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For a Philosophy of the Impersonal

by Roberto Esposito

1. Never more than today is the notion of person the unavoidable reference for all
discourses, be they philosophical, political, or juridical in nature, that assert the value of
human life as such. Leaving aside differences in ideology as well as specifically staked-
out theoretical positions, no one doubts the relevance of the category of person or
challenges it as the unexamined and incontrovertible presupposition of every possible
perspective. This tacit convergence with regard to the category of person is especially
obvious in a hotly debated field like bioethics. Truth be told, the debate between
Catholics and secularists turns on the precise moment at which a living being can be
considered a person (for Catholics, at the moment of conception, for secularists much
later), but never on the decisive weight being awarded this attribution of personhood:
whether one becomes a person by divine decree or through natural means, awarding
personhood still remains the threshold, the decisive means by which a biological
material lacking in meaning becomes something intangible. What remains presupposed
here, even before other criteria and normative principles come into play, is the absolute
ontological predominance, which is to say the incommensurable value added to the
personal with respect to what is not: only life that has passed through this symbolic
door can be sacred or qualitatively significant, and so can provide the proper personal
Turning to law, we find the same presupposition at work here, but now
reinforced by a more elaborate argumentative apparatus: to be able to legitimately
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assert what we call subjective rights (at least in the modern juridical conception of
rights), one needs beforehand to have penetrated the enclosed space of the person.
Thus, to be a person means enjoying these rights in and of themselves. This thesis,
which appears most frequently in the recent work of Stefano Rodot (S. Rodot, 2006)
and Luigi Ferrajoli (L. Ferrajoli, 2001), is that the renewed value awarded the category
of person lies in the fact that only it is able to bridge the difference that is established
between the concept of man and that of citizen, one formed at the very inception of the
Modern State. This difference-- as Hannah Arendt argued in the immediate postwar
period (H. Arendt, 1996) -- is born from the exclusive attachment to nation or territory
(particolaristico) that characterizes the category of citizen, where citizen is understood
as a member of a given national community and therefore not to be extended to every
man as such. The idea was that only a concept that was potentially universal, like
person, would allow for the strengthening and expanding of the fundamental rights of
every human being. It's here then that we find the calls made over a vast cultural front,
to move away from the limited notion of citizen (or individual) to the more general one
of person -- as Martha Nussbaum has recently argued (M. Nussbaum, 2002). It is a
formulation that a large part of contemporary philosophy has accepted in different
Turning to more theoretical work, one finds the same movement of ideas.
Reflections on personal identity -- and hence the renewed interest in the category of
person -- constitute one of the rare points of intersection between Anglo-Saxon analytic
philosophy and so-called continental philosophy; according of course to different
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typologies, but within the same horizon of meaning, one that is defined by the
privileged reference to the notion of person. Where the analytic school, in Strawson and
Parfit, understands the concept of person to be an indispensable point of departure for
elaborating a complete ontology of subjectivity, Italian authors associated with
phenomenology are in one way or another explicitly proposing a new philosophy of the
person, based in particular on a revival of Edith Stein's phenomenological
"personalism" (cfr. R. de Monticelli); all of which is taking place while some years ago
Paul Ricoeur attempted to relaunch a French Catholic personalism thought
hermeneutically. To sum up: in contemporary culture there is an undeniable
convergence, indeed almost a postulate, that acts as the condition of and basis for
legitimating every "philosophically correct" discourse. It is this one: the affirmation of
the person, of its philosophical, religious, ethical, and political value. No other concept
in the Western tradition seems today to be able to garner anything like such a large and
broad consensus. We note as well that the 1948 "Declaration of Human Rights" assumed
the concept of person as the basis for its own formulation: after a catastrophic war and
the defeat of the idea of crushing human identity into mere biology (which was
precisely what the Nazis wanted), it seemed that only the idea of person could
reconstitute the broken link between man and citizen, spirit and body, and right and
life. Today when the dynamics of globalization are breaking apart the old world order,
philosophical, juridical and political thought turns once again, more convinced than
before, to the unifying value of the idea of person, entrusting itself completely to it.
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2. What are the results? A quick glance internationally raises troubling questions
precisely on this point: at no time more than today do human rights, beginning with the
right to live, seem so utterly denied. No right more so than the right to live seems
contradicted by the millions of victims who die because of hunger, sickness, and war.
How is this possible? What's the origin of this drift in meaning of person that is taking
place today when the normative reference to the value of the person is being affirmed in
all languages and its flag raised high? One could respond, as often happens, that the
reason is only because this return to the person has only been a partial one, or has been
limited, or still remains incomplete. Honestly, to me this seems a weak response both
historically and conceptually. My impression, which I articulated as more of an
argument in my recent book, Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal
(R. Esposito, 2007), is that this kind of reasoning is to be turned inside out. It isn't the
limited extension, the partiality, or the unfinished character of the ideology of the
person that produces these counterfactual results. If the fog lifts surrounding the
premise that has taken on the features of a true and proper personalist fundamentalism,
what we see is that the category of person cannot somehow make up for or fill the
gaping hole between rights and man -- and in turn making possible something like
human rights -- because it is precisely the category of the person that produces and
makes it bigger. The problem we are facing is the absolute impracticability of a right of
man as such, one born therefore not from the fact that we failed somehow to fully enter
into the regime of the person, but rather that we haven't yet found our way out of it.
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I do realize that what I'm saying -- a line of inquiry really -- butts up against all
the evidence that a modern tradition has reinforced and which indeed has constituted
modernity itself (see in this regard R. Bodei, 2002). But I believe that we need to develop
a perspective over a broader period of time that is capable of registering both by
looking backward and from within at the obvious epochal discontinuities, the
subterranean knots and deep junctures that are perhaps less obvious but certainly at
work here. From this point of view -- one that opens onto a double axis, both horizontal
and vertical -- the person, rather than being a simple concept, appears as a true and
proper performative dispositif, one that has been in operation over a very long period
of time, and whose effect is that of erasing its own proper genealogy and with it its very
real effects. This genealogy of the person is to be reconstructed in all of its complexity,
beginning with the distinction (but also the relation) that from the outset is established
between two powers [radici], one Christian and the other Roman, since it is exactly in
their intersection that the power of separation (and selection) will be found, one which
constitutes the most important effect of the dispositif of person.
A first element of splitting is already implicit in the idea of a mask, which we
find in the etymology of the Greek prsopon and the Latin persona. We note, moreover,
that although it adheresto or is "placed" on the face of the actor whose task it is to
represent the character [personaggio], the mask never coincides with it. Not even in the
ritual of the funerary mask, where the true spiritual nature of man ought to show
through what it covers, is this difference lacking. In this case, in fact, we can see the
originary splitting up close, a splitting that is typical of the Christian conception, on the
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basis of which it is precisely the non-coincidence of the person with respect to the living
body (which also encloses it) that allows one to pass to an other-worldly life. Both the
idea of the double nature of Christ and that of the relation of the Trinity are proof of this
interval within, this structural split in the dimension of person: the unity -- between
human and divine nature or between body and soul within the person -- always passes,
in other words, through a separation that cannot somehow be done away with.
3. The separation that defines the concept of person in Roman juridical experience
is even clearer because it is codified according to a precise doctrinal mechanism.
Despite all the shifts that took place during different phases of Roman law, what
remains always fixed is the initial difference between the artificial person and man as a
living being in which the first inheres (see, above all, Y. Thomas, 1998). The most
tangible evidence of this dispositif that separates resides in the fact that, as we know,
not all men in Rome (and indeed only a small part of them, which is to say the patres,
free adult males) were defined for all intents and purposes as persons. This was not the
case with slaves who belonged to the domain of the thing as well as other categories,
ones situated between the thing and the person. I'm unable to examine here the
multiple typologies of men that the Roman juridical machine foresaw or better
produced, but what counts for the purposes of our discussion is the effect of
depersonalization, which is to say being reduced to a thing, which is implicit in the
concept of person; its very definition emerges in negative fashion from the presumed
difference with respect to those men and women who were not persons or who were
only persons in part and temporarily; ones always exposed to the risk of falling into the
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domain of the thing. What Roman law practiced with unequalled impositive
imagination is in fact not only the distinction among persons, semi-persons or non-
persons, but also the elaboration of intermediate situations, of zones of indistinction, of
exceptions that regulate the passage or the oscillation between one state and another.
That every son was, at least in the more archaic period in Rome, subject to the father's
power of life and death (since he was authorized to kill him, sell him, lend him out, or
abandon him) means that no one in Rome, even if born a free man, is defined once and
for all by the statute of person. Anything but a natural gift, the statute of the person is
the artificial extension, the exceptional residue that is separated from a common servile
condition. No one is born a person. Someone may become one, but precisely by pushing
those who surround him into the dimension of the thing.
This procedure of selection and exclusion by means of the dispositif of the
person, which is typical of Roman law, is communicated (and so naturally transformed)
to modern juridical systems, as some historians of jurisprudence have understood;
those who are able to see through the most radical changes, but also who can make out
the lines of continuity along which these changes take place. At this juncture, and
without wanting to lessen in any way the epochal opposition between the objectivist
conception of Roman law and the individualistic subjectivism that is typical of
modernity, the common feature that joins them together in the same semantic orbit can
be traced precisely in the presupposed difference between the designation of person
and the body of man in which it appears to have been implanted. Only a non-person,
which is to say a living material that is not personal, can provide the place required -- as
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both ground and object of someone else's sovereignty -- for something like a person.
Yet, the person is such only if partially or completely restricted to being a thing of its
own body. Not only does persona not coincide with homo (a term with which Latin for
the most part denotes the slave), but it is defined in its difference from it. This is the
originary reason -- installed as some kind of ancient foundation in our own
contemporaneity -- for which the category of the person doesn't allow us to think a right
that is properly human and what's more that renders it conceptually impossible. Person
is the technical term that separates a human being's juridical capacity from the quality
of naturalness and therefore that distinguishes each one from his or her own mode of
being. It is the non-coincidence (or also the divergence of man) of being with respect to
its mode of being.
When Hobbes argues that "the person is he whose words or actions are
considered as his own or as representing the words or the actions of another man"
(Hobbes, 1976, 155), he does nothing other than decisively push this division to its
completion, to the point that the term 'person' can also be used for entities that aren't
human like a church, a hospital, or a bridge. Not only doesn't the mask stay on the face
that it once covered, but now it can cover -- in the technical sense of to represent -- the
face of another. It is true that, at least from the French Revolution on, all men were
declared equal because they were all equally subjects of rights. But that doesn't change
the fact that attributing subjectivity refers to the non-corporeal element (or more than
the corporeal) that inhabits the body, thereby splitting it in two: one a rational, spiritual,
and moral part, which is precisely the personal; and another, the animal. It isn't an
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accident that at the very moment in which he collaborated in formulating the
Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain can
claim that the term "person" indicates the man that is able to exercise mastery over his
biological part, which is properly animal: "If a healthy political conception," he writes,
"depends above all upon the consideration of the human person, it must at the same
time keep in mind the fact that this person is that of animal endowed with reason, and
that the part of animality is immense in such a measure" (J. Maritain, 1991, 52). Here
then we see a double separation -- the first within the very same man, divided between
a personal life and another, subjected to a life of the animal type. And a second,
between "personal" men -- because they are capable of dominating their own irrational
part -- and other men who are unable to muster this kind of self-power and therefore
are situated below the person. We are dealing here with a logical construct, but as is
often said, one productive of powerful impositive effects that really concern the
beginning of our philosophical tradition. As Heidegger intuitively grasped, when one
defines man as the "rational animal," according to the Aristotelian expression that
Maritain uses, one is then forced into choosing between two possibilities in what is
ultimately a specular analysis: either one crushes the rational part directly into the
corporeal as Nazism did, or, on the contrary, one subjects the second to the domination
of the first, as the personalist tradition has always done.
4. As we can see, this dispositif that separates and excludes traverses as well as
moves beyond the conventional opposition between secular culture and Catholic
culture. This is because it originates in a concept like that of person which from the very
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beginning has a double connotation that is both Christian and Roman, and theological
and juridical. The dispositif today finds one of its greatest expressions in liberal
bioethics. Whereas for Locke and Mill the person is only the one who is proprietor of
one's own body, authors like Hugo Engelhardt and Peter Singer unambiguously accept
the Roman doctrine of the initial distinction between person and non-person through
the intermediate stages of the quasi person, the semi-person and the temporary person.
Furthermore, they assign to the first, which is to say to true and proper persons, the
power to keep alive [trattenere in vita] or to push those who belong to the intermediate
stages towards death [respingere nella morte] based on social and economic
considerations. Proof again, as if we needed it, of the structural connection between
seemingly opposite movements of personalization and depersonalization. Every
attribution of personality always implicitly contains an operation of reification with
respect to the impersonal biological layer from which it distances itself. Only if there are
human beings that can be assimilated to the thing is it then necessary to define others as
persons. In order for some to be awarded the label of person, a difference needs to be
highlighted with regard to those that are no longer persons, are still not persons, or
those who aren't persons in any way. The dispositif of the person, in other words, is that
which at the same time superimposes and juxtaposes humans as men and animals as
men; or that distinguishes a part of man that is truly human from another that is bestial,
that is enslaved to the first. Yet, separating life from itself, the dispositif of the person is
also the conceptual instrument through which one can put some part of the person to
death. Peter Singer, who is a liberal, argues that "today's parents can decide between
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letting their child live or aborting it in the event that an eventual anomaly is discovered
during pregnancy. There is no logical reason for limiting the basis on which a decision
is made by the parents only to the kind of anomaly" (Singer, 2004, 211).
5. It is with regard to this mechanism of separation and exclusion that I would like
to juxtapose a thought (when not a practice) of the impersonal. I want to add quickly
here, and not in the sense of negating what many continue to see as noble, just, and
worthy in the term "person," but rather so as to valorize it and make it more effective as
a concept. It's only that here -- let's call it a project -- we cannot avoid taking up a radical
critique of that process of depersonalization or of reification that inheres in the same
dispositif of the person, at least as it has functioned or still functions today. On the one
hand, this thought of the impersonal doesn't simply emerge out of nowhere at this
moment in time, even if it's also true that only today does it acquire the urgency of a
task that can no longer be put off. It is already virtually or implicitly present in certain
areas, not only in philosophy, but also in contemporary art (as well as some segments of
post-Freudian psychoanalytic practice), which now for some time have been addressing
a radical deconstruction of personal identity (in this regard, see P. Montani, 2007 and E.
Lisciani Petrini, 2007). Without even dreaming of being able to reconstruct completely
this hidden tradition -- precisely because it is covered over and blocked by the
knowledges and powers of the person -- I would like to make reference here to those
features (or some itineraries) that are able to provide us with the coordinates for a work
that is anything but individual or quick.
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I will be working within three horizons of meaning or three semantic areas: these
are justice, writing, and life, each of which is associated above all with three names from
twentieth-century philosophical culture. The first is that of Simone Weil. At the center
of her work is an explicit polemic against the hierarchical and proscribed relation
between right and person, in ways that recall our earlier discussion:
The notion of rights, by its very mediocrity, leads on naturally to that of
person, for rights are related to personal things. They are on that level. It is
much worse if the word 'personal ' is added to the word 'rights,' thus
implying the rights of personality to what is called full expression. In that
case the tone that colours the cry of the oppressed would be even meaner
than bargaining. It would be the tone of envy (S. Weil, 1996, 78).
What Weil grasps here when she connects rights so deeply to the dispositif of the
person, is the nature in and of itself exclusionary or biased of rights, rights' private
[privato] and depriving [privativo] features. Once understood as the prerogative of
established subjects, right excludes in and of itself all the others that do not belong to
the same category. This is the reason that the subjective right -- or even more personal
right -- always concerns on the one hand the economic exchange between measurable
goods and on the other force. Only force is able to impose the respect for a tendentious
right on those that do not share it.
Weil's conclusion? If the person has always constituted the normative paradigm,
the originary figure within which right has expressed its own selective and excluding
power, the only way to think a universal justice, one that belongs to everyone and is for
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everyone, cannot be lie anywhere except on the side of the impersonal. "So far from its
being his person, what is sacred in a human being, is the impersonal in him. Everything
which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else." (Weil, 1996, 62). If right
belongs to the person, justice is situated on the order of the impersonal. It is that which
reverses what is proper into the improper, the immune into the common. Only by
dismantling the dispositif of the person will the human being finally be thought of as
such, for what he or she has that is absolutely singular and absolutely general: "Every
man who has once touched the level of the impersonal is charged with a responsibility
towards all human beings; to safeguard, not their persons, but whatever frail
potentialities are hidden within them for passing over to the impersonal" (Weil, 1996,
78). As we can see, Weil isn't asking us to deny the person. She doesn't make the
impersonal the opposite of person, its simple negation. Rather the impersonal is that
which, from within the person, blocks the mechanism of distinction and separation with
respect to those who are still not persons, who are no longer persons, or who have
never been declared to be persons.
Where Simone Weil situates the impersonal in the horizon of justice, Maurice
Blanchot places it again in relation to the regime of writing: only writing, which breaks
the interlocutionary relation that in the dialogic word links the first and second person,
creates an opening into the impersonal. When he states that "writing is equivalent to
moving from the first to the third person" (M. Blanchot, 1977, 506), he alludes not only
to the refusal on the part of the writer to any possibility of speaking in the first person,
but also argues in favor of the impersonality of a story interpreted by characters
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themselves lacking in identity or qualities, as in Robert Musil's "man without qualities."
But he also is referring to that de-centering of the same narrative voice -- effected in the
first instance by Kafka -- in which impersonality penetrates into the very structure of
the work, forcing it to continually move outside itself. This implies two further effects
that are embedded in the same global movement: on the one side, the lowering of the
narrative voice in what is a true and proper aphonia of the narrative voice, masked by
the anonymous swarm of events; on the other hand, the loss of identity of subjects in
action that takes place with respect to themselves. What's produced in this way is a
process of depersonalization that invests the entire surface of the text, lifting it up out
from its banks and then making it turn round upon itself. In other places this is what
Blanchot will define as a "relation of the third type," referring to a dislocation of the
entire perspectival field, comparable to a true and proper shift in the epistemological
What matters even more, however, is that this movement of depersonalization
experienced by writing for Blanchot doesn't remain limited to the field of mere theory,
and indeed is subjected to a sort of political experimentation. I am speaking of a whole
series of interventions, declarations, staking out of positions, which most often
originated in the 1950s and 1960s, in which impersonality, which is to say the exclusion
of the proper name, constitutes not only the form but the very content of the political
act; its non-personal dimension, in its collective and common sense: "Intellectuals,"
Blanchot writes to Sartre in December 1960, "(...) experienced a way of being together,
and I'm not thinking only of the collective nature of the Declaration, but also of its
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impersonal power, of the fact that all those that signed did so with their proper name,
but without the authorization to speak of their own proper and particular truth or their
own nominal reputation. The Declaration represented for them a sort of anonymous
community of names" (M. Blanchot, 2004, 51).
The third horizon of sense or semantic orbit associated with the impersonal is
that of life. In contemporary philosophy it is situated from the outset in the segment
that joins the names of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, and even biographically,
joined by the common deconstruction of the paradigm of the person: "Foucault
himself," Deleuze writes, "one did not grasp him exactly like a person. Even on
insignificant occasions, when he entered a room, it was rather like a change of
atmosphere, a kind of event, an electric or magnetic field, or what you will. This did not
at all exclude gentleness or well-being, but it wasn't on the order of the person. It was
an ensemble of intensities" (Deleuze, Negotiations, 99). What joins Deleuze to Foucault
in a relation that goes beyond simple friendship -- precisely because there is nothing
personal, is exactly this reference to the third person -- is what Benveniste rightly
defines as non-person, because it is traversed and made lacking by the power [potenza]
of the impersonal: "And then there's the emphasis on 'one,' in Foucault as in Blanchot:
you have to begin by analyzing the third person. One speaks, one sees, one dies. There
are still subjects, of course -- but they're specks dancing in the dust of the visible and
permutations in an anonymous babble" (Deleuze, Negotiations, 108).
This anonymous but also multiple babble, impersonal but also singular, has the
form of life in Deleuze, or better "a" life, as the last of his texts is titled, when that life,
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despite being common to all those that live, is never general, but always of someone
though it doesn't have the exclusive (and excluding) form of the person because it is one
with itself, which counteracts the dispositif that separates. Before any juridical
subjectivization, life constitutes the indivisible point in which the being of man perfectly
coincides with its mode, in which the form, precisely of life, is the form of its own
content. This is what Deleuze means when he associates it to that which he himself
defines as "level of immanence." It concerns the always moving crease or margin on
which immanence, the being life of life [l'essere vita della vita] folds upon itself, eliding
any figure of transcendence, any ulteriority to the being such as it is of the living
substance. In this sense life, when it is understood in all its impersonal power, is that
which contradicts at the root the hierarchical separation of the human type [genere],
and of the same man, in two superimposed or subjected substances: the first rational
and the second animal. It's no accident that Deleuze understands the enigmatic figure of
'becoming animal' as the culmination of the deconstruction of the idea of person, in all
its philosophical, psychoanalytical, and political tonality. In a tradition that has always
defined man in the separation and difference from the animal, only to animalize again a
part of humanity because it wasn't human enough, asserting animality as our most
basic nature to rediscover breaks with the fundamental prohibition that governs us.
Contrary to the presupposed split of the dispositif of the person, the animal in man, in
every man and in all men, means multiplicity, plurality, metamorphosis: "We do not
become animal," Deleuze affirms, "without a fascination for the pack, for multiplicity. A
fascination for the outside? Or is the multiplicity that fascinates us already related to a
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multiplicity dwelling within us?" (Deleuze, Thousand Plateaus, 1987, 239-240). The
'becoming animal' of man and in man means and demands the loosening of the
metaphysical knot tightened by the idea and the practice of person in favor of a mode of
being human [uomo] that no longer moves towards the thing, but ultimately that
coincides only with itself."

Works Cited

M. Blanchot, (1977), L'infinito intrattenimento, Torino, Einaudi.
M. Blanchot, (2004), Nostra compagna clandestina. Scritti politici (1958-1993), Napoli,
R. Bodei, (2002), Destini personali. L'et della colonizzazione delle coscienza, Milano,
G. Deleuze, (1987), A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian
Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
G. Deleuze, (2000), Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1995).
L. Ferrajoli, (2001), Diritti fondamentali, Roma-Bari, Laterza.
T. Hobbes, (1976), Leviatano, Firenze, La Nuova Italia.
E. Lisciani Petrini, (2007), "Fuori della persona," in Filosofia Politica," n. 3, 2007.
J. Maritain, (1942), I diritti dell'uomo a la legge naturale, Milano, Vita e Pensiero.
P. Montani, (2007), Bioestetica, Roma, Carocci.
M. Nussbaum, (2002), Giustizia sociale e dignit umana. Da individui a persone,
Bologna, il Mulino.
S. Rodot, (2006), La vita e le regole. Tra diritto e non diritto, Milano, Feltrinelli.
P. Singer, (2004), Scritti su una vita etica, Milano, Mondadori.
Y. Thomas, (1998), "Le sujet du droit, la personne et la nature," in Le dbat, n. 100,
S. Weil, (1996), "La persona e il sacro," in Antologia dell'impolitico, Milano, Bruno

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