In “Three takes on Possibility: Shakespeare, Leibniz, Kierkegaard,” Simon Palfrey examines Shakespearean tragedy through the lens of two very different, subsequent thinkers of possibility: Leibniz and Kierkegaard. Leibniz’s possibility is ontological and morphological, a condition of existence that contains all of history, past and future; Kierkegaard’s is existential, and apprehends only fiercely personal vertiginous futures. Both articulate the most delicate feeling for the multi-layered locations of substance and phenomena, sensible and otherwise. However, in crucial ways both philosophers’ apprehensions of possibility are humanly impossible, because of their respective indifference to the claims of love, of politics, and the facts of any suffering but one’s own. Shakespeare’s take on possibility different: it is the humanly apprehending one – because its plenty always remembers; because its subjects are always more than one; because it feels the facts of cruelty and prevention, as an ontological, historical, and personal dynamic; and because the unseen, unheard thing is present, as intimation or glimpse, textual or supra-textual, and therefore not incompossible.
While the first paper raises questions of ontology and apprehension in drama, in “‘As might best be’: Poetics of Possibility in _The Faerie Queene_” Debapriya Sarkar demonstrates that fictional ontology is uniquely predicated on theories of possibility. Edmund Spenser’s epic-romance constructs a “poetics of possibility” that rejects precepts and prescription – “what should be” – to theorize _how_ poetry generates knowledge through the conceptualization of a best possible world, one that “might best be.” Spenser’s fictional world, or Faerie Land, provides ontological form to what Giorgio Agamben terms “the possibility of privation.” Faerie Land represents Spenser’s belief that actuality is not the teleological fulfillment or destruction of potentiality, but a realization and exhaustion of its impotentiality. In an ever-expanding world that is never be fully knowable, the epistemic status of fictional worlds and real ones are indistinguishable, and Faerie Land’s existence cannot be apprehended through epistemologies that privilege historical fact or empirical verification. Engaging with travel literature and scientific speculation, Spenser privileges the capacity to speculate over actual discovery. Spenser’s “continued allegory” operates in the metaphorical relays of narrative temporality and the incomplete allegorical figures in the poem demonstrate how poetry _creates_ a philosophy of possibility by privileging the counterfactual.
While an explicitly fictional ontology was acceptable for Spenser, René Descartes rejected the category of fiction for epistemology. Nevertheless, his work develops a clear epistemology of the possible. Jacqueline Wernimont’s paper “A possible world in math and poetry: the case of Descartes’ _Le Monde_” explores the philosopher’s utilization of an imagined possible world in his philosophical and mechanical inquiry. A “paper-world,” in the sense suggested by Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday, _Le Monde_ is a place of “imagination and intellect” capable of delivering knowledge as certain and actionable as any mechanical experiment in the “actual” world. While this experiment in creative writing subsequently shaped its author’s use of the “fable” in the _Discourse on Method_, _Le Monde_ is the only one of Descartes’s texts structured by the logic of a literary possible-worlds narrative. Thus, it is through this text that we can most clearly see Descartes’s production of a kind of knowledge that we might call poetic.