Gianni VATTIMO. Of Reality: The Purposes of Philosophy. Trans. Robert T. Valgenti. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. 248. ISBN: 978-0-231-16696-6. $35.00, hardcover. Reviewed by John V. APCYNSKI, emeritus, St. Bonaventure University.
Gianni Vattimo is a continental hermeneutical philosopher – and former member of the European Parliament – who has developed a position characterized by what he calls “weak faith” which leads to a form of “nihilism” where being as object is no longer available. Everything is interpretation insofar as the knower contributes to the event of being. These Neitzschean and Heideggerian themes lead to the “neurotic” (his term, 19-20) reaction among philosophers seeking an anchor in reality. He attempts to address such concerns in the essays gathered in this volume. The first set were originally delivered as the Mercier lectures at Leuven (1998) and the second section presented at Glasgow as the Gifford Lectures (2010).
Essentially Vattimo is defending the claim that everything we affirm is an interpretation, even the claim that everything is an interpretation. He explicitly acknowledges the circularity of this position; even though our claims are not arbitrary, they always do involved the knower in the practical choice of requiring our involvement (32). Because of my own background working out of the thought of Michael Polanyi’s theory of personal knowledge which argued that even scientific knowing cannot be validated impersonally, I have much sympathy for Vattimo’s claim here.
Beyond his exploration of the implications of the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger, I have found his treatment of a couple of prominent analytic philosophers to be helpful for understanding Vattimo’s thought. His discussion of John McDowell’s Mind and World, for example, highlights how once he compares the strengths and weaknesses of coherentism with the given, he acknowledges the need for a “sponteneity” to overcome the intolerable oscillation between the positions which requires that he introduce our “second nature” or Bildung or culture (20-26). Essentially he (along with other analytic philosophers such as Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, Bas van Fraasen, and Nelson Goodman) is moving in the direction of recognizing the need for an interpretative framework. Unfortunately, according to Vattimo, McDowell’s naturalism presuposes the givenness of our cultural perspective without explicitly taking it into account in his position.
In a second instance Vattimo explores whether “truth” has the same meaning when we pray to the God of truth as it does when Tarski defines truth as “p” is true if and only if p (that is, “it is raining” is true if and only if it is raining). Vattimo holds that the problem with this formulation is that it fails to recognize that the second p also stands within quotation marks (83). But if we abandon this criterion, how do we affirm the value of objectivity? We must acknowledge that we always make judgments in light of normally unacknowledged cultural assumptions or paradigms. When we make revolutionary transitions, what happens is that our presuppositions, including our social situations and structures of power, come into question. When we decide to abide within a newly emerging pattern of meaning, we engage in a struggle which leads to an acceptance we share as true (107-110).
Here is where Vattimo finally raises ethical-religious questions as required by the Gifford trust. Weak thought is sustained through the dissolution of absolutes. In this sense weak thought is the inheritor of the ideal of Chrisitian charity. Hierarchs who affirm some understanding of absolute truth in the face of freedom betray this ideal. For Vattimo, on the contrary, “weak thought holds that precisely because absolute truth is ‘liquidated,’ transvalued like all of the highest values, one can finally practice charity, the Christian love of one’s fellow human. Absolute truth is therefore exchanged for the agreement with others reached though the process of negotiation, whether in the private sphere or in the field of politics. And, as for Christianity, Jesus Christ is here thought as the living sign that God himself wanted to free himself from his absolute nature by becoming like us” (116-117). Such a program is weak because it does not rely on any access to an absolute, as most fundamentalisms and dogmatisms tend to proclaim. Rather its practice of charity establishes a more authentic vision for Christian universalism (170).
This is a profound and provocative set of essays. Theologically, its openness is empowering. And, while he does not explicitly point this out, I believe his position supports the stance of Pope Francis over against that of Pope John Paul II. Philosophically I would find it more attractive if Vattimo would be able to acknowledge an implicit meaningfulness guiding us in our striving for truth, perhaps in the manner of the recent work of Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor.