Possibility Precedes Actuality

Erkenntnis 88 (8):3583-3603 (2023)
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This paper is inspired by and develops on E. J. Lowe’s work, who writes in his book The Possibility of Metaphysics that ‘metaphysical possibility is an inescapable determinant of actuality’ (1998: 9). Metaphysics deals with possibilities – metaphysical possibilities – but is not able to determine what is actual without the help of empirical research. Accordingly, a delimitation of the space of possibilities is required. The resulting – controversial – picture is that we generally need to know whether something is possible before we can know whether it is actual. In order to appreciate this picture, we need to understand Lowe’s slogan: ‘essence precedes existence’ (Lowe 2008: 40). This slogan has both an ontological and an epistemic reading. The ontological reading is related to the now familiar idea that essence grounds modality, as popularised by Kit Fine. The epistemic reading suggests that we can know the essence of some entity before we know whether or not that entity exists. However, this idea is often met with puzzlement and Lowe himself sadly passed away before he had a chance to clarify this framework. I will present the framework as I understand it, develop it on my own terms, and put forward a qualified defence of it. I will also illustrate how the framework can be put to use with a case study concerning the discovery of transuranic elements.

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Tuomas E. Tahko
University of Bristol


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