Permutations on Ernst Bloch’s “S is not yet P”

Ernst Bloch

When Ernst Bloch was asked to summarize his philosophy in one line, he said, “S is not yet P.” The circumstances of this utterance were related by Harvey Cox in the Forward to Man on His Own, a collection of Bloch’s essays:

“…what does Bloch help us to see? How would his thought be capsulated if it had to be described in a few words? Bloch himself, Adolph Lowe reports, was once faced with this challenge. A few years back at a late afternoon tea in the home of a friend, someone challenged the old man to sum up his philosophy in one sentence. ‘All great philosophers have been able to reduce their thought to one sentence,’ the friend said. ‘What would your sentence be?’ Bloch puffed on his pipe for a moment and then said, ‘That’s a hard trap to get out of. If I answer, then I’m making myself out to be a great philosopher. But if I’m silent, then it will appear as though I have a great deal in mind but not much to say. But I’ll play the brash one instead of the silent one and give you this sentence: S is not yet P.” (Ernst Bloch, Man on His Own: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, New York: Herder and Herder, 1970, p. 9)

For those who are not familiar, in textbooks of traditional philosophical logic, the syllogism was usually given the form:

All S are M.

All M are P.

Therefore, All S are P.

In such renditions of the syllogism, “S” stands for “subject term,” “M” stands for “middle term,” and “P” stands for “predicate term.” Variations on this theme yield the various “figures” and “moods” of the syllogism. (For an exposition of this kind of traditional logic cf. A. Wolf, Textbook of Logic, second edition, New York: Collier Books, 1962; however, a much more rigorous account of traditional Aristotelian logic can be found in Jan Łukaseiwicz, Aristotle’s Syllogistic from the Standpoint of Modern Formal Logic, second edition, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.)

Bloch gave a twentieth century twist to this ancient formulation of the syllogism. Every philosopher would have been familiar with these terms of traditional logic, so that in taking over “S” and “P” in his proposition he was appealing to something ancient in philosophy (for the ancients, the timeless embodiment of rationality that is logic), but Bloch then put the two terms into a temporal relation, and, not just a temporal relation, but a relationship of potentiality in time.

“S is not yet P” implies that S may become P, but S and P are still, at this time, distinct, and it is by no means certain that S will become P. It is a possibility only, one might even say that it is an aspiration, or a hope, that S will become P, but that hope is not yet realized; and there is also the possibility that S will not become P, or never fully become P, but may stagnate at a point that falls short of P. ‘S in not yet P’ remains a hope only, unfulfilled. In this sense, Bloch’s one-line summary of his philosophy is a formalization of hope, which is eminently appropriate, as Bloch’s magnum opus is his three-volume The Principle of Hope.

How can potentiality in time be schematized and made systematic? Can there be a logic of destiny? To schematize “S is not yet P” would involve a schematization of time, which we have in the series past-present-future, or the series before-during-after. But even the existing formalizations of time and temporal logic do not get us to the aspirational nature of Bloch’s proposition. How could a Blochean logic of hope be formulated? Would it be valid in a Blochean logic to argue:

S is not yet M;

M is not yet P;

Therefore, S is not yet P?

In other words, is hope a transitive relation? Is hope for personal salvation also hope for universal salvation, because our hope for our own fate is a transitive relation that flows on through us to others, and so on, universally? Or do we run into the fatal equivalent of ex falso quodlibet, where a false hope explosively extends itself to contaminate every authentic hope? We stand in need of a schematization that will allow us to systematically interrelate propositions such as:

“S is not yet P”

“S will become P”

“S is becoming P”

“S is almost P”

“S will never become P”

“S was once P”

“S is no longer P”

And so on. Can logic become a logic of hope, even though logic is not yet a logic of hope? S is not yet P, but can S become P?

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