rec a, N. Langiulli, Possibility, Necessity, and Existence: Abbagnano and His Predecessors

Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992, pp. XV + 205 - 1992

N. Langiulli, Possibility, Necessity, and Existence: Abbagnano an

N. Langiulli, Possibility, Necessity, and Existence: Abbagnano and His Predecessors


Although Nicola Abbagnano would agree in some sense with the currently fashionable claim that metaphysics is dead, Nino Langiulli's treatment of Abbagnano's thought constitutes a challenge to that claim. The aim of Possibility, Necessity, and Existence is "to expound and elucidate historically and analytically the concepts of possibility, necessity, and existence as they are refracted through the thought of the twentieth-century Italian philosopher Nicola Abbagnano." Langiulli characterizes Abbagnano as a bold and original thinker whose defense of "possibility" as the fundamental sense of being is understood by Abbagnano himself as an anti-metaphysical position. In his critical reflections, however, especially in the last chapter, Langiulli shows that Abbagnano is indeed engaged in an inquiry that can only be called metaphysical.
Parts I and II are preparatory to the third part in which the concept of possibility and its relation to existence are most directly addressed. Part I provides a historical overview of four phases of the movement of Abbagnano's thought "from a positive existentialism to a radical empiricism." Abbagnano's version of existentialism is "positive" in that it sees in human finitude the very possibility of man's relationship with being. Here Abbagnano is distinguished from other existentialists such as Heidegger, Jaspers, Marcel, and Sartre. His criticisms of these positions are among the most important and interesting parts of the book. Heidegger and Jaspers both begin by apprehending human existence as a structure of possibilities but then reduce human existence to a structure of impossibilities. Christian existentialists such as Marcel really treat possibilities as potentialities to be inevitably realized. For Sartre all possibilities are equivalent, but for Abbagnano "the complete arbitrariness of choice among human possibilities does not imply freedom at all, but the impossibility of choice". Here also Langiulli's comparison of Abbagnano with Quine, Sellars, and Rorty is pertinent and illuminating: Abbagnano would share Rorty's criticism of Quine and Sellars for holding on to vestiges of the old empiricism, but Abbagnano would not accept Rorty's "emptying" of philosophy itself. The influence of Abbagnano on his student Umberto Eco and on Gianni Vattimo and the differences between Abbagnano and Derrida's views of possibility are spelled out by Langiulli.
In a section entitled "Dumping Philosophy and the Madness of It That Is Also Folly," Langiulli locates Abbagnano clearly and precisely within the debate over the legitimacy of reason. Abbagnano finds the basis of philosophical madness in the persistent tendency to take one aspect of human life as an absolute determinant, thus marginalizing or ignoring all others. "This privileged status has even been attributed to reason, but only when it is absolutized or divinized as a superhuman force regulating the whole of nature, humanity included, according to necessary and necessitating laws". So, for example, the order of mathematics or the techniques of verification and control employed in physics are transferred to the human world. But Abbagnano's rejection of absolutized reason is not a rejection of reason as such. He sees the current favoring of the nonrational and irrational aspects of life as a kind of folly and madness, "the vertigo of absurdity." The deliberate and crass ignorance of history and the search for novelty are also forms of madness.
Part II consists of four chapters that trace the sources for Abbagnano's concept of possibility. The first of these sources is Plato's treatment of existence and possibility in the Sophist, where Abbagnano finds what he takes to be the antecedent for his own thought and for existentialism in general: the idea that possibility is both the structure and the ground of existing things. The two persistent themes of Greek metaphysics that Abbagnano is concerned to overcome are found most explicitly in Aristotle: the priority of actuality over possibility and the primacy of necessity over possibility. Kant is credited with opening the path for contemporary thought with his concept of real possibility (as distinguished from merely logical possibility). Finally, Abbagnano is indebted to Kierkegaard's criticisms of Aristotle and Hegel in the Philosophical Fragments. Throughout this discussion of Abbagnano's sources, Langiulli provides not only elucidation of Abbagnano's thought but also a critical perspective on Abbagnano's interpretations of his predecessors.
Part III takes us directly to the center of metaphysics and to the core of Abbagnano's thought. With clarity and precision, Langiulli leads us through the three fundamental conceptual definitions of possibility, explaining and pointing to the difficulties and consequences of each. The first definition is possibility as non-contradiction. For Abbagnano this definition of possibility as "that which is not necessarily false" depends upon a well-defined notion of necessity and is therefore extremely problematic. The second definition is possibility as necessary realization. The discussion here focuses on the so-called Master Argument of Diodorus Cronus, and on Hobbes's and Hartmann's formulations of it. Here, too, the very significant distinction between possibility and certain medieval notions of contingency is explained: contingency in this Islamic and Scholastic sense refers to what is possible with respect to itself but necessary with respect to its cause.
Two chapters are devoted to the third and proper sense of possibility: possibility as that which can exist or not exist and which obtains only as such. (This is the sense for which the term contingent, rightly understood, could be a synonym.) Langiulli discusses the logical behavior of the third sense of possibility, the relation of this third sense to existence, the differences between possibility and actuality, and the ontological predicate. For Abbagnano "the term is or exists does not designate the purely subjective conditions of the speaker, nor the purely objective conditions of the object spoken about. Both the subjectivization and the objectivization of the ontological predicate are abstractions in Abbagnano's account. Subject, object, and context together constitute its meaning".
The philosophical high point of the discussion occurs at the end of Chapter eleven and of Chapter twelve. Abbagnano recognizes that Aristotle starts from the many ways in which being can be expressed. But Aristotle then seeks a unique sense of being to which all the others are reducible as their common ground and finds it in substance. For Abbagnano it is the techniques of the particular sciences that must distinguish that which is and that which is not in particular cases. These different techniques define different senses of being. A unique sense of being is meaningless since there is no special discipline or inquiry to define this unique sense. (Here Langiulli quite rightly objects that ontology is precisely that inquiry and that Abbagnano himself is Aristotelian in his insistence on possibility as the unique and grounding sense of being.) A possibility can be determined solely on the basis of empirical investigation, never in a purely speculative, a priori manner. Hence, Abbagnano's "radical empiricism."
Throughout this book Langiulli is an active participant in the "conversation about the fundamental human issues and questions," the conversation that he and Abbagnano take the history of philosophy to be. This active voice is especially in evidence in the last chapter where Langiulli explains his doubts about Abbagnano's anti-metaphysic. He argues that Abbagnano does carry on a metaphysical inquiry and assert a metaphysical doctrine: the primary and fundamental sense of being is possibility. Further, he argues that Abbagnano's own ontology entails a necessary relationship between possibility and existence, thus ascribing some sort of reality to necessity.
Possibility, Necessity, and Existence engages the reader in a genuinely metaphysical inquiry. One hopes that this inquiry can be continued in two ways: first, with the translation of more of Abbagnano's works (Langiulli has already translated a selection of Abbagnano's papers under the title Critical Existentialism) and second, with a development of Abbagnano's bold and original ideas. Two lines of inquiry suggest themselves: Can Abbagnano be located in terms of the Italian humanist tradition? Abbagnano begins from and stays close to the human world in his metaphysical concerns. His radical empiricism leads him to admonish contemporary philosophy to "put aside the contempt for poetry and literature as loci of truth and value". Can Abbagnano's notion of possibility serve as the basis for a genuinely philosophical theology? That is, can it provide an account of contingency that avoids the difficulties of the Islamic-Scholastic account?
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Ann Hartle