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"Possibility": An Essay by William M. Paris (Keywords: Critical Philosophy; Freedom; Intersubjectivity; Utopia)


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From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

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Possibility is a strange object for philosophical reflection given that it is not really an object at all. We never “see” possibility as such, we only see thwarted possibilities: paths not taken, words left unsaid. In our everyday experience, possibility usually appears to us as absence, regret, even bitterness in the face of the irreversibility of time. The seemingly ineradicable structure of possibility is that of the “hypothetical”: “If I had done x rather than y, then z would have happened.” Even when specific hopes are fulfilled, this is not proof that possibility is more than hypothetical. It just means that what we hoped for happened to align with what could occur. Fulfilled hopes do not offer proof of what Ernst Bloch calls “real possibility”.

           

The hypothetical structure of possibility has led some philosophers and critical theorists to view this concept with a certain amount of wariness. Possibility does not evince the same kind of rigour and realism as necessity. It is not available to the instruments of testing and observation in the same manner as empirical phenomena. More concretely, possibility, left unchecked, can become a kind of hubristic endeavour that seeks to disavow or misunderstand the necessary constraints under which we live. Necessary constraints can range from the inalterability of some kind of “human nature” to the conservative tendencies of cultures to the complexities of world economies. Whatever shape these arguments take, they are all aimed at delimiting the space of hypothetical possibilities for research or constraining our horizons of expectation for what we may hope for from the future.


The hypothetical structure of possibility has led some philosophers and critical theorists to view this concept with a certain amount of wariness

           

Nevertheless, possibility is essential for our world to be intelligible to us. The world comes to be meaningful to me not only in terms of what is, but what could be; not only in terms of what has happened, but what was prevented from happening. The question, then, is: how should philosophy that aims to be critical, that aims to address questions of freedom and social transformation, relate to the category of possibility? For it is not only that possibility is lodged in the very heart of subjective experience, but that the foundations of our social life are increasingly marred by the foreclosure of possibilities that we may hope for. Dysfunctional political institutions, prospects of global war, resurgent forces of reaction, all on top of the ever-increasing likelihood of climate disaster, threaten to close off avenues of possibility that may lead to freer and more secure forms of life.

 

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If critical philosophy is a historical mode of response to the problems that emerge in social life, then it must address the crises emerging in social possibility. To put the point more directly, when the category of possibility is in crisis, the intelligibility of collective action and cooperative life will be imperilled. The social practices that comprise collective action are only intelligible because there exist institutions, ideologies, and knowledge structures that make it possible to see how these activities cohere in our current world. I am willing to risk myself in solidarity not because I am sure that our work will succeed, but because I grasp that it is in solidarity that freedom can go on, and without solidarity freedom becomes less and less intelligible as a possibility. The erosion of the foundations for social possibility is an attack on the very concept of freedom.


When the category of possibility is in crisis, the intelligibility of collective action and cooperative life will be imperilled

What I mean by “social practice” is more formal and abstract than the concrete habits and behaviours individuals may acquire over time. To be the social creatures that we are means that we are embedded within, and formed by, intersubjective and institutional values which precede me and coordinate my actions with others. Take the example of making a promise. If I promise to watch my neighbour’s dog while they are away, my action of promising is only intelligible because my neighbour and I are embedded within a form of life where promising is both salient and an implicit commitment. We live in a world that has both formal contracts and cultural mores that make promising an intelligible activity that we share. Before I can make a promise, I must acknowledge that promising is the sort of activity that one can do. Breaking a promise does not contravene this social fact insofar as I can only understand myself to be failing to live up to a promise because I recognize that promising remains an intelligible possibility that I am choosing to forgo. If I break a promise, I am saying that this promise is impossible for me to honour. I am not saying that promising as such is impossible. Even if I have developed the habit for breaking promises, that does not mean that promising has ceased to be intelligible as a social practice.

 

However, if the world in which I live began to decompose the social practice of promising by refusing to honour written contracts and raising the social costs of promising by taking advantage of whomever agrees to a promise, then we could speak of a form of life where promising had become unintelligible. Promising could not be a social practice that constitutes good reason for my actions if I understood that everyone who made a promise to me felt no obligation to fulfil it. Social practices are the mediating tissue between reason and possibility. When a social practice falls apart, the connection between reason and possibility becomes tenuous and fraught. 


When a social practice falls apart, the connection between reason and possibility becomes tenuous and fraught

For social practices to become unintelligible means that they have become impossible. The example of solidarity illuminates this point. If I can no longer understand why I am engaging in solidarity or see how it meaningfully shapes my life, then the coherence of solidarity as both a concept and a practice will be blocked for me. I may speak about “solidarity” out of reflexive habit, but its effective and affective sense will have lost its colour. Like a dream we struggle to hold onto after awakening, “solidarity” will become nothing more than a vague echo of a world that is no longer here. It will become only a mere word rather than a concept that can disclose the horizons of our social life.

           

I think this gives a better sense of what Bloch means by “real possibility.” Critical philosophy should elucidate the present conditions of intelligibility for new forms of social freedom and life. This critical practice has less to do with notions of possibility that deal in contingency (“Anything can happen since the future is uncertain”) or the hypothesis of abstract alternatives (“Another world is possible”), and more to do with what conditions would have to obtain for a social practice to be intelligible within our form of social life. Critical philosophy should inquire into the capacity to go on or, better yet, how certain social practices can be renewed within a given field of action.

 

A social practice that is alive for us is intelligible as a commitment that has the capacity to continue into the future. When I promise, I do so with the implicit understanding that promising will remain possible as a social practice in the near to distant future. If I commit to a strike, my reasoning is that I can bear the costs of this social practice because my comrades will also sustain their commitment from one day to the next. In both cases, to say these social practices are possible is to say that it is possible for them to go on beyond this present moment. I can understand how they can be transposed across both temporal and social contexts. For instance, unforeseen events do not cause me to lose the sense of what a promise is or what I can (or cannot) do in order to fulfil my commitment.

 

Of course, we do not explicitly assess every social practice as being possible before engaging in an action. Instead, I am pointing out that this reasoning is expressed in our objective conduct, irrespective of our subjective beliefs.  I may not personally believe promises are worth very much or that the strike will work, but so long as the intersubjective and institutional conditions obtain for these social practices my horizon of what it is possible for me to do will be formed by them. These social practices will shape how I go on.

 

Nothing guarantees that a social practice or a concept cannot decay irreparably. Think of the invocations of returning to “normal” throughout the pandemic years. Different groups had different ideas of which social practices could be meaningfully understood as normal, but the idea behind the use of the word “normal” was a return of the capacity to go on as before. Whatever was being imagined as “normal” had very little connection to the fact that the shape of our social life had been irrevocably changed. “Normal” became a word bandied around by politicians as if its mere invocation were enough to mask how our social practices had become increasingly unintelligible; it became an object of social resentment, a hotbed of thwarted possibility.   

           

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What can critical philosophy say in times like these? To be sure, the world does not wait for the pronouncements of philosophy to chart a new path or, as Jacques Rancière wryly notes, “philosophy does not come to anyone’s rescue.” True as this may be, there are nonetheless three forms of historical response that critical philosophy may offer in our time of crises. These are positive, negative, and transformative.


The mere fact that a social practice has become impossible, however, does not mean that we will not continue to participate in the practice for a long time to come

           

The positive mode of response from critical philosophy would outline the necessary conditions and criteria for the possibility of specific social practices to go on. These social practices would be activities or concepts that we value and take as central to the stable organization of our social life. For instance, philosophy might inquire into the possibility of promising and draw out what makes the capacity for promising intelligible to us as a social practice. This would entail both descriptive and normative reflections on how we esteem other social practices that may conflict with promising. How does promising interact with social practices of self-determination or spontaneity that endow me with the capacity to no longer be beholden to prior commitments? Or how does promising differ between friends, family, and employers? Critical philosophy, in order to avoid being overly abstract, would have to look at the world in which we currently live and explicate why and how promising emerges within our form of life, rather than assuming that the same social practice of promising obtains irrespective of our socio-historical relations. I think the positive aspect of critical philosophy can enable a clearer sense of what makes possible the commitments that we hold and clear away the muddle that tends to surround our institutions and social life.

           

However, the positive mode of response risks losing its critical posture if all critical philosophy does is reflect back to us how we already take ourselves to be. It would miss grasping how our social practices can become impossible as the conditions of our social life change. Therefore, the negative mode of response from critical philosophy would highlight how the intelligibility of our social practices is being put into crisis. Critical philosophy could demonstrate how a breakdown has occurred between our past experience of a social practice and our future expectations of its success. For instance, if the promise of going into a specific industry is that I will be able to secure stable employment and a comfortable retirement, but I then subsequently enter the job market and discover that the institutional conditions that promote job security and decent benefits no longer obtain, then critical philosophy should bring into relief this disjunction between experience and expectation. It should enable me to recognize how this social practice of promising has slipped into incoherence by producing its opposite, how it is no longer possible for promising to go on under these conditions.

           

The mere fact that a social practice has become impossible, however, does not mean that we will not continue to participate in the practice for a long time to come. The oft-broken promise of stable employment is a case in point. We might imagine someone closing their eyes to this reasoning and attempting to continue as if nothing has changed. No doubt this will lead to all manner of unhappiness, frustration, and confusion, but the loss of intelligibility does not prohibit the possibility that these practices will persist. Critical philosophy has something to offer by showing me that I have to realign my expectations with the facts of my world.  

           

Nevertheless, if it were to rely only on these two modes of response, this would mean that critical philosophy could only tell us how things currently are rather than disclosing how we can renew the real possibilities of our social practices. Critical philosophy should also help unblock our insight into what intersubjective and institutional conditions are necessary for new social practices of freedom to obtain. The transformative mode of response from critical philosophy can mark out new horizons of intelligibility for social life.


Philosophy can disclose the real possibilities for transformative conduct that already exist in our social practices

 

I prefer to think of this mode of philosophical possibility as utopian. Philosophy can disclose the real possibilities for transformative conduct that already exist in our social practices. Nothing about this kind of philosophical practice need suggest a reference to some ethereal place beyond the world in which we live now. Instead, utopia, as I understand it, is the practice of illuminating what is possible but not yet fully realized within our social life. To return to the example of the promise of stable employment, critical philosophy might analyze this social practice not from the vantage point of how our practices of promising stable employment are or are not intelligible in our current form of life, but by transforming our horizons of intelligibility for what a future concept of stable employment would require.

 

What philosophy can do in our crisis-ridden world is carve out spaces of possibility that would allow the vital, yet transformed, concepts we need for our collective social life to go on. I think of these spaces of possibility as “utopian” because they are within, but not reducible to, the calcified social practices that dominate our current form of life. They are displacements from within our social practices rather than outside them.

 

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Possibility is vital for our present and future collective activity. One role of critical philosophy should be the continued nourishment of possibility as the capacity for our social practices to go on. But it would do so not in the effort of encouraging a kind of nostalgia for a world that no longer exists or of encouraging the unrealistic belief that anything may happen in the future. Instead, critical philosophy can make salient the possibilities already emerging in our world. If critical philosophy can disclose these conceptual movements already underway in social life, encourage them, and make them intelligible then that would be enough. It is true that the world does not wait for philosophy to pronounce what is true and possible, but that does not mean philosophy can afford to wait for the world to resolve itself.

 

William M. Paris is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. His research interests are in Africana philosophy, philosophy of race, political philosophy, and critical theory. He is also co-host of the “What's Left of Philosophy” podcast. Website: williammparis.com Twitter: @whitherutopia Podcast: @leftofphil


 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 4 ("The New Basics: Philosophy").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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