Spring 2012

Friendship and Philosophy: An Interview with Giorgio Agamben

A shared sensation

Giorgio Agamben and Leland de la Durantaye

It has been said that philosophy speaks of its times, that it speaks to its times, but that it is not confined by them. And it has also been said that friendship is on its own clock. This is all to say that this interview—originally intended for Cabinet no. 36, with its theme section dedicated to “Friendship”—is very late. But somehow this belatedness felt justifiable, even appropriate, given that the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has written at length on both philosophical friendship (“The Friend,” 2009) and on things that are overdue, and yet somehow right on time (The Time That Remains, 2005). Leland de la Durantaye conducted the following interview by email.

Cabinet: At the outset of The Friend, you write that “friendship is so closely linked to the definition of philosophy that it could be said that without it philosophy would not be possible.” Do you think there is an inherent tension between the demands of friendship and those of philosophy? That is, between an imperative to be kind, courteous, helpful, even loving, toward a friend and an imperative to be unsparing in matters of the mind and in matters of philosophy?

Giorgio Agamben: Things are not always courteous, and not always gentle, between friends. Quite the opposite, in fact. With our friends, we are sometimes unsparing, and sometimes implacable. As in love. And as in philosophy. Plutarch says that friendship is an integral part of parrhesia, of being able to say everything. Including, of course, what one’s friend does not want to hear. In this sense, there is no tension between friendship and philosophy. On the contrary, there is proximity and commonality. In friendship there is no place for those horrible Kantian inventions: imperatives and duties.

I would say that the proximity between friendship and philosophy is, as I tried to show in The Friend, of an ontological order.1 It is inscribed in the same sensation of existing in which Aristotle founded friendship, a sensation that in every case is always already a shared sensation, a co-sensation, and thus always contains an alter ego. In friendship, we do not share some specific thing; we ourselves are shared. To experience this is to experience friendship.

I always found it telling that philos in Homeric Greek means “one’s own,” and is often used for one’s own heart and one’s own body. Friendship is inscribed in the most intimate experience, the one that is most one’s own, the very sensation that one exists. But this also means that in the consent and consensus of friendship, the very identity of friends is called into question. A friend presents me with another self, with myself as other and with another like myself. And yet this reduction of identity happens serenely, almost imperceptibly. It is one of friendship’s gentlest gifts.

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