Actuality and potentiality

Aristotle’s concept of actuality and potentiality is striking for two reasons; its disarming simplicity, and following that its place as a fundamental to understanding many of his other theories. Act and potency follows logically from Aristotle’s thoughts on causation.

Act and potency are dichotomous and parasitic in nature. That is to say, if something possess the potential to be X, its potentiality to be X is reduced as it actually becomes X. In this way pure potentiality is really nothing at all (i.e. the closest thing to nothing) – until it is actualised.

In terms of Aristotle’s causality, matter (or material cause) is potentiality while form (or formal cause) is actuality. When a change occurs to produce X, X’s matter undergoes the change into X and is constant throughout the process. For example, consider bronze: the matter of bronze has the potential to be many things such as a cube or statue. When a bronze cube is changed in a statue, the matter of the bronze remains the same throughout the change.

If a bronze cube’s matter is bronze, then the cubeness is its form. In other words, bronze is always potentially a cube (among other things) and only becomes a cube when it receives the form of cubeness.

Act and potency are related to Aristotle’s empirical epistemology, whereby knowledge is formed through sensation of the forms present in the external world. These forms do not need to be only shapes, they can also be sweetness, blueness, etc. During sensation, the intellect takes on the form of the sensed object without becoming the thing of the sort of form it is sensing.

The God of Aristotle is pure form, or pure actuality. It is perfection in the sense that it has no potentiality, and thus cannot be greater in any way. Logically, there are attributes that follow from being pure actuality: immateriality (as materiality is potentiality), immutability (as change requires potentiality), eternal (as becoming would require change) and etc.

Aristotle’s ideas of act and potency are related to his discussion of goodness, which I will elaborate upon in my next post.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. [...] About « Actuality and potentiality [...]

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  2. [...] describes change using his theories of actuality vs. potentiality and his four causes. As part of Aristotle’s description of the nature of change, he asserts [...]

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  3. [...] There is also philosophical dualism. In this sense, dualism can be thought of as opposing monism (where monism is the belief that the universe is one substance). Parmenides was a monist – for him the world was one, eternal and unchanging. Through his solution to the being vs becoming dilemma, Plato introduced his own philosophical dualism. According to Plato, there is the physical world and the immaterial world of the forms. Aristotle, while altering Plato’s theory, maintains dualism through his theory of substances as composites of matter and form, actuality and potentiality. [...]

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  4. [...] existence, then the soul must then be a type of immaterial perfection that is not dependent on the potentiality of physical and material things. As a possible precursor to the modern Cartesian view of man, Avicenna contends that the body is [...]

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  5. [...] of the Socratic tradition, or as Aristotle would say pure actuality or pure form (see this post on act and potency for more details). Anselm’s God is perfect fullness, it lacks no actuality and because of [...]

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  6. [...] that something is actually in motion to the extent that it is not potentially in motion (see this post on act and potency). Think of it this way: if I am standing at rest at the southern end of the street then I am not [...]

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  7. [...] of the atom or string-theory for example. They are based purely on metaphysical notions, such as act/potency and and the law of causality. Science has not shed these ideas, but rather necessarily presupposes [...]

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  8. [...] which is “uttermost being”. This is of course Aristotle’s God, a being that is pure actuality. This being completely lacks privation and potentiality, and is in other words perfect in its [...]

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  9. [...] his Five Ways, Aquinas sets out to establish the existence of a being that is “pure actuality“. The Five Ways also attempts to prove the necessity of this purely actual being. By [...]

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  10. […] rejects the Parmenidean dilemma. According to Aristotle, substances are composites of matter and form, actuality and potentiality, being and non-being, fulln…. Aristotle’s theory of change requires three things: a subject, a form and and a lack of that […]

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  11. […] principle of causality, as discussed by Scholastic thinkers such as Aquinas, was that whenever potency is actualised it can only be made so by something that is already actual. This law of causality is closely […]

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  12. […] efficient causality, to the reality of final causality and from there the necessity a being that is purely actual. Aquinas’ argument avoids Hume’s criticisms because of the intrinsic and directive […]

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  13. […] the seminal work of Plato and Aristotle, the tacit assumption of philosophers was that being and becoming were diametrically opposed. […]

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  14. […] In a way, Darwin’s theorising is the perfect modern archetype. Platonic philosophies outright rejected change in the immutable world of the forms (which includes forms of the species), and for Aristotle whilst there was a gradation in the complexity of living things (inorganic < vegetable < animal < rational) the difference between these categories was clearly defined and not a matter of degree. The most important thing to note is that for Aristotle and Plato the information of matter to a various species takes part as a teleological process. For Plato it is the will of the demiurge and for Aristotle his Divine being of pure actuality. […]

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