…on trigg’s absence of reason

branden davis

In Dylan Trigg’s 2006 book The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia, and the Absence of Reason, we are shown an idea that rationality has a claim to permanency & order. Reason in the shadow of decay is transient. Rationality doesn’t always neatly allow for the un-pure ruin, entropy & eventual decline. That reason ‘should’ flourish is what the ruin contradicts, a ruin stands as a testament for the irrational & the soon to be post-rational. “Unable to rationalize decline, the aim of reason has been to shadow the mutable by affirming the permanent, the illusion is not dead.”[54] The assumed supremacy of reason is not easily dislodged with the corrupting power of architectural failure. “At the end of its present narrative, history’s morbid nostalgia toward reason has prevented us from ascribing virtue to decline & vice to formal abstraction.”[55] The ruin is in silent certification of the fallibility & insufficiency of reason to hold itself as sovereign & as the only answer. Can we cling to reason in the face of destruction, if destruction itself is irrational?

Trigg seeks to challenge the presupposition of reason’s progress as ‘homogenizing.’ Reason’s homogenizing demands adherence to a predetermined set of rules & guidelines. If reason is normalizing it is also rule & lawmaking set of stricture by which it imposes onto our experience of ruins, buildings, & daily-living. This critique is overlaid with a sense of nostalgia. In other words, a common way to understand things is to suggest that way things were in the past is a good indication for how they should be in the present & future. This type of problem is related to the ‘is/ought’ problem. With the ‘is/ought’ problem the confusion is between how something is described and the way things should be. Because something is a certain way today, need not be prescription for how it ought to be in the future. Nostalgia becomes the best example of this rationalism. When we are nostalgic, we are tacitly suggesting that the past was somehow better than things are now. Reason makes such demands onto things, ruins, & people. According to this logic, things should be a certain way because they worked better in the past.

A so-called homecoming that is linked to nostalgia is the yearning for a past that was better than now. The impossibility of rectifying a glorified past becomes a glaring revenant of the ruin, because the ruin’s past could also be idealized to a revivified fault of never matching the present. With nostalgia, the present is deficiently reflected in the ruin—reasonably & temporally.

Reason has the infiltrated our thinking as an emblem of progress. Reason’s progress often manifests as authoritarianism, a unified, unbiased truth that regulates & enforces by virtue of its logic. Whatever falls outside of this is deemed unreasonable & irrational. A ruined building is an instance of such a falling away of reason’s imposing sovereignty.

–aurelio madrid

…on hume’s problem with causation

How is Hume’s Skepticism Related to Reason & Causality?

hume billiard example II

Rationalism: Recall that an inductive argument is one where if the premises are true the conclusion probably will be true. With an inductive argument, we reason from specific examples to general claims about all things. Inductive reasoning has built into it the idea of causation: one effect causes another event. Within this very simple reasonable connection we typically make a demonstrative connection.

If I hit the cue ball   ⃝ to strike the ⑦ ball into the corner pocket that typically is demonstrative that the cue ball   ⃝  hitting the ⑦ ball has a ‘necessary’ connection (above & beyond whether or not the ⑦ ball makes it into the corner pocket). In other words, we might think inductively that the event of striking the   ⃝  cue ball with a cue stick will have a necessary connection between the effect of hitting the cue ball   ⃝  to cause the striking of the ⑦  ball.

As rationalists we think that the two events are necessarily connected. This connection is supplied by reason & it is part of the way we do science. If one effect is necessarily connected to its cause then we can make a basic inference that events in the past will be a good indication of future events. Okay, there’s a quick gloss on a typical way we understand causation (as a rationalist).

hume billiard example

David Hume: With consideration for Hume’s (1711-1776) Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, we must acknowledge his epistemological affinities as unmistakably empiricist. That is to say, everything we have knowledge of we have by way of the senses. This philosophical position usually stands in conflict with rationalism (the way we know of the world is primarily rational—based on a priori reason, not by necessarily sense experience).

Enter Hume’s problem of causation. Given that philosophically Hume was an empiricist he needed to explain the way we have knowledge of the world strictly by way of the five senses. Instead of inferring a way that we acquire knowledge rationally (in an a priori way). With Hume we have a way to account for all knowledge as deriving from impressions, these are sensorial and lead to our more abstract ideas of the impressions. What is of significance here is that as a good empiricist, Hume needs to account for the way we know things by way of experience and only by way of experience. Therefore the connection between our sensorial impressions and the ideas is based solely on experience. We must have a sensorial impression of one event in order to see (hear, touch, taste, or smell) that it causes another event.

Hume’s problem with causation is such that, in a rationalistic way we typically supply the necessary connection between cause & effect without the necessary connection ever being present in the experience. Sometimes students confuse what Hume is having a problem with & often misunderstand that Hume is calling physics into question. He is not suggesting that there is an absence of force between the billiard balls striking one another, or that the force is something we make-up or illusory. He is pointing out that the force is not necessary. Because this force is not necessary for Hume, this means that the typical way in which we supply this necessity is by way of habit and not reason.

In Hume’s empirical context, when we observe two billiard balls striking one another we cannot find something, no matter how hard we look (hear, smell, touch, or taste) that looks like necessity within the action of one event causing the other. That is to say, Hume was skeptical of the necessary connection we typically make in the way we understand causation. He was skeptical of the reasoning we typically use to understand causality.

We make this type of inductive inference on a daily basis: If I hit the cue ball   ⃝ to strike the ⑦ ball into the corner pocket, I habitually infer that the cue ball   ⃝  hitting the ⑦ ball has a ‘necessary’ connection. This necessary connection is typically supplied by reason.

To repeat, Hume is an empiricist so he has to account for the way we know the world strictly by experience. In this way, reason for Hume is called into question because causation does not have a necessary connection found with experience alone and for Hume is demoted to habit. We are in the habit of supplying the necessary connection from one event to the other. Yet another way of saying this would be to say that when we make an inductive inference, from the specific case of something causing another event to happen, we tend to habitually infer that one event will probably be effected by the same cause time & time again. Hume’s critique is that we cannot rely on this probability as necessary. Part of the way out of Hume’s problem is to have a larger sample by which to base the probability of something happening. If we base our conclusions on a wider sample then our conclusions will likely be stronger.

–aurelio madrid

…marcuse’s hegel


Marcuse’s Hegel
In Herbert Marcuse’s book Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Marcuse wants to dispel the notion that the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel as “hostile to the tendencies that have led into Fascist theory and practice.” I will focus only on the first introductory sub-chapter in this synopsis, where Marcuse sets up the philosophical & historical context of Hegel’s thought.
In the first sub-chapter of the introduction, “The Socio-Historical Setting,” Marcuse places Hegel within the context of German idealism. This is typically thought of as a type of German philosophy progressing chronologically from the inspiration of Kant (1724-1804), to Fichte (1762-1814), to Schelling (1775-1854), & culminating with Hegel (1770-1831), roughly, the last quarter of the 18th century through to the early quarter of the 19th century. Hegel’s brand of German idealism is known as Absolute idealism because it seeks to bring all of being into one absolute, specifically an absolute spirit (the totality of all being as it progresses throughout history).
As Marcuse describes it Hegel’s philosophy was largely influenced by the French Revolution & the leading Enlightenment ideal that rational thought leads people to freedom (apart from the authority of the church & apart from the authority of a monarchy). The French Revolution idealistically completes the job by the Reformation to allow people to become masters of their own lives. Hegel wanted us to realize the power of our own rational will & authority.
In France, capitalism became a necessary force & expression brought about by the rationalistic ideals of the French Revolution, while Germany’s development was a bit slower to fully embrace the radical new ways of thinking taking shape in France, Europe, & even in the ideological founding of the United States. Even if this fresh idea freedom was in the air, most German intellectuals were embracing this as an idea, an ideal—not necessarily as a material & practical exercise of freedom. Let me put it this way, it’s one thing to embrace an idea & it’s another thing to take that idea & put it into practice.
Reason is center & paramount in Hegel’s philosophy & for Hegel history is the progression of reason, as much as the state is also an embodiment of reason. If most of Hegel’s philosophy is concerned with the progression of reason, it must be understood that reason is threaded through Hegel’s ideas on freedom, substance becoming substance & what we would call idea (begriff in German, often translated by Hegel scholars as “notion”). For Hegel reason working through these concepts is what governs consciousness, reality, the state, the course of human history, &c. The progression of reason is not static is active. People no longer needed to accept things as they are—since reason needs to be taken as sovereign. Our reality is only real by way of reason. Anything outside of that which falls outside of reason needs to be harnessed, transformed, & worked through with reason to be made conscious & to be real. As Marcuse summarizes of Hegel, “[rational] thought ought to govern reality.” Whatever cannot be worked through with reasoned consciousness is rendered unreal & unreasonable. In Kant & Hegel’s context, reason must be firmly established as universal & objective. Objectivity keeps us from relativity, thus a good defense of objectivity in the name of critiquing the relativistic perils of empirical skepticism. The authority of reason needs to be consciously brought about in this world by way of conscious action. Reason does not appear of its own accord.
The concept of “substance becoming subject” is central to the way consciousness brings about reason from the chaotic morass of reality for Hegel. Substance in this case, represents a contradictory force for the consciousness. It is only when we make inert substance into something that is real does it become rational consciousness. Raw substance becomes the subject of rational thought. By way of conceptualizing the ways in which we work (in thought & with our hands) through ideas, physical substances & forces, wood, metal, velocity, horse-power, &c. When we make these things rational, they become the way we think about substance in a rational way.
When we think about something that is contradictory, negative, antagonistic, &c. for Hegel this is the driving element in the dialectic. The dialectic is rational & it is logical, but it is Hegel’s logic. Herein we have the so-called dialectical triad of thesis, antithesis, & synthesis. When we recognize that substance becoming substance is dialectical. Substance is not consciousness so it is contradictory to consciousness because it is not consciousness. Consciousness must recognize this in order to make substance known & understood as something reasonable. Reason has to be brought about by the resolution of the contradiction. The negative becomes a necessary way in which reason is considered. The confrontation with negative bring us to a place where it draws the synthesis up to where it would not otherwise be without it. Consciousness, for Hegel, is dialectical, reason is dialectal, freedom is dialectical & history is dialectical. All of these things need & rely the negative to be what they are.

–aurelio madrid

…on kant’s epistemology

transcendental idealismKant’s Epistemology
What is Transcendental Idealism?

Transcendental idealism can be understood on two ways. On a topical level it can represent the whole of Kant’s enlightenment philosophy, and in the context of his epistemology, transcendental idealism is to be distinguished from rationalism & empiricism. Kant’s philosophy is often thought of as a blend of rationalism & empiricism and transcendental idealism became a way to identify Kant’s particular contribution. However, this way of defining transcendental idealism does not actually define what the term means in Kant’s overall project (it merely describes his philosophical position as a blend of empiricism & rationalism).

The easiest route is to divide the term in half, first looking at the term: transcendental. This can be understood as a ‘going beyond’ the matter at hand. To transcend something means to ‘go beyond’ what that something actually is in experience. The classic example: ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ is one such example of this ‘going beyond’. In other words, we ‘go beyond’ experience with the epistemological claim that bachelors are unmarried—we have no need to go out into the world to have certainty that bachelors are unmarried. Such knowledge is known “beyond” experience. Now also acknowledge that what we are describing here is also the way a priori thinking is understood.
With Kant, whatever is transcendental, at the same time describes the particular way in which we think using our a priori reasoning. When we conclude with certainty that a bachelor is unmarried our thought, our cognition, our knowledge is transcendental—we ‘go beyond’ experience in order to affirm this type of a priori knowledge about the world.

Idealism, the other half of the term, is the philosophical (epistemological) position whereby the content of the way in which the world appears to us is mind-dependent. Kant’s epistemology is often characterized by the notion that the world as it is known to us is dependent on the very reasoning we use to understand it. That the world of experience, for example, has a certain causal order is not something we simply observe, but it is the way in which the world is understood by us in a rationally ordered way. Our rational mind constructs the way the world is experienced. A sequence of causal events is not just an observation it is also a construct of our a priori knowledge. This is idealistic because the way in which the world appears to me is mind dependent.

So idealism is different from realism in the sense that realism claims that if a tree falls in the forest & we’re not around to hear it, it still makes a noise. With Kant’s idealism a tree falling out of ear-shot would describe something that falls outside of the way the world appears to us, therefore it might be what Kant named the “thing-in-itself”, that part of things we’ll never have a grasp of.

How does Kant’s transcendental idealism move from Hume’s empiricism?

Hume’s critique of causality awoke Kant from his ‘dogmatic slumbers’ because Hume was astute enough to observe that there is no necessity to be found in any causal connection. Hume is an empiricist who based all the way we know of the world is through sense experience alone. When Hume called into question the very notion of necessity as absent from causation, his empirical skepticism pointed to something we typically identify as reason itself. Kant seizes this opportunity to make a claim for the necessary connection Hume is finding absent in experience. Why?—because it is reason that supplies the connection according to Kant. Hume was on to something & Kant resolves it with a priori reasoning. This is the missing part of Hume’s critique that Kant grabs onto as obviously product of reason itself. In other words, a causal relationship is one that is considered to be a ‘category of understanding,’ for Kant, which is a fancy way of saying it involves reasoning alone to understand a cause & effect relationship at its necessary core. The necessary connection is not found in experience as Hume empirically observed. Kant agrees with this & shows that the necessary connection is not a matter of habit as Hume posited, rather it is an act of reason that supplies the necessary connection we find when one an effect causes something to happen.

Even if we understand causation rationally, we need the experience of it in order to know what to do with it. Kant shows us that we cannot have one without the other. Say for example, I already know that reason supplies the necessary connection between an effect & cause. That’s a pretty minimal way in which to understand the world, given that cause & effect relationships are everywhere. We need to think of the particular empirical manifestation of casual relationships so as to know how to understand their specific relationships & significance.

–aurelio madrid

d’alembert’s philosophy: finding descartes & locke in the preliminary discourse


“Men abuse the best things.” –Jean le Rond d’Alembert / Preliminary Discourse[1]

Abstract: Jean d’Alembert’s introduction to the Encyclopédie, the Preliminary Discourse (hereafter PD) of 1749, stands as a wonderful expression of French Enlightenment philosophy. In the PD the two philosophical branches of rationalism and empiricism are followed by d’Alembert with varying degrees of commitment. This issue will be examined by first sketching out the historical circumstances of the PD, along with what the philosophical problem looks like. Then I’ll offer a brief synopsis on the intellectual background of the Enlightenment, which served as the cultural and intellectual milieu for such geniuses as d’Alembert and Diderot to emerge. Next, I’ll illustrate the positions of Descartes and Locke with regard to their influence on d’Alembert and the wider Enlightenment. After this I will return to the problem, aiming to provide an analysis of how the rationalism of Descartes and the empiricism of Locke are combined, and how they differ, for d’Alembert in the PD. D’Alembert’s PD owes its influence to many thinkers—of predominance are Descartes and Locke. The PD is the reference from where to draw on d’Alembert’s ideas concerning the philosophical underpinnings of the Encyclopédie. This is where his ideas on Descartes and Locke, rationality and empiricism are used as evidence of his (and Diderot’s) brand of French Enlightenment philosophy. Despite d’Alembert’s theoretical inconsistencies, his project should not be left to conclude a negative thesis. His energetic ideas, and his work with the Encyclopédie, stand at the epicenter of anti-authoritarian Enlightenment thinking.

§1. Circumstances and Problems of the PD: D’Alembert was a precocious mathematician who took a vibrant part in the proliferation of scientific interests of the time. When he was in his mid-twenties, he quickly earned himself a place in the cutting edge scientific community of his day. He gained widespread acclaim with his early publication on Newtonian mechanics, the Treatise on Dynamics (Traité de dynamique) from 1743.[2] Sometime in 1746, because he was becoming widely recognized as a rising star, he was invited in regular attendance to the fashionable, high-society salons of the day. It is likely that he met Diderot around this time.[3]

D’Alembert and Diderot were invited by the eccentric editor abbé Gua de Malves, to help with an English to French translation of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia, otherwise known as the Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences.[4] It is not altogether clear who was invited to participate first.[5] It was the abbé Gua de Malves who had big plans for the project, but he dropped out early on. D’Alembert was brought on to edit and author the mathematical and scientific entries, and Diderot would take care of the rest. This co-editorship went beyond these original positions, with d’Alembert taking charge of much more than the mathematical and scientific entries, including his introduction to the Encyclopédie, otherwise known as the PD. The PD was first published in 1751. This was not the work of an established philosopher, instead it was one man’s expression of the age, brought forth by this mathematician/scientist. D’Alembert’s efforts serve as a classic example of Enlightenment cross-disciplinary élan.

That d’Alembert ran with the best of the French intellectual luminaries of his day earned him the position as a French philosophe. To be a philosophe like d’Alembert and Diderot meant to be counted among such legends as Voltaire and Rousseau. The philosophe’s were not necessarily philosophers, they were more like public intellectuals who took it upon themselves to critique the status quo. Primarily, they were critics of religious dogma and the unquestioned authority of aristocratic ideals. The PD set d’Alembert’s fame, with laudatory comments on his work coming from none other than the political philosopher Montesquieu and the Prussian king Frederick the Great.

D’Alembert introduces us to his brand of empiricism in the opening of the PD: “in short, we must go back to the origin and generation of our ideas.”[6] This fundamental thought aligns d’Alembert to his mentor the philosophe abbé de Condilliac who was an avid Lockean, hence a declaration of d’Alembert’s empiricism.[7] D’Alembert makes use of rational and empiricist principles. There are passages in the PD where his implicit allegiance to innate ideas, undercuts his alleged empiricist project. One example of this is in connection to d’Alembert’s method of judgment as to the validity and certainty of ideas. He wants to be certain of ideas in order to determine what subjects to include in the Encyclopédie, and of course, he wants to know what things we as thinking beings can be certain of. For example, on the tenuous ground of moral evidence, i.e. when we are able to judge, and to be certain of, the rights and wrongs of an ethical situation, d’Alembert writes in the PD that: “Feeling is of two sorts. The one concerned with moral truths is called conscience. It is the result of natural law and our conception of good and evil. One could call it evidence of the heart…”[8] It can be argued that the so-called evidence of the heart is actually evidence of innate ideas. That is to say, if we are to assume that d’Alembert, as he states, is operating from a strictly empirical framework, such a moral idea is not grounded in an experiential account. Instead, his evidence of the heart must be coming from a feeling or conviction based in something other than experience.

This is in contrast to another claim d’Alembert makes in the opening pages of the PD where he asks: “Why suppose that we have purely intellectual notions [innate ideas] at the onset if all we need do in order to form them is to reflect on our sensations?”[9] Throughout the PD it is not entirely obvious that d’Alembert sufficiently mends the thorny issue between his denial of Descartes’ innate ideas, contrasted with his allegiance to Locke’s empirical sense certainty. We will return with a closer examination of this problem in §6 (“Philosophy and d’Alembert,” p.8). Before that, let’s look at the wider framework of the Enlightenment, so as to situate the intellectual and cultural milieu under which the Encyclopédie took center stage. This will be followed by summaries of Descartes and Locke’s positions in relation to the PD and the Enlightenment.

§2. The Enlightenment: Frankel sums up the spirit of the Enlightenment as: “Two great traditions, humanism and science, came together in the eighteenth century. The first had acquired a weapon, the second a conscience: together they constituted a revolutionary program.”[10] The efforts of the philosophes during The Age of Enlightenment were to awaken humanity to its own potential. We needed to reposition ourselves as rational thinkers who rely on the surety of scientific observation. Superstition and religious dogma were undermined in favor of our own human capacities for positive inquiry. Science became a weapon for humanity to wrestle out of the obscurity and unfounded authority of the middle ages and scholasticism. We take it upon ourselves to know about the world starting from our desire to eradicate conjecture. The power of scientific authority is, during the Enlightenment, made to shift from speculation to the power of the individual. To precisely investigate the world by way of simple observation, experimentation, and hypothesis was a new challenge to harness. This impetus meant that the Enlightenment fostered intellectual growth with an emphasis on how the intellect can help the human condition transcend its own limitations. The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution in favor of the progress of humanity, and the philosophical and scientific ways we come to know the wider universe.[11] The progress of intellectual freedom meant that humankind needed to master the natural world in order to take a firm hold of our destiny away from previous divine dictates.

The Enlightenment was born from the crucible of scientific and philosophical inquiry. In France, with the philosophes, empirical inspiration was imported from England. This rose with such figures as Locke, Bacon, and Newton (among others) who were, more or less responsible for the ever-rising popularity of empirical science and the application of empirical knowledge. These important English thinkers would also serve as the intellectual framework of d’Alembert’s PD. Also, the apparent contradictions between rationalism and empiricism were not unique to d’Alembert alone. This conflict was a problem for many of the French Enlightenment philosophes.[12]

Descartes gained widespread acceptance during the Enlightenment, and with the philosophes, his reception was slightly more ambiguous. This was due to his problematic metaphysics stemming from his mind/body dualism—this had to do with his radical claim for the separation of the human mind from the natural world.[13] His innatism would also be a point of contention. Nevertheless, his significance cannot be overstated. For example, his method of Cartesian doubting, in the name of getting to the necessity of mathematics, physics, and other scientific certainties, endeared Descartes’ rationalism to the energetic inquiry of the French philosophes.

These two thinkers, Locke and Descartes, would inadvertently bring about a central philosophical problem of the Enlightenment: should we as thinking persons adhere to a rationalist outlook, complete with its overreaching metaphysics, or should we ascribe to nothing but empirical evidence, with its reliance on sensory data? The issue of fusing rationalism and empiricism would not be unique to d’Alembert’s PD. Kant would famously tackle this complicated epistemological issue with brilliant results, thirty years later (1780s) in Germany (then Prussia), with his first critique, the Critique of Pure Reason.[14]

§3. Descartes: The wealthy chevalier Destouches, d’Alembert’s father, took care that the young man received a good private education at the Jansenist Collège de Quatre Nations in Paris, and it is likely that the Jansenists were the ones who introduced him to the philosophy of Descartes.[15] The progression of philosophy, as d’Alembert puts it in the PD, is that to the ancient philosophers and scholastics an empirical idea was an “axiom.” From here historically, the empirical axiom allegedly takes a turn during the philosophy of the Renaissance toward innate ideas, as d’Alembert has it anyway. As we will see soon, d’Alembert like Descartes, wants to see a metaphysics of knowledge, as reliant on innate ideas. Locke would aggressively challenge this notion in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690.

In the 1630s, sometime before Locke, Descartes’ ideas had a great influence in the birth of early Modern philosophy because of his philosophical method of bringing rational thinking and questioning to the ground zero of the cogito. Descartes helped to get scientific certainty going, and as mentioned, Locke would later take issue with the grounding of Cartesian certainty with innate ideas. Descartes starts with a fundamental doubting of previous modes of securing a method of scientific and philosophical inquiry. As a rationalist, Descartes wanted to figure out a way to justify scientific knowledge by identifying human rationality as innate and God-given. His epistemic method was to begin by doubting all the ways in which we come to know things. For Descartes, this doubt starts with the premise that sense perception is not reliable, where we, by way of this reductive doubt, eventually arrives at the certainty of our own thinking. When most ways of knowing are in doubt, the first thing a person can be sure of is that they are thinking. Hence, Descartes arrives at the famous cogito: “I am thinking, therefore I exist.”[16]

The cogito cannot be doubted, and it is made known to us by what Descartes terms a “natural light.” This natural light is akin to reason. Therefore, anything that cannot be doubted must be certain, and anything that is certain includes such things as universality, mathematical necessity, logic, physics, and metaphysical relations. These things are known prior to experience, and because they are known prior to experience, they must be innate. In the Meditations Descartes writes: “Among my ideas, some appear to be innate, some to be adventitious [not innate], and others to have been invented by me.”[17] Incidentally, for Descartes, God provides us with this innate rational capacity.

§5. Locke: Both Descartes and Locke’s philosophy were on minds of the French thinkers including the abbé de Condillac. He was an abbé (or abbot), but he was not a religious man. In fact, he was decidedly empiricist—after the teachings of Locke. The abbé de Condillac was not only Lockean, his ideas also made use of rationalist components of Descartes.[18] In fact, the PD can be said to be mostly an empirical project. Locke’s empiricism placed a premium on our sensual experience of the world. Essentially, his idea is that our thinking comes about by experience only. In the opening lines of Book I of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is a refutation of Descartes’ innate ideas. “It is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles…”[19] Locke’s brand of empiricism is typically identified by the so-called tabula rasa theory.[20] The idea is fairly straightforward: we are born not knowing anything, our minds are blank of knowledge, and as we directly experience the world with our senses, knowledge is learned and reflected upon. Our ability to reflect, for Locke, means that we put together the things we have learned by our senses. D’Alembert would also go on to utilize Locke’s theory of direct and reflective knowledge.

§6. Philosophy and d’Alembert: Let us not forget that the Encyclopédie had the immodest goal to survey all human knowledge up to the time of it publication in the 1750s. According to d’Alembert, the Encyclopédie had two aims: one was to set down the order and the connections of the various disciplines of human knowledge. The other was to lay down the principles of mechanical sciences, and the liberal arts.[21] It was d’Alembert’s idea that the manufacturing trades, science, the arts, and philosophy were mutually interconnected as emblematic of the unity of human knowledge. Moreover, if any one of these disciplines would provide a structure to the vast comprehensiveness of knowledge, it would have to be the discipline of philosophy. Because philosophy is concerned with the origins of knowledge, the ordering of human understanding would have recourse to essential philosophical issues, such as epistemological questions having to do with where our thoughts of the world originate.

D’Alembert’s conceptual structure of the PD divides human knowledge into three main branches of thought: memory, reason and imagination.[22] Memory has to do with recalling and bringing to mind sensations and ideas. Reason has to do with the logic, comparison, sequentiality, and assessments of cognition. Imagination combines the faculties of memory and reason to create new ideas and new possibilities.[23] These branches of thought are brought in as an organizational device from which to classify the various subjects of the Encyclopédie. For instance, under the category of memory we find the disciplines of history. With reason we find the disciplines of philosophy and the sciences, and with the imagination we find the disciplines of the fine arts. However, before this Baconian division of human interests and disciplines, d’Alembert will have to go further into positing and verifying where our ideas come from—and for d’Alembert empiricism fits the bill.

Before the division of knowledge mentioned above, knowledge as it is experienced, is initially subdivided into what d’Alembert calls “direct” and “reflective” knowledge. The direct base of knowledge is attributable to Locke, where d’Alembert writes: “all our direct knowledge can be reduced to what we receive through our senses; whence it follows that we owe all our ideas to sensations.”[24] The reflective area of knowledge is also linked to Locke’s reflection, otherwise known as introspection. Introspection itself is reliant on the base of our sense experience. Employing this model, d’Alembert has the dilemma of showing how direct and reflective knowledge transitions into necessary and universal truths.[25] Because d’Alembert stridently rejects innate ideas, he has to find a way that reflection is based on nothing more than a series of sensations.

During his discussion of Lockean reflective knowledge in the PD, d’Alembert takes on the immensely difficult task of justifying our thoughts, and the objects that bring about these thoughts, as somehow one in the same. In other words, he wants to know how “…all of these things produce an irresistible impulse in us to affirm that the objects we relate to these sensations, and which appear to be their cause, actually exist.”[26] His next move is decidedly unsatisfying with his justification that the way we affirm the connection between thoughts and the objects of those thoughts, is with a supra-reasonable instinct: “only a kind of instinct, surer than reason itself, can compel us to leap so great a gap.”[27] There is no way to justify this claim other than to suggest that this instinct must originate in our mind as an innate idea, especially with the claim that the instinct is “surer than reason.” To be sure, part of d’Alembert’s problem rests with Locke, since Locke’s reflective knowledge also cannot justify our ability to go beyond sense data without recourse to some kind of metaphysical connectivity that still sounds a lot like innatism.[28] Such issues like determining the apodictic certainty of mathematics becomes extremely difficult to conclude on the grounds of direct sense perception and reflection alone. Sense certainty cannot account for necessity without recourse to some form of rational connectivity that precedes it, and is intermeshed, with empirical experience.

Surprisingly, Lockean empiricism becomes the unsolved problem for d’Alembert’s philosophical commitments. For Descartes, the issue is one of overreaching. Rationalism overextends its conclusions into areas it cannot verify, i.e. God’s placement of innate ideas into our minds, and does not sufficiently explain where ideas our come from without a structuring principle that accounts for truth. For Locke, our issue is one of limitation. Empiricism limits all thinking as originative and deriving from sensory data. While it fails to provide an adequate explanation as to how sensorial ideas are brought together in the mind, or how we verify truth.[29] Empiricism struggles to adequately provide justification for scientific universals and rigors of mathematical necessity without organizational principles in place prior to experience.

With all this said we must still try acknowledging Descartes’ innovation, for d’Alembert and for the Enlightenment, which surely was his specific method of Cartesian doubting to arrive at the certainty of the cogito. If we are certain that we think, knowledge easily extends from this certainty if we are able to understand the importance of our methods of verification, scientific or otherwise. As for Locke, it is debatable whether or not he did away with innate ideas, yet his contribution to the Enlightenment was enormous. Most of his innovation stands with his attempt to ground human knowledge in an empirical understanding that sought to contain the far-reaching excesses of rational metaphysics.

§7. Conclusions: In 1749, when the Encyclopédie was getting underway, Diderot was thrown into the prison at Vincennes for his publication Lettre sur les aveugles (Letter on the blind).[30] It was around this time that a number of important works were published by Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and of course, the PD with the Encyclopédie sees its first publication in 1751.[31] Diderot and d’Alembert would eventually split on philosophical grounds, with d’Alembert leaving the Encyclopédie project altogether by 1758.[32] The atheistic and anti-authoritarianism of the Encyclopédie had the vast publication swirling in controversy since its inception. The constant pressure likely wore d’Alembert down. However, publication of the Encyclopédie didn’t stop in spite of d’Alembert’s absence and the seemingly endless attacks from religious conservatives. Its run would last for twenty one years: 1751-1772.

Sorting through d’Alembert’s philosophical problems directs attention to the mistakes we easily make in our own empirical understanding of nature, science, and religion. Knowledge of the Enlightenment is greatly enhanced with our familiarity of the combined emphasis on philosophy and scientific investigation in the PD. Both fields are better understood in the context of the French Enlightenment due to the fantastic inquisitive energy of intellectuals like d’Alembert and Diderot. Opposed to embellishing traditional values, the Encyclopédie was highly innovative in its day, with its multiple articles on manufacturing and the trades. The Encyclopédie also had the audacious goal to bring all of human knowledge into a single system. Apart from the knotted problems with d’Alembert’s philosophical commitments, what can be found in his work that demonstrates the intellectual value of his philosophy? The PD and the Encyclopédie demonstrate the value of independent free thinking and vigorous curiosity. The Age of the Enlightenment is defined by its breathtaking enthusiasm for new scientific ideas, intellectual autonomy and philosophical discovery. D’Alembert and Diderot helped fuse these notions into the project of knowledge brought together as a vast one-of-a-kind monument, in the Encyclopédie, and its introduction, the PD. They wanted to know the world and they wanted to help people understand themselves in their own vital connection with the world. It is only when we are certain of the knowledge we’ve gained that we are able to think of the possibility of something else—something radical.

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 96.

[2] Richard Schwab, introduction to D’Alembert’s The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), xvi.

[3] On the other hand, Robert Grimsley notes that Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) suggested that d’Alembert and Diderot were childhood friends.

[4] Robert Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert, 9-10.

[5] Robert Grimsley writes that it wasn’t till 1939 that the accounting books for the Encyclopédie show that, contrary to popular belief, d’Alembert was brought into the project as “early as December 1745, while Diderot was not put on the pay-roll until February of the following year.” Robert Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert, 3.

[6] Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 4.

[7] Richard Schwab notes that d’Alembert’s thought corresponds to these lines of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac: “Our first object, which we should never lose from sight, is the study of the human mind—not to discover its nature, but to learn to know its operations, to observe how they are combined and how we ought to use them to acquire all the intelligence of which we are capable. It is necessary to go back to the origin of our ideas, to work out their generation, to follow them to the limits which nature has prescribed for them, and by these means to establish the extent and limits of our knowledge and renew all of human understanding.” Schwab quoting Condillac in Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, n. 8, 5.

[8] D’Alembert, The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 44-45.

[9] D’Alembert, The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 7.

[10] Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 7.

[11] Charles Frankel quotes d’Alembert: “Happy are men of letters if they recognize at last that the surest way of making themselves respectable is to live united and almost shut up among themselves; that by this union they will come, without any trouble, to give the law to the rest of the nation in all affairs of taste and philosophy…As if the art of instructing and enlightening men were not, after the too rare art of good government, the noblest portion and gift in human reach.” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 10.

[12] Charles Frankel writes: The philosophes stressed the fact that they had broken with Cartesianism as a system: Descartes, as Voltaire and others wrote, had discovered the mistakes of antiquity, but he had substituted his own in their place, In following Locke, who had ‘reduced metaphysics to what it ought to be in fact, the experimental physics of the soul,’ the philosophes had ceremoniously rejected Descartes’ ‘metaphysical romance.’” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 14.

[13] Charles Farnkel writes: “At the same time that the great works in social criticism written during the first decade of the century were attacks upon the superstitions of the ancient régime, they were also, for the most part, revolts against the Cartesian reinforcement of supernaturalism—the separation of the mind from physical nature.” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 13.

[14] Kant writes on the battle between rationalism and empiricism in the preface to the first edition (1781) of the Critique of Pure Reason: “The perplexity into which it [reason] thus falls is not due to any fault of its own. It begins with principles which it has no option save to employ in the course of experience, and which this experience at the same time abundantly justifies it in using. Rising with their aid (since it is determined to this also by its own nature) to even higher, even more remote, conditions, it soon becomes aware that in this way—the questions never ceasing—its work must always remain incomplete, and it therefore finds itself compelled to resort to principles which overstep all possible empirical employment, and which yet seem so unobjectionable that even ordinary consciousness readily accepts them. But by this procedure human reason precipitates itself into darkness and contradictions; and while it may indeed conjecture that these must be in some way due to concealed errors, and it is not in a position to be able to detect them. For since the principles of which it is making use transcend the limits of experience, they are no longer subject to any empirical test. The battle-field of these endless controversies is called metaphysics.” Immanuel Kant, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 7.

[15] Robert Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert: (1717-83), (London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1963), 3.

[16] Descartes writes, “Lastly, considering that the very thoughts we have while awake may also occur while we sleep without any of them being at that time true, I resolved to pretend that all things that had ever entered my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately I noticed that while I was endeavoring in this way to think that everything is false, it was necessary that I, who was thinking this, was something. And observing that this truth ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’ was so firm and sure that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable shaking it, I decided that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.” René Descartes “Discourse on the Method,” in Selected Philosophical Writings, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 36.

Another version of the cogito can be found in the Meditations, “Sense-perception? This surely does not occur without a body, and besides, when asleep I have appeared to perceive through the sense many things which I afterwards realized I did not perceive through the senses at all. Thinking? At last I have discovered it—thought; this alone is inseparable from me. I am, I exist—that is certain.” Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” in Selected Philosophical Writings, 82.

[17] Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” 89.

[18] Richard Schwab writes on the abbé de Condillac, “the great French student of Locke, the abbé de Condillac, presented to his compatriots a combination of certain features of Cartesian rationalism with the empiricism of Locke and Newton that was accepted as doctrine among the philosophes, and much of his thought was incorporated into the Preliminary Discourse.” In Schwab’s introduction to The Preliminary Discourse, xxxiii.

[19] In a footnote to the opening lines of Locke’s Essay, an editor’s note reads, “ Locke does not name the ‘men’ of ‘innate principles’ whose ‘opinion’ he proceeds to criticize; nor doe he quote their words in evidence of what they intended by the opinion. […] From the first, Descartes, with whose writings he [Locke] was early familiar, was probably in his view.” Alexander C. Fraser editor, John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol., 1, (New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959), n. 1, 37.

[20] It is commonly known that Locke did not use the actual term tabula rasa, instead we find this in Book II of the Essay, “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characteristics, without any ideas […],” John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 121.

[21] D’Alembert writes in the PR: “The work whose first volume we are presenting today has two aims. As in the Encyclopédie, it is to set forth as well as possible the order and connection of the parts of human knowledge. As a Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades, it is to contain the general principles that form the basis of each science and art, liberal and mechanical, and the most essential facts that make up the body and substance of each.” Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4.

[22] Charles Frankel tells us that this is known as “the encyclopedic tree” and that the idea was borrowed from Sir Francis Bacon: “This encyclopedic tree presents something of a problem because, after telling us that we find the unity of science by the empiricist analysis of the origin of ideas, d’Alembert tells us that the order of the encyclopedic tree, the order and connection of the various branches of knowledge, is not identical with the true order of discovery.” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason: The Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment (New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1969), 114.

[23] Richard Schwab, Introduction to The Preliminary Discourse, xxxvi.

[24] Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 6.

[25] Ronald Grimsley writes: “D’Alembert was obviously too engrossed with his original assumption that we never perceive anything but particulars to face squarely the problem of universals.” Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert, 233.

[26]D’Alembert’s full sentence reads: “The multiplicity of these sensations, the consistency that we note in their evidence, the degrees of difference we observe in them, and the involuntary reactions that they cause us to experience—as compared with that voluntary determination we never have over our reflective ideas, which is operative only upon our sensations themselves—all of these things produce an irresistible impulse in us to affirm that the objects we relate to these sensations, and which appear to be their cause, actually exist.” Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 8.

[27] Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 9.

[28] John Locke writes on reflection: “Secondly, the other fountain [reflection] from which experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas is,- the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got;- which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas, which could not be had from things without. And such are perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing, and all the different actings of our own minds;- which we being conscious of, and observing in ourselves, do from these receive into our understandings as distinct ideas as we do from bodies affecting our senses.” John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 26.

[29] Peter Schouls writes on Lockean reflection: “This doctrine of representational realism presents a problem for those holding it, namely how do they know that the idea is a true and adequate representation of the object?” Peter Schouls, Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 80.

[30] Thomas Hankins, Jean d’Alembert: Science and the Enlightenment (London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1970), 67-68.

[31] Thomas Hankins lists these publications: “The year 1749 saw the publication of Diderot’s Lettres sur les aveugles, Buffon’s ‘Premier dicours’ to his Histoire naturelle and Condillac’s Traité des systems. Montesquieu’s Esprit de lois appeared in 1748, but it was not read by d’Alembert until 1749. By the time d’Alembert’s Discours préliminaire [PD] appeared in 28 June 1751, Turgot’s Discours (1750) at the Sorbonne on the progress of the human mind, and Rousseau’s Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750) had also been published. Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV appeared soon after the first volume of the Encyclopédie and praised it lavishly. The concentration of so many ‘philosophical’ works at a time when the Encyclopédie was also beginning to appear caught up d’Alembert in a burst of enthusiasm for philosophy.” Thomas Hankins, Jean d’Alembert, 68.

[32] Thomas Hankins writes of the schism: “After 1753 d’Alembert and Dierot moved farther apart as Diderot turned more defiantly towards materialism and towards a belief in the universal sensibility and activity of matter. D’Alembert was not a deist. His religious position was one of extreme skepticism […]”


Alembert, Jean Le Rond d’. Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot. Translated by Richard N. Schwab. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Butts, Robert E. Witches, Scientists, Philosophers: Essays and Lectures. Edited by Graham Solomon. Dordrecht, ND: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.

Descartes, René. Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Frankel, Charles. The Faith of Reason: The Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment. New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1969.

Grimsley, Ronald. Jean d’Alembert: (1717-83). London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Hankins, Thomas L. Jean d’Alembert: Science and the Enlightenment. London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Hundert, Edward. “D’Alembert’s Dream and the Utility of the Humanities.” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 15, no. 3-4 (2003): 459-472.

Kant, Immanuel. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol., I. Edited by Alexander Campbell Fraser. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959.

Schouls, Peter A. Descartes and the Enlightenment. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989.

——. Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

aristotle & agamben: on potentiality & actuality

stephan krophf

Abstract: We often misunderstand the primary importance of metaphysics, imagining that the manifestation of the world is only a matter of facts. Philosophy shows us that this is not the case, since the seemingly simple relationship between what is potential (δύναμις) and what is actual (ενέργεια) immediately exposes the illusion that our understanding of the world is only a matter of facts. In this paper I wish to do three things: define Aristotle’s potentiality, actuality, and privation, beginning with their relation to substance; investigate Giorgio Agamben’s reading of these concepts to define and conceptualize his position in the essay “On Potentiality” from his book Potentialities; and lastly, determine where Aristotle and Agamben meet, to help reveal the importance of metaphysics as held within our understanding of potentiality and actuality.

I. On Aristotle’s substance: Aristotle writes about potentiality and actuality in Book Θ of the Metaphysics. At this point in the Metaphysics he has just covered his conceptualization of substance (οὐσία). Here, I offer a quick synopsis of Aristotle’s idea on substance, because potentiality and actuality are prefigured into how substances come to be. The concept of substance consists of both a quality and a quantity of something that is in existence. To exist is what it is to be. Substance describes being. Being predicates everything that is a substance.[1] Inquiring into what the being of something is, includes what something becomes through time. Substances are fire, earth, water, air, plants, animals, humans, manmade things, etc.[2] Substances are compounds of form and matter. Substance involves four components: essence, the universal, the genus and the substratum.[3]

Substance is a something to point to that is in existence, since a substance is something that exists. Substance is ontological because it describes what something is. To be in existence, a thing is a composite, a synchronicity of matter and form.[4] Matter is the material, regarded as potential for Aristotle. Form is the shape and action the material takes, and this is regarded by him as actuality. The matter of a thing corresponds to potentiality. It is what a thing is capable of doing. What something is, in its capacity, is interlocked with its form. The precise form of anything determines what it is capable of doing. Form is the kind of thing matter becomes. Form is the species of the matter in question. If a particular form is human, animal, or plant, its potential is self-contained, and self-generated. If the object is made by a person, the potential of matter is actualized by the artisan. Wood is sawn for a boat. The formal material of wood gives it the potential to float on water. Stone is carved for a statue. The formal material of certain stones allows their potential to take a precise cutting.

A. Aristotle’s Potential: What is the source of change within the potential matter of an inanimate thing, or a living thing?[5] With Aristotle such a question brings us into the existence of life. What it means for a living thing to contain both its own potential for growth, and its actualization is certainly a question of what it means to express life, what it means to exist.[6] With the wood of a tree, the kind of potential that wood has to become to be a bed is reliant on an agental potentiality—the wood’s potential needs an agent to bring the wood of the tree into its actuality as a bed. On the other hand, humans have originative potential held within our capacity for life.[7] A wooden bed cannot fabricate itself, yet a baby can become an adult, and an adult has potential within to practice skills. This is a different type of potentiality, when an adult has the capacity, due to her knowledge to create, or to cause a change in something, her potential has the capacity to be fulfilled or to not be fulfilled. The ability to change in this second type of potentiality comes from within the capacity of the agent.[8]

The arts and knowledge are also potentials, since it is from these that art and knowing come to be.[9] These potentials operate under a rational or irrational principle for Aristotle. The rational is determined by its logical form and the irrational is often determined by accident.[10] The difference here is one of privation (στέρησις). Take for example a doctor who practices the art of medicine which has the potential to heal. Her rational potential to heal can falter, thus becoming a lack of healing. The potential to heal contains within it the potential to do harm, and in this example, doing harm is irrational.[11] I’ll return later to the notion of privation with Agamben.

B. Aristotle’s actuality: As for Aristotle’s actuality, let us sustain the notion of potentiality and actuality as inextricably conjoined. To define one, is to consider the other as one progression. We cannot consider the thought of anything as potential unless we somehow account for anything becoming actualized. Potential is preceded by actuality. The actual world brings about potential. If the actual is akin to energy, then energy is what creates potential. Actualization also is akin to work. Matter is working itself out as it is formed. When a house is becoming actualized from raw materials, the potentiality of the bricks, wood, and labor become actualized in the fabrication and construction of the house. Work reveals the potential of the raw materials that become a house to live in. A house cannot be actualized without the architects, carpenters, and stone masons who work to build it.

If substance is being, its existence is actualization. What is not in existence is potentiality. What is potential has not become thought yet. It is incomplete, and when it becomes thought, or rational knowledge, it becomes actualized. Whatever becomes actualized is happening or has happened. We are at our best when our minds are actively engaged in the world. The activity of the mind and of the intellect is bringing things and ideas into being and into existence. For Aristotle, thought and the objects of thought are inseparable. On this fascinating point Aristotle prioritizes the actual above the potential (as mentioned earlier). We might imagine that what is potential precedes the actual, since a progression from one to the other is implied, yet for Aristotle this is not the case, since thought itself is eternal. That is to say, if thought is eternal, according to Aristotle, then it cannot be merely potential because potentiality is incomplete. Therefore if the actual is complete (i.e. it is no longer a potential), only that which is eternal is actualized.[12]

The kinetic (κίνησις) relationship between potentiality and actuality can be thought of as the movement of substances which play a central role in Aristotle’s philosophy.[13],[14]

C. More on Aristotle’s Potentiality and Actuality: Even within the act of thinking we confront the unknown of our intellectual capacity so as to increase our ability to further our actual knowledge into future potential. Recall where Aristotle writes in De Anima, that the intellect “has no other nature than that of being potential, and before thinking it is absolutely nothing” (429a 21-22). This means that thought cannot be nothing, it cannot be simply thinking about things, and then not thinking about things. Thought has to allow for things to come together in potentiality as they become known so as to make things and thinking actual.[15] That the mind is receptive to the world—i.e. it contains what it knows while it receives new thoughts—positions the intellect as potentiality. We might imagine that the potentiality of thought is foundational for all knowledge.[16] In the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes “…it is obvious that actuality is prior in substantial being to potency, and as we have said, one actuality always precedes another in time right back to the actuality of the eternal prime mover” (1050b 2-5). Also back in De Anima, where Aristotle makes the case for the inseparability of thought and object, he emphasizes that our individual potential knowledge seems to be prior to actual knowledge: “but in the universe as a whole it is not even prior even in time” (430a 20-23). If knowledge is said to be actual, then it cannot be prior to potential because everything that is potential must come from something that is actual. The prime mover, as representative of pure thought, is eternal, and for Aristotle, the prime mover is also known as the unmoved mover. All motion originates from the prime mover and motion is the coming to be of actuality.[17]

Sometimes the tangible product of actualization is only an actualization of a visual sensation, as with the actuality of sight. We have the potential to see and actually seeing is the work of sight.[18] Actuality and potentiality as metaphysical concepts are easily relatable to sensation. In Book II of De Anima (417a 5-8) Aristotle writes on the potentiality of sensation. Sensation requires the sensual world to be what it is. We cannot speak of sensation without speaking of that which brings sensation to the fore of actuality. Aristotle questions what it means to experience sensation without an impetus to bring it about. The faculty of sight is a potential for sight, while seeing something is the actualization of potential. Having the faculty to do something is not the same as actually doing it. This encapsulates the idea that potential includes the ability to not be.[19] This leads to privation.

D. Aristotle’s Privation: Then there is the idea of privation (στέρησις).[20] Privation, or doing without, is a potentiality as it is not happening. Aristotle writes of it in four senses.[21] A privation is a simple lack of any particular thing, any negation serves as an example. A privation is the lack of capacity a thing under normal circumstances would have. For instance, someone is blind now who once had the capacity to see. A privation can also mean having the capacity and not using it, e.g. although we see we are sometimes blind to certain things. Also, a privation can be the removal of a capacity, e.g. a criminal is held in chains to curb her potential for violence. Agamben is primarily interested in this third type of privation.

D. Agamben: Agamben does not wish to revive Aristotle’s potentiality and actuality, because actuality and potentiality never went away.[22] When we give thought to potential, we also give thought to power, and power that resides in potential does not have to become actualized in all cases. For instance, humanity possesses political (defensive/military) power it does not have to use. We are free to not use our potential. Having the potential to do something speaks to the ontology of power: where power comes from, and that certain types of political power reside in not using what is potential. Because we have the power to destroy others does not mean we always have to act on such a power. Agamben wants to get at the root of what we mean when we make use of the verb ‘can.’[23] He takes seriously a philosophical line of questioning that asks: “what do I mean when I say: ‘I can, I cannot’?”[24] When we utter the words ‘I can, I cannot,’ we proclaim our potential and ability to do something. We take faith that our potential to perform an act is actually within us. Freedom resides in our choice to act on our potential. While at the same time, when our potential is tested, we wonder if we can we make good on a promise to do something. We do not always know the outcomes of any venture till it becomes actualized. To say ‘I can or I cannot’ does so in the face of uncertainty. Political power does not always know the promise of its actualization till its policies are actualized.

Including Aristotle’s idea of privation, Agamben goes in deeper, since privation is a fundamental part of grasping potential. He identifies this privation as the “existence of non-being.”[25] Privation is a kind of “potential not to be.” Agamben identifies this in Aristotle’s Book Θ of the Metaphysics, where Aristotle writes: “that, then, which is capable of being may either be or not be; the same thing, then, is capable of both being and of not being” (1050b 10). This “not to be” is held within the potential even when it is actualized. To ‘not be’ is potential, yet it is not a simple absence of the actual. That is to say, all potential is not exhausted while it is being actualized. Actualization also contains the ability to not be actualized. The word for this privation is impotence (αδυναμία), Aristotle’s word for a type of privation (στέρησις).

Agamben wants us to take notice of the distinction Aristotle makes concerning potential. As mentioned above (re: “Aristotle’s Potential,” pp. 2-3), there are two types of potentiality for Aristotle, one kind of potentiality is the kind attributable to a child who can learn, or who can gain knowledge. This type of potential is potential in a general sense of the word. The child learns this or that, while the child until she learns it, does not hold that ability yet. The child does not possess the same kind of potential that an architect does. This is the second type of potential. When we say a child can become an architect, it is different than saying an architect has the potential to put a building into action. In the second type, the architect has the know-how and expertise already at hand—she can put a building into action, whereas the child does not possess the skill. This type of potentiality is already in existence within the expertise of the architect. The architect has the ability, so she possesses the potential for a building within her. The potential is within her hexis (ἕξις), her possession.[26]

Now it becomes easier to conceptualize the difference between a mere lack of potential and the Agamben’s “existence of non-being.” Basic lacking is a general privation, whereas having the expertise to do something is the special kind of privation that Agamben and Aristotle are interested in. As this special privation of potential is brought to the fore, thoughts of what cannot happen become evident. The possibility to enact a building also becomes the possibility for the building to not happen for an architect. In politics, and in everyday life, we can easily suffer the results in the name of activities we don’t do. Passivity and quietism hold the power of inactivity. We enact the freedom to not do things we are capable of doing. Problems with passivity are ecological, as much they are political and philosophical. Not doing something is a strategy born from conviction, obstinacy or ignorance. Again, for Aristotle, to have potential in privation, means to have potential in existence. He writes in the Physics, “for the privation is in a way a form” (193b 19-20). Privation means to possess potential whether it is utilized or not.

Our faculties, e.g. the faculty for speech, vision, and even our ability for death, are within the domain of potentiality.[27] To think of someone’s potential is to think of what she is without an actualization of her potential—actually taking place. To inquire into such problems, like what it means when I say ‘I can or cannot’ do this or that, is to inquire into what it means to have a faculty to do something. For Agamben, this is the “originary problem of potentiality.”[28]

From Aristotle’s De Anima, Agamben illustrates more subtleties on potential as the existence of non-being rather than mere lacking.[29] His reading of Aristotle speaks of a transparency of vision. Something that is transparent is also something that is visible. This is a special way to think of transparency rather than the transparency of a clear glass of water. Transparency (διαφανής) of vision is made possible with light. To see a thing’s color, is to see it in the light. When light is removed, vision is taken to darkness (σκότος). Yet when we are in darkness, we see the darkness because we are not blinded by the absence of light. Light, as the provider of color, is actuality. Darkness, as the absence of light is potential. “What is sometimes darkness and sometimes light is one in nature” is how Agamben reads Aristotle’s position.[30] If light presents itself as the actuality of color, then darkness is the potential for light, and its privation: darkness is the potential for color’s absence. Light, in this case is akin to our action in motion. Darkness represents our inaction.

Human privation lacks color when action is nullified and we choose to do nothing.[31] Suddenly we intuit the moral/ethical implications for potentiality as privation. Privation is a lack of action held within potential, when our ability to act is possible. The privation of potency is impotence. A problem of evil is not always one of actively seeking out and enacting evil deeds. As implied, evil can also be the privation of action, the choice or faculty to do nothing, the choice to ignore the suffering of others.

Potential in privation is non-being (i.e. doing nothing) for Agamben. When we bring ourselves to action, the potential for non-being is always at the fore. Every circumstance admits to the range of possibilities that can, or cannot happen. We are constantly in a relationship with our inability to act. What can be is limited by what is. Still, privation need not always be an active choice to be passive. It is feasible that the privation of our potential is something to embrace. Inaction can bring about safety in danger, as much as it can be a measure of humility against the hubris (ὕβρις) of grandeur. Because we have the potential to commit crimes does not entitle us to actualize a criminal act. If someone commits a violent act on us it may not always be the wisest choice to retaliate, depending on the circumstances. Still, we often must come to terms with our limitations in order to surpass them. I often don’t know what my capacity for brave action is, till I’m required to act under duress, exhaustion, or the threat of death.

E. Last Thoughts: Metaphysics in philosophical study has to do, but is not limited to, questions on the basic structures of reality and being. Outside of philosophical questioning we are more accustomed to imagine that the manifestation of our world is only composed of a multitude of facts thrown together. The ontological relationship between what is potential and what is actual shows that any conception of reality has to take into account what can be, and what cannot be. Also, what cannot be, as a privation of potential, an impotence, must be considered in light of what we are capable of. Agamben is sharp to distill this from Aristotle’s genius. Agamben pulls impotence out to show that freedom is not always about action. Possessing the freedom to not do things shows that the metaphysics of potential and actuality go beyond a simplistic positive negative opposition. So much of political power is a privation of military and economic potential. Impotence resides near potential, yet at the same time, it cannot be described as actual. Agamben and Aristotle meet in an act of scholarship. Agamben mines his conclusions from the quarry of Aristotle’s lithic notation. The aporia (ἀπορία) of Aristotle’s potentiality has not been lost, and Agamben demonstrates this suspended when we say “I can, I cannot.” When I can, and do, perform a task, what I cannot do suspends or withholds itself from the task at hand. The suspension of what cannot be must be understood residing at this borderline of coming to be. Every action spells out what has not been. This must be considered as action’s metaphysical coeval, i.e. that the impotence of privation is never a mere absence.

We relate to the world and to people in these terms without knowing how inactivity affects the existence of our being. If potential is born from the actual then all that has not happened relies on what has happened. New paths are forged from what has been, to be transformed into what will be, and to be made manifest in perpetuity. Humans grasp their originative potential taken with our capacity for life. At the same time, we reject the wide range of possibilities forfeited in the name of performing a single task. Not doing something establishes the possibility of impotence concealed by action. Actuality distracts us from what is hidden. Privation discloses itself without ever needing to be put into action. We want to recoil from these observations, they seem too simple. Somehow they are made too obvious once they become evident. Philosophy discloses these relationships and now our work is to contemplate (θεωρία) their value in thought and in practice. To tap into our potential entails that we access what is already there, but has not yet been acted upon, ready to be actualized, reserved, overlooked or ignored.[32]

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Aristotle writes [note: all following quotes belong to Aristotle’s unless otherwise noted]: “We have now outlined the nature of substance, showing that it is that which is not predicated of a stratum, but of which all else is predicated.” Metaphysics, (1029a 7).

[2] “Those generally recognized are the natural substances, i.e. fire, earth, water, aire, &c., the simple bodies; secondly, plants, and their parts, and animals and the parts of animals; and finally the physical universe and its parts; […]. Metaphysics, (1042a 6-10).

[3] “The word ‘substance’ is applied, if not in more senses, still at least to four main objects; for both the essence and the universl and the genus are thought to be the substance of each thing, and fourthly the substratum.” Metaphysics, (1028b 33-36).

[4] “And in one sense matter is said to be of the nature of substratum [substance], in another, shape [form], and in a third, the compound of these” Metaphysics, (1029a 3-4).

[5] “But all potencies that conform to the same type are originative sources of some kind, and are called potencies in reference to one primary kind of potency, which is an originative source of change in anything or in the thing qua other.” Metaphysics, (1046a 10).

[6] “[…] these so-called potencies are potencies either of merely acting or being acted on, or of acting or being acted on well […]” Metaphysics, (1046a 15).

[7] “[…] for the one is in the thing acted on; it is because it contains a certain originative source” Metaphysics, (1046a 22).

[8] “But the other potency is in the agent, e.g. heat and the art of buiding are present, one in that which can produce heat and the other in the man who can build.” Metaphysics, (1046a 25-28).

[9] Jonathan Lear writes: “Man [for Aristotle] is not born with knowledge, but he is born with the capacity to acquire it.” In Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 2.

[10] “[…] for the rational formula to one object in virtue of that object’s nature, and to the other, [the irrational] in a sense, accidentally. […] Now since contraries do not occur in the same thing, but science is a potency which depends on the possession of a rational formula, […]” Metaphysics, (1046b 10-17).

[11] “[…] but the medical art can produce both disease and health. The reason is that science is a rational formula. and the same rational formula explains a thing and its privation […]” Metaphysics, (1046b 6-10).

[12] “Actual knowledge is identical with its object: in the individual, potential knowledge is in time prior to actual knowledge, but in the universe as a whole it is not prior even in time. Mind is not at one time knowing and at another not. When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears just as it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal […] and without it nothing thinks” De Anima (Book III, ch. 5, 430a 10-25).

[13] Kalpana Seshadri quotes Walter Brogan writing on Heidegger’s 1931 lecture Aristotle’s Metaphysics Θ 1-3: On the Essence and Actuality of Force, “For Heidegger, the fundamental horizon of Aristotle’s philosophical questioning is the problem of movement, and it is in the Physics that Aristotle most explicitly addresses this issue…Heidegger reads the Metaphysics in such a way as to highlight the centrality of the concepts of dunamis and energeia as ontological notions that take up the problem of movement at the very heart of Aristotle’s notion of ousia and his understanding of being.” Kalpana Seshadri “Agamben, the Thought of Sterēsis: An Introduction to Two Essays.” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 471.

[14] In Part II, Chapter 2, §26 of Martin Heidegger’s 1924 lecture course on the Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, Heidegger discusses an “Interpretation of the Cultivation of the Concept of κίνησις as a Radical Grasping of the Interpretedness of Being-There.” He is trying to get an understanding of kinesis from Aristotle’s Physics, Book Γ, Heidegger writes: “For the understanding of the following considerations of κίνησις, one must be clear as to: 1. The fact that previously the decisive categories were not yet familiar, For us, the concepts δύναμις, ἐνέργεια, ἐντελέχεια, are so worn out that one is not capable of seeing what is at stake in the fundamental meaning of these concepts. We must work to insert ourselves around into the time when the concepts of δύναμις and ἐνέργεια were cultivated.” Martin Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, translated by Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B Tanzer (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 198-199.

[15] Elizabeth Balskus cites the scholar Leland de la Durantaye’s comments on this “If thought were merely the sum of things which it has thought, not only would be inferior to its object, but it would also leave unexplained thought’s most singular feature: its ability to reflect upon itself.” Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 163. Balskus cites this from de la Durantaye’s book Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, Stanford University Press, 2009.

[16] Elizabeth Balskus writes, “Therefore, the potentiality of the intellect not only allows for thought to maintain a supreme position ontologically, it is also the foundation of thought in general.” Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 163.

[17] “But since there is something which moves while itself unmoved, existing actually, this can in no way be otherwise than it is. For motion in space is the first of the kinds of change, and motion in a circle the first kind of spatial motion; and this the first mover produces.” Metaphysics, (1072b 5-10).

[18] “[…] the actuality is in the thing that is being made, e.g. the act of building is in the thing being built […] but where there is no product apart from the actuality, the actuality is present in the agents, e.g. the act of seeing is in the seeing subject […]” Metaphysics, (1050a 30-37).

[19] Elizabeth Balskus brings this to clarity with “the potential to not be is easiest to understand in an example that both Aristotle and Agamben utilize: possessing a faculty.” Elizabeth Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 161.

[20] I will return to the all important notion of privation for Agamben. Meanwhile, Kalpana Seshadri notes, “The conversation about Agamben’s place in the history of philosophy, merely in terms of his work thus far, cannot begin without considering the directionality he gives to the Aristotlian notion of dunamis. If it is the case, as Heidegger suggested in his course on Friedrich Nietzsche, that ‘each thinker only gets one single thought,’ then surely Agamben’s is that of the sterēsis (or privation) that determines the force or the power that defines living being.” Kalpana Seshadri “Agamben, the Thought of Sterēsis,” 471.

[21] See Metaphysics 1022b 22-33.

[22] Agamben writes, “…I think the concept of potentiality has never ceased to function in the life and history of humanity, most notably in that part of humanity that has grown and developed its potency (potenza) to the point of imposing its power over the whole planet.” Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 177.

[23] Elizabeth Balskus reminds us that the significance of the concept of potentiality “plays into all aspects of existence,” for Agamben. Agamben’s quote from “On Potentialities” is “I could state the subject of my work as an attempt to understand the meaning of the verb ‘can’ [potere].” She writes “It would seem, therefore, that before we can begein to truly understand Agamben’s political or moral philosophy we should first attempt to grasp this potentiality that lies at the foundation of Agamben’s thought.” Elizabeth Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” Macalester Journal of Philosophy 19, no. 1 (2010): 158-180.

[24] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 177.

[25] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 179.

[26] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 179.

[27] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 178.

[28] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 178.

[29] Agamben cites Aristotle’s passage from De Anima, “…if to perceive by sight is just to see, and what is seen is color (or the colored), then if we are to see that which sees, that which sees originally must be colored. It is clear therefore that ‘to perceive by sight’ has more than one meaning; even when we are not seeing, it is by sight that we discriminate darkness from light, though not in the same way as we distinguish one color from another.” De Anima, (425b 15-25).

[30] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.

[31] Agamben writes, “The greatness—and also the abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness.” Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.

[32] Agamben writes: “The greatness—and also abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness. (In Homer, skotos [σκότος] is the darkness that overcomes human beings at the moment of their death. Human beings are capable of experiencing this skotos.)” Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.


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