Where do laps go when people stand up?
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously concluded the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus with the enigmatic phrase “Whereover a man cannot speak, thereover must he remain silent.” It is well-known that Wittgenstein later denounced the tenets of his own early work, of which the Tractatus was its culmination. Nevertheless, through both periods of his work, Wittgenstein seemed to draw on the same font of inquiry: the eternal question of what one may say about something, and what one might say it about.
Any thinking person will indeed recognise the intimate affinity of language and thought. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the greatest thinkers have often set the greatest seals upon our language. Shakespeare, for instance, is notorious for having bequeathed roughly 2,000 new words to English speakers, many of which are still in use today, like “swagger,” “pageantry,” and “monumental.” The availability of such words is an undeniable aid to our thinking. For instance, how difficult would it be to conceptualise mainstream politics in the United States without the second of these words, or to comprehend, without the third, the impact of Plato and his more or less-faithful student, Aristotle, on our intellectual heritage. Indeed, these two patriarchs of the Western Philosophical Tradition—the elder of whom it has been said that all subsequent philosophy consists in footnotes to his work*, and the younger who for centuries was merely referred to as “Ille Philosophus,” “The Philosopher,” with the definite article—also exemplify the relation of thinking and language. Philosopher and philologist (for let no one call himself “philosopher” for whom words do not pulse with with the same wonder that has inspired philosophers since the beginning) Owen Barfield describes the verbal legacy of these two great thinkers:
Among the Latin words which appear to be conscious translations of terms in special use among the Greek philosophers down to and including Plato are qualitas, aer [air], essentia (οὐσία) idealis (ἐπʹ ίδέᾳ or ἐπʹ εἴδει), individuum (ἄτομον), vacuum (τὸ κενόν), and equivocalis (ὁμώνυμος). When we come to Aristotle, we find a much greater number. Quantitas has already been mentioned, and there are in addition subjectum (ὑποκείμενον), actualis (ἐνεργείᾳ), potentialis (δύναμις), substantia (ὑπόσταοις), quintessentia (πέυπτγ οὐσία), proprietas [property] (ἰδίωμα), accidens (συμβεβηκός), praedicamentum (κατηγορία), deductio (ἀπαγωγή), inductio (ἐπαγωγή), moralis (ἠθικός), and almost certainly definitio (ὁρισμός).†
Each of the terms above deserves, and has, in many cases received, centuries worth of commentary by the loftiest minds. Since one may attempt anything but not everything, suffice it here briefly to explore Aristotle’s reciprocal notions of dynamis (δύναμις) and energeia (ἐνέργεια). As Barfield indicated above, Latin translators during the Hellenic and Middle Ages rendered these terms as “potentia” and “actualitas,” respectively. Each of these four words has at least one common cognate in English: “dynamite,” “energy,” “potential,” “actual.” Dynamis and potentiality denote a specific power, while energeia and actuality refer to the active working of that power, it’s “being-at-work.”** Possibility is related to potentiality as ontology is to metaphysics. The former is an a priori concept while the latter is an a posteriori one. In other words, for a thing to be possible means that its actuality entails no logical contradiction. For instance, a red apple is possible, but a red blue is not. Potentiality, by contrast, connotes a real power and not merely lack of contradiction. Thus, an apple seed possesses the potentiality to become an apple but it does not possess the potentiality or the possibility to become a rabbit. Similarly, a undetonated stick of dynamite has the real potential to explode, but not after it has actually exploded, and in both cases, the possibility as well.
Possibility is thus an extremely abstract notion, while potentiality is distinctly concrete. What about probability? The concept of probability is deceptively difficult to understand. The difficulty in understanding probability is compounded by the fact that few people are aware that they have failed to understand it, and thus many people confidently imagine probability to be something that it is not. Even amongst the educated today, it is the exception rather than the rule to fully grasp the concept of probability and thereby win through to distinguishing it from potentiality. Bertrand Russell corroborated this evaluation when he observed that “the concept of probability is the most important of modern science, above all because nobody has the faintest idea of its meaning.” As a result, the order of the day is to conceptualise the world in a generally vague manner. Most of the sciences exemplify and propagate this attitude in that they methodologically isolate particular quantifiable variables from their integral context for the purpose of experiment. It is tempting to ascribe far more weight to the results of such experiments than those results actually warrant. This would be patently obvious if it were not permissible to rationalise eventual discrepancies between the predictions that such methods generate, and actual observation, by inventing ad hoc hypotheses. Dark Energy, for instance, was invented to account for the predicted effects of Dark Matter, which was invented to account for the predicted effects of Inflation, which was invented to account for the predicted effects of General Relativity.** This is called “saving the appearances” after Simplicius’ sixth-century commentary on Aristotle’s De Caelo. It is the departure point for all science to begin with what is obvious and attempt to explain the latter with an hypothesis. That an hypothesis offers an explanation for a phenomenon, however, does not necessarily entail that the hypothesis is objectively true beyond its utility for calculation. The likelihood of it being true in this manner also diminishes when, as in the example above, hypotheses are invoked to explain hypotheses are invoked to explain etc…
This confusion between possibility and potentiality also renders the nature of statistics almost impenetrable to modern educated people. Many folks would be outraged, for instance, at the prospect of measuring the IQ of different populations along racial or gender parameters. A person for whom the above distinction was clear, however, would save his outrage for something worthy of it because he would realise that the eventual result of such an hypothetical study would be almost meaningless. It would reveal nothing that were not already the case and to give such a study the slightest attention would imply that one surreptitiously harbours the very same prejudices that were ostensibly the source of one’s outrage. No one, for instance, would take offence to such a study along the parameters of people’s favourite Beatles-album. The reason is because we take distinctions along such lines to be arbitrary, or perhaps accidental to the individuals in question, but in any case, not essential. Anyone who is outraged by a study along the lines that we indicated above (i.e. gender or race or other categories that invoke similar affect, for instance), by contrast, implies that he tacitly assumes such distinctions to be more than accidental while at the same time likely denouncing people that express the same opinions openly that he holds in secret. Furthermore, a study like the hypothetical one above is a measure of probability, which is an abstract measure. For this reason, it would have no bearing on any concrete instance, which is the only thing that actually exists. So even if whatever profile that I happened to fit into had an average IQ of 8 (e.g. like the class of “featherless bipeds”), my own IQ would still determine what it was. To suppose probability or statistics influence events is to suppose that smoke causes forest fires.
Smoke does not cause forest fires because, although the former relates to the latter by probability, it does not do so my potentiality. Only wood relates to fire in this manner, since the latter contains the solar fire in potentialite secretum. Along these lines, probability is related to potentiality as kinematics is to dynamics. This is to say that the former is an external measurement irrespective of the immanent force responsible to bring the phenomenon about. Probability represents the likelihood of a given outcome, but in abstraction from the real power that, if ignited, could actually generate it. Potentiality, by contrast, designates an intrinsic power, whose actualisation would be real force. Put another way, probability is extrinsic to a given phenomenon; potentiality is inherent in it. For instance, a 2013 study analysed the average age of 189 modern artists at the time that they composed their greatest works and discovered their age to be 0.6198 of their total lifetime.†† All of the other comments one might make of such a study notwithstanding, to say that the highest probability to produce great art occurs when one is roughly 2/3 of the way through one’s life, even if it is true, says very much less than it might seem to say. For instance, it says nothing whatsoever about the real potential to produce such art, nor about the fact that no one knows how long he will live because by the time one has gained the possibility to make that determination, one has lost the potentiality to make it.
Such distinctions might strike the reader as trivial or meaningless. But such eventual designations as “trivial” or “meaningless,” themselves demand just the same activity of mind that they attempt to dismiss. For this reason, they likely represent expressions of foregone prejudices in the matter rather than bona fide consideration of the topic at hand. Indeed, beyond subjective inclination, such distinctions are as valuable for their organising function as they are in for providing a means of exercising the mind—both aspects which are essential for knowledge.
The poet-philosopher Novalis remarked that “words are acoustic configurations of thought.” Having now elaborated several such configurations, we may inquire as to whether they provide us with the capacity to more-fully conceptualise the question that we began withal. Let us again inquire, therefore: Where do laps go when people stand up?
*Alfred North Whitehead famously and fittingly observed that “all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato.”
† “Greek Thought in English Words.” Essays and Studies 1950, G. Rostrevor Hamilton (ed.)
** Michael J. Disney. Macroscope: Modern Cosmology: Science or Folktale? American Scientist, Vol. 95, No. 5 (SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2007), pp. 383-385. Thanks to Matthew Segall for bringing this concise gem of an article to my attention.
†† Abstract available at: