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Rene Guenon: Possibles and Compossibles

Rene Guenon: Possibles and Compossibles
Photo: René Guénon, at age 63 (1949) with his wife Fatma Harem and their son Ahmed.
We have said that universal Possibility is unlimited, and cannot be anything but unlimited; to wish to conceive of it otherwise is in fact to condemn oneself to being unable to conceive of it at all. This is what makes all modern Western philosophical systems impotent from the metaphysical, that is, the universal, point of view, and this is so precisely to the extent that they are systems, as we have already pointed out on a number of occasions. As such, they are in fact only restricted and closed conceptions, which can have a certain validity in a relative domain by dint of some of their elements but which become dangerous and false as soon as, taken as a whole, they pretend to be something more, and try to pass themselves off as an expression of total reality. It is doubtless always legitimate, should one judge it necessary, to envisage certain orders of possibilities in particular to the exclusion of others, and this is what any science must do; but it is not legitimate to affirm that this is the whole of Possibility, and to deny everything that goes beyond the measure of one's own individual comprehension which is always more or less limited. Yet, to one degree or another, this is the essential characteristic of that systematic form which seems inherent to all modern Western philosophy, and this is one of the reasons why philosophical thought in the ordinary sense of the word does not and cannot have anything in common with doctrines of a purely metaphysical order.
Among the philosophers who, by reason of this systematic and truly 'anti-metaphysical' tendency, have tried in one way or another to limit universal Possibility, some, like Leibnitz (whose views, however, are in many respects the least limited), have chosen to make use of the distinction between 'possibles' and 'compossibles'; but it is only too evident that this distinction, to the extent that it is validly applicable, can in no way serve this illusory purpose. Compossibles are in fact nothing but possibilities that are mutually compatible, that is to say whose union in a complex whole introduces no contradictions into the latter; consequently, the 'compossibility' is always essentially relative to the whole in question. Moreover, it is clear that such a whole may be that of the characteristics constituting all the attributes of a particular obJect, or that of an individual being, or again may be something far more general and extended, such as the totality of all the possibilities subject to certain common conditions forming thereby a certain definite order, say one of the domains included in universal Existence; but in all cases the whole is always determined, for otherwise the distinction would no longer apply. So, taking first an example of a particular and extremely simple order, a 'round square' is an impossibility because the union of the two possibles 'round' and 'square' in the same figure implies contradiction; but these two possibles are nonetheless also realizable, for the existence of a square figure obviously does not preclude the simultaneous existence of a round one in the same space, any more than it does any other conceivable geometrical figure. This may seem too obvious to be worth insisting on, but because of its very simplicity such an example offers the advantage of helping to explain by analogy apparently more complex cases such as the one we are about to discuss. 
Now, if instead of a particular object or being we consider what we might call a world in the sense we have already given this word, that is, the entire domain formed by a certain ensemble of compossibles realized in manifestation, then these compossibles must be the totality" of possibles that satisfy certain conditions characterizing and precisely defining that world, which constitutes one of the degrees of universal Existence. The other possibles, which are not determined by the same conditions and consequently cannot be part of the same world, are obviously no less realizable for all that, but of course each according to the mode befitting its nature. In other words, every possible has its proper existence as such, and those whose nature implies a realization as ordinarily understood that is, an existence in any mode of manifestation5-cannot lose this characteristic, which is essentially inherent to them, and become unrealizable simply because other possibilities are currently being realized. One can say further that every possibility that is a possibility of manifestation must necessarily be manifested by that very fact, and that, inversely, any possibility that is not to be manifested is a possibility of non-manifestation; expressed thus, it may seem that we are merely defining terms, and yet the preceding affirmation comprises nothing other than a statement of axiomatic truth admitting of no discussion. But if one should ask why all possibilities need not be manifested, that is, why there are at the same time both possibilities of manifestation and possibilities of non-manifestation, it would suffice to answer that the domain of manifestation, being limited by the very fact that it is a totality of worlds or conditioned states-an indefinite multitude moreover-could not exhaust universal Possibility in its totality, for it excludes everything unconditioned, that is, precisely what matters most from the metaphysical point of view. As for the question why one possibility rather than another should be manifested, this amounts to asking why it is what it is and not something else, exactly as if one asked why some being is itself and not another, which would certainly be a senseless question. What must be understood in this regard is that a possibility of manifestation does not as such have any superiority over a possibility of non-manifestation; it is not the object of a sort of 'choice' or 'preference', but is only of another nature. 
If, concerning compossibles, one should now object that 'there is only one world; according to the expression of Leibnitz, one of two things follow: either this affirmation is a pure tautology, or it is devoid of sense. Indeed, if by 'world' one understands the whole Universe, or, restricting oneself to the possibilities of manifestation, even the entire domain of all these possibilities, that is, universal Existence, the statement is self-evident, even if its manner of expression is perhaps inappropriate; but if by this term one understands only a certain whole of com possibles, as one usually does, and as we have just done ourselves, it is as absurd to say that its existence prevents the coexistence of other worlds as it would be to maintain that the existence of a circle is incompatible with the coexistence of a square, a triangle, or any other figure (to return to our previous example). All one can say is that just as the characteristics of a determinate object exclude from that object the presence of all other characteristics with which they would be in contradiction, the conditions by which a determinate world is defined likewise exclude from that world those possibles the nature of which does not imply a realization subject to those san1e conditions; these possibles are thus outside the limits of the world under consideration, but that in no way excludes them from universal Possibility (since it is a question of hypothetical possibles), nor even, in more restricted cases, from Existence in the proper sense of the term, that is, as comprising the entire domain of universal manifestation. There are multiple n1odes of existence in the Universe, to one or another of which each possible conforms according to its own nature. To speak of a sort of 'struggle for existence' among the possibles as is sometimes done, and with reference precisely to Leibnitz's conception (while doubtless straying very far from his own thought) certainly has nothing of metaphysics about it, and this attempt to transpose what is merely a biological hypothesis (connected with modern 'evolutionist' theories) is even altogether unintelligible. 
The distinction between the possible and the real, upon which n1any philosophers have placed so much emphasis, thus has no metaphysical validity, for every possible is real in its way, according to the mode befitting its own nature; if it were otherwise there would be possibles that were nothing, and to say that a possible is nothing is a contradiction pure and simple; as we have already said, it is the impossible, and the impossible alone, that is a pure nothing. To deny that there are possibilities of non-manifestation is to wish to limit universal Possibility, whereas to deny that there are different orders among the possibilities of manifestation is to wish to limit it even more narrowly.
Before moving on we should observe that, instead of considering the totality of the conditions that determine a world, as was done in the foregoing, one could also take the same point of view but consider one of these conditions in isolation; for instance, from among the conditions of the corporeal world we might take space, envisaged as what contains spatial possibilities. It is quite evident that by definition only spatial possibilities can be realized in space; but it is no less evident that this does not prevent non-spatial possibilities from being equally realized (and here, restricting ourselves to consideration of the possibilities of manifestation, (being realized' must be taken as synonymous with 'being manifested') outside of that particular condition of existence which is space. If, however, space were infinite, as some claim, there would be no place in the Universe for any non-spatial possibility, and, logically, thought itself-to take the most common and well-known example-would have to be excluded from existence except on condition of being conceived of as extended, a conception that 'profane' psychology itself recognizes without hesitation as false; but, far from being infinite, space is only one of the possible modes of manifestation, and this latter itself is not at all infinite even taken in the integrality of its extension along with the indefinitude of its modes, each of which is again indefinite.9 Similar remarks would apply to any other special condition of existence, and what is true of each of these conditions taken separately holds true also for any group of them, of which the union or combination determines a world. Besides, it goes without saying that the several conditions thus united must be mutually compatible, and that their compatibility obviously entails that of the possibles they include respectively, with the restriction that the possibles subject to the given group of conditions can only constitute a part of those which are comprised in each of the conditions envisaged apart from the others, from which it follows that these conditions in their integrality, beyond what they hold in common, will include various prolongations that nevertheless still belong to the same degree of universal Existence. These prolongations of indefinite extension correspond in the cosmic and general order to what, for a particular being, are those of one of its states-for example of one individual state considered integrally, that is, beyond any certain definite modality of that same state, such as the corporeal modality of our human individuality.
'The Multiple States of the Being' By René Guénon (Author)
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'The Multiple States of the Being'
By René Guénon (Author)
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This text, René Guénon's most comprehensive work of 'pure' metaphysics, is written as if nothing at all is, but That which is in its own essence. And, in truth, what else is there? Being is multiple and comprises many states, both manifest and unmanifest; but the unmanifest has precedence, what is seen being effectively nothing in the face of what is not seen. To realize this is to realize the contingency of the human state and the set of its inherent possibilities; to realize the contingency of the human state is to be liberated from it; to be liberated from the human state is to assimilate the principle by which the being can be liberated from all states. This is the end of the spiritual life, and also of the human form: 'end' both as telos and as annihilation. And since all beings in manifestation exist equally and simultaneously in all the planes and states of the Unmanifest, to know Infinite Possibility is precisely to become what one is. Whatever else Guénon wrote, as mystagogue, hermeneut, critic of the modern world, emanated from and existed to support the realization of only This.
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