WHEN WE PLACE the prefix “non” in front of a word, we reverse that word’s meaning. A violent protest, by way of this token, becomes a non-violent protest. The word “non-violent” signals a specific thing — the absence of violence, especially where we might expect it. But that does not exhaust the word’s full potential. It might also in some sense signify all things that are not violent in nature, or all things that are not the concept of violence itself — a practically unending series of things. The apparent limitlessness of the signification of the “non” prefix is rendered all the stranger when we attach it to a word which already seems to cover pretty much all things in existence — a word like “things” itself, for example, or the philosophically weighty word “being.” What sense can be made of the words “non-thing” or “non-being”? And what might an inquiry into the speculative universe of “non-being” tell us about ourselves as human beings? These are the questions at the center of Daniel Heller-Roazen’s extraordinary book No One’s Ways: An Essay on Infinite Naming.

No One’s Ways is properly a work of intellectual history, but its interests are extremely catholic. This is in large part due to Heller-Roazen’s own eclectic expertise. His background lies as much in literary scholarship as in philosophical hermeneutics, and he is currently professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He works in 10 languages, including Old Occitan and Biblical Hebrew, and teaches English, German, Italian, and French literature, among others. He has published on medieval as well as modern poetry, and edited a critical edition of the Arabian Nights. Heller-Roazen is also noteworthy for his work on the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben; he is editor and translator of the collection Potentialities, published in English in 1999. Following in Agamben’s footsteps as a philologist-philosopher, Heller-Roazen strays far from the usual plots of literary scholarship and journeys deep into the wilds of linguistics and philosophy.

No Man’s Ways is a continuation of the series of works of intellectual history Heller-Roazen has produced for the publisher Zone Books — his sixth to date. Though each book takes up a different subject, there are clear commonalities between them, as well as a discernible set of long-term research interests involving speech and language, the limits of consciousness, and the writing of philosophical and literary histories themselves. Echolalias (2005) concerns the forgetting of language; The Inner Touch (2007) focuses on our sense that we are sentient; The Enemy of All (2009) is a study of piracy and pirates; The Fifth Hammer (2011) is a history of the metaphors of harmony and disharmony; and Dark Tongues (2013) offers a history of private languages and jargon. Each book follows its individual topic across a wide range of literatures, offering a revision of the philosophical canon from the perspective of its minute particulars. No Man’s Ways represents a further narrowing of the lens, with the focus on a single particle of language as it appears in and across philosophy’s history.

The book, as “essay,” takes the form of an assembly of chapters of varying lengths — some fragmentary, some expansive — each falling under a particular heading. It is, for the most part, chronologically arranged. The journey begins with a short chapter on an episode in Homer’s Odyssey. When asked his name by the Cyclops Polyphemus, the cunning Odysseus replies that his name is Outis, meaning “No Man” (Oú tis). Polyphemus accepts it as a proper name. Later, when Odysseus blinds him, the neighboring Cyclopes hear Polyphemus’ cries and ask if anyone is killing their friend. The blinded Cyclops replies: “Oú tis is killing me!” Satisfied that “no man” is killing Polyphemus, the neighbors leave, and Odysseus escapes with his life. Later yet, Odysseus is asked to give his name again, because, after all, “No one is altogether nameless.” This assertion, which unwittingly contains an approximation of Odysseus’ previous deceit, launches the investigation of No One’s Ways.

Here Heller-Roazen departs from the lands of poetry for philosophy proper, and his first ports of call are Aristotle’s “indefinite” words, found in On Interpretation. Aristotle’s lead example of such a term is ouk anthrōpos, “not-man” or “non-man.” For him, the word neither simply negates by pointing to an absence (“the wall does not see”), nor suggests a “positive” identificatory lack or deprivation (“the wall is blind”). It is not a naming word, but rather, something for which there is “no correct name.” The nameless name “non-man” becomes, through its lack of definition, an indefinite. Such words remain something of a mystery for Aristotle. Indeed, “non-man,” as Heller-Roazen puts it, is “less the name of a concept than the index of a difficulty.” This difficulty would dog Aristotle’s classical readers in the Roman and Arabic worlds. Heller-Roazen turns to Boethius, who comes to think of “non-man” as a double action of “destruction” and “introduction”: it at once “destroys” the particular image of “man” that it contains, and also “introduces” all those things that are not men. It is by this process that the indefinite becomes “infinite,” a “nomen infinitum.” The prospect of a word that can signify an infinite range of things is both dizzying and tantalizing, and by the time we reach the 12th century, philosophers are conceiving of other “transcendental terms” — of notions like “thing” and “being,” which exceed all classical categorization by apparently describing all the contents of reality.

It is here that a “theoretical danger” appears. The prefix “non,” when used in conjunction with the supposedly already infinite transcendental terms, has troubling implications. Heller-Roazen offers the statement, “Every non-thing is not a man,” which also contain the assertion, “A non-thing is.” He writes, “if one accepts that ‘a non-thing is,’ what, then, will one say of the stated ‘non-thing’: is it itself a ‘thing’ (res)?” To answer “no” is to deny that the transcendental term “thing” can contain everything — to assert that non-things lie beyond it. To answer “yes,” however, is to permit that “non-things” are “things” — a logical incoherency. The thorniness of this lexical issue demonstrates how, across No Man’s Ways, the very act of thinking philosophically is revealed to be in part a reaction to the problems of grammar, syntax, and lexical semantics. The beginnings of a solution are found in 16th-century “supertranscendental terms,” an example of which is “imaginable.” Things both “real” and “rational” are straddled by supertranscendentals, and philosophy attempts to connect, for the first time, being with non-being. This interest in supertranscendentals corresponds to Heller-Roazen’s interest in Agamben’s “potentiality”; potentiality does not have “actual” being, but has “non-being” by virtue of its capacity to become actual. Non-being, as potentiality, is a necessary condition for being.

In Heller-Roazen’s treatment, then, the history of “no-man” develops in step with the history of one of philosophy’s largest branches, “first philosophy,” or metaphysics. Around 1150, Dominicus Gundissalinus first used the term “metaphysica” to designate the highest order of theoretical science, that relating to theology, and Heller-Roazen’s notes, wryly, that the term “was to have a bright future.” If the subject of metaphysics is “being as being,” and if God falls under its rubric as “supreme being,” then the question of “non-being” is the constant shadow of metaphysical enquiry. Indeed, the narrative of metaphysics is interwoven so inextricably with “non” naming that “the fundamental ‘thing’ of first philosophy,” Heller-Roazen writes, “is the indefinite property ‘non-nothing’.” This realization leads into the book’s difficult middle section, concerning German transcendental idealism. Kant’s Copernican Revolution (generously glossed by Heller-Roazen), acts as volta in this narrative, and his subsequent accounts of ontology explicitly arrange themselves around two poles: “I” and “non-I.” “Non-being,” then, essentially shapes Western philosophy from the 12th century on.

Time contracts as the book heads toward the present. Hegel’s account of the mind’s progress from ignorance to knowledge is read as a journey from the realms of “non-being” into “being,” and Heidegger’s influential analysis of the concept of “nothing” is related to “non-thing.” As we follow Heller-Roazen’s narrative, we come to realize that thinkers have been stirred to reflect upon the possibilities and potentialities of non-being, of being “non,” precisely because the logical structure of language opens up and even forces such thinking. It is the a priori conditions of language, with its negating particles and its privative construction, that lead us toward the farthest edges of metaphysics, and to the limits of being.

It is perhaps the emphasis on thinking through language that led Heller-Roazen to label his work an essay, an essentially literary form. As Adorno observed in “The Essay as Form,” the essay “says what is at issue and stops where it feels itself complete — not where nothing is left to say.” Heller-Roazen’s book is exhaustive on some subjects, but cursory on others; we are guided by authorial subjectivity, not the objective mission to map fully an area of thought. Furthermore, like a master essayist, Heller-Roazen moves easily across both temporal and geographical boundaries. (It is especially refreshing to see such close attention paid to classical Arabic philosophy, even on the level of language.)

Heller-Roazen reflects on the book’s formal structure at its end, in a chapter titled “Callings.” Here he steps back from the history of concepts in order to consider the “textual dimension of exposition” itself. The Professor of Literature speaks, reminding us that “one must attend to what is said without ever being distinctly stated: suggestions that, while unexpressed as such, are legible on the surface of the text.” What are the implicit “suggestions” of No One’s Ways? Primarily, it’s the suggestion that, at the center of all these discussions of “non” words lies the problem of understanding — and of naming — ourselves. From “non-man” and “non-being,” through Kant’s Copernican Revolution, and into the more explicitly subject-oriented discussions of “I” and “non-I” — the narrative Heller-Roazen sketches is always one of humans speaking about humans. “In its translations and equivocations,” he write, “the non– points to our own loquacious nature, of which multiple and conflicting interpretations may and must be proposed.” We rarely speak of the fact, he says, that we are always speaking of ourselves.

Furthermore, as Heller-Roazen observes, we often speak before we truly understand:

Acts of speech can exceed and fall short of understanding, although, once committed, they are, like any texts, belatedly susceptible to elucidation by analysis and commentary. The saying reaches further than the said. Speaking before understanding, speaking in misunderstanding, speaking without understanding, we can name what we fail to know.

It is in the excess of the act of speaking, in the form that surpasses its own content, that we hear the echo of “man” in “non-man.” There is something of the clarion call to these closing comments. Indeed, “Callings” evokes both acts of naming as well as the idea of a “higher calling,” a vocation or destiny. Heller-Roazen writes of the need to map the figures of “non-man” in “literature and law, in anthropology and mythology, psychoanalysis and linguistics.” In suggesting that the “next part of the investigation” merely “begins with this book,” Heller-Roazen urges us to pursue the “non-man” limned in its pages across other disciplines — into the non-philosophical. This essay is a trial run.

The strangeness of the book’s ending — five or so pages of a speculative thesis about human naming, which threaten to reduce the other 260 pages to a mere sketch or prolegomena — actually ties the work in with Heller-Roazen’s long-term research interests. The book is a call to take seriously the task of understanding our self-understanding as it happens in and through language — to listen to our own utterances, and to learn both from ourselves and from our words. In a poetic formulation at the conclusion of No One’s Ways, he returns to what might be his own way of naming man, after Aristotle:

the doctrine of infinite naming silently spirals back, time and again, on those who propose it. It points to our speaking nature. This is a nature that, several millennia after Aristotle’s definition of man as “the speaking animal,” has still not received the attention it demands.

The whole sum and tenor of the book’s argument exists in those words, which relay the sense that “no-man,” in a guise that dances somewhere between the negative and the privative, always represents the human being, speaking. The appellation “speaking animal,” from Aristotle’s Politics, is one Heller-Roazen also invoked 18 years earlier, in his introduction to Agamben’s Potentialities. Connecting it to Agamben’s own political concept of the “coming community,” he writes that to examine language is to examine such a community in becoming, one “without identity, defined by nothing other than its existence in language as irreducible, absolute potentiality.” This political community, of agents defined by their pure potential to speak, is the community of “No Man.”

No Man’s Ways, then, is both a journey and a preamble, a case study ahead of a fuller investigation, to be undertaken by — who knows? It is not clear if Heller-Roazen’s rousing words in “Callings” are notes-to-self or an authentic imperative to his scholarly colleagues. Either way, there is something here for colleagues in, and enthusiasts of, many schools of philosophy, such as object-oriented ontology. Indeed, readers of “OOO” might think Heller-Roazen’s subject is brushing up against their own; the fixation on the “non-man” or “non-human,” and the intensive pursuit of the limits of being, might lead to a speculative ontology of objects. And yet, in his conclusion, Heller-Roazen tells us that we are never in pursuit of objects. The history of the “non” is a history of us, caught up in a web of our own words. It implies a radical relationship with ourselves, recorded in our speech acts and inscribed in the canon of philosophy. At the center of our own metaphysics, to an extent we might not previously have realized, is the anomalous animal with language: namelessly naming, ever speaking, affirmed by nothing more than the silence of our own potential to speak.

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Chris Townsend is a freelance essay writer, currently living in Berlin. He holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, and his academic interests lie in British Romantic poetry. He is online editor for King’s Review magazine. You can find him on Twitter @marmeladrome.