Philosophy, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Handbook of Potentiality, ed. Kristina Engelhard & Michael Quante (Dordrecht: Springer, 2018), pp 229-260.

doi 10.1007/978-94-024-1287-1_9


Copyright © 2018 Springer Science+Business Media B.Y. Used by permission.


There's a student in my philosophy class who has "real potential." I might express this thought in any of the following ways: "She is potentially a philosopher"; "She is a potential philosopher"; "She has the potential to be a philosopher." The first way uses a cognate of "potential" as an adverb to modify "is." The second ways uses "potential" as an adjective to modify "philosopher." However, the third way uses "potential" as a noun to refer to something that the student has. What kind of thing is this potential? One worry about even asking this question is that this nominalization of the adjective "potential" suggests a metaphysical picture that is an artifact of language. This is even more strongly suggested by the less ambiguous nominalization "potentiality." Once we have the term "potentiality," we have a new kind of entity to countenance, and questions about its nature arise. One might argue, just because we use the word "potentiality," we should not think that it refers to a "thing" that someone can "have."

There is something disingenuous about such an argument. It proceeds as if the adverbial and adjectival uses of "potential" are unproblematic, and questions only arise with the nominalization. But it is not obvious what it means to potentially be something, or what it means to be a potential something. To say that someone "is potentially" a philosopher is to talk about a way of being that falls short of actuality. And a "potential philosopher" is not a kind of philosopher at all. So what is it? Each of the three above formulations is a modal claim. If there is anything philosophical puzzling about a potentiality claim, it is not going to go away by translating it into an equivalent modal claim.

In this chapter I defend the existence of potentialities against anti-realist arguments, and make a proposal as to their nature. The proposal, in short, is that potentialities are properties, specifically dispositions, though more needs to be said about properties and dispositions. I will do this in Part I. In Part II, I will address two lines of argument against potentialities: that they are reducible, and that they are causally inert.

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