Mikhail Epstein

From the book Transcultural Experiments: Russian and American Models of Creative Communication. New York: St. Martin's Press (Scholarly and Reference Division),  1999, pp. 158-161 (fragment of Chapter 10)


The foundational concepts of ontology are actuality and potentiality as they have been elaborated in philosophy since Aristotle. Aristotle himself gives priority to the actual over the potential, and this predetermined the forms of European thinking about these categories. "[I]t is clear that actuality is prior to potentiality. . . . [F]or that which is in the primary sense potential is potential because it is possible for it to become actual, e.g. I mean by 'capable of building' that which can build, and by 'capable of seeing' that which can see, and by 'visible' that which can be seen."4

That which abides in a state of potentiality was considered to be ontologically inferior, imperfect, and in need of actualization or realization­a process through which it ascends to the highest level of being. Reality is thus the ultimate horizon and justification for all possibilities. In his comparison of actuality and possibility, Hegel, like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas before him, establishes the priority of the former: "[A]ctuality is the more comprehensive, because it is the concrete thought which includes possibility as an abstract element. And that superiority is to some extent expressed in our ordinary mode of thought when we speak of the possible, in distinction from the actual, as only possible."5 Thus the typical trajectory of historical change and innovation could be viewed as a transition from the imaginary to the real, as the realization of projects, intentions, dreams, plans, utopias, intellectual and imaginative aspirations, and other forms of potentiality.

However, this scheme seriously underestimates the emotional, moral, and intellectual value of potentiality, which is fundamentally irreducible to the state of actuality. For example, the three supreme virtues as they are described in the Christian tradition­faith, love, and hope­are states of potentiality that can never be fully realized, reduced to actual facts or actual knowledge. If hope could be fully realized, then the permanent condition of humans would be absolute satisfaction­but we know that this is not true. If faith could be fully realized, then humans' permanent epistemological condition would be absolute knowledge­but this is not true. The same holds true for negative feelings, such as fear and anxiety, which reveal the potentiality of pain and death rather than their actuality.

Potentiality is not only a central aspect of our moral and psychological life but also of social conditions. The history of the twentieth century gives evidence for a growing potentialization of the entire system of economic and political life in developed societies. The systems of credit and insurance, for example, are based not on actuality but on the potentiality of certain occurrences. Social life in the West was dominated by the state of potentiality for decades without properly recognizing and interpreting this neglected ontological dimension.

Two models have been in competition throughout the twentieth century: the realization of the potential and the potentiation of reality. The Soviet model was the last utopia of actuality that attempted to preserve the priority of the actual by projecting it into the future as a culmination and realization of all potentials contained in the present. A radical way of reversing the Aristotelian system of categories is proposed by the Western model in which reality itself is increasingly potentiated, converted into a state of possibility as having value and dignity in itself.6

With the arrival of so-called virtual reality, this ontological revolution acquires a new technological dimension. What is virtuality and how is it related to the actual and the potential? I would define the virtual as the actuality of the potential as such. Potentiality has its own actual existence not when it is realized­at which point it is not potential any more­but when it preserves its quality of the potential. On the material of American political life, including polls, primaries, and all forms of "virtual elections," Slavoj Zizek comes to the conclusion that, "The status of possibility, while different from that of actuality, is thus not simply deficient with regard to it. Possibility as such exerts actual effects which disappear as soon as it "actualizes" itself."7

Virtuality is potentiality functioning as actuality, without the need of actualization. For example, the concept of "university" refers to the system of educational practices, to the potential of multidisciplinary training in all realms of knowledge, and to a system of buildings and facilities designed to actualize this potential in a certain time and place. When the potential of the university is enacted without reference to actual places, times, buildings, etc., we encounter the phenomenon of the virtual university­potential in its purest form, which works to satisfy our needs for education. Prior to the end of the twentieth century, social functions and physical entities, or "potentialities and acts," were believed to coincide, but now it has become possible to divorce or at least separate functions from substances, effects from facts, potentialities from actualities.

At the end of the twentieth century, culture has to assimilate consciously those ontological dimensions of potentiality that have already been exploited and utilized in economics and technology. Paradoxically, the humanities so far have failed to recognize the value of potentiation as a mode of interpretation of texts and artistic invention. The method of potentiation has been applied mostly in critical procedures, such as in deconstruction, which demonstrates the potentiality of several meanings where traditional interpretation recognized only the actuality of one. Deconstruction usually aims to expose the problematic nature of all "centered" discourses, those claiming an affiliation with eternal principles or authentic facts and relying on the concepts of truth, presence, and origin. As an instrument of criticism, deconstruction questions the unexamined foundations of such discourses and demonstrates the falseness of their truth claims and the fundamental ambivalence of their messages.

However, deconstruction, as Jacques Derrida emphasized, should not be interpreted as an instrument of criticism, the opposition of one better reading to another less relevant one, but rather as the potentiality of many readings. Deconstruction, at least in its conventional form of academic poststructuralism, is mostly understood as "the undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures," though, according to Derrida's own intention, it "was not a negative operation. Rather than destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted and to reconstruct it to this end."8 To this definition of deconstruction by its founder, I would juxtapose the definition of potentiation as reconstruction of potentialities contained within a given cultural ensemble as a multiplicity of alternative ensembles.

The concept of "deconstruction" has its own logic of negativity; as Derrida further remarks on this term, "the negative appearance was and remains much more difficult to efface. . . . That is why this word, at least on it own, has never appeared satisfactory to me. . . ."9 I suggest that the term "potentiation" would better accommodate positive aspects of deconstruction: not merely criticism of a given practice or discourse by demonstrating its logocentric pretensions and misconceptions, but construction of alternative readings and interpretations, future projections that might never be actualized as "the present." Such a "positive deconstruction" celebrates the proliferation of interpretive possibilities and unrestricted semantic play set free from any one signified, not by negating the "signified" as such, but by the potentiation of new signifiables.


4. A New Aristotle Reader, ed. J. L. Acrill, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989): 329-330.

5. Hegel, Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, Vol. 1, Science of Logic. Second Subdivision. The Doctrine of Essence. C. Actuality, paragraph 143 n.

6. On the category of potentiality in contemporary culture see my article "K filosofii vozmozhnogo. Vvedenie v postkriticheskuiu epokhu" (Toward the Philosophy of the Possible. An Introduction to the Post-Critical Epoch), Voprosy Filosofii (Moscow), # 4, 1999.

7. Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993):159.

8. "Letter to a Japanese Friend" (1983), in A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991): 272.

9. Ibid.