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Italian Philosophy and the problem of potentiality – Leuven


Prof. Roberto Esposito (Scuola Normale Superiore)

Prof. Elettra Stimilli (Sapienza Università di Roma)

Prof. Dario Gentili (Università degli Studi Roma Tre)

Prof. William Watkin (Brunel University)

Prof. Luca Paltrinieri (Université de Rennes)

In Il Pensiero Vivente (2010) Roberto Esposito stresses the centrality of life and potentiality for Italian philosophy. Whereas most modern philosophies of subjectivity have posited a hierarchical opposition between the subject and its body, Italian philosophy has always firmly located subjectivity within corporeal life. For Italian thinkers the subject does not transcend life, but is firmly embedded in its infinitely creative forces. The subsequent belief in the ontological primacy of vital potentiality has become a hallmark not only of Esposito’s own philosophy, but also of the writings of Antonio Negri, Judith Revel, Paolo Virno and many others. Human subjectivity, for them, is rooted in a multitude of pre-individual potentialities (potenze). The political consequence of this claim is that power (potere) can never fully master human potentiality. There is no constituted power that could tame the constituent power of the multitude. As bleak as our prospects might be, the possibility to resist is ineradicable.

This belief has however not gone uncontested. Even within the Italian philosophical tradition itself, some have questioned the primacy of potentiality. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, for example, denies the infinite potentiality of the multitude. He argues that human beings are naturally finite creatures with a limited supply of psychic energy. When contemporary capitalism thus strains this supply beyond its limits of endurance, subjects’ potentiality for resistance becomes exhausted. Not the unbounded vitality of the multitude, but burnout and the fatigued bodies of the depressed might be the paradigm of present-day life. Giorgio Agamben opposes the primacy of potentiality even more radically by putting forward impotentiality (impotenza) as an alternative ontological principle. What distinguishes humans from animals, according to Agamben, is their capacity to actively pursue the negation of a specific function. Human nature does not lie in the infinity of ‘what the body can do’, but in what it can not-do. Animals can eat or not eat, but only human beings can go on a hunger strike. If however the essence of humanity lies in the capacity to negate all forms of life, then the ultimate figure of subjectivity is bare life, humanity stripped of its qualities and potencies.

One can thus recognize a fundamental caesura at the heart of Italian philosophy with regard to subjectivity. On the one hand, Negri, Esposito, Revel, and many others defend the primacy of the infinite potentiality of life. They believe in a multitude that can always escape the confines of power and establish new forms of life. On the other hand, for Berardi and Agamben, human potentiality is not infinite. When pushed to their limits, subjects are nothing but bare life. Unsurprisingly, Negri and others have accused this line of thought of political nihilism, since it seems to discount any kind of active resistance to power. This makes us question: What is the status of (im)potentiality in Italian philosophy? What are the political consequences of subscribing to one thesis or the other? Is the ontological primacy of potentiality sustainable? Can one think a resistance of impotentiality?



  • Prof. Antoon Braeckman (KU Leuven)
  • Prof. Pascal Gielen (U Antwerpen)
  • Prof. Sonja Lavaert (VUB)
  • Dr. Stijn De Cauwer (KU Leuven)
  • Prof. Joost De Bloois (Universiteit van Amsterdam)