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Act and potency

Friends, it’s time for some old time metaphysics. Find that easy chair. Then put it aside and sit in something uncomfortable. While you’re at it, pour yourself a Thirsty-Two Ouncer cup full of battery acid coffee and maybe put on a nicotine patch or three. You just might need it.

Comments (5)

Fine short piece, Dr. Feser. I favor the language of "capacity" in describing what you call "potentiality" simply because it's a bit more compact, but it's clear how an inability to imagine a teleological direction will cripple moral thought... and I do think it's at root a failure of imagination (RE: C.S. Lewis's insight that while reason is the organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning) that renders meaningless any concept of a natural trajectory toward an end, so the examples/stories are very helpful.

Interesting example of a brain-damaged human and various types of potentiality. It seems to me that you may need another "layer" in there. We have a) a brain-damaged human who cannot speak for this reason, b) a very young human with a normal brain who has not yet learned to speak, and c) a human who has learned to speak but is presently not speaking. It would seem to me that b rather than a is like the person who has a "potential" to speak German but has never learned the language. So does that mean we need some term other than "primary potentiality" (I think I have that right) for the person in a?

Also, does it make any difference to the analysis if the brain-damage _occurred_ at a point in time rather than having been a congenital defect? Obviously the person with a congenital defect that means that he does not have the portions of the brain necessary for speech is also, in his essence, a human being to whom it is "natural" to speak. But this appears to require us to imagine a sort of ideal form or norm of humanity that can fail to be realized not only through damage but also through genetic problems that were present ab initio. I think that's correct, but I wonder if it has any special relevance to the act-potency distinction you're making.

Ed, this is top notch stuff, keep it up.

I read a book some years ago that lauded some aspects of Buddha's approach to right life, explicitly in contrast to Aristotle's. In addition to getting Aristotle's position about 160 degrees wrong, the book inadvertently showed glaringly what is wrong with Buddha's answer to the problem of life: The problem is frustrated desire, and the answer is get rid of desire altogether, to desire nothing whatsoever - i.e. negation. Aristotle's answer is two fold: desire for the good implies having an end in the good, and so the good life means actualization of potency towards the good; secondly (in relation to man, so more restrictedly than being in general) the desires of the good man are limited, controlled, reasonable, so that the desire is for that which truly is the end of man. I.E. virtue.

Your comments also reminded me of one of the things that really frustrated me with some of JPII's philosophizing (not theology generally) - it was crystallized in a comment that "we have to start with where the position of philosophy is now (i.e. after centuries of Descartes, empiricism, Kantianism, phenomenology, existentialism, etc.) I don't agree, because they all, starting with at least Descartes, decided to NOT start their work with philosophy as it existed then, turned their back on Scholastics and the act-potency distinction, and went on their merry way with groundless starting points that showered us with darkness at every turn. They specifically turned their back on Thomas without trying to dis-prove his foundations - they just plain started as if they did not need to deal with Thomism. They deserve the same attention from us.

Starting the work of philosophy where the position of philosophy is now means also turning your back on the true starting points, and (at best) hoping that the internal impossibilities lead eventually to pushing one around to realism and the RIGHT starting points. With 10 or 20 years of mostly wasted time. But that rarely happens, most people never find their way out of the morass. There are too many errors to overcome for this to be a sound approach for most.

I find myself uncomfortable with the conflating of potency and possibility/potentiality as used here. If potency implies, means power or capability the use of potentiality as linked doesn't follow of necessity. Instead potentiality is a form of contingency, a possibility dependent on other causes rather than on an initial, structural base. It is not in fact an actuality, an existent, rather it is a contingent future state brought about by those other causes.
A first or primary actuality may be restored or recovered but in any physical sense it requires, you might say, a different, effective potency.

As to Ms Schiavo, the victim of a murderous age, but as to what is at hand, an issue or case of morals and questions of identity & humane responsibility.

Metaphysics is such a brain busting subject. It let's you think critically. Our professor gave us a question i.d IS POTENCY A POSSIBLITY? We are taking the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas..

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