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The important point is not the image of the scribe of nature, but that nous , mind, is compared to an ink pot. The ink is thought itself. So thought is linked to the act of writing. The image is ambiguous, and this ambiguity no doubt contributed to its widespread success.
If thought already had a form, like a tablet has a form, then it would appear in the intelligible object and thinking could not take place. Aristotle insists that nous has no nature other than being potential, and before thinking, it is nothing.
Hence, the mind is not a thing, but a being of pure potential. All potential to be or to do something is also the potential to not be or do something, and without this, all potentiality would be indistinguishable from actuality. It is thinks potentiality that allows thought to take place. Around , Abraham Abulafia wrote the Cabalistic treaties. In those books, divine creation is an act of writing. Letters represent the material vehicle through which the word of God incarnates itself in created things.
Abulafia said:. The secret at the origin of all creatures is the letter of the alphabet and every letter is a sign that refers to creation. This can be understood by anyone with intelligence, for to say more is prohibited.
Abulafia knew Aristotle through Arabic translations and commentaries, which paid close attention to the problem of the relation between the passive and active intellect. Avicenna thought of the creation of the world as an act in which the divine thinks itself. Creation was understood according to the model of thinking; every act of thinking is an act of intelligence, and every act of intelligence is a creation that lets something be.
Avicenna uses the image of writing to describe the various levels of the potential intellect. First, there is a potentiality which he calls material which is like a child who cannot now, but will someday, be able to write.
There is a potential the possible, in his words that belongs to the child who has the basics of writing. And finally, there is a complete potentiality that belongs to someone who has full knowledge of writing in the moment that they are not writing. When Ibn Arabi worked out his The Illuminations of Mecca , he wrote a chapter on the science of letters, about their hierarchy and relations to divine names. For Arabi, the science of letters marks the passage from the inexpressible to the expressible, or from potentiality to actuality.
The three parts of this grapheme represent first the descent of potential Being to the attribute, then the extension of the attribute toward actuality, and finally the descent of actuality toward manifestation.
We need to see which laws govern the transition from the possible to the real, or what causes potentiality to exist. The falasifa were concerned with the principles by which the possible, existing in the mind of God, does or does not actualize in the creative act. The Sunnites, on the other hand, thought the act of creation was incessant and instantaneous production of miraculous events which did not influence each other, and so were independent of all laws and causal relations.
The fire does not burn the cotton itself; God establishes the coincidence of the case and the effect. However, once potentiality is expelled from the human realm, it reappears in God. In this theological world, the category of possibility is destroyed: human potentiality was groundless. There was only ever the inexplicable movement of the divine hand.
However, potentiality is the most difficult thing to think. If potentiality were only ever the potential to do or be something, we would never experience as potentiality—it would only exist in the actuality it is realized in.
The experience of potentiality is only possible if it is also the potential not to do, be, or think—if the tablet is capable of not being written on.
The difficulty is thinking a potential not to think, or to explain what it means for a potential not to think to become actual. In book Lambda of the Metaphysics , Aristotle deals with these questions: Thought, if it thinks nothing, seems to be pointless. And if it thinks something, then that something is superior, because the thing would determine it. If it thinks something other than itself, it does not matter if it thinks something important or trivial.
The aporia here is that the highest thought can neither think nothing or think something, or remain potential or become actual. It thinks its own potentiality. This only pushes the aporia back, however—what does it mean for a potential to think to think itself? Or in other words, how can a blank writing tablet impress upon itself? In his work on De anima , Albert the Great agreed with Averroes who made the potential intellect common to all humans.
It is a standard view that the three monotheistic religions believe in a creation from nothing. On the other hand, there is also a Jewish polemic against the idea, attributed to philosophers, that it is impossible for God to have created the world from nothing accord to the principle from nothing nothing comes. The question of how something could come from nothing is complicated; upon examination, the Nothing ends up looking like something, though a special kind of something. Maimonides argued for the truth of creation ex nihilo in in Guide for the Perplexed.
This line of thought that the Nothing is a kind of something runs through Jewish, Islamic, Christian, and Neoplatonist accounts. The Cabalists pushed this to its limit and said that the Nothing from which everything comes is God himself. Agamben , There are two possibilities. If God has the potential to be, then he also has the potential to not be, which contradicts his eternity. In contrast, the Cabalists say that the matter creation presupposes is divine potentiality—it is a darkness in God from which the Nothing is eternally produced.
This is the context that Bartleby exists in. As the writer who has stopped writing, he is the extreme figure of the Nothing from which everything derives, and vindicates it as pure, absolute potentiality.
Medieval theologians make a distinction between an absolute potentiality by which God could do anything, including evil, and an ordered potential, by which God can only do that which is in accord with his will. It is this supremacy of will over potentiality that Bartleby throws in question. If God is only capable of what he wants, Bartleby is capable only without wanting—he only has an absolute potential.
His potentiality is not unrealized because of a lack of will. The formula is repeated so often that it ruins any relation between absolute and ordered potential. Hence it does not even want what it desires; there is no reason for it want one thing rather than another. Rather, once rationality is removed, the will is ruined along with it. This indifference is not an equivalence between two principles, but a potentiality purified of all reason. The passage is worth quoting:. The indifference of Being and Nothing is not, however, an equivalence between two opposite principles; rather, it is the mode of Being of potentiality that is purified of all reason.
To hold to non-Being is difficult and is the characteristic experience of nihilism. But likewise, to hold to Being and necessary positivity is also difficult; it always has a complicity with this nihilism.
Agamben concludes this passage by saying,. The green screen that isolates his desk traces the borders of an experimental library in which potentiality, three decades before Nietzsche and in a sense that is altogether different from his, frees itself of the principle of reason. Emancipating itself from Being and non-Being alike, potentiality thus creates its own ontology. Since truth is what is at stake in them, they are beyond truth. Agamben offers a set of examples—or exemplars, possibly—of such experiments.
A tautology is a statement for which truth conditions are irrelevant because it is always true. Potentiality is withdrawn from truth conditions because it can be or not be; it is prior to the action of the principle of noncontradiction.
The idea of contingency produces many problems. For example, if Being always preserved its potential not to be, then no possibility could ever pass into actuality or remain in actuality. Traditionally, these problems are tempered by two principles. The second principle is conditioned necessity , which limits contingency with respect to actuality. Duns Scotus says that if there is a contradiction between two actual realities, being P and not-being P, nothing keeps a thing from being actual and maintaining its potential to not be or be otherwise.
The will, like the Freudian unconscious, is the only thing withdrawn from the principle of noncontradiction. In the same act of will, God wills contraries; he does not will that they exist together since this is impossible , but he nevertheless wills them at the same time. In the same way, it is through a single intuition or a single science that he knows that contraries do not exist together and that, nevertheless, they are known together in the same cognitive act, which is one single act.
Contingency is replaced by necessity or impossibility. This God enjoys contemplating these events and his own choice among them:. It is difficult to imagine something more pharisaic than this demiurge, who contemplates all uncreated possible worlds to take delight in his own single choice.
For to do so, he must close his own ears to the incessant lamentation that, throughout the infinite chambers of this Baroque inferno of potentiality, arises from everything that could have been but was not, from everything that could have been otherwise but had to be sacrificed for the present world to be as it is.
The best of all possible worlds projects an infinite shadow downward, which sinks lower and lower to the extreme universe—which even celestial beings cannot comprehend—in which nothing is compossible with anything else and nothing can take place.
Remembrance is about potentiality. The will to power is, in truth, the will to will, an eternally repeated action; only as such is it potentialized. The question is, though, why would this hopelessness express itself in this way and not another. There could be no clearer way to suggest that undelivered letters are the cipher of joyous events that could have been, but never took place. What took place was, instead, the opposite possibility. On the writing tablet of the celestial scribe, the letter, the act of writing, marks the passage from potentiality to actuality, the occurrence of a contingency.
In Paul, it is this mandate from which the Christian has been freed. He does not redeem what was, but to save what was not.
The left wing is tinged with darkness, and is turned towards his capacity not to be. This is why in the end, the walled courtyard is not a sad place. There is sky and there is grass.
Giorgio Agamben – Bartleby, or On Contingency