The notion of ‘dynamis’
A semantic journey through the meanings of this word to discover the roots of our workshop
Lecture by Prof. Pier Alberto Porceddu Cilione, Lecturer of Esthetics at the Università di Verona
Dynamis (δύναμις, in Greek) is a very ancient Greek word. It is already attested in Homer. We are sure that it is a very archaic word in the Greek lexicon. Originally, it meant simply ‘strength’, but it is relevant to emphasize that ancient Greek has six different words to name ‘strength’. In its semantic history, however, dynamis has meant ‘strength’, ‘authority’, ‘power’, but, especially through Aristotle, it has also been resemantized in the sense of ‘potential’.
All these lexemes are obviously part of the vocabulary of modern languages as well. However, one must be careful not to confuse them. ‘Strength’, ‘authority’, ‘power’, ‘potential’: yes, they all are related, they share a common root, but what exactly does dynamis mean? In its most common meaning, dynamis means the ability to generate effects, to potentially exert a force. We can translate this notion with many synonyms. A person is strong, that is, s/he has strength, s/he has dynamis, when s/he is potentially capable of exerting a force, a power.
According to this meaning, dynamis can also be looked at through a scholastic example (it can be considered more or less Aristotelian), a medieval example taken from Nicola Cusano: since a fire of ten hectares of wood can be originated from a spark, the spark has the potentiality of a ten-hectare fire. Dynamis also and above all means this: ‘strength’ as the ability to exert a power that is contained in something very small. What is very small has the potentiality to be-come very large.
This is the Aristotelian scheme of potentiality and actuality, which is one of the fundamental schemes that the Western world has developed to understand and justify the process of be-coming. How come the embryo becomes an adult, and the adult becomes a corpse? Why does the acorn become an oak? Because the acorn is an oak in potentiality. How is it possible that something that fits on the palm of my hand can become an entity that weighs one hundred tons? Because there exists a process of potentiality and actuality. The oak is the actuality, or the full actualization of what is potentially inscribed in the acorn. We are the actual realization of what was potentially in the embryo.
Dynamis is the name for tracing this process.
Dynamis in Greek also means ‘meaning’. We say ‘dynamis ton onomáton’: the ‘meaning’ of words, the ‘strength’ of words, the ‘power’ of words. In certain contexts, therefore, dynamis is linked to words. It indicates the meaning that pre-exists the meaning as the name/referent of the thing. i.e.: This is a pen. The pen is the meaning of the term ‘pen’ (we mostly have this schema in mind).
Ancient Greeks used the term dynamis to indicate meaning, that is, something more complex, more anterior, than the ‘mere’ meaning. Dynamis is the ability of the word to name or evoke something, even in a somewhat magical sense. Here, again, it is the word that has the power. Words have effects, they have power. Twentieth-century Philosophy of Language has devoted a great deal of attention to reflect on these terms. When I say “I pronounce you husband and wife” or “I declare you Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture”, I am uttering words. I am not simply naming something, I am performing some effects in the world. The words I am uttering have power, according to the law. Dynamis means precisely this, that is, the ability of words to have effects, like the spark that generates large fires in potentiality.
The example of dynamis also applies to the Arts, in general, and, specifically, to the theory of the image. We begin to understand, or rather we begin to understand again, that images also have power. So, dynamis, as a concept linked to the image, also implies understanding how images exert a certain power. We are used to thinking that an image is an inert stamp, devoid of any consistency. While a table is a real thing, the image is real up to a certain point. Nothing could be more wrong: the image is very powerful, it has a power that very often goes beyond concreteness, of being made of matter. We ourselves are made of images, and this is not insignificant.
Prof. Pier Alberto Porceddu Cilione, Lecturer of Esthetics at the Università di Verona
[translation provided by Ashtart consultancy]