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The Adjacent Possible(s)

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first-order reactions is vast, but it is a finite number, and it excludes most of the forms that now populate the biosphere. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.

Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Steven Johnson locates an impetus to creativity in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From,  in the lacunal spacebetween thinking, between the concrete. His premise is that good ideas never come in discrete packages “shipped direct from the factory” but rather are cobbled together from a history of detritus and the forgotten. Johnson writes that we “take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.” This is the “adjacent possible,” that space of no space which acts as a shadow to new thought, and which shelters, or incubates, ideas whose time has not quite yet come.

While Johnson is describing a scientific process (which he uses as a metaphor for the social) Heidegger also summons forth a form of the “adjacent possible” (though in not so clear language) when he describes, in What Is Called Thinking?being caught in the “draft” of a thinking which withdraws, and that it is in this moment of surrender that thinking is able to begin thinking. Heidegger writes that “what withdraws from us draws us along by its very withdrawal, whether or not we become aware of it immediately, or at all.” It is by being pulled forward that the being of language actually engages, and that “‘this being in the draft of’ is in itself an essential and therefore constant pointing towards what withdraws.”

DeBeauvoir, in her essay The Ethics of Ambiguity, again calls attention to the liberating necessity of “unhinged” thought, of the creative absolute (which is never an absolute.) Science, she writes, “condemns itself to failure when, yielding to the infatuation of the serious, it aspires to attain being, to contain it, and to posses it; but it finds its truth if it considers itself as free engagement of thought in the given, aiming, at each discovery, bot at the fusion with the thing, but at the possibilities of new discoveries.”

These three thinkers, separated by half centuries and radically different positions in life, all echo a similar thought; that there is a necessity for thought to remain open, to be constantly torn loose from what is know. It is only in this way that we can begin to think. It is a plea for the irresponsible, for the reckless. In an age of certainty and absolutes, of Fukuyamaian non-history,  of known truths and unknown truths (which are even then known) it is the thinking of the non-concrete, of the fluid and flux-filled that points, through a non-pointing withdrawal, a way forward.


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