The Western philosophical tradition after Descartes firmly separates object and subject and in so doing ties these to the antinomy of necessity and freedom. Objects have nothing to do with subjectivity and are indifferent to its gaze, indeed impose necessary limits upon it; subjects meanwhile are not completely determined by limiting objective factors and therefore enjoy a degree of freedom / indeterminacy. However, these paradigms are far from aligning. There can be, and are, circumstances and phenomena better described by a subjective necessity or by an objective freedom. An example of the former would be the psychic limitations posed by primary repression or the Lacanian sujet barré, while examples of the latter are found in all those phenomena in which incompleteness, indeterminacy and ambiguity of form are ontological and irreducible to epistemological limitations (spin ice, quantum tunnelling, and so on). As such the sundering of subject and object, insofar as these represent the loci of freedom and necessity, is far from absolute.

The cleavage of subject and object was regarded by Hegel as a kind of wound to be healed, an antinomy which could be resolved through speculative philosophy ultimately made possible by the fulfilment of the development of Geist in his own historical era and social circumstances. Karl Marx, in his early writings, and later György Lukács, proposed instead that the antinomy (and all its consequent antinomies: individual versus society; morality vs. self-interest; human culture vs. nature; fact vs. value…etc.) could only be resolved by social action — revolution — and so are considered as having contributed to a philosophy of praxis.1

There have been a variety of ways in which philosophers have understood an antinomy of freedom and necessity. The classical and scholastic response to the idea of freedom, for example, was based on the logic of the four pathos tou ontos, or modes of reality: possibility, impossibility, necessity and contingency. The Islamic scholar Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), following Aristotle, defined modalities in terms of the essence/existence relationship:

  • Possibility: the essence of something is neutral with respect to its existence (it is able to be, but it is not in its essence to exist)
  • Impossibility: the essence of something guarantees that it does not exist (it is not able to be; it is in its essence not to exist, e.g. a square circle)
  • Necessity: the essence of something guarantees that it exists (it is not able not to be; it is in its essence to exist)
  • Contingency: the essence of something does not guarantee that it exists (it is able not to be; it exists but not essentially so)

The interesting thing about Avicenna’s modal categories is that they can be pared back down to freedom and necessity: impossibility is simply the logical negation of possibility, and contingency is the logical negation of necessity. Thus, taking the operation of negation as given, there are only two fundamental modes needed to document the range covered by Avicenna. This is registered by the fact that modal logic requires only the primitive signs ◊ and ☐ and the operator of negation in order to chart all modes of reality.

However, the relationship between the logical ‘essence’ of a phenomenon and its existential realisation still remained to be explained, and this system furthermore embedded the question of freedom in a theological context of accidents and essences. The free will which supposedly demarcates the human subject from the animal and vegetable life, granting to human beings possibilities and contingencies whereas all else simply observed necessities, is itself given. It is perhaps no exaggeration to claim that most of the problems outlined by the phenomenologists and existentialists of the twentieth century, in their debates with theology and with humanism alike, hinged on the problem of the granted-ness of free will and what that actually meant in a concrete situation. A strange, sometimes godless, but always awe-filled, spectre of Providence haunted all these discussions, until it was realised in some parts that freedom can only have had a social genesis.

There are various ways in which the dichotomy or antinomy of freedom and necessity can be reconfigured as non-dichotomous. Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer project offers much to a new understanding of modality. In particular his re-reading of book Theta of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and consequent re-thinking of potentiality, serves to redefine the essence of human freedom in an act of with-holding or withdrawal which preserves.2 At the same time Agamben does not oppose the antinomic principles of freedom and necessity to each other in a dichotomous way, but sees them as operating as forces of subjectivation and desubjectivation within a dipolar field conception.

The categories of modality are not founded on the subject, as Kant maintains, nor are they derived from it… rather the subject is what is at stake in the processes in which they interact.3

A field conception of the antinomy of freedom and necessity means that there will exist certain zones of indifference in which it cannot be decided which modal category predominates. The state of exception (as for example occurs in the extermination camp, and in the use of sovereign power, but also in the ‘good’ state of exception of a coming community) are such zones where modalities of reality appear to collapse into each other, where potentiality and actuality become indistinguishable.4

Antinomy Ontological Operators Modal Category



Subjectivation Possibility
Desubjectivation Impossibility

Another way of reconfiguring the antinomy as non-dichotomous is that of dialecticising the antinomy. Both the early Karl Marx and György Lukács write of overcoming the antinomy through a dialectic conception.  Through disalienation and dereification an ‘absolute historicism’ can be approached. The way this works in early Marx can be found in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Here, Marx reads the contradictions between philosophy and reality as immanent contradictions of reality itself.5 Ethical ideals are not utopian distractions from reality but moments in reality, which is to say occurring within the real process of the becoming of what is. For a materialist, the ideal is always to be considered a moment of the real — an immanent tension in the becoming of what is that can be read as a tendency of history, and furthermore one that social action can support. Thus the ought/is distinction so beloved of the positivist and empiricist schools of philosophy (i.e. what Marx would call ‘bourgeois philosophy’) can be criticised. What bourgeois philosophy considers as the real — alienated and reified capitalist society — Marx calls ‘existing actuality’ which he subordinates to ‘true actuality’: the real plus the rational kernel of struggles and contradictions within the real which orient its becoming.6 As Andrew Feenberg puts it:

[T]he philosophical deduction of what ought to be must proceed from actual struggles testifying to the living contradiction of ideal and real. The appropriate role for the new philosopher consists in ‘explaining to the world its own acts’, showing that actual struggles contain a transcending content that can be linked to the concept of a rational social life.7


[1] Feenberg 2014:3-7
[2] Agamben 1999
[3] Agamben 2002:147
[4] Agamben 2002:147-8
[5] Feenberg 2014:9
[6] Marx 1967:213
[7] Feenberg 2014:9-10


  • Agamben, Giorgio, 1999, Potentialities, ed. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, Stanford University Press
  • Agamben, Giorgio, 2002, Remnants of Auschwitz, London, Zone
  • Feenberg, Andrew, 2014, The Philosophy of Praxis, London, Verso
  • Marx, Karl, 1967 [1844], ‘Letter to Ruge’ in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, trans. and ed. L. Easton & K. Guddat, New York, Doubleday

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