What is the world like if all there is are powers?


The Project will pursue this question into two directions:

How is power structuralism fleshed out in the writings of the different thinkers in antiquity?

What, if anything, is distinctive of ancient power structuralism?

The first question will be articulated thus: What is the textual evidence for a powers-only ontology for each relevant thinker of the period under consideration? Where do the differences between powers-only ontologies lie, when they offer as radically diverse explanations of the constitution of the universe as e.g. Anaximander’s, Leucippus’, and Aristotle’s? What variety of conceptions of power-composition do they use when all explanation derives from structure? Are there sui generis types of power in the ontology underpinning e.g. ancient chemistry, biology, psychology, epistemology, ethics, political theories?

The Project will pursue these and similar research questions to track the evolution of the concept of power in the nine-century period under consideration. It will identify breakthrough conceptions of types of power-composition, but also isolated experiments in deriving oneness from structure (of which there are extraordinary examples of enormous ingenuity even if they were not always further pursued) in the relevant domains of ancient thought. Additionally, the Project will seek to discern patterns or strategies of compositional solutions employed across different domains of explanation, and whether laws of nature or norms of value theories derive their status from dispositional structures.

The second question will be investigated in light of state of the art research on causal structuralism.

On the one hand, there are fundamental questions that are raised in structuralism – questions which explore the very roots of human rationality: are there individual entities over and above the relations that relate them? If there are individuals, do they have priority over the relations? Such questions become the subject of investigation from the very beginning in ancient thought, with explicit rejections of the conception of individuals in ontologies such as Heraclitus’ flux theory. Further, if there are individuals, do they have natures over and above their intrinsic/extrinsic relations? If individuals do have relational natures, what grounds the distinctness and identity of these individuals in ancient ontologies?

On the other hand, there are basic tenets of causal structuralism which define the theory. All there is to a causal structuralist ontology are interrelated powers (e.g. Eagle 2009). The identity or difference of the powers in the structure and their causal profile is accounted for by the structure itself (e.g. Hawthorne 2006, Ladyman 2007, Bird 2007). Structures of powers may constitute further properties, or objects, or events in the ontology. But all entities, fundamental and composed, are grounded on a structure of causal relations.

The Project will aim at comparing and contrasting the position of the ancient thinkers under consideration in light of the defining basic tenets of causal structuralism in contemporary metaphysics and physics. The aim is not to offer a contemporary structuralist rendering of the ancient ontologies under consideration; rather, it is to illuminate the past through its differences as well as similarities with the present, and where possible, bring out insights that might be unique to ancient varieties of structuralism.

Crucially, the ancient conceptions of cause and power are much wider than the contemporary ones. The diversity in the types of entity that are causes or powers in ancient ontologies requires relations between them to range over physical, abstract, and transcendent domains. It is a strength of causal structuralism that it can accommodate relations between causes or powers that lie beyond the range of efficient (physical) causation (as causal structuralism does not prejudice abstract entities in favour of concrete ones in a structure).

The expectation is that ancient ontologies will emerge not only different from our hitherto conception of them, but also, at least in some aspects, different from our current conception of structuralist systems.

(Anna Marmodoro, 2009)

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