Infrapolitical Concepts I: On “Fundamental Political Concepts”

Ronald Mendoza de Jesús
University of Southern California

Volume 10, 2016

Seit wann gibt es überhaupt Begriffe?

Martin Heidegger[1]

Introduction to “Infrapolitical Concepts”

This article was originally intended as a translation of a much shorter text, entitled “Exposición, ¿expuesta?” (“Exposition, Exposed?”), delivered on July 8, 2015 at the Tercer seminario crítico-político transnacional: Conceptos fundamentales del pensamiento político (Third seminar) in the Facultad de Filosofía of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.[2] The two main objectives that I wanted to accomplish in that paper were rather modest: I wanted to make a case for including the term “exposition” among the select group of words that could be considered to be “fundamental concepts of political thought,” and I wanted to do so by engaging with the ways in which Emmanuel Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy use the lexicon of “exposition” throughout their writings.

Since what you are about to read barely bears any resemblance to the original conference presentation that this text was supposed to simply translate and expand on, a word of explanation is perhaps in order.

When I set out to argue for taking “exposition” as a “fundamental concept” of contemporary political thought I did so not without some irony. For my goal was never to offer a definition of this term such that it could be included from now on in the conceptual toolbox of political theory. In fact, I was and remain far more interested in suggesting that, if we were to read carefully what occurs in the texts of Levinas and Nancy whenever they have recourse to the lexical family “exposition,” we would have to rethink the meaning that the word “political” has in the phrase “fundamental concepts of political thought.” In other words, I wanted to show that including within a dictionary of fundamental political concepts a concept of “exposition” elaborated in the wake of Levinas and Nancy would force us to change what we understand by “political thought,” by “politics,” and “the political,” as well as how we understand the relation between these terms.

That said, before I could even begin to make a case for the transformative force of this concept, I had to deal first with two difficulties. First, as I began to work on my presentation, I came to see that my own efforts to construe the word “exposition” as a fundamental political concept were already undermined by a considerable number of assumptions regarding: a. the nature of concepts and their relation both to thinking and to the “realities” to which these concepts refer, b. the meaning of politics and its relation to the concept of “the political,” and c. the manifold senses of “ground” or “foundation” that are at work in the phrase “fundamental concepts of political thought.” For this reason, examining some of these presuppositions before turning to the concept of “exposition” became necessary. However, the more I tried to shed light on some of these presuppositions, the more I began to suspect that my chances of saying anything that could do justice to the transformative force that I saw in this concept would be betrayed in advance by the ways in which these presuppositions take for granted the very same concept of “political conceptuality,” of “politics,” and of “the political,” that the term “exposition,” to my eyes, is called to transform. Therefore, in order to grant this concept its transformative force what is required is an inquiry into the presupposed understanding of the meaning of “politics,” of “conceptuality,” and of “foundations” that would not be limited to simply clarifying and tacitly reasserting the sense of these concepts that remains implicit in the phrase “fundamental political concepts.” In other words, rather than a hermeneutics of political concepts, what is needed is nothing less than a “deconstruction” of the sense of the political that is presupposed by any hermeneutics. Such a deconstruction would have to dismantle the logical matrix, the political logos that gathers these conceptual presuppositions and gives them the form of a political ontology that has already informed whatever we may understand whenever we hear the words “politics,” “the political,” or “political concepts.”

Second, as I tried to bring into relief the compelling conceptual work that the term “exposition” does for Levinas’s ethics and Nancy’s politics, I found it necessary to rely on other concepts, expanding the scope of my analysis beyond the unity of this word. In an experience that brought to mind Gilles Deleuze’s claims in Qu’est-ce que la philosophie? (What is Philosophy?) regarding the composite nature of concepts (Deleuze 21), I was struck by the progressive relevance that the concepts of “closure” and “ipseity” acquired in my analysis of the term “exposition.” In fact, it became clear to me that, in order to see how “exposition” designates for both Levinas and Nancy a dimension of human existence that challenges the traditional determination of the zoon logon ekhon as a zoon politikon, we have to think this notion in relation to the transformed concept of “ipseity” that characterizes Nancy’s political thinking and Levinas’s radical ethics of alterity, where “ipseity” refers to a singularity that cannot be thought of on the basis of its traditional determination as one of the essential properties of the ego. For both Levinas and Nancy, “ipseity” does not designate a self that is already positioned in advance in the sovereign place of the ego, but rather names the self that emerges in the aporetic experience of ex-position—a self that is dislocated from itself in its very origin. In turn, to grasp the political significance of this concept of an “exposed ipseity,” we have to place this notion in relation to the motif of the closure of the political that, for Nancy, is coextensive with the closure of Western metaphysics,[3] and, for Levinas, coincides with the conatological, identitarian determination of Western ontology.[4] As a result, it is only after having examined the motif of the “closure of the political” in relation to both the concept of “ipseity” and the general problem regarding the end of Western metaphysics or of Western ontology that it becomes possible to argue that the concept “exposition,” by forcing us to rethink politics anew, should be regarded as a fundamental concept of political thought.

Since these two difficulties exceed by far the range of what could be addressed in an essay, I decided to tackle these questions over a series of articles, gathered under the general title of “Infrapolitical Concepts.” This article—the first in the series—is devoted to an examination of the first set of difficulties outlined above, which cluster around the status of the concept of “fundamental political concepts.” The second article in the series, which is already written, takes up the work on the concept of “exposition”—and the related concepts of “closure” and “ipseity”—that gave rise to the series in the first place. A third article on the concepts of “presupposition” and “political facticity,” a fourth one on the concepts of “over-power and “form of life,” and a fifth one on the concept of “the political,” are also in the making.

Still, my decision to pursue this longer project was not driven exclusively by the need to circumvent the generic limits of the article format. Conversely, the texts that will constitute this series are not simply the result of the division of a much longer, already com-posed and unified body of lexicographical analysis into smaller, article-length lexical entries suitable for publication. For this series is above all meant as a contribution to infrapolitical thought.[5] As such, one of its working hypotheses is that standard lexicographical models are ill suited for the radical inquiry into the presuppositions of political conceptuality that the very idea of infrapolitics demands. The two difficulties that I outlined above already reveal some of the limits of traditional lexicographical work in the context of an infrapolitical query into the status of politics and its fundamental concepts. First of all, to carry out an analysis of any specific political concept we must necessarily assume that we already know what politics is and what concepts are. Moreover, most analyses of political concepts tend to operate under the assumption that concepts of “the concept” are in themselves politically neutral. Wherever this presupposition remains unchallenged, what is suppressed is the very chance of asking whether the concepts of “the concept” that characterize the history of Western thought do not in fact belong to a broader configuration that is not only already contaminated by politics, but may well presuppose the politics of sovereignty that is part and parcel of Western ontologies since Parmenides’s declaration of the unity and unicity of being and thought. Furthermore, to the extent that this traditional lexicographical model relies on: a. the unicity of the word as the basic unit of lexical analysis, b. the domestication of the problem of reference by assuming both the existence of at least one thing to which the word refers and the possibility of securing the link between these two, and c. the generic form of the lexical entry as the mode of presentation par excellence of the sense of a word, then this model cannot but appear as obsolete when charged with the task of ex-plicating concepts whose movement, through their proliferating pluralization, cannot be submitted to this homogenizing, unifying regime of presentation. Finally, to adopt this generic form of presentation without inquiring into its possible political thrust is to assume, not unlike in the case of the concept of “concept,” that this type of writing is neutral or innocent: a pure linguistic medium for the expression and clarification of semantic content that can be called “political” regardless of its discursive instantiation. Rejecting the tacit belief in the political neutrality of most concepts of the concept, infrapolitics also sees the irreducible mise en scene of the very politics that it seeks to put into question in the form of lexical presentation that assumes both the unity of word, thing, and sense and the unicity of these three.

To illustrate the difference that an infrapolitical perspective would make on the very idea of a lexicon of political concepts, we would do well to turn to the “Editorial Statement” of the online journal, Political Concepts, which publishes lexical entries that “focus on a single concept with the express intention of resituating it in the field of political discourse by addressing what has remained unquestioned or unthought in that concept” (“Editorial Statement”, emphasis mine). The journal’s commitment to bringing to the fore what has remained “unthought” in political concepts seems to extend to the very concept of the political, to the political valences of concepts, and to the concept of the concept, since, as the editors of the journal put it,

Political Concepts does not predetermine what does or does not count as a political concept. Our aim is to expand the scope of what demands political accounting, and for this reason we welcome essays that fashion new political concepts or demonstrate how concepts deserve to be taken as politically significant. It is our view that “politics” refers to the multiplicity of forces, structures, problems, and orientations that shape our collective life. Politics enters the frame wherever our lives together are staked and wherever collective action could make a difference to the outcome.

(“Editorial Statement”)

In light of this statement, the term “infrapolitics” could probably find a place in this dictionary of political concepts only if the interrogative force of the prefix “infra-” is neutralized to the benefit of the root “–politics.” Infrapolitics, rather than infrapolitics, would perhaps qualify as a “political concept” in a way that would satisfy the expectations of the editors of Political Concepts. More crucial to my concerns here is the difference between such a political lexicon of political concepts and the series on infrapolitical concepts that I am sketching out. Although both lexica would either privilege concepts that bring into relief what remains unthought in traditional political concepts, or even attend to words that have not yet been regarded as political concepts, the similarities between these two lexica would most likely end here. For, as Alberto Moreiras argued in a paper delivered in 2015 at a conference organized by the Political Concepts journal, infrapolitics

lives and opens up in the withdrawal or the retrait of the political field, which means it does carry along an intense politicity, but it is the impolitical politicity that suspends and questions every apparent politicization, every instance of political emergence, every helio-political moment, and places them provisionally under the sign of a destruction.

(Moreiras 14)

The suspension that characterizes “infrapolitics” relation to politics would also extend to the definition that the editors of Political Concepts provide in their statement, which construes politics as an open and expanding field that is nonetheless already bound by a horizon that bears the name “collective life.” Although the explicit goal of Political Concepts is to enlarge political discourse, this expansion is already delimited by an unquestioned assumption regarding the essence of politics itself, which provides the soil upon which the journal’s lexicographical project of expanding the borders of politics through a transformative political conceptuality rests. The boundaries of the politicizable may be malleable, but everything that falls within its boundaries will be political by virtue of being oriented towards a specific occasion, namely, the event in which “life” and “action” become a communal affair. When seen from the perspective of infrapolitics, politics stands in a rather different ground—in fact, it may not stand at all. The thought of infrapolitics just as much as infrapolitical thought is not only committed to the “destruction” of all political names, but it seeks to expose the historically sedimented matrix of ontological determinations that enables a conception of politics such as that provided by the editors of Political Concepts to continue to function as an achieved and secured definition of “the political.”

This essay inaugurates the series “Infrapolitical Concepts” by taking up the task of rethinking the concept of a “fundamental political concept.” I italicize the word “fundamental” because this essay focuses above all on an inquiry into the “fundamentality”—i.e., the ground- or the grounding-character—of the “kind” of concepts that could be called “fundamental political concepts.” The reader can already see that this inquiry remains rather one-sided insofar as it lacks an equally necessary inquiry into the concept of the “political.” The latter would, however, exceed the scope of this entry. In the first section of this essay, I pursue the question as to which concept of “fundamental concept” implicitly commands our common understanding of what is a concept. I locate in Kantian philosophy, and, more precisely, in his determination of the categories of the understanding as “fundamental concepts” (“Grundbegriffe”), the ontologico-epistemological framework that structures most common ways of understanding the meaning of the nominal phrase “fundamental concepts.” That said, the political valence of conceptuality as such reemerges in Kant’s notion of a fundamental concept, which not only index an understanding of transcendentality that could be said to be structurally political, but also remain bound to the history of the word “category” and its etymological reference to the language of the agora—the political site par excellence of the Greek polis. A certain politics constitutes the concealed source and the structural resource of conceptual language, of the language that belongs to the agora and the res publica—the common language that is the most essential possession of an ipsocratic subject that is defined by its capacity to predicate and adjudicate. A lexicon of fundamental infrapolitical concepts must precisely expose how our supposedly innocent talk of political concepts reaffirms the very politics that it seeks to displace, oftentimes in the guise of terms that are said to have emancipatory or revolutionary potential.

But how not to speak simply in the logos of the agora, the logos kata agourein, how to let something other be said in that logos and otherwise than in the terms set by the strictures of this archi-political language? This is perhaps the question of infrapolitics. And how not to speak in categorial language when talking about “fundamental concepts” of anything—in this case, of politics? For the remainder of this essay, I explore this last question by engaging with Martin Heidegger’s transformation of the very concept of fundamental concepts, paying specific attention to Heidegger’s discussion of this term in his 1929-30 seminar, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt – Endlichkeit – Einsamkeit (Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Solitude, Finitude). In this seminar, the fundamental concepts of metaphysics become the site in which the language of Dasein registers the withdrawing movement of being (das Sein)—the very force of what Heidegger, from Grundprobleme der Phänomenologie onward, referred to as “die ontologische Differenz” (“the ontological difference”). Gripped by being’s retreat from all ontico-ontological determinations, Dasein’s fundamental metaphysical concepts grasp nothing other than the withdrawal of being itself. In grasping conceptually its own being-gripped by being’s refusal of presence, Dasein becomes a question to itself and its own metaphysical concepts become themselves interrogations. Fundamental metaphysical concepts are, for Heidegger, characterized by the way in which they expose all thetic or positional acts to the force of a question that exceeds the limits of any categorial inquiry, decoupling the site of grounding from the value of principiality. Grounds are only given in their very refusal—i.e., as abysses—and this refusal allows us to intimate that thinking itself is primarily to be seen as an equally abyssal interrogation. Extending Heidegger’s concept of fundamental metaphysical concepts to politics, I then conclude by arguing that any fundamental political concept would already be infrapolitical, since their very “fundamentality” transforms these concepts into radically open questions that exceed the closure of political sense.

1. On the Concept “Fundamental Concept

As I mentioned before, work on this article began in response to the call for papers for the Seminario crítico-político transnacional, which circulated in February 2015. At that time, the seminar had a slightly different title: instead of referring to the Conceptos fundamentales del pensamiento político (Fundamental Concepts of Political Thought), the title of the seminar invited us to interrogate the Bases conceptuales del pensamiento político actual (Conceptual Bases of Contemporary Political Thought). This change in title seemed to be rather inconsequential—a mere chiasmatic reversal based on the repetition of synonymous lexemes alternatively declined in nominal and adjectival forms. Indeed, the change from “conceptual” to “concepts” and from “bases” to “fundamental” left intact the lexicographical vocation of the seminar: in both cases, the task of the seminar was to gain access to the ground that sustains political thought today. Furthermore, the commonalities between the two titles extended to their implicit assumptions. Indeed, both titles presuppose that the very soil on which the political stands can either be grasped through conceptual means or is in fact conceptual from the very beginning, perhaps in its very nature or essence. More radically still, both titles could be read as tacitly arguing that the ground not only of “the political,” but also of politics itself coincides with its conceptual elaboration. And what else could have lent not just epistemological and ontological, but also political significance to a seminar like ours—which was merely academic in its scope and goals—if not this assumption regarding the existence of an irreducible relation between what counts as “the political” today, what gives itself as politics now, and the possibility of a political conceptuality?

Still, is this assumption warranted? Do we already know that politics is of such a kind as to allow its foundations, or its very ground, to be grasped through concepts? Is the origin or the essence of politics something that welcomes, if not even requires, its articulation in the medium of conceptual language? Although these questions are unavoidable and perhaps unanswerable, they still presuppose an even more basic question: do we even know what are the plausible meanings of the word “concepts” in the phrase “Fundamental Concepts of Political Thought”? To be more precise, on the basis of which concept of the concept could we argue for including this or that term in any possible lexicon of fundamental concepts of political thought? By asking this question, I am not trying to suggest that I regard it as necessary that we share the same concept of the concept. In fact, it may well be that we neither have the same concept of the concept nor a different one, for the simple reason that we may have no concept of the concept whatsoever at our disposal. Or so at least we may think. I would actually contend that the opposite is more likely to be true, namely, that we have more or less the same image of the concept or the same notion of the conceptuality of the concepts, i.e., of what, in the most general sense of the term, makes each and every concept be a concept. Our thinking may be so deeply informed, so saturated by the same notion of conceptuality that the very thought of having conversation about whether we have the same or a different concept of the concept—and, if different, whether they are similar or divergent, and, if divergent, whether their divergence may be congruous or incongruous—would be deemed as extraneous or at least superfluous to the matter at hand. And when that matter presents itself as political, an added sense of urgency demands that we cut to the chase. Resisting that demand is perhaps a way of beginning to think and to write otherwise than politically.

Perhaps the clearest and most canonical characterization of the concept of the concept that enables us to understand the meaning of the word “concept” as it appears in the title of the seminar can be found near the beginning of Immanuel Kant’s magnum opusKritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason), in a section titled “Von der Logik überhaupt” (“On Logic in General”), which opens the second part of the “Transcendental Elementarlehre” (“Transcendental Doctrine of Elements”). It is here that we find Kant’s famous formulation about the bond that links concepts and intuitions—and it is also here that, I would argue, we find the concept of the concept whose watered-down version has now become the common sense concept of the concept. Kant:

Ohne Sinnlichkeit würde uns kein Gegenstand gegeben, und ohne Verstand keiner gedacht werden. Gedanken ohne Inhalt sind leer, Anschauungen ohne Begriffe sind blind. Daher ist es eben so notwendig, seine Begriffe sinnlich zu machen (d. i. ihnen den Gegenstand in der Anschauung beizufügen), als seine Anschauungen sich verständlich zu machen (d. i. sie unter Begriffe zu bringen). Beide Vermögen oder Fähigkeiten können auch ihre Funktionen nicht vertauschen. Der Verstand vermag nichts anzuschauen und die Sinne nichts zu denken. Nur daraus, daß sie sich vereinigen, kann Erkenntnis entspringen.

(Without sensibility no objects would be given to us and without the understanding none would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. Therefore, it is just as necessary to make its concepts sensible (i.e., to adjoin to them [concepts] the object in the intuition), as to make its intuitions understood (i.e., to bring them under concepts). Also, both powers or capacities cannot exchange their functions. The understanding does not enable to intuit and the senses to think. Hence, knowledge can emerge only in that they unite themselves).

(Kant A51/B75-76, 129-30)

Notice, first of all, the metaphorical movement that makes the terms “Begriffe” or “concepts” and “Anschauungen” or “intuitions” stand in for the terms “Gedanken” or “thoughts” and “Inhalt” or “content” in the second sentence of this passage.[6] Notice also that this metaphorical substitution is in fact accomplished through a rather specific rhetorical structure, namely, the chiasmus that is drawn by the repetition of the syntactic structure “ohne … sind” or “without … are,” which not only establishes a relation of identity between thoughts/concepts and content/intuitions but also affirms that these terms are symmetrical in their co-dependency: there are no full thoughts without content, no complete concepts without an intuition, no thought intuitions without a concept, no cognized content without a thought. Furthermore, consider that this negative grammatical structure “ohne… sind” is itself a variation of the grammar of the first sentence of this passage, which is set in motion through the repetition of a double negative clause “without… none would be given, without… none would be thought” (“ohne … würde kein gegeben, ohne … keiner gedacht werden.”). The repetition of this grammatical structure reaffirms the kind of relation that Kant sees between two of the mind’s faculties—“Sinnlichkeit” or “sensibility” and “Verstand” or “the understanding”—and the very possibility of cognizing objects: sensibility lies at the basis of the “givenness” of any object and the understanding is the ground of an object’s “thinkability.” As such, the relation between these two powers of the mind and thoughts or concepts and content or intuition is strictly hierarchical, as Kant himself makes clear from the very first sentence of this section of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft when he alludes to the sensibility and the understanding as two of the “fundamental sources of our mind” (“Grundquellen des Gemüths”), and characterizes each of these sources respectively as “the receptivity to impression” (“die Rezeptivität der Eindrücke”) and the “spontaneity of concepts” (“Spontaneität der Begriffe”) (Kant A50/B74, 129). Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of this passage lies in the way in which Kant invaginates the series of conceptual oppositions that he establishes, both asserting and collapsing their parallelism through the double affirmation of their analogical nature and their irreducible difference. Receptivity and spontaneity, passivity and activity, sensibility and the understanding, intuitions and concepts, content and thoughts: the delimitation of “logic in general” (“der Logik überhaupt”) as the site in which knowledge of objects occurs requires that we grasp these conceptual oppositions in their identity and in their difference, in their fundamental unity and their irreducible separation. For, ultimately, no object would be given and thought if sensibility and the understanding did not converge in and through their very divergence.

As the basic site of knowledge, what Kant calls “logic in general” is a realm of representations. Indeed, in the opening lines of this section, Kant states that intuitions and concepts are “representations” (“Vorstellungen”)—as the German word “vorstellen ” indicates they “stand in front” of a subject—though they are not representations in the same way: “Our knowledge emerges out of two fundamental sources of the mind, of which the first is to receive representations (the receptivity of impressions), the second the power to know an object through these representations (spontaneity of concepts)” (“Unsre Erkenntniß entspringt aus zwei Grundquellen des Gemüths, deren die erste ist, die Vorstellungen zu empfangen (die Receptivität der Eindrücke), die zweite das Vermögen, durch diese Vorstellungen einen Gegenstand zu erkennen (Spontaneität der Begriffe)” Kant A50/B74, 129).[7] Grasping the difference between these two functions of representations—representations as received by a mind through its being-affected by an impression, and representations as referring to a known object through the agency or the power of a mind and its spontaneous concepts; in other words, representations insofar as they refer either to our sensibility or our understanding—amounts to grasping the Kantian concept of the concept, which I would argue is the very concept of the concept that lies at the basis of our average notion of the concept.

To understand the difference between these two modes of representation, we must begin by keeping in mind that the emptiness that Kant ascribes to the concepts of the understanding when regarded in abstraction from any intuition is not to be confused with the absence of matter (die Materie) in a concept. Kant makes this point clear enough when he introduces the distinction between “pure” (“rein”) or “empirical” (“empirisch”) concepts and intuitions and suggests that there is a strong parallelism between these two types of concepts and the intuitions to which they correlate: on the one hand, empirical concepts obtain when a concept refers to an intuition that itself contains a reference to a sensation (Empfindung), or what Kant also calls “the matter of sense knowledge” (“die Materie der sinnlichen Erkenntnis” Kant A50/B74, 129 emphasis mine). On the other hand, the purity of concepts relies on their exclusive reference to the form of intuitions, i.e., to space and time, which Kant describes in this section as “the form under which something is intuited” (“die Form unter welcher etwas angeschaut wird”). To the purity of this formal intuition correspond concepts that are equally formal and pure to the extent that they designate exclusively “the form of the thinking of an object in general” (“die Form des Denkens eines Gegenstandes überhaupt”) (Kant A51/B75, 129). Furthermore, for Kant, knowledge through pure concepts, i.e., concepts that lack a material moment, is in fact presupposed by every instance of empirical cognition, since such knowledge coincides with nothing other than the conditions of possibility of objects of experience in general.

From this brief analysis it follows that when Kant refers to the emptiness of concepts in the passage that I quoted above he is not referring to the pure concepts of the understanding in opposition to empirical concepts, which include a material moment in them and are thus obviously not empty. For the former also have an intuitive content, which coincides precisely with the pure intuitions or the formal representations that emerge in and through the subject’s auto-affection, namely, space and time, which constitute the only a priori principles in the general realm of affection to the extent that they determine the conditions of the subject’s affectability. In fact, the kind of concept that Kant has in mind when he alludes to empty concepts near the beginning of the “Transcendental Analytic” is explicitly discussed in the last book of the first division of this section of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft, where Kant draws “the table […] of the concept of nothing” (Die Tafel […] des Begriffs von Nichts). The table of this strange concept is modeled on the table of the categories, precisely because, for Kant, the four moments that compose the concept of nothing draw the limits within which the concept of the object in general obtains by negating each of the categorial determinations that an object must have if it is to be regarded at all as an object of possible experience. The first moment in this table corresponds to the concept of “Keines” (“none”), which delimits all numerical or quantitative determinations of an object and as, such, constitutes what Kant calls an “ens rationis” or a “concept without object” (“ein Begriff ohne Gegenstand” Kant B348, emphasis mine). This concept is to be regarded as objectless because, as Kant stresses, the term “none” is thinkable, i.e., its intension is not self-contradictory, since I can think the absence of all numerical determinations without committing a logical fallacy. However, the concept “none” could never be counted as a possibility in the strict sense that Kant gives to this term in his exposition of the category of modality since this concept could never be encountered in an intuition. For all intuitions, as Kant establishes in prior section of the Transcendental Analytic titled “Axiomen der Anschauung” (“Axioms of Intuition”), are necessary quantifiable (), and since “none” is the negation of any quantitative determination, it follows that no object could be experienced whose intuitive content correlates to the concept of “none.” A concept like “none” is neither pure nor empirical since it lacks any reference to intuition, whether sensible or purely formal. For this reason, the concept “none” cannot function as a concept in the robust sense of the term that interests Kant, namely, as the unity of an intuition and a thought ().

As the example of “none” makes clear, the understanding does not have the power to furnish its concepts with an experienceable content that would correspond to their thinkable sense. The fact that we have concepts that do not refer to intuitions of possible objects of experience evinces the relative autonomy of the understanding, while marking limits of our spontaneity and attesting to the impotence of discursive knowledge. Closer to the concerns of this essay, Kant’s notion of an ens rationis also clarifies the kind of representation that characterizes Kant’s concept of the concept. Indeed, concepts for Kant are so thoroughly determined as second-order representations that, even if their internal content makes sense or is thinkable in itself, their lack of a reference to an intuition condemns these terms to remain at the threshold of conceptuality. From this follows both that intuitions have the status of first-order representations, and also that they constitute an irreducible component of any Kantian concept. Kant’s concept of the concept requires so much the reference to a first-order representation or an intuition that a non-intuitable concept, though sayable, is as empty as the nothing, and, though thinkable, remains less than possible.

Now, I would argue that most of us have something along the lines of this Kantian concept of the concept in mind when we are asked to give an account of what is a concept: concepts are discursive entities that represent objects that can be experienced in a way that allows us to know these objects. In the case of a lexicon of political concepts, a Kantian concept of the concept would give rise to a political logic of political concepts that are epistemologically and ontologically legitimate to the extent that they can be used to subsume a well-defined and internally cohesive set of objects within their semantic borders in an act of judgment, through which a set of intuitions become discursively grasped as first order political representations. Such a logical take on the relation between the very objects of politics and political concepts goes hand in hand with a characterization of their pragmatic deployment in constative utterances. A full-fledged political concept would obtain whenever a term is used in a proposition to intend a set of political properties, and extend to the political state of affairs that corresponds to its intention.

But would such a constative notion of political concepts do justice not only to their political charge, but also to their fundamental import? In other words, and to limit ourselves to the second part of this question, what is the difference between a mere concept and a fundamental one? We must not have a theory of fundamental concepts at our disposal to sense that this difference is not nothing, indeed that this difference makes a difference to the extent that it may prevents us from subsuming both fundamental and non-fundamental concepts under the genus “concept.” To bring to the fore the specific difference that separates a fundamental from a mere concept we would have to reject the view that understands the adjective “fundamental” as a simple modification of a concept whose status as a concept would remain the same even after receiving this qualification. In other words, the adjective “fundamental” may not simply establish a difference in qualitative degree between two entities that are at bottom equal. “Fundamentality,” rather than “conceptuality,” may be what constitutes the essential trait of the concept “fundamental concepts,” and this for reasons of onto-logical necessity. For whereas the genus “concept” must remain indifferent about whether this or that concept that could be subsumed under it is derived from another concept, the genus “fundamental concept” would require that its exempla be concepts that cannot be derived from any other concept. Furthermore, it is this underivability that enables fundamental concepts, and not mere concepts, to serve as the very foundations of any system of predication, by bringing to a halt the possibility of an endless subsumption of concepts under more general concepts. “Fundamental concepts” would be as fundamental as they are conceptual, if not more the former than the latter.

It would be easy to show that the notion of a fundamental concept sketched out above is equally Kantian in its genesis and structure. Consider the fact that Kant himself in §10 of the Kritik der reinen Vernunft refers to “the pure concepts of the understanding” (“reine Verstandesbegriffe”) not only as “categories” (“Kategorien”)—in a clear nod to Aristotle—but also as “fundamental concepts” (Grundbegriffe), as well as “root concepts” (“Stammbegriffe”) (Kant A B90-95).[8] As we saw earlier, the fact that the understanding cannot by itself produce the synthesis of the empirical manifold to which its concepts are applied in order to yield objective knowledge does not change the fact that, within its own limits, the understanding determines the formal conditions for the knowledge of objectivity in general. Although the understanding’s fundamental concepts retain the status of second-order representations and as such remain concepts, their fundamentality separates them from any other concepts, which they ultimately ground. This explains why, for Kant, the pure concepts of the understanding should be called categories in an Aristotelian sense: indeed, these concepts constitute the very roots of all our conceptual, i.e., discursive, knowledge of possible objects of experience.[9] As such, the categories do determine unconditionally the very form that our entire field of possible objective experiences must have if they are to count as experiences at all, i.e., if they are to be known conceptually by being determined through an act of judgment. The difference between any regular, empirical concept and the pure concepts of the understanding is therefore not just a difference in kind, since no concept could actually subsume an intuited object and cognize it in a determinate judgment without the categories having already tilled the very soil of the mind, without the understanding having already fertilized this soil with its pure concepts. The latter constitute the discursive, conceptual component of the schema—the originary form of a priori synthesis in which time/space and the categories are unified—which, in turn, secures the possibility of apodictic knowledge of experience through the unity of concepts and intuitions. Indeed, the sheer magnitude of Kant’s first critique and the significance of Kant’s discovery of a form of judgment that, while being a priori, requires the intuition of form and the form of intuition for its actualization, bears witness to the radical difference that, after Kant, separates any fundamental concept worthy of this adjective from any other type of concept.

If fundamental concepts are categories because they cannot be derived from any other concept and because they establish the conditions for discursive knowledge in the most general sense of the term, then we could say that a fundamental concept of political thought is one that determines the conditions under which anything that could be said to be political could be experienced and known. Assuming that this analogy can be made without distorting the political import of the concept of fundamental concepts of political thought, it remains difficult to see what would be the specific function of these fundamental concepts within a political theory or a political philosophy that would limit itself to making constative statements about political states of affairs. This difficulty could be remedied by a loose analogy. Let us assume that the fundamentality of fundamental political concepts implies that they must function somewhat like performative utterances, which produce their own referents by virtue of their illocutionary force. On this view, fundamental political concepts would not be signs that simply refer to a state of political affairs and encompass a set of political properties. Instead, fundamental political concepts are only those terms whose deployment politicizes in a more originary sense, namely, by outlining the conditions under which anything that could be said to be political could be experienced and known as such.

Take the concept of “the people,” as theorized by Ernesto Laclau. In On Populist Reason, the concept of “the people” clearly functions as a fundamental concept of politics in the pseudo-Kantian way I outlined above, since, for Laclau, politics itself is synonymous with populism (Laclau 154). Moreover, according to Laclau, “there is nothing automatic about the emergence of a ‘people.’ On the contrary, it is the result of a complex construction process which can, among other possibilities, fail to achieve its aim.” (Laclau 200) Assuming, with Laclau, that there is no politics without “the people,” then we would have to assume also that this concept is one of the a prioris of politics, if not even the sole political a priori. At the same time, given that Laclau argues that “the people” may always fail to emerge in actuality, and, as such, it should not be regarded as an already given political reality, Laclau’s concept of “the people” acknowledges not only the performativity of this concept, but, above all, the fallibility and thus the historicity of its referent. Since for Laclau politics only obtains when the people itself emerges, and since the people may always fail to emerge, the political itself is not always the case. Moreover, its emergence is to be seen as the result of a series of performances that from now on include, though are certainly not limited to, the construction of a concept of “the people” that acknowledges not only the performativity or the constructedness of its referent, and with it, its fallibility and its historicity. In this sense, we could say that Laclau’s concept of the people as the political category par excellence functions as a kind of historical a priori to the extent that this concept’s power to produce its own referent—i.e., its performative force—is not guaranteed in advance. Conversely, Laclau’s concept of “the people” still functions in a way that is analogous to the Kantian categories in two other ways: first, the people’s failure to emerge in a way that satisfies the conditions spelled out by this concept does not affect the foundational import, indeed the sovereignty that this concept exerts over the political field, as Laclau conceives of it. Secondly, just as even the most fundamental concepts of the understanding remain powerless to generate the intuitions of their objects out of their sheer logical spontaneity, Laclau’s concept of “the people” is incapable of bringing about its own referent solely through its discursive articulation.

If “the people,” the fundamental concept of Laclau’s political thought, is the sovereign of the political realm, then the Kantian categories could also be said to be sovereign within the limits of the understanding. This shift from a logical to a political register to describe the difference between a fundamental and a mere concept is not as fortuitous or arbitrary as it may first be seen. In fact, the analogy between the concept of sovereignty and the Kantian fundamental concepts seems to be reinforced by Kant’s decision to retrieve the word “category” in order to use it as a synonym for the fundamental concepts. For the word “category” contains an implicit reference to the polis and we do not run the risk of committing an etymological fallacy if we register the simple historical fact that, before Aristotle coined the term “katēgoríai” in order to designate the kind of language that discloses beings in terms of the basic determinations that can be predicated of them (ousia, quality, quantity, relation, etc…),[10] this word meant something close to the English term “accusation.”[11] Moreover, the Ancient Greek term “katēgoría” is itself composed of the preposition “kata” and the verb “agorevo,” which means to accuse or to harangue and which refers to a form of speech that took place in the agora or the assembly. The word “category,” which, from Aristotle to Kant, has served as the very paradigm for the philosophical concept of “fundamental concepts,” has kept in its very materiality the traces of a politicity and indeed of a politics that accompanies the act of logical predication from its very inception. Not only does categorical language comes to its own in the agora—the political place par excellence—but also categorical speech is that which enables the agora to come to its own politico-philosophical essence as the site in which the language of general judgments struggles to domesticate the unbridled blindness of rhetorical language.[12]

To further explore the relation between “fundamental concepts” or the categories, the politics of philosophy, and the philosophy of politics, we could turn briefly to a moment in Derrida’s “Violence et métaphysique: Essai sur la pensée d’Emmanuel Levinas” (“Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas”), in which Derrida engages with Levinas’s critique of the archeological impulse that runs through Western ontology:

Selon l’indication présente dans la notion d’arkhē, le commencement philosophique est immédiatement transposé en commandement éthique ou politique. Le primat est d’entrée de jeu principe et chef. Toutes les pensées classiques interrogées par Levinas sont ainsi trainées vers l’agora, sommées de s’expliquer dans un langage éthico-politique qu’elles n’ont pas toujours voulu ou cru vouloir parler, sommés de se transposer en avouent leur dessein violent; et qu’elles parlaient déjà dans la cité, qu’elles disaient bien, par les détours et malgré le désintéressement apparent de la philosophie, à qui le pouvoir devait revenir.

(According to the indication present in the notion of arkhē, the philosophical beginning is immediately transposed into an ethical or political commandment. Primacy is from the outset principle and chief. All the classic thinkers that Levinas interrogates are thus dragged to the agora, summoned to explain themselves in an ethico-political language that they have not always wanted or believed to have wanted to talk, summoned to transpose themselves by confessing their violent plans; and that they already spoke in the city, that they said well enough, through detours and in spite of philosophy’s apparent disinterestedness, to whom power should have been due.)

(Derrida 145)

Although in this passage Derrida does not make an explicit reference either to the logos kath’ agorevo or to the concept of fundamental concepts, his striking reading of Levinas’s reading of the history of philosophy leaves a space open for this logos or this concept to be inscribed as the very medium and agent for the originary transformation of philosophy into a foundationalist politics, structured around the principle of the principle—the primacy of the arkhē. For, if Levinas’s thought could be read as an inquisition of philosophy that drags philosophers back to the agora in order to extract their confession about the millenary complicity between their search for the arkhē and politics as domination and war, then it is clear that the language in which this complicity has always been spoken is the language that is ruled by categories—the language of fundamental concepts. The logos of the categories is the element that binds together philosophy’s arhkē and the polis; it is this foundational logos, at once political and theoretical, that the philosophers cannot but proffer, even when their interventions in the agora present themselves as something other than political acts or do not explicitly address political matters. According to Derrida’s reading of Levinas, the political achievement of onto-logy consists in the transformation of the agora and its logos into the site in which beings are predicated, determined, disclosed in their beingness, and in such a way that they stand accused, harangued, harassed, and judged. It is in the agora and its logos that unfolds the hegemonic struggle among philosophers to see who is capable of uttering the most fundamental of concepts, attaining the position not of the one who has power, but of the one who is able to tell everybody else in the agora “to whom power should have been due” (“à qui le pouvoir devait revenir”). Still, the fact that, in spite of philosophy’s secret or explicit political ambitions, its best hope is to aspire to be able to know and to declare who has power evinces both the ability and the impotence of its concepts, which are capable only of pointing to those who actually have power.

Another Concept of “Fundamental Concepts:” Heidegger

Would it be possible to bend the language of the agora, to twist the tongue in which it states its will to power and its will to legitimate those who hold power in their empowered position, in such a way that the concept of a fundamental concept may mean something else? In order to pursue this question, for the remainder of this essay I want to turn to what Heidegger has to say about the very concept of a fundamental concept of metaphysics in the opening sessions of the 1929-30 seminar, Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt – Endlichkeit – Einsamkeit. Near the end of the first chapter, and after showing that what is most proper to metaphysics cannot be fully grasped if we regard it as a science or an academic discipline, if we compare it to art and religion, or if we give a historical account of its becoming, Heidegger invites his audience to leave open the question about what metaphysics may actually be:

Wir müssen es zunächst offenlassen, was das überhaupt sei, Metaphysik. Wir sehen nur so viel: Metaphysik ist ein Grundgeschehen im menschlichen Dasein. Ihre Grundbegriffe sind Begriffe, diese aber — so sagt man in der Logik — sind Vor-stellungen, in denen wir uns etwas Allgemeines oder etwas im Allgemeinen vorstellen, etwas hinsichtlich des Allgemeinen, was viele Dinge miteinander gemein haben. Aufgrund der Vorstellung dieses Allgemeinen sind wir imstande, von dorther einzelnes Vorgegebenes, z. B. dieses Ding als Katheder, jenes als Haus zu bestimmen. Der Begriff ist so etwas wie ein bestimmendes Vorstellen. Allein, dergleichen werden offenbar die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik und Begriffe der Philosophie überhaupt nicht sein, wenn wir uns erinnern, daß sie selbst in einer Ergriffenheit verankert sind, in der wir das, was wir begreifen, nicht vorstellen, sondern in uns in einem ganz anderen und ursprünglich von jeder wissenschaftlichen Art grundverschiedenen Verhalten bewegen.

Metaphysik ist ein Fragen, in dem wir in das Ganze des Seienden hineinfragen und so fragen, daß wir selbst, die Fragenden, dabei mit in die Frage gestellt, in Frage gestellt werden. Entsprechend sind die Grundbegriffe nicht Allgemeinheiten, keine Formeln für allgemeine Eigenschaften eines Gegenstandfeldes (Tier, Sprache), sondern sie sind Begriffe eigentümlicher Art. Sie begreifen je das Ganze in sich, sie sind In-begriffe. Aber sie sind Inbegriffe noch in einem zweiten, ebenso wesentlichen und mit dem ersten zusammenhängenden Sinne: Sie begreifen je immer den begreifenden Menschen und sein Dasein mit in sich — nicht nachträglich, sondern so, daß sie nicht jenes sind ohne dieses, und umgekehrt. Kein Begriff des Ganzen ohne Inbegriff der philosophierenden Existenz. Metaphysisches Denken ist inbegriffliches Denken in diesem doppelten Sinne: auf das Ganze gehend und die Existenz durchgreifend.

(We must first of all leave open what metaphysics may actually be. We only see this much: metaphysics is a fundamental occurrence in human Dasein. Its fundamental concepts are concepts, but these—as one says in logic—are re-presentations in which we place before us something universal or something in general. On the basis of the representation of this universal we are able to determine the particular that is given in front of us, i.e., this thing as a cathedral, that as a house. The concept is something like a determining representation. However, the fundamental concepts of metaphysics and the concepts of philosophy could not be at all of such a kind, if we remember that they themselves are anchored in a being-gripped in which we do not represent what we grasp, but in which we move in a comportment that is originarily wholly other than and fundamentally different from the scientific kind.

Metaphysics is a questioning in which we question into the whole of beings and question in such a way that we ourselves, the questioners, are thereby called into question as we are posed along in the question.

Correspondingly, fundamental concepts are not generalities—no formulæ for the general properties of a conceptual field (animal, language)—they are rather concepts of a properly idiosyncratic kind. They grasp each time the whole in themselves, they are en-compassing concepts. But they are also encompassing concepts in a second sense, which is just as essential and which hangs together with the first one: in each case, they always grasp within themselves the grasping human and its Dasein—not belatedly, but rather in such a way that they are not that without this and viceversa. No concept of the whole without the encompassing concept of philosophizing existence. Metaphysical thinking is en-compassing thinking in this double sense: a going unto the whole and a thorough grasping of existence.)

(Heidegger 12-13)

The quidditas of metaphysics—and, at this point in Heidegger’s thinking, metaphysics also implies philosophy itself—remains outstanding, outside the reach of our conceptual grasp. However, the very fact that we lack any direct access to the essence of metaphysics reveals the exceptional character of the “event” of metaphysics, as Heidegger’s minimal definition of this term makes clear: “metaphysics is a fundamental occurrence in human Dasein” (“Metaphysik ist ein Grundgeschehen im menschlichen Dasein” Heidegger 12). The very fact that we know at some level that we do not yet know what metaphysics actually is discloses something essential, not only about metaphysics and philosophy, but also about the very way of being of our being, i.e., of human Dasein. For the eidetic unknowing of metaphysics is in fact constitutive of its hæcceitas: the happening of metaphysics in the very ground of our being occurs in the mode of its withdrawal from our cognitive reach. Metaphysics occurs in the “there” or the “Da-” of our Da-sein; metaphysics is already there but only in the form of an open question as to its very essence. Earlier in the seminar, Heidegger had said a similar thing about philosophy, namely, that “as soon as we interrogate it seriously, it withdraws from us into a properly idiosyncratic obscurity, there where it properly is: as human doing in the ground of the essence of human Dasein.” (“[…] die Philosophie, sobald wir ihr selbst ernsthaft nachfragen, sich uns in eigentümliches Dunkel entzieht, dahin, wo sie eigentlich ist: als menschliches Tun im Grunde des Wesens des menschlichen Daseins.” Heidegger 11). The withdrawal of philosophy from the reach of our direct straightforward interrogation co-incides with the occurrence of metaphysics in Dasein. Philosophy and metaphysics are in the very ground of human Dasein and they are there as the very withdrawn and concealed essence of the “there,” of the “Da-” of Da-sein. Moreover, it is the very concealed essence of this Da- that impresses upon the doings of this being which we are the traits of an originary and constitutive humanity. Still, what is most properly human about the doings of Dasein is not to be thought of in light of the traditional concept of the human as a zoon logon ekhon or an animal rationale, let alone in terms of the modern, “ergontological” concept of the subject as the ultimate instance of agency or the post-Marxist notion of the human as homo laborans. The humanity of Dasein is only clarified in its very essence in the experience of interrogating the essence of metaphysics and, above all, in the confrontation with the impossibility of ever coming to terms with this question.

Since our very being, the “there” of our Da-sein, is constituted by the occurrence of metaphysics, and since such a happening is only attested in our failure to reach an answer to the question of the essence of metaphysics, it should surprise no one that Heidegger rethinks both the fundamental aspect of this occurrence just as much as its event-like character against the grain of these concepts as they are traditionally understood. If we can say that metaphysics has taken place in the very ground of our being only after becoming aware of the fact that we have no direct access to its essence, then the mode of occurrence of metaphysics is fundamental only insofar as it refuses to give itself to our conceptual grasp from its very beginning. Metaphysics founds our being by depriving us of any original solidity and it inscribes itself in our very being through its receding movement, whereby philosophy itself also withdraws into a zone of opacity that is in us without being immediately accessible to us. This explains why the being of metaphysics must remain for Heidegger an open question. But in becoming a fundamentally open question, metaphysics and philosophy transform the being of human Dasein itself into an equally open and equally abyssal question. The being that becomes aware of its fundamental metaphysical constitution through the experience of asking and being unable to answer the question of metaphysics is also called into question in and by this interrogation. It is included in the structure of the question of metaphysics not only as the questioner of this question, but also as what is called into question in this very question. Rather than leading to a total impasse, the abyssal invagination of the question of metaphysics serves a clarificatory purpose in the economy of Heidegger’s argument. Metaphysics can be provisionally defined as a question whose openness is such that it brings every single being and the whole of beings into question. Metaphysics is a totality of interrogation that includes within its own limits its interrogative instance, i.e., Da-sein, and does so not only as the questioner but, above all, as what is questioned in its own question concerning the essence of the whole of beings.

It is in light of this minimal definition of the structure of metaphysical questioning that the very concept of a fundamental concept of metaphysics must be rethought. For Heidegger, the concepts that compose the traditional lexicon of metaphysics do not pay heed to the withdrawal that marks the proper occurrence of metaphysics in our being. In so doing, these concepts not only ignore but in fact preclude an intimation of what Heidegger elsewhere calls “ontological difference, which we could characterize briefly as the irreducibility of the truth of being itself to any true being whatsoever—an irreducibility that extends in particular to that being which traditionally is supposed to define beings as such (i.e., ousia or being-ness) and to the being that is said to encompass being as a whole (i.e., God). And yet, it is precisely such a radical difference that announces itself in the kind of metaphysical inquiry that Heidegger has in mind, since such an inquiry finds its point of departure in the attestation that not only metaphysics, but also our very being, have become a question in this very interrogation. A fundamental concept of metaphysics worthy of its name could only be constructed on the basis of the abyssal experience that unfolds as soon as we inquire into metaphysics’ shaky foundations, namely, that experience whereby our own foundations become fundamentally shaken in the course of an interrogation of the totality of beings.

The becoming-question of metaphysics transforms the fundamental character of its concepts in a way that requires us to rethink their conceptuality beyond the standard concept of the concept. For Heidegger, concepts are traditionally taken as second-order re-presentations, whose function is to place before us the semantic content that captures in broad strokes the identity of a specific set of particular objects. Moreover, conceptual fixation and the subsumption of particulars under more general terms presupposes even more basic cognitive or phenomenological operations, such as typification, through which the perception of individual objects is shown as being always already informed by pre-conceptual modes of sense that have not yet been clarified and conceptually fixed. Not only does the construction of concepts presuppose the intrinsic meaningfulness of the realities that they grasp, but their legitimate deployment also requires an act of judgment that ascertains whether a correspondence obtains between the meaning of the concept and the things that the concept grasps and re-presents. However, when it comes to metaphysics as Heidegger understands it, we are neither faced with a discrete sphere of (metaphysical) objects nor with a discrete region of pre-reflective, unthematized (pre-metaphysical) experiences that would serve as the basis for the erection of an equally discrete system of (metaphysical) concepts. To be properly metaphysical for Heidegger, a concept must fulfill the only condition of metaphysics that is available to us at this point in his inquiry, namely, the concept must happen in Dasein, and in such a way that it not only brings about an inquiry into the whole of being but also calls into question the very being of that being who is deploying this putative metaphysical concept. Metaphysical concepts are metaphysical only insofar as they pose the question of beings as a whole and, in so doing, they expose us to our own way of being-in-the-question-of-being-as-a-whole, which is primarily a being-at-question-in-our-own-being. Bent on ignoring their own constitutive ignorance, blind to the errancy that sets their own being in motion, metaphysicians have transformed metaphysics into a branch of philosophy, which, in turn, is reduced to a mere academic discipline. For Heidegger, the concepts of such a sub-discipline are abstractions based upon abstractions whose origin lies in the refusal to contend with the concealed essence of metaphysics.

That said, though there is no discrete realm of pre-reflexive metaphysical experiences out of which the representational concepts of metaphysical objects could be constructed, Heidegger does argue that all metaphysical concepts must be anchored in the very facticity of Dasein, more precisely, in the experience that Heidegger calls “being-gripped” or “Ergriffenheit.” Indeed, the very gripping or grasping that is traditionally understood as the essential function of all concepts is for Heidegger ultimately grounded in a being-gripped that traverses the whole of Dasein: “But above all, we will have never grasped these concepts and their conceptual rigor, if we were not gripped beforehand by what they must grasp.” (“Vor allem aber, diese Begriffe und ihre begriffliche Strenge werden wir nie begriffen haben, wenn wir nicht zuvor ergriffen sind von dem, was sie begriffen sollen.” Heidegger 9). Bringing to the fore the “Griff” or “grip” that is at the core of “Be-griff”—the German word for “concept”—Heidegger rethinks the conceptuality of metaphysical concepts beyond their traditional function as general representations. Rather than subsuming particulars, metaphysical concepts are affected by what they are supposed to grasp; they are gripped beforehand by what they are called upon to grasp and thus conceptualize. Moreover, the concept is not just the site of an originary hetero-auto-affection whereby it is affected by the very thing that it then grasps. For Heidegger, the being-gripped of both Dasein and of its metaphysical concepts also bears witness to a fundamental affect or mood, a Grundstimmung that determines (bestimmt) the very task of philosophizing and that traverses all properly philosophical and metaphysical concepts: “Philosophical conceptualizing is grounded in a being-gripped and this, in turn, in a fundamental mood.” (“Philosophisches Begreifen gründet in einer Ergriffenheit und diese in einer Grundstimmung.” Heidegger 10) Since the very core of our being is marked by the withdrawal of metaphysics, our being-gripped communicates with such a withdrawal: we are in fact gripped by the occurrence of metaphysics through the receding movement of its essence, which flees, alongside philosophy, to a “place” in our there that we cannot access.

Heidegger chooses a fragment of Novalis as the emblem for this fundamental mood, which must have already seized us and our concepts in their very ground before we could even ask the question about metaphysics and before the concepts deployed in our asking such a question could even grasp anything of it. The mood is nostalgia or homesickness and the fragment of Novalis goes as follows: “Philosophy is proper homesickness, a drive to be everywhere at home.” (“Philosophie ist eigentlich Heimweh, ein Trieb überall zu Hause zu sein.” Novalis qtd. in Heidegger 7) As Heidegger himself explains in the seminar, his rather unusual decision to select the concepts of world, finitude, and solitude as fundamental metaphysical concepts stems from the truth about the essence of philosophy that he intimates in this fragment of Novalis (Heidegger 8). Philosophy as proper or authentic nostalgia does not involve a mere yearning to return to a specific native land. Philosophical nostalgia instead coincides with the drive to transform every place into a home. Taking Novalis at his word, Heidegger reads in the totalizing nature of this impulse a statement about the task of philosophy as the configuration of a world, i.e., a whole in which Dasein could dwell without any interruption. But if philosophy is a drive to be in the world as a whole throughout the whole world, then philosophy begins and is founded in homesickness, in the not-yet-being-in-the-world-as-a-whole throughout-the-whole-world. The world is a fundamental concept of metaphysics precisely because it calls into question what it is supposed to represent: the world, as a familiar totality of dwelling, constitutes our there insofar as, like metaphysics and philosophy, it is not yet given as such. The world also becomes a question unto itself. Finitude and solitude also appear as fundamental concepts of metaphysics through their constitutive affinity with the way in which the world becomes a question that puts us into question. For Heidegger, the “Nothing” (“das Nichts”) that affects us in the very ground of our being—inasmuch as we are in the world as originary exiles—is a cipher of our constitutive finitude. Our mortality is a negativity that cannot be dialectized and thus mastered. The insurpassability of this Nothing—i.e., the not-yet of our constitutive exile and the notanymore of the impending end of even this exile that is the life of Dasein—lies at the ground of our solitude. The intensity of our lives tends towards the world as a whole precisely because we are fundamentally separated from the whole world, singularized in relation to it, like a stillborn Leibnizian monad whose singularity has never mirrored the totality of the world.

In Heidegger’s 1929-30 seminar the concept of a fundamental concept of metaphysics undergoes a radical transformation. Rather than cognizing or representing beings, metaphysical conceptuality becomes for Heidegger a way of interrogating the whole of beings as to their being—a question that also questions itself regarding its own way of being. Concepts are therefore metaphysical when they become a question to themselves, like the Dasein who supposedly “crafts” them, but who actually has already been gripped by what its concepts are meant to grasp. And what these concepts are meant to grasp is nothing other than the radical claim of ontological difference, which is indexed by the homesickness that grips Dasein at its core, in its very “Da-”. Within metaphysics, conceptual work cannot have the function of providing meaningful representations of beings insofar as no being whatsoever could ever capture the withdrawal of being itself within its discrete ontological borders. The homesickness that has already gripped us in the very core of our Da-sein and that provides the sole “basis” for our metaphysical conceptualizing attests to being’s withdrawal, turning metaphysics into a way of questioning that intensifies, rather than overcomes, the enduring enigma of existence.

Would it be possible to establish an analogy between what Heidegger says in his seminar about the interrogative essence of any fundamental concept of metaphysics and what we are trying to do in this seminar regarding the fundamental concepts of political thought? The Heidegger of the late 20s would have no doubt unauthorized such an analogy, because, first of all, politics lacks the fundamental and holistic import of metaphysics. Political questions, by definition, do not deal with beings as a whole, but rather with a region of beings that have already been rendered ontologically accessible to the political thinker by metaphysical inquiry. Moreover, for Heidegger a politics that would not simply repeat Western ontology’s oblivion of the question of being could only be thought of on the basis of a proper elucidation of the abyssal experience of metaphysical questioning. And even if soon after this seminar Heidegger abandoned all hope of renewing metaphysics by carrying out a thorough destruction of Western ontology, he would have still rejected the thought that political concepts and political thought could lend themselves to the radical experience of the open question that characterizes the movement of thinking after the fulfillment of Western metaphysics and the end of philosophy.

Still, I would argue that we stand to gain much if we were to draw this analogy. In fact, I would even argue that trans-lating Heidegger’s “concept” of “fundamental concept of metaphysics” into the realm of politics would help us to formulate a positive answer to the question that I posed in the title of this paper as to whether it is possible to come up with a lexicon of infrapolitical concepts. If one of the minimal conditions of infrapolitics is the dissociation of the ground of politics from its political determination in the form of an archontic, principial sovereignty, then any infrapolitical concept worthy of its name must challenge not only the principle of sovereignty but also the sovereign power that is usually ascribed to the beings that are said to occupy a principial, hegemonic position in the realm of politics. Taking a cue from Heidegger, a fundamental concept of politics from an infrapolitical perspective would submit the whole of politics to a radical interrogation, including the determination of human life as both the fundamental form of political life and as a fundamentally political form of life. Not unlike Heidegger’s transformation of metaphysical inquiries, infrapolitical questions are guided only by an intense feeling of not-being-at-home in any of the political determinations of existence. Novalis’s philosophy, in its homesickness, is taken over by a nostalgia so total that only the drive to be everywhere at home could correspond to it. If there were such a thing as an infrapolitical drive it would, in contrast to Novalis’s philosophical striving, it could only, correspond to the feeling of being-driven-away from any possibility of making oneself at home, anywhere.[13] Rather than restoring the sense of the political by making politics again a viable dwelling for human, collective or social life, infrapolitical concepts accentuate even more the becoming-question of politics, which emerges as soon as our relation to the political is grasped as a highly paradoxical form of political exile—as an enduring deportation from politics.

Even if both political and infrapolitical thought appear to rely on the same “argument” to justify designating any concepts as “fundamental” concepts of political thought—namely, on the power of certain concepts to grasp politics as a whole—the difference between infrapolitical and political concepts must be preserved and even intensified. The difference between these two concepts has already come to the fore in the difference that separates the concept of a fundamental concept that characterizes categorial thought from Aristotle to Kant from the concept of a fundamental concept that emerges in Heidegger’s thought. Furthermore, this difference is itself irreducibly bound to the radicality that the thought of difference acquires in Heidegger’s thinking of ontological difference, which transforms any concept worthy of the adjective “fundamental” into a singular form of grasping the experience of being gripped by the withdrawal of being itself from the site of the arkhe and the position of the principium.

If we follow Heidegger’s indication, we could characterize these two conceptualities in terms of their different ways of grasping the political, which correspond to their different ways of being-gripped by politics. Regardless of any underlying revolutionary or emancipatory intentions, a lexicon of political concepts must either presuppose or at some point actually carry out an inquiry that seeks to clarify the proper sense of politics, which implicitly requires reaffirming the ground of politics as that which has always already gripped the zoon logon ekhon in its very essence and turned it ipso facto into a zoon politikon. In other words, a lexicon of political concepts is structurally a hermeneutics of political concepts. Infrapolitical concepts execute an epokhe of the political that is far more radical than the suspension that would characterize any phenomenology or hermeneutics of the political. Infrapolitics rejects from the outset the belief in the essence of politics as our achievement, let alone the kind of achievement in which the essence of our common humanity is properly fulfilled. Infrapolitical concepts do not take us back to the roots of the political, long forgotten or only intuited confusedly; they go instead at the very roots of politics—and not without some violence—in order to launch a general interrogation of the political as a whole, and, in particular, of politics’ claim on the essence of existence. Infrapolitical concepts announce themselves through the torsion to which they submit political concepts to a question whose only aim is that of wringing life and existence free from political determinations, including the traditional concept of freedom as the spontaneous power of a sovereign, empowered, and self-possessed ipseity. It is through this radical interrogation, through this twisting and torsion of the categorial tongue—which is also a turn away from the agora and its foundations in a sovereign, hegemonic ground—that infrapolitical concepts set in motion an abyssal fundamentality that ex-poses the arkhe and its auto-position to an enduring groundlessness.


01. See Heidegger (2005), 18/16.

02. Although the current essay has grown to such an extent that it bears little resemblance to the original, I have retained the references to the context in which the paper was originally conceived and delivered, as well as a certain informality in the tone, as befits a text meant to be read out loud. I want to thank Erin Graff Zivin, Alberto Moreiras, Jacques Lezra, and José Luis Villacañas for all the work they have done and continue to do to make the Seminario crítico-político transnacional an invaluable space for thinking about politics. 

03. See Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe’s introduction to Rejouer le politique (Replaying the Political). This motif will be thoroughly examined in the next essay in the series, “Infrapolitical Concepts II: On “Exposition,” “Closure,” “Ipseity.”

04. For instance, see Levinas’s succinct characterization of Western ontology as the systematic configuration of a series of statements about different modes of identity in Dieu, le temps, et l’autre (God, Time, and Being), 112. 

05. Prior to Moreiras’s engagement with the word “infrapolitics,” the term had been used by noted anthropologist James Scott in his now classic Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990) with a decisively less theoretical goal. Scott himself tells the readers of a special issue of the journal Revue française d’études américaines devoted to his work, titled “Infrapolitics and mobilizations/Infrapolitique et mobilisations,” that he coined the term “infrapolitics” to designate the kind of politics that unfolds in situations when politics proper cannot be exercised: “Denied the widely recognized rights of citizenship secured by the French Revolution and later protected by the rule of law, politics took a different form. Widespread character assassination, petty theft, social boycotting of elite feasts, gossip and rumor, vague threats, and small acts of sabotage were the small coin of conflict and class struggle. Had the suffering approached starvation, I have little doubt that the poor villagers would have taken more desperate measures. As I came to understand and chronicle this subterranean world of political conflict which left scarcely a trace in the public record, I realized not only that this was a genre of politics but that it was the prevailing genre of day-to-day politics for most of the world’s disenfranchised, for all those living in autocratic settings, for the peasantry, and for those living as subordinates in patriarchal families” (Scott 112-13). It goes without saying that, though what Moreiras calls “infrapolitics,” without necessarily excluding these forms of actions, does not take them as its conceptual basis. Much closer to Moreiras’s infrapolitics is Werner Hamacher’s recent use of the term “protopolitical” in a recent essay on Marx, Arendt and the question of human rights: “There can be no ‘political theology’ under the conditions of non-predicative language—and those are the conditions of protopolitical existence. There is political theology only where politics is a secured fact or an actualizable possibility, but not after its end. At the beginning of political life, which begins with that end, stands no god.” (Hamacher 202)

06. I am grateful to Benjamin H. Brewer for bringing to my attention this metaphorical substitution.

07. Kantian scholars are on agreement as to the fact that intentionality—understood in general terms as directedness towards an object in a non-Husserlian sense as analogous to linguistic reference—is a sufficient condition of representations in Kant. A debate, however, remains open regarding the necessity of intentionality as a criterion of representations in Kant. At stake in this debate is the important question of the status of matter and thus of sensations, and therefore of intensity, in Kant’s thinking. For an overview of this debate and a defense of the “representationality” of sensations, see Jankowiak (2014), 492-513.

08. It is telling that the last of these terms (“Stammbegriffe”) has been rendered rather creatively as “ancestral concept”, in the standard English edition of Kant’s magnum opus.

09. For a far-reaching meditation on what is at stake in Aristotle’s characterization of the categories as one of the four ways in which being is said, see §2 in Heidegger (2006).

10. See Aristotle (1963), 1b25–2a4. 

11. See the entry for κατηγορία in the Liddell & Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, which can be consulted online in the following link:

12. See Geoffrey Bennington’s remarkable work on the co-belonging of the philosophical determination of the political and the will to purge the polis of the wild card of rhetoric in Scattered I: The Politics of Politics in Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida.

13. I am grateful to Benjamin H. Brewer for this suggestion.

Works Cited

  • Aristotle, Categories and De Interpretatione. Trans. J.L. Ackrill. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963. Print.
  • Balibar, Étienne, et al. Rejouer le politique. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981. Print.
  • Bennington, Geoffrey. Scattered I: The Politics of Politics in Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. Print.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Ed. Jens Timmermann. Hamburg: Felix Meiner Verlag, 1998. Print.
  • Hamacher, Werner. “On the Right to Have Rights: Human Rights; Marx and Arendt.” Trans. Ronald Mendoza-de Jesús. New Centennial Review 14.2. (2014): 169-214. Print.
  • Heidegger, Martin. GA 15: Seminare. Ed. Curd Ochwadt. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2005. Print.
  • — — —. GA 29/30: Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik: Welt – Endlichkeit – Einsamkeit. Ed. Friedrich Wilhelm von Herrmann. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2004. Print.
  • — — —. GA 33: Aristoteles, Metaphysik IX, 1-3. Von Wesen und Wirklichkeit der Kraft. Ed. Heinrich Hüni. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2006. Print.
  • Jankowiak, Tim. “Sensations as Representations in Kant.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 22.3 (2014): 492-513. Web.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Dieu, la mort et le temps. Paris: Le livre de poche/Grasset, 1993. Print.
  • Moreiras, Alberto. “Infrapolitics: the Project and its Politics. Allegory and Denarrativization. A Note on Posthegemony.” Transmodernity 5.1 (Spring 2015): 9-35. Web.
  • Scott, James. “Infrapolitics and Mobilizations: A Response by James C. Scott.” Revue française d’études américaines 131 (2012): 112-17. Web.