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Volume 1

Expanded Contents


1: Introduction [and Summary]
2: Physical Field Theories
3: Psychological Field Theories
4: Social Field Theories
5: The Field of Power
6: Field Theories in Summary
7: Perception and Reality
9: Manifests versus Latents
10: Latent Functions
11: Perception, Space, and Field
12: Cognitive Dissonance
13:Behavior, Personality, Situation, and Expectations
14: The Behavioral Equation: Behavior, Situation, and Expectations
15: Situation, Expectations, and Triggers
16: Person-Perception and Distance
17: The Behavioral Occasion
18: Social Behavior
19: Motivational Explanation
20: Energy and Attitudes in the Psychological Field
21: Motivation and the Superordinate Goal
22: What About Other Motivations ?
23: The Dynamic Field and Social Behavior
24: The Sociocultural Spaces
25: The Biophysical Spaces
26: Intentions and The Intentional Field
27: A Point of View
28: The Self As a Power
29: The Will As a Power
30: Determinism and Free Will
31: Alternative Perspectives on Freedom of the Will
32: A Humanism Between Materialism and Idealism
33: Atomism-Mechanism versus Organicism
34: Between Absolutism and Relationism
35: Humanity and Nature

Other Volumes

Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

"A Catastrophe Theory Model Of The Conflict Helix, With Tests"

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...


Chapter 8

Actuality Versus Potentiality*

By R.J. Rummel

There is always a mixing of power with actuality
----Andrew Ushenko, Power and Events

Perception as a dialectical confrontation between ourselves and reality involves opposing vectors and a reality of potentialities, dispositions, powers, and manifestations. What kind of reality is this that is assumed? What do these terms mean?

Now, throughout this book, The Dynamic Psychological Field, I shall avoid, as much as possible, defining each concept or locking its meaning into some superficially precise categories. This is because so many of the concepts used here are, in Georgescu-Roegen's felicitous words,1 dialectical terms. As do words like democracy, freedom, and love, they shade off into a variety of meanings that are dependent on context and use. Dialectical terms are not bricks with which to construct propositions, but wet clay to be molded into meaningful representations of thought. So it is with the notions of potentiality, actuality, dispositions, and power. However, considerable confusion may result because of apparently analogous terms without some initial abstract agreement on their meaning.2

Figure 8.1

Perhaps it might be best to begin with some examples. Consider first a blank sheet of paper.3 Its white surface has the potential for manifesting an infinite variety of lines and relationships among them. These infinite potentials, however, are bounded by the two-dimensional space of the paper's surface and its extension. Insofar as lines and their relationships are concerned, the surface of the paper is in the mode of potentiality.

Now, let us transform this potentiality into the mode of power by drawing some lines on the paper, as in Figure 8.1a. The two lines shown together now have the disposition to manifest an angle. They have the power to compel us to complete the relationship they tend toward. The angle is a determinable. Similarly, in Figure 8.1b the potentiality of the paper's surface has been transformed into the dispositions-into the mode of power-to become the letter A. The lines shown have the power to compel our perception to make the determinable A a determinate A.

Observe Figure 8.2 next. Here the bounded potentiality of the paper has been transformed into a set of connected lines which have the disposition to be seen as either a three-dimensional frame whose closest edges are at the upper left, or alternatively, at the lower right. Figures 8.2b and 8.2c illustrate these two alternatives. Even as we watch Figure 8.2a, it can go through a transformation from one three-dimensional perspective to the other. At one moment we see the figure as oriented toward the upper left, at the next moment toward the lower right. The figure thus comprises the transformation of potentiality into these two alternative dispositions, into a mode of power to be perceived as one of two alternative determinate three-dimensional figures.

Figure 8.2

Another example is presented by a page of this book. The potentials of its surface have been transformed into a variety of lines and relationships representing the words on this page. These lines and relationships comprise many determinable meanings, ideas, concepts, and even feelings. Before being read they exist in the mode of power; they are dispositions to become meanings. As we successively perceive these lines and relationships, they are transformed from determinables into determinate meanings, and then back into determinables. Our reading is a moving beam of light bringing determinables from shadows into specific focus for a second, turning dispositions into determinate manifestations, and then back into shadow again.

These examples show that there are three levels to reality. One is the mode of potentiality, the realm of what might be as dispositions or manifestations. While this realm may contain infinite possibilities, it is still bounded, as are physical potentials by the speed of light and the four space-time dimensions, and as were the infinitude of potential lines on a paper by its dimensions. The second level is the mode of power, the level of dispositions, the realm of determinables. Potentiality is transformed into the mode of power when reality becomes specific enough to present tendencies toward specific manifestations, when it presents determinables striving toward definiteness as do the unread words on this page. The third level is that of specifics, of manifestations, of facts or data. These levels represent increasing specificity and determinateness. There is however, a qualitative difference between the level of potentiality on the one hand and that of power and manifestations on the other. The distinction is that between potentiality and actuality. The level of potentiality is of bounded but indeterminate possibilities, of what might be but is not yet in any determinable form. It is the surface of a canvas upon which a brush stroke has yet to be made, the empty room within which the first piece of furniture has yet to be put, the language yet to be turned into poetry, the future of a child still to be lived. The levels of power and determinate manifestations, however, are our actuality.

That manifestations comprise actualities will trouble no one. That dispositions can be actualities may present some intuitive difficulty until it is realized that our everyday descriptions of the world are in terms of dispositions, such as habits, attitudes, and temperaments, or mass, force, and energy. While an ardent empiricist may accept the actuality of disposition, however, power seems to be of a different nature.


 When I assert that a disposition is in the mode of a power to become manifest, what am I saying? I mean that a disposition has a direction of specification or manifestation and a strength to become so specific. Consider again Figure 8.1b. The lines have the disposition and the considerable strength to compel us to see the letter A. It is difficult to fight the power of this disposition and see something other than an A. This may seem mystical, but that dispositions have a power toward manifestations that can be felt is a commonplace experience. Think about the power that a dripping faucet has to compel our perception when we are trying to sleep, the power of a habit like smoking or drinking to command manifestation, the power of a written or spoken word to manifest meaning. An explosion nearby has the power to become manifest (to be heard) regardless of what you are doing or your particular personality. A terrified scream or the cry of one's child both have similar dictatorial power to command manifestation. Or consider an earthquake, as of the San Francisco earthquake described by William James: "When it went crescendo and reached fortissimo in less than half a minute, and the room was shaken like a rat by a terrier, with the most vicious expression you can possibly imagine, it was to my mind absolutely an entity that had been waiting all this time holding back its activity ... and it was impossible not to conceive it as animated by a will, so vicious was the temper displayed.... All the while no fear, only admiration for the way a wooden house could prove its elasticity and glee over the vividness of the manner in which such an 'abstract idea' as 'earthquake' could verify itself into sensible reality."4

Compare the power of such determinables with the drone of a boring lecturer which recedes into reality as a disposition and only with concentrated help from ourselves will occasionally reach our consciousness. Some dispositions have the power to command manifestation, while some require a percipient to actively reach out and manifest them. Weak or strong, however, dispositions clearly have power to become manifest; and to deny actuality to this power, to deny that this power can be observed or felt, is to deny a pervasive aspect of our empirical experience.

Note that I have defined power as the direction of manifestation of a disposition, that specific actuality a disposition is striving toward and the strength of this tendency. Power thus has direction and magnitude and is therefore a vector in actuality, a vector of power. A disposition is therefore associated with a vector of power bearing upon us, trying to compel realization as a specific manifestation. When I wrote that perception is a dialectical confrontation between external vectors bearing upon us and our outer-directed vectors, I meant by external ones those vectors of power trying, as a dripping faucet, a buzzing fly, a written word, an incomplete figure, to command perceptual manifestations.

But, it may be protested, this is not power as used in say, the power elite, a powerful nation, or the will to power. On the contrary, power as a force turning dispositions into manifestations is the central meaning in such usage. A powerful person is one who can do that which constitutes his disposition. He could not sprout wings and fly, because he has no such dispositions or potentials, but he has the disposition to, say, visit Greece and view the Parthenon as does any person today; and as a powerful person more than likely he will accomplish this, whereas most others will not.5 Moreover, a powerful nation is one that can manifest its dispositions, were it so interested. Thus, intention and capability, the twin pillars of strategic analysis, are tied into my use of the term power. Let me stop at this point, for my immediate concern is with perception and not power and politics. When I move into sociopolitical dynamics in a subsequent volume, a fuller treatment of power will be appropriate.


 So far I have defined potentiality and actuality, and have described dispositions as a vector of power. What is missing is the agency of transformation. Outside of us exists a world of intersecting and crosscutting potentials, dispositions, and powers in a complex, everchanging manifold. What becomes potential and actual for us, however, depends on our perspective on reality. Our perspective is an agency through which potentials become bounded and transformed into a mode of power, and dispositions become manifest. As indicated in Chapter 7, there are three matrices of perspective transformation. The first is our biological perspective. As humans, we live in a different sensory sphere from other animals, able to sense and interpret a physiologically limited actuality. Capsulated within our biosphere, we sense through its perspective only a part of reality.

Second, what we sense is perceived through our cultural matrix. We invest perceptibles with meaning, orientation, and values, and this constitutes a perspective transformation of actuality. Third, we impose on reality a psychological perspective yet to be discussed in detail, a configuration of forces that can transform and create perception.

There is yet a fourth transformation matrix, that of the observer's point of view or station. Physiology, culture, and psychology transform stimuli, but we also receive different stimuli depending on our physical point of view. For example, in relativity theory, we see physical events as a function of our location and velocity within space-time. More prosaically, a table presents different stimuli as we are placed at different angles to it.

Now, let me combine these four kinds of transformations-biological, cultural, psychological, and station and refer to their acting together as constituting a perspective. This perspective also has a direction of manifestation and a definite strength (as for example in highly prejudiced persons) and thus, itself, constitutes a vector: an outer-directed vector, an active engagement with reality which balances the inner-directed vector of power. And the dialectical confrontation between our perspective and the actuality of power constitutes perception.

Figure 8.3

Some examples at this point may be helpful. Let there be some determinable in reality which comprises a bundle of distinct dispositions, each of which may be a radically different manifestation. Let Figure 8.3 specify three such manifestations seen to be a circle, a triangle, and a square, that is, we perceive one of these three manifestations of a determinable depending on our perspective. What is the common underlying determinable generating these perspectives? It is shown in Figure 8.4 along with the directions from which the three figures of Figure 8.3 are perceived. In other words, the determinable of Figure 8.4 consists of a variety of dispositions associated with the power to become manifest. These all bear upon a percipient as vectors of power. The percipient, however, has a perspective that is a vector confronting those generated by the determinable. The confrontation between these vectors of power and the perspective constitutes the actual perception of a circle, a triangle, or a square.

Figure 8.4

For a further example, consider American democracy. As a political system, it has no one specific, determinate actuality, but multiple dispositions whose different manifestations only await the proper perspective. To one person, this democracy will manifest freedom and liberty, people individually determining the course and nature of their government. To another, the manifestations-the facts-involve a power elite controlling the state. And within yet another perspective, American democracy manifests decadence and excesses of the West. All these perspectives realize the dispositions comprising the determinable called American democracy.

Clearly, the parable about the blind men and the elephant captures what is involved here.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind);
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

Of course, an elephant has many manifestations to the blind, and each man "saw" a different specific actuality. I would subtract from this parable the presumed reality of the specific elephant, for I submit that any particular manifestation is but the specification of dispositions through a perspective.

What exists, ontologically, are dispositions in various degrees of actualization. The reader should refer to Ushenko6 for the development and elaboration of this thesis. I might stress here that it is hardly idiosyncratic, for a major point of Einstein's theory of relativity is that reality depends on the perspective of the observer; and electromagnetic field theories all employ the concept of energy spread through space, where energy is the possibility for forces (dispositions) to be manifest under certain conditions. Indeed, basic to all science and laws are dispositional concepts or properties of things, where disposition should be understood as but a determinable potentiality.

There are some implications of the definitions of actuality, potential, power, and so on that should be made explicit. First, actuality is tied to the dialectical perceptual process by way of its particularizations (manifestations). Although I assume that a reality of some sort exists beyond us, actuality to us is of our own making. We can have no knowledge of reality aside from our perspective transformations. Intersubjectively testable experience is only the overlap of different subjective manifestations of multiple potentialities.

Second, actuality, as tied into our dialectical perception, is ever changing and ephemeral; it is the realization of a particular balance among psychic forces and between them and the power of external dispositions. Thus, reality is a constant becoming, of potentialities striving to be transformed into dispositions and these striving toward manifestation, of a constantly moving balance called actuality between ourselves and nature.

And third, dispositions may be lost in becoming determinate, as in the irreversible movement from low to high entropy in a closed system or as in the explosion of TNT. Or the power of a disposition may be exhausted in the maintenance of specificity, as when a continuous, high-pitched sound initially demands our attention, but in time recedes from our consciousness. 


* Scanned from Chapter 8 in R.J. Rummel, The Dynamic Psychological Field, 1975. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's The Entropy Law and Economic Process (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

2. With some differences and clarification, I am adopting the terms potentiality, actuality, dispositions, and power as used by the philosopher Ushenko (see Chapter 5 for a summary of Ushenko's relevant philosophy and for references) in their ontological and epistemological significance. Because these terms represent philosophical ideas at the core of his philosophy, I am actually "adopting" his philosophy. Adopting is in quotation marks, for I had been moving toward or already persuaded of many of Ushenko's central notions (such as perspectivism and potentiality). He has provided me with their articulation into a coherent system and philosophical arguments for their use.

3. This example is adopted from Ushenko.

4. From Gay Wilson Allen, William James: A Biography (New York: Viking Press, 1967): 453.

5. This point shows one of the advantages of the definition. Power is not a structural or physical attribute, but a force toward manifestation or specificity. Thus, we may be imprisoned in a web of expectations, restraints, and power balances such that our actual ability to manifest our dispositions may be quite limited. Thus, the apparently weaker person may, in actuality be the more powerful in the sense used here. This meaning, for example, was involved in the belief that nuclear weapons, because of the web of constraints attendant upon their ownership, had decreased the power of the United States and that of the U.S.S.R. while increasing that of the small nations.

6. Power and Events: An Essay on Dynamics in Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946).

since 11/26/02

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