Power and Act

I would say without hesitation that having a concept of power and act is better than not having one. Nonetheless, despite my tremendous admiration both for the work of Paul Ricoeur and for the classic developments of Leibniz and Spinoza, I think Ricoeur was mistaken to associate Spinoza, Leibniz, Freud, or Bergson with a properly Aristotelian notion of potentiality and actuality (see The Importance of Potentiality; Potentiality, Actuality). Ricoeur on several occasions in his late works identified Spinoza’s conatus, or the desire and effort of beings to continue being — as well as the appetite or desire of each monad in Leibniz, and desire in Freud — with potentiality in Aristotle.

I think Ricoeur was absolutely right to emphasize both the great value of potentiality and actuality in Aristotle and the generally salutary role of the other concepts mentioned, but I don’t think they are the same. Aristotelian actuality refers not just to a current state of things, but more profoundly to what is effectively operative in a process. In Aristotelian terms, I take notions like Platonic “power”, desire, or conatus to express aspects of this more profound, higher-order, and “dynamic” notion of actuality. This is all good as far as it goes, but such richer notions of actuality still do not give us true Aristotelian potentiality or its pairing with actuality, which I regard as an even greater treasure.

Potentiality consists in the concrete counterfactual conditions that give shape, generality, and a kind of substance or “thickness” to the determination of things in the present. It is always indexed to a specific actuality, supplementing and complementing it. It gives us an explicit way to talk about incomplete determination, multiple possibilities, and openness within that actuality, while still recognizing the reality of determination and concrete constraints. It helps us express real determination without overstating it. It is not itself a power, but rather what defines what our power can do.

Spinoza, in consistently following through his idea that there is only one substance, developed a fascinating relational perspective on things, but he strongly adhered to the early modern notion of a complete and univocal determination analogous to what is found in mathematics, which is ultimately incompatible with the Aristotelian notion of incomplete determination expressed in the idea of potentiality and actuality.

Leibniz’s notion of determination had a teleological as well as a mathematical component. He gave admirable consideration to variety, multiplicity, and alternate possibilities in the development of his thought. Nonetheless his notion of pre-established harmony seems to be a sophisticated variant of theological doctrines of predestination, according to which every tiny detail of the world’s unfolding follows from a divine plan.

A notion that each being has or is a kind of Platonic power is actually compatible with a notion of complete determination. For many years, this was the kind of answer I would have given as to how freedom and determination can be reconciled. In a view like this, the freedom of a being is explained in terms of its having a finite power and efficacy, and determination is explained in terms of how all the powers interact. (Leibniz of course denied real interaction, virtualizing it all into the pre-established harmony.)

In more recent years, I have wanted to stress instead that determination is real but incomplete. This is how I now read Aristotle and Hegel. Of all the major modern philosophers, it now seems to me to be Hegel who actually comes closest to recovering an Aristotelian notion of actuality and potentiality. Unlike Aristotle he does not explicitly talk about potentiality, but Hegel’s rich notion of actualization implicitly captures the nuances of the interaction of actuality and potentiality. (See also Aristotelian Actualization.)


When I talk about beings, or us as beings, I mean this in a very ordinary, pre-philosophical way. It seems to me that to informally qualify as a “being”, something must have a degree of coherence; a degree of resilience or persistence in the face of change; and relations to other beings.

We might form a notion of something absolutely singular or self-contained, but it would not be a notion of a being. The classic notion of something absolutely singular was the One of Plotinus, which for him explicitly preceded all being. For Plotinus, we should only begin to talk about being when we have something that is “both one and many”.

If we speak of beings, it makes some sense to inquire about the being of beings. To me, though, this just means a higher-order consideration of the ordinary “being a being” of ordinary beings. It does not imply some very different “Being with a capital B” that gives being to all ordinary beings.

When Aristotle inquired about “being as being”, he reached two main conclusions. First, “being is said in many ways”. That is to say, being is not a univocal concept; it has multiple meanings. More profoundly, what we nonetheless informally call being itself is itself analogous to something that is nonunivocal rather than univocal. The non-self-containedness that seems to be characteristic of beings means that if we look closely, what we call individual beings do not have univocal identity, but rather are “identified” by a kind of family resemblance to themselves. Beings do not have sharp edges that would unambiguously separate an inside from an outside, and sometimes they change profoundly. Second, being a being nonetheless always involves being some way that is distinguishable from some other way. Calling something a being or saying it “is” in any sense thus expresses a kind of commitment on our part, and as Aristotle and Brandom would both remind us, the very nature of commitments implicitly commits us to abstain from or correct other incompatible commitments.

Being a being in whatever sense thus involves both a determinateness and an openness. Determinateness and openness in turn have to be understood in ways that permit their coexistence. (See also Equivocal Determination; Openness of Reason; Bounty of Nature.)

I want to say that everything important about being a being belongs in the register of “whatness”, or what was traditionally called essence. Contrary to the great arguments of Aquinas as well as to the 20th century mystique of existentialism, I don’t find value in an allegedly separate register of existence. Some people have argued that Aristotle did not have a proper concept of existence, as if this were a shortcoming. I find Aristotle’s direction of our attention to the “what” of being to be noninflationary in a quite salutary way. (See also Substance; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities.)

Biological Diversity

Modern biology provides an abundance of empirical evidence that things like populations and ecosystems need diversity to flourish. Inbreeding leads to all sorts of genetic defects; monoculture crops and other simplified environments are more vulnerable to pests, and generally far less able to recover on their own when disturbed.

In a more reflective, interpretive vein closer to ordinary experience, Aristotle already documented the tremendous variety exhibited in nature. Species are not somehow pre-given, but rather to be discerned and understood in terms of specific ways of meeting very general needs.

The fact that there is a superabundance of such ways in nature is one of the most basic observations we can make. Nature as we concretely experience it is much more characterized by this superabundance and diversity than by univocal necessity of the kind we find in mathematics. For Aristotle, an emphasis on this superabundance and diversity goes hand-in-hand with a perspective that looks to purely natural ends and means as more primary in the order of explanation than mechanical metaphors.

This suggests a broader paradigm of intelligibility, reason, and objectivity than the one grounded in mathematics, univocity, and simple necessity. Emotional reasonableness is a real thing that is not at all reducible to formal logic. Similarly, intelligibility, reason, and objectivity in general have a practical reality that should not be understood as requiring a univocal foundation. (See also Bounty of Nature; Equivocal Determination; Multiple Explanations.)

The Importance of Potentiality

I think modern philosophy generally is handicapped in its thinking about the empirical world by its lack of a notion like Aristotelian potentiality. To build context, I need to first say a bit more about the role of actuality.

The modern concept of a factual, existing world is relatively close to Aristotelian actuality, but the first big difference is that it is not paired with anything. The modern concept of a factual world is something that is supposed to be complete in itself, whereas for Aristotle, actuality in the world is always complemented by some correlative potentiality. Aristotle did not consider actuality alone to be sufficient to account for the world as we experience it.

Actuality also does not exactly correspond to a state of things, but rather expresses what is effectively operative. This is semantically a bit deeper than a notion of state. At the same time, it does not have state’s strong implications of complete determination. It also does not have the monolithic unity of a state. Actuality in the world consists of many coexisting things. Further, it is not intended by itself to provide all the resources needed to account for change and what happens next. This is related to the fact that for Aristotle, the operative determination of things is not entirely univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

Enter potentiality. Potentiality is exactly what is not univocal in the actual determination of things. It corresponds to multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality. This is a far more specific notion than mere logical possibility. Potentiality is closely tied to and informed by the current actuality, in that it exactly occupies the real gaps or holes in the actuality’s incompletely univocal determination. For each aspect of things where there is not univocal determination, there are instead multiple potential alternatives. This correlates with the fact that, for Aristotle — in contrast to Poincaré’s classic formulation of modern determinism — the present does not completely determine the future.

Poincaré famously claimed that from the state of the universe at any arbitrary point in time, its entire future is completely determined. This resembles the Stoic notion of fate, transferred to a modern event-based model of causality. For both the Stoics and Poincaré, the world is completely univocally determined. Like Aristotle, they emphasized the intelligibility of the world and of change in the world, but they made the very strong assumption of complete univocal determination. Aristotle did not.

Aristotle’s notion of intelligibility was broadly semantic, whereas Poincaré’s was mathematical. With semantic interpretation, there is always a question of how far we develop the account, which in principle could be extended indefinitely. It thus naturally lends itself to an account of incomplete determination, corresponding to some stopping point. Aristotle does not claim any more determination than he can show. Poincaré’s approach, by contrast, requires that we assume there is a complete univocal determination of the world by mathematical laws, even though we can never even come close to knowing enough to show it. This assumption leaves no room for anything like potentiality. Potentiality, it seems to me, could only have a place in a semantic approach to intelligibility.

The modern factual world is usually considered as something that just is, without modal qualification, but I have increasingly begun to doubt whether for Aristotle there is any non-modal account of the world. I read actuality and potentiality both as modal concepts, and everything in the Aristotelian world as parsable into actuality and potentiality.

What’s important about this is that potentiality is not just some mysterious “metaphysical” concept that we could maybe do without. It is a distinct logical/semantic modality supporting multiple virtual alternatives for the same thing. It allows us to intelligibly account for the incomplete determination we really experience, rather than treating real-world incompleteness and ambiguity as if it were a kind of flaw. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality.)

Rational Faith

It seems to me that the most important kind of faith is a simple confidence in essential goodness that is independent of doctrine. It is up to us to help realize that goodness. (See also Fragility of the Good.)

An investment in meaning is fundamental to what we are as talking animals. It seems to me that talk about the “meaninglessness” of life reflects profound alienation or depression. What we actually have is a superabundance of meaning that frequently overflows univocal constructs.

Equivocal Determination

Even though in hindsight it is possible to find reasons why things turned out as they did, the past does not completely determine the future. In general, ahead of time, multiple outcomes are possible. There are many possible ways to meet a requirement, need, or desire, and there are chance intersections and collisions of different, mostly independent vectors of determination. This is all to say that the determination of things is in some measure equivocal (i.e., not univocal). (See also Efficient Cause; Free Will and Determinism; Kantian Freedom.)

A related point is that there is such a thing as objective ambiguity in the world. This means not just that we are unsure or conflicted about something, but that the best or most complete evidence available in a particular case may have more than one reasonable interpretation. (See also Aristotelian Identity; Things in Themselves; Copernican; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle.)