Agamben, Plato, Heidegger, and the Thing of Thinking

A friend and I have agreed to read Giorgio Agamben’s Potentialities together, so we went this past Sunday to a pub to discuss the first of the essays in that collection.  the paper is entitled “The Thing Itself”, and it discusses Plato’s Seventh Letter, examining the significance of the phrase “the thing itself” in what Agamben describes as Plato’s “final and most explicit presentation of the theory of the Ideas.”

Agamben proceeds by looking closely at a lengthy quotation from the Seventh Letter, in which Plato distinguishes three things by which knowledge of a being is acquired (its name, its definition, and its image), a fourth thing, which is the acquired knowledge itself, and a fifth thing, which he initially says “must posit the thing itself, which is knowable and truly is.”  Agamben then goes on to argue that a textual variant provides reason to reconsider how this “thing itself” should be understood.  The variant implies, according to Agamben, that the thing itself  is “that by which the object is known, its own knowability and truth,” and that which appears “in the very medium of its knowability, in the pure light of its self-manifestation and announcement to consciousness.”  This thing itself, therefore, while possible only in and by virtue of language, in some way transcends language by virtue of its self-manifestation, becoming “precisely the thing of language.”

Earlier, however, just shortly before he quotes the passage from the Seventh Letter, Agamben summarizes what is at stake in the idea of the thing itself with the question, “What is the thing of thinking?”  The formulation of this question is similar enough to Heidegger’s famous question,”What is thinking?” that I can only read the one as being in relation to the other, though Agamben never acknowledges any such relationship. It is possible, therefore, that I am reading Agamben very much against his intentions when I suggest that his insertion of the words “the thing” into Heidegger’s formulation of “What is thinking?” in fact parallels the final argument of Agamben’s essay, that the task of the coming philosophy is “to restore the thing itself to its place in language.”  After all, there could be no better place to begin returning the thing itself to language than in the very question of thinking that Heidegger posed to thinking and to language, no better way to insist on the coming philosophy’s task than to ask after the difference between what is thinking and what is the thing of thinking itself?

1 comment
  1. Don Moore said:

    Further to our conversation Luke, Agamben’s locating the “thing itself” of thinking in language–or, rather, in the linguistic, signifying work of saying and writing as a mode of thinking and/or philosophizing–perhaps opens the possibility of the creative potential of language beyond its clumsy, always already deffered and dependent signification of ideas. If the “thing itself” is, indeed, graspable as a function of language, then the performative potentiality of language as a creative and affective process becomes more clear. This is not a language that one thinks of in relation to some post-structuralist utopia–simply thinking does not “make it so”–and it is not a language that is merely reflective–if always imperfectly–of unavailable origins and transcendental materiality. Thinking and the thing are inextricable–both materially and conceptually. That is what I suspect Agamben is in part trying to achieve here, but there are a few more essays of his we have to read before I am willing to be held to that conclusion…

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