Gianni Vattimo’s Life, Philosophy, and Archives

By Santiago ZabalaNovember 10, 2016

Gianni Vattimo’s Life, Philosophy, and Archives
GIANNI VATTIMO WAS BORN in Turin on January 4, 1936, 14 years into Mussolini’s fascist rule. He lost his father to pneumonia when he was only a year old and, three years later, experienced the destruction of his home by bombardments during World War II. Although his mother and sister were not particularly religious and although Vattimo never thought of becoming a priest, from the age of 12 he went to mass every morning to receive communion. By the end of high school, he became the diocesan representative of the Student Movement’s Catholic Action Group. It was during these years that his long friendship with Umberto Eco began. Although Vattimo was still a member of the Catholic youth groups when he started university in 1954, he, along with some other members, was asked to leave the group because of his progressive political positions, which had become too radical for the Church. During this period Vattimo, Eco, and Furio Colombo were hired by the Italian public TV network (RAI) to come up with new television programs and documentaries.

After Vattimo graduated in 1959, Luigi Pareyson (1918–1991), who is considered the greatest Italian philosopher since Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), asked him to become his assistant. It is Pareyson who sent Vattimo to Heidelberg to study with Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) and Karl Löwith (1897–1973). In 1968, Vattimo became full professor of aesthetics at the University of Turin. Although he knew many students who participated in the revolts of 1968, he always felt, with Pareyson, much more radical than the students because he was a “Heideggerian.” The revolutionary students in Italy wanted to reinvigorate the “department” with a more democratic structure, but “department” was a term they had inherited from the United States, and it was treated with suspicion, as it was expected to further transform the discipline into a corporate enterprise.

By the end of the 1970s, Vattimo had published a number of books on aesthetics, hermeneutics, Schleiermacher, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. In the 1970s, the philosopher’s professional and political career became a matter of national interest as he succeeded Pareyson as the chair of aesthetics in 1974 and, in 1978, became the dean of the faculty, holding that position until 1983. In 1978, when he was already dean of the faculty, he and other distinguished philosophers, such as Norberto Bobbio, were threatened by an anarchist group called the Red Brigades, which accused them of not being radical enough. Although from 1972 onward everybody in Turin knew that Vattimo lived with his companion, Gianpiero Cavaglià, his real public “outing” occurred in 1976, when the Italian Radical Party designated Vattimo as the candidate on their Homosexual List, spreading the news in the national newspapers, without his consent, for the elections of that year. Even though he was not elected, during these years he did help the Radical Party win the referendum regarding divorce.

In 1983, Vattimo and Pier Aldo Rovatti edited Il Pensiero debole (Weak Thought) for Feltrinelli publishers with contributions from Umberto Eco, Diego Marconi, and other Italian philosophers. This book created a cultural and political debate in Italy and abroad. Vattimo explained that he first used the concept “weak thought” in the essay “Toward an Ontology of Decline,” written in 1979, where he specifically announces that no one has ever interpreted Heidegger’s ontology as “an ontology of the decline,” as a weak ontology, because interpreters continue to think of Heidegger’s meditation on Being in foundational, or metaphysical, terms. Vattimo developed his notion of weak thought in reaction to political events that concerned him directly. The philosopher had intended his book The Subject and Its Mask: Nietzsche and the Problem of Liberation (1974) to serve as the political-philosophical manifesto for the new democratic left, for the people who not only wanted to change the relationships of power but also the very structure of the subject. Then, during the late 1970s, as political terrorism grew in Italy, some of Vattimo’s students were arrested and accused of having connections with terrorists.

For Vattimo, the conceptual problem started when some of those arrested wrote letters from prison (read to the philosopher by other students) that were, in his view, full of a “metaphysical and violent rhetorical subjectivity” that he could accept neither morally nor philosophically. Vattimo realized at the time that his “Nietzschean superman revolutionary subject” had been misinterpreted and could not be identified with the students’ “Leninist revolutionary subject.” Reading these “metaphysical” letters made Vattimo realize that the ethical interpretation of nihilism and of Heidegger’s ontological difference created and justified weak thought. Weak thought came to life not out of fear of terrorism but as a response to the terrorist interpretation of the Italian democratic left during the 1970s — as a recognition of the unacceptability of the Red Brigades’ violence. He emphasized this especially in his three most successful books of the 1980s: The Adventure of Difference, The End of Modernity, and The Transparent Society (which Jean-François Lyotard cited as “of major importance to the debate of the postmodern condition”).

In these three books, Vattimo explains that, after Nietzsche and Heidegger’s deconstruction of Western values, philosophy must be an “adventure of difference”; thought must be liberated from Platonic ideological condemnation, so that it will not err by reducing everything to a single principle. It is only within this hermeneutic framework that preferences can be delineated for political or religious projects. The strong theory of weakness consists of a philosophy that does not derive from the world “as it is” but from the world viewed as the production of interpretations throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophy today is synonymous with hermeneutics, and, as Gadamer recalls, “it is Vattimo who individuated in it a koiné: the common language in which philosophical thought after Heidegger and Wittgenstein, after Gadamer, Quine, Derrida and Ricoeur, has spread everywhere; virtually a universal philosophical language.”

Since the early 1980s, Vattimo has been known as the main proponent of weak thought as a philosophy, but he is not alone. Prominent contemporary philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Fernando Savater, and others have described themselves as “weak thinkers” on many occasions. According to Vattimo, weak thought has helped philosophy to become an edifying discourse rather than a demonstrative one, a discourse more oriented toward the teaching than toward the development of knowledge and progress. The duty of the philosopher no longer corresponds to the Platonic agenda of guiding humanity to understanding the Eternal; rather, the philosopher redirects humanity toward history in order to form an “ontology of weakness.” Weak thought is by no means a weakness of thinking as such, but since thinking is no longer demonstrative but rather edifying, it has become weaker.

From 1986 to 1995, Vattimo edited the Italian Philosophical Yearbooks, an annual series from Giuseppe Laterza publishers on the most important and relevant themes of international philosophical debates. In 1992, Giuseppe Laterza decided to expand these volumes by creating a European Yearbook series edited by Derrida and Vattimo, with the editorial participation of Éditions du Seuil of France. Derrida and Vattimo decided that the first theme should be religion, and they organized a seminar in Capri, which included contributions from the two organizers, Gadamer, Eugenio Trias, and others. Their second European Yearbook was entitled Law, Justice, and Interpretation, and it came from a seminar that took place in Trento.

Vattimo developed both these themes in his philosophical research after 1996 in four books: Belief (1996), After Christianity (2002), Nihilism and Emancipation (2004), and The Future of Religion (2005), which he co-authored with Rorty. In these books, Vattimo explains that now that metaphysics has finally been deconstructed, we must recognize the illusory aspect of worldviews as philosophical foundations. He posited “conversational charity” instead of “objective truth” and showed that the Bible’s Incarnation doctrine may itself provide reasons to believe that Being has been weakened . Since the Incarnation was an act of kenosis, by which God turned everything over to human beings, weak thought reflects the most faithful philosophical position of the Christian religious experience. 

In 1992, Vattimo was awarded the Max Planck Award for Humanities Sciences, and in 1996, he, together with Edward Said, Umberto Eco, and others, was awarded the annual Italian Academy Lectureship by the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University. His lectures there gave birth to After Christianity, which involved a specific philosophical request to recognize the possibility of, and need for, a “nonreligious Christianity.” This phrase refers to the cultural nature of being a Christian today: according to Vattimo, one can be a Christian only culturally and not metaphysically, because no true Christian could explicitly believe as objective and metaphysical facts that God is a transcendent entity that sent us someone who appeared as a man and talked about God and asked us to declare ourselves Christians.

During his tenure at the EU, Vattimo undertook a serious action against Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on July 2, 2003, the day before Berlusconi began his six-month term in the rotating European Union presidency, by distributing to all European parliaments a small brochure outlining Berlusconi’s life and the charges that had been made against him, including alleged bribery of judges, money laundering, tax evasion, and false accounting — charges prepared by two distinguished Italian journalists, Marco Travaglio and Peter Gomez. The next day, as Berlusconi began setting out his program for Italy’s presidency of the EU, protesters led by a dozen Green Party members of the European Parliament waved placards bearing the word “Justice.” A few days later, Vattimo and other members of the parliament signed a letter expressing solidarity with Martin Schulz, whom Berlusconi had insulted (Berlusconi had suggested him for the part of a Nazi guard in an Italian movie about concentration camps) simply because Schulz had asked Berlusconi to justify comments by Umberto Bossi, a member of Berlusconi’s coalition government, who suggested that “boats carrying immigrants to Italian shores should be shot at by the navy.”

One of the reasons Vattimo sought to become a European deputy in 1999 and again in 2009 was that he believed his “hermeneutic political project” could be more easily developed in the European Union than in Italian national politics. When Vattimo was awarded the 2002 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thinking in Bremen, he gave a lecture entitled “Globalization and the Relevance of Socialism,” in which he outlined how the new entity of secularized nations in Europe was taking shape, and also the consequences of globalization on the balance of power among nations. Being a European politician made Vattimo realize that the Kantian dream of cosmopolitism is threatened when power is concentrated in only one center, as the United States is trying to ensure today by asserting itself at the center of global power. In this lecture, he showed that we need at least four centers of power in order to maintain a certain balance for peace in the world, because “an order” is supposed to be a system where no weaker force is controlled by a stronger one. This is one of the many theses behind his two political books, Ecce Comu (2007) and Hermeneutic Communism (2011, which I co-authored), which locates another center of power in South America after its political shift to the left in the early 1990s. These books were translated into various languages and also reviewed widely, including in LARB.

When Vattimo turned 70 in 2006, he had not only completed his first term as a European deputy but also retired from the University of Turin. Three other important events occurred that year: the publication of Weakening Philosophy and Not Being God and his last lecture at the University of Turin. The first book is a Festschrift whose contributors included such renowned thinkers as Jack Miles, Charles Taylor, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The second is his autobiography. In it, Vattimo recalls significant moments of his life, as well as his sexual experiences. In Italy, a country still characterized by conformity to “tradition,” strong homophobia, and pressure from the Catholic Church, it created a stir in the press. His last lecture, which took place at a conference, was attended by hundreds of students and colleagues from around the world in the university’s central hall. One of Italy’s best writers, Alessandro Baricco, who attended Vattimo’s lectures in the 1980s, wrote a touching article in La Repubblica titled “Thanks, Dear Vattimo, You Were a True Teacher,” which is worth quoting here:

If you are in your twenties and enjoy intellectual performances, being in a lecture hall listening to a true philosopher is the best of the best. It happened to me for four years, in your lectures, where I drew the conviction that philosophy remains the highest exercise if you are looking for order in things, rigor of vision, and virtuousness of intelligence. Philosophy becomes an extreme sport of ultimate heights. Those who practice it know there is nothing comparable to the views from up there. Everything else is a plain. Hills, once in a while. You taught me many things, but now I recall the clarity. You explained, we understood, that’s how it went. I understood Kant’s ethics when you pointed out, very seriously, that at 3 AM, in an empty city, at stop lights, you don’t cross the streets only if you are a simpleton or Kant. […] We laughed a lot in your lectures, and this was also educating. Well, perhaps not a lot, but considering that the theme was Heidegger’s “being-towards-death” or some cheerful quip by Adorno, you slipped in some humor that we didn't really expect.

In 2014, Vattimo completed his second term as European deputy. Among the many positions he took in the parliament (e.g., against pharmaceutical testing on animals and against European antagonism of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and other democratically elected Latin American leaders), the battle against the construction of a high-speed railway line (TAV) received most support in Italy. This high-speed railway is supposed to link Turin and Lyon and increase the traffic of goods. The problem with this project is not only the predictable environmental consequences but also that it is impractical, given the minimal amount of goods transported by rail these days. Vattimo became one of the few deputies to join the “No TAV” movement, which is still brutally repressed by the police.

During this second term he released two new books, The Responsibility of the Philosopher (2012) and Farewell to Truth (2014), and was also invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Glasgow. He was particularly moved when the chair of the Glasgow Gifford Committee, Professor David Jaspers, referred to him at the end of his lectures not simply as “Professor Vattimo” but as “our friend and colleague Gianni, as that is certainly what he has become in this remarkable series of lectures in which we’ve been refreshed intellectually and in many other ways.” These lectures were published in Of Reality (2012), which also included his previous Cardinal Mercier Chair lectures in Leuven, along with recent essays.

In 2015, we began discussing the possibility of bringing his archives to my university. The fact that Derrida’s were in Irvine, California, rather than France justified the idea of bringing Vattimo’s to Barcelona, a city he visited and lectured in for decades. The archives will include all his published books, essays, and articles, as well as his university courses and seminars, which were often prepared in book form. For example, among the many courses of the 1970s we found (in a corner of his home library) one entitled “Hegel’s Aesthetics,” which consists of a detailed analysis of the German thinker’s notion of art and beauty in relation to hermeneutics. These courses were typewritten and formatted as a book, which makes for a particularly enjoyable reading experience. We also found his many notebooks. In these, one can find his analyses of classic texts, notes from conferences, and the plans for his books from the 1960s to today. There are also many letters from Heidegger, Gadamer, and Karl-Otto Apel, as well as other precious documents, such as a response by Nobel Prize Winner J. M. Coetzee to a talk Vattimo gave in Cape Town in 2000. Given Vattimo’s many appearances on television, ranging from cultural debates to full courses, the archives will also include many recordings, which we still need to gather. There will also be a digital section with many different versions of his books and essays and notes produced since he began using computers in the 1980s.

In an interview published in La Stampa the day before his 80th birthday last January, Vattimo announced his new book. It will be titled Philosophical-Theological Questionnaire and divided in the three parts: “What should we make of Heidegger today?”, “What should we make of Christianity today?” and “What should we make of Revolution today?” His agent said it will be released by a new publisher (La Nave di Teseo), which was funded by, among others, his friends Umberto Eco and Elisabetta Sgarbi, who invited him to publish the book with them. Vattimo spent most of this summer completing this manuscript, and its notes will also be included in his archives at the library of the Pompeu Fabra University Campus of Ciutadella, a few meters from the Mediterranean Sea. You are all welcome to visit them.


Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at Pompeu Fabra University and author of The Remains of Being (2009), The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), and co-author, with Gianni Vattimo, of Hermeneutic Communism (2011).

LARB Contributor

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is the author or editor of 13 books and has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, and Al-Jazeera. His most recent book is Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). His web page is (Photograph by Xavier Cervera.)


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