What is potentiality and actuality? An answer from Aristotle and Hans Driesch

By: Charles Lincoln

Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV ©

Attempting to find truth in a study is what Socrates describes in Plato’s Republic as life’s most important achievement: to realize the sun by getting out of the shadows of the cave. If what Has Driesch calls entelechy can be found for the development of life rather than just material vantage points, then it would be the accomplishment of seeing the sun in a Platonic sense. Subjects such as biology without this basis of the reason of the development of life are only ways that can help us out of the cave but are not entirely ‘the sun’ because their fundamental bottoms from which they are established are unclear. Geometry, is another more common example, with the unclear basis of the point, that with no part from which everything in geometry is created. But again if the fundamentals of life can be found when would we be able to see “the sun”? Could the notion of “ἐντελέξια”, be more than just a reason for life inside living beings, but a term for systems that are created of living beings and composed of streams, plants, rocks, and dirt combined together functioning as a living organism, such as river ecosystem?

Aristotle, holding his Ethics detail from the Vatican fresco The School of Athens Date 1510–1511. Source and description from Wikipedia. I claim no ownership

According to Joe Sachs:

Aristotle invents the word by combining entelēs (ἐντελής, ‘complete, full-grown’) with echein (= hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition), while at the same time punning on endelecheia (ἐνδελέχεια, ‘persistence’) by inserting telos (τέλος, ‘completion’). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle’s thinking, including the definition of motion.

Sachs continues by discussing the notion of energia:

Just as energeia extends to entelecheia because it is the activity which makes a thing what it is, entelecheia extends to energeiabecause it is the end or perfection which has being only in, through, and during activity.

Relating the notion of motion to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Sachs explains:

The Thomistic blend of actuality and potentiality has the characteristic that, to the extent that it is actual it is not potential and to the extent that it is potential it is not actual; the hotter the water is, the less is it potentially hot, and the cooler it is, the less is it actually, the more potentially, hot.

However, Sachs clarifies:

One implication of this interpretation is that whatever happens to be the case right now is an entelechia, as though something that is intrinsically unstable as the instantaneous position of an arrow in flight deserved to be described by the word that everywhere else Aristotle reserves for complex organized states that persist, that hold out against internal and external causes that try to destroy them.

In attempting to answer the question of what motion is, Sachs explains the following:

The man with sight, but with his eyes closed, differs from the blind man, although neither is seeing. The first man has the capacity to see, which the second man lacks. There are then potentialities as well as actualities in the world. But when the first man opens his eyes, has he lost the capacity to see? Obviously not; while he is seeing, his capacity to see is no longer merely a potentiality, but is a potentiality which has been put to work. The potentiality to see exists sometimes as active or at-work, and sometimes as inactive or latent.

Finally, Sachs interprets Aristotle’s notion of motion in the following way:

The genus of which motion is a species is being-at-work-staying-itself (entelecheia), of which the only other species is thinghood. The being-at-work-staying-itself of a potency (dunamis), as material, is thinghood. The being-at-work-staying-the-same of a potency as a potency is motion.

Physicists can create motions instantly through engineering, but biologists must wait for the right moment to observe their subjects. Although in biology, as the study of life, including both chemistry and physics, the simplest ideas of how beings come into being are hard to examine since they must be waited for. Hans Driesch in “The Science & Philosophy of the Organism” attempts to describe the beginnings of life by observing the early stages of the development of beings, effectually trying to shed light on how life occurs, bringing in ideas from chemistry and physics. However, at the beginning he asks what the reason for life is, saying, “biology is also the most difficult of all natural sciences, not only from the complexity of the phenomena which it studies, but in particular for another reason which is seldom properly emphasized, and therefore will well repay us for a few words devoted to it”-(Page of Driesch INTRODUCTION). What this “(an)other reason” is, seems to be the most interesting of what he described within his attempts of observing life for if one can understand what this other reason is, then truth in the reason of life being created could be explained.

Relating to the influence on modern physics, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz wrote,

…the entelechy of Aristotle, which has made so much noise, is nothing else but force or activity ; that is, a state from which action naturally flows if nothing hinders it. But matter, primary and pure, taken without the souls or lives which are united to it, is purely passive ; properly speaking also it is not a substance, but something incomplete.

Returning to Driesch, the “law of nature,” as Driesch puts it, is “an ideal which is nothing less than one of the postulates of the possibility of science at all.”-(Page 4 of Driesch THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF KNOWLEDGE ABOUT NATURE) This is similar to how Socrates states in The Republic that most who see the shadows or fire light are tempted to believe that what they are seeing is the epitome of what is known and ‘take what is seen for granted’ assuming that there is nothing beyond that. The shadows must be questioned, and it is necessary to believe some things as starting points. Arguably, to understand the physical functions of animals we must properly organize what we are attempting to understand, by separating functions such as digestive systems and reproductive systems. From this, it should at least be partly manifest that forms of cells of organisms are essential to study. From this, it should be partly manifest that forms of cells of organisms are essential to study. Furthermore, in regard to the question of life, we generally say that cells performing their functions are alive. Therefore by this definition so far they are within the context of Aristotelian soul- being-at-work-staying-itself. Would this show that having a soul in an Aristotelian view means that something is living? If so then would this bring more validity my previous question of whether an entire system of separately unloving things such as water and dirt, when put together, such as a river ecosystem, in an environment becomes a ‘living organism’ with an Aristotelian soul?

The Empyrean (highest heaven), from the illustrations to The Divine Comedy by Gustave Doré. Date 19th century. Source and description from Wikipedia. I claim no ownership.

It is evident that Aristotle indicates that there are different levels of souls, such as more apparent, the comparison of plants and humans. The plant does not have as complex a soul as a human — perhaps because of different organs, or perhaps because different forms of “ἐντελέξια” exist in different organisms with different souls?

In the Aristotelian idea of a soul as being-at-work-staying-itself, would manifoldness of cells constitute as ‘restitution’? If one argues that no they do not because they are changing constantly, then I would tend to agree. However, before certain judgements are made we should step back and describe in a greater degree of succinctness both epigenesis and manifoldness.

In his equation of “p.v. (X) = f (s, l, E)”, this mysterious, almost ‘mythical’ E which seems to be underlying factor of ‘life’ and the reason why organisms develop in the way they do uniformly. Moreover, E has to be able take the place of s, n, l for the reason of regeneration. E must be more than just material and even energy, and if so is it the same in all animals?[1]

At first, Driesch says that his using “ἐντελέξια“ is to honor Aristotle and because it “allows us such liberties, for indeed we have shown that there is at work a something in life ‘which bears the end in itself’…”. However, I find it evident that this is what we mean by entelechy: that which brings about morphogenesis within a being. Entelechy seems like the ‘thing’ bringing about what in the effect is carrying out one’s work. It achieves the end of being itself, such as the process of epigenesis, that is starting off as a ‘being’ then ‘at-work’ to fully develop into the sage of ‘staying-itself’.

When considering an entire environment we are tempted to make a distinction between living and nonliving (i.e. biotic and abiotic respectively), such as water and rocks as opposed to birds and trees, perhaps distinctions should be made on the whole and rather the entire system is alive. Does this idea of “ἐντελέξια“ exist outside of what we consider living beings? As previously shown, this equation fits in with life saying that if we spread growing cells out of a cylindrical form and mark its development, depending on where ‘X’ is in regard to the two inner squares proper, life will occur. But there is still this other reason to which we give the name E.

One is tempted to believe that the E factor is something ‘mystically spiritual’ and unexplainable in a material sense. By this argument, “ἐντελέξια“ could be something that one wouldn’t be able to delve further into. However I think that looking at the entire environment such as the pond that fills from rain or a creek, that comes from a mountain, and living beings all about this list make a web of life. Which is interesting because it would take some life to create that web of life, and so in that way wouldn’t the connection of the existence of life be in “ἐντελέξια“ and everything that comes in contact with it have life, all with the possible exception of water which aides the growth of living things. This total interaction is essential to life being preserved, and therefore it is preserving that which is being at self and working in multiple ways the environment as the organism complex with an ever sustaining system depending on many individual parts.

Thus I would argue that “ἐντελέξια“, the E factor, is possibly the answer to why life exists. As “ἐντελέξια“ is intertwined with many concepts such as physics and chemistry, so is the environment of which is made up of living orgamisms, abiotic factors and entelechy. What value would there be in seeing everything and all its motion if we had seen ‘the whole’, once the glorious feeling of the achievement of seeing the ‘sun’ by way of understanding “ἐντελέξια“ had passed on? If all was known in the universe, what would occur? I am not sure because “ἐντελέξια“ has no succinct feeling of full understanding, as if it is constantly changing the more we peer into understanding it. Similarly to Socrates’ analogy that which is not good is bound to change, and I frankly think that which is bound to change is interesting, like a song one note can’t stay forever we are looking for the pitch after and the one after that because in the end one pitch perpetually is just noise. Thus the E Factor of mysterious life seems that even if one does not believe in it or not it still applies and seems as if it is infinitely changing the more one peers down it.

[1] It at least does not seem so. For then all animals would develop in the same manner.

Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV ©



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Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.