It might be an odd question to some, but to me it strikes quite obviously as something I should've asked a long time ago :-)

In physics, potential energy stands for the energy that could be realized by a certain object in a certain state. From Wikipedia:

Potential generally refers to a currently unrealized ability. The term is used in a wide variety of fields, from physics to the social sciences to indicate things that are in a state where they are able to change in ways ranging from the simple release of energy by objects to the realization of abilities in people. [...]

In physics, a potential may refer to the scalar potential or to the vector potential. In either case, it is a field defined in space, from which many important physical properties may be derived.

In short, one could consider potential as the ability to make a certain "something" to happen, in a given state of the object. For example, in classic mechanics we can use potential to describe the energy an object can have if it would to fall from height. Such energy wouldn't necessarily happen, but we consider it as a possibility that may happen in a certain state that the object might have (e.g. we dropped it).

Now this energy, this potential energy that wouldn't necessarily "happen"/be used by the object, would we consider this energy to be real? Or do we need the energy to be used ("actualized", in Aristotlean terms) in order to call it real? And if so, what could this potential be called? "Ideal"?

[Note 1: I'm using physics as an example because I'm more comfortable speaking with its terms, but this question could easily be applied to most sciences. Note 2: I'm asking this question about potential, but of course a more fundamental question would be to ask this about "energy". Anyone who'll include anything about this subject is more than willing to, but I'm planning on asking this question separately.]

  • Phillips archive.org/stream/modernthomisticp01phil#page/n0 you will have to wade through some stuff at the beginning, but this may contribute one way of looking at it. Thomas was more than Aristotle i.e. He was not just about Aristotle, but yet he was answering (attempting) the type question you ask.
    – Gordon
    Aug 27, 2018 at 17:20
  • Well, maybe distinguish potentiality and actuality? What of them is real and what's unreal?
    – rus9384
    Aug 27, 2018 at 17:55
  • 1
    My physics textbook defined "potential" for energy forms that depend on the relative position of one object to something e.g gravity "potential" voltage "potential difference". I wouldnt trust that wikipedia article.
    – Cell
    Aug 27, 2018 at 19:18
  • Its classical mechanics not classic mechanics. Aug 29, 2018 at 13:29
  • Potentiality is real, its simply not real in the same way that actuality is. In a way it represents possibility. Aug 29, 2018 at 16:31

4 Answers 4


On Aristotle's conception, yes. There is a subtle distinction between the potential and the possible, and the reality of the possible (as in possible worlds) is a controversial issue. Lewis is the chief proponent of modal realism, granting full reality to the possible worlds, the same reality as to our actual world, but this is even more exuberant than moral realism or mathematical platonism. Felt in Impossible Worlds contrasts this statism about the possible (common in the analytic philosophy) to Aristotle's original conception of the potential:

"The shadow of Parmenides seems to lie over these discussions. For whether with Lewis one takes possible worlds to be as real as the actual, or one tries to replace them solely by the actual, the upshot seems the same: all is reduced to a planar understanding of what it means to be. In these controversies the anti-Parmenidean (Aristotelian) notion of potentiality, as an intrinsic character of the actual, has tended to be supplanted by possibilities (in the plural), Lewis’s “ways things could have been,” purely formal and discrete patterns. The dynamism of potentiality has been exchanged for a dust of homeless forms.

[...] The link between Actuality and Possibility lies not in possibilities but in potentiality. This potentiality is grounded in the actuality of the settled past and in the dynamic actuality of present process. Thus the new actual is always growing out of the womb of the potential, but the potential is itself rooted in and structured by past actuality.The actualists are therefore right in denying an independence to the possible. On the other hand, to be potentially is really a way to be, even though it is not to be actually. And this of course is just what Aristotle said in response to Parmenides, who conceived of only one way of being, being in actuality.

In scientific applications the static conception is often the preferred one since it is easier formalizable, indeed one can see calculus as decomposing motion and change into "purely formal and discrete patterns" and "dust of homeless instants". In tellingly named Why Mathematical Solutions of Zeno's Paradoxes Miss the Point Papa-Grimaldi makes the case that this is exactly why they do so. His contrast to Parmenides is... Hegel:

"The response of the pluralists and all those who embraced a similar philosophical creed (see in more recent times Hegel and Bergson) was to refuse to think of the existent as being, but to think of it as becoming. This as I said, though, was not a solution to Zeno’s paradoxes as it simply embraces a new “logic”, the logic of becoming that denies the identity... Intrinsic dynamism is alien to he constitution of our thought... The only way “out” not of the paradox, out of the immobility to which the identity tautologically forces the arrow, would be to claim that the arrow does not have to be thought of as occupying a space always equal to itself, but that we should Hegelianly rise above the “thinking that belongs to the understanding lone” and have an intuition of the arrow as never occupying a space equal to itself. This is the Hegelian key to the interpretation of reality and movement... that privileges an experience of movement over an aseptic attempt to understand it."

In a sense, this is the old clash between the poetic and the technical, even the "potential" energy of mechanics is only a shadow of its Aristotelian conception. The configuration space, that duplicates the physical space to have somewhere to put the arrow's velocity, is another shadow of the suppressed dynamism. A prominent recent proponent of the dynamic possible, although he prefers the term "virtual" to "potential", is unsurprisingly a continental philosopher, Deleuze, see How does the concept of the 'virtual' (Deleuze) relate to 'counterfactuals' (Lewis)? Here is from his Difference and Repetition:

"The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: “Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract”; and symbolic without being fictional. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the object – as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension."

  • I am, once again, amazed by your knowledge. So if I understand correctly (especially from Deleuze but I think I see it in Papa-Grimaldi too) potentiality is a good example for a concept that is real, yet ideal? Aug 29, 2018 at 16:35
  • @YechiamWeiss "Ideal" is used very loosely, sometimes in opposition to real, sometimes to material. Geometric triangles and natural numbers are "ideal" but real in some sense too, Peirce saw laws of nature as real and ideal in a more robust sense. But if potentiality refers to material possibility one might as well call it "material", on some readings, like Žižek's, Deleuze is a "materialist".
    – Conifold
    Aug 29, 2018 at 18:01
  • "but if potentiality refers to material possibility one might call it material" - I fail to understand this sentence. Are you saying that one might call potentiality "material"? How so? And I agree, "ideal" can be used in a variety of ways, here I'm referring to the non-material ideal. And then, if one considers potentiality as non-material realistic concept, there comes the higher metaphysical question of how can non-material be made material. But that's a different discussion that if I recall correctly we've already gone through. Aug 29, 2018 at 18:13
  • @YechiamWeiss Aristotelian "primary matter" was "pure potentiality". Also, a materialist, say a dialectical (i.e. Marxist, or Hegelian if you prefer) materialist like Žižek, would not be impressed by potential energy as ideal (in your sense). They'll just say that potentiality is a manifestation of matter that "mechanistic" materialists overlook. It may give off a whiff of property dualism, which is what some idealists charged Marx and Engels with, but one can equally say that "matter" is a natural kind, and "mechanistic" description of it was provisional and now we know better.
    – Conifold
    Aug 29, 2018 at 19:40
  • How would they present this "potential energy" as a manifestation of matter? Also, wouldn't it be easier to go the other way around and present matter as a manifestation of "energy"? Aug 29, 2018 at 20:11

Act (or actuality) and potency (or potentiality) are both real.

For example, if the potentiality of an acorn grow into a oak were not real, how could it indeed grow into an oak? Something non-existent cannot give rise to something existing; something cannot give what it does not have.


There are actually two aspects to a physical analysis of, let's say an object being held against gravity.

In the static analysis, that is non temporal, we would more accurately talk about force acting against whatever holds the object in place. The potential "energy" would be represented by a force vector, and measurable as pressure, in that sense it would be real.

When the object is let go, we go to a dynamic mode of analysis. In this case it would be plain that, in accordance with conservation of energy, something is converted into kinetic energy. Since the kinetic energy can be observed as real, by extension the potential energy is real.

*Note the different "modes" of analysis here denotes the use of different sets of Physics formulas. I.e. with or without a time term.

  • You're saying that by observing the energy that we expected to be observed, we can conclude that such energy pre-existed as a real energy inherent to the object. Am I correct? Noting this analysis, I ask whether such observation really should conclude that there's a real "actualization" of such "potential energy", or is there something else here. In short, I ask how can you be certain of your conclusion following only a post-observation analysis. Sep 6, 2018 at 16:08
  • @YechiamWeiss The post-observation analysis would be the dynamic mode, i. e. The temporal aspect is essential in evaluating energy. However the static analysis, "pre-observation", will still have a measurable quantity in the form of a force vector. In any potential energy scenario, be it suspension of an object, pressure in a water pipe or electro motive force, there is a measurable physical quantity that is directly related to the amount of energy that can be converted. So from the physics standpoint it is real before and during/after actualization.
    – christo183
    Sep 7, 2018 at 6:42
  • you're talking with me about the topic after it's been formalized, and use the formalization as a proof of the reality of said subject. The fact that we use it in a mathematical equation doesn't necessarily give it the "reality" stamp. A logical analysis of the concept may do the job. That is what I mean by relying completely on the post-observation. Sep 7, 2018 at 10:08
  • @YechiamWeiss True, but it is in this (synthetic) sense that potential energy can be called real, but then many physical quantities would qualify to be scrutinized thus. However there is a pre-analytic phenomenon that can be measured before "actualization" that is, there is a real phenomenon associated with the potential to do work namely the 'weight' in this case. It may be useful to clarify the meaning of the word "potential" as used here as: not in the sense of contingent ability, but rather as a energy gradient or a capacity (like a battery, or a full dam)
    – christo183
    Sep 7, 2018 at 10:58
  • yet the "weight" doesn't directly mean "potential energy". We infer from observing that the weight's number matches the fall's speed that there's a transformation of energy, hence we suggest that there's this sort of "potential" energy just waiting to be used. If we were Humean, we could say that this apparent transformation of energy doesn't mean that there's a law-abiding "potential energy", we could just say that when an object is falling, its speed is probably influenced by its weight because "that makes sense". But of course, you (and I) wouldn't accept this proposition. Sep 7, 2018 at 11:45

Scientific realism is, at the most general level, the view that the world described by science (perhaps ideal science) is the real world, as it is, independent of what we might take it to be.

Within philosophy of science, it is often framed as an answer to the question "how is the success of science to be explained?" The debate over what the success of science involves centers primarily on the status of entities that are not directly observable discussed by scientific theories.

The debate about scientific realism concern the very nature of scientific knowledge. Scientific realism is a positive epistemic attitude toward the content of our best theories and models, recommending belief in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world described by the sciences. This epistemic attitude has important metaphysical and semantic dimensions, and these various commitments are contested by a number of rival epistemologies of science, known collectively as forms of scientific anti-realism.


Generally, those who are scientific realists state that one can make reliable claims about these entities (viz., that they have the same ontological status) as directly observable entities, as opposed to instrumentalism.

The most used and studied scientific theories today state more or less the truth.

If one takes the ‘potential’ as used in physical theories then it takes ‘real’ space and form –either in the form of energy or potential at a point in space.

The picture of potential is that it’s also measurable.

The bodies can be categorized as having positive or negative potentials. The part about ‘essence’ called energy is ‘potential’.

When one does work on a body it’s potential enlarges or get reduced. Every interaction has a potential field- an aura which extends to infinity.

The following paper critically explores the familiar concept of potential energy (PE), with the intent of addressing the issue of whether it is “real” or not. We begin with a historical account of the development of the idea of energy, examining the original motivations for the introduction of the notion of PE. This is followed by a sample of the arguments existing in the literature (from the 1880s through the 20th century) against the legitimacy of PE; that is, arguments maintaining that potential energy is not a real observable physical quantity. Today potential energy is so widely and unquestioningly accepted that it seems almost unthinkable that anyone ever seriously challenged its veracity. Using relativistic considerations it will be shown that PE is as real as mass is real. Nonetheless it will be argued that the concept of potential energy, however real, is actually superfluous. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_realism https://aapt.scitation.org/doi/10.1119/1.1625210 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potential

Thus from a scientific rationale, the ‘potential’ is a real and measurable entity.

  • A. Saying that a view support one's claim doesn't give legitimation to such claim. Proving such claim does, which is something I haven't seen you've done. B. "every interaction has a potential field- an aura which extends to infinity" - again, a claim with no support. C. "purely physicist" and "scientific realism" are not synonymous. D. A reference to your quote would be nice. Thanks for the answer :-) Sep 6, 2018 at 16:43
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    @Yachiam weiss-thanks for the observation, I am new to this field and will try to edit the answer.
    – drvrm
    Sep 6, 2018 at 16:51
  • @Yachiam weiss-well, i have tried to place references and some quotes to explain my position...but in a novice manner, your comments will help me understand further.
    – drvrm
    Sep 6, 2018 at 18:10

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