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The Existence of Powers 171

The Existence of Powers


Rebekah Johnston

Introduction
Aristotle relies on and uses the concept of , which I will translate throughout this paper as power, in a wide variety of philosophical
discussions. In Metaphysics IX 1-5, Aristotle provides a detailed account
of powers. The discussions in Metaphysics IX 1, IX 2, and IX 5 focus primarily on providing an account of what it is to be a power. Chapter 1
establishes the range of things that count as powers in the most proper
sense.1 The primary referent of power is
(1046a10-11), i.e., a principle of change in another or qua other.
In addition to this primary referent Aristotle identifies that in virtue of
which some item can be acted on and changed by another (1046a11-12)
and that in virtue of which some item is insusceptible to being changed
for the worse by another (1046a13-14). Chapters 2 and 5 further divide
powers into rational and non-rational.
In addition to explaining what powers are and delineating the different sorts of powers, Aristotle argues in Metaphysics IX 3 for the existence of powers. Here, through a series of four arguments against the
Megarics, Aristotle establishes that inactive powers must exist. There
are, however, two important questions to which Aristotles answers are
unclear: 1) what does it mean to say that powers exist? and 2) how can
it be determined that a subject does in fact possess a particular inactive
power?

Part of Aristotles project in Metaphysics IX is to develop a new sense of power,


a sense in addition to its proper sense as a principle of change. I will not be concerned, here, with the development of this new sense.

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There are two main ways in which commentators have sought to


remove this obscurity. Some argue that the criterion of the possible
serves as a test for determining when some subject possesses a power.2
Others argue that the existence of powers is best understood through
a dispositional analysis. I argue, however, that neither account is sufficient and that instead powers must be understood as one in number
with but different in essence from various categorical features of substances. Understanding powers in this way reveals both what it means
to say that inactive powers exist and when some subject has or lacks a
power.

The Existence of Powers and the Criterion of the Possible

Although Aristotle is committed to the existence of powers, he is not


clear about what it means to say that a power exists or about how to
determine whether some subject possesses a power. Some interpreters
attempt to clarify Aristotles position about the latter issue by considering Aristotles claims about the relationships between the capable and
possessing a power and between the capable and the possible.
In Metaphysics V 12, Aristotle explains three different ways in which
the term is used. In one sense, a thing is if it possesses a power (1019a33-b15). For example, a log is with respect
to being burned if it possesses the power for being burned and fire is
with respect to burning if it possesses the power to burn. I will
translate this sense of as capable. In other sense,
specifies the not necessarily false (1019b28-9) or that which is not necessary but, being assumed, results in nothing impossible (Prior Analytics I 13, 32a17-19). In this sense means possible.
Some interpreters, such as Witt and Ide, argue that Aristotles discussion in Metaphysics IX 3-4 establishes that there is a relation of mutual implication between the two senses of , i.e., between the
3
capable and the possible. If there is a relation of mutual implication
between the capable and the possible, then Aristotle is committed to the

The criterion of the possible states that X is possible if, when it is assumed to be
actual, no impossibility results. See Prior Analytics I 13, 32a17-19, Metaphysics IX 4,
1047a24-6.

For the arguments in support of this claim see Witt (2003, 30-5) and Ide (1992).

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The Existence of Powers 173

claims (1) if it is possible that Lucy swims, then Lucy must be capable
of swimming and (2) if Lucy is capable of swimming, then it is possible
that Lucy swims.
Given this relationship of mutual implication, in conjunction with
the meaning of being capable, some claim that we can use this aspect
of Aristotles position as a test for when some subject possesses a power.4 More specifically, if I want to know whether X possesses the power
to , I could determine the case as follows. Since it is the case that (1) if
X possesses the power to , X is capable of -ing and (2) there is a relation of mutual implication between the capable and the possible, I can
determine whether X has the power to by determining whether it is
possible for X to .
Although I think that Witt and Ide are correct about the mutual implication claim, I do not think that this relation of mutual implication is
useful for determining whether a subject possesses a particular power.
The reason it is not useful is that in order to determine whether or not
it is possible for X to one needs already to know whether X possesses
the power to . My evidence for this claim comes from Aristotles final
argument against the Megaric claim that inactive powers do not exist.
In Metaphysics IX 3 at 1047a10-20, Aristotle offers an argument for the
existence of inactive powers which reveals, additionally, how he conceives of the connection between possibilities and powers. This connection shows that in order to judge whether it is possible for X to it is
necessary already to know whether X possesses the power to .
Aristotle says:

( ),

Witt (2003, 25) says that [t]here is little doubt that Aristotle has here adapted the
principle of possibility to serve as a rule for determining whether a substance has
a power. Cleary (1998) does not explicitly make this point but it follows from his
claim that Aristotles use of at 1047a24 is a very general definition of
potency as what something has if there is nothing impossible in its attaining the
activity of which it is said to have the power (27).

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174

Rebekah Johnston
( ,
) (1047a10-20).
Further, (A) if the thing that is deprived of a power is incapable, then
(B) the thing that is not coming to be will be () of coming
to be. And (C&D) the one who says that the is coming to
be or will come to be, will speak falsely (for this signified ),
(E) so that these arguments destroy both motion and generation. For
the thing that is standing will always stand and the thing that is sitting will always sit; for if it sits it will not get up; for it, what at any
rate is not capable of getting up, will be of getting up. (F)
Therefore, if it is not possible to say these things, then it is evident that
power and actuality are distinct (but these thinkers make power and
actuality the same thing, on account of which they seek to destroy no
small thing).5

I take the explicit claims in the argument to be the following:


A.

If X does not have the to , then X is incapable


() of -ing.

B.

If X is not -ing, then X is with respect to -ing.

C.

X is with respect to -ing, but is -ing is false.


If X is with respect to -ing, then X is not -ing.

D.

X is with respect to -ing, but will is false.


If X is with respect to -ing, then X will not .

E.

Therefore motion and coming to be are done away with.

F.

Since motion and coming to be exist, power and actuality are


not the same, they are different.6

Claim A is an account of what it means to be incapable. As we have


seen, , in one sense, means capable. A subject is capable of

The first instance of clearly means incapable. I have, however, left


the other instances of untranslated because it is unclear whether they
should be translated as incapable or impossible. I argue below that they must be
translated as impossible.

I take Aristotle to be committed here to claims A, C, D, and F. Claims B and E are


the problematic results of the Megaric position that inactive powers do not exist.

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The Existence of Powers 175


-ing if that subject has a power for -ing. Claim A asserts a parallel
7
sense of . A subject is or incapable of -ing if it
does not have a power for -ing. Given the way the Megaric position
is presented in the opening lines of IX 3, we can assume that Aristotle
takes claim A as uncontroversial. For both the Megarics and for Aristotle himself it is appropriate to claim that some subject, X, is capable of
-ing if that subject has a power for -ing and it is appropriate to claim
that some subject, X, is incapable of -ing if that subject does not have
a power for -ing. The disagreement is not about what it means to be
incapable; it is about when some subject has or lacks a power.
Claim B is more puzzling. Is it a premise in the argument or is it
a conclusion? In my view claim B must be taken as a sub-conclusion
which is derived from A and several unstated premises.8 If we fail to
take claim B as a conclusion, then the structure of the argument is unclear. For it is not immediately apparent why we should accept claim B.
We ought, then, to take claim B as a sub-conclusion that relies on claim
A and one or more unstated premises.
But what is needed to get from claim A to claim B? This question
intersects with a second difficulty with claim B. If means
incapable in claim B as it does in claim A, then the missing premise
is easily identified. Since the Megarics hold that there are no inactive
powers, the argument for claim B is:
A. If X does not have the power to , then X is incapable
() of -ing.
Implicit Premise. X has the power to iff X is -ing.
Therefore, B. If X is not -ing, then X is incapable () of
-ing.
On this reading, the conclusion, B, follows from claim A and an implicit premise that simply states the Megaric position concerning when
X has the power to . This, however, will not do. The coherence of the
passage can only be preserved if in claim B means impos-

See Metaphysics V 12 for this sense of .

Beere (2003, 125-9) takes claim B as a conclusion. I discuss his interpretation below.
See note 10.

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sible rather than incapable.9 Claim D demands that we understand


to mean impossible in claim B.
If claim B fails to introduce the impossible rather than just the incapable, then claim D is false. If a subject presently lacks the power
to and thus is incapable of -ing, it does not follow that one must
be speaking falsely if one asserts that X -s in the future. X may very
well gain the power, become capable, and . If so, then claim D is false
because it is based on an inappropriate move from incapable now to
always incapable. If, however, claim D is false, then Aristotle is not entitled to the crucial claim, claim E, that on the Megaric view motion and
coming to be are done away with.
We must, then, read claim B as introducing the sense of
that means impossible. The path from claim A to claim B, therefore,
must involve more than the implicit premise stated above. What is
needed is an account of why the Megaric cannot respond by saying that
although X is not now capable of -ing, X may become capable of -ing
and at that time. The Megaric, then, may refute claim B if there is a
way to establish, on the Megaric view, that (1) it is possible that even
though X is not now -ing X may in the future and (2) it is possible
that even though X is not now capable of -ing X may become capable
of -ing. Because the Megaric holds that X is capable of -ing iff X is ing, claims one and two amount to the same claim for the Megaric. We
must consider, then, whether it is possible that some subject, X, change
from not -ing/incapable of -ing to -ing/capable of -ing given the
Megaric view of when something has a power.
Aristotle does not explain how he gets from claim A to the conclusion B.10 If however, we take into account the context of the discussion
we can fill in the path from A to B using Aristotelian commitments. Ar-

9
10

Most commentators agree.


Beere (2003, 127-8) says that in the background, as support for claim B, are the
claims 1) that are intrinsic features of their possessors, 2) that change
depends on these features, and 3) that the objects that possess these are
completely ready to bring about or undergo changes before they occur. I agree
with Beeres claims, but I do not think that they are sufficient to show why Aristotle is entitled to claim B. In order to establish claim B an account of why the
intrinsic properties are required for change is needed. My explanation attempts to
clarify this point by suggesting that on the Megaric view, the distinction between
-ing potentially and -ing actually is lost. Witt (2003, 28-30) rightly claims that in
claim B must mean impossible because the argument demands it. It is
unclear, however, what Witt takes the path from claim A to claim B to be.

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The Existence of Powers 177

istotle is concerned, in IX 3, to explore the implications of limiting the


class of the capable to the active. The loss of inactive powers and thus
the loss of a sense in which some X is capable of what X is not doing are
immediately relevant to Aristotles general concern to defend change
against the Parmenidean attempt to eliminate change and becoming.
Aristotle can claim that, given the Megaric position concerning when
X is capable of -ing, if X is not capable of -ing (now) it is impossible
that X will become capable of -ing and thus it is impossible that X -s
because the Megarics have no way of overcoming the Parmenidean
dilemma concerning change and becoming.11
In Physics I 8 and Generation and Corruption I 3, Aristotle explains
and responds to the Parmenidean position that there is no coming to
be. Parmenides holds that things cannot come to be because they must
come to be either (1) from nothing or (2) from being. Neither option,
however, is acceptable. Clearly something cannot come to be from
nothing. But neither can something come to be from being since being
already is. Given that coming to be cannot happen either from nothing
or from being, Parmenides holds that coming to be is impossible.
Aristotle solves this dilemma, in Generation and Corruption, by introducing a third option. He says: [i]n one sense things come-to-be out of
that which has no being without qualification; yet in another sense they
come-to-be always out of what is. For there must pre-exist something
which potentially is, but actually is not: and this something is spoken
of both as being and as not-being (317b15-17). Aristotles solution to
the difficulty depends on the distinction between being actually and
being potentially . This distinction depends on the existence of inactive powers. Some subject, X, is potentially but not actually if X has
the inactive power for . Because Aristotle accepts inactive powers as
real/existent items change and becoming are preserved.
The Megarics, however, deny that inactive powers exist and thus
they cannot accept the distinction between -ing potentially and -ing
actually. By eliminating inactive powers, the Megaric eliminates the
distinction between -ing potentially and -ing actually and thereby
eliminates coming to be. Consider the following example. In order to
avoid claim B, the Megaric asserts that although Lucy is not now building = Lucy is incapable of building = Lucy lacks the power to build,
Lucy may change such that she is building = is capable of building =

11

One may object that the Megarics have no interest in overcoming this dilemma,
that they support the elimination of motion and change.

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has the power to build. If the Parmenidean challenges the Megaric to


explain from what the change came to be, the only answers the Megaric has available are from nothing or from being. Because the Megaric
does not allow for the existence of inactive powers and thus cannot distinguish potentially building from actually building, the Megaric must
falter on the Parmenidean challenge.
Aristotle, therefore, has good reason to conclude that for the Megarics, if X is not -ing, then it is impossible for X to . The Megaric rejection of inactive powers and the attendant restriction of the capable to
the active make it the case that it is impossible for anything to change.
Claims C and D represent an unacceptable objection to claim B. The
Megarics may try to salvage their position by claiming that although X
is neither capable of -ing nor actually -ing X may nevertheless in
the future. This objection is plausible if one fails to note the introduction of impossible into claim B. Aristotle, however, uses claims C and
D to draw attention to this point. Aristotle says that and the one who
says that the impossible [] is coming to be or will come to be,
will speak falsely (for signified this) (1047a12-14). While one
would not speak falsely in such a case if B lacked the modal implication of impossibility, Aristotle draws attention to this with the claim
that this is what meant.12 Claims C and D, then, represent
an objection that has no force and thus E follows. Claim E is not a different claim from claim B. It is simply a restatement of claim B in more
explicit terms.
Claim E, however, is unacceptable for there is motion and change.
One may object that perhaps the Megarics do not think that motion and
change exist. Aristotle, however, does think that change and becoming exist and thus he is entitled to reject the Megaric view because it

12

Hintikka (1973, 104) takes this claim as evidence that Aristotle holds the principle
of plenitude. In particular, that Aristotle defines the impossible as what never is.
Hintikka, however, notes that ...the passage is perhaps somewhat inconclusive,
for might possibly be a weak term here, to be translated in terms of
indicating rather than meaning (104). In my view Aristotle is not giving a
definition of the impossible as what never is. Rather, he is pointing out that in
claim B means impossible. Witt (2003, 30) points out that [t]he use of
the imperfect tense in the phrase for that is what adunatos meant (at 1047a13)
indicates that Aristotle thinks he is stating a generally accepted truth, and the two
meanings of adunatos (incapable and impossible) have that status in ordinary
Greek. Aristotle is not, Witt claims, relying on the controversial position that the
principle of plenitude is the basis of the modal concepts.

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The Existence of Powers 179

eliminates change and becoming. Furthermore, McClelland points out


that the initial arguments against the Megarics proceed on the assumption that the Megarics accept change and becoming. Building occurs
and seeing and hearing and tasting occur as well.13 So, the Megarics
themselves, at least according to Aristotles report, accept change and
becoming yet cannot account for it given their position on the capable.
Aristotles argument, here, reveals why the mutual implication
between the capable and the possible cannot serve as a test for determining whether a subject possesses a power. In the refutation of the
Megaric position, Aristotle shows that without inactive powers motion
and change are eliminated because it is impossible for a change to happen without an inactive power. Since, in general, motion and change
are impossible without inactive powers, it is reasonable that a particular motion or change is also impossible without the relevant power. The
significance of this claim is that if one tries to apply the possibility test
in order to determine whether a subject possesses a power one must
already know whether the subject possesses the power. For instance,
if I want to know whether it is possible for Lucy to build a house, I
need to consider whether anything impossible results if I assume that
Lucy builds a house. One impossibility I need to be concerned about is
whether Lucy builds without possessing the building power. So, since
I cannot determine whether it is possible for Lucy to build unless I already know whether she possesses the building power the possibility
test does not provide an answer to whether or not Lucy has the power
to build.

How to Understand the Existence of Powers

Another way in which interpreters try to clarify Aristotles position


about the existence of powers is according to a dispositional analysis.
In 2.1 I argue that although powers can be understood according to a
dispositional analysis this method is insufficient as a theory of powers
and is not exhaustive of Aristotles position on powers. In section 2.2 I
argue that Aristotelian powers are one in number with but different in
essence from categorical features of the world.

13

See McClelland (1981, 136).

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2.1 Dispositional analysis


Some interpreters take Aristotles discussion of the activization conditions of powers in Metaphysics IX 5 to reveal not only Aristotles position on how to specify a power but also when some X has a power.
Beere says with reference to desire and the appropriate conditions that
these two criteria are formulated as a specification of when an ability
is necessarily exercised. But they turn out to be criteria for when something has an ability at all.14 According to Beere, [s]omething has the
non-rational ability to if, given that the relevant conditions obtain,
it necessarily -s. Something has the rational ability to if, given that
15
the relevant conditions obtain and its decisive desire is to , it -s. On
this view, powers are understood as dispositions of substances. Witt,
as well, takes powers to be dispositions of substances. She says that
Aristotles discussion of agent and passive powers strongly suggests
that they can be given a dispositional analysis.16 On her view [t]o say
that fire has the agent power of heating is to say that under certain conditions (which can be given a general or lawlike specification) fire will
heat another object.17
While both Witt and Beere take dispositional analyses to reveal when
X has a power and what it is to be a power, there are two questions that I
wish to address: (1) does Aristotles treatment of powers lend itself to a
dispositional analysis? and (2) is this sort of analysis (a) a sufficient way
to analyze powers? and (b) exhaustive of Aristotles treatment of powers? Aristotles treatment of powers does lend itself to a dispositional
analysis. This sort of analysis, however, does not exhaust Aristotles
treatment of powers and it is not a sufficient analysis of powers. This
sort of analysis makes powers mysterious items in Aristotles ontology
and it is not sufficient for the task that Beere and Witt attribute to it.
It cannot tell us, in controversial cases, when X has a power to and
when X lacks a power to .
2.1a Aristotelian powers can be given a dispositional analysis. Aristotles discussions of agent and patient powers in Metaphysics book IX proceeds

14

Beere (2003, 101)

15

Beere (2003, 101)

16

Witt (2003, 42)

17

Witt (2003, 42)

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The Existence of Powers 181

primarily (but not exclusively) by way of three sorts of claims. First,


Aristotle describes powers in terms of the activities they are powers
for. He provides numerous examples powers may be for heating or
being heated, cooling or being cooled, burning or being burned, crushing or being crushed, curing or being cured, harming or being harmed,
building or being built.
Second, Aristotle describes powers in terms of the substances to
which they belong. For the most part, Aristotle uses the preposition
(in) to describe the relation between a power and the subject to which
it belongs. This occurs at 1046a12 and 1046a22 to describe the relation
between patient powers and their subjects and it occurs at 1046a26-7
to describe the relation between both rational and non-rational agent
powers and their subjects. It occurs as a general claim about powers at
1048a3-5. Aristotle makes a similar claim at 1046a36-b2, but he replaces
the preposition with .
Finally, Aristotle describes powers in terms of their activization conditions. In Metaphysics IX 5, he tells us that in the case of non-rational
powers, when agent and patient meet in the appropriate way, the one
must act and the other must be acted on (1048a5-8). For instance, when
fire comes into contact with cotton, the fire must burn the cotton and
the cotton must be burned by the fire. The case of rational powers is
more complicated. Rational powers, unlike non-rational powers, are
for contraries. The doctor, in virtue of the medical art, can both heal
and harm a patient. Because rational powers are for contrary effects, the
mere meeting of agent and patient cannot necessitate the activization of
the power. Because it is for contraries the agent would, in such a case,
produce both contraries in the same subject at the same time. And this
is impossible. In the case of rational powers, an additional factor, desire or choice, is needed in order for the rational power to be activated.
When a rational agent power meets a patient power in the appropriate
way and desires one contrary rather than the other, then the rational
agent must act and the patient must be acted on. Although the conditions required for each power to manifest in the particular activity it is
a power for are different, both sorts of powers are discussed in terms of
their activization conditions.
These three aspects of Aristotles account of powers, when combined, reveal that Aristotelian powers can be given a dispositional
analysis. According to this analysis, to say that a certain substance, X,
has a power to is to say that X will if the appropriate conditions
are met. The appropriate conditions are different for rational powers

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as opposed to non-rational powers, but the basic structure of the claim


is the same for both.
2.1b Is a dispositional analysis sufficient as an explanation of the existence
of powers? A dispositional analysis of this sort, while not incorrect, is
somewhat uninformative. On this view, Aristotelian powers remain
mysterious. Powers, for Aristotle, are taken to exist both when they are
inactive and when they are active. The builder has the building power
both when she is building and when she is sleeping. The tree has the
power to be burned both when it is being burned and when it is blooming in the garden. If, however, we give a dispositional analysis of powers in terms of what a substance does in certain circumstances, these
powers, especially when they are inactive or unmanifested, remain
mysterious. The conditional statement does not reveal in virtue of what
the substance -s in the appropriate circumstances.18

2.2 Dispositional analysis does not exhaust Aristotles treatment of powers


In order to remove the obscurity surrounding powers, we need to consider whether Aristotles theory of powers can be developed in another
direction. In Metaphysics IX, in addition to explaining powers in terms
of their subjects, activities, and activization conditions, Aristotle makes
claims of the form X is a power.19 In IX 2, at 1046b2-3, he says all the
arts, i.e. the productive sciences are powers; for they are principles of
change in another or qua other. At various other places in Metaphysics IX he replaces power with a particular example. For instance at
both 1046a26 and at 1046b5 Aristotle gives heat and the art of building
as examples of agent powers and at 1047a4-5 he gives, as examples of
powers, perceptible qualities in general and in particular cold, hot, and
sweet. Such claims can be found outside of the Metaphysics as well. For
instance, in Meteorology IV 1, 378b30, he calls hot, cold, moist, and dry
powers.

18

Molnar (2003, 84-9) calls conditional analyses of this sort naive. They are problematic because they reveal absolutely nothing about what the object has that
makes the response follow the stimulus. If this is all there is to Aristotelian powers,
then Aristotles account is vulnerable to this sort of objection.

19

Beere and Witt both recognize that Aristotle makes claims of the form X is a power but they do not develop this angle of analysis.

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The Existence of Powers 183

So, in addition to a dispositional analysis constructed from the subject to which a power belongs, the activity it is for, and its activization conditions, we can also detect, in Aristotles discussion of powers,
claims of the form X is a power. These claims are promising insofar as
they focus our attention on the powers rather than on the subjects that
have them. Is claims in Aristotle, however, have many meanings.20
The claim X is (a) Y could mean that X is the possessor of the attribute
Y as in the apple is red or the wagon is dirty. Alternatively, X is (a)
Y could mean that Y is the kind (genus or species) to which X belongs
as in Socrates is a human or Felix is a cat. Similarly, X is (a) Y could
mean that Y is the category to which X belongs as in red is a quality or
Rover is a substance. We need, then, to figure out what sort of claim
Aristotle is making when he says X is a power. In what follows, I argue that we should not understand claims of the form X is a power
as expressing the relationship of subject to attribute. Moreover, I will
argue that, although the structure of the claim X is a power is similar
to claims like Socrates is human or Rover is a substance, neither of
these options can capture the correct relation that holds between X
and power in the phrase X is a power. We should, instead, understand the claim X is a power as analogous to claims such as fire is an
element, Socrates is one, the art of building is a cause, and the road
from Thebes to Athens is the road from Athens to Thebes that is, we
should understand powers as one in number with, but different in essence/being from that of which they are predicated.21
In all these cases, cases which I think are analogous to cases like hot
is a power, the art of building is a power, and dry is a power, the
is expresses numerical identity but essential difference. The road from
Thebes to Athens is not a numerically different road from the road from
Athens to Thebes, but to be the latter is not the same in essence as to
be the former. Likewise, a power is not numerically distinct from the
item that fills in the placeholder X in the claim X is a power but to be
a power is not the same as it is to be X.
In order to see why we should understand claims of the form X
is a power as expressing the one in number but different in essence

20

I wish to thank an anonymous reviewer from Apeiron for insightful comments on


an earlier version of this section which assisted me greatly in clarifying my position.

21

See Metaphysics X 1 and Physics III 3.

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relationship it is useful to consider both elements of the locution. That


is, 1) what evidence is there that Aristotle takes both X and power in
the claim X is a power to be numerically the same 2) what evidence is
there that Aristotle takes X and power to be different in essence.
Aristotles manner of arguing against the Megaric position in Metaphysics IX 3 provides evidence for the numerical identity claim. Aristotle
argues that the Megaric position is absurd because it requires that arts,
such as the art of building, are acquired in a moment (when one starts
building) and are lost in a moment (when one stops building) and this is
not how arts are gained and lost (1046b34-7a4). What is important about
this argument is that Aristotle treats the issue of the acquisition and
loss of a power as answerable through and thus somehow equivalent to
issues about the acquisition and loss of an art. Since he makes his argument about the acquisition and loss of powers by means of a discussion
of the acquisition and loss of an art, it must be the case that he considers
the art and the power to be, at least numerically, the same item.
One might object to this analysis on the grounds that the numerical
identity claim is too strong. Could it not be the case that Aristotle treats
the question of the acquisition or loss of a power through the acquisition or loss of an art not because the art and the power are numerically
the same item but because the power is an essential attribute of the art?
In this case the power is not the same item as the art but it must nevertheless accompany the art.
If this suggestion is correct, then the claim X is a power should be
understood as expressing the relation of subject to attribute. But the X
in the claim X is a power is not a proper subject it is, in each case,
something that belongs to a subject, i.e., an attribute of a substance (e.g.
hot, cold, dry, art). To treat these items as subjects that can bear accidents
is equivalent to claiming that properties can bear accidents. Aristotles
analysis, in Metaphysics V 7, of such claims as just is musical or the
musical is white, and his discussion in Posterior Analytics I 22, reveal
that he is skeptical about this position. To say that the musical is just is
not to say that the musical has the property just rather it is to say that
the musical and the just are both accidents of the same substance. If X
and power are numerically distinct items then we will be forced either
to take X as a subject that can bear accidents which is problematic or we
will be forced to treat X and power as two unrelated attributes of the
same substance, like just and musical, in which case Aristotle couldnt
use the arguments he uses in IX 3 against the Megarics.
There are, then, reasons to think that X and power are numerically the same item. Just as the road from Athens to Thebes and the

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The Existence of Powers 185

road from Thebes to Athens is numerically the same road so too, for
example, the art of building and the power to build are numerically the
same item and the quality hot and the power to heat are numerically
the same item. Why, then, must we take them as different rather than
the same in essence?
It is clear, as I argued above, that the phrase the art of building
is a power cannot be interpreted as employing the subject-attribute
relation. Why, though, must it be interpreted according to the one in
number but different in essence relation rather than according to the
genus/species to particular relation or according to the category to particular relation. In other words, why not interpret the claim X is a power as expressing a claim either like Socrates is a man or like Rover is
a substance where the predicate tells us what kind of thing the subject
is? For instance, why not take power as specifying the class to which
hot, dry, and art belong?
There is some evidence that makes the class interpretation plausible. Hot and cold are described in Generation and Corruption at II 1,
329b24-5 and in Meteorology IV 1 at 379b13 as (capable of acting). Dry and moist, on the other hand, are described in these passages
as (capable of being acted on). Furthermore, in Nicomachean
Ethics VI 4, at 1140a6-8, Aristotle describes an art as a reasoned state of
capacity to make, i.e., as . These characterizations of hot, cold,
and art as what can act and of dry and moist as what can be acted on,
are not haphazard descriptions. In the Meteorology passage, at 378b20,
Aristotle says that and are the accounts we give
when we define () their natures (). Furthermore, in the
Nicomachean Ethics passage, Aristotle indicates that captures
what it is () to be an art.
Aristotles characterization of these items as and
makes it tempting and at least plausible to claim that these items are,
essentially, powers, i.e., that being a power is the essence of hot, cold,
dry, moist, art, etc. There are, however, serious problems with both the
genus/species interpretation and the category interpretation.
First, a power, by definition, is a principle of change. Its status as
a principle depends on the existence of that of which it is a principle,
i.e., change. The items that Aristotle identifies as powers, i.e., hot, cold,
sweet, art, etc., do not depend on change. When Aristotle speaks of
such items in, for instance, Metaphysics VII 1, he treats them as dependent on the substances to which they belong but he does not cast them
as dependent on the existence of change.

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Since being a power is dependent on the existence of other activities,


not just on the existence of substances as possessors, it is conceivable
that hot could remain what it is, i.e., a quality of a body, without being
a power. Aristotles analysis of perceptibles, one sort of power, in Metaphysics IV 5 at 1010b30-11a2 confirms this. Without ensouled beings
perception does not exist. And without perception there are no perceptibles but the substrata the items that give rise to perception
and would be perceptibles if perception existed, do continue to exist.
This analysis implies that although the property that we call visible is a
power, that property, as substrate, could remain what it is even though
perception and thus that qualitys status as a power is compromised.
If the subject can remain what it is while no longer being described
by the predicate, then it cannot be the case that the predicate picks out
the genus or species of the subject. Since the substratum remains what
it is even if it were to fail to be a power, then it cannot be the case that
power specifies the genus or species of that substratum.
Second, there is more than one way of saying what something is.
Sometimes when Aristotle speaks of saying what something is he
means that we should say what category it belongs to, i.e. substance or
quality or quantity. In other places, however, when he speaks of saying
what something is he means that we should give the definition, i.e.,
two-footed rational creature or three-sided plane figure. If one says that
X is a power, this is more like saying that it is a quality or quantity than
it is like giving the definition. Power, however, like element, cause,
and one, the items Aristotle identifies as being one in number with but
different in essence from the subjects of which they are predicated, is
not one of the categories Aristotle identifies.
As I suggested above, I think that we should understand powers as
being one in number with but different in essence from that of which
they are predicated. On this view a power is numerically the same as
some other item, but nevertheless different in being/essence from that
item. In Metaphysics X 1, after setting out the various meanings of the
word one, Aristotle makes the following claim. He says: [i]t is necessary to consider that one must not assume that to say what sort of thing
is said to be one and what it is to be one and what its formula is are the
same ... (1052b2-4). In this discussion he identifies several other items
such as element and cause as items of this sort, items for which it is
not the same thing to say what it is predicable of and what its definition
is (1052b4-16).
According to this discussion, if I say that a man is one, I am saying:
a) that there is only one item, a man, b) that to be that item is not the

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The Existence of Powers 187

same as to be one, i.e. that the definition of man and the definition of
one differ and c) that one has an account of its own. Likewise with
cause or element; if I say that fire is an element, I am saying a) that
there is only one item, i.e., fire, b) that to be that item, i.e., to be fire is not
the same in essence as being an element, and c) that element has an
account/essence of its own. While Aristotle does not specifically mention powers as items of this sort, he indicates, at 1052b16, that this list
(cause, element, one) is not exhaustive of terms of this sort.
Since the claim X is a power cannot be interpreted as expressing the
relation of subject to attribute or particular to species/genus or particular to category, and since power like cause, element, and one function like class terms but are not identified by Aristotle as amongst the
categories, it seems that we should understand the claim X is a power
as expressing the one in number but different in essence relation. According to this analysis if I say that X is a power, I am saying that a)
there is only one item, X, b) that to be X is not the same in essence as to
be a power, and c) that power has an account/essence of its own. This
analysis allows one to identify the items in the world that are powers
without reducing what it is to be a power to what it is to be these items
and thereby eliminating powers from Aristotles ontology.
Understanding a power as one in number with but different in essence from some quality such as hot, dry, art, etc., allows us to focus
specifically on the item the substance has rather than on hypothetical
situations which may tell us that something has a power but cannot tell
us, specifically, what item power picks out. To say that the builder has
the building power when she is sleeping is to say that she has the art
of building. The art of building is a science and as such is a quality of
a substance. This item, however, is also properly described as a power,
i.e., as a principle of change in another or qua other.

Controversial cases of unmanifested powers

I suggested above that the dispositional analysis Beere and Witt provide cannot, as they claim, be the criterion for determining when some
X has a power. While this analysis cannot reveal when some X has an
unmanifested power, understanding powers in terms of is claims can
solve this difficulty.
Although, according to the discussion in Metaphysics IX 5, when
agent and patient meet in the appropriate way the one must act and the
other must be acted on, it is not always that case that the appropriate

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circumstances are present. This is the meaning of Aristotles commitment to the claim that inactive powers exist. Since there will be times
when some subject does not manifest its power, how will we distinguish those cases from cases where the subject simply doesnt have the
power? The dispositional analysis that Beere and Witt provide will only
work if we ignore this distinction. Once we accept this distinction it is
insufficient for telling us, in hard cases, when some X has a power and
when it lacks that power. For example, we may ask whether wood at
the bottom of the ocean has or lacks the ability to be burned by fire.
Clearly, wood at the bottom of the ocean cannot be burned by fire right
now but does it have or lack the inactive power to be burned?
A dispositional analysis constructed from the subject, the activity, and the actualization conditions cannot provide an answer to our
question. Start with the claim: Wood has the power to be burned =
under certain conditions (which can be given a law-like specification)
wood will be burned. In order to fill in the conditions we can consider
cases where wood is burned and cases where it isnt. So, for instance,
wood doesnt burn when it is wet but it does burn when it is dry, wood
doesnt burn when it is not in contact with fire and it does burn when it
is in contact with fire and wood doesnt burn where there is insufficient
oxygen and wood does burn where sufficient oxygen is present. We
can now fill in the relevant conditions and generate the following conditional statement: wood has the power to be burned: if under certain
conditions (i.e., the wood is dry, the wood is in contact with fire, and
there is sufficient oxygen), wood burns. To determine whether wood
at the bottom of the ocean has the power to be burned we must ask:
would the wood burn if it was dry and came into contact with fire and
there was sufficient oxygen? If yes, then the wood at the bottom of the
ocean has the power to be burned: if no, then the wood at the bottom
of the ocean does not have the power to be burned. The problem with
this is clear. It can reveal nothing at all about the wood at the bottom of
the ocean for one of the conditions is the removal of the wood from
the bottom of the ocean.
If it were the case that all the powers substances have belong to them
necessarily or always, just in virtue of what they are, then the conditional analysis would tell us something about the wood at the bottom of
the ocean. But Aristotle makes it clear, in both Metaphysics IX 3 and IX 5,
that many powers can be gained and lost. Removing the wood from the
bottom of the ocean, therefore, is problematic, because that process may
cause the acquisition of the power about which we are concerned.

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The Existence of Powers 189

The question: does wood at the bottom of the ocean have the power
to be burned? can be answered in an alternative manner if we take
seriously Aristotles claims about certain properties being powers. That
is, to ask whether the wood at the bottom of the ocean has the power to
be burned is to ask: does the wood at the bottom of the ocean have the
specific property which is one in number with the woods power to be
burned? That is, we can ask: is the wood dry? The wood is not dry, so
it does not have the power to be burned. This manner of questioning
does not require that we take subjects as having their powers always
and forever and it allows us to give different answers about the same
subject in cases that may seem, initially, to be structurally similar. For
instance, we can answer no to the question does the wood at the bottom of the ocean have the power to be burned but we can answer yes
to the question does wood locked in a metal box have the power to be
burned. In both cases, the wood will not be burned right now but
in the former case it is because the wood lacks the power (dryness)
and in the other case it is because the conditions are not right. If we
switch our emphasis from talking about mysterious possessions certain
subjects have to talking about specific, categorical, actual features of
those subjects, then we can determine whether a subject has a power
at a certain time without relying on possibility claims or on conditional
statements.

Conclusion
In Metaphysics IX 3 and IX 4, Aristotle continues his consideration of
powers in the strict sense. Although he provides details, in IX 1, IX 2,
and IX 5, about the scope of power in the strict sense and about the various referents of power he does not, in these chapters, argue specifically
for the existence of powers. In IX 3, he undertakes the task of showing,
not only that powers exist but that inactive powers exist. The existence
of powers is important; without powers, Aristotle argues, nothing is capable of doing anything other than what it is presently doing. Change
depends on the existence of inactive powers. Aristotles position, then,
is that inactive powers exist and thus that substances, as possessors of
powers are capable of doing things they are not now doing.
Although Aristotle is clearly committed to the existence of powers,
he does not provide a detailed account of how we should understand
the claim. He does not specifically address the question of what it means
to say that a power exists and he does not specifically address how

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it can be determined whether a subject possesses or lacks an inactive


power. The criterion of the possible and dispositional analyses are not
adequate for the tasks of specifying what it means to say that powers
exist and of determining whether or not a subject possesses an inactive
power. The first is unsatisfactory because in order to use the test one
must already know whether the subject has or lacks the power under
consideration. The second is unsatisfactory because it focuses on the
subjects that possess the powers rather than on the powers themselves
and because it cannot be used to distinguish cases where a subject lacks
a power from cases where the conditions for manifestation simply have
not been met.
Although these two strategies are unsatisfactory, Aristotle also makes
claims of the form X is a power where X picks out a specific categorical
feature such as hot, sweet, or art. By understanding powers as one in
number with but different in essence from these items it becomes clear
both what it means to say that some subject possesses a power and how
to tell when the subject does in fact possess this power.22
Department of Philosophy
Wilfrid Laurier University
75 University Avenue West
Waterloo, ON
N2L 3C5
rjohnston@wlu.ca

22

I wish to thank Kara Richardson, Lloyd Gerson, Brad Inwood, Jennifer Whiting,
Marguerite Deslauriers and an anonymous reviewer at Apeiron for comments on
an earlier draft of this paper.

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The Existence of Powers 191

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