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.

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