- What Is Philosophy? by Giorgio Agamben
Agamben's latest book, first published in Italy in 2016 by Quodlibet and now translated into English by Lorenzo Chiesa for Stanford University Press, bears a straightforward, provocative title: What Is Philosophy? It must be admitted that this book requires a special familiarity with the discipline usually called philosophy, and with Agamben's main philosophical reflections. In fact, the book contains complicated and radical reinterpretations of some of the most studied texts of the Western philosophical tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Spinoza, Benjamin, Wittgenstein) as well as of some of the most neglected (Simplicius, Ammonius, Sextus Hempiricus, Amalric of Bena, Gregory of Rimini, Henry More). Yet, Agamben's What Is Philosophy? can also hardly be said to be merely about philosophy. As we will see, it is primarily a book about things, and then more specifically a book about what Agamben calls the "thing" of philosophy: what is "in question" or "at stake" in thought and language.1 So, the book's title should not deceive us: it is possible that what Agamben perseveres in calling philosophy is, in its likeness to what Heidegger at one point decided to call "thinking," similar to that indefinable discipline we call comparative literature.
Following and extending a line of thought from Language and Death (1991) as well as other writings, the book's first essay, "Experimentum Vocis," shows how the history of Western metaphysics can be read as the history of the objectification and exteriorization of language. Through grammar, the simple fact that we are speaking to each other—what Agamben would also call "the human voice"—was exteriorized and made analyzable. In fact, he notes, it is not by pure chance that "Plato and Aristotle have been considered the founders of grammar" (6). Yet this exteriorization has pivotal implications for language itself. In fact, once one exteriorizes language in this way, language becomes presuppositional and a series of unsolvable splits open within it. The creation of something external denominated "language" implies that "anything we name or conceive of is already somehow pre-supposed in language and knowledge by reason of the simple fact of being named" (3). This presuppositional structure, however, implies a split between the thing presupposed and the thing said, between the "thing itself" and the thing of language. This split is unsolvable. Moreover, according to Agamben, every split—in language and in being—which Western metaphysics and linguistics have found depends on this presuppositional structure, including Saussurre's distinction between langue and parole, Benveniste's between semiotic and semantic, or the broader [End Page 1439] dichotomies of existence/essence and act/potentiality. As a result of this presuppositional structure, the thing of language always remains unsayable in language. For Agamben, metaphysics is that interpretation of language and being that since the beginning has founded them on the "unsayable," namely on the unsayability of the presupposition.
We can glimpse here Agamben's main difference from, and criticism of, Jacques Derrida's philosophy, which he expounds in one of his digressions and that will become only clearer once we will return to Aristotle in the context of the third essay. In fact, something like the exteriorization of language we have discussed would have been impossible without what Agamben calls "the inclusive exclusion" of the voice (19). It is in this context that Agamben explores the process of exteriorization, which he traces back to Aristotle, rather than to Plato. In De Interpretatione, Aristotle introduces a complex hermeneutical structure to explain the relation between things, words, concepts, and the voice. What was new in Aristotle's study of language and its relation to man and the world was the introduction of the letter. For Aristotle, the letter is what allowed the human voice to be understood in the first place. As Agamben stresses, letters become in Aristotle the self-referential elements of the voice; they function as the "apparatus" through which the animal voice as unarticulated voice was finally articulated and made human. In this articulation through the letters, the voice was excluded in its being included—a structure that Agamben had already studied...