Sie sind auf Seite 1von 17

International Yearbook

for Hermeneutics
Internationales Jahrbuch für Hermeneutik

edited by
Günter Figal and Bernhard Zimmermann

in cooperation with
Damir Barbarić, Gottfried Boehm, Luca Crescenzi, Ingolf Dalferth,
Nicholas Davey, Maurizio Ferraris, Jean Grondin, Pavel Kouba,
Irmgard Männlein-Robert, Hideki Mine, Hans Ruin, John Sallis,
Dennis Schmidt, Dirk Westerkamp

18 · 2019
Focus: Ways of Hermeneutics
Schwerpunkt: Wege der Hermeneutik

Mohr Siebeck

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Editorial directors / Redaktionsleitung:
Dr. Tobias Keiling, PhD
PD Dr. Anna Novokhatko
Editorial team / Redaktion:
Benjamin Harter
Jerome Veith
Cecilia Wezel
The Yearbook calls for contributions in English or German on topics in Philosophical
Hermeneutics and bordering disciplines. Please send manuscripts to yearbook-her men
eutics@altphil.uni-freiburg.de. All articles, except when invited, are subject to a double
blind review.
We assume that manuscripts are unpublished and have not been submitted for publi-
cation elsewhere. Citations are to be made according to the style in the present volume.
Detailed information on formatting manuscripts can be downloaded from: http://www.alt
phil.uni-freiburg.de/IYH.
Das Jahrbuch bittet um Zusendungen auf Deutsch oder Englisch zu Themen der Philo-
sophischen Hermeneutik und angrenzender Disziplinen. Bitte senden Sie Manuskripte
an: yearbook-hermeneutics@altphil.uni-freiburg.de. Alle Artikel, die nicht auf Einladung
der Herausgeber verfasst worden sind, werden in einem double blind review-Verfahren
begutachtet.
Es wird davon ausgegangen, dass es sich bei eingereichten Manuskripten um unver-
öffentlichte Originalbeiträge handelt, die nicht an anderer Stelle zur Veröffentlichung
vorgelegt worden sind. Literaturhinweise bitte wie im vorliegende,.n Band. Ausführliche
Hinweise für Manuskripte können unter http://www.altphil.uni-freiburg.de/IYH her-
untergeladen werden.

ISBN 978-3-16-158280-6 / eISBN 978-3-16-158281-3


DOI 10.1628/978-3-16-158281-3
ISSN 2196-534X / eISSN 2568-8391
The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliogra-
phie; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at http://dnb.dnb.de.

© 2019 Mohr Siebeck Tübingen. www.mohrsiebeck.com


This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form (beyond that permit-
ted by copyright law) without the publisher’s written permission. This applies particularly
to reproductions, translations and storage and processing in electronic systems.
The book was typeset by Martin Fischer in Tübingen using Bembo Antiqua and OdysseaU,
printed by Laupp & Göbel in Nehren on non-aging paper and bound by Buchbinderei
Nädele in Nehren.
Printed in Germany.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Contents

Bernhard Zimmermann (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)


Von der Hermeneutik des Fragments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

Günter Figal (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)


Der nicht dekonstruierbare Sinn.
Zu einer Hermeneutik des Primordialen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21

Anton Friedrich Koch (Universität Heidelberg)


Wahrheit, Subjektivität und die Lesbarkeit der Dinge . . . . . . . . . . . . 34

James Risser (Seattle University)


Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics . . . . . . . . . . . . 46

Charles Bambach (University of Texas-Dallas)


The Hermeneutics of Remembrance.
A Reading of Hölderlin’s “Andenken” . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58

Pavel Kouba (Karls-Universität Prag)


Anatomie der Gegenwart . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77

Tobias Keiling (University of Oxford / Universität Bonn)


Probleme hermeneutischer Anthropologie im Ausgang
von W. G. Sebald . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 93

Dennis J. Schmidt (Western Sydney University)


Philosophical Life and Moral Responsibility.
Wozu Philosophie? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113

Alejandro A. Vallega (University of Oregon)


Destruction and Memory. Hermeneutical Delimitations
in Light of Latin American Thought . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
VI Contents

Jennifer Mensch (Western Sydney University)


The Course of Human Development. 19th-century Comparative
Linguistics from Schlegel to Schleicher . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140

Rüdiger Görner (Queen Mary University of London)


In Gemeinschaft vereinsamen.
Der Chor als ästhetisches Phänomen bei Nietzsche . . . . . . . . . . . . . 155

Hans Rainer Sepp (Karls-Universität Prag)


Die Welt und das Reale. Frühe Antworten auf den späten
Neuen Realismus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 173

Nicole Haitzinger (Paris-Lodron-Universität Salzburg)


Manieristisches Ensemble: Architektur und Körperlichkeit
in der Spätrenaissance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 188

Yusuke Okada (Universität Halle-Wittenberg)


Ontologische Differenz in der philosophischen Hermeneutik
Gadamers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 198

Robert Lehmann (Universität Greifswald)


Widerstreit aushalten. Kritische Selbsterkenntnis
bei Husserl und Horkheimer . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 213

Ian Alexander Moore (St. John’s College Santa Fe)


For the Love of Detachment.
Trakl, Heidegger, and Derrida’s Geschlecht III . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233

Authors and Editors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 257

Index of Names and Subjects . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 259

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
46

Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics


by

James Risser (Seattle University)

While on the surface Agamben’s project of a political ontology seems far


removed from the concerns of hermeneutics – and in fact his few references
to hermeneutics indicates a critical stance towards hermeneutics – what he
says about language, tradition and history bears directly on these concerns.
In regards to language in particular, Agamben will pose the question of
the nature of language in relation to the sayability or communicability of
language that conditions the possibility of speech  – an issue that on the
surface resonates with Gadamer’s hermeneutics in which there is the task
of bringing the word to speak again. But for Agamben, unlike for Gadamer,
the issue of sayability is properly addressed only by attending to the character
of the beginning of language, a beginning that he claims is not without sig-
nificance for philosophy. The question of concern in the following remarks
is to determine what, if anything, in Agamben’s account of language holds
significance for hermeneutics.

1. Agamben and the Idea of Language

To move towards this question let me start by indicating exactly how Agam-
ben presents the issue of the beginning of language. In his essay “The Idea of
Language,” Agamben appeals to the theological idea of revelation to make a
point about the beginning of language. Revelation coincides with the word
of God which is, as found in the Gospel of John, the word in the begin-
ning. Theologically, what is revealed in this word is not a content, it does
not contain any propositions about a being, but only that there is language.
The pronouncement of the beginning says nothing about how the world is,
but only that the world is, that language (and therefore knowledge) exists.
Philosophically, what is granted in the beginning is the human ability to
see the world through language, but in this language itself remains invisible.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics 47

There is nothing before itself that can reveal it – there is no word for the
word. All one can say in this self-​revelation is that language exists. The word
in the beginning in effect presupposes itself. “Language exists” means then
that language presupposes itself in all saying, in all discourse. Every discourse,
every signifying, every saying something about something is possible only
on the basis of the presupposition that is announced in the name. In say-
ing something about something, the first something is simply named; it is
already given in language; it is presupposed in language in order to carry out
the signifying function. We can only speak of something by having a name.
For Agamben then, the presupposition
expresses the original relation between language and being, between names and things,
and the first presupposition is that there is such a relation. Positing a relation between
language and world – positing the presupposition – is the constitutive operation of human
language as conceived of by Western philosophy: ontology, the fact that being is said and
that saying refers to being.1

The issue for Agamben, though, does not end here. He writes: “It is with
this dwelling of the word in the beginning that philosophy and logic must
always reckon, if they are to be conscious of their task.”2 That task, as the
task par excellence of philosophy, is to attend to presuppositions, to make
the move towards what is presuppositionless, not unlike what we find in
Plato’s description of dialectic in the Republic.
But this is precisely the problem. Reckoning with the word in the begin-
ning cannot make an appeal to a metalanguage that would do nothing more
than provide a name for the name. Such an appeal would simply reenact
the structure of presupposition. Contemporary philosophy is also well aware
that an absolute metalanguage does not exist, and this is especially true,
Agamben tells us, for hermeneutics. As evidence of this acknowledgment,
Agamben notes Gadamer’s Schleiermacher quote at the beginning of Truth
and Method: “In hermeneutics there is only one presupposition: language.” It
is a presupposition that can be reconstructed and made explicit but it cannot
be transcended, a claim that Gadamer readily acknowledges in his work: “All
thinking about language,” he tells us, “is already once again drawn back into
language.”3 There is no first word of language, every beginning is simply
thetic in response to an always prior word.

1
 Giorgio Agamben, What is Philosophy?, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa, Stanford,
California 2018, p. 4.
2
 Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities, translated by Daniel Heller-​Roazen, Stanford,
California 1999, p. 43.
3
 Hans-​G eorg Gadamer, Man and Language, in: Philosophical Hermeneutics,
translated by David Linge, Berkeley, California 1976, p. 62.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
48 James Risser

That Gadamer does not attend to this presupposition is critical to the


way in which Agamben’s philosophy will separate itself from hermeneutics.
Agamben points out just how this non-​overcoming of its beginning deter-
mines the very character of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. It is a hermeneutics
that can question itself only about how understanding occurs in relation to
the circulation of its beginning. It is a hermeneutics set within a horizon of
infinite tradition and interpretation precisely because its “final meaning and
foundation must remain unsaid.” For Agamben, this lack of attention to the
presupposition is not without consequences, and not just for hermeneutics.
The same consequences hold for deconstruction for which language in the
beginning is always already trace and “the signifier is the irreducible cipher
of this groundlessness.” For Agamben, the thought that “records and shelters
this presupposition seems ethically equivalent to one that fully experiences
the violence and bottomlessness of its own destiny.”4 In effect, these move-
ments within contemporary philosophy, which play out the infinite play of
meaningful propositions, have not done enough to move beyond the nihil-
ism at the end of metaphysics. For Agamben it is not enough to say that
all comprehension is grounded in the incomprehensible. So Agamben asks:
“Can there be a discourse that, without being a metalanguage or sinking
into the unsayable, says language itself and expose its limits?”5
For anyone who reads Agamben for the first time, Agamben’s ques-
tion appears awkward, if not perplexing, though the intention behind the
question is not. Posed as a question concerning the presupposition, it is a
question that is ultimately central to his larger philosophical project, which
engages the political and with it the question of humanism. “There can be
no human community,” he writes, “on the basis of a presupposition – be
it a nation, a language, or even the a priori of communication of which
hermeneutics speaks. […] A true community can only be a community that
is not presupposed.”6
Still, we can readily make sense of his question. Undoubtedly, it is a
question that assigns to philosophy the task of being what Agamben calls in
4
 Agamben, Potentialities, p. 44.
 Agamben, Potentialities, p. 46.
 Agamben, Potentialities, p. 47. In What is Philosophy? Agamben says this same thing
5
6

in a slightly different way: “Precisely because being gives itself in language […] being
destines itself and unveils itself for speakers in and epochal history. […] And just as being
in language remain presupposed in their historical unfolding, so the presupposition de-
termines also the way in which the West has taught politics. The community that is in
question in language is in fact presupposed in the guise of a historical a priori or founda-
tion: whether it is an ethic substance, a language, or a contract, in any case the comment
takes the shape of an unattainable past, which defines the political as a ‘state’.” Agamben,
What is Philosophy?, p. 11.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics 49

Infancy and History an experimentum linguae, which is not unlike the Kantian
experiment in pure reason in which the limits of reason are presented in
reason. In Agamben’s experimentum linguae the limits of language are not
found in the direction of the referent outside language, “but in an experi-
ence of language as such, in its pure self-​reference.”7 That is to say, the limit
of language is not an external limit of something unsayable – the limit that
in the chapter on sense-​certainty in Hegel’s Phenomenology is the first limit
encountered by conscious thought in its attempt to grasp its object. Here, in
the Phenomenology, thought, and with it language, confronts a limit in rela-
tion to the referent (the certainty of sense) that language cannot say. Rather,
the limit of language lies with the unsayable that belongs to language in the
power of presupposition. The unsayable is “nothing else than a presupposi-
tion of language.”8 Agamben’s question then is simply asking how to think
that taking place of language against its unsayable presupposition.

2. The Issue of Presupposition

To follow his experiment, then, Agamben is asking us to think about the


distinctive interweaving of being and language in human speech. When we
attempt to think a being entirely without relation to language, we can do so
only by presupposing it in language. We give it a name and we are able to
speak of it by having a name. As soon as there is language the thing named is
presupposed as the nonlinguistic or non-​relational with which language has
established its relation. From the point of view of language, which is to say
from the point of view of Western metaphysics starting with Aristotle, being
is from the beginning divided into and existensive being (what Aristotle calls
primary oὐσία) and a predicate being (what is said of it). Here the character
of the presupposition is straightforward, it indicates that on which one says
something “and which cannot, in its turn, be said about anything.”9 The
“on-​which,” the ὑποκείμενον, the presupposition, the first oὐσία as singular
existence is in one sense excluded from language (it can only be named not
said) yet it is also “the foundation on the basis of which everything is said.”
Language attempts to hold together this “that it is” and “what it is,” and

7
 See, Giorgio Agamben, Infancy & History, translated by Liz Heron, New York
1993, p. 5.
8
 Agamben, What is Philosophy?, p. 35.
9
 Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, translated by Adam Kotsko, Stanford, Cali-
fornia 2016, p. 119.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
50 James Risser

being, which in the name “is always already presupposed by language to


language,” is always already divided between existence and essence.10
But this is not the whole story. Agamben sees in Plato a completely dif-
ferent ontological paradigm from the basic Aristotelian one just sketched. It
is a paradigm that has discovered the presuppositional structure of language
and makes this discovery the foundation of philosophical thought. This
other paradigm has the consequence of making a distinction between two
kinds of discourse – a discourse that is set within the exposure of language
in its beginning and a discourse that covers over that exposure. The first
kind of discourse belongs to philosophy proper, as we see in the passage in
the Republic were Plato describes dialectics as a kind of discourse that attends
to beginnings:
Then also understand by the other segment of the intelligible I mean that which logos
itself touches on with the power of dialectic [διαλέγεσθαι], making presuppositions
[ὑποθέσεις] not principle beginnings [ἀρχή] but truly presuppositions  – that is, step-
pingstones in order to reach the non-​presupposed at the beginning of the whole. Having
touched on it, again taking hold of what depends on it coming down to a conclusion
without making use of anything sensed at all but only of forms themselves, moving on
from forms to forms and ending in forms.11

While ordinary discourse begins with the presupposition, as if it were a


principled beginning and proceeds to acquire knowledge from it, the phi-
losopher does not treat the presupposition in this way; rather, the philoso-
pher treats it precisely as a presupposition in order to eliminate it. Eliminat-
ing the presupposition amounts to the removal of a shadow. The form, the
εἶδoς, is this word freed from its shadow; it is a word that Plato describes
with the adjective αὐτός (itself), as in αὐτὸ ὃ ἔστιν ἀγαθόν, the nature of
the good itself.12 Only by extinguishing the presuppositional power of lan-
guage is it possible for the thing to appear, a contact that Plato describes as
a touching (ἅπτεται). The form does not denote, but “touches.” The word
manifests the thing and at the same time also itself.13
What Agamben wants to say here in Plato’s name about the manner of
exposing language to its limits has its parallel in a well-​known key passage
in Plato’s Seventh Letter. Here Plato offers an account of why he has not
written down all of his philosophy. He begins with a statement about the
five things involved in knowledge:
For each of the beings there are three things necessary for there to be knowledge; the
knowledge itself is the fourth, and as fifth we must posit that same thing through which

10
 Agamben, The Use of Bodies, p. 129.
11
 Plato, Republic, translated by Allan Bloom, New York 1968, 511b.
12
 Agamben, The Use of Bodies, p. 130.
13
 Agamben, The Use of Bodies, p. 131.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics 51

(each entity) is knowable and truly is. The first is the name, the second the defining dis-
course, the third the image, and the fourth knowledge.

Plato then gives an example:


There is something called a circle whose name is the same we have just uttered; second is
its logos made of names and verbs: ‘that which at all points has the same distance from the
extremes to the center’. […] Third comes that which is drawn and rubbed out or turned
on a lathe and broken up – none of which things can befall the circle itself, around which
all the other things mentioned have reference for it is something of a different order from
them. Fourth comes knowledge, thinking (voῦς), and true opinion about these things; and
all this should be thought of as a single thing which does not dwell in words, or in bodily
shapes, but in souls from which it is clear that it is something different from the nature of
the circle itself and from the three mentioned above.14

Agamben reads this passage carefully and offers an interpretation of the


fifth thing that runs counter to standard interpretations. The fifth, the thing
itself, does not admit of verbal expression and yet it is that through which
the thing is knowable. But there is no evidence at this point to suggest that
the thing itself is some kind of mystical being. For that matter, there is no
evidence here to suggest that the circle itself is a quiddity, a what-​being, that
can be the object of knowledge. If such were so, Aristotle would have been
right about Plato in his criticism of the forms. There is also no evidence
to suggest that the circle itself is an extreme presupposition as a final and
absolute subject. On Agamben’s reading the circle itself does not actually
exist outside language. It only exists in language, while at the same time
remaining unspeakable.
The Stoics captured this idea in a comparable way in what they called
the λεκτόν. The λεκτόν refers to the distinctive mode of saying the thing
meant in speaking. It is neither the thing nor the word, but the thing in its
sayability. Unlike the bodily character of a spoken word, the λεκτόν is the
thing that has entered thought and speech. The λεκτόν does not actually
exist in its own right, but subsists in the logos. As such, the λεκτόν is simply
the being-​there of the thing as determinable and communicable in language.
So in the Seventh Letter, the thing itself is there in its being-​said in language,
and for this reason Agamben says that the thing itself is not a thing.
Agamben also carefully notes that in his example Plato does not begin
with the immediacy of a circle but says the circle is something said and
refers back to the circle itself by means of language. The circle itself (αὐτὸς
ὁ κύκλος) is thus for Agamben characterized in an appropriately complex
way: it is not an unsayable immediacy or something that is merely linguistic,

14
 Plato, Seventh Letter, translated by Levi Arnold Post, Princeton, New Jersey 1961,
342a–d.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
52 James Risser

given over to mediation; it is the circle “in and from its being in language.”15
The circle itself cannot be any of the four things and yet neither is it simply
other than them. It is what is in question in each of the four: it is that through
which the circle is sayable and knowable. The thing itself is the very sayability,
the very openness in language, which is at once an opening of the soul.16
When Plato then speaks of the weakness of the logos in this regard, we must
understand this weakness precisely as an inability to bring this knowability
to expression; it is a weakness such that the logos can only transform the
knowability of a being into a presupposition. In logos the thing itself de-
composes into a being about which one speaks and a ποῖον, a quality and a
determination that one says of it.
From this reading of the Seventh Letter, Agamben draws a conclusion that
at once announces the task of philosophy. Agamben writes:
The task of philosophical presentation is to come with speech to help speech so that, in
speech, speech itself does not remain presupposed but instead comes to speech. At this
point, the presuppositional power of language touches its limit and its end; language says
presuppositions as presuppositions and, in this way, reaches the unpresupposable and
unpresupposed principle that, as such constitutes authentic human community and com-
munication.17

The quote effectively answers Agamben’s question concerning a discourse


that can say “language itself and expose its limits.” In coming to speech to
aid speech in this way, Agamben thinks that for the first time we are truly
alone with language, abandoned without foundation. The speaking animal is
now left alone with this non-​foundational “language exists.” But this means
at once that the task of philosophy, broadly understood, is to undercut “the
logic of the constitution of any apparatus, linguistic or otherwise.”18 The task
of coming to speech to aid speech entails becoming conscious of the exclu-
sions that constituted order, with its conflicts and violence, puts in place.

3. Hermeneutics

To see how any of this bears on the issue of hermeneutics, we have to take
one last step with Agamben to see in his own terms what this beginning
movement now entails. This step is actually a large step that I can only sum-
marize here. At the center of Agamben’s philosophy is the notion of impo-
tentiality that he establishes in relation to the existence of language as that
15
 Agamben, What is Philosophy?, p. 55.
16
 Agamben, Potentialities, p. 35.
17
 Agamben, Potentialities, p. 35.
18
 Sergei Prozorov, Agamben and Politics, Edinburgh 2014, p. 62.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics 53

which is capable of expression. The existence in the existence of language is


in the mode of potentiality. What is decisive for Agamben, which he shows
through a reading of a crucial passage in a text of Aristotle, is that potential-
ity as a mode of being is not simply a potentiality to be, but a potentiality
not to be, an impotentiality, such that when potentiality passes over into
actuality this potentiality is not simply effaced. Agamben adds that for its
part actuality is nothing other than the self-​suspension of potentiality. With
this greater sense of potentiality, Agamben wants to think the origin of the
modal categories (of possibility, contingency, necessity) anew.
In his recent book What is Philosophy?, Agamben does this through the
concept of demand (exigere). “Philosophy,” he tells us, “always again finds
itself facing the task of rigorously defining the concept of demand,” and
suggests that the possibility of philosophy fully coincides with this demand.19
But what then is the concept of demand? In classical philosophy the concept
of demand is treated in relation to the distinction between existence and
essence, as we see in Leibniz: essence as potentiality demands existence. But
what if, Agamben asks, being itself were to be thought of as a demand, in a
way not unlike Spinoza’s conatus, a striving that is not exhausted? “With re-
spect to demand, every fact is inadequate and every fulfillment insufficient,”
precisely because it can never be placed on the level of realization. Invested
with demand, everything loses its fixity, contracting itself on potential, and
what the possible demands is not to become act. Demand is thus for Agam-
ben “the state of extreme complication of a being that implies in itself all its
possibilities.”20 Demand thus entertains a privileged relation with the idea;
in the process of explication, the inexplicable idea goes always deeper and
complicates itself. The most proper element of being is not the “that it is”
of being nor the “what” of being but the source of modifications which is
the “as.”
And what then can be said for hermeneutics, an operation that in fact is
centered on the “as”? In its Gadamerian form, hermeneutics wants to bring
the word to speak again, to bring the word that has already taken place – the
traditionary word – into its possibilizing condition in order to have it speak
again. The question Agamben indirectly poses to hermeneutics is whether
it is able to let language speak, even in its differencing, without presuppos-
ing. Why it needs to do so, as Agamben sees the problem, is the danger that
lies within every presupposing. It is the danger of a certain fixity that limits
the move to openness that hermeneutics so cherishes. Gadamerian herme-
neutics, which locates that openness in the logic of question and answer,

 Agamben, What is Philosophy?, p. 29.


19

 Agamben, What is Philosophy?, p. 34.


20

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
54 James Risser

intends to remove the fixity that circulates between the thing and its pre-​
understanding, but removing the fixity in the pre-​understanding does not
remove the presupposition, as Agamben understands it. The circulation of
the word still has an orientation towards fulfillment, and thus it still stands
under a being said and what can be said of it.
But this is a complicated matter. One could argue that Agamben spends
too much time returning to the fault at the origin of Western thought on
language, without ultimately escaping from the orientation of hermeneutics
to pursue a recovery of that which has been covered over. And if Agamben’s
pursuit of speaking without presupposing is asking philosophy to be atten-
tive to the complication of being that implies in itself all its possibilities –
that is to say, to attend in language not to the “that it is” and not to the
“what it is,” but to the source of all modifications, what hermeneutics calls
the as-​structure – have we not here located the task of philosophy within
the task of hermeneutics, which is also concerned with the “as”?
It is not without relevance to note here that Gadamer also makes use
of Plato’s Seventh Letter to say something about the task of hermeneutics.
Commenting on the weakness of the logos, Gadamer says that Plato leaves
no doubt that even knowledge of the ideas, although it cannot merely be
derived from language and words, is still not to be attained without them.
The weakness of the logos, which is the weakness of all four, is the weak-
ness arising from the fact that it is not possible to take hold of an isolated
idea purely by itself. The essential lingering with all four of the means could
never correspond to the ascent over the whole; all four remain trapped in
the dialectic of the image. So Gadamer writes: “that which is meant to
present something cannot be the thing. It lies in the nature of the means of
knowing that in order to be the means they must have something inessential
about them.” Gadamer reads Plato to be saying that this “is the source of
our error, for we are always misled into taking that which is inessential for
something essential. What occurs here is a sort of falling away from what
was originally intended, i. e., from the orientation of all these four means
toward the thing itself.”21 And in the context of the Seventh Letter in general,
Gadamer asks us to keep in mind that what Plato is speaking about here is
intended to refer to the community which exists among people speaking
to one another. Plato is asking the question about how a thing can be there
in what is said in such a way that it is truly there. Accordingly, the task of
philosophy for Plato is set against those unwilling to attend to the thing
itself, and the philosopher’s move to the whole of reality “is meant to point

21
 Hans-​G eorg Gadamer, Dialogue and Dialectic, translated by P. Christopher
Smith, New Haven, Connecticut 1980, p. 113.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics 55

beyond single opinions about any one thing.”22 And would this not also be
true for hermeneutics in its concern for the movement between word and
thing? The traditionary word is a word “in its inner dimension of multipli-
cation where it breaks forth as if from a center and is related to the whole,
through which alone it is a word.23
If then we were to attempt to draw Agamben’s task of philosophy to-
gether with the task of hermeneutics on the basis of these few remarks,
putting aside Agamben’s translation of the task of philosophy into his po-
litical ontology, we can ask ourselves what the work of language is actually
to accomplish in these respective tasks. Agamben writes: “In its deepest
intention, philosophy is a firm assertion of potentiality, the construction
of an experience of the possible as such. Not thought but the potential to
think […] is what philosophy refuses at all costs to forget.”24 Presumably
Agamben is not contradicting himself when he writes in the Appendix to
What is Philosophy? that “philosophy is today possible only as a reformation
of music.”25 By music Agamben means the experience of the Muse, which
pertains to the origins and the taking place of the word. Music expresses
the relation humans have with the event of the arche-​event of the word
that cannot be said within language. If it cannot be said, it can be evoked
“museically.” Beginning from the Muse is to begin with song. The Muse
gives singing to the human because he dwells in language without being
able to turn it into his voice. And if today music and the word seem so far
apart that is only because we have lost the awareness “of its being located in
the original place of the word.”26 So, as we see in Plato when it comes to
education and also politics we make attempts to go back beyond inspiration
for the event of the word whose threshold is barred by the Muse. And yet
the proper place of philosophy coincides with that of the Muse and is in
this sense necessarily proemial for Agamben; that is to say, it coincides in a
thinking that is done in the manner of a preamble or preface. Such thinking
follows what Plato tells us in The Laws about law: a law without a proem is
tyrannical. So too a discourse without a proemial element would be tyran-
nical. And presumably, if philosophical discourse has a proemial element, it
is not undergone for the sake of another philosophical discourse without
a proemial element that would be designated a proper discourse. If Plato is
right, as we learn from the Seventh Letter, philosophy remains in this sense

22
 Gadamer, Dialogue and Dialectic, p. 117.
23
 Hans-​G eorg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and
Donald Marshall, New York 1989, p. 458.
24
 Agamben, Potentialities, p. 251.
25
 Agamben, What is Philosophy?, p. 97.
26
 Agamben, What is Philosophy?, p. 101.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
56 James Risser

proemial, and as such it is most proper when it stands in front of every dis-
course, including non-​philosophical discourse. Unlike proper philosophical
discourse, a non-​philosophical discourse would not clash with its limit; it
would not show its insufficiency.
Pointing to this difference in discourse in our own time, Agamben writes:
“Our society in which music seems frenetically to pervade every place is ac-
tually the first human community that is not museically tuned.”27 This lack
of attunement means consequently that everything can be said indifferently,
which means without thinking. Against this vacuity Agamben restates the
task of philosophy, drawing from the spirit of Hannah Arendt who claims
for thinking the task of dissolving fixed habits of thought. It is the task of
thinking that coincides with the ability to interrupt chatter, the meaningless
flux of sentences and sounds. It is the task of thinking that can only emerge
from the limit experience of the “museic” principle of the word.
And what then for hermeneutics? Can we not see in it a similar task?
Still concerned with meaning and with the “as” – the juncture of being in
relation to which discourse becomes interpretation – can we not also as-
sign to hermeneutics the task of thinking in the proemial? This is not to say
that hermeneutics is no longer concerned with the effort of bringing the
word to speak again for the sake of communicative understanding. Rather,
it is only to suggest an expansion so that this effort would also be a matter
of unfixing the word from its moorings in the thoughtlessness of what has
already been said – that thoughtlessness that we find, following Agamben, in
a non-​philosophical discourse that ignores its modal condition. Such a task
makes sense if we grant that hermeneutics has never been concerned with
interpretation that simply repeats what has been said, as if it only proceeded
from presuppositions, from what has already been named and thus presup-
posed. Gadamer also read Plato and acknowledges that interpretation has
to attend to the limit at the beginning of language that possibilizes itself in
the very work of language.28 What is in the word in the beginning has not
yet been said, but is a word to be said. And more importantly, it is a word
that may never be said or cannot be said. What haunts hermeneutics is the
limit at the beginning from which one speaks – a limit in relation to which
there is that which cannot be anticipated. In a real sense hermeneutic inter-
pretation begins with what it cannot say, not because it can’t say language
and thereby resorts to an infinity of meaning as a result (Agamben’s initial
27
 Agamben, What is Philosophy?, p. 106.
28
 Gadamer’s account of language draws on the Christian idea of the inner word, which
itself a theological translation of the Stoic λόγος ἐνδιάθετος. Λόγος ἐνδιάθετος is con-
nected with some λεκτόν and is contrasted with the λόγος προφορικός, the saying of what
is meant in the medium of the sounding voice.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019
Agamben’s “Demand” and the Fate of Hermeneutics 57

critique of hermeneutics). It begins with what it cannot say precisely be-


cause it recognizes the infinite task of placing the word in the beginning,
just as Plato recognizes. And with respect to this limit, is there not always the
demand of interpretation extending into everything that is to be said, that
is to say, extending into the possibilizing condition of meaningful speech?
Do we not want to call interpretation precisely what Arendt calls thinking,
which means at once to engage with the matter that is not yet in the word?
And in turn, are we not able to see a hermeneutics in the work of Agamben,
although perhaps a hermeneutics of another kind?

Summary
This paper analyzes Agamben’s philosophy of language with a view to his implicit critique
of Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Agamben claims through an interpretation of key passages
in Plato that hermeneutics overlooks the critical significance of the presupposition of
language in its use of language. It is shown that Gadamer interprets the key passages in
Plato in a similar way and that Gadamer recognizes the need to consider what occurs in
every beginning with language. The paper thus concludes that hermeneutics is actually
more aligned with the critical function of a philosophy that emerges from the recognition
of the presupposition of language than previously thought.

Zusammenfassung
Thema des Beitrags ist die Sprachphilosophie Agambens und seine implizite Kritik an
Gadamers Hermeneutik. Anhand von Schlüsselpassagen im Werk Platons versucht Agam-
ben zu zeigen, dass Hermeneutik in ihrem eigenen Sprachgebrauch die Sprache immer
schon voraussetzt. Gegen diese Deutung wird gezeigt, dass Gadamer die einschlägigen
Platon-​Passagen ähnlich interpretiert wie Agamben und durchaus über die Voraussetzun-
gen des eigenen Sprechens nachdenkt. Im Ergebnis kann die Hermeneutik deshalb an
die kritische Funktion eines Nachdenkens anschließen, das die Voraussetzung der Sprache
anzuerkennen sucht.

Digital copy – for author’s private use only – © Mohr Siebeck 2019