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Potentiality

Daniel Sportiello | Friday, February 11, 2011

Consider Socrates: once upon a time, he was fairly ignorant, but as he grew older, he learned a great many things — music among them. An unmusical man, in other words, became a musical man. One might conclude that, by citing these two principles — unmusicality and manhood — one has explained the change.

But this should strike one as baffling. Consider that, on the one hand, Socrates was a man before the change, and he was a man after the change — so isn’t this mere stasis? Consider that, on the other hand, Socrates was unmusical before the change, and he was musical after the change — so isn’t this mere replacement of one thing by another?

An answer, one might think, immediately presents itself. While it is true that, on the one hand, Socrates was a man both before and after the change, nonetheless something did change — his unmusicality. And while it is true that, on the other hand, Socrates was unmusical before the change and was musical after the change, nonetheless something remained through the change — his manhood.

But this should strike one as even more baffling. One has attempted to explain the change by citing two different principles — by noting, in other words, that Socrates was both unmusical and that he was a man. If these two are each what Socrates really is, however, how can he cease to be one and yet remain the other? Yet if they are not each what Socrates really is, how can they explain the change?

Aristotle poses this very dilemma. His answer is that, while Socrates is, loosely speaking, both unmusical and a man — while both musicality and manhood are, in some sense, the explanation for the change — these do not get at the heart of what Socrates is, strictly speaking — they do not, in other words, really explain the change. To explain change strictly speaking requires a principle that is somehow, in one way, the result of the change — but also somehow, in another way, not that result. Somehow, the combination of unmusical and man yield a principle that is, strictly speaking, both the result of the change and not that result — in exactly the way required to explain the change, even though neither the unmusical nor the man explains the change.

No doubt this strikes one as baffling. And yet it should not: this mysterious principle — the correct explanation for the change — is not actually so mysterious: Socrates becomes actually musical because he was potentially musical. To be both unmusical and a man, in other words, just is to have a certain potentiality — that for musicality.

But what is potentiality? Admittedly, it cannot itself be explained: rather, it is that in terms of which every explanation is offered; it is the grammar of every explanation — and, thus, the grammar of reality. To understand this is to take the first step into wisdom — into what is indeed beyond, in some sense, the systematic knowledge of the world. Aristotle was the first to realize this, and we honor him by transliterating the Greek for this knowledge, “metaphysics.”

But how is it that we can come to a knowledge of that which cannot itself be explained? Well, given that it is the very grammar of the world and of our knowledge of that world, it is already intimately familiar to us. Consider: Socrates had the power to walk to the square — he had, that is, the strength to do it — and he did so. Likewise, Socrates had the power to savagely beat Euthyphro — he had, that is, the strength to do it — and this is so despite the fact that he did not do so. But all things are like this: rocks have the “power” to fall, pale people have the “power” to be tan, bronze has the “power” to be a statue of Hermes, and so on. Sometimes they use this power, and sometimes they don’t. But they have the same powers either way.

It is these “powers” in things that constitute the causal order of the world: whether they lead to change or not, these powers have the kind of stability — and the kind of movement — required in any systematic account of change. These “powers,” of course, comes in degrees: it is easier for Socrates to walk to the square if he is already halfway there than if he has to start from his home, for example. Indeed, in general, the greater the “power” is, the “easier” it will be for the change to happen — that is, the more likely the change is to happen. The “power” of a rock to fall, especially when there is nothing in the way to stop its fall, is so strong as to be undeniable, for example: in such a situation, one can confidently predict that the rock will indeed fall.

Aristotle was the first to realize this, but for some reason we transliterate the Latin, not the Greek, for this power, “potentiality.” It is this principle — the “power” of a given thing to be what it becomes — that ultimately explains change: the potentiality for something is to be found in the combination of its negation and a certain underlying thing — and just which underlying thing is to be found through induction over experience. Moreover, the stronger the potentiality for something, the more likely that thing is to arise — and just how strong a potentiality a given combination yields is also to be found through induction over experience. Thus, for instance, not just any unmusical thing can become musical, nor just any man: it takes an unmusical man to yield the potentially musical — and an unmusical man in his final lyre lesson is far more likely to change into a musical man than an unmusical man who has never seen a lyre. Indeed, given sufficient induction over experience, one can predict anything. But it took an Aristotle to realize that it is the grammar of the world that makes this knowledge possible.

Daniel John Sportiello is in his third year in the philosophy Ph.D. program. Listen to his radio show on WVFI at 1 p.m. on Thursdays. He can be reached at dsportie@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not necessarily those of The Observer.