On the Origin and Nature of Our Concept of Possibility


Charles A. Ryskamp Research Fellowships




Much of human thought is concerned not with how things actually are, but with alternative possibilities (how we could have acted, how history could have unfolded, etc.). The notion of a possibility (a way things could have been) is indispensable for common-sense thought and in the human and natural sciences. Philosophers have investigated it intensively, but its nature has proven elusive. This project proposes a new analysis of the notion. Unlike previous studies, it starts from a hypothesis about why creatures like us have developed the concept of a possibility: the notion originated in such practices as providing explanations and making decisions, where we ask what would be true if such-and-such were the case. This approach solves numerous problems that have beset previous analyses.