Knowing potentials

How does one know a potential?

In addition to the metaphysical aspects of potentiality, there are certain epistemological issues that Indian philosophers took into consideration. A potential, obviously, is not something that one can know through the senses. One cannot, for example, see a seed’s potential to grow into a plant, or a baby’s potential to grow into an adult. And yet one feels confident in one’s knowledge that a baby has the potential to become an adult. Even if through some tragedy that potential is never realized, we feel confident that the potential was there. So how is it that we know about potentials?

Some Indian philosophers said that the knowledge of potentials is so different from our knowledge of other things that there must be a special type of gaining new information that is neither quite like ordinary sense-perception nor quite like ordinary inference. Moreover, they claimed that we can know for sure only about potentials that existed in the past. We know those through the actualities that they became. To give a standard example, one cannot see the stars or the moon move. Yet if one looks at where a heavenly body is relative to a fixed reference point on earth, such as a tree, and then if one looks at a later time at that same heavenly body relative to that same point of reference, one will see that the heavenly body is in a different location than it used to be. A change of location is possible only if motion takes place. And for motion to have taken place, there must have been some potential for motion to occur. So we can reasonably conclude that the heavenly body had the śakti to move. But what of the feeling of certainty we have about that same heavenly body still having the potential to move from where it is right now? The moon could, after all, have used up all its potential to move in getting to where it is right now, and it could very well stay where it is forever more. The philosophers who dealt with this issue had to acknowledge that there is no guarantee that something that once had a potential still has it. There is also no certainty that something has a potential simply because it belongs to a class of things that usually have that potential. Drawing conclusions about potentials is based on what Western philosophers call induction, and all induction involves an element of risk.

While it is possible to infer that something that is present had a potential in the past, it is impossible to determine whether something in the present has a potential for the future. One cannot conclude on the basis of the absence of an actuality that there is also an absence of potential. There is always the possibility that something has a potential but that an obstacle has arisen that prevents the potential from being realized. Dharmakīrti wrote extensively on the topic of drawing inferences about absences, and especially about the absence of potentials.1 This issue is especially critical for Dharmakīrti, since he defines ultimate truth in terms of a capacity to produce an expected effect (artha-kriyā-samartha). A thing that genuinely exists, he says, has the potential to produce an effect. A genuine fire has the potential to provide warmth, while the mere idea of fire or the concept of fire, lacks that potential. But what if that potential has not been realized, or what if it is not tested? Consider, for example, a situation in which one sees what looks like a fire burning in the distance, but the opportunity does not arise to get close enough to the apparent fire to see whether it is giving off heat. Is that a genuine fire or not? Or perhaps more to the point, is there any reliable way of knowing whether or not it is a genuine fire?

All these epistemological issues we have looked at so far should be borne in mind as we turn to the key question of this module: What makes awakening possible?


  1. There is a good overview of this problem in Brendan S. Gillon, “Negative Facts in Classical Indian Philosophy,” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward C. Craig, (New York and London: Routledge, 1998). See also Shoryu Katsura, “Dignāga and Dharmakīrti on Adarśanamātra and Anupalabdhi,Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques 46, no. 1 (1992): 222–231. ↩︎

Works cited

  • Gillon, Brendan S. “Negative Facts in Classical Indian Philosophy.” In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward C. Craig, New York and London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Katsura, Shoryu. “Dignāga and Dharmakīrti on Adarśanamātra and Anupalabdhi.Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques 46, no. 1 (1992): 222–231.

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