Wednesday, July 06, 2005

A Defense of a Metaphysical Theorem

Posted in: Philosophy

Act in the order in which it is act is unlimited and unique unless conjoined with passive potency.
In order to defend this theorem we must begin with an understanding of what act is in itself. In our experience, act is a co-principle of being, co-relative and opposite from potency. Act in itself is any sort of actuality, determination or perfection and relates to potency in that potency is the capacity to act. As such, the two are mutually exclusive principles; that is, where one is present the other cannot be. Thus, from our experience act is the actualization of some potency and coming-to-be of some perfection or determination in a being.
All of the existents which we experience are limited beings composed of act and potency. But which of these two co-principles is the source of the limitation of being? It is true that all acts are limited acts in our experience, but does this mean that act is limited as act? Act does not limit itself, but is limited by potency. As a human I have the ability to act in many ways, for example running, but I cannot run in a non-human way. The act of my running is limited by the potency inherent in what I am. I cannot run as a cheetah, not because running is limited but because my running is limited by my potential for running as a function of what I am as a being. Running in itself is without limit in the order of running, but is limited by the potency of the existent that has the capacity to do the running. In the same way a metal blade has the potency to have the act of sharpness, but only within the limits of being a metal blade. It cannot have the sharpness of a stone blade or a carbon fiber blade; the act of sharpness, this perfection, is limited by the being’s potency for that act. Essentially, as a determining principle, act is limited to its determination by the confines of that in which it inheres. Act can only act within the limits allowed by the receptive capacity of that which receives the act; this is passive potency. For instance, accidents, in the sense in which they are acts, are limited in their expression by the substances in which they exist. A dog has the capacity to have the accidental act of being brown, but this act is limited to being the brownness of a dog; a dog does not have he capacity to receive the brownness as a horse, it must receive it as a dog. Thus the act which is unlimited itself, is limited by the passive potency of the being in which it inheres.

This theorem is particularly important when dealing with the existential act. Esse is the ultimate actuality as the act prior to all other acts. In our experience we do not find unlimited esse, all existential acts of our experience are limited by the existents which possess those acts. So what is the limiting factor of esse? It cannot be esse itself because then being would be limited to this, and no other existences would be possible. Esse then must be limited by essentia in existents. This we see clearly to be true. The act of existing in itself is unlimited but in existents is limit ed to be the kind of being of the essence it actualizes. Thus, essence is the determining factor of esse and existence is limited by the passive potency of the essence which receives the act. A dog is limited to existing as a dog, not by the act of existing but by the essence of being a dog.


Blogger Ariel said...

Woah. Well put.

"As such, the two [act and passive potency] are mutually exclusive principles; that is, where one is present the other cannot be."

Does this statement itself have a defense? It doesn't seem self-evident.

12:31 PM  
Blogger M. Hipsley said...

Act is the "being" of something whereas potency is the potential for something to be. Something cannot be an have the potential to be at the same time. If the two were to exist simultaneously then a contradiction would be true. For instance, I have the potential to be running, but if I am running I am no longer in potency to that act, I "be" running. Once I stop running then I am once again in potency to the act but I can never be both in the act of running and in the potency to be running.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Ariel said...

Very interesting. It sounds to me like you are saying that "actuality" and "potentiality" (passive potency) are contraries but not contradictories. If it is not possible for something to exist (like square circles, or rocks that are prohibitively heavy for the Almighty to lift), then it would be neither actual nor potential.

So potentiality (what could be) has being in Thomistic metaphysics. That is why its a co-principle of being.

If yes, then there is what could be, and there is what is.

So is there what couldn't be? I know it sounds like a dumb question, but then I never thought I would be saying "there is what could be." I am just barely starting to think like a Thomist. Do square circles have another kind of being than potentialities and actualities have?

Please correct any incorrect statements, as I would have put question marks on them all if it didn't look so annoying.


3:02 PM  
Blogger M. Hipsley said...

I would not say that "there is what could be." What could be is nothing - that is it does not exist. Remember being is in the copula. What has the potential to exist does not exist. If potency does in fact exist it exists in the actuality of some being. Act is ontologically and metaphysically prior to potency even though potency is sometimes prior to act logically. This is one of the reasons that we hold that God is pure act for the first cause cannot have passive potency or else there would need to be a prior act with which that potency was joined.

So in one sense "what could be is" but only in the sense that this potency is conjoined with some esse or act of existence. potency as such, is nothing and does not exist.

6:00 PM  

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