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A6. The syntactical structure of a dynamis ascription

It is revealing to have a closer look at the Greek phrases that Aristotle uses to ascribe dispositions or dynameis.[1] He can, of course, simply say that something has a dynamis for something (echei tên dynamin tou …), but he can also use the verb dynasthai (choosing either a finite form of this verb like dynatai or the participle dynameon), or he can use the adjective dynaton, of which Aristotle explicitly says that something is dynaton to do something if it has the dynamis to do this (Met. IX 1, 1046a20-21). To express that someone has the disposition to walk (badizein) we can, thus, use either of the following Greek phrases: echei tên dynamin tou badizein – dynatai badizein – dynameos badizein estin –dynaton esti badizein. In the context of Aristotle's metaphysics, there is another phrase that is important here: dynamei badizontos estin. This phrase uses the dative case dynamei to express a certain respect (i.e. in its function as dativus respectus), saying that, with respect to his dynamis, someone is a walker, traditionally translated as “someone is a potential walker”.

The adjective dynaton can, however, also mean as much as “possible” and, hence, dynaton estin as much as “It is possible that” – and, thus, it is sometimes synonymously used with endechestai, which means “It may happen that”. Aristotle himself discusses this use of dynaton and he explicitly says that this use of dynaton is ou kata dynamin (1019b 34), that it is not based on dispositions. It belongs to the talk of possibility, not to the talk of dispositions.[2] To be sure, there are intimate connections between disposition talk and possibility talk. But there are important differences between them and, thus, they have to be kept apart.[3] I will argue that there is an intriguing syntactical difference that reveals the crucial ontological difference. Syntactically, “It is possible that ...” is a sentence operator. It combines with a sentence and forms a sentence again. The phrases that are used to ascribe dispositions, on the other hand, are predicate modifiers[4] both in ancient Greek and in modern languages. Phrases like “... has the disposition to ...” or “... is able to ...” combine with predicates and form new predicates. They combine with, say, actualisation predicates in order to yield disposition predicates.

  • [1] For textual references cf. section 1.5.1
  • [2] Cf. sections 1.4.2 and 1.4.3 on the use of dynaton in the context of modal logic and van Rijen 1989 on Aristotle's overall theory of possibility
  • [3] I argued for this in Jansen 2000a. Buchheim/Kneepkens/Lorenz 2001 is a collection of essays that discuss the contrast between disposition talk and possibility talk from Aristotle through to Heidegger. Cf. also Jacobi 1997
  • [4] Cf. Clark 1970. For more references cf. section 1.5.3
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