Possible Worlds and Possibility as Greater than Actuality

Duns’s modal logic discerns a realm in which he can treat the possible as a kind of actuality. The possibility of contradiction is for Duns the criterion of unitary meaning. If simultaneous affirmation and negation of a proposition produces a contradiction, then it has a unitary meaning. This works only in a world of finite, definable entities because the infinite comprises all contradictions within itself. Most significantly, this theory of predication is based on possibility as being something real in itself, as having its own kind of reality. Abstract essences of things that might become real by actually existing, ideas that are coherent and do not contradict the idea of real existence, are recognized as having a reality of their own already just as essences. But, in this case, the distinction between essentia and esse, between essence and being, has to be explained as merely formal rather than as a difference between actually having, or not having, being.

Avicenna’s principle concerning the first object of the intellect holds that “Being” (esse) is always understood implicitly together with any other being. Duns receives and builds on this doctrine. And here again the possible and virtual are recognized as real and actual because they are intellectually coherent and perhaps even necessary. This is the key to opening the new world of representation that Duns shares with Dante at the particular turning in intellectual history which they negotiate together, however divergently. Dante has created such possible worlds as fully actualized other worlds of the imagination. In effect, his use of this new modality of possibility enables him to imagine—and to treat as fully actual—the eschatological worlds of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

We see the repercussions of the new investment in possibility in Dante also in what may seem to be merely academic arguments, for example, about angelology. Dante’s insistence that angels do not have, or at least do not need, memory (Paradiso XXIX.70-81; Monarchia I.iii.7) concerns the greater dignity acruing to human intellect because of its potential.

Whereas by Greek metaphysical standards, which exalt only the unchanging as fully actual, potentiality would be considered to belong to imperfection, Dante reevalutes potentiality positively as an enrichment bearing fruits that give human nature a certain kind of superiority over the angelic (“ardisco a dire che nobilitade umana, quanto e dalla parte di molti suoi frutti, quella dell’angelo soperchia,” Convivio IVxix.6). Human nature discloses more possibilities for expressing the divine than simply mirroring back what it receives. Human nature instantiates the divine essence in enmattered variety, producing many different and diverse fruits, which gives it a special nobility (“molti e diversi frutti fanno nella umana nobilitade,” Convivio IV.xix.6). This assessment is bound up with Dante’s dynamic vision and representation of the other and eternal worlds. In this, he is a pathbreaker of modernity—but also a bridge arching back to classical antiquity.

The angels’ being without memory also indicates that they mirror God directly and without ¿¿//"-reflection on their past, but in an immediate and uninterrupted—or eternal—cognition. Dante thus recognizes their knowing as superior to our self-reflective knowing. But he also valorizes the thitherto unsuspected potential of self-reflection, since it is by self-reflective rememoration that poetry contemplates all things, including immediate, angelic vision, and can produce something new. Self-reflection defines the human condition, with all the special liabilities and possibilities that com-plicate and differentiate it from the pure reflection enacted by the angels.

The difference from Duns (or more exactly from Duns’s secularist heirs) is that Dante invents this new realm of self-reflexively created possibility not as a substitute for any higher order of reality, but rather as its expression. He uses the new modal logic of possibles analogically, and thus in conjunction with theology, rather than absolutizing it as a logic of self-reflection complete on its own terms. Oriented to theo/ogy, Dante still thinks essentially in the word. Modern logic, in contrast, wishes to abstract from language and to erase its own ana/ogical foundations. Parts III and IV dig “archeologically” into the linguistic roots of self-reflection and therewith of reasoning in general.[1] Positive science, in contrast, will seek to leave natural language and its residues of the infinite and unfathomable behind for the sake of achieving a totally transparent, analytically self-reflective system of (finite) existence.

  • [1] I explore the “archeology of knowledge,” as practiced by Agamben following Foucault, in “Dante’s Theology and Contemporary Thought: Recovering Transcendence?” Special Issue of Forum Italicum, ed. Rachel Jakoff and Lino Pertile, forthcoming in 2021.
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