bat020 = Anindya Bhattacharyya, writer/activist based in London. philosophy, revolutionary socialism, mathematics, technology, dance music. | @bat020 | | obvious gmail address

Giorgio Agamben: What is a commandment?

notes from CRMEP seminar delivered at Kingston University on 28 March 2011audiodraft transcript


The Greek term arche means both origin (hence “archeology”) and command (hence “oligarchy”). This is not so strange; to be the first to do something is in a sense to be its chief. We could say that the origin is always already the commandment, that which rules. In this sense the origin never ceases beginning, it never goes away but persists as a governing principle: continuous creation.

We get this sense in Heidegger’s understanding of history as Geschichte, a period that is “sent” or “destined” by a hidden origin. This in turn has inspired two contrasting responses: the “anarchical Heidegger” of Reiner Schürmann that maintains the hidden origin but neutralises its commanding function; or the “democratic Heidegger” of Jacques Derrida, which neutralises the origin but maintains a commandment without origin.


There is surprisingly little on commandment as such in the philosophical literature. Obedience is frequently analysed, eg by Hobbes, but not commandment as an activity in itself, indifferent as to whether or not the command is effective, obeyed or understood. When it does appear in its own right it is typically treated as a moral category related to the will.

Aristotle’s logic is concerned solely with apophantic discourse, that which manifests truth or falsity (eg indicative sentences about a state of affairs). All non-apophantic discourse, such as commandment, threat or prayer, is relegated to being a matter of rhetorics or poetics. But he doesn’t say much about commandment in his writings on these topics either.


If commandment is not apophantic and does not describe or refer to a state of affairs, its meaning must lie in the act of utterance rather than the act of execution. It concerns an “ought” rather than an “is”, a Sollen rather than a Sein.

In this vein Émile Benveniste described the imperative as lacking denotation, as the “naked semantic core of a verb”. Antoine Meillet also noted that imperatives in European languages are typically the morphological root of the verb, and hypothesised that the imperative was the primitive form of a verb: “walk!” precedes “to walk” or “he walks”.

This opens up the possibility of an alternative ontology, or pre-ontology, based on commandment rather than assertion, on “be!” rather than “is”. While philosophical or scientific statements would fall under the ordinary “is”-based ontology, fields like law, religion or magic would operate in the imperative mode: “let there be…”

See also Paul’s letter to the Hebrews: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1), or JL Austin’s distinction between the locutionary (“is”) and illocutionary (“ought”) dimensions of a speech act. In modern life we are surrounded by commandments all the time: we are governed by the non-apophantic logos.


When the philosophical tradition does tackle commandment directly it conceives it as an act of will. But this is unsatisfactory as an explication, since the will is an even more obscure referent than commandment itself. Only crazy people try to give a definition of will! Nietzsche had a better idea when he tried to grasp will through commandment, will as that-which-commands. Moreover, the concept of will is missing from early classical philosophy – it is only introduced later, in Roman historicism and Christian theology.

As a verb “to will” is always closely associated with “to can”. [NB The verb “can” doesn’t have an infinitive form exist in English – Agamben seems to be inventing one here, deliberately or otherwise.] Both are empty modal verbs that need a non-modal supplement: “I will X”, “she can Y”.

Philosophy’s concern is precisely with the meaning of these empty modal verbs. Consider Kant’s drastic and almost insane injunction: “Man muß wollen können…” [“One must be able to will…” or “One must can will…” (that a maxim of our action become a universal law), from Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, §2.] This strange commandment points to the impossibility of Kantian ethics.


In Christian theology will is seen as that which checks potentiality, especially the paradoxical omnipotence of God. Early Christian theologists were obsessed with these paradoxes: God could undo the past, and so a raped virgin could recover her virginity! God could act arbitrarily, and so suddenly start running for no reason whatsoever!

These paradoxes point to a dark side of potentiality, and the need to qualify God’s absolute omnipotence (potentia absoluta) as an ordinary omnipotence (potentia ordinata). In the abstract God can indeed do anything, but in practice he only does what he wants to.

Will thus commands potentiality, thereby bounding it and domesticating it. Nietzsche’s hypothesis was therefore correct: to will is to command, or specifically, to command potentiality. And against this generalised and omnipresent commandment, we would invoke Bartleby’s response: “I would prefer not to.”


Rough notes from the Q&A session follow. As is the nature of these things, the discussion was often confused and I can’t assure people of the accuracy of what follows. I’ve only picked up on some of the questions asked and grouped together ones on a similar theme.

• Andrew McGettigan asked about the difference between the imperative and the subjunctive. He wondered whether many of Agamben’s examples of commandments were in fact subjunctive rather than imperative. Agamben replied (I think) by saying that the subjunctive is a minor or derived mode of the imperative, so both are forms of commandment. However, in response to a later question he implied that the imperative and subjunctive were quite separate, and that the subjunctive was not a commandment strictly speaking.

Anindya Bhattacharyya asked where mathematics fitted in to the distinction between “is” ontology and “be!” ontology. Mathematical discourse is full of statements like “Let G be a group…” that conjure up abstract and hypothetical entities. Even its formal axioms are best understood as commandments or laws invoking a mathematical realm as opposed to descriptions of a preëxisting mathematical reality.

Agamben replied by mentioning Émile Meyerson’s argument that the mathematical equality sign had an asymmetric commandment dimension to it. He added that maths straddled the distinction between the two ontologies, or perhaps formed a third ontology lying outside that distinction. He later returned to this possiblity of a third ontology – see below.

Peter Hallward asked whether it was possible to conceive of commandment entirely independently of its execution. Isn’t a commander whose troops routinely ignore his orders no longer a truly commander? He also questioned the role of Bartleby – surely his “passive preference” was even more obscure than the commands he was assailed with? Stella Sanford also asked about the role of being-commanded-by, citing Emmanuel Levinas. Didn’t this indicate a different approach to commandment, one that went beyond ontology?

Agamben replied that he invoked Bartleby as a rejoinder to the predominance of commandments, and not as a solution to our problems. He also reiterated (rather tetchily) that he was not interested in the “obeying” aspects of commandment and viewed such aspects as an evasion of the question of command-in-itself. The issues of execution or being-commanded-by involve apophantic reference, and thus fall under the sphere of the indicative rather than the imperative proper.

Another question also asked about the links between commandment and the problematic of free will, resistance, authority etc. Agamben responded by citing Hannah Arendt. The notion of political authority derives from the Roman senate; but the senate never commands in the imperative, it always suggests in the subjunctive. Hence authority had nothing to do with commandment. As noted above, this answer seemed to contradict the one given to Andrew McGettigan earlier.

• There were several questions that tried to tease out the ethical and political implications of Agamben’s position. If he was opposed to ontologies of commandment, did that mean he favoured the apophantic ontologies? Agamben replied no, he wanted to neutralise both in favour of a third superior ontology. Could his formulation perhaps supply solutions to longstanding ethical conundrums about the relationship between “is” and “ought”, and thereby save Kantian ethics? Agamben replied that he “never had solutions” and did not think Kantian ethics could be saved. He said Kantian ethics was a “terrible mistake” and that ethics cannot have the form of a command.

• I couldn’t quite hear what sounded like a fascinating question about the role of commandment in Islam, citing how commandment and law are laid out in the Iranian constitution. I couldn’t catch Agamben’s reply either, but he stated that Islam had “a stronger notion of commandment” than Judaism or Christianity. He also noted links between commandment and the form of ancient Roman law – “if X, do Y!” – as well as links between commandment and nomination, citing Genesis 2:19-20 where God creates the animals and Adam names them.

Download this document as a PDF: Agamben on Commandment 2011-03

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on 30 March 2011 by in Philosophy and tagged .