ReviewWhat You Are Thinking About When You Have Nothing in Particular to Think About
Review of The Responsibility of the Philosopher by Gianni Vattimo, edited with an introduction by Franca d'Agostini, translated by William McCuaig, Columbia University Press, 153 pages, $24.50
Gianni Vattimo’s book-length essay, The Responsibility of the Philosopher, first published in 2000 in Italian, is a kind of apologia for a philosophical life that has always been, to say the least, exposed to controversy. Vattimo’s youthful Catholicism was shattered by an early encounter with Friedrich Nietzsche, and the prospect of a “transvaluation of values” in the wake of the “death of God” turned him into a passionate campaigner against the Catholic hierarchy and the entire bourgeois social order. In 1968 (as he recalls in a brief but luminous autobiography, Not Being God, published in English in 2009) he felt himself morphing from romantic anticapitalist into revolutionary Maoist, whatever that might have meant. A few years later, however, he came out as a homosexual and started to antagonize the entire Italian establishment by playing a vigorous part in AIDS campaigns and gay-pride politics.
At the same time, Vattimo found himself targeted for assassination by the Red Brigades. If they were right in regarding any hint of conformism or compromise as a crime then it is unlikely that Vattimo could ever have exonerated himself, or that he would have bothered to try. For one thing, he has always been shamelessly diligent in his duties as a university professor in Turin: solicitous toward students, conscientious as an administrator, and courteous to his colleagues.
He has also been reckless in his choice of philosophical friends. He has never renounced his early passion for Nietzsche, perhaps the world’s greatest antagonist of political correctness. And he returned from a long period as a student in Heidelberg to become Italy’s leading advocate for Martin Heidegger, who was not only a notorious and unrepentant Nazi, but also—or so it is widely supposed—a cultural reactionary yearning for a return to an enchanted premodern world of mystery and subjectivist mumbo jumbo.
Vattimo then developed a habit of visiting the United States, where he reveled in the cultural vitality and multiplicity of the world’s leading capitalist society. He also became a friend and comrade-in-arms to Richard Rorty, who had a dodgy reputation not only for rubbishing the whole of traditional philosophy but also for putting a dunce’s cap on his own head and coming out as an American patriot and a “postmodernist bourgeois liberal.” To make matters worse, Vattimo managed to beat a path through Nietzschean atheism toward a renewal of his long-lost Catholic faith, upsetting orthodox Christians just as much as orthodox unbelievers. And finally he decided to cock a snook at every self-righteous philosophical radical by presenting his peculiar synthesis of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Rorty under the challengingly unaggressive brand name of pensiero debole, or “weak thought.”
If Vattimo has spent most of his life alienating potential friends, then The Responsibility of the Philosopher can be seen as a brilliant if belated attempt to win them back. He takes care to explain that what he admires in Rorty has nothing to do with the late American philosopher’s high-handed attitude to the philosophical classics: the canonical texts, for Vattimo, are at the very least books that have survived repeated readings, and there is no point in dismissing them as deluded when our own attempts to think philosophically are “largely a fruit of their endurance.” Nor is he impressed by Rorty’s boasts about getting by in philosophy without any notion of truth. Truth, he says, is a presupposition of the ordinary everyday thinking from which philosophy arises and to which it should hope to return, so any attempt to get rid of it will be as futile as “trying to straighten out the hind legs of dogs.” But Vattimo admires Rorty all the same: he likes the bold implausibility of his contention that Heidegger’s “fundamental ontology” means much the same thing as John Dewey’s pragmatism and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “linguistic turn,” and he reveres Rorty’s combination of sincerity and irony, and his doggedness, modesty, drollness, and careless eccentricity.
Vattimo tells a similar story about his other intellectual heroes. He acknowledges the strain of reactionary nostalgia in Heidegger’s presentation of Western philosophy as a fateful process of forgetting, but suggests that if we listen carefully we will hear something much more interesting: the still, small voice of Heideggerian hope—of hope for a future in which we will stop suffering from our memories and have the courage to make something new. And he finds the same sly optimism at work in Nietzsche. Once he stopped roaring about “how to philosophise with a hammer,” he was generous enough to recognize that we need to reach out to those with whom we disagree. In a world of differing perspectives, we must talk to one another or die.
If there is no such thing as a special hotline to truth, then philosophy, as Vattimo sees it, can never be much more than “the prevailing ideology rendered a little less vague and confused.” But that does not mean that it is condemned to endless repetitions of bland common sense. The “prevailing mentality” contains multitudes; it embraces health, disease, and antibodies—or, you might say, Adam and Eve and the serpent too. The streams of everyday life may be choked with pollution, but philosophy will die of inanition if it walks away in disgust. Discussion is the name of the philosophical game, and philosophers should be keener to sup with devils than with angels—to hold talks, for example, with the most monstrous mass murderers, the most fanatical terrorists, and the cruelest dictators. Even the worst of moral evils must contain a crumb of goodwill, some notion of doing the world a good turn, and by concentrating on these germs of benevolence we may be able to turn irreconcilable differences into permanent possibilities of conversation. “Weak thought” as Vattimo practices it is not a timid avoidance of adversity, but a beady and selfless determination to stick with the gentle arts of conversation—to talk with absolutely anyone, and to philosophize not with a hammer but with some glasses and a few bottles of wine.