By his very own description, Alain Badiou’s philosophy is “resolutely classical” in the sense that it “does not submit to the critical injunctions of Kant.” For Badiou, to be a “classical” philosopher is to see “the Kantian indictment of metaphysics as null and void” and to hold that it is “possible to think Being” once again.Footnote 1 Such an attempt to “think Being” is also found in the works of Giorgio Agamben, who shares with Badiou a certain hostility towards Kant’s critical injunctions on ontology.Footnote 2 According to Agamben, it was with Kant’s re-definition of “the transcendental” that philosophy ceased to “think Being”: “when with Kant the transcendental ceases to be what thought must get to the bottom of and instead becomes the stronghold in which it takes refuge, then philosophy loses its relation with Being.”Footnote 3 For Agamben, as for Badiou, Kant’s “transcendental” turn marks a devastating turning point in the trajectory of western philosophy or even the so-called history of Being.

This article offers an examination of the role of the “transcendental” in the works of Badiou and Agamben. Although Badiou and Agamben are by no means “transcendental” philosophers in the Kantian sense, this article argues that their respective projects of ontology both recover a pre-modern or indeed pre-Kantian classical sense of “transcendentality” as the essential properties of being which can be universally found in any and every particular thing insofar as it exists.Footnote 4 While this pre-modern “classical” conception of transcendentality is often found in explicit discussions of the Scholastic transcendentals of the one, the true, and the good across Agamben’s various works, a classical conception of the transcendental can also be implicitly found in Badiou’s mathematical ontology which is consciously developed in opposition to Kant’s transcendental idealism. But although both Badiou’s and Agamben’s ontologies have “transcendental” notions which bear remarkable resemblances to the classical transcendentals, as opposed to the “essentialist” character of classical metaphysics, both of their projects are attempts to develop an “inessential” ontology that does not prescribe or impose any essence or nature onto things themselves: For both Badiou and Agamben, the identity and quality of beings are not defined or measured by some transcendent source of essence.

While there have been some insightful studies on Badiou’s and Agamben’s complicated relationship with Kant’s transcendental idealism in the existing philosophical literature,Footnote 5 there has been little discussion of how their ontologies relate to the “classical” transcendentals as expounded in pre-modern metaphysics.Footnote 6 By examining Badiou’s and Agamben’s projects with reference to the pre-modern “classical” conception of transcendentality, this article seeks to offer a new perspective not only for the interpretation of Badiou’s and Agamben’s influential work, but also for our understanding of the place of “transcendentality” in contemporary philosophy and its relation to the developments in the history of western metaphysics more broadly. This article begins with a brief overview of the pre-modern classical conception of transcendentality and its differences from Kant’s. This is followed by two sections which respectively examine the “transcendental” character of Badiou’s and Agamben’s early and later works. After this, by way of comparing and contrasting Badiou’s and Agamben’s ontologies with previous versions of transcendental philosophy, the article concludes by highlighting how Badiou’s and Agamben’s quasi-classical conceptions of “atheistic transcendentality” can contribute to our understanding of the unique characteristics of contemporary continental philosophy in relation to the wider currents in the history of metaphysics.

1 Kant and the “transcendental philosophy of the ancients”

In contemporary philosophy, the notion of the “transcendental” is often associated with Kant’s influential account of the transcendental ideality of time and space as conditions for human cognition. However, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant actually refers to his own conception of “transcendental philosophy” as an alternative to an older “transcendental philosophy of the ancients.”Footnote 7 As opposed to Kant’s “modern” account philosophy of the “transcendental” which is “occupied not so much with objects as with our mode of knowledge of objects,” the older “transcendental philosophy of the ancients” is concerned with the essential properties of things themselves.Footnote 8 As Kant notes in the first Critique, this “older” transcendental philosophy is most famously expounded in the Scholastic proposition “quodlibet ens est unum, verum, bonum”—“every being is one, true, good.”Footnote 9 According to this medieval thesis, the three terms of oneness, truth, and goodness are known as “transcendentals” (transcendentalia), which are “common notions” (communissima) that are properties of all things: They are called “transcendentals” because they “transcend” the Aristotelian categories in terms of their universality. Insofar as “every being is one, true, good,” the notions of “oneness,” “truth” and “goodness” are said to be coextensive with “Being” itself.Footnote 10

Unlike other predicates or adjectives such as “angry,” “red” or “smelly,” each and every being can be said to be “one,” “true,” and “good.” While it would be odd to say that a chair is “angry,” that a number is “red,” or that a sentence is “smelly,” all of these things could be predicated with the classical transcendentals. Everything can be said to be “one” insofar as it is one thing or indeed a unit with some level of unity or oneness (every chair is one chair, every number is one number, every sentence is one sentence). Likewise, according to the “classical” medieval outlook, even if things are not fully or “actually” good, everything has the potency to be good. Thus, everything can be predicated with “goodness” (“that is a good chair,” “that is a good sentence,” “that is a good number”). In a similar way, all things can be said to be “true”—or, so to speak, “truthful” (“that is a true chair,” “a true sentence,” “a true number”): There is some level of truth in all things insofar as they (“truly”) exist and are intelligible—that they contain some sense of “truth.” According to Scholastic metaphysics, the oneness, truth, and goodness we find in each and every being in the world are reflections of God’s divine perfections: For God is the original and exemplary definition of oneness, truth and goodness—the transcendent measure by which we measure the oneness, truth and goodness of all created things. For Scholastic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, created things can be said to be one, good, or true only by virtue of their participation in God’s divine perfections—or what are sometimes called the “divine names”—of Oneness, Truth, and Goodness.Footnote 11

However, according to Kant, the Scholastic “transcendental predicates of things are, in fact, nothing but logical requirements and criteria of all knowledge of things in general.”Footnote 12 As opposed to being “taken as material, as belonging to the possibility of things themselves,” the ancient and medieval notions of unum, verum, bonum are merely “the criterion of the possibility of a concept” and “not of its object.”Footnote 13 Thus, Kant argues that classical metaphysics “incautiously” mistakes our “criteria of thought” for “properties of things in themselves.”Footnote 14 With this shift of focus from the property of things themselves to the mode of knowledge of things, Kant’s famous “Copernican revolution” is paralleled with a redefinition of “transcendental philosophy” which became one of the defining concepts of modern thought.Footnote 15 However, as we see in the following sections, Kant’s revolutionary “Copernican” turn to the transcendental subject is questioned and challenged by a number of contemporary continental philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben. As opposed to being concerned with the conditions and limits of human knowledge, Badiou and Agamben not only consciously adapt notably non-Kantian philosophical approaches as to “think Being,” their respective projects can moreover be seen as works which recast a “classical” sense of the transcendentals as common notions or indeed dimensions of Being itself—in some sense, returning to a mode of philosophising that Kant would associate with the “transcendental philosophy of the ancients.”

2 Alain Badiou

2.1 Earlier Badiou: mathematical ontology

While one may characterise the turn from medieval to modern philosophy in terms of a shift from the Scholastic definition of the “transcendental” as the ontological structure in which entities exist to Kant’s definition as the epistemological conditions for our mode of cognition of things,Footnote 16 for Badiou, the turn to modernity is marked by a change in the ontological status of “the One”:

Modernity is defined by the fact that the One is not… that “God is dead”… for we moderns, the Multiple­-without-One is the last word on being qua being. Now the thought of the pure multiple, of the multiple considered in itself, without consideration of what it is the multiple of, is called: “mathematical set theory.” Therefore every major concept of this theory can be understood as a concept of modern ontology.Footnote 17

In Badiou’s view, to ontologically posit that “the One is not” is to say that God is dead, and to truly move ontological inquiry away from its historic theological captivity—to move beyond so-called onto-theology.Footnote 18 As Badiou puts it:

There is no God. Which also means the One is not. The multiple “without-one”—every multiple being in its turn nothing other than a multiple of multiples—is the law of being. The only stopping point is the void.Footnote 19

All things—all beings—are multiples. For Badiou, multiples cannot be broken down or divided into ones, but only into further multiples: “The multiple is only ever composed of multiples. Every multiple is a multiple of multiples.”Footnote 20

Such an account of multiples consisting of further multiples—of the multiple that is “without-One”—is something that Badiou finds in modern “mathematical set theory”: “Any multiple is intrinsically multiple of multiples: this is what set theory deploys.”Footnote 21 It is for this reason that Badiou famously identifies mathematics—and specifically Cantorian set theory—as ontology itself in Being and Event (1988). This understanding of mathematics as ontology provides Badiou with a way to overcome the (onto-)theological focus on the One:

By initiating a thinking in which the infinite is irrevocably separated from every instance of the One, mathematics has, in its own domain, successfully consummated the death of God.Footnote 22

For Badiou, the most distinctive and profound ontological insight of set theory is that things (as sets) are not reducible to the one, but to zero or the “not”—the “stopping point” which Badiou calls “the void.”Footnote 23 Badiou notes: “Everything can potentially be reduced to a multiple without quality, made of the void alone.”Footnote 24

Drawing on von Neumann’s set-theoretical formulation of ordinal numbers, Badiou speaks of the empty set—denoted as “0” or “Ø” (what Badiou calls “the void”)—as “the inaugural point of being.”Footnote 25 All subsequent numbers or “successor ordinals” after 0—such as 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on—can be formulated set-theoretically in terms of the empty set, i.e. in terms of the number 0 or Ø:

$$\begin{array}{*{20}l} 0 \hfill & { = \emptyset } \hfill \\ {1 = \left\{ 0 \right\}} \hfill & { = \left\{ \emptyset \right\}} \hfill \\ {2 = \left\{ {0,1} \right\}} \hfill & { = \left\{ {\emptyset ,\left\{ \emptyset \right\}} \right\}} \hfill \\ {3 = \left\{ {0,1,2} \right\}} \hfill & { = \left\{ {\emptyset ,\left\{ \emptyset \right\},\left\{ {\emptyset ,\left\{ \emptyset \right\}} \right\}} \right\}} \hfill \\ {4 = \left\{ {0,1,2,3} \right\}} \hfill & { = \left\{ {\emptyset ,\left\{ \emptyset \right\},\left\{ {\emptyset ,\left\{ \emptyset \right\}} \right\},\left\{ {\emptyset ,\left\{ \emptyset \right\},\left\{ {\emptyset ,\left\{ \emptyset \right\}} \right\}} \right\}} \right\}} \hfill \\ \end{array}$$

While it is not our main purpose to explicate Badiou’s (admittedly contested) use of mathematics here, this brief presentation of his account of the composition of ordinal numbers can highlight two key features of Badiou’s set-theoretical ontology.Footnote 26

First, understood as a set, the number 1 is denoted by “{0}” or “{Ø}” (which is to be distinguished from the number zero which is an empty set represented by “Ø” [without the braces to denote the set]): number 1 is a set that is composed by the number 0 or Ø, a set that contains the number zero as an element.Footnote 27 It is in this sense that the one may be said to be reducible to zero or the void: All things are fundamentally reducible not to the one but the void—“the only stopping point.” To the extent that all numbers can be regarded as sets, they may be described as being “composed of the void.”Footnote 28 Second, given that every “one” always already includes the void—that every {Ø} includes Ø, and that all things (as sets) are ultimately composed of the void, the void is accordingly intrinsically included in all numbers and indeed in all sets, i.e. in all beings. As Badiou puts it:

The void is a subset of any set: it is universally included… [This] testifies to the omnipresence of the void. It reveals the errancy of the void in all presentation: the void, to which nothing belongs, is by this very fact included in everything.Footnote 29

By attributing “omnipresence” to the void, one might wonder whether there is still a certain “theological” character to Badiou’s set-theoretical ontology. But for Badiou, this is not an “omnipresence” of some transcendent divine figure, but rather an omnipresent declaration of an absence or “lack”: “the void is presented everywhere in its lack.”Footnote 30 According to Badiou, set theory’s “omnipresent” presentation of the void is nothing other than a declaration and affirmation of the death of God: “Ultimately, this halting point is the void, not the One. God is dead at the heart of presentation.”Footnote 31 The empty set Ø (i.e., “zero” or the “not,” instead of the “one”) is not just the “halting” or “stopping point” but also “the absolute initial point of being” from which all the other sets are unfolded.Footnote 32 Thus, for Badiou, the void Ø—the “not”—is both the initial point and the halting point of all being: to put it in Christian theological language, the void is the archè and telos of all things.Footnote 33

If all things or all beings are sets, then there is, so to speak, set-ness in all things.Footnote 34 The empty set—what Badiou calls the void—is something that formally predicates or indeed “sets” all things.Footnote 35 As such, what we have here is in this regard something rather similar to the classical transcendentals: Common notions which are essential properties of all things. Moreover, as if echoing Thomas Aquinas’s designation of “Being” as the most proper name of God,Footnote 36 Badiou speaks of the void as “the proper name of Being.”Footnote 37 Just as all creatures are said to bear a likeness to God’s perfect oneness, truth and goodness in Aquinas’s theological metaphysics,Footnote 38 all beings are said to be marked by the void that is “included in everything” in Badiou’s atheistic ontology.Footnote 39 As opposed to all things reflecting the perfect oneness, truth, and goodness of God, Badiou’s universal and omnipresent—and indeed, “transcendental”—notion of the void is one which signifies the death and absence of God—that the divine is not. It is this void—this not and absence of God—that underlies all being.Footnote 40 To paraphrase Psalm 19: All beings declare the death of God, all creatures proclaim his absence.Footnote 41

2.2 Later Badiou: logical phenomenology

For Badiou, the “omnipresent” declaration of the death of God by the void is formally an ontological thesis as opposed to a phenomenological one.Footnote 42 Positioning himself against the phenomenological tradition, Badiou draws a peculiar distinction between ontology and phenomenology: Whereas ontology is mathematics, phenomenology is logic.Footnote 43 As Badiou remarks in Logics of Worlds (his 2006 sequel to Being and Event): “just as being qua being is thought by mathematics (a position that is argued for throughout Being and Event), so appearing, or being-there-in-a-world, is thought by logic [in Logics of Worlds].”Footnote 44 As we can observe from Badiou’s use of the plural for both “logic” and “world” in title of Logics of Worlds (and his use of the indefinite article in “being-there-in-a-world”—as opposed Heidegger’s “being-in-the-world”), there is a deep commitment to the plurality or multiplicity of “worlds” (or “situations”) in Badiou’s project—something that is already developed in Being and Event.Footnote 45

Following the central ontological thesis that “the One is not”—that there can be no oneness, unity or indeed “wholeness” in being—in Being and Event, Badiou fervently asserts that “there is no Whole” in Logics of Worlds:

we will call universe the (empty) concept of a being of the Whole. We will call world a “complete” situation of being. Obviously, since we show that there is no universe, it belongs to the essence of the world that there are several worlds, since if there were only one it would be the universe.Footnote 46

According to Badiou, the thesis that that “there is no universe” or “no Whole” is simply an extension of “the conceptual consequences of Russell’s paradox.”Footnote 47 In Badiou’s reading, Russell’s paradox (which famously shows that there can be no universal set of all sets that are not members of themselves) provides a “logical demonstration” that the existence of an absolute totality is inconsistent and self-contradictory—which, for Badiou, means that “a set of all sets cannot exist.”Footnote 48

Before explicating the full implications of this assertion that there can be no “set of all sets,” it is important to highlight why the “inexistence of the Whole” is integral to the formulation of Badiou’s “logical phenomenology” in Logics of Worlds. According to Badiou, since “there is no Whole,” there can be “no uniform procedure of identification and differentiation of what is.”Footnote 49 For Badiou, given that there is no absolute totality—no “set of all sets” or “world of all worlds” (what he calls a “universe”), each world or situation has its own “logic”—what Badiou calls “transcendental indexing”—which objectively describes, regulates and organises the appearances of things within those respective worlds.Footnote 50 There are as many transcendental logics as there are worlds—hence the book title Logics of Worlds, which is why Badiou argues that there cannot be a “unified ‘centre’ of transcendental organisation, such as the Subject is for Kant.”Footnote 51 As such, at the heart of Badiou’s so-called “objective phenomenology” is a replacement of Kant’s subjective account of the transcendental with a logical conception of the “transcendental”—as Badiou admits: “The [non-Kantian] concept of ‘transcendental’ is without doubt the most important operational concept in the whole of [his] theory of appearing.”Footnote 52

Indeed, in his acknowledgement that he is “reprising the old word ‘transcendental’” in Logics of Worlds, Badiou explicitly states that this “old word” is “detached from its constitutive and subjective value” in his objective phenomenology.Footnote 53 What Badiou seeks to present with his “logical” formulation of the transcendental in Logics of Worlds is an “analytic of being-there [that] does not presuppose subject”—in other words, “a transcendental constitution (without subject).”Footnote 54 Underlying Badiou’s non-subjective “logical” account of the transcendental is ultimately a deeply anti-Kantian sentiment, as Badiou openly admits in Logics of Worlds:

Kant is the one author for whom I cannot feel any kinship… The critical machinery he set up has enduringly poisoned philosophy.Footnote 55

However, despite his strong anti-Kantian rhetoric and his aspiration to develop a subject-less phenomenological account of the transcendental, Badiou’s conception of “the transcendental” in phenomenological terms of appearance—as opposed to ontological terms of “Being” itself—nonetheless still resembles Kant’s critical idealist definition of transcendentality.Footnote 56

At this point, it is worth revisiting an earlier interview Badiou held with Peter Hallward in 1997. Hallward asks: “Isn’t it a kind of transcendental condition, an enabling condition of our existence, that we must always be specific to a situation?” To which Badiou responds:

I take it to be an ontological principle… I’ve no need to call it transcendental… I try to limit the use of the word “transcendental” to its Kantian meaning. “Transcendental” refers back to the subjective conditions of experience, and Kant never stops telling us that it is precisely not a law of being. It is a law of the unity of the phenomenon, not a law of being. If you want to extend the meaning of the word “transcendental” to the point that you call, in the end, transcendental the first or ultimate condition of thought in general, of existence in general, then at that point I’d agree: yes, it’s transcendental.Footnote 57

As we see from Logics of Worlds, Badiou inevitably moves away from understanding transcendentality in the Kantian meaning of the subjective conditions of experience, but nonetheless, like Kant, in Logics of Worlds Badiou still sees the “transcendental” as “a law of the unity of the phenomenon, [and] not a law of being.” However, if we understand “transcendentality” not in a Kantian way, but in a pre-Kantian if “classical” sense—in Badiou’s words, not as “the first or ultimate condition of thought in general” but “of existence in general”—then it seems that Badiou would be happy to say that his mathematical account of being (and not appearance) is indeed “transcendental.”

However, the “transcendental” attribution of the void to all things in Badiou’s ontology is not a metaphysical ascription of essences or properties (such as oneness, truth, or goodness) to things that one finds in Scholastic ontology and its corresponding theological conception of the transcendentals. Badiou’s ontology is deeply atheistic not just with its replacement of “the one” with the void or the not as a transcendental notion that is convertible with “Being.” Just as there can be no “set of all sets” according to his set-theoretical ontology, there is no God-like metaphysical structure such as an ideal “Form of all forms” or “value of values” by which we measure and evaluate things, nor is there a universal Platonic Good from which all things derived their being and goodness.Footnote 58 For Badiou, while all things (sets) have “set-ness,” there is no transcendent “set of all sets” in which these sets participate: All sets are all equally sets—no set is more perfect or less perfect as a set than any other set.Footnote 59

For Badiou, the inexistence of “a set of all sets” is one of the reasons why his set-theoretical ontology is “inessential”: “A set, in Cantor’s sense of the word, has no essence besides that of being a multiplicity; it is without external determination,” precisely because “there cannot be a set of all sets” to act as an external or indeed transcendent metaphysical principle to determine or prescribe essences or properties to beings.Footnote 60 It is for this reason that Badiou says that his “ontology attributes no other property to multiples than existence.Footnote 61 Badiou’s set-theoretical ontology “makes no claims concerning the nature of being… it has nothing to say about the qualities of identity of any concrete situation.”Footnote 62 While Badiou is not transcendental thinker in the Kantian sense, his “transcendental” ontology is a distinctively modern one insofar as it consciously avoids prescribing essences or natures to things.Footnote 63 As we see in the following section, this “modern” attempt to develop an inessential transcendentality is something that is also—and perhaps more explicitly—found in the anti-essentialist ontology of one of Badiou’s contemporaries: Giorgio Agamben.

3 Giorgio Agamben

3.1 Earlier Agamben: “whatever” being

In The Coming Community (1990), his first book that was translated into English (in 1993), Giorgio Agamben begins with a discussion of Scholastic transcendentals:

The coming being is whatever being. In the Scholastic enumeration of transcendentals (quodlibet ens est unum, verum, bonum seu perfectum—whatever entity is one, true, good, or perfect), the term that, remaining unthought in each, conditions the meaning of all the others is the adjective quodlibet.Footnote 64

According to Agamben, the notion of quodlibet or “whatever” (“qualunque” in Agamben’s Italian) is significant because the medieval transcendentals are all predicted with “whatever”—“whatever entity is one, true, good, or perfect”: Quodlibetality is a condition that is more universal than the conventional Scholastic transcendentals such as oneness, goodness and truth. As such, Agamben argues that the adjective quodlibet is one which “conditions the meaning of all the others.” If quodlibet or what Agamben calls the “whatever” is a notion which conditions all other transcendentals and is itself more universal than them, then it may be said to be “the transcendental of transcendentals” or what Agamben calls “the architranscendental” later in The Coming Community.Footnote 65

However, despite the radical universality or commonality of “whatever” as an “architranscendental,” Agamben insists that “whatever is the figure of pure singularity.”Footnote 66 As Agamben notes:

The Whatever in question here relates to singularity not in its indifference with respect to a common property (to a concept, for example: being red, being French, being Muslim), but only in its being such as it is. Singularity is thus freed from the false dilemma that obliges knowledge to choose between the ineffability of the individual and the intelligibility of the universal.Footnote 67

For Agamben, thinking the “whatever” as “the architranscendental” provides a framework which can ontologically account for the existence of an entity simply for “its being such as it is,” without the “essentialist” need to defer to some supposedly “higher” or “transcendent” universal or common property: the individual thing is “not reclaimed for another class nor for the simple generic absence of any belonging, but for its being-such.Footnote 68

In traditional essentialist metaphysics, a particular red entity would be understood (or predicated) as being “red” by belonging to the set of “red things”—or in Platonic terms, by participation in the universal idea of “redness.” The particular red entity can never be as perfectly or properly red as the universal ideal of “redness”: the particular is always hierarchically understood as being subordinate to the universal, always less “proper” and less “perfect” than the universal. It is against such a hierarchical outlook of traditional metaphysics that Agamben develops what may be called a “flat ontology” of equality by positing “whatever being” as a transcendental or indeed “the architranscendental.”Footnote 69 To the extent that the “whatever” is a property that is found equally in all things—that no being is more or less “whatever” than any other, each individual thing may be understood and affirmed in its “singularity” (as opposed to its “particularity,” which would always be understood in some hierarchical relation to “the universal”).Footnote 70 Each and every thing equally “matters” for what and how they are in themselves, and not by virtue of their relation to “the universal” or “the proper”—as Agamben puts it: “Quodlibet ens is not ‘being, it does not matter which’, but rather ‘being such that it always matters’.”Footnote 71

Not unlike the “transcendental” role played by the empty set or the void in Badiou’s mathematical ontology,Footnote 72 Agamben’s transcendental “whatever” is also a structure of “emptiness”: “Whatever adds to singularity only an emptiness… Whatever is a singularity plus an empty space.”Footnote 73 For Agamben, the “whatever” is “an emptiness” because it is a notion that can affirm the commonality between things without (re-)establishing any kind of hierarchical metaphysical essentialism.Footnote 74 Drawing on the ontology of Duns Scotus, Agamben writes:

Duns Scotus [teaches] that there is no difference of essence between common nature and haecceity. This means that the idea and common nature do not constitute the essence of singularity, that singularity is, in this sense, absolutely inessential.Footnote 75

Echoing Deleuze’s genealogy of the univocity of being,Footnote 76 Agamben places Spinoza in the same philosophical lineage of “inessential” ontology as Duns Scotus:

Nothing is more instructive in this regard than the way Spinoza conceives of the common… what is common cannot in any case constitute the essence of the single case. Decisive here is the idea of an inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence… Whatever is constituted not by the indifference of common nature with respect to singularities, but by the indifference of the common and the proper, of the genus and the species, of the essential and the accidental.Footnote 77

At the heart of Agamben’s formulation of the quodlibet as “the architranscendental” is an account of “inessential commonality,” his theory of the “whatever” is not only a re-conception of the medieval Scholastic transcendentals but also a re-conception of commonality that frees the individual from (what Agamben sees as) the “essentialist” trappings of traditional metaphysics.

To the extent that a “whatever singularity” is “a being that is its mode of being” which cannot be accounted for “in terms of the division that dominates Western ontology, either an essence or an existence,”Footnote 78 Agamben’s “whatever” is an ontological figure of “pure Being”: The being that the “whatever” is simply is its mode of being, what it is (its essence) coincides with its way of being (its existence)—as Agamben puts it in Heidegger’s formulation of Dasein, its “essence lies in its existence.”Footnote 79 Insofar as there is a coincidence—or indeed “indifference”—of essence and existence in Agamben’s “whatever,” this ontological figure of “pure Being” may be compared to the classical theological conception of God as “Being itself” (ipsum esse),Footnote 80 as notably expressed in the aforementioned designation of “He who is” (qui est) as the “most proper name” of God.Footnote 81 As Agamben summarises this traditional metaphysical conception in his words: “[God’s] essence and existence coincide, the existence of God and his essence are one sole and identical thing.”Footnote 82 In light of these parallels between the ontological figures of Agamben’s “whatever” and God as “He who is,” Claire Colebrook and Jason Maxwell describe Agamben’s project as “a way of reversing the theology of essence and existence”:

God, traditionally, is pure existence and is not subject to being an instance of any kind, nor of having a specifiable identity. God’s essence is his existence, nothing more. For Agamben, that way of thinking about God as pure existence not limited or marked out by being of a certain kind is a better way of thinking about all existence.Footnote 83

What we find in Agamben’s inessential ontology of the “whatever” is thus not just an equal and “indifferent” affirmation of the worth and value of all beings,Footnote 84 but moreover a profanation of “Being itself”: “Being” is no longer something that belongs “properly” to the divine and only “improperly” to other (created) beings who derive their existence from God who alone is “pure Being” or indeed “Being itself.”Footnote 85 Instead, by positing an architranscendental indifference of the common and the proper or indeed of essence and existence to all beings, Agamben argues that “this world as it is is God, and that redemption lies in seeing everything as it is in its irreparable beauty.”Footnote 86

Agamben’s indifferent and equal attribution of “pure Being” to all things through the transcendental notion of “whatever”—as well as his “profane” assertions that “the world is God”—may give the impression that Agamben professes some version of pantheism,Footnote 87 however, what Agamben highlights in his ontology is “not a pantheistic awareness of the world’s sacredness but rather of its ‘irreparably profane character’.”Footnote 88 As we see in the following section on Agamben’s engagement with Spinoza in his later work, what we find in Agamben’s work is not a pantheism which simply ascribes divinity to all things, but rather an ontology which renders all existing things as “modes.”Footnote 89 Like his earlier ontology of whatever being, Agamben’s later work is also consciously anti-essentialist: Instead of a (pan)theistic view of entities in terms of some divine essence, by understanding beings in terms of “mode”—which he defines as an “inessential adjunct” that is “totally deprived of an essence”—what we find in Agamben’s later “modal” ontology is yet another quasi-classical notion of a transcendental or even an “architranscendental” which affirms and upholds an “inessential commonality” between beings that “in no way concerns an essence.”Footnote 90

3.2 Later Agamben: “modal” being

In The Use of Bodies (2015), the final book of his grand Homo Sacer project published some 25 years after The Coming Community, Agamben draws an explicit connection between the medieval Scholastic transcendentals and the ontological notion of “mode”:

Being does not preexist the modes but constitutes itself in being modified, is nothing other than its modifications… [This is] the only sense of the doctrine of the transcendentals: the being that is always already its modifications; it demands to be unum, verum, bonum seu perfectum.Footnote 91

According to Agamben, the classical transcendentals of oneness, truth, goodness or perfection are “modes” in which Being always already modifies itself.Footnote 92 Indeed, the very notion of “mode” is central to the Scholastic formulation of transcendentality, according to which classical transcendentals such as oneness, truth and goodness are nothing other than expressions of “the general mode consequent on every being” (modus generalis consequens omne ens).Footnote 93 As such, if all the transcendentals—and, by extension, all beings—can be predicated with the notion of “mode,” then “mode” is in a sense yet another “most common notion” for Agamben, not unlike the “architranscendentality” of “whatever.”

However, Agamben’s main inspiration for the ontology of “mode” he develops in The Use of Bodies does not come from the medieval Scholastics, but rather from Spinoza. To quote The Use of Bodies at some length:

Spinoza’s radical ontological thesis is well known: “Nothing exists except substance and modes.” It has been stated that Spinoza’s novelty does not consist in the definition of substance but in that of modes… [Whereas] the Scholastic tradition distinguished between essence and existence and between common nature and individual supposition and made use of the concept of mode to think these differences… the substance/modes relationship is posed for him in an entirely different way from the way that Scholasticism had thought the passage from common nature to the individual supposition.Footnote 94

According to Agamben, we would fail to understand and appreciate Spinoza “as long as we are constrained to think it in terms of the concepts of traditional ontology.”Footnote 95 For Agamben, the relation between Spinoza’s mode and substance is be understood not in terms of “what,” but in terms of “how”: Spinoza’s mode “has a constitutively adverbial nature, it expresses not ‘what’ but ‘how’ being is.”Footnote 96 As opposed to “the primacy of essence” which characterises Scholasticism and traditional ontology, Agamben finds in Spinoza’s work a “modal ontology”—an ontology not of “the what” (essence), but of “the how” (mode).Footnote 97

For Agamben, it is only when Spinoza is understood not as an “essentialist” but as a “modal” ontologist that one can truly appreciate the radicality of Spinoza’s controversial conception of God or substance. In Agamben’s reading, Spinoza is no simple pantheist who merely asserts and believes that nature is somehow “divine.” As Agamben argues:

The Spinozan syntagma Deus sive nature does not mean “God = nature”: the sive expresses the modalization, which is to say, the neutralization and disappearance of identity as much as difference. What is divine is not being in itself but its sive, its always already modifying itself and “naturing itself”—being born—in the modes.Footnote 98

God or substance does not have being “in itself” but only in modification; God (or Nature) only is “adverbially” in the process—in the how—of modifying itself. The novelty of Spinoza’s “modal ontology” lies in the fact that the mode exists as a how instead of a what: a mode does not have being by virtue of “belonging to” the one common substance that is God, rather, a mode simply is as a mode itself. As Agamben notes in a statement found both in The Coming Community and The Use of Bodies: it is “not a being that is in this or that mode, but a being that is its mode of being.”Footnote 99

For while all things may be “transcendentally” said to be modes in Agamben’s ontology, this “transcendental” predication is an “inessential” one which does not prescribe any identity or quality to the modes. Parallel to how there is no transcendent “set of all sets” which measure the “set-ness” of things in Badiou’s set-theoretical ontology, there is no “mode of all modes” or transcendent ideal form of “the Mode” in Agamben’s modal ontology of the how.Footnote 100 As opposed to defining things in terms of essences or what they are, Agamben’s neo-Spinozist ontology of “mode” does not seek to “fix” or “schematise” beings into inert identities:

Spinozan pantheism, if it is a question of pantheism, is not an inert identity (substance = mode) but a process in which God affects, modifies, and expresses Godself… Mode expresses this “rhythmic” and not “schematic” nature of being: being is a flux, and substance “modulates” itself and beats out its rhythm—it does not fix and schematize itself—in the modes.Footnote 101

As such, like Badiou’s ontology of “set,” Agamben’s ontology of “mode” is also deeply “inessential” or even anti-essentialist: Instead of hierarchical deprivations or imitations of some transcendent divine ideal essence, all things simply exist equally as “modes”.Footnote 102

With all this discussion of Spinoza’s God as well as his various works which draw heavily on the Christian theological tradition, unlike Badiou’s militantly atheistic ontology, a latent figure of the divine may be said to exist in Agamben’s ontology.Footnote 103 However, in Agamben’s neo-Spinozist modal ontology, there is not a “God” who operates as a transcendent principle from which all things are derived: For Agamben, the divine is not some sovereign figure by which we measure the essence or nature—be it oneness, truth, or goodness—of things.Footnote 104 Even if there was a figure of the divine in Agamben’s ontology, it would be nothing more than an empty figure, what Agamben refers to as “the empty throne” or indeed “the void.”Footnote 105 As such, even though Agamben does not explicitly affirm the death of God like Badiou does, what we find in Agamben’s account of the divine is a profanation or indeed “a revision of theology that perhaps appears to some to amount to a practical form of atheism.”Footnote 106 As Colby Dickinson notes, Agamben’s ontology “leaves open the chance that God still does exist”: it is an ontology which “may yet harbor a silent transcendence along its borders, forever inaccessible yet grounding everything that is said, one that exists, if at all, as if it did not really matter at all.”Footnote 107

Indeed, while we find an ongoing engagement with the Scholastic formulation of the transcendentals from his early account of “whatever” in The Coming Community to his later ontology of “mode” in The Use of Bodies, underlying Agamben’s treatment of these ideas is an endeavor to profane the structures of thought which bear any resemblance to theological conceptions of the divine—including the classical transcendentals.Footnote 108 For Agamben, “to profane” is to render something “free of sacred names” and “put them to a new use.”Footnote 109 What Agamben does—or indeed profanes—with regards to the classical transcendentals (which, as noted, are correlated with the divine names in traditional metaphysics) is to “free” transcendentality of its theological or divine connotations and put it to a new use: To indeed use the classical structure of transcendentality as a (new) way of profaning the theological structures of thought which underlie ontology.Footnote 110 With this profanation of the transcendentals, beings are no longer conceived as pointing to some transcendent telos or divine source. While such a separation of “Being” from essential determinations or indeed from the classical transcendentals is by no means new in the history of philosophy, unlike previous philosophical efforts which replace the divine with some transcendental human subject, at the heart of Agamben’s—as well as Badiou’s—ontology is an atheistic yet (quasi-)classical conception of transcendentality. As in Badiou’s set-theoretical ontology, we find in Agamben’s ontology a quasi-classical transcendental notion of “the void” or “the not” which replaces the divine names (such as the one, the true, the good) as a universal predicate of all being—in Agamben’s words: it points us to “the Nothing of all things.”Footnote 111

4 Conclusion

Drawing on the Latin meaning of the adverb modo as “a short time ago, just now, recently,” Agamben argues that there is an intrinsic etymological connection between the notions of “mode” and “modern” in The Use of Bodies:

the temporal form of mode is neither the past nor the present nor even less the future: it is the modern… the term modernus always implies a tension with regard to the past, as if the present could grasp and define itself only in a gap with respect to itself. That is to say, the modern is intimately historical and archaic, because it has need of the ancient to refer and, at the same time, to oppose to itself.Footnote 112

Indeed, this “modern” sentiment is something we could find in Kant’s juxtaposition of his own subjective account of the transcendental as a “modern” conception that stands in opposition to that of the “transcendental philosophy of the ancients”: To use Agamben’s formulation, Kant’s project “has need of [the transcendental philosophy of] the ancient to refer and, at the same time, to oppose to itself.”Footnote 113

Aside from Kant, Agamben’s genealogical remarks on the etymological origins of “the modern” can also be applied to Agamben himself. As Agamben further notes in The Use of Bodies:

The person who is properly modern, in this sense, is not the one who opposes the ancient so much as the one who understands that only when something “has done its time” does it become truly urgent and actual.Footnote 114

Just as modern philosophy (as perhaps best represented by Kant) deems that the classical theory of transcendentals “has done its time,” the person “who is properly modern” (as perhaps represented by Agamben and Badiou) is not someone who opposes classical or indeed “ancient” approaches to ontology, but one who understands that an ontological approach such as that of “the transcendental philosophy of the ancients” is all the more “truly urgent and actual.”

But while we can find ontological structures which have certain resemblances to the medieval Scholastic transcendentals in Badiou’s and Agamben’s ambitious and provocative projects, as we see in their firm stance against metaphysical essentialism, their non-Kantian approaches to ontology is by no means a simply retrieval of some “transcendental philosophy of the ancients.” Instead of a transcendent figure of God, what we find in Badiou’s and Agamben’s quasi-classical conceptions of transcendentality is an ontological figure of “emptiness,” a figure of the “not” or indeed the “void”—as if there is an “empty throne” (to use Agamben’s phrase) at the heart of contemporary ontology that is left vacant after the death of God. As such, to the extent that this “empty” figure of the inexistent divine may be regarded as a transcendental notion which is universally marked upon all beings in their ontologies, we may say that Badiou and Agamben are indeed “properly modern” thinkers—or as Badiou describes his own work, “not only modern, but perhaps even ‘more-than-modern’.”Footnote 115 Like how the modern “has need of the ancient to refer and, at the same time, to oppose to itself,” the “more-than-modern” ontologies of Badiou and Agamben have need of the divine to refer to and, at the same time, to oppose to themselves.Footnote 116

But as opposed to the modern displacement of the divine with the human subject as the “transcendental” principle by which all things are measured and evaluated—as one finds in Kant’s subjective re-definition of the “transcendental,” Badiou and Agamben do not simply seek to occupy the empty place of the dead God with the human subject or some other transcendental principle. As we have seen in this article, the emptying or voiding—or indeed “death”—of the divine as an overarching formal principle is affirmed and embraced by Badiou and Agamben by ontologising or indeed transcendentalising the empty place left void by the dead God—the not of God—into a constitutive principle which structures their “more-than-modern” outlooks: At the heart of Badiou’s and Agamben’s ontologies is a transcendental formalisation of atheism or indeed an atheistic profanation of classical transcendentality.Footnote 117

By considering Badiou’s and Agamben’s ontologies through the perspective of classical transcendentality, we can come to a better understanding of the common traits that underly contemporary continental philosophy as well as the trajectory of post-Kantian philosophy in the history of western metaphysics. By replacing the one, the true, the good—or even the divine—with “empty” notions such as “the void” or “the not” as transcendental principles which ungird the structure of being, Badiou’s and Agamben’s “classical” endeavours to “think Being” not only mark a clear break from Kant’s critical injunction on metaphysics, their conscious “atheological” efforts to develop systematic ontologies which do not prescribe or impose any essence onto individual beings moreover also differ from the theological metaphysics of the mediaeval Scholastics and corresponding essentialist schemas of the hierarchy of being. To use Agamben’s formulation of “the modern” again, Badiou’s and Agamben’s projects are “more-than-modern” endeavours which have need of previous accounts of transcendental philosophy—whether classical or Kantian—to refer to and, at the same time, to oppose to itself.Footnote 118 Badiou’s and Agamben’s “transcendental philosophy of the atheists” may thus be understood as one which supersedes both the classical and modern conceptions of transcendental philosophy, a new kind of transcendental philosophy that is not only key to the recent revival of metaphysical theorisation in contemporary philosophy but, perhaps, even part of the beginning of a new chapter in the history of western metaphysics.Footnote 119