Agamben, Giorgio (1942–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

1. Life and early work

Giorgio Agamben was born in Rome in 1942. He was educated in Law and Philosophy at the University of Rome, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the political thought of Simone Weil. After receiving his degree in 1965, he participated in Martin Heidegger’s Le Thor seminars on Heraclitus and Hegel in 1966 and 1968 (see Heidegger, M.). In 1974 he took a fellowship at the Warburg Institute; since then he has held a number of teaching posts, including at the University of Siena, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, the Collège International de Philosophie, the University of Macerata, the University of Venice, and the University of Verona. Between 1979 and 1994, Agamben served as editor of the Italian edition of the works of Walter Benjamin. He is Baruch Spinoza Chair and Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School.

Agamben’s first book was L’uomo senza contenuto (The Man Without Content). Released in 1970, it treats G. W. F. Hegel’s end of art thesis: the claim that in modernity art loses its world-historical status as a means by which Spirit can encounter itself in the sensuous world (see Hegel, G.W.F). The book prefigures later engagements with spectatorship, alienation, experience, and nihilism. Stanze. La parola e il fantasma nella cultura occidentale (Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture) was published in 1977, and presents Agamben’s most sustained response to psychoanalysis, treating problems of melancholia, phantasm, and love. It also gives accounts of commodification and monastic life that resonate with his more recent concerns. Infanzia e storia (Infancy and History) was published in 1978, and turned again to the problem of nihilism, now figured in terms of the ‘‘destruction of experience’’ (13). In the preface he added to the French translation of the work released in 1989, Agamben gave one of the most useful descriptions of his primary philosophical preoccupation, the ‘one train of thought’ he claimed to have pursued in all of his ‘written and unwritten books’ (5): the meaning of the existence of language, which (following a 1929 lecture by Ludwig Wittgenstein) he takes as ‘the most appropriate expression of wonderment at the existence of the world’ (9).

Il linguaggio e la morte (Language and Death) was published in 1982. Despite its difficulty, it is one of Agamben’s most significant texts, because it is his most systematic treatment of the fundamental problems of his philosophy. Turning on an engagement with death in Heidegger and Hegel, it develops accounts of language, voice, negativity, and sacrifice that are crucial for understanding the mature works. Idea della prosa (Idea of Prose), published in 1985, presents elliptical fragments on an eclectic range of topics, including love, communism, study, power, vocation, death, and awakening. La comunità che viene (The Coming Community), which appeared in 1990, presents a vision of Agamben’s positive political philosophy. Written in an allusive and evocative style, it treats questions of communism, language, capital, and the state, and intervened into the discussion of community that had just unfolded between Jean-Luc Nancy and Maurice Blanchot. Agamben rose to international prominence after the publication of Homo Sacer in 1995. Translated into English in 1998, the book’s analyses of law, life, and state power appeared uncannily prescient after the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC in September 2001, and the resultant shifts in the geopolitical landscape. Provoking a wave of scholarly interest in the philosopher’s work, the book also marked the beginning of a 20-year research project, which represents Agamben’s most important contribution to Political philosophy.

Citing this article:
Abbott, Mathew. Life and early work. Agamben, Giorgio (1942–), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD3594-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

Related Articles