Part 8

Actuality is prior to potentiality

by Aristotle Icon

Actuality is prior to potentiality.

Potentiality is that definite kind which is a principle of change in another thing or in the thing itself regarded as other. It is every principle of movement or rest.

Nature also is in the same genus as potency. It is a principle of movement-not, however, in something else but in the thing itself qua itself. To all such potency, then, actuality is prior both in formula and in substantiality; and in time it is prior in one sense, and in another not.

  1. Clearly it is prior in formula; for that which is in the primary sense potential is potential because it is possible for it to become active;

e.g. I mean by ‘capable of building’ that which can build, and by ‘capable of seeing’ that which can see, and by ‘visible’ that which can be seen. And the same account applies to all other cases, so that the formula and the knowledge of the one must precede the knowledge of the other.

  1. In time, it is prior in this sense= the actual which is identical in species though not in number with a potentially existing thing is to it.

I mean that to this particular man who now exists actually and to the corn and to the seeing subject the matter and the seed and that which is capable of seeing, which are potentially a man and corn and seeing, but not yet actually so, are prior in time; but prior in time to these are other actually existing things, from which they were produced.

For from the potentially existing the actually existing is always produced by an actually existing thing, e.g. man from man, musician by musician; there is always a first mover, and the mover already exists actually. We have said in our account of substance that everything that is produced is something produced from something and by something, and that the same in species as it.

This is why it is thought impossible to be a builder if one has built nothing or a harper if one has never played the harp; for he who learns to play the harp learns to play it by playing it, and all other learners do similarly. And thence arose the sophistical quibble, that one who does not possess a science will be doing that which is the object of the science; for he who is learning it does not possess it. But since, of that which is coming to be, some part must have come to be, and, of that which, in general, is changing, some part must have changed (this is shown in the treatise on movement), he who is learning must, it would seem, possess some part of the science. But here too, then, it is clear that actuality is in this sense also, viz. in order of generation and of time, prior to potency.

“But (3) it is also prior in substantiality; firstly, (a) because the things that are posterior in becoming are prior in form and in substantiality (e.g. man is prior to boy and human being to seed; for the one already has its form, and the other has not), and because everything that comes to be moves towards a principle, i.e. an end (for that for the sake of which a thing is, is its principle, and the becoming is for the sake of the end), and the actuality is the end, and it is for the sake of this that the potency is acquired. For animals do not see in order that they may have sight, but they have sight that they may see.

Similarly men have the art of building that they may build, and theoretical science that they may theorize; but they do not theorize that they may have theoretical science, except those who are learning by practice; and these do not theorize except in a limited sense, or because they have no need to theorize. Further, matter exists in a potential state, just because it may come to its form; and when it exists actually, then it is in its form. And the same holds good in all cases, even those in which the end is a movement.

And so, as teachers think they have achieved their end when they have exhibited the pupil at work, nature does likewise. For if this is not the case, we shall have Pauson’s Hermes over again, since it will be hard to say about the knowledge, as about the figure in the picture, whether it is within or without. For the action is the end, and the actuality is the action. And so even the word ‘actuality’ is derived from ‘action’, and points to the complete reality.

“And while in some cases the exercise is the ultimate thing (e.g. in sight the ultimate thing is seeing, and no other product besides this results from sight), but from some things a product follows (e.g. from the art of building there results a house as well as the act of building), yet none the less the act is in the former case the end and in the latter more of an end than the potency is. For the act of building is realized in the thing that is being built, and comes to be, and is, at the same time as the house.

“Where, then, the result is something apart from the exercise, the actuality is in the thing that is being made, e.g. the act of building is in the thing that is being built and that of weaving in the thing that is being woven, and similarly in all other cases, and in general the movement is in the thing that is being moved; but where there is no product apart from the actuality, the actuality is present in the agents, e.g. the act of seeing is in the seeing subject and that of theorizing in the theorizing subject and the life is in the soul (and therefore well-being also; for it is a certain kind of life).

Obviously, the substance or form is actuality. Actuality is prior in substantial being to potency. One actuality always precedes another in time right back to the actuality of the eternal prime mover.

But (b) actuality is prior in a stricter sense also

Eternal things are prior in substance to perishable things. No eternal thing exists potentially because every potentiality is at one and the same time a potentiality of the opposite. While that which is not capable of being present in a subject cannot be present, everything that is capable of being may possibly not be actual.

That, then, which is capable of being may either be or not be; the same thing, then, is capable both of being and of not being. And that which is capable of not being may possibly not be; and that which may possibly not be is perishable, either in the full sense, or in the precise sense in which it is said that it possibly may not be, i.e. in respect either of place or of quantity or quality; ‘in the full sense’ means ‘in respect of substance’.

Nothing which is in the full sense imperishable is in the full sense potentially existent (though there is nothing to prevent its being so in some respect, e.g. potentially of a certain quality or in a certain place); all imperishable things, then, exist actually.

Nor can anything which is of necessity exist potentially; yet these things are primary; for if these did not exist, nothing would exist. Nor does eternal movement, if there be such, exist potentially; and, if there is an eternal mobile, it is not in motion in virtue of a potentiality, except in respect of ‘whence’ and ‘whither’ (there is nothing to prevent its having matter which makes it capable of movement in various directions).

And so the sun and the stars and the whole heaven are ever active, and there is no fear that they may sometime stand still, as the natural philosophers fear they may. Nor do they tire in this activity; for movement is not for them, as it is for perishable things, connected with the potentiality for opposites, so that the continuity of the movement should be laborious; for it is that kind of substance which is matter and potency, not actuality, that causes this.

Imperishable things are imitated by those that are involved in change, e.g. earth and fire.

  • These are ever active
  • They move by themselves and in themselves.

But the other potentialities are all potentialities for opposites. That which can move another in this way can also move it not in this way, i.e. if it acts according to a rational formula; and the same non-rational potencies will produce opposite results by their presence or absence.

The dialecticians say that the Ideas are entities or substances. If they exist then there must be something much more scientific than science. There must be something more mobile than movement itself.

These will be more of the nature of actualities, while science-itself and movement-itself are potencies for these.

Obviously, then, actuality is prior both to potential and to every principle of change.

Part 9= Potentiality Leads to Duality

Actuality is also better and more valuable than potentiality.

Everything that can do something can also do the contrary – it has both positive and negative potentialities at once.

This is seen in health and illness, rest and motion, building and destroying.

The capacity for contraries, then, is present at the same time.

But contraries cannot be present at the same time, and the actualities also cannot be present at the same time, e.g. health and illness.

Therefore, while the good must be one of them, the capacity is both alike, or neither; the actuality, then, is better. Also in the case of bad things the end or actuality must be worse than the potency; for that which ‘can’ is both contraries alike. Clearly, then, the bad does not exist apart from bad things; for the bad is in its nature posterior to the potency.

Therefore we may also say that in the things which are from the beginning, i.e. in eternal things, there is nothing bad, nothing defective, nothing perverted (for perversion is something bad).

“It is an activity also that geometrical constructions are discovered; for we find them by dividing.

If the figures had been already divided, the constructions would have been obvious; but as it is they are present only potentially. Why are the angles of the triangle equal to two right angles? Because the angles about one point are equal to two right angles.

If, then, the line parallel to the side had been already drawn upwards, the reason would have been evident to any one as soon as he saw the figure. Why is the angle in a semicircle in all cases a right angle?

If three lines are equal the two which form the base, and the perpendicular from the centre-the conclusion is evident at a glance to one who knows the former proposition. Obviously, therefore, the potentially existing constructions are discovered by being brought to actuality; the reason is that the geometer’s thinking is an actuality; so that the potency proceeds from an actuality; and therefore it is by making constructions that people come to know them (though the single actuality is later in generation than the corresponding potency). (See diagram.)

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