3 Important Ideas From Giorgio Agamben’s Metaphysics

How do Giorgio Agamben’s theories of experience, language, and potential constitute the framework for his philosophy?

Jun 15, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology

giorgio agamben metaphysics


What is Giorgio Agamben’s metaphysics, and in what relation does it stand to his philosophy as a whole? Giorgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher, political theorist, aesthetician, and public intellectual. This article focuses on some of the most abstract elements of Agamben’s thought, including some of the central topics of his metaphysics.


First, we will analyze Agamben’s theorization of ‘experience’ and its relationship with his analyses of modernity. Second, we will pick up the concept of ‘language’ and carry it through to Agamben’s conception of language in relation to death. The final topic covered is that of potentiality, and the article then concludes with a brief discussion of the relationship between Agamben’s metaphysics and his philosophy at large.


What Is Metaphysics?

flammarion engraving
A colorized version of the Flammarion engraving, first published in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 L’Atmosphere: Météorologie Populaire, artist unknown. Via Wikimedia commons.


What is metaphysics? There is a plethora of available definitions, but one of the most useful comes from Adrian Moore who focuses on making the most general possible sense of things. This definition is appealing because it captures some important elements common to otherwise diverse attempts at metaphysics. The idea of “sense-making” allows a broad range of epistemologies and philosophies of language into our definition, and the invoking of “generality” doesn’t presuppose any particular kind of generality.


We can see from Moore’s definition that metaphysics is likely to pervade almost every aspect of a philosopher’s authorship, and Agamben is certainly no exception. However, we can locate many of the central concerns of Agamben’s metaphysics in three texts: Infancy and History, Language and Death, and Homo Sacer.

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Infancy and History 

infancy of zeus painting
The infancy of Zeus, Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem, 1648, via the Mauritshuis.


Giorgio Agamben’s Infancy and History begins with an observation about modern life: that it cannot be experienced, but must rather be withstood. The context for Agamben’s insight is his theorization of the development of science, and the bifurcation between our subjective experience of modern life and the ever-expanding dimension of scientific knowledge. As Catherine Mills puts it,


“Agamben argues that the recuperation of experience entails a radical rethinking of experience as a question of language rather than of consciousness, since it is only in language that the subject has its site and origin.”


If the “location” of experience is language, this might allow us to realign knowledge with what can be thought. Whatever is “everyday” in everyday experience will delineate the outer limits of our comprehension, not merely the corpus of experiences forced upon us.


Language and Death 

still life with skull
Still-Life with a skull by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671, via the Web Gallery of Art.


Language and Death is inspired by a thought Agamben finds in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The gist is that mortals can experience death, and only human beings do so. Human beings are also the only creature who can speak, raising the question of the relationship between death and language. Heidegger observes the similarity between death and language as partly grounded in their shared capacity to forcibly manufacture a relation.


Agamben is concerned with the relationship between experiencing death as death, and language. We might question the qualitative distinction between the fear of death on one hand (animals also work as hard as we do to avoid death); and an experience of death as death on the other hand. Is our awareness of our own mortality special? At the very least, this depends on the philosophical weight we give to ‘awareness.’


Equally, we might think of this relation in various ways. We might think of it in terms of the way in which language allows for the construction of narrative – an experience of death as death means experiencing a moment that we have anticipated. We might also think of language more broadly, as including the linguistic forms of the empirical sciences – the development of the experimental method allowing us an ever clearer insight into the conditions of death, thereby heightening our awareness of death’s contingency and its inevitability.


Agamben on Language 

giorgio agamben
Photo of Giorgio Agamben, via the Bard College Hannah Arendt Center.


Agamben doesn’t conceive of himself as interpreting Heidegger per se, but rather that his work “turns around Heidegger.” In effect, he is using Heidegger as something of a jumping-off point and conceptual resource, not as a precursor. Agamben’s real precursor, Walter Benjamin, was Heidegger’s avowed intellectual and, perhaps, spiritual enemy.


Agamben posits the relation between language and death as a feature of the Western philosophical tradition. The relationship between language and death can only be investigated through the paradigm of a third concept, that of the negative. Agamben quotes both Hegel and Heidegger in trying to define this latter concept – the negative being “is that which he is not and is not that which he is” and “the placeholder of nothingness.”


Agamben’s approach to these relations leads us towards an ethics which is both a “proper dwelling place” and a place that has been liberated from the “informulability” of Western metaphysics. Agamben posits the collapse of metaphysics into nihilism, which is also the conflation of the ethical and the metaphysical; in other words, the convergence of the meaning of “meaning.”


What, then, is Agamben’s project in Language and Death, really? According to Agamben’s own account, it lies in the attempt to approach nihilism in a novel way, which means redefining it. It is an attempt to grasp the negative foundation of nihilism, and therefore the prevailing metaphysical currents of Western philosophy. Whatever comes after nihilism, we must understand it first. Agamben’s metaphysics is not, on the face of it, a positive project. It is an attempt to diagnose where we are.


Homo Sacer and Nihilism 

From The Boundaries of Nothingness series by Alex Plechko, 2017, via Behance.


In Homo Sacer, the last major element of Agamben’s metaphysics is brought into focus. This element revolves around the concept of potentiality. In certain ways, the concept of potentiality is the companion concept to nihilism. For Agamben, the exploration of potentiality holds the key to overcoming nihilism. He follows a thought in Aristotle, which is that whatever is potential can be defined in terms of the absence of im-potentiality.


In a certain sense, this is a banal claim – whatever is possible is not impossible. We can extend the thought so that we are saying something a little more substantial – by at least implying a definitional direction (the possible is only whatever is not impossible), but Agamben wants to use this claim in a different way. His focus is on the suspension or setting aside of im-potentiality as a condition of actuality – in metaphysical terms, as grounding our making sense of things in what is as opposed to in what isn’t. To follow Agamben here relies on making sense of the intersection of his metaphysics with his politics. At various points, Agamben emphasizes the continuity and complicated interrelation between the metaphysical and ethical, both in his philosophy and in the Western tradition.


Giorgio Agamben on Potentiality (and Aristotle) 

aristotle marble statue
Bust of Aristotle, Lysippos, after 330BC, via Wikimedia Commons


What Agamben finds in Aristotle is an articulation not just of potentiality as a metaphysical concept, but of the conflation between the metaphysical and the political through the concept of sovereignty. For Agamben, “an act is sovereign when it realizes itself by simply taking away its own potentiality not to be.” The non-contingent act represents or reflects the sovereign act – potentiality is, therefore, that which conditions both political freedom and metaphysical independence.


Agamben’s metaphysics runs directly into other areas of his philosophy. Catherine Mills observes two different ways in which this occurs. First, Agamben’s aesthetics function as a thorough investigation into the appropriation of language as such by particular literary forms (poetry, prose, and so on) and the relationship between poetry and philosophy. Second, Agamben’s conceptions both of the destruction of experience and of potentiality feed into many of his political concepts and analyses – spectacle, the state of exception, sovereignty, bare life, and others. Agamben’s metaphysics thus represents the basic structure of his philosophy as a whole.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.