restricted access Chapter One: Aristotle’s Theory of Potentiality

From: Potentiality

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Chapter one Aristotle’s Theory of Potentiality Mohan Matthen Aristotle’s theory of potentiality plays a large role in his metaphysics and philosophy of science. In some ways, it is insightful and prophetic, for it introduces a model of explanation by functional analysis, which is still standard in some of the cognitive and (arguably) life sciences. In other ways, it is outmoded, for explanation by functional analysis is not, as Aristotle thought, applicable to all the sciences.1 In this essay, I review some major features of the theory. My aim is to explore how an Aristotelian should think about questions concerning the beginning and end of life. I want to make it clear at the outset that since I am interested (here) in how Aristotle ’s ideas impact contemporary controversies, historical accuracy is not my only concern. It is of no special interest to be told that Aristotle’s theory has such and such a consequence for the question of when life begins, if one is inclined to reject the theory out of hand. It serves both history and philosophy to make a plausible argument using Aristotelian ideas, even if in order to do so, one is obliged to interpret these ideas with one’s eyes somewhat more fixed on contemporary philosophical applications than historians generally find appropriate. I shall be concerned, therefore, to advance an interpretation that is flexible enough to accommodate contemporary questions and concerns. How does a suitably reconstructed version of Aristotle’s theory apply to issues concerning the beginning and end of life? Here, it is even more urgent to distinguish this question from the one about how Aristotle himself would have spoken about life. As we shall see, Aristotle had some morally objectionable beliefs about how to assess the moral entitlements of humans with regard to life. So we should ask how an Aristotelian theory of potentiality affects issues concerning the beginning and end of life, given a more acceptable position on the moral entitlements of humans. 30 Mohan Matthen I. Potentiality and Nature in Aristotle’s Physics a. Kinēsis and Potentiality In Aristotle’s system (Physics III 1–3), a kinēsis is an agent-initiated change that has well-defined starting and ending termini. (The term kinēsis [plural kinēseis] is sometimes translated as “motion,” sometimes “change”: both are sometimes misleading. Here, I leave it transliterated as a term of art.) Standard examples are building a house and teaching a lesson. These kinēseis begin, respectively, when an agent—a builder or a teacher—begins to act purposefully upon materials from which the house is to be constructed or upon an ignorant student who is to be taught. They must end—there is not a way for them to be extended—when the house has been built and when the student has learned the lesson. These changes contrast with activities such as hammering or sawing, or speaking to students. There is no natural point at which these activities end, no point at which it is impossible for them to be extended further. Kinēsis always has an agent and a patient (or thing acted upon)—the builder acts upon building materials or unfinished houses; the teacher acts upon ignorant students . This is where potentiality comes in. The causes of kinēsis are not properly the agent and patient themselves, but an active potentiality in the agent and a matched passive potentiality in the patient. The builder has a capacity to turn the building materials into a house; a house comes to be because she comes into contact with building materials that can be made into a house, and having come into contact with them, exercises her capacity on them. Analogously with teacher and student—a student comes to know something because a teacher comes into contact with something able to be taught.2 As said before, the agent initiates the kinēsis. When the house has been built, or the student has learned the lesson, the passive potentiality in that thing has disappeared , for then there is nothing further for the builder or teacher to do. Both potentialities are essentially self-limiting, though in different ways. The patient changes, and thereby loses its passive potentiality. Once the student learns his lesson, he is no longer ignorant and cannot be instructed (in this lesson). The teacher, however, does not change. Her teaching potential has done its job, and stops, but she retains the active potentiality. b. Nature and Self-Initiated Change...