Potential generally refers to a currently unrealized ability. The term is used in a wide variety of fields, from physics to the social sciences to indicate things that are in a state where they are able to change in ways ranging from the simple release of energy by objects to the realization of abilities in people. The philosopher Aristotle incorporated this concept into his theory of potentiality and actuality,[1] a pair of closely connected principles which he used to analyze motion, causality, ethics, and physiology in his Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics and De Anima, which is about the human psyche.[2] That which is potential can theoretically be made actual by taking the right action; for example, a boulder on the edge of a cliff has potential energy that could be actualized by a push forcing it over the edge of the cliff, and a person whose natural aptitudes give them the potential to be a great pianist can actualize that potential by diligently practicing playing the piano.

In science and mathematics

The mathematical study of potentials is known as potential theory; it is the study of harmonic functions on manifolds. This mathematical formulation arises from the fact that, in physics, the scalar potential is irrotational, and thus has a vanishing Laplacian — the very definition of a harmonic function.

In physics, a potential may refer to the scalar potential or to the vector potential. In either case, it is a field defined in space, from which many important physical properties may be derived. Leading examples are the gravitational potential and the electric potential, from which the motion of gravitating or electrically charged bodies may be obtained. Specific forces have associated potentials, including the Coulomb potential, the van der Waals potential, the Lennard-Jones potential and the Yukawa potential. In electrochemistry there are Galvani potential, Volta potential, electrode potential, standard electrode potential. In thermodynamics potential refers to thermodynamic potential.

In humans

Human potential is the capacity for humans to improve themselves through studying, training, and practice, to reach the limit of their ability to develop aptitudes and skills . "Inherent within the notion of human potential is the belief that in reaching their full potential an individual will be able to lead a happy and more fulfilled life".[3] The concept of developing potential is sometimes described in terms of becoming the best version of oneself.[4] Persons who are believed to have a degree of potential that they do not pursue are often described as having failed to "live up to their potential".[5]

See also


  1. dynamisenergeia, translated into Latin as potentiaactualitas (earlier also possibilitasefficacia). Giorgio Agamben, Opus Dei: An Archaeology of Duty (2013), p. 46.
  2. Sachs, Joe (2005), "Aristotle: Motion and its Place in Nature", Internet Encyclopedia of PhilosophySachs (2005)
  3. David Vernon, Human Potential: Exploring Techniques Used to Enhance Human Performance (2009), p. 1.
  4. Vicente Njoku, Success Plan and Positioning Strategy 7.0: Closing The Gap Between Your Primary Goal and A Successful Outcome (2015), p. 139.
  5. Ann Vernon, What Works when with Children and Adolescents: A Handbook of Individual Counseling Techniques (2002), p. 196.
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