Possibility, actuality, and time

For Aristotle, the very reality of the potential or possible is posterior to the act, so much so that, among temporal beings, if there never will be an actual X then X is impossible. “Never to be actualized possibility” is, for him, an oxymoron.

This would seem to be provable. All possibilities are possibilities for some term, but this term just is the act. Again, if a possibility is for a term, this term is either itself possible or actual. If possible, then this repeats ad infinitum. Therefore actual. To allow for this actuality, we have to posit something not limited to time, for example, an idea or a scientific law. I’ve called it elsewhere an intentional field.

Actuality gives reality to possibility, but it does not do so by existing first in time, but by giving structure to the process of development in time. Actuality is thus not merely temporal (for it does not pre-exist in time) nor outside of time (for it is to be actual in time) but trans-temporal. So far as something is limited to time it is possibility of one sort or another.

Thus, time as such is, on Aristotle’s account of it, a potency without an act. We refine this to mean time so far as it limits things to time.

(Time, considered in Einstein’s block universe, is not the whole of actuality, but only actuality as limited to time. The transtemporal structure – which includes the scientific law if law is law is real – is not captured in the block.)

Here we have a purely ontological sense of omne quod movetur ab alio movetur. Changes involve possibilities, but these are ontologically dependent on transtemporal actualities.

Time itself on Aristotle’s account is a source of corruption. The sense – unexplained by him – might be that corruption occurs to the extent that the actuality can no longer dominate or control the merely temporal possibility.



  1. March 11, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    This reminds me of an important distinction between Leibniz and modern analytical philosophers (as it was explained to me by a Leibniz scholar): for Leibniz, “possible worlds” only refer to actually possible worlds, not merely hypothetically possible ones. I’ve always thought that distinction between actual possibilities and hypothetical possibilities was useful, even though I’m still not sure I totally understand Leibniz’s theodicy.

    • March 25, 2014 at 9:53 am

      Interesting. What exactly is meant by “actual possible worlds”? The ones that are ontologically possible with respect to the current, actual one, present in that and that particular time?

      • March 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

        Something like that (assuming I’m even getting the terms right). I believe the distinction goes back, at least, to Scotus. The idea is that if I currently have a real choice between A and B, that is an actual possibility. I could choose A or B. However, Once I’ve chosen A at the exclusion of B, to speak of a world in which I chose B is only a hypothetically possibly world, but not an actually possible one.

      • March 25, 2014 at 10:03 am

        Thanks for immediate reply 🙂 If I have to more specify my question, I would ask if (according to Leibniz) that world which is already only hypotetically possible for my, is in the same way ontologically impossible for God …

      • March 25, 2014 at 10:16 am

        If I understand him correctly (and now I think I’m really getting far afield of my own comprehension), I think the distinction is that, given the *actual* possibilities of any world God might have created (rather than pure hypotheticals, such as a world in which Eve did not eat from the tree when, in fact, she freely chose to eat from the tree—this is part of her own personal history and a choice she made at the exclusion of others), he most assuredly (being wise and good) chose to create the best of all such actually possible worlds. In any case, my friend, who actually would know what he is talking about, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Leibniz’s Theodicy and has one (maybe two) books coming out on the subject. The one on Leibniz himself, I believe, is going to be published by Cambridge.

        Here is his CV: http://nathanandrewjacobs.wix.com/home#!cv/c201u

  2. Eoin Moloney said,

    March 11, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    I apologise profusely for introducing an irrelevant digression from your post, but I did not know where else to find your attention. I am a Catholic and person with a slight interest in philosophy, particularly Thomism, and I have gotten myself into something of a debate with an atheist who seems not to know Aquinas’ ideas very well. Thing is, *I * myself am not knowledgeable enough to actually articulate these points well, and would appreciate a little help making the case and dispelling the myths regarding St. Thomas’ thought. If you would be willing to help me, I would be extremely grateful. Thank you for your time,

    Eoin Moloney

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