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Discussing the notions potentiality and actuality as used by Aristotle in De Anima in light of today

In De Anima, Aristotle is looking at living organisms. What it means not simply for any entity to exist, but how the process of being a living organism works. To be a living thing, according to Aristotle, is to have a soul, but what is a soul? By Aristotle’s view it is not the same as having a soul in for example, Christian terms. Aristotle believes that the soul cannot be separated from the body. It’s not an independent substance, but rather a substance that is the result of factors such as a body. Without a living body, the soul cannot exist (De Anima II.I 412b 5, 25). Which suggests that the soul is more closely related to the mind than to our concept of soul today, which makes De Anima not only a work of psychology and biology, but also a work touching on philosophy of mind. Aristotle investigates life from the perspective of a philosopher that was alive before the scientific revolution. What I want to do then, is to take Aristotle’s notions of potentiality and actuality and discuss what these notions would mean if we tried applying them today by discussing contemporary topics such as transhumanism and consciousness. Offering a suggestion for a course that may benefit either side of the discussion.

Potentiality and actuality have to do with the capacities of the soul, this is an important point in understanding how the soul works and I will get back to this, but first we need to understand his notions about form and matter. Matter is the stuff that different objects and living things are made out of. Such as for example wood, clay or flesh. The form is for example the shape of a chair, or being a human as opposed to having the form of a cat, a flower or a spoon and so on. (De Anima II.I 412a3 5) (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 31-32) The form is an important distinction between things and the soul is something like the form and essence of a person. The soul is a kind of substance, but since it is not in itself matter, it cannot exist independently. It is rather the form of the person, plant, or animal, having life potentiality. By form in this case, in the case of a living thing, Aristotle does not mean only the shape, but also a group of capacities: the essence (Metaphysics VII.4 1029b 13-15). For example, there are things that I can do as a human that a cat will never be able to do and these capacities are a part of what defines my essence and my form.

Because ccording to Aristotle there’s what one might call a hierarchy between living things. Humans are at the top because we have intellect. Plants or even animals do not share that capacity in the same way. So animals are beneath us, with the ability to take up nourishment, to reproduce and also to move and experience sensation. Plants cannot move in the same sense, they can take up nourishment and reproduce, but they can’t feel the way that other beings can. So the goal of a plant would look different from the goal of a human as they are different life forms with different capacities which means that there are potentialities that plants could never actualize, but that a human could actualize (De Anima II.3 414b 5–30) (De Anima II.2 413b 5–15) (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 36) (Fred D.Miller, Jr. 2018, Introduction xxix – xxx).

Living things have capacities to do certain things. Plants have the capacity to take up nourishment, to grow or to reproduce for example. That doesn’t mean that plants have to be reproducing at every given moment in order to possess this potentiality for reproduction. The ability to do so can lie potentially within the plant until the moment when this potentiality is actualized. Likewise a human has the capacity for example, to be rational, but that doesn’t mean that humans are using this ability to rationalize at every given moment. Sometimes we’re busy focusing on a lovely meal for example, or we might be sleeping. The soul is the first actualization of a body with the potentiality to live. (De Anima II.I 412a 25) Now that same body has the potential within it to take up nourishment for example, or to grow. In doing those things those potentials become actualized. In learning something, like learning how to walk, that process of learning would be the first actualization and actually walking after having learned it would be the second actualization. Dead objects have potentialities as well. Clay has the potentiality within it to become a pot if a potmaker decides to change it in this way. Water has the potentiality to turn solid and a stone has the potential to turn into sand. Different potentialities are built into different things either living or dead. The difference between living things and dead things is that living things are active, they do things themselves and this is possible because of having a soul. Dead things don’t do anything, things only happen to them. The soul makes living things somewhat unique because we can cause change within ourselves whereas dead objects change because of factors outside of themselves that interract with the objects (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 36). The soul is the first actualization because without it one would not be able to function, it allows for the ability to take up nourishment, reproduce, play tennis, etc. Actuality simply put is activity. Potentiality could be explained as the capasity for being in a state of actualization.

Aristotle suggests that everything is striving towards some goal and this is similar, but not the same as Darwinism (snl, 2019) (snl. 2018). For Aristotle it’s about being able to flourish, eudaimonia, which translates to happiness. To flourish as a human by becoming a healthy, happy and prosperous human in the best possible way. (Nicomachean Ethics 1095a 15–22) If a human fell ill for example, with an illness that disrupted the natural life of the human, disabling it from certain capacities, then this human is not able to live out it’s full potential as a human. There is no dualism in Aristotle’s philosophy as the soul cannot exist independently and because of this he is in disagreement with for example Plato or Descartes (De Anima II.I 412b 5) So his view is not spiritual in the sense that in his view, there can be no afterlife for the soul because the soul will die with the body, but life is constantly striving towards something- towards reaching it’s full potential, eudaimonia.

If I am to take this notion of potentiality, actuality and the goal of flourishing seriously today, then what are the human potentialities at this point in time? It could be fun for me to fantasize for example about getting an A or about influencing the world for the better, maybe these are potentials that I could actualize somehow, but what about humanity as a whole? What does it mean to gaze inwardly at ourselves or to be a living rational being above all other living beings that we know of? Because it might mean something different today, than what it meant for Aristotle. The concept of change was important to Aristotle and he believed that change happens because everything is moving towards the realization of their potentials. (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 36) Regarding change, humans have sought to take control over the natural order of things to some extent. We can manipulate for example genes among other tings and are constantly striving towards being able to alter our reality still further (genome, 2022). What if there are potentialities within us that we could actualize and that could change life as we know it completely? What if we learned to utilize and share our resources more efficiently and to cooperate better among other things, could the world move towards a relative Utopia? Relative to past versions of our world, where everyone would be allowed an education, medical help, safety and such? If the development of humanity was allowed to develop, scientifically, technologically and otherwise, uninterrupted by war and other obstacles- what could life develop into? When we consider the fact that we are all put together by matter that came from the universe and that we are conscious, it seems to follow that we are at least in part the universe itself becoming self-aware/conscious (amnh, 2022) (ninaspace, 2022). As other animals possess degrees of consciousness, some species in fact sharing the level of intelligence that we see in young human children, this could mean that other species might also develop a higher level of consciousness over time (Gordon G. Gallup, Jr. 1970). On the other hand, consciousness the way that we experience it might be unique, like some kind of fluke. In which case, we could accept a certain amount of responsibility as the only truly conscious beings around that we know of, to protect ourselves/our consciousness, our planet and other species as we might come to learn more about everything in time.

We can cause change in a more fundamental way than Aristotle imagined. Furthermore, beings do not only change from babies to adults, from injured to healed and the like, but from one being and into a different being, admittedly over a very long period of time. (snl, 2019)(snl. 2018) Evolution is not something that Aristotle could take into account, nor the possibility of humans learning how to manipulate nature. We can’t exclude the possibility of becoming able to cause a more radical change to happen to living beings during a shorter space of time in the future. If we are free and the only God is ourselves as we are a part of the universe becoming self-aware, if we also manage to overcome our obstacles such as for example climate change, war, hunger, misinformation, or the uneaqual and wasteful distribution of both power and resources- could we potentially build any kind of world that we desire with the ethical foundation that we would find the most practical for us to live according to? If moral antirealism turns out to be true and the universe is indifferent to our ideas of right and wrong, if the world is nihilistic and life is absurd because there is no greater meaning to our existence, then perhaps nothing is stopping us either way from adding the best possible meaning to our own existence in building the best possible world for ourselves that we can imagine. Or to improve on ourselves (ninaspace, 2022)

Take transhumanism for example (Nick Bostrom, 2005). Some humans are already technically transhumans/cyborgs because they are half-human, half-machine because they have technical additions to their bodies meant for improvement. Such as with artificial pacemakers or robot limbs. (John Alexander McWilliam, 1889) These additons are added for practical reasons that have to do with for example injuries. Not the same as within a sci-fi where brain chips are implanted in the head, but if scientific progress is allowed to carry on for many years, then for all we know, we could become like half-Gods. Maybe there are even greater degrees of consciousness yet to be reached somehow? We observe different levels of intelligence in different kinds of animals. Maybe it could become possible to make better use of our brains in time, because our consciousness is a fenomenon that we still don’t understand fully (Jaegwon Kim, 2018, 266). It could be that our potential is limited somehow in a fundamental way, like an uncrossable bridge. We simply don’t know what our true potentials are. Since some humans are already technically transhuman it seems that becoming cyborgs is a potentiality that lies within humans that can be actualized, and if greater degrees of consciousness could be achieved through transhumanism or in other undiscovered ways then without being spesific, there are thoughts of moving to different planets in order to escape our expanding sun in the future, or of occupying other solar systems and of harnessing the energy from stars. Fantastic ideas, ideas it’s difficult to discuss with any accuracy, but if turning into cyborgs is a human potentiality then other fantastic potentialities might come to be actualized as well. It might be argued that a cyborg is no longer a human and therefore that a human can’t change in such a fundamental way without turning into a different creature, but the ability to reproduce doesn’t necessarily have to be removed from the human part of the halfhuman, half-robot. It’s a big universe so it’s possible to imagine a scenario where reproduction could continue even as our lifespans continued to expand. A computer is made up of material that comes from the same nature as the matter that makes up human bodies. We put new matter into our bodies when we take in nourishment, would adding tecnological parts to ourselves be so different? Matter, according to Aristotle is potentiality, it can become different things (De Anima II.I 5). The matter that technological additions come to be made up of could be matter that’s familiar material in human bodies, because there’s iron and all sorts of materials inside human bodies for natural reasons. The change would be caused by ourselves, but the ability to cause chage to ourselves would seem to be one of our potentialities. (Nick Bostrom, 2005)

Coming from a different perspective, from someone religious for example, where ethical antirealism is not liable, where moral truths exist independently from us and are governed by a maker who wants us to stay in our rightful place or something, which could be the case, then these ideas of what it could potentially mean for humans to flourish, could be misplaced. With a perspective like that these ideas can seem horrifying. Maybe this line of thinking is too grandiose and could only lead to life being thrown back into a near apocalyptic state, or cause extinction altogether? Either because of some offended God outside of our own selves, or for different reasons. Eventhough futuristic ideas like the implantation of brain chips could potentially lead to prosperity in the form of enhanced human faculties, it’s also possible to imagine nightmarish outcomes where brain chips are being controlled by some super-power for example. Prosperity might be possible through some kind of peaceful protection of our planet and it’s inhabitants so that no one would want to abuse power by taking control of brain chips or cause mayhem in other ways. However, many are frightened of technology, of transhumanism or of robots because of different imagined scenarios where the outcomes are negative. Like the fear of a complex Arteficial Intelligence turning on us to cause the extinction of humanity because of our flaws or for other reasons. These scenarios cannot be ruled out as possibilities either.

If we focus on negative views like this, then we might still benefit from prioritizing by making sure this is a safe world to make progress in, potentially. I would argue that actions that benefit the world at large will ultimately benefit us as individuals as we are all a part of the same world. Assuming that progress for humanity as a whole should lead to progress for the majority, at least generally speaking. Humans chould choose to love the planet so to speak and to protect life based on the fact that a world of peace and prosperity could be a possibility. Perhaps by asking ourselves as individuals what we can contribute with as individuals with unique qualities, in order to contribute to a relative Utopia. As the true potential of life is still unknown (ninaspace, 2022).

Aristotle described living beings as he observed them at the time. Today we know more about ourselves and our history. Humans during Aristotle’s time could not remember our development from one species into another, but since then we have unearthed a lot about our history. Aristotle was right however, by stating that our rationality is a part of what distinguishes us from other beings, giving us an advantage. (Finn Eivind Jor, 2011, 36) (Fred D.Miller, Jr. 2018, Introduction xxix – xxx) We are self-conscious, capable of rational thought and language among other things, which sets us apart. If Arisotle had known that some animals seem to possess a level of consciousness or even self-awareness that may not be the same as ours, but that’s still quite advanced, then he might have had something to say about that. As things stand, Aristotle’s views are coloured by the fact that he was born before humanity had unearthed more about life and about the world around us through such means as logic, reason, empirical results from experiments based on hypotheses and so on (ninaspace, 2022). Though he was himself a pioneer at the time, curious about just about everything and there are still many puzzles left to solve. So many that we should have to invent a way to achieve a prolonged life in order to solve them all. That is, if we want to learn the truth for ourselves. The human body is fragile and our lifespans short, but maybe these things could be improved upon. I for one, feeling the natural urge to flourish, intend to try my best in order to reach my full potential, whatever that might be.

For it is the most natural function in those living things that are complete and not disabled or spontaneously generated, to produce another like itself- an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant- in order that they may partake in the eternal and divine insofar as they can. For all desire that, and it is for the sake of it that they do whatever they do by nature. (Aristotle, c. 350 BC, De Anima II.4 415a 25)

Stephen E. Parrish argues against Utopianism by arguing that the concept of "Heaven on Earth" or the pursuit of Utopia will lead to the same result as with the suffering and destruction that can potentially be caused by such things as Marxism (Stephen E. Parrish, 2019, 241-242). My response to this is the following:

So, on your account, we shouldn't even try to make the world a better place based on the fact that some humans before us have failed to do so? With that line of reasoning, we would have to give up on attempts that fail or on projects that include a degree of risk, but that would make it very difficult to achieve any progress at all. Why does Marxism have to be the only option in terms of getting closer to a more utopian world? Problems within our world are complex, but why assume this is the only way to move foreward? As previously mentioned, the world of today is already a Utopia relative to past versions of our world. Planet Earth is not merely a resource, but a prerequisite for our being and for any one of us to even come into existence at all, the odds of that seem phenomenal, but if we changed, that is- if our consciousness developed and we became more advanced beings somehow, then we might come to understand different forms of being. Sartre believed that the deepest desires of humans is to become godlike and I feel the same way... People tell me that a world of peace is impossible, but there is no telling what could be possible. We should not let the fear of the unknown frighten us into staying the same. Because a life with more peace, more knowledge, more scientific, medical and other progress seems to be possible. Few of us would trade our lives here for a brutal life in the Stone Age and based on observations of our previous progress it seems reasonable to assume that a better life at least should be possible, if not a perfect one. Or in other words, that we should strive for a relative Utopia and a prolonged life with less suffering and more vitality.

By Nina Titternes

©Nina Titternes,

I got a B on this for an exam. Understanding the relevant curriculum about Aristotle for this subject was pretty challenging and if I could have included more/or better content relating to my understanding of the relevant material, then that might have been better. However, understanding new material takes time, this was the most/or the best that I was able to include at the time. I put my own spin to it though.


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