Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Dynamics of Dunamis

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Dynamics of Dunamis

Article excerpt

RECENT ATTENTION TO METAPHYSICS 9 as a treatise in its own right on doing and being has brought new attention to Aristotle's conception of dunamis. (1) Rosamond Sprague, in her review of Charlotte Witt's book, has roundly challenged the supposition that this book presents us with a new understanding of notions of potentiality. She chides Witt for having a "perverse methodology" by cutting herself off "from some important texts in which potentiality and actuality are prominent." (2) My aim here is to accentuate that point by undertaking a diachronic account of how Aristotle's notions of dunamis must have developed through his coming to terms with natural motion.

In order to find a beginning of such a story, a proper starting point might well be with the "battle between the giants and the gods" as depicted in Plato's Sophist. Suppose that the scene in the Academy on Plato's return from Sicily was finding the new fellows, Eudoxus and Aristotle, squared off against the old guard, Speusippus and Xenocrates. The former had a bent for empirical inquiry enriched by rational rhetoric, and the latter were caught up in a transcendental vision of the forms. Plato in his typical dialectical fashion took this as an opportunity to reengage his own conception of the forms in a way that would close this gap between becoming and being. There the dialogue introduces dunamis as key to understanding reality:

   I'm saying that a thing really is if it has any capacity (dunamis)
   at all, either by nature to do something to something else or to
   have even the smallest thing done to it by even the most trivial
   thing, even if it only happens once. I'll take it as a definition
   that those-which-are amount to nothing other than capacity. (3)

This introduction of dunamis requires the "giants" to acknowledge that there are unseen conditions of the objects of experience in order for them to become objects in experience.

Assuming that Aristotle accepted this concession, it provided him with his own problematic: How are we to understand this conception of implicit powers as a reality underlying the empirically explicit actuality of individual entities and of change? It must also have given some impetus to his critique at the end of the first book of the Metaphysics, where he maintained that Platonic forms as inadequate to the task:

   In general, though philosophy seeks the cause of perceptible
   things, we [Platonists] have given this up.... And regarding
   movement, if the great and the small are to be movement, evidently
   the forms will be moved; but, if they are not, whence did the
   movement come from? If we cannot answer this the whole study of
   nature has been annihilated." (4)

Even while still in the Academy, Aristotle was concerned that they had failed to account for the individual and for motion.

Although I suppose that in many ways Aristotle was a Platonist throughout his career, we can see already in his defense of the Academy in the Protrepticus clear evidence of that school's heterodoxy. While defending the school's program in philosophy against the likes of Isocrates, we can find there even in our fragments much that provides a launching pad for many of the themes that would come to dominate Aristotle's own work in years to come. Among them is the notion of energeia, a term that he is reputed to have here coined to express having the work of something within it. (5) Here, he does speak of kath' energeian in counterdistinction to kata dunamin, (6) but this is the only instance we have, among ten cases of some form of the one term and fifteen of the other in various other fragments, and he uses some form of chresis twenty times when accenting his point that the use of thinking is better than just the capacity to think. Our familiar potentiality/actuality distinction is not yet emerging here.

Perhaps even here we may see Aristotle to be following a suggestion of Plato. …

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