with us for a long time. How can we know this, if we turn away in passive silence?

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities. Ed. and Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Bergson, Henri. The Creative Mind. New York, NY: The Philosophical Library, 1946. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. Bergsonism. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 1990. Print.

Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott. A Lexicon, abridged from Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. Print.