Cover: The Political Vocation of Philosophy by Donatella Di Cesare

The Political Vocation of Philosophy

Donatella Di Cesare

Translated by David Broder


[P]hilosophy should not prophesy, but then again it should not remain asleep.

Martin Heidegger1

So our city will be governed by us and you with waking minds, and not as most cities now which are inhabited and ruled darkly as in a dream.


  1. 1. Martin Heidegger, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988, p. 178.
  2. 2. Plato, Republic, 520c, trans. Paul Shorey.

The saturated immanence of the world

There’s no longer an outside. Or at least, that’s what the final stage of globalisation looks like. Up till the modern era, the inhabitants of the earth star meditated on the cosmos, turning their eyes to the open sky in admiration, amazement, wonder. The cosmos’s boundless face was, nonetheless, a shelter, for it protected them from the absolute exteriority to which they felt exposed. Yet, when the planet was explored far and wide – circumnavigated, occupied, connected, depicted – a tear opened up in the cosmic sky, and the abyss opened up above them. Their gaze got lost in the icy outside.

This was an unprecedented challenge. The invention of the globe was the history of a ‘spatio-political alienation’.1 The external exercised a magnetic force, simultaneously both attracting and repelling; it was the otherness that had to be reduced, dominated, controlled. Even in that era, there were philosophical models. The cosmic-speculative sphere which had long inspired conjecture, intuition, ideas, was supplanted by the Copernican revolution. Thanks to this revolution – in which even the furthest limits fell one after another – anthropocentrism was proclaimed with great energy. Through complicated rotations and oscillations, the wandering star pursued this course for centuries – but without being able to escape its fate.

At the dawn of the third millennium, globalisation can be considered complete. It has proven to be the ultimate result of an uninterrupted monologue conducted by the world’s propulsive force – a force majeure, an unstoppable force, almost a principle of reason. All grounds for criticism would thus prove superfluous. One can analyse the global situation. But no more than that. For the first time, philosophy would appear to have been checkmated by the axiom of actuality.

How can there be philosophy in a world without an outside? An attentive diagnosis will find that the globe’s ontological regime is that of a saturated immanence. Immanence ought to be understood in the etymological sense of that which remains, which persists as itself, always within, without an outside, without exteriority. A static, compact immanence: there are neither splits nor voids, neither escape routes nor ways out. This is a spatial and temporal saturation.

This may be surprising. For is this not the world of absolute flows, of capital, of technology, of media? Information, fusion, density follow the convulsive beat of a dizzying acceleration. And, indeed, all this takes place under the sign of inevitable progress. But this is merely the semblance of a world trapped in the whirling economy of time, whose very essence paradoxically relies on speed.2 The flows of the global web mark out the same orbits, following an ever-identical and repetitive movement. It is not that there is any lack of chaotic spirals, of tumultuous swirls. But they do not upset the constant rhythm of these absolute flows, which is irremovably fixed, secretly immobile. Speed collapses into stasis, acceleration ends up in inertia. It is like running on a treadmill in order to avoid slipping backward. Everything changes – yet, fundamentally, nothing truly does. Inertial change is the brand of the synchronised globe.

‘Saturated immanence’ refers to the asphyxial present of a world which, basing itself on the belief that it cannot be harmed, claims to have immunised itself against the ‘outside’.3 Thus it has swallowed up, banished, destroyed, all that is other to itself. It is driven to do this by an overbearing immunological impulse: namely, the impulse to remain intact, to go on and on, whole and unscathed. All the negative powers have been summoned up in order to combat vital negativity, to pre-empt any change, to shoo away any alteration, to neutralise any loss. The immunological impulse was there in the past, too. But today, thanks to technology, it has discovered unprecedented forms.4 In its saturated immanence, the globe of absolute flows is a monument to this impulse.

What’s the point of foraying into the glacial, deathly beyond? Even to pose the question is the victory of exophobia – an abyssal fear, a cold panic, horror for whatever is external. This angst grips and stifles thought. How could one imagine any alternative? Any taking of distance, any interruption, is passed off as vain and impossible, even before it starts being denounced as a terrorist threat. One can dream only internally, within the regime of saturated immanence, in which dreams often transform into nightmares. The bitter acknowledgement that ‘There is no longer an outside’ has coloured even the most radical thought of recent years.5 Thus the hyperrealist refrain ‘There is no alternative!’ – the mocking and sorrowful summa of the present era – has ended up as a cruel and incessantly realised prophecy.

It is no mystery that the discourse on the ‘end of the world’ is taken so seriously.6 Such discourse takes its cue above all from the empirical sciences: climatology, geophysics, oceanography, biochemistry, ecology. Humanity’s fall into catastrophe seems imminent. The near future – unforeseeable because it is completely other – is instead consigned to the scenarios portrayed in filmic drama or messianic visions. The Promethean cry risks being suffocated in an apocalyptic death-rattle. What is, at least, clear is that the late-capitalist world is the world of planet-wide ecological collapse. The fusion between techno-economy and biosphere is plain for all to see.7

‘Anthropocene’ is the name for that geological epoch in which humans look on near-impotently at the devastating and deadly effects of this asymmetrical fusion, in which nature has been eroded to the point of disappearance. Yet, the violence of this intrusion would not have been possible without the implacable, incandescent sovereignty of capital. But, in the contemporary imaginary, it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Here lies the enormous discrepancy between scientific understanding and political impotence. At this point, capitalism has occupied the entire horizon of the thinkable. And it has done so by absorbing every hotbed of resistance within the imagination, by erasing every exteriority prior or posterior to its own history. It is as if before capitalism there was only the gloom of the archaic; after it, only the darkness of the apocalypse.

For humanity trapped in saturated immanence – in that windowless globe of advanced-stage capitalism, where very little human remains – it is, nonetheless, possible to conceive of a ‘transhumanism’. This is the latest techno-gnostic dream of immortality, whether it is to be realised through cryogenic hibernation or by transferring identity into software. This is a dream yearned for by a species which could disappear at a stroke. May the posthuman survive, at least!

Internally, everything is supposed to be possible – but outside, nothing is. The question should then be posed of what ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ mean, if in the techno-scientific context – even the most futuristic one – there is no limit that holds, while in the political context all prospect of change is precluded a priori by the ‘No’ put up by the market.8 You can become immortal, but you cannot escape capitalism.

The world of saturated immanence is the world of the global-capitalist regime, the claustrophobic space oscillating between the non-event – the steady flows of liberal democracy – and the imminent planetary collapse. As the different fronts take form they divide those who look to a hyperbolic acceleration that would bring capitalism to self-destruction, from those who hope to stop the speeding locomotive by pulling the emergency brake.9 After the Apocalypse, the Kingdom.

Capitalist realism reiterates the immanence and reinforces the closure.10 Only a logic of the impossible would be able to deviate and dislocate it. To pre-empt the future in order to avoid it: the regime of saturated immanence is the closed world of a preventative police, a temporal prison where farsightedness crosses over into a clairvoyance that tries to ward off any change. This world has already escaped its shadow. It is condemned to the imperative of the day, to the exhausted torpor of the extended alarm, to the tireless half-sleep of a light that never goes out, in a diurnal virtuality that knows no night.


  1. 1. Peter Sloterdijk, Globes. Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology, New York: semiotext(e), 2014.
  2. 2. Hartmut Rosa, Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of Late Modern Temporality, Aarhus: NSU Press, 2010.
  3. 3. Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.
  4. 4. Frédéric Neyrat, Atopias: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism, New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.
  5. 5. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  6. 6. Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Batalha Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, Cambridge: Polity, 2017.
  7. 7. Isabelle Stengers, Au temps des catastrophes. Résister la barbarie qui vient, Paris: La Découverte, 2013.
  8. 8. Slavoj Žižek, Demanding the Impossible, Cambridge: Polity, 2013.
  9. 9. For accelerationist positions, see, for instance Benjamin Noys, Malign Velocities: Acceleration and Capitalism, Winchester: Zero Books, 2014.
  10. 10. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.

Heraclitus, wakefulness and the original communism

Since its debut, philosophy has paid particular attention to the theme of wakefulness, to the point that wakefulness becomes the symbolic representation, the perspicuous metaphor, that preceded philosophy even before it had a name. Wakefulness is the mysterious surging of an inner light that marks a re-emergence from the night. It is the force of being re-summoned, the wonder of the life that stands up again, the return to the self. Philosophy is, first of all, this.

It was Heraclitus who separated the flaring of the day from myth, setting it up as a metaphysical category. He was called ‘the obscure’ because of his enigmatic and oracular style. Thus began the adventure of thought guided by the light of the lógos. It articulates the world, which becomes cosmos, unfolding in an uninterrupted transcendence of its own narrow, meagre range, toward an ever more vast, elevated and common sphere.

Very little is known about Heraclitus’ life. Ancient biographers attributed him a royal descent. Diogenes Laërtius says that ‘He was above all men of a lofty and arrogant spirit.’1 This almost disdainful attitude owed to a dispute with his fellow citizens, whom he sharply rebuked for the exile imposed on his friend Hermodorus after the failed democratic revolution. Ephesus, an Ionian city at the border between the Turkish coast and the European sea, was not yet Athenian. But there was no lack of tensions. Resentful, Heraclitus distanced himself from political life and rejected the request to lay down laws for the pólis, which he now considered governed by a bad Constitution. He retired to the temple of Artemides, where, as legend has it, he set down his great book, subdivided into three discourses: the first on everything, the second on politics, and the third on theology. Someone later gave this work a title which entered into widespread use: Perì phúseos. It is almost as if Heraclitus had written a treatise on phúsis, on nature understood as the principle and substance of all things. Aristotle helped to entrench this vision – a misleading and reductive one. Yet there also exists an ancient tradition, further embodied by the Stoic Diodotus, according to whom Heraclitus’ book had nothing to do with nature, except at a few points, and instead focused on political themes: perì politeías.

Moreover, it is not hard to recognise, against the numinous backdrop, the political-tragic inspiration of Heraclitus’ thought in the over 120 extant fragments of his work. The man who speaks here is not so much the explorer of the cosmos as the severe guardian of the city, the interpreter of the pólemos – that conflict, the ‘father’ of all things, which reigns over everything (B 53). The quarrel in the pólis is projected onto all reality in order to scrutinise the foundations of the law that governs it, to connect together in its unity all that is apparently scattered and multiple, to grasp the palíntropos harmoníe, the ‘discordant harmony’ of opposites (B 51). The city offers the paradigm for interpreting the world.

Perceiving the one in everything that is differentiated: this is the great merit of Heraclitus, recognised as the forerunner of the dialectic. As Hegel wrote: ‘Here we see land; there is no proposition of Heraclitus which I have not adopted in my Logic.’2 Yet, one should avoid any distortion of historical perspective here. The harmony of opposites – the enigmatic bond of which Heraclitus speaks – is not a speculative unity, but rather the unexpected passage through which the one incessantly changes into the other: life and death, day and night, wakefulness and sleep, summer and winter, peace and war. This vision has wrongly been ossified in a doctrine of perennial becoming, of fluidity, that pánta rheî of which there is no trace in the fragments from Heraclitus. He does, indeed, speak of the river ‘we enter and do not enter, we are and we are not’ (B 49a) – but only in order to emphasise the constant replacement of its ever-different waters. Unsurprisingly, it is the flame – which survives by transforming itself, which changes depending on the airs with which it mixes – that visually renders the harmonious concord among opposites.

Nothing can escape this law, not even the names which shed light on oppositions. Heraclitus was first in that line-up of thinkers who looked to language in order to understand reality. The hidden harmony which governs the cosmos is harboured within the lógos, which everything must happen in accordance with. This is an eternal and universal law, able to regulate becoming, which is not a blind plunge but rather a knowing move back and forth, from one opposite to the other.

But who will want to listen to the lógos? Who will want to listen to it, in its enigmatic ambiguity? This is Heraclitus’ question – and it already contains a warning. Deaf, absent, almost numbed, prey to flows of dreams and particular opinions – far from what is ‘wise’, sóphon – mortals draw away from listening. They live closed in on themselves, as if they were dreaming, prisoners of their own private existence, of their suffocating small-mindedness. Hence the denunciation of idiocy, which in Greek is etymologically related to property – idiótes derives from ídios, ‘one’s own’. It is, then, impossible to reach what is ‘common’, koinón. Heraclitus uses the Ionian form xunón, which through a play on words arrives at xùn nôi, that is, at noûs, ‘with reason’ (B 114). Not only is intelligence common, but that which is common is based on intelligence. This is not a matter of immediate intuition, but rather of the knowledge that orders the cosmos, which is articulated and combined in the lógos. An idiot is he who refuses to listen, who remains in the isolation of the night, cutting himself off from participation in the common day and the common world. Thus rings out the sentence passed by Heraclitus: ‘The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own’ (B 89).

As night and day follow one after the other, they beat the rhythm of time; but unlike what Hesiod imagined, they are not separate. Rather, they are a single whole, even if they alternate as opposites. But neither passes over into the other – for they remain distinct. Night and day point beyond themselves: they are indices, or rather symbols. The oppositions multiply. While the ultimate polarity of life and death appears enigmatically in the background – will there be a return, from death to life? – darkness and light summon sleep and wakefulness. The first metaphysician of light, Heraclitus represented the day as wisdom spreading out from the lógos, which makes common in the light. Wakefulness is the prelude to philosophy.

The call to wakefulness recurs constantly throughout the fragments.3 Philosophy would subsequently make this exhortation its own. To think is to have a part in keeping vigilance over the lógos which makes common. ‘Private wisdom’, idía phrónesis, is an oxymoron, because that which arises in the individual – dreams, images, opinions, ideas – is but an empty, dead illusion. This illusion is destined to persist so long as it does not find the path of commonality. So no, do not sleep! Do not let yourselves be carried off by the sleep of private idiocy! Heraclitus repeated this exhortation, directed at the many who lived in torpor. As his peremptory injunction has it: ‘It is wrong to act and speak like men asleep’ (B 73). But there’s sleep, and then there’s sleep. Healthy, restorative sleep is good. Yet, it is an error to mistake day for night, to confuse wakefulness with sleep, when what distinguishes them is that suddenness which, like a darting flame, ratifies the mysterious passage between opposites.

For Heraclitus, this is even more true for wakefulness than it is for sleep. Whoever sleeps, though remaining the same person, seems to be another, ergátas, the ‘artifice’ of a world of his own (B 75). He resembles a dead man lying there, inert and distant. In one abstruse fragment, passed down by Clement of Alexandria, it is said, ‘Man kindles a light for himself in the night-time, when he has died but is alive. The sleeper, whose vision has been put out, lights up from the dead; he that is awake lights up from the sleeping’ (B 26). Whoever gives in to sleep abandons the koinón, the common world, to plunge into his own world, where he lies with the dead. Sleep is like a brief descent into Hades, in the gloomy underworld beneath the city. Thus, the citizen who sleeps is not only apathetic and alogical, but also apolitical and anomic. He ceases, rather, to be a citizen; he unites with its dead in the private burial recess which is, at the same time, the tomb of the public. He twists and turns in his illusions, in his nightmares, in his imagination, in his hallucinations. When it is night in the city and the world seems to sink away, perhaps no one is left to watch, alert, over the pólis. Yet there is one exception, or perhaps two. For there is both the wise god who keeps watch over the city walls, and his vicarious adept, the philosopher, who attentively surveils the city from within, so that this brightly lit opening does not forever close down in a private idiocy.

Is politics, then, the daughter of philosophy? The philosopher combats the night’s tendency to reduce everything to nothing. And even if one day everyone should give in, the city would remain, conserved in the thought of this extraordinary and attentive citizen.

The guardian of the city even before Plato and his politéia, Heraclitus denounces the political night. He points an accusing finger against the sleepwalking so widespread among his co-citizens, who do not want to wake up even during the day. He speaks of ‘night-walkers’, nuktipóloi, who hang out at – and with – night rather than lead the life required by the common day of the city. Heraclitus’ words are inspired by sarcasm, disappointment and disdain; his diurnal lógos inaugurates the space of the Greek pólis and, more generally, the ambit of European politics. The city can exist only thanks to the koinón, the common, gathered in the lógos. This is the ordering intelligence which guarantees the nómos on which the city bases itself. The diurnal lógos exposes the pólis’s very existence; it heralds political ontology. ‘Those who speak with understanding must hold fast to what is common to all as a city holds fast to its law, and even more strongly’ (B 114).

In short: without the koinón of the lógos there is no pólis. Without the link provided by the lógos, which is common and makes common, the city could not come to pass. What maintains the unity of the citizens is the koinón, their participation in the day, beyond the isolation of the night. And this is why the return to the self comes through the re-entry into the political space. The original communism of vigilance – of which philosophy becomes the guardian – is the condition of political existence.


  1. 1. Diogenes Laërtius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, London: G. Bell and Sons, 1915, p. 376.
  2. 2. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, D, text from
  3. 3. See fragments B 1, B 26, B 73, B 75, B 87 and B 89. On this theme, see Martin Buber’s original essay ‘Dem Gemeinschaftlichen folgen’ (1956), in Logos. Zwei Reden, Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider, 1962, pp. 31–72; see also Peter Sloterdijk, Weltfremdheit, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1993, pp. 344 et sqq.