The Possibilism-Actualism Debate

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2022)
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Abstract

Actualism is a widely-held view in the metaphysics of modality that arises in response to the thesis of possibilism, the doctrine that, in addition to the things that actually exist — in particular, things that exist alongside us in the causal order — there are merely possible things as well, things that, in fact, fail to be actual but which could have been. The central motivation for possibilism is to explain what it is about reality that grounds such intuitively true propositions as that Wittgenstein (who was childless) could have had children. In answer, possibilists argue that we must simply broaden our understanding of reality, of what there is in the broadest sense, beyond the actual, beyond what actually exists, so that it also includes the merely possible. In particular, says the possibilist, there are merely possible people, things that are not, in fact, people but which could have been. So, for the possibilist, the proposition that Wittgenstein could have had children is grounded in the fact that, among the possibilia, there are those that could have been his children. Actualism is (at the least) the denial of possibilism; to be an actualist is to deny that there are any possibilia. Put another way, for the actualist, there is no realm of reality, or being, beyond actual existence; to be is to exist, and to exist is to be actual. This article investigates the origins and nature of the debate between possibilists and actualists, with a particular focus on the implications of the debate for quantified modal logic.

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Christopher Menzel
Texas A&M University

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