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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access November 11, 2020

Paul and the Plea for Contingency in Contemporary Philosophy: A Philosophical and Anthropological Critique

  • Sofya Gevorkyan and Carlos A. Segovia EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Philosophy


Our purpose in this study – which stands at the crossroads of contemporary philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies – is to assess critically the plea for radical contingency in contemporary thought, with special attention to the work of Meillassoux, in light, among other things, of the symptomatic presence of Pauline motifs in the late twentieth to early twenty first-century philosophical arena, from Vattimo to Agamben and especially Badiou. Drawing on Aristotle’s treatment of τύχη and Hilan Bensusan’s neo-monadology (as well as on the network biology of David George Haskell, Scott Gilbert’s holobiont hypothesis, and Terrence Deacon’s teleo-dynamics), we ask what is missing in such plea, from a theoretical standpoint. Next, we examine the relation between radical contingency and worldlessness in dialogue with Leroi-Gourhan’s theory of biocultural evolution, Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, Pierre Clastres’s ethnography, Heidegger’s philosophy of language, and contemporary authors like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Patrice Maniglier. These two parallel lines of inquiry help us explore what radical contingency, in turn, prevents us from thinking: the intersection of ontology, cosmopolitics, and modality.

1 Introduction

Radical contingency is one of the distinctive traits of contemporary philosophy. The increasing relevance bestowed on “difference” vs any form of “identity” in late twentieth-century philosophy (especially in post-modern and post-structuralist thought, but also in pragmatism) supplies an important aspect of its genealogy; for against any abstract essentialism tending to view things as approximations to, and deviations from, a self-identical exemplary original, their re-positioning as objects of random narratives, events, and negotiations can be said to pave the way to unpredictability. Yet we would like to explore here a different aspect of radical contingency’s genealogy – one generally overlooked. We argue that it is possible to account for the role of radical contingency in contemporary philosophy through the interplay of four intersecting factors:

  1. the symptomatic presence of Christian motifs in contemporary secular thought (as Sloterdijk points out, albeit probably not there where he points at);

  2. the renewed interest in Paul’s (of Tarsus’s) thought as evinced in the works of Vattimo, Agamben, and especially Badiou (which inspires, in turn, Meillassoux’s plea for radical contingency);

  3. the specificity of Paul’s “anarchist” κήρυγμα (which we propose to read in conjunction with the evolution of contingent logic in ancient philosophy, from Antisthenes onwards); and

  4. Paul’s subsequent transformation of political resistance (which, as Badiou perfectly sees, is, ultimately, all Paul is about) into a proto-modern utopian quest for abstract freedom.

First, then, we briefly examine Sloterdijk’s suspicion regarding the encrypted presence of Christian motifs in contemporary thought. We discuss Sloterdijk’s view that they can be found in Heidegger, and point to their presence elsewhere instead – to wit, in the works of Vattimo, Badiou, Agamben, and, more recently, Meillassoux. Plus, rather than of speaking, as Sloterdijk does, of “crypto-Christian” motifs in the plural, we think it convenient to narrow down such description and to speak instead of a single “Pauline” motif, which can be said to inspire much of contemporary thought as a “metonymic cause” (to borrow from Althusser), “present” in its effects, and by its effects, while “absent” in itself or as such from them. This discussion is pursued in the section titled: “The ghost in the shell.”

Next, we analyse the early contributions of both Lyotard and Vattimo – of which, somewhat unfairly, almost nobody talks anymore today in contrast to those of Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari – to the criticism of philosophical “totalities” and “normative foundations,” respectively. Furthermore, we ask whether such criticism is ultimately dependent on what we call the dialectics of the “One” and its “Absence,” and whether the lack of a “single normative foundation” implies the kenotic dissolution of any truth (to paraphrase Vattimo’s use of Paul’s concept of κένωσις) or whether it entails, alternatively, the emergence of different strategies to semiotise the real along differing conceptual axes. Also, we raise the question of how it might be possible to tell those differences that can coexist from those which cannot. All this will be found in the section titled: “In the wake of kένωσις – or, Vattimo’s appropriation of Paul’s thought.”

Having thus gained some perspective on what we label as the “first” (in the sense of the earliest) “adventure of contingency” in contemporary philosophy (in connection to Vattimo’s “weak thought”), we move on to examine the (later) works of Badiou and Agamben, who also make recourse to Paul’s thought. As it is well known, Badiou relies on the latter to ground his philosophical–political project, i.e. the very idea of a philosophy of the “pure subject” without any “object,” and puts forward the expression “radical contingency,” whose philosophical cum anthropological questioning we endorse in this study. In turn, Agamben recovers Paul’s notion of “messianic time” qua non-predictable time via Benjamin and Taubes. In short Agamben and Badiou epitomise, we argue, the “second adventure of contingency” in contemporary philosophy; we introduce and discuss their respective uses of Paul in a section titled: “Dancing with Paul over radical contingency: Badiou and Agamben.”

Subsequently, in a section titled: “Absolute contingency: from Badiou to Meillassoux,” we turn to Meillassoux, in whose work contingency, we claim, undertakes a “third” (and for now final) “adventure,” which Meillassoux himself describes as the “omnipotence of chaos.” Furthermore, we ponder the extent of Meillassoux’s indebtedness to Badiou and offer a succinct chronological distribution of Badiou’s own works around the question of contingency. Additionally, we look at Meillassoux’s argument on the “necessity of contingency” in dialogue with Brassier’s dual reading of it, thus distinguishing between its “strong” and “weak” interpretations and showing, moreover, that the former one should prevail against any attempt to diminish it.

This gives us occasion to put Meillassoux’s argument into the broader perspective of philosophy’s history, with especial attention to ancient Scepticism and to Aristotle’s pioneering elaboration on the notion of “chance.” A twofold criticism of Meillassoux’s “either/or” approach to contingency and necessity follows, along two complementary expositive lines: one draws on the new valence conferred to the idea of “regularity” in contemporary biology and ethology, while the other one examines the concept of “compossibility” in both Leibniz’s monadology and today’s “ontologies of agency” in conversation with Hilan Bensusan. All this is found in the section titled: “A new path in the history of philosophy? Putting Meillassoux into context,” whose title echoes, in interrogative form, Badiou’s laudatory words on Meillassoux’s After Finitude.

Therefore, in the sections described so far, which form Part I of our essay (“Contingency’s three adventures in the contemporary philosophical arena”), we identify the theoretical contexts in which today’s plea for “radical contingency” ought to be (re)placed; we put such plea into historical–philosophical perspective; and we advance the concept that leads us to reject it as a necessary operational category for a post-metaphysical philosophy: the concept of “compossibility.”

Interestingly enough, Paul plays the part of a ghost, or something of the like, throughout our survey. Not only do Vattimo, Agamben, and Badiou – in whose steps Meillassoux follows – insistently mention him: they build on his radical plea for contingency. Thus, in Part II of our essay (“Paul’s backstage laboratory and the passageway out of it”), we analyse the latter in historical–political setting. We argue that Paul bequeathed a false disjunctive to Western thought by opposing one form of universalism to another: an all-inclusive oneness that privileged contingency to Rome’s all-exclusive oneness that privileged authority instead. And we attempt at finding a possible alternative to it.

In a section titled: “Ἀρχή as terror – or, the serpent’s egg,” we begin by examining Paul’s anti-imperial mode of reasoning in favour of contingency and his blatant dismissal of the very notion of ἀρχή – i.e. Paul’s alleged “anarchism.” Next, we highlight the implications of the latter and discuss its enduring effects, asking, furthermore, which may be said to be its correlation with Western “nihilism.” And immediately afterwards, we situate Paul’s κήρυγμα at the extreme of a conceptual spectrum inaugurated by Antisthenes’s eroding (mis)interpretation of Socrates’s elenctic method. Our aim is to demonstrate that, in the two cases, philosophy is brought to an abrupt end, be it “cynical” (Antisthenes) or “foolish” (to paraphrase Paul). We undertake this appraisal in a brief section titled: “Pleading for contingency in Antiquity: From Antisthenes to Paul.”

But what is it that Paul dismisses with his rebuttal of the notion of ἀρχή? In a section titled “Re-wording ἀρχή – or, how to combine Heidegger with Pierre Clastres,” we venture a response to this question taking into account Heidegger’s warning on the danger of Latinising ancient-Greek terms by projecting onto them the shadow of Roman imperialism, and Clastres’s concept of “society against the state.” It is moreover possible, we contend, to interpret the nature of the ancient-Greek πόλις in light of such concept, just as it is possible to think extra-modern “indivision” and ancient-Greek “justice” with recourse to the notion of ἀρχή – provided the latter is reinterpreted according to its etymology – in opposition both to the Roman imperial order and to Paul’s anarchism. Hence comparative etymology and comparative politics go hand in hand in this section.

We conclude Part II searching for a way out of the imperial frontier and of Paul’s camp, and find a passageway to escape them in the binary logic of extra-modern conceptual worlds, that is to say, in what Lévi-Strauss famously called “savage thought.” Let us quickly recall that the adjective “savage” amounted for Lévi-Strauss less to “primitive or archaic” than to “untamed […] as distinct from domesticated for the purpose of yielding a return.”[1] There is much dignity in the term, then. Etymologically speaking “savage,” both as a noun and an adjective, derives from the Latin silva, whose meaning is “forest” – in reference to the habitat of those whom the Romans wrongly thought deprived of social organisation: the silvatici (Germans, Picts, etc.). In turn, in early modern times “savage” became the preferred term to designate those whom the Europeans, in the image of the Romans, fancied deprived of social organisation: Amerindians, Australian Aborigines, Africans, etc. Accordingly, in this study, we use the term “savage” to denote that which is neither “Roman” (i.e. purportedly “civilised”) nor “barbarian,” i.e. belonging in any other despotic order (the Persian, the Punic, etc.).

Thus in a section titled: “Becoming ‘savage’: The other way out of the imperial frontier,” we show that the binary logic of “savage” thought – which, additionally, we put in paleo-anthropological perspective in dialogue with the work of Leroi-Gourhan – is less rigid than creative; that it pervades numerous aspects of “savage” life including social organisation, mythopoiesis, ritual practices, and personal identity; and that, to avoid falling into inertia, it dynamically combines cooperation and rivalry, thus somehow opening onto Hobbes and Rousseau’s shared blind spot. Furthermore, we argue that its dialectics of same and other, friend and enemy, oppose any form of universalism, which “savage” thought replaces with negotiation, since for any negotiation to be possible there must be two, not one – whether that “one” replicates the “all-exclusive” Roman One or the “all-inclusive” Pauline One it makes little difference. Contingency, we conclude, may well dictate when, where, and even who might be in position of negotiating, but the structure according to which the two positions ought to be distributed cannot be declared contingent in turn.

Lastly, this takes us back to the concept of “compossibility,” on which we draw in the “Conclusion” to lay the foundations of a new “postulate” supplementary to the two postulates traditionally acknowledged, since Leibniz, as the two basic rules of thought: the postulate of sufficient reason and the postulate of non-contradiction. A “postulate of compossibility” presents the advantage, we claim, of allowing one to circumvallate not only Paul’s universalism, but, in like manner, the axiomatics of post-Fordist capitalism, which is based on the very same pro-contingency premise that stands at the core of Paul’s κήρυγμα. Moreover, we add, such postulate makes possible the combination of ontology, cosmopolitics, and modality we need to re-world the un-world we are trapped into on behalf of the “anything goes” that beats under the plea for radical contingency.

2 Contingency’s three adventures in the contemporary philosophical arena

2.1 The ghost in the shell

The encrypted presence of Christian motifs in modern and contemporary thought has often been underlined. Thus, for example, Andrew Cole argues that to elaborate his theory on “The Fetishism of Commodity and Its Secret,” Marx drew not so much on Hegel’s philosophy of right, as Marcuse claimed long ago, as on Hegel’s early theological writings on the role of the eucharist in medieval Christianity.[2] In turn, Sloterdijk suspects a crypto-Christian in Heidegger. By denouncing (like Pascal, Fichte, and Schelling) the relation between “egoism” and “malice,” writes Sloterdijk, “Heidegger argues in the tradition of an anti-narcissism or ‘anti-humanism’ […] coded in Augustinian terms and […] molded in a crypto-Catholic anti-modernism that does not need to be explained.”[3] Actually, an explanation would be very helpful to persuade us that Pascal, Fichte, Schelling, and Heidegger are talking about the same thing and for the same reasons; for even if some similarities between Schelling and Heidegger, and more loosely perhaps between both of them and Fichte, can be drawn despite their many and important differences – of which Sloterdijk surely knows too – Sloterdijk’s claim looks to us – if it is about going into comparisons – like Schelling’s “absolute” in Hegel’s (in)famous words: “like the night, in which all cows are black,”[4] which happens to be a Yiddish proverb without there being any need to deduce from it – or should we?  – that Hegel was a crypto-Jew.[5] Furthermore, Sloterdijk assures us, both receptivity to being and language and the care of being, as endorsed by Heidegger, reflect too his crypto-Catholicism in such a way that “it would be pointless to enter into more details.”[6] Yet here too we would be delighted to get at least some details. For we find a closer – if somewhat puzzling – parallelism between Heidegger’s take on the respect to language and the care of being and Davi Kopenawa’s conviction, as collected by Bruce Albert, that “to be able to make hereamuu [i.e. being-hypersensitive] speeches […] one must acquire the image of the kãokãoma loud-voiced falcon […] call[ed] Kãomari […] [which] gives the [essential] words […] their [due] strength”[7] – those very words, he adds, that the “earth eaters”[8] (read: the “white people,”[9] whether “missionaries” or “garimpeiros”)[10] seem to have forgotten,[11] which explains the greed out of which they destroy forests and rivers and shows that their “thought” is “full of darkness”[12] – or, one could venture in Heideggerian parlance, insensitive to being’s “clearing.”[13] Now, Kopenawa, rather than a crypto-Catholic, is an extra-modern (Yanomami) shaman; perhaps, then, like Heidegger. Lastly, Sloterdijk interprets Heidegger’s conceptual merging of the verbs “thinking” and “thanking” as a “crypto-Catholic” move,[14] thus omitting – distractedly, on purpose?  – that the semantic intersection of these two verbs, which is reflected in their mirroring phonetics and easily perceptible, is perfectly attested in Proto-Indo-European.[15] One cannot but wonder, then, if it is not Sloterdijk who, paradoxically, “crypto-Christianises” their relation. Nevertheless, Sloterdijk is on the track of something intriguing here, to wit: the encrypted presence of Christian motifs in contemporary philosophy. He is right in pointing it out, that is. But – we think – he misses the target.

Thus, in the following pages, we will examine the presence of, in particular, a Pauline motif in Badiou, Vattimo, and Agamben as well as, more recently, Meillassoux. We are willing to call it “radical contingency.” As for its Pauline ascendence or, to put it in more forceful terms, “causality,” we are certain that it must be thought of in “structural” or “metonymic” terms, to use Althusser’s conceptual equivalence between both expressions, i.e. as the causality of a “cause” that is simultaneously “present” in its effects (and by its effects) and “absent” in itself (or as such) from them.[16]

2.1.1 In the wake of kένωσις – or, Vattimo’s appropriation of Paul’s thought

“Today’s philosophical conversation has at least a point of convergence: there is no single, concluding, normative foundation.” These are the opening lines placed by Vattimo and Rovatti at the outset of their iconic edited volume Il pensiero debole, published in 1983.[17] Four years earlier, Lyotard, in turn, had closed his not-less emblematic La Condition postmoderne by affirming: “Let us wage a war on totality; let us be witness to the unpresentable.”[18] We are here before the two counter-foundational foundations of contemporary philosophy – which, as it is patent, express an “utter” resolution and provide a “single” point of convergence to it, thus risking themselves to fall in the quicksands of self-refutation.

Not only. Even if there is no “single, concluding, normative foundation” for anything, as there are infinite ways of semiotising reality and turning it meaningful, and innumerable conceptual axes around which to do so, it can be said that each difference has its own sense and each possible world its own ἀρχή – a term we shall discuss below at length, but which can be preliminarily defined here as “the persistent ground (notional or otherwise) on which something takes root and makes sense.” Thought in Greek, for instance, the “Earth” is the one that shelters the dead,[19] i.e. those who no longer shine forth;[20] but it is also Demeter, who is sometimes sad and sometimes happy on account of Persephone’s misadventures, as shown by the Earth’s changes in mood in winter and spring, respectively[21] – the ἀρχή of the former portrayal is a synthesis of tragic awareness and poetic perception; the ἀρχή of the latter, a combination of poetic perception, cognition, affectivity, and imagination.[22] Conversely, in Rome, observes Heidegger, “the Earth, tellus, terra, is the dry, the land as distinct from the sea […] that upon which construction, settlement, and installation are possible”[23] – here, the ἀρχή is that of a settler colonialism. In turn, in Amazonian mythology the current Earth, which will be followed by other earths (namely, those which stand above the current sky) as it was preceded by others (those which stand under its current surface), is a provisional scenario for (what we, non-Amazonians, call) “trans-species” relations, inter-crossing perspectives, and becomings[24] – thus the Amazonian world (which we tend to reduce to the admixture of human tribes and rainforest) stands on a half-cosmopolitical, half-psychedelic ἀρχή. Let the reader then draw her/his own conclusions as to the type of ἀρχή at play in the following cases: in Christianity, the Earth is the place to which the flesh returns after the person dies, but also the place whence the body will be called out for its resurrection in the end of times; in contrast, for the ant (or, rather, for our own view of what we call the ant’s Umwelt), it is a “world” made out of “galleries” where “food supplies” are stored and which must be “defended” against any potential “intrusion;” in Modernity, the Earth is a planet that gravitates around a star; in contrast, for the child learning how to walk, it is an abyss s/he must try to avoid falling back into instead. With this we want to stress that the fact that there is no “single, concluding, normative foundation” for anything, as Vattimo claims, (i) has always been more or less clear to everyone and (ii) does not tell us much yet about which differences can coexist and which ones cannot.[25]

Besides, what should one deduce from this, let’s say, “plurality of truths?” That “truth,” which only Christian monotheism (and perhaps, too, Hegel)[26] aimed at turning into “one,”[27] should undergo, once more in the image of Christianity (cf. Paul’s notion of κένωσις in Phil 2:7),[28] a kenotic or “self-lowering” process[29] against all triumphalism, and that we, in turn, cannot but be “convalescent” of the illness in which the latter has plunged us into?[30] Will we not then be unable to see beyond the end of our own nose and therefore remain trapped in our own (once swaggering, now decaying) narcissism. Paraphrasing Althusser, who used to say (whether justly or not is a different matter) that Proudhon was the “unconscious prisoner” of Smith’s and Ricardo’s political economy,[31] will we not thereby act as the “unconscious prisoner(s)” of Christian mono-theism? Would it not be reasonable, once and for all, to move outside the dialectics of the “One” and its “Absence” and to start playing a new and eventually more fruitful game? As for Lyotard, are “difference” and “multiplicity” just to be “witnessed?” And can their celebration be endlessly prolonged after-hours, or must they be explored afresh under the guidance of a principle which can neither be that of sufficient reason nor that of non-contradiction (which are customarily regarded as the two basic principles of thinking): a principle (as we shall later see) of com-possibility. We would like to make the point that moving beyond what we have called the dialectics of the “One” and its “Absence,” which stand as the Pillars of Hercules of today’s thought, should permit us enter into the domain of “worlding”[32] – let us add: on behalf of a logic of the “uncommon” rather than the “common,” since, because of the aforementioned differences, the world – is there any need to recall it? – is a pluriverse.[33]

Anyway, it is a little bit unfair, we think, that today’s discourses on the “un(re)presentable,” the “extra-normative,” and the “fragmentary” which are as many as the waves of the sea (and not totally unrelated to the logic of twenty first-century capitalism) no longer honour Lyotard and Vattimo among their ancestors, responsible as they both are for the first of contingency’s “adventures”[34] in contemporary philosophy. Foucault, Derrida, and Deleuze and Guattari have had been more lucky in this sense, for everyone speaks of decoding such and such “regimes of power-knowledge” of “deconstructing” any self-evident meanings, and of imagining “new worlds of possibles” and “lines of flight.”

2.1.2 Dancing with Paul over radical contingency: Badiou and Agamben

Or, rather, almost everyone. Badiou does not. His project,[35] instead, is to reintroduce a philosophy of the pure “subject” in the empty grid left behind by the rival topological distribution of what he calls (a) philosophies “sutured to science” (which turn around the notion of an “object”), (b) those “sutured to politics” (which either endorse the notion of a “subject” emerging from some “objective” domain, like Marx does, or dissolve it in order to better understand the “object” in question, thus stitching themselves back to science, like Althusser proposes), and (c) those “sutured to the poem” (which question the theoretical reliability of any “subject” and any “object”) – a philosophy, then, of the “subject” without any “object.”[36] It is in relation to this possibility that Paul becomes meaningful for Badiou.[37]

What, then, does Badiou find of so much interest in Paul? Simple: the fact that Paul makes of “pure conviction,” as Badiou calls it, the cornerstone of his thought.[38] For only “conviction” can persuade those who are under a “law” (νόμος) that discriminates them for what they are (peoples conquered by Rome or, in the eyes of the Jews and their own law, Gentiles) that whatever any law may say about their presumed faultlessness they are open to, and can experience, “grace” (χάρις).[39] “Conviction” translates here Paul’s πίστις, i.e. “belief” or “faith,” upon which the “hope” (ἐλπίς) of those put in disadvantage by both the Roman law and the Jewish law stands.[40] Besides, the fact that the centre of that hope is what Paul preaches as a “Christ-event”[41] does not trouble at all an atheist like Badiou,[42] as, in his view, Paul’s “Christ-event” must be seen as an “event” capable of producing an otherwise inexistent “multitude” (out of a collection of singularities, i.e. out of peoples belonging in different tribes, speaking different languages, etc.) qua revolutionary “subject” – and thus, ultimately, precisely, as an “event,” i.e. as something that disrupts the “being,” and thereby the norm imposed on any given state of things and its status quo: a “cast of dice,”[43] an “excess.”[44] In other words, it is both Paul’s “all-inclusive” One (read: Paul’s “universalism”)[45] and Paul’s “anti-philosophy”[46] (since Paul’s bet on the event rejects being) that interests Badiou, who pairs Paul’s logic of “pure” (i.e. autonomous and self-positional) “subjectivation”[47] with a principle of “pure” or “radical contingency”[48] that restores its dignity to the pure “multiple” (i.e. to that which is more than x, being x the law that constrains things to be in this but not that way):

This is the root of the famous Pauline theme concerning the superabundance of grace. The law governs a predicative, worldly multiplicity, granting to each part of the whole its due. Evental grace governs a multiplicity in excess of itself, one that is indescribable, superabundant relative to itself as well as with respect to the fixed distributions of the law.

The profound ontological thesis here is that universalism supposes one be able to think the multiple not as a part, but as in excess of itself, as that which is out of place, as a nomadism of gratuitousness.[49]

Hence, Badiou does not only approach Paul: he finds in Paul the axiomatics of a restored philosophy of the “subject” as “event” and, thereby, the axiomatics of a fully “political” philosophy:[50]

Why Saint Paul? Why solicit this “apostle” who is all the more suspect for having, it seems, proclaimed himself such and whose name is frequently tied to Christianity’s least open, most institutional aspects: the Church, moral discipline, social conservatism, suspiciousness toward Jews? How are we to inscribe this name into the development of our project: to refound a theory of the Subject that subordinates its existence to the aleatory dimension of the event as well as to the pure contingency of [the] multiple […] without sacrificing the theme of freedom?”[51]

By a dual equation: Being = Law; Event = Freedom, which is what Paul endorses against the former. In a nutshell: Badiou interprets “being” in a Roman way, i.e. as imperium, and, for that very reason, champions Paul’s anti-imperial commitment to what Andrew Gibson calls the “absolute privilege of contingency.”[52]

On his part, Agamben finds in Paul a different type of conceptual companion for rethinking the possibility of a political philosophy – one that has less to do with re-figuring out the conditions that must be met for a revolutionary “subject” to be there than with fancying the conditions of possibility of an interruption of the power-shaped time (this, he takes from Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History)[53] we are imprisoned in (in a Foucauldian sense). What, then, does Agamben discover in Paul? What Nietzsche called a radical “inversion” of all values (“whenever I am weak, then I am strong”)[54] and, with it, the opportunity of disrupting at any moment (“now!”, as Benjamin dreamt)[55] what is imposed on us as something apparently closed.[56] For I can always decide that your supposed strength is your weakness and my supposed weakness my strength, and take advantage of it to perform something unexpected that reverses, or at least disturbs, any situation in which you might seem to be the winner and I might seem to be the loser, thus putting any distribution of power upside down and allowing for new unpredicted possibilities to emerge in the horizon of the possible understood as the contingent. It is thus that my “redemption” or “deliverance” (ἀπολύτρωσις, Erlösung) takes place.[57] “Now-time” (Jetztzeit)[58] or “contracted time” like that about which Paul speaks in 1 Cor 7:29: a “messianic time”[59] which is no longer the “end of times,” the “last day” of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, but the time that “contracts” itself and “begins to end.”[60]

Benjamin and Paul? That, exactly, is Agamben’s thesis, based on Benjamin’s own stress, in Theses on the Philosophy of History, on the adjective “weak” (schwache) when writing about “messianic power” (messianische Kraft) – a stress that Agamben attributes to Benjamin’s reading of Paul.[61] Agamben supports his interpretation on Taubes’s surmise[62] concerning the plausible influence of Rom 8:19–23 on Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment. [63] Yet Agamben skates over Taubes’s emphasis on Benjamin’s inclusion of the term “Messiah” (not just “Messianic,” says Taubes)[64] in the latter.[65] If, as we have seen, Badiou dispenses with Christ, keeping from Paul’s “Christ-event” the event alone and thus positing a Christ-event without Christ; Agamben, in turn, dispenses with the “Messiah” and keeps from Paul the messianic time alone: a messianic time without Messiah. Vattimo would probably say that such extreme secularisation is, anyway, all the more Christian, as it carries the logic of κένωσις all the way through, extracting from it its most extreme, if paradoxical, implications: Christianity must finally dispense with Christ (the Messiah).[66]

In conclusion, according to Agamben Paul must be viewed not only as the “secret presence” behind Benjamin’s reflections on the revolutionary qualities of “messianic” time,[67] but also as the ultimate referent for a political philosophy – which can only be, by definition, the philosophy of a messianic, i.e. non-predictable, contingent, time. In the end, we are not so far away from Badiou, as, here too, the unforeseeable or contingent claims its rights against any determination, be it that of a “law” (like the Jewish Law) that “makes one man a Jew and the other a goy [=non-Jew]”[68] (for any law consists in “instituting divisions and separations:” such is its “principle”)[69] or that of a pre-assigned revolutionary subject[70] – here too, then, we are before a philosophy of freedom. Furthermore, we would like to venture that we are, in both cases, before the fulfilment of Christian thought. If Heidegger famously said that Nietzsche had put an end to the history of Western “metaphysics” understood as the history of the forgetting of the “truth” of “being” – in the sense that the Nietzschean “will to power” represents its culmination, the point after which only something else can begin, if it does – it is also possible to affirm that Badiou and Agamben (like Vattimo, if in a different way) put an end to the history of Christian thought by accomplishing it. And is not such possibility, anyway, what Laruelle, too, has in mind when he “heretically” appropriates the figure of “Christ” qua God’s reverse, or as “in-man”-ness?[71]

We are tempted to label this as contingency’s second “adventure” in today’s philosophical thought.

2.1.3 Absolute contingency: from Badiou to Meillassoux

It is in Quentin Meillassoux, however, that contingency is absolutised – and thus allowed a third “adventure.”

In the Preface to Meillassoux’s After Finitude [72] – which is tellingly subtitled: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency – Badiou presents Meillassoux’s advocacy of contingency as having “open[ed] a new path in the history of philosophy.”[73] For, he says, while Kant had upheld the “necessity of the laws of nature,”[74] even if our “perceptual experience […] provides no guarantee whatsoever for it,”[75] by positing that it ensues from the “constituting activity” of the “transcendental subject”[76] – i.e. from our thinking – Meillassoux “demonstrates [instead] that there is only one thing that is absolutely necessary: that the laws of nature are contingent.”[77] This is not exactly a new path in the history of philosophy, though, but an old one opened long ago by Democritus, for whom, as Pierre-Marie Morel writes, “worlds due their existence to contingency or chance, rather than to necessity,”[78] even if, once each world is formed, ἀνάγκη replaces τύχη in it – a paradox Aristotle discusses in Physics, B, 4, 196a25–35 (=Democritus, DK 68A 69). Meillassoux rather walks and widens that pathway, as Badiou himself does, or, more exactly, as Badiou himself had already done: “There are only multiplicities and nothing else. None of them on their own is connected to another. […] Being is subtracted from any connection;”[79] “what […] surfaces […] is Being itself in its redoubtable and creative inconsistency. It is Being in its void […] This is what I call an ‘event.’ […] The event occurs[,] […] as Mallarme would say, at that point one is then in the waters of the wave in which reality as a whole dissolves.”[80] In fact, it can be argued that in Briefings on Existence – from which these two brief excerpts are taken – Badiou develops the ontological implications[81] of what one year before, in his essay on Paul, he had called the “pure,”[82] “radical,”[83] “illegal contingency”[84] needed in turn to set up, in the image of Paul’s anomic “superabundance of grace,” a “nomadism of gratuitousness,”[85] and glossed in his book on Deleuze,[86] inspiring himself in Mallarmé,[87] as “the affirmation of the totality of chance.”[88] Moreover, he does so in close dialogue with Lucretius, whose notion of clinamen (the “unpredictable swerve of atoms” of which reality is made) Badiou makes his.[89] Ultimately, Badiou had laid the foundations of this project – which, in short, Meillassoux fulfils – in Being and Event.[90] Yet such project goes back to Théorie du sujet,[91] where Badiou writes against Heidegger, for whom Hölderlin is obviously the metaphor therein:[92]

Remain in exile – or, as Rimbaud says in A Season in Hell: “stay there where one gains nothing;” it is this Hölderlin could never cope with, as, for him, the exile calls for a crucified meditation on the need to return.

Courage cannot be defined otherwise: it is the acceptance of exile without return.[93]

It is the defence of this “courage,” not only against Hölderlin and Heidegger but also against Sophocles and Aeschylus,[94] i.e. against ancient-Greek tragedy en bloc,[95] that Badiou undertakes in his writings against the “shuddering” of those not courageous enough to embrace that for which “nihilism” is, he says, a poor “signifier.”[96] Yet this means that at the very bottom of Badiou’s philosophy there is a question of value. It is from a decision, then, that it all follows: in the end “cekomça,” as Pierre Clastres might have ironically said.[97]

It is that same “courage,” furthermore, that inspires Meillassoux’s After Finitude and, to a certain extent given its simultaneous indebtedness to Laruelle’s “anti-philosophy,”[98] Brassier’s Nihil Unbound.[99] Thus, Meillassoux: “Contingency expresses the fact that physical laws remain indifferent as to whether an event occurs or not – they allow an entity to emerge, to subsist, or to perish.”[100] For “anything might happen, even nothing at all.”[101] According to Meillassoux, this means two things: “first, that contingency is necessary […]; second, that contingency alone is necessary”[102] – “or in other words, […] the omnipotence of chaos;”[103] and this, in turn, requires that a “principle of unreason”[104] be introduced against Leibniz’s principle of “sufficient reason:”[105] “if something is, then it must be contingent.”[106] Yet while this implies turning Leibniz upside down, it simultaneously maintains, albeit corrected, the validity of Leibniz’s original intuition: “it is necessary that there be something rather than nothing because it is necessarily contingent that there is something rather than something else.”[107] As Brassier observes, “[t]his claim is liable to a ‘weak’ and a ‘strong’ interpretation. The weak interpretation states that if and only if something exists, then it exists contingently. The strong interpretation claims that it is absolutely necessary that contingent entities exist.”[108] On the weak reading, “not only is existence contingent; that contingent entities exist is itself nothing but a contingent fact. But the claim that it is not necessary that contingent things exist has to invoke a second-order […] contingency in order to deny the necessity of contingent existence at the level of fact.”[109] Yet even “though we can conceive of an existing entity as contingent, we cannot conceive of existence per se as contingent – for to do so would be to think its possible inexistence, and we are perfectly incapable of thinking nothingness.”[110] Therefore, the strong interpretation prevails: contingency is both necessary and what is.

2.2 A new path in the history of philosophy? Putting Meillassoux into context

Undeniably, Meillassoux’s take on contingency goes beyond what the ancient Atomists fancied. In this sense, it could seem that it opens – as Badiou claims – “a new path in the history of philosophy.” Yet Bensusan opportunely reminds us that, within the ancient Sceptic tradition, Aenesidemus, unlike Sextus but like Pyrrho perhaps, did not merely endorse the “exercise of doubting” as a way “to cure people of [dogmatic] conviction[s],”[111] but made of it an “ontology,” i.e. a thesis about the world’s “furniture.”[112] Meillassoux’s stance is not very different from Aenesidemus’s and Pyrrho’s, then.

Yet Pyrrhonism must be viewed as an exception internal to ancient-Greek culture; or, even better, as an exception partly external to it, since Pyrrho’s ontological scepticism took shape through his contact with pre-sectarian Buddhism during Alexander’s campaign in India.[113] There is actually something intrinsically modern in the “ontologisation” of doubt, which, Pyrrho’s “Buddhism” aside (but is Buddhism not an “a-theism,” anyway?),[114] only makes sense once the world has been deprived of all consistency in favour of an other-worldly God and/or once that God has been declared dead. Experienced in a Greek way, τύχη – which we hasten to keep untranslated – meant instead something altogether different from modern “contingency:” not so much ontological indetermination as the “meaningful experience” of that whose “reason why” cannot be known, i.e. of the events and “encounters that either bless us or ruin us”[115] in a world in which the “gods” (read: the shining-forth of its ever-living immanent forces) are “permanently present.”[116] Besides, the Greeks generally assumed that if something can be indeed experienced as τύχη it is, precisely, because some kind of “order” (τάξις) prevails despite any possible exceptions to it:

we observe that some things always come to pass in the same way, and others for the most part. It is clearly of neither of these that chance, or the result of chance, is said to be the cause — neither of that which is by necessity and always, nor of that which is for the most part. But as there is a third class of events besides these two — events which all say are by chance — it is plain that there is such a thing as chance and spontaneity; for we know that things of this kind are due to chance and that things due to chance are of this kind.[117]

Furthermore, they did not necessarily view τύχη and “finality” (τέλος) in contradictory terms:

Of things that come to be, some come to be for the sake of something, others not. Again, some of the former class are in accordance with intention, others not, but both are in the class of things which are for the sake of something. Hence it is clear that even among the things which are outside what is necessary and what is for the most part, there are some in connexion with which the phrase “for the sake of something” is applicable. […] Things of this kind, then, when they come to pass accidentally are said to be by chance. […]

Example: A man is engaged in collecting subscriptions for a feast. He would have gone to such and such a place for the purpose of getting the money, if he had known. He actually went there for another purpose, and it was only accidentally that he got his money by going there; and this was not due to the fact that he went there as a rule or necessarily, nor is the end effected (getting the money) a cause present in himself – it belongs to the class of things that are objects of choice and the result of thought. It is when these conditions are satisfied that the man is said to have gone by chance. If he had chosen and gone for the sake of this – if he always or normally went there when he was collecting payments – he would not be said to have gone by chance.[118]

Aristotle here limits contingency in two ways: on the one hand, its existence does not preclude that of regularity; on the other hand, contingency exists inside a complex causal web from which it cannot be isolated. Therefore, it is not to be absolutised.[119] In other words, Aristotle, who is also the first philosopher to have addressed the notion of τύχη in a systematic manner, refuses to take an either/or approach to chance. Likewise, Plutarch will later attribute to most Greek philosophers from Anaxagoras to the Stoics the view that chance (regardless of whether one may take chance to be a type of cause or the name we give to what exceeds our knowledge) concurs with necessity, fate, choice, and spontaneity.[120] In contrast, Meillassoux puts forward an either/or approach to chance. But with this he does not really open “a new path in the history of philosophy” – he merely reinstantiates Pyrrho’s and Aenesidemus’s somewhat marginal gesture.

Additionally, Meillassoux’s recourse to modern science – in particular, to the mathematical possibility of iteration without repetition – to prove his point on radical contingency, marginalises, in turn, recent developments in contemporary biology which we deem fair to briefly mention here. Not only is regularity intrinsically connected to genetics (so that from an egg fly there is no chance that a lizard or a turtle are born). Relationality, which over the past few years has become something like a leitmotif in theoretical biology, is based on regularity on two levels: interspecies alliance (symbiosis) and non-invasive distribution of the species that constitute a specific ecosystem: thus the recurrence of “mutualism,” when the relationship between two organisms is mutually beneficial (+, +), and “commensalism,” when the relationship between two organisms just benefits one of them (+, 0), in addition to competition (–, –) and predation (+, –); it can be argued that it is only exceptionally that one species puts at risk the survival of another one, be it in the form of “amensalism,” when the relationship between two organisms damages one of them without benefiting the other one (0, –), or in the form of “parasitism” (+, –). Furthermore, relationality is not limited two two-species interaction. As David George Haskell writes, “[l]ife is embodied network.”[121] Similarly, Scott Gilbert comments:

When you think of a cow, you probably envision an animal grazing, eating grass, and perhaps producing methane at her other end. However, cows cannot do this. Their bovine genome does not encode proteins with the enzymatic activity needed to digest cellulose. What the cow does is chew the grass and maintain a symbiotic community of microorganisms in her gut. It is this population of gut symbionts that digests the grass and makes the cow possible.

The cow is an obvious example of what is called a holobiont, an organism plus its persistent communities of symbionts. The notion of the holobiont is important both within and beyond biology because it shows a radically new way of conceptualizing “individuals.” Recognizing the holobiont as a critical unit of life highlights process and reciprocal interactions, while challenging notions of genomic purity.[122]

None of this is due to chance, even if contingency undeniably plays a role in the making of life’s network.[123] Also, ethology is another important window to bio-regularity:

The part of the brain that stores spatial information gets larger and more complex, allowing the birds to remember the locations of the seeds and insects that they cache under bark and in clusters of lichen. […]

[Besides,] [i]f one bird should happen on a novel way of finding or processing food, other will learn from what they see.[124]

And so, too, is chemistry, which does not only intervene in the formation of organisms but also in their behaviour in an extraordinarily complex way:

If the chemical signals and cell growth occur in the right sequence, root and fungus entangle and begin an exchange of sugars and minerals. In addition to food, the root chimera moves information from one plant to another in the form of chemical signals that travel through the fungus. These molecules carry messages about attacking insects and drying soil, the stressors of plant life […]

Decisions are made in these networks based on flows of information involving thousands of species.[125]

Finally, to all this one must decidedly add teleo-dynamics, which is gaining prominence in evolutionary biological thought as a plausible explanation to what, as Terrence Deacon stresses, escapes both entropy and accidentality:

How [can] the chemistry of life embody the information necessary to instruct the development of organisms and maintain them on the path that defends them against the incessant increase of entropy? In other words, what controls and guides the formation and repair of organism structures to compensate for the ravages of thermodynamics and just plain accident, and what makes it possible for living processes to be organized with respect to specific ends, such as survival and reproduction?[126]

“Teleodynamic organization,” Deacon goes on to say, opens for us the door to comprehend the essential part that the “virtual” plays in all life processes, thus “enabling the potentially indefinite to enable something intrinsically incomplete to bring itself into existence”[127] – against any materialist reductionism, that is. Probably, we touch here upon a fundamental issue, namely, the relation between materialism and contingentism, both of which depend on a restricted (efficient, mechanicist) understanding of causality, be it that they portray it as necessary, as accidental, or, more often, as a combination of necessity and contingency.

Besides, from a strictly philosophical perspective, Hilan Bensusan has recently shown the problematic (in the sense of too-far-reaching) nature of Meillassoux’s radical contingentism. Even if “contingency is what we should primarily look at in order to ultimately come to terms with the sensible or the concrete,” he writes, the “accident itself” cannot be seen as “an absolute principle or an ultimate element to which everything else is to be reduced.”[128] Accordingly, Bensusan’s purpose is “not to state the sovereignty of contingency […] but rather to spell out the details that makes possible its governance,” inasmuch as contingency “is not the upper hand, but […] a primary component of what there is.”[129] Put differently: one needs not so much to affirm contingency as to “investigate it with care” considering its many names and aspects.[130] Contra Meillassoux’s, Bensusan rightly recalls Iain Hamilton Grant’s far-more nuanced model for thinking accidentality.[131] Contingency, for Grant – says Bensusan – “is not a principle that assures the lightness of everything,” as it does not compromise “substantiality.”[132] Nature – to employ a common term for the sake of simplicity – is both unconditioned, i.e. “not sponsored by anything – except itself,”[133] and substantial, “albeit ever-changing and built on non-necessities.”[134] But it is mostly on Leibniz that Bensusan relies.[135] For Leibniz, he underlines, substances (“monads”) have no substrata: “nothing assures their identity but the infinite discernible predicates that indicate the events they go through;”[136] that is to say, monads are permanently exposed to otherness even if they have “no windows:”[137]

Leibniz understands perception in the broader context of how different entities co-exist while taking into consideration the others. His monads need no windows because what they ought to perceive is already within their inner constitution; and still they perceive and the act of perception is itself an event. […]

On the other hand, no entity is disconnected from its world-mates. Interconnectedness of all monads is achieved through perception: every monad perceives others that in turn perceive others. Interconnectedness is therefore experience-based. Leibniz considers that for whatever is concrete, existence depends on being perception. There can be no worldly vacuous actuality; that is, there is no worldly actuality that fails to affect (or have an effect on) anything.[138]

Therefore, Leibniz’s monadology can be defined as an “ontology of perception” in which “all entities perceive others.”[139] Plus the fact that it presupposes and articulates interconnectedness makes of “compossibility” its subject: “the most important modality in a monadology is compossibility,” as “no monad is strictly necessary and none is possible on its own.”[140] Furthermore, “[c]ompossibility is the monadological tactic to deal with contingency:” insofar as they are not possible on their own or by themselves, “things are contingent on other things to their bones,” so that “events happen because it is compossible for them to happen.”[141] This, though, brings back regularity into the picture: “nothing subsists without sponsoring and those sponsors are, ultimately, what explain both regularities and whatever lies behind them.”[142] Hence, “monadologies” can also be said to be “ontologies of agency” and interaction, concludes Bensusan.[143] Thus too his proposal to re-think contingency in terms not only of “fragments” but also of “rhythms”[144] and even “series,”[145] to which we are sympathetic. In fact, towards the end of this study, we shall return to the notion of “compossibility,” which we find much more suitable than that of “radical contingency” in the context of a post-metaphysical philosophy.

2.3 Transition

We have surveyed contingency’s three adventures in contemporary thought, from Vattimo to Badiou, Agamben, and Meillassoux, who, despite his philosophical originality, prolongs Badiou in the quest for radical contingency. Now, throughout our survey we have repeatedly encountered Paul, since Vattimo, Badiou, and Agamben refer to him insistently, and build expressly, if variously, on his thought. In the sections that follow we examine and contextualise Paul’s plea for contingency, whose roots are less theological than political. We argue that Paul bequeathed a false disjunctive to Western thought by opposing one form of universalism to another: an all-inclusive oneness that privileged contingency, to Rome’s all-exclusive oneness that privileged authority. And we try to identify a possible alternative to it.

3 Paul’s backstage laboratory and the passageway out of it

3.1 Ἀρχή as terror – or, the serpent’s egg

Our thesis is that even if the amalgamation of ancient Atomism (stripped of any ἀνάγκη), ancient Scepticism (conveniently ontologised), and modern materialism (of a non-necessitarian type) can partly explain the rise of “radical contingency” to the firmament of today’s philosophical categories, it would be hard to ignore Paul’s ongoing influence in Western culture and thought as an exceptionally salient factor thereof. Furthermore, Paul is also indirectly responsible of the modern disenchantment born from the ashes of the God that Paul himself asked everyone to believe in as the antidote to any pretended security one would be tempted to seek in this world. Contingency, then, was Paul’s ally from the very beginning.

There are five crucial passages in this sense in Paul’s correspondence with the Galatians, the Corinthians, and the Romans – an interesting ethnocultural landscape indeed, as in what follows we will be talking about those whom Rome tried to civilise (including the Gauls and thereby too the Galatians of Anatolia), those whose culture Rome allegedly bettered (the Greeks), and the Romans themselves:

  • No. 1 – 1 Cor 15:24: “Then comes the end, when he [=Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed all dominion [ἀρχή] and all authority[146] and power.”[147]

  • No. 2 – Gal 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse [κατάρα] of the law [νόμος].”[148]

  • No. 3 – Rom 10:4 “Christ is the end [τέλος] of the law so that there may be righteousness [δικαιοσύνη] for everyone who believes [πιστεύοντι].”[149]

  • No. 4 – Rom 3:21-24: “21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed […]22 the righteousness of God through faith [πίστις] in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction [διαστολή],23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God;24 they are now justified by his grace [χάρις] as a gift [δωρεάν], through the redemption [ἀπολύτρωσις] that is in Christ Jesus.”[150]

  • No. 5 – Gal 3:28 “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one [ἕν] in Christ Jesus.”[151]

Paul preaches, then, the destruction – the abolishment – of all ἀρχή (No. 1) and νόμος (No. 2), which are to be seen as a “curse” (No. 2): Christ brings an “end” to any law (No. 3) so that God’s “justice” (Nos. 3, 4) may be “graciously” and “gratuitously” (No. 4) extended to those who “believe” (Nos. 3, 4) regardless of “who” they are (Nos. 4, 5); only by thus becoming “one” (No. 5) they will be “delivered” (No. 4) from Rome’s oppressive “power” (No. 1) and become something else than what the Roman law (with its distinction between “slaves” and “free men” [No. 5]) and the Jewish law (with its distinction between “Jews” and “Greeks”) determine they are (No. 1).

Neil Elliot and Brigitte Kahl provide the setting of Paul’s insurgent preaching. The Romans attributed the “destinies” of the peoples to the “meritorious piety of their ancestors,”[152] and the “fact” that Aeneas – by bringing safely his father, his son, and his ancestral gods to Ilium after the destruction of Troy, as the legend has it – could be said to have been the most “pious” of all ethnic ancestors, granted them legitimacy to dominate those peoples whom they conquered. Roman domination was therefore based on division (we and the others), division on uniqueness (we above all others, i.e. the same type of uniqueness Christianity would later reclaim for itself), and this implied putting forth a subordinative oneness (others have no choice but submit to Rome). Paul opposes to it a universalist or all-inclusive κήρυγμα established upon a counter-legend, namely, the biblical legend of Abraham,[153] who, unlike Aeneas, abandoned his father and his father’s gods “to follow God in trust that he would receive a new posterity.”[154] In like manner, Paul opposes Christ, “whose death [and resurrection] made possible the incorporation of ‘many nations’ as Abraham’s descendants,”[155] to Augustus, the prototype of all Roman emperors[156] “whose vengeance against his father’s murderers secured peace for all who share[d] ritually in his sacrifice.”[157] Kahl writes:

That Jesus “gave himself” for a sinful other […] and that it was precisely as an inferior and unworthy other condemned to death, [that] he was raised by God […] to represent lordship (kyrios, […]) and universal power according to the true will and image of God the Father – all this profoundly disturbs, confuses, and disorders the clear-cut constructs of enmity and antagonism, identity and alliance underlying the semiotic “battle square” of empire […] [thus making possible] a movement out of the battle order.[158]

Figure 1: “Exodus and Messianic Dissolution of the Combat Order,” in Kahl, Galatians Re-imagined, 264.

A movement of which “love” (ἀγάπη rather than ἔρως) is the “driving power that throws the combat square into an irreversible spin of messianic ‘revolution;’”[159] or, in other words, into “a metamorphosis that does not simply replace one empire with another empire, the kingdom of Caesar with a counter-kingdom of God,”[160] but brings “the perpetual war of civilization,” i.e. the fight of the One against the Many, to a “halt” by means of a “messianic revolution”[161] which turns the Many into an even-more-powerful One.

The crucial point is the premise on which the whole κήρυγμα stands: Paul’s dismissal of any ἀρχή, i.e. of any “ruling principle,” but also (as we shall see in the next section) of any “bedrock” or “footing,” and ultimately too of any “beginning” or “starting point” (since ἀρχή is also the “end of a rope”) and of any “base” or “place” on which to stand (χώρα). The implications are huge. For no world can lack an ἀρχή. A world (any world) is, as Patrice Maniglier puts it, “a possible way of making identity and difference”[162] (night/day, war/peace, up/down, inside/outside, etc.) or, as Lévi-Strauss says, a possible “classification”[163] or a collection of many intersecting classifications that “proceed by [and hence are based upon the articulation of] pairs of contrasts […] [and which] cease when it is no longer possible to establish [any further] oppositions.”[164] Furthermore, behind each term of any given opposition there is always a principle that inspires it,[165] that is to say, a particular ἀρχή. This means, first, that any possible world stands upon a collection of ἀρχαί; and, secondly, that the logic of any possible world is binary. Yet unlike the one Paul fights against, the purpose of this binary logic is not meant to divide and subordinate, but to divide in order to incorporate, so that “opposition, instead of being an obstacle to integration, serve[s] rather to produce it”[166] – thus its designation as “union of opposites,”[167] which is not the same as the “dissolution” and “subsumption” of these into an empty oneness. No ἀρχή (no ἀρχαί), no world. Therefore, Paul’s “anarchism” – or, even better, Paul’s un-archeology, to adopt and reuse in a different context Bensusan’s excellent term[168] – must be seen as the serpent’s egg of Western “Worldlessness” – and as one of the poles between which Western history oscillates, for in it numberless permutations of Paul’s u-topia have been essayed only to be betrayed by the dys-topian resurgence of new Roman-like forms of “imperial” power.

There is, of course, a trick in all this: insofar as it relies on the view that God’s ἀγάπη is the sole principle by virtue of which everyone (i.e. anyone) is justified, Paul’s anarchism is pseudo-ἀρχή-less, i.e. it makes of God’s ἀγάπη a sort of an-archic (and earthbound-less) ἀρχή; therefore, it proves self-refuting in logical terms (like Vattimo’s claim against any “single foundation” and Lyotard’s against any “totality”). But it is in practical terms all the more corrosive, as it rests on a negative (and, again, earthbound-less) principle capable of melting all differences, of turning them into nothing. In Paul, then, not only does the negative become positive: anarchism and nihilism mirror each another.

3.2 Pleading for contingency in Antiquity: from Antisthenes to Paul

Formulated in Greek, which, while not being the official language of the Roman Empire, was, nevertheless, the κοινή of the eastern imperial territories and the language of philosophy, Paul’s κήρυγμα both targets one of the key notions of Greek philosophical discourse (the notion of ἀρχή) and represents the culmination of an eroding logic that, as Felipe Martínez Marzoa observes,[169] had already made its way into Greek philosophy with Antisthenes (about a hundred years before the “birth” of Pyrrhonism, then) and haunted it ever since: the logic of contingency. To understand this, we must briefly go back to Plato – and Socrates. As Sean Kirkland contends, Plato’s presentation of Socratic philosophizing in the Apology is the key with which to interpret Socrates’s approach to philosophy (as seen by Plato, but this means it could be viewed thus):

In the Apology, Socrates focuses upon, […] explains and defends, his own expressly elenctic and aporetic philosophical activity, that very same activity we find repeatedly and more or less consistently portrayed [in Plato’s early dialogues]. […] That is, here and here alone Socrates’ questioning and searching way of discourse is itself thematized and treated extensively. Moreover, this self-presentation by Socrates is directed toward the everyday attitude, i.e. toward that understanding of our world, including ourselves and one another, prior to philosophy’s interrogation of our unarticulated principles and values. [Thus] Plato names this pre-philosophical attitude by reference to those who are largely confined to it, “the many (hoi polloi),” and his term for the mode in which we relate to the world when immersed in our everyday lives (and indistinguishable from “the many”) is “doxa.” [Hence], we can say that the Apology thematizes Socratic philosophizing most centrally in its problematic relation to the everyday attitude and doxa, insofar as it is here that Socrates attempts to bring himself to light qua philosopher before “the many,” embodied by a jury of (likely) 501 of his fellow Athenian citizens.[170]

Socrates’s method is elenctic because it aims at opening the possibility of questioning that which is otherwise always-already too-quickly and too-uncritically taken for granted or at face value, and thus answered, beforehand. And it is aporetic because far from attempting to reach a clear-cut response about that which it questions – a response that could be thereupon employed in a dogmatic way – it aims at underlining the need to think it rather than to know it in advance,[171] i.e. the need to keep reflecting on how x, y, and z appear to us and pondering how we can better inquire into their being.[172] Yet in Antisthenes this changes dramatically. For Antisthenes makes of Socrates’s propaedeutic negativeness something positive instead.[173] As a result any “rule” capable of supplying any indication (no matter how provisional) on how the questioning should be carried out (so as to not fall back into the particularity of the departing δόχαι) is voluntarily abandoned.[174] In other words, knowledge becomes deictic and the world contingent.

But with this – as Martínez Marzoa sees very well – the domain of any philosophical questioning is “disqualified” as such.[175] If no “rules” can be set, no “limits” can be fixed either. Hence subjectivism wins over the philosophical terrain, turning it into a desert. And since “limits” are by definition two-sided (“A is what not-A is not,”[176] “things ought to be approached not like that but like this,” etc.) the binary logic that also helps to distinguish the “necessary” from the “contingent” vanishes, which means that the latter can claim prevalence over the former, or rather be made identical to it and hence turned absolute. There are only three possibilities before this. (1) One is to say that things are fine in this way. (2) Another one is to not give up and pursue the work of philosophy. (3) Finally, there is the option of placing elsewhere a ground that may bring consistency to an otherwise radically contingent (un-)world. Cynics and skeptics chose 1. Aristotle and the Stoics clang to 2. The Epicureans remained in between 1 and 2. The Neoplatonists, between 2 and 3. When Christianity reached Greek culture, it place itself within the third option: a Christian is someone who is in this world to give testimony of a truth which is not from this world. And when the truth – which is no longer experienced as “disclosure” but as “norm” – is put elsewhere but wants to be reached, there are two possible ways of reaching it: to extend ourselves towards it, as the Gnostics fancied, or to contract it so that it may reach us, as Paul’s followers taught instead. And how can the truth contract itself? By lowering itself to the point of becoming entirely contingent, e.g. by becoming dependent on, and in rigour identical to, a contingent event: Jesus’s death and resurrection. In this way too, the contingent becomes absolute, only that, now, “the absurd becomes thesis.”[177] Notice that Paul chooses very carefully his words: his κήρυγμα is a “scandal” (σκάνδαλον) for his fellow Jews, who could have never imagined their God die, let alone be humiliated on the cross; and it is “foolishness” (μωρία) for the non-Jews, i.e. for the Greeks – and their philosophy.[178]

3.3 Re-wording ἀρχή – or, how to combine Heidegger with Pierre Clastres

But what is it that Paul leaves behind with his dismissal of the notion of ἀρχή? We would like to venture a response to this question by means of combining two apparently unrelated conceptual tools, namely, Heidegger’s philosophy of language, and in particular his warning concerning the danger of Romanising ancient-Greek terms by projecting onto them the interpretative shadow of Roman imperialism, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Clastres’s ethnographically-based concept of “society against the state,” through whose lens – we think – it is possible to interpret the nature of the ancient-Greek πόλις. But if we are correct, this means, then, that “savage” indivision and ancient-Greek “justice” mirror one another. This is the first point we would like to make in this section, which, nonetheless, we open with a few etymological remarks. Subsequently, we will try to show that the aforementioned coincident political model (“savage” and “ancient Greek”) can be thought with recourse to the notion of ἀρχή, provided the latter is reinterpreted according to its etymology, in opposition both to the Roman imperial ideal and to Paul’s anarchism.

Let us begin with a few diverging etymologies. In his course on Parmenides, Heidegger warns about the “appropriation of Greek words by Roman-Latin thought,” which, he says, entails “a translation of Greek experience into a different way of thinking;”[179] and he adds: “The rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation.”[180] Thus Γαῖα, the “Earth” that shelters all the living, is different from tellus, the dry element on which to build.[181] Ἀληθής, i.e. “true” in the sense of “dis-closed,” is the opposite of verum, which denotes instead something “closed,” “concealed.”[182] Ψεῦδος, the “dissembling” capable of deceiving, has nothing to do with falsum, which means “fallen,” i.e. that which is no longer rectum.[183] In turn, in rectum the proper meaning of ὀρθός: “on and along the way,” is lost, as rectum denotes “that which is directed toward what is above because it directs from above and commands and ‘rules’ from above.”[184] Lastly, from the “political,” i.e. from that which is relative to the πόλις, any notion of imperium or “command” must be decidedly removed.[185]

This latter issue is especially relevant for our purpose here. For indeed the πόλις – and with this we transit from the domain of compared etymology to that of compared politics – is not a place of command. It is reminiscent instead, we should like to argue, of the extra-modern societies studied by Pierre Clastres (in the Paraguayan Chaco, but the argument is extensive to most extra-modern societies in America, Africa, Australia, Oceania, and part of Asia), in which “the chiefs are not there to command” but to “prevent [everyone] from fulfilling an[y] eventual desire for power,” so as to “ward off the irruption of division into the social body.”[186] Myth, language, and ritual coalesce around that goal. Myth provides a normative foundation at once “immediate” and “exterior” to the undivided social body: it is the “ancestors” and the “gods,” whose time is the ground of every presently-lived time, that decree the law on which the living together of the community relies.[187] In turn, the mission of the chiefs is to look after the myth by perpetuating its words, which they must not only transmit with their speeches, but also know when to apply so as to make justice, i.e. non-division, prevail there where conflicts may eventually arise.[188] For “language is the very opposite of violence.”[189] In consequence too, the chief must also be generous, as otherwise he himself would promote social division;[190] and if he does, “the village or band will simply abandon him and throw in a leader more faithful in his duties.”[191] In short then, “generosity” and “talent as a speaker” go hand in hand.[192] Yet “[a]s the purveyor of wealth and messages the chief conveys nothing but his dependence on the group, and the obligation to exhibit at every moment, the innocence of his office.”[193] Besides, speaking – which is therefore the privilege of the chief – is less a privilege than a duty,[194] which means the chief remains by all means “the group’s prisoner.”[195] Finally, the ritual inscribes the law on the body of all the members of the group, indistinctly; and painfully enough[196] so that its signs remains forever on their skin (as scarifications, mutilations, tattoos, etc.):

“You are one of us. Each one of you is like us; each one of you is like the others. You are called by the same name, and you will not change your name. Each one of you occupies the same space and the same place among us: you will keep them. None of you is less than us; none of you is more than us. And you will never be able to forget it. You will not cease to remember the same marks that we have left on your bodies.”

[…] The mark on the body, on all bodies alike, declares: You will not have the desire for power; you will not have the desire for submission. [197]

We can draw from this one provisional conclusion: the extra-modern chieftainship matches neither the model of the ancient Oriental kings nor that of the Roman emperors; clearly the ancient-Greek “ruler” (ἀρχός, ἄρχων) offers a closer analogy. Thus, in Homer, the fact that the “rulers” hold the “scepter,” which they serve rather than use to be served by others,[198] means, first and foremost, that they have the duty to “speak”[199] to administer “justice,” which is considered to be “divine”[200] – Heraclitus will later suggest that justice stands above the gods,[201] and Sophocles identifies its source with that of the noblest speech.[202] Likewise, when the “elders” sit to decide about something according to “justice,” they do so on “polished stones” in a “sacred circle,” holding their “scepters” and respecting their “turns.”[203] The essence of the πόλις is there in nuce. Justice (δίκη) lies at its core – as it lies at the core of Plato’s Πολιτεία – and language (λόγος) is its vehicle. For without the proper words, there can be no justice; without justice there is no peace; and without peace life becomes a homeless wandering around. Hence Sophocles’s term for the one who indulges in ὕβρις or “excess” – of which Heraclitus says that “it needs to be put out more than a house on fire”[204] – and therefore acts unjustly: s/he is ἄ-πολις.[205]

How to define the πόλις, then? Drawing on Plato and Aristotle, Heidegger says that it is both “the ‘where’ to which man as ζῷν λόγον ἔχον belongs” and “the ‘where’ from which alone order is ordained.”[206] There is little mystery in the reciprocity of the two parts of this definition, since, thought in a Greek rather than Roman way, “order” is but another name for the “justice” (δίκη)[207] before which all are evenly brought by the λόγος – which, as Heraclitus says, is “one” (ἕν), “wise” (σοφόν), and “common” (κοινόν) to all.[208] The parallelism with what Clastres describes is extraordinary: the Guarani

god Namandu […] first creates the Word, the substance common to the divine and the human. He assigns to humanity the destiny of collecting the Word, of existing in it and protecting it. Humans, all equally chosen by the deities, are Protectors of the Word, and protected by it. Society is the enjoyment of the common good that is the Word. Instituted as equal by divine decision […] society assembles as a whole, that is, an undivided whole […] so that the men of this society are all one.[209]

Let us quickly add: not in the Pauline sense, as, untamed, their “savage thought” still responds to the strict binary logic – in terms of exogamous alliances,[210] lineage distribution,[211] totemic classifications,[212] and/or mythopoiesis[213] – on which, as we have stressed following Lévi-Strauss and Patrice Maniglier, any true world is ultimately based.[214]

Furthermore, we should like to stress that what Clastres calls the equalitarian “law” that grants its non-division to the extra-modern group, and the justice glowing at the heart of the Greek πόλις, may be thought with recourse to the original meaning of the term ἀρχή.

Back then to etymology, if shortly. As it is known, the semantics of the term ἀρχή is twofold. On the one hand, it means “beginning” – in connection to ἀρχαῖος, “original,” “ancient,” “old.” On the other hand, it means “reign” – in connection to ἀρχικός, “to put into power.” Yet from these two meanings the former one (attested in Homer) is also the oldest one (for ἀρχή as “reign” is first documented in Pindar). In fact, ἀρχή is a verbal noun of ἄρχω, which means “to be the first,” thence “to begin” (and only derivatively “to rule”).[215] Additionally, the Proto-Indo-European semantic field in which ἀρχή belongs includes, too, the root *herǵ-, which carries with it the meaning “glittering,” whence terms like “silver” (Avestic

, Latin argentum) and “white” (Sanskrit अर्जुन, Greek ἀργός) derive. It would be therefore possible to translate ἀρχή as: the old which gleams and thereby guides.[216] Notice that we have not written “which dominates.” Not only do we want to resist any imperial logic: we do not see any reason to introduce it at this point. Quite the opposite, actually. And the beginnings of philosophy are rather telling in this respect. Thus Heidegger, in his 1941 course titled Ground Concepts, interprets Anaximander’s shortest sentence: ἀρχή τῶν ὄντον τὸ ἄπειρον[217] as follows: “The disposition for what each time shines forth into unconcealement[218] is the impeding of [any] limits” (emphasis added)[219] – in Gary Aylesworth’s translation: “Enjoinment for the respectively present is the repelling of limits.”[220] Considering all we have said, rendering ἀρχή as “disposition” is an excellent option. For “[t]he Greek word ἀρχή,” observes Heidegger, “is not yet used here in the later sense of principium and ‘principle.’ […]. ἀρχή is that from [sic] whence something emerges.”[221]

So far so good. But how can ἀρχή, thus understood, be τὸ ἄπειρον, as Anaximander seems to have held? Once more, Heidegger proves helpful. “[O]ne translates, [and] that already means one ‘interprets,’ τὸ ἄπειρον with ‘the limitless,’ the ‘infinite,’”[222] remarks Heidegger. “The translation is correct,” he adds. “However, it says nothing.”[223] It says nothing because τὸ ἄπειρον cannot be an “ens” (Seiende), i.e. a particular “being;” nor can it be the “universal cosmic matter” (allgemeine Weltstoff)[224] out of which everything would be made, because this would be a non-early Greek way of understanding what ἀρχή means. “τὸ ἄπειρον,” writes Heidegger, “is the ἀρχή of being [and in this sense] τὸ ἄπειρον is the repelling of limitation. It relates itself to being […] and that means, in Greek, to the presencing of what presences.”[225] It can be argued, therefore, that τὸ ἄπειρον is, qua being’s ἀρχή, something active: the action of impeding any limits. But what does this mean? If Anaximander is not thinking here in some-thing infinite, what, then, are the limits thus impeded by what we are told that consists in impeding them? Clearly, they cannot be the limits imposed from within by the presencing (i.e. by the being, since “being” and “presence” are one and the same thing) of that which is brought into presence each time,[226] for that which shines forth into unconcealment becomes present as such and such, i.e. it enters the region of being in an aspectual and hence delimited way, thus receiving its own “portion” (μέτρον) and “gleam” (κόσμος),[227] which it cannot overstep, as that would entail indulging in ὕβρις. Consequently, the limits that τὸ ἄπειρον impedes must be those that what shines forth into unconcealment may eventually try to unfairly impose on other beings against their own right to shine, they too, into the open. Put differently: Anaximander’s limits are any particular, hence arbitrary, abusive restrictions imposed on being’s inherent justice, no matter which and made by no matter whom.[228] Finally, it should be noted that if δίκη lies at the core of the πόλις as its transcendental condition, a non-delimited space likewise lies at its geographic centre: the ἀγορά or, in Sparta, the ἀπέλλα (which means literally “stoneless:” ἀ-πέλλα); another name for it is ἐκκλησία, which names the place where those who are “called” (καλέω) “out” (εκ-) from their own homes and concerns gather – unlike the Christian ecclesia, which is the “common place of gathering” where everyone acquires, by means of the eucharist, an even greater degree of personal intimacy with God.

“None of you is less than us; none of you is more than us. Hence you will not have the desire for power; you will not have the desire for submission.” Invoked in the ἀγορά, inscribed in the body, pronounced by the chief or the elder: these are the words of old of “savages” and Greeks alike. This is their ἀρχή and their law – one that demands that a difference be made between those who comply to it and those who transgress it; for the world, any world, is based on the identification of opposite ontological categories into which everything fits: bright and pale, bow and basket, enemy and friend.

3.4 Becoming “savage”: The other way out of the imperial frontier

Rome had perverted the very notion of ἀρχή by transforming it into imperium: “with Rome or against Rome, to which you will sooner or later submit all the same,” which means that sooner or later everything will become “One.” Paul adds another twist to this very perversion: there is no difference between enemy and friend, we are all equally justified by God, we are all “One.”[229] In other words, Paul’s all-inclusive oneness replaces Rome’s all-exclusive oneness – one type of oneness substitutes for another one. In one case (Rome), One results from privileging, of Two terms, One over the Other to the extent of declaring that Other inexistent in the short or the long run, i.e. from corrupting an originally Binary structure (“we, Romans, and everyone else”) and making it Univocal instead (“we, Romans, and everyone else like us”). In the other case (Paul), it results from declaring that everything is One to begin with (“we are all justified by God in the same way”).

It is clear, though, that there was/is another possibility of contesting imperial domination – a possibility that has remained insufficiently explored due to the fact that Western history has basically oscillated between Roman (and later Christian and modern) imperialisms and their Pauline (and later anti-Christian and postmodern) subversions, i.e. (to repeat it once more) between the many permutations of Paul’s u-topia and the many dys-topian resurgences of its denial. We are not thinking, however, in the alternative: against the One – whether an a priori One (Paul) or an a posteriori One (Rome) – the Many understood as the One’s numberless virtual transpositions: “this,” and “that,” and “that” too, etc. Nor are we thinking in the negative rendering of such formula: “neither this,” “nor that,” etc., so that any identity is subverted and made impossible beforehand. For, as we shall see, no world can be established upon these premises either.

Suppose, then, that we could move out of the Roman frontier in an altogether different direction: either via Greece or via the forest (silva) inhabited by those silvatici whom the Romans thought deprived of any social organisation. What would we find there? Again: a binary logic. But we would find it too if we move backwards along the history of human evolution. Thus in Gesture and Speech – which, originally published in 1984, is one of the earliest, most original, and successful attempts to elaborate a theory of human biocultural evolution – Leroi-Gourhan asserts that all “reference systems” of “Paleolithic thought,” as we find them displayed in what is often if improperly called Paleolithic “art,” were “ultimately based on the alternation of opposites – day/night, heat/cold, fire/water, man/woman, and so on.”[230] Leroi-Gourhan talks of “binary complementarity”[231] and explains through it as well, among other things, spatial distributions,[232] social cooperation,[233] and the “dynamic equilibrium” between security and freedom.[234] In his “Introduction” to the English edition of Leroi-Gourhan’s book, Randall White speaks in turn of the “basic binary oppositions” implicit in the “operational sequences” – which are always, he adds, “more-or-less subconscious,” “unverbalized,” and “unrecognized” – that guided the creation of earliest human “material culture,” “social organization,” and “cosmology.”[235] It is relatively easy to figure out why: bipedalism entailed the liberation of the forearms and this, in turn, brought about a very wide range of both potential “un-focusness” and potential “multi-tasking,” as Leroi-Gourhan suggests. Put otherwise: everything became excessive for those-who-we-seem-no-longer-to-be-but-still-are. Herder makes a similar argument in his Essay on the Origin of Language.[236] Now, before excess and un-focusness there is only one chance to make it through, namely, to turn the Multiplicity of what can be sensed (which is practically infinite) into a world, i.e. into a de-limited Multiplicity; and this means to structure it. Language serves no other purpose, in the sense that naming permits us to identify this and that.[237] But everything named must then be distributed somehow. And the most immediate and, ultimately too, effective way of doing it is in pairs of opposites: “day/night, heat/cold, fire/water, man/woman, and so on.” First, because our own body – and the mind can be said to be its idea[238] – is organised (not systematically but often enough) in dual terms: we have two eyes, two arms, two legs, etc. And second, because our experience reports to us about the recurrence of dual phenomena – or in any event we map them thus: above and below, in and out, in front of and behind, right and left, concave and convex, striated and smooth, absent and present, dark and bright, etc.

This explains, among other things (including the binary code of modern computer programming), the system of synonyms and antonyms on which the vocabulary of any language is based, gender roles – which need neither be rigid nor hierarchical[239] – like e.g. those studied by Clastres among the Aché (“basquet” and “bow”),[240] and binary classifications of all sorts. (a) Totemic classifications, for instance; for, as Radcliffe-Brown – who defines “association by contrariety” as “a universal feature of human thinking”[241] – suspected,[242] and as Lévi-Strauss shows, these display “theorical associations”[243] based on the characteristics of “symmetrically-opposed species.”[244] Or, more broadly, (b) social organisations, which totemic alliances, in turn, help to vertebrate: thus social groups are often divided into two exogamous moieties to which opposite symbolic qualities and roles are attributed,[245] so that, for example, the shaman of the group belongs in one moiety whereas the chief belongs in the other moiety – something similar, then, to the two kings (ἀρχαγέται) of Sparta, which belonged in the Agiad and Eurypontid families that carried with them the lineages of the mythical twins Eurysthenes and Procles, respectively. This additionally means that extra-modern systems of kinship (and kinship in general) are (is) based on a binary logic, i.e. on the distinction between affinity and consanguinity, and, therefore too, that a “living person is not an individual but dividual, a [composite] singularity of body and soul internally constituted by the self/other, consanguine/affine polarity”[246] – a singularity that is “decomposed at death, which separates a principle of affinal alterity, the soul, from a principle of consaguineal identity, the body, […] [thus] releas[ing] the tension [.] between affinity and consanguinity that impels the kinship process.”[247] So we have not only totemic classifications and social organisations, but also (c) individuals (which are no longer individuals but “dividuals,” to use once more Marilyn Strathern’s term) affected by a binary logic that Lévi-Strauss hesitates to define as being co-substantial to human thought; still, he says, “many peoples” have “chosen” it,[248] which seems to us to be a subtle way of affirming that it is co-substantial indeed to human thought – for where and when were those “many peoples” given the choice to choose it, and how did they make their choice thereof? Add to this list (d) myths, like those of the aforementioned legendary great–great–great grandsons of Heracles and the widespread American twin-myths like those of lynx and coyote among the Nimiipuu and their neighbours,[249] to which one could add just as well the Proto-Indo-European myth recently reconstructed by James Mallory and Douglas Adams in which “the universe is created from a primeval giant [man] […] who is sacrificed and dismembered, the various parts of his anatomy serving to provide a different element of nature,”[250] i.e. one of the oldest myths we know of about the reciprocal articulation of nature and culture. And add also (e) rituals, like those which, from South-East Africa to Central and Western Australia (notice the geographical disparity!), reflect a bemusing regularity when it comes to the binary chromatics (e.g. red/white, red/black, 0/white and black) employed in funeral and fertility rites.[251]

Three important nuances are in order here before we continue. First, “contrariety” means something else than “complementarity,” in the sense that it means something more complex which, in rigour, must be formulated neither as 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 (i.e. as a “unity”) nor as 1 + 1 = 2 (i.e. as a “duality”). For, as Viveiros de Castro observes apropos extra-modern binary social organisations, “each moiety […] is the inverse of the opposite moiety,”[252] with which it thereby forms “neither [a] unity nor [a] duality but something almost exactly in the middle”[253] that is better mathematically transcribed as √2, given that √2, he goes on to say, “is such a number that its multiplicative inverse is equal to its half, i.e.: 1/√2 = √2/2,” so that “[t]he inverse of the ratio between the terms is equal to half of the ratio.”[254] Second, to avoid falling into inertia dual organisations often imprint on their binary structure a principle of “permanent” or “dynamic disequilibrium.”[255] In this way, commonality and competition, cooperation and rivalry, reinforce one another and help to avoid each other’s risks (for example, a feast can include dance contests which nobody wins and shared meals which everybody enjoys). Aside: is this not Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s blind spot? Third, binary structures – we have already alluded to it – are anything but closed systems. On the one hand, they are always flexible enough to admit changes; on the other hand, they do not overdetermine but from the distance, so to speak, the events in which life consists. We find Roy Wagner’s ethnography particularly interesting in this regard. “If Americans and other Westerners create the incidental world by constantly trying to predict, rationalize, and order it,” he writes:

then tribal, religious, and peasant peoples create their universe of innate convention by constantly trying to change, readjust, and impinge upon it. Our concern is that of bringing things into an ordered and consistent relation – whether one of logically organized “knowledge” or practically organized “application” – and we call the summation of our efforts Culture. Their concern might be thought of as an effort to “knock the conventional off balance,” and so make themselves powerful and unique in relation to it. […]

The conventionally prescribed tasks of everyday life, what one “should” do in such a society, are guided by a vast, continually changing and constantly augmented set of differentiating controls […] These include all manner of kin and productive roles, magical and practical techniques, possible modes of conduct for personal deportment. And if the ethnographer finds it difficult to standardize these controls, or catch a “native” in the act of explicitly “performing” one of them, it is because their very nature and intent defies the kind of literalness that “standardization” or “performance” (as well as the ethnographer’s own professional ethic of consistency) implies. They are not Culture, they are not intended to be “performed” or followed as a “code,” but rather used as the basis of inventive improvisation. […] The person who is able to do this well – even to the point of inventing wholly new controls – is admired and often emulated. The controls are themes to be “played upon” and varied, rather in the way that jazz lives in a constant improvisation of its subject matter.

And so we can speak of this form of action as a continual adventure in “unpredicting” the world[256]

– in between the lines of unconscious binary structures, that is.[257]

And how else but as negotiation can this inventive improvisation be thought of in political terms? Yet for negotiation to be possible there must be two, not one: friend and enemy, same and other. Contingency may well dictate when, where, and even who might be in position to negotiate, but the structure according to which the two positions ought to be distributed cannot be declared contingent in turn.

4 Conclusion: Compossibility, not contingency

Consequently, binary structures, with their reciprocal articulation of co-dependent terms, must be seen as a formal condition to compatibility. Otherwise, anything could be incorporated into whatever else no matter why and no matter how. This “anything goes” was already Paul’s aspiration – since, for him, God’s χάρις makes no distinctions – long before it became the axiomatics of post-Fordist capitalism, which can be summarised thus: “the potentially-limitless combination of whatever with whatever else is only a potential subset of another potentially-limitless combination of whatever with whatever else, and so on and so forth endlessly,” i.e.

{ [ n × ( + + n ) n × ( + + n ) ] n × ( + + n ) } n × ( + + n )

This, ultimately, is the principle of contingency upon which contemporary capitalism rests. Evidently, no world can be established upon such principle. And yet it is urgent for us to “re-world” the “un-world” we are trapped in,[258] in which all things have been transformed into conveyors of an abstract variable magnitude: capital.

But if compatibility, rather than contingency, is what is at stake for us, this means we are in need of a new postulate. Borrowing loosely from Leibniz,[259] we are willing to call it a postulate of compossibility. For it is clearly not enough with the two postulates traditionally acknowledged, since Leibniz himself, as the two basic rules of thought: (i) the postulate of sufficient reason (“for whatever it exists, there is a reason”), by virtue of which the actuality of anything can be explained, and (ii) the postulate of non-contradiction (“one thing cannot be what it is and its opposite”), by virtue of which it is possible to explain what anything is in differential terms in respect to what it is not, and thereby anything’s identity. These two postulates inform us of what individual things are in logical and existential terms, respectively. But they tell us nothing about their relational compatibility with others. Therefore, and with this suggestion we would like to put an end to this essay a postulate of compossibility – which, as we have seen, Bensusan somehow deduces too as a corollary of any monadology[260] – is required. A postulate, that is, that may allows us to combine ontology (“what is X?”) with cosmopolitics (“can X and Y fit in the same world?”) and with modality (“are X and Y possibly compatible?,” “is their compatibility moreover probable?,” etc.). Yet most likely, for one to realise the usefulness of such postulate, one should be capable of devising more than anything and less than everything, which is precisely what Paul and his ancient and modern, direct or indirect, followers, with their universalist aspiration to turn anything into everything, have untrained us to do.


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Received: 2020-08-10
Revised: 2020-09-15
Accepted: 2020-09-28
Published Online: 2020-11-11

© 2020 Sofya Gevorkyan and Carlos A. Segovia, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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