Possibility and Actuality

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Possibility and Actuality


philosophical categories logically describing motion; a mode of the existence of matter in time.

Actuality is that which has already come into being and exists. Possibility is that which may come into being and exist under given conditions, and it may become actuality. These concepts were introduced by the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle in connection with his criticism of philosophical tradition. With regard to questions of origin and motion, this tradition had not gone beyond the framework of mythological interpretation—that is, the so-called double-principle (male and female) approach to birth and that which has been born (nature) and the cyclical treatment of motion (birth—childhood—youth—maturity—old age—death). Aristotle proposed a new concept related to the division of being into two parts: “Coming into being may take place not only—in a correlative manner—from the nonexistent, but it may also be stated that everything arises from the existent, namely, from that which exists in possibility but which does not exist in actuality. And it is precisely to this being that the One of Anaxagoras refers; for instead of his formula ’all things were together,’ it is better to say: ’all things were together—in possibility but not in actuality’ “ (Metaphysics XII, 2, 1069 b 20-26; Russian translation, Moscow-Leningrad, 1934). Thus, a way was opened to the logical interpretation of motion, by which Aristotle under-stood the transition “from one specific datum to another” (ibid., 1068 a 7). In this initial variant, possibility and actuality are ascribed to the totality of the forms of existence of matter and are connected by necessity. Necessity ensures that in the transition of possible forms to actual ones the laws of formal logic are followed—that is, one and only one of the possible forms of existence may become actual. The selection of a possible form and its conversion to actuality are implemented, according to Aristotle, by final and efficient causes. Moreover, existence in actuality (energeia) proves to be an actuality of two kinds: a product of external realization and a product of self-realization (entelechy), accessible only to animate beings.

The Aristotelian understanding of possibility and actuality prevailed with slight changes until the 17th century, when the formulation of the principle of inertia allowed the proof of the idea of the self-movement of inanimate nature and its self-realization by means of mutual interaction. Explanatory necessity in the soul as a special mechanism disappeared, and T. Hobbes proposed the new “contact” interpretation of possibility and actuality, based on the probability of a causally conditioned event (see Izbr. proizv., vol. 1, Moscow, 1965, pp. 157-58).

In I. Kant’s treatment, possibility and reality are relegated to concepts connected with modality and with existence in time—that is, possibility is regarded as the sum of concepts about a thing during an unfixed period of time, reality as existence during a fixed period of time, and necessity as the existence of an object throughout all time (see Soch., vol. 3, Moscow, 1964, pp. 225-26). At the same time, these categories also appear as postulates of empirical research, ascribed to various phases of scientific cognition: “(1) that which agrees with the formal conditions (intuition and conception) of experience is possible. (2) That which coheres with the material conditions of experience (sensation) is real. (3) That whose coherence with the real is determined according to universal conditions of experience is (exists) necessary” (ibid., p. 280). Thus the category of possibility was attributed to the norms of thought, and this allowed the differentiation of logical, real, and practical possibility. Common to the systems of F. Schelling and G. Hegel is the assertion of a primordial definitiveness, a “program quality,” which leaves no place for going beyond the framework of the existent identity of action and actuality. Hence any change in the system is disclosed in an a posteriori manner as a sequential moment in the eternal timeless whole (which is extremely reminiscent of the phases in the mythological cycle). In such an approach, possibility appears impoverished, as an abstract phase of actuality, whereas the relationship between possibility and. actuality is presented as a unity of the internal and external of a thing in its properties and the multiplicity of circumstances relating to it, with the clear preeminence of actuality. Nevertheless, the consideration of possibility and actuality as categories of being, although rejected by Kant, allowed Hegel to formulate his thesis concerning the rational nature of actuality and the necessity to proceed from the knowledge of its real possibilities—the conditions for the rational nature of an activity.

In Marxism the categories of possibility and actuality, while generalizing the achievements and preserving the successive ties with the schemes proposed by Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, and Hegel, are organically linked with the activity of production and with the specifically social characteristics of social being. Possibility and actuality are considered in Marxism primarily as properties of being. This tendency in the analysis of possibility and actuality continues and generalizes the line represented by Aristotle and Hegel (while taking into consideration differences on other points of these concepts). The principal line of the Marxist analysis of possibility and actuality consists in regarding them as phases in the cognition of actuality for the purpose of changing it, as well as of dis-closing the connection between the structures of being and the categories of thought.


In interpreting possibility and actuality as correlative concepts expressing the fundamental phases of motion and the development of being, dialectical materialism considers possibility as a less rich and concrete concept than actuality in the broad sense—that is, the objective world as a whole with its essential variety, including opposing tendencies. Marxism has indicated two interconnected phases—an internal unrest, or self-movement, essential to being, which as it grows realizes its own particular possibilities, and the role of human activity, or of social practice, which has to do with a definite spectrum of possibilities (including those created in human history itself) and which transforms them into actuality. In the narrow sense, actuality is the realization of existing potentials of being and practice as its social form. In this sense human history is the history of the disclosure of objective possibilities of being, their realization, as well as the creation of new, objective, sociocultural possibilities and their actualization through practice.

Depending upon the nature of the principles that form the basis of various types of possibilities, a distinction is made between abstract and real possibility. Abstract possibility is in contradiction to impossibility, but it nonetheless cannot be directly transformed into actuality. Real possibility presupposes the presence of the objective conditions for its realization. The distinction between these two types of possibility is relative, since they are both based on laws that are objective, even though these laws are of a different order. Under a change of conditions an abstract possibility may turn into a real possibility. The classical example of such a transformation was provided by K. Marx in his analysis of the genesis of crises: under conditions of capitalism the abstract possibility of a crisis arising from the division of the process of exchange into the two acts of buying and selling becomes a real possibility, which is then transformed into actuality. The degree of possibility in this or that phenomenon is expressed by means of the category of probability.

In the existence and development of any object there is embodied a unity of opposing tendencies, and thus there are contained possibilities of various levels, directions, and meaning. The specific aggregate of real conditions determines which of the possibilities becomes dominant and is transformed into actuality; the remaining ones are either transformed into an abstract possibility or disappear completely. A distinction is made between objective and subjective conditions for transforming possibility into actuality. The subjective conditions are specific for society, where not a single possibility is transformed into actuality in a way other than by the activity of people. At the same time, the subjective character of activity opens up the possibilities of arbitrary interpretation and corresponding efforts at realization. However, arbitrary deeds in history sooner or later suffer defeat precisely because they ignore the real laws of actuality and its real possibilities. Marxism emphasizes the decisive role of the activity of man and his creative efforts toward the realization of possibilities and toward the trans-formation of the perceived tendencies of social development into actuality.


Marx, K. “Tezisy o Feierbakhe.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 3.
Marx, K. “Kapital,” vol. 1. K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 23.
Engels, F. “Dialektikaprirody.” K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Krakh II Internatsionala.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 26, pp. 212-19.
Lenin, V. I. “Filosofskie tetradi/’Po/w. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, pp. 140-42, 321-22, 329-30.
Hegel, G. W. F. “Entsiklopediia filosofskikh nauk.” Soch., vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1929.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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