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Power Structuralism

Power Structuralism in Ancient Ontologies

The Project aims to bring about a paradigm shift in our understanding of how the ancients conceived of the universe and its contents, over a period of nine centuries, from 600 BC to 300 AD. The question that will be explored is: what are for the ancients the fundamental building blocks of reality, out of which everything is constituted?

We have hitherto understood ancient ontologies almost exclusively as object-based ontologies – namely, with objects as the basic building blocks, whether these are objects in a world of being (e.g. transcendent Forms) or a world of becoming (e.g. material substances).

Making a radical departure with the traditional interpretation, the Project aims to investigate the hypothesis that for the ancients there is a more fundamental level of reality underlying than objects or processes, a sole elementary building block from which everything else is derived: powers. Power ontologies underlie object-metaphysics or process-metaphysics, and worlds of being and becoming, supplying structures from which objects and processes are derived.

On the proposed research hypothesis, the universe according to the ancient thinkers (or most of them) was built out of powers only, structured in a web of causal relations. What is revolutionary about a world of powers is that it is world of just structure. The ontology of such a world is a power structuralist one.

The Project's driving hypothesis is motivated by the consideration that ancient ontological systems have so far been understood and classified on the basis of the derivative rather than the basic items (i.e. powers or non-powers) that they employ for accounting for what there is.

Change and immutability for example are derivative features of the world, not ground-level building blocks in ontology. Is Heraclitean flux a chain of interacting powers, or is it a succession of properties whose nature is inert, not powerful? Is Parmenidean immutability inertness, or eternal dynamic equilibrium? And if it is inertness, are the immutables disjoint or thoroughly relational, interdependent on, and interwoven with, one another? Are Democritean atoms inert, or bundles of powers which enable them to ‘struggle’, and ‘collide’ and ‘bind together’ to form what there is in nature?

Can it be that the ancients thought that the roots of nature are powers, or did they think that non-powers, i.e. inert entities divested of any active or passive power, were also needed to build the world? It is at this basic ontological level that ancient world-views will be classified and compared in the Project, to gain an understanding of their deeper similarities and differences in terms of the ultimate constituents in each system, rather than at higher levels of composition.

You can visit our project website


Many of the project’s talks, including those from seminars and conferences, and covering both ancient philosophy and contemporary metaphysics, have been recorded and can be downloaded as podcasts. 
Dori Castillo Aranda