Thoughts in Potentiality: Provisional Reflections on Agamben's Understanding of Potentiality and Its Relevance for Theology and Politics

By Bertozzi, Alberto | Philosophy Today, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Thoughts in Potentiality: Provisional Reflections on Agamben's Understanding of Potentiality and Its Relevance for Theology and Politics


Bertozzi, Alberto, Philosophy Today


ProQuest: ... denotes Greek characters omitted (or Cyrillic characters omitted.)

This essay has a twofold purpose. First, it presents an interpretive account of Giorgio Agamben's understanding of potentiality, and, second, it is an appreciative critique of the analysis he and other authors offer vis-a-vis the relevance of such a notion for issues pertaining to the theological discourse of Christianity and contemporary reflection on politics. This double aim is mirrored in the division of the essay into three sections, the second and the third being amounting to half of one diptych. In the first section I trace the meaning of potentiality both in Agamben and in the key Aristotelian passages from the De Anima and the Metaphysics that he takes as the springboard for his reflection on the topic.' In the second and third sections I turn to such issues as the incarnation, freedom, and the political notion of sovereignty, both in relation to the understanding of potentiality put forth in the first section and in critical dialogue with other authors, most notably Slavoj Zizek and, briefly, Luigi Pareyson.

The Act of Impotentiality

Since things are, possibility is primordially necessary, and independent of everything.

G. Leopardi2

As Daniel Heller-Roazen suggests in his introduction to Agamben's Potentialities, the notion of potentiality as developed by the Italian philosopher springs from the fertile humus of his reflection on language.3 More specifically, potentiality is the very mode of existence of language. It is not so much that what is expressible is the thing itself (...), the actual referent (...) signified by a sign (...). Rather, as the philosophers of the Stoa pointed out, the verbal adjective "expressible" (...; dictum, dicibile, enuntiabile) is an entity distinguished from both signifier and signified: not merely a thing, but "a thing insofar as it has entered speech and thought,"4 and as such not subsumable under any one of the Aristotelian categories. Simplifying to the extreme, Agamben believes mat ultimately the thing itself is not the extra-linguistic, hence inexpressible and unintelligible Ding an sich. On the contrary, it is the very expressibility of the thing that comes to language, or the thing qua expressible insofar as it emerges in language. More essentially, the "expressible" refers not to the noumenal core of a given entity as that which will never be scarred, so to speak, by symbolization (in fact, that which cannot be scarred at all since it is inexpressible), but to the very event of language, which as such exists in the modality of a verbal adjective, as a "being capable." More radically still, the fact that there is language is taken to point directly to the undeniable fact of potentiality. Agamben assumes it as his task to elucidate the meaning of what it is to be potential.

The notion of potentiality (...; ) has become the shared heritage of the Western philosophical tradition at least since Aristotle, who coupled it with the concept of actuality (...; actus) in order to explain the phenomenon of movement, or change (...).5 Very briefly, potentiality, or potency, and actuality are determinations of being pertaining to both substance and accidents. So, for instance, Aristotle argues that bronze, while actually bronze, is a statue only potentially. Likewise, the built is the actualized buildable, and movement is precisely this actualization of what is potential.6

Now, it is on this general background that Agamben brings into the picture Aristotle's notion of sensation (...).7 More specifically, he points at the aporia of sensation as explicated in the De Anima:

Here arises a problem [...]: why do we not perceive the senses [...] themselves, or why without the stimulation of external objects do they not produce sensation, seeing that they contain in themselves fire, earth, and all the other elements, of which-either in themselves or in respect of their incidental attributes-there is perception [. …

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