In defense of the possibilism–actualism distinction

  • Christopher MenzelEmail author


In Modal Logic as Metaphysics, Timothy Williamson claims that the possibilism–actualism (P–A) distinction is badly muddled. In its place, he introduces a necessitism–contingentism (N–C) distinction that he claims is free of the confusions that purportedly plague the P–A distinction. In this paper I argue first that the P–A distinction, properly understood, is entirely coherent and historically well-grounded. I then look at the two arguments Williamson levels at the P–A distinction and find them wanting and show, moreover, that, when the N–C distinction is broadened (as per Williamson himself) so as to enable necessitists to fend off contingentist objections, the P–A distinction can be faithfully reconstructed in terms of the N–C distinction. However, Williamson’s critique does point to a genuine shortcoming in the common formulation of the P–A distinction. I propose a new definition of the distinction in terms of essential properties that avoids this shortcoming.


Actualism Possibilism Necessitism Contingentism Modality Modal logic 



My thanks to Ross Cameron, Matt Davidson, Kris McDaniel, and Ed Zalta for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to audiences at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, the University of Utah, the Society for Exact Philosophy (2016 meetings), the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, the University of Vienna, the Kurt Gödel Research Center for Mathematical Logic, and the universities of Oslo and Bergen for fruitful, challenging, and stimulating discussions in response to talks I gave based on the issues discussed herein. I am particularly grateful to Benjamin Schnieder for his detailed answers to several questions I had concerning his important and informative paper on Bolzano’s modal metaphysics. Finally, special thanks to the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion, where I completed a significant draft of this paper during my tenure as the 2016–2017 Alvin Plantinga fellow.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyTexas A&M UniversityTXUSA

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