An investigation of Abbagnano's attempt to raise possibility to a level of prime importance and his understanding of existence

Possibility, Necessity, and Existence

Abbagnano and His Predecessors

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Nino Langiulli

In this systematic historical analysis, Nino Langiulli focuses on a key philosophical issue, possibility, as it is refracted through the thought of the Italian philosopher Nicola Abbagnano. Langiulli examines Abbagnano's attempt to raise possibility to a level of prime importance and investigates his understanding of existence. In so doing, the author offers a sustained exposition of and argument with the account of possibility in the major thinkers of the Western tradition—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard. He also makes pertinent comments on such philosophers as Diodorus Cronus, William of Ockham, Spinoza, Hobbes, and Hegel, as well as such logicians as DeMorgan and Boole.

Nicola Abbagnano, who died in 1990, recently came to the attention of the general public as an influential teacher of author Umberto Eco. Creator of a dictionary of philosophy and author of a multiple-volume history of Western philosophy, Abbagnano was the only philosopher, according to Langiulli, to argue that "to be is to be possible."

Even though the concept of probability and the discipline of statistics are grounded in the concept of possibility, philosophers throughout history have grappled with the problem of defining it. Possibility has been viewed by some as an empty concept, devoid of reality, and by others as reducible to actuality or necessity—concepts which are opposite to it. Langiulli analyzes and debates Abbagnano's treatment of necessity as secondary to possibility, and he addresses the philosopher's conversation with his predecessors as well as his European and American contemporaries.




Part I: From a Positive Existentialism to a Radical Empiricism

1. The Backgrounds of and Initial Efforts Toward a Pure Conception of Possibility
The Influence of Antonio Aliotta's Experimentalism • First Publication: Against the Mythical Conception of Reason • Abbagnano's Concern with Science and with the History of Philosophy

2. Abbagnano's Systematic Thought: The Four Phases
Antirationalism • The Search for the Principle of Metaphysics • The Call for a Positive Existentialism • Developing a Positive Existentialism • The Three Requirements for a Positive Existentialism

3. The Program of a Positive Existentialism
Toward a Radical Empiricism • Parallels with Some More Recent American Philosophy • Dumping Philosophy and the Madness of It That Is Also Folly • Philosophy and Foundationalism • Convergence and Divergence • Marginal Comments on Derrida • Prospects and Conclusions

Part II: Sources for the Concept of Possibility

4. Plato
Defining Existence in the Sophist • Arguments Connected with the Definition of Existence in the Sophist • Abbagnano’s Interpretation of the Definition of Existence in the Sophist • Questions About Abbagnano’s Interpretation

5. Aristotle
Abbagnano’s Position on Greek Metaphysics • Aristotle’s Arguments for the Priority of Actuality over Possibility • Aristotle and the Master Argument of Diodorus Cronus

6. Kant
Kant’s Precritical Notion of Possibility • The Notion of Possibility in the Critique of Pure Reason • The Notion of Possibility in the Critique of Judgment

7. Kierkegaard
Rejecting the Notion of Possibility from the Concluding Unscientific Postscript • Accepting the Notion of Possibility from the Philosophical Fragments • An Incompatibility in Kierkegaard’s Sense of Possibility

Part III: Possibility and Existence

8. The Different Senses of Possibility
A Nominal Definition of Possibility • The Connective in the Nominal Definition • Three Conceptual Definitions of Possibility

9. The First Definition: Possibility as Noncontradiction
Variations of the First Definition • The Characteristics of the First Definition • Difficulties of the First Definition

10. The Second Definition: Possibility as Necessary Realization
Variations and Characteristics of the Second Definition • Some Consequences of the Second Definition • Some Objections to Hartmann’s Formulation • A Distinction Between Possibility and Contingency

11. The Third and Proper Sense of Possibility
Formulating the Third Sense • The Logical Behavior of the Third Sense • The Relation of the Third Sense to Existence • Differences Between Possibility Proper and Actuality • Possibility Proper and the Ontological Predicate (the “Is” of Existence) • The Specter of Circularity • Considerations on the Ontological Predicate

12. Various Senses and Theories of Being
The Article "Essere" • The Predicative Use of To Be • Some Critical Comments • The Existential Use of To Be

13. Some Concluding Critical Reflections
A Doubt About Abbagnano's Antimetaphysic • The Truth or Consequences of an Ontology of Possibility • The Difficulty of Connecting Existence and Possibility • The Question of Necessity • Possibility Without Necessity Is Meaningless

Index of Names


About the Author(s)

Nino Languilli is Professor of Philosophy at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, New York.

Subject Categories

Philosophy and Ethics

In the series

Themes in the History of Philosophy, edited by Edith Wyschogrod.

Themes in the History of Philosophy, edited by Edith Wyschogrod, will serve as a collection of outstanding work in the history of philosophy. It will include interpretations of significant themes, problems, and tendencies in the history of thought; studies of important thinkers, schools, and movements; and inquiries into the relation of previous philosophies to literature, art, and history.



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