Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Essere Italiano: The Provenance of Vattimo

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Essere Italiano: The Provenance of Vattimo

Article excerpt

1.INTRODUCTION: VATTIMO'S POLITICAL LIBERALISM

Like most late modern mainland European thinkers, Gianni Vattimo is sceptical of the putative neutrality and independence of the Enlightenment model of reason. Yet, whereas this suspicion in many of his contemporaries engenders a nostalgic mourning of the overcoming of modern rational tropes and a tendency for irresponsible play, for him it gives birth to the possibility of emancipation. His original contribution to the field of philosophy arises from his attempt to reconstruct a rationality out of the recognition of the interpretative, hermeneutic understanding of truth. The aims of the following discussion are to offer a better understanding of Vattimo's thought, to resolve a theoretical problem in his own work and, consequently, to offer a way out of a philosophical impasse about the nature and practicality of a more general philosophical idea. The general idea is the main concern of modernity. As Kant spurs one to do, one must only obey those edicts which can be rationalized and hence be one's own. Only in such a way can the oppression of others be resisted.1 However, whereas modernity was concerned with legitimacy and reason, late modernity, when one is made aware that the universal reason of the Enlightenment itself is an interested, historical construction, is concerned with the relationship between legitimacy and power.

To understand Vattimo's philosophy is, then, to think through the problems of our tradition: "the finitude that characterizes all of us and that rules out any complete conquest of the opacity that every person bears."2 This finitude is initially understood as the weakening of the Enlightenment project. When one's state, one's family, one's managers or others in general command, ask or plead that the agent do something, she appeals to her conscience to ask whether there are good reasons, whether reason itself can validate the request. If so, then the agent acts according to his or her own will and is self-determined. The aim of the Enlightenment was to liberate one from arbitrary wills, superstitions and ideology; to be the age of criticism.3 Freedom was conceived as the subject's independence from power. And liberalism as a political creed is the protection and maintenance of the independent subject because a system of rights, the political virtues of tolerance, equality and free thought and the institutions of public education and democratic participation allow for the free thinking and acting subject.

Vattimo is not a liberal in this sense, as he recognizes the cultural constructivism inherent in liberal reason: "But what is called 'world' is an outcome not only of interpretation but also of history: it is the result of the interpretative processes of others. Just like the subject is not something primordial or original, neither is the world that is always given as the outcome of other interpretations."4 As Vattimo has aged so his thought has become ever more overtly political and ethical. He perhaps always believed that hermeneutics and phenomenology were political engagements, but from the turn of the century his thought has drifted away from the interpretation and the non-grounding of hermeneutics as the koiné to which all other philosophies are mere reflected ideologies and towards the application or the practical consequences of (broadly conceived) hermeneutics' philosophical preeminence.5

One enlightening way to understand Vattimo's political position is to imagine him-as he often does in his own writings-in conversation with his contemporaries, Gadamer, Derrida, Rorty, Habermas and Apel, in order to differentiate himself in a negative sense of identification. He is not a pragmatist and not a proceduralist; nor is he a conservative, nor a relativist, although he does-in a very Hegelian attitude-find commonalities in all these positions. Vattimo's ethics and political philosophy arise out of his return and rejection of these possible positions. …

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