Possibility Necessity and Existence

Possibility Necessity and Existence: Abbagnano and His Predecessors

Nino Langiulli
Copyright Date: 1992
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Possibility Necessity and Existence
    Book Description:

    In this systematic historical analysis, Nino Langiulli focuses on a key philosophical issue, possibility, as it is refracted through the thought of the Italian philosopher Nicola Abbagnano. Langiulli examines Abbagnano's attempt to raise possibility to a level of prime importance and investigates his understanding of existence. In so doing, the author offers a sustained exposition of and argument with the account of possibility in the major thinkers of the Western tradition-Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard. He also makes pertinent comments on such philosophers as Diodorus Cronus, William of Ockham, Spinoza, Hobbes, and Hegel, as well as such logicians as DeMorgan and Boole.

    Nicola Abbagnano, who died in 1990, recently came to the attention of the general public as an influential teacher of author Umberto Eco. Creator of a dictionary of philosophy and author of a multiple-volume history of Western philosophy, Abbagnano was the only philosopher, according to Langiulli, to argue that "to be is to be possible."

    Even though the concept of probability and the discipline of statistics are grounded in the concept of possibility, philosophers throughout history have grappled with the problem of defining it. Possibility has been viewed by some as an empty concept, devoid of reality, and by others as reducible to actuality or necessity-concepts which are opposite to it. Langiulli analyzes and debates Abbagnano's treatment of necessity as secondary to possibility, and he addresses the philosopher's conversation with his predecessors as well as his European and American contemporaries.

    In the seriesThemes in the History of Philosophy, edited by Edith Wyschogrod.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-0408-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. PART I From a Positive Existentialism to a Radical Empiricism
    • CHAPTER 1 The Backgrounds of and Initial Efforts Toward a Pure Conception of Possibility
      (pp. 3-8)

      An examination of Abbagnano’s intellectual history will help make the relationships between possibility, necessity, and existence intelligible. This examination will point out Abbagnano’s place in the Existentialist tradition, the primordiality of the concept of possibility in his systematic thought, and the similarity of major themes in his work to those found in the writings of American philosophers such as John Dewey, William James, and C. S. Peirce, and even those of more recent provenance such as W. V. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Richard Rorty. The examination will also include interesting and important comparisons to be made between Abbagnano’s thought and...

    • CHAPTER 2 Abbagnano’s Systematic Thought: The Four Phases
      (pp. 9-23)

      The Systematic side of Abbagnano’s work may be said to have gone through four phases. The first phase is marked by the publication of Lesorgenti irrazionali del pensiero(1923) and perhaps ofIl problema dell’arte(1925) . In this phase Abbagnano attempted, as was pointed out in Chapter I, to show the bounds or limits of reason, consequently attacking the divinized and romanticized “Reason” of the neo-Hegelians.

      The second phase of Abbagnano’s thought is characterized by his quest for “the principle” of metaphysics. InIl principio della metafisica(1935), which was in part a criticism of both Realism and...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Program of a Positive Existentialism
      (pp. 24-56)

      Abbagnano himself announced the fourth phase of his philosophical investigations in a paper entitled “Morte o transfigurazione dell’esistenzialismo” (Death or transfiguration of existentialism) published in 1955 and reprinted inPossibilità e libertà(1956). In “Morte 0 transfigurazione,” he pointed out that the dilemma facing Existentialists was either to abandon existential analysis or to transfigure it. Abbagnano believed that Existentialism in general, and its negative versions in particular, had performed a valuable task in sounding the death knell of such naively optimistic mythologies of the nineteenth century as Romantic Idealism and Classical Positivism. Having accomplished this task, these versions of Existentialism...

  6. PART II Sources for the Concept of Possibility
    • CHAPTER 4 Plato
      (pp. 59-71)

      There is a passage in Plato’sSophistthat, according to Abbagnano, expresses succinctly and for the first time the fundamental point of view of Existentialist philosophy.¹ Whether it does this may or may not be so, but what is so is that the passage, as he understands it, does express the supposition of Abbagnano’s own philosophical analyses.

      The preceding statements involve several issues that must be sorted out. The first concerns the passage itself in theSophist, that is to say, with its interpretation.² Is Abbagnano’s reading correct? The second issue is whether or not the passage does in fact...

    • CHAPTER 5 Aristotle
      (pp. 72-80)

      In the explicit appeal to the problems of the “later” Platonic dialogues, Abbagnano expresses the fundamental concern and basic statement of his philosophical investigations. Recognizing the plurality of and differences among things that exist, as well as their similarities, he attempts to determine what the character of existence might be if, in fact, unity and multiplicity, identity and difference are real. This kind of investigation places Abbagnano’s thought squarely within the context of ancient Greek metaphysics with respect to its concerns about the question of existence in general. These concerns, with their ontological emphasis, contrast with the concerns of modern...

    • CHAPTER 6 Kant
      (pp. 81-87)

      Abbagnano vigorously maintains that a clear and coherent concept of possibility has not been achieved because it has been confused with the related concepts of virtuality and contingency.¹ Consequently, this confusion has led to the view that the relationship believed to exist between potentiality and actuality also exists between possibility and reality. Abbagnano says that in the modern period of philosophy, states of affairs have sometimes been understood as the realization of possibilities and, consequently, as the elimination of possibilities as such. Leibniz, for example, considered the world of “possibles” as much more vast than the actual world and the...

    • CHAPTER 7 Kierkegaard
      (pp. 88-100)

      While Abbagnano seems to overlook the ambiguities of the Kantian concept of possibility, he explicitly notes the different and even incompatible senses of possibility in SØren Kierkegaard’s thought. One of these senses should be noted but passed over quickly since it is not the sense to which Abbagnano appeals as a source and since it is not one of the “incompatibles.” In theConcluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard identifies possibility with abstract thought and then contrasts abstract thought and existence. He says, for example, in a discussion of Descartes’sCogito: “The attempt to infer existence from thought is thus a contradiction....

  7. PART III Possibility and Existence
    • CHAPTER 8 The Different Senses of Possibility
      (pp. 103-106)

      The aim of the discussions in Part II was to examine Abbagnano’s position on possibility and existence through an analysis of those sources in philosophical literature that he himself designates as those of his predecessors. Here in Part III, the aim is to plumb the fundamental statement of that position more deeply by an inquiry into its basic terms. Ground covered in Part II will unavoidably be traversed again, albeit in a different manner. The repetition should be understood in the following way: the investigation is merely on a different tack but heading toward the same objective, namely, an elucidation...

    • CHAPTER 9 The First Definition: Possibility as Noncontradiction
      (pp. 107-110)

      To repeat, the first sense of possibility for Abbagnano is formulated negatively and belongs to the domain of logic. A possibility in this sense is, therefore, that which is not self-contradictory or, as Aristotle puts it, that which is not of necessity false.

      Abbagnano illustrates the long history of this usage of the termpossibility, and refers to several philosophers after Aristotle who discussed it. For example, Abbagnano points out that Thomas Aquinas called it “absolute possibility,” saying that it resultsex habitudine terminorum, that is, from the compatibility of subject and predicate (Summa TheologiaeI, q. 25, a. 3);...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Second Definition: Possibility as Necessary Realization
      (pp. 111-126)

      The second sense of possibility that Abbagnano designates as positive and real is the sense he regards as identical to the Aristotelian concept of potentiality. It is the sense that regards a possibility as that whichnecessarilyrequires realization or actualization to be a possibility. What Aristotle calls a possibility in this sense is “that which is true,” or better perhaps, that which turns out to be true. This is also the sense of possibility discussed in some detail in Chapter 5, where it was pointed out that one of the most famous defenses of this notion of possibility is...

    • CHAPTER 11 The Third and Proper Sense of Possibility
      (pp. 127-145)

      However much Abbagnano may pay his respects to what he calls the first two “conceptual” definitions of possibility, it is clear from all his writings on the subject that he considers the third definition the most fundamental. Logical possibility and “potentiality” are, at best, to be derived from what he regards as possibility as such; too often they become its betrayers.

      This third definition—which Abbagnano calls “positive” and “objective,” but which might better be described as “existential” for reasons indicated above (at the end of Chapter 4 and in Chapter 6) and to be expanded on in this chapter—...

    • CHAPTER 12 Various Senses and Theories of Being
      (pp. 146-158)

      In an extraordinarily acute and informative article from hisDizionario di filosofiaentitled “Essere” (being), Abbagnano expounds historically and systematically the many and varied senses of and doctrines about the termbeing. The relevance of the article to this book consists in its capacity to further illuminate and finally crystallize Abbagnano’s position on the connection between existence and possibility.

      The first distinction Abbagnano makes is between what he calls the two fundamental uses of the verbto be, that is, thepredicativeuse, by which one says, “Plato is a man” or “The rose is yellow”; and theexistentialuse,...

    • CHAPTER 13 Some Concluding Critical Reflections
      (pp. 159-172)

      The preceding chapter concludes the “positive” presentation of Abbagnano’s position on possibility, necessity, existence, and being. Although many things in that position (as well as in the presentation) undoubtedly could be questioned, the critical considerations of this final chapter are restricted to some difficulties contained in the section on the primary sense of existence. The issue dealt with there is of crucial importance, and the cniticisms offered earlier in connection with it (see pp. 137–45) require some amplification here.

      Of initial concern is Abbagnano’s alleged antimetaphysic. It was said earlier that Abbagnano does eventually come to the point of...

  8. Postscript
    (pp. 173-178)

    Nicola abbagnano died in Milan on 9 September 1990, studying and writing nearly to the day of his death. He was born in Salerno on 15 July 1901 and began his public career as a philosopher with the publication of his first book,Le sorgenti irrazionali del pensieroin 1923, which, we learn from his memoir,Ricordi di un filosofo, published in 1990, was originally entitledLe sorgenti vitali del pensiero. His mentor, Antonio Aliotta, exercised his prima donna mentor’s rights and insisted on the change—one that Abbagnano thought, at the time and thereafter, to be unfortunate and misleading....

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 179-196)
    (pp. 197-202)
    (pp. 203-205)