Manifestos and Metaphysics: Vattimo and Zabala’s Hermeneutic Communism

By Eduardo MendietaJanuary 19, 2014

    Manifestos and Metaphysics: Vattimo and Zabala’s Hermeneutic Communism

    Hermeneutic Communism by Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala. Columbia University Press. 264 pages.

     Also published today, an interview with Santiago Zabala.


    POLITICAL MANIFESTOS have at least four distinct components. First, they give a bird’s-eye view of how we’ve arrived at a given historical situation, offering reconstructions and historical interpretations. That panoramic view, however, is neither innocent nor neutral. It is always partisan, always an invested and interested way of constructing a story about how we’ve come to where we are. Second, manifestos usually specify those social agents or forces that have brought us to a historical crossroads. They offer a scorecard, denominate the winners and losers of the socioeconomic system under analysis. Third, manifestos are the adrenaline and passion of the body politic, rhetorical exercises that, if successful, make it difficult not to want to join the movement that it calls into existence. Manifestos mobilize language so as to produce an affective, efficacious response. Fourth, they introduce a distinction that makes a political difference, creating new norms and values and thus opening up new forms of agency. Think here of the distinction between bourgeois and proletariat, between the one percent and the 99 percent, between the free person and the slave, between those with rights and those without.

    Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala’s Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx could be read as a “manifesto,” or at the very least a “proclamation.” The book is full of provocative readings that aim to provide grounds for the authors’ basic argument, namely that only “weak thought,” which claims to be the fulfillment of hermeneutics (the imperative to interpret), can prepare us for the advent of communism. This coming of communism, in turn, is presented as a historical event that sunders the continuum of history. Communism is the irruption of the “new” in history. Put succinctly, hermeneutic communism is thus communism purified of all metaphysics. Metaphysics is that part of philosophy that aims to provide ultimate foundations for our epistemic, ethical, and political claims, and thus metaphysics is to philosophy what foundations are to skyscrapers: without them, they don’t hold up. What this means, then, is that a weakened communism, or hermeneutic communism, abjures any reference to grounds, whether those are the laws of nature or the laws of history.

    Let’s clarify this through a concrete example. Communism, of the 20th-century variety that we are all familiar with, appealed to the dialectical laws of history. This variety of communism — the best known — rode into history on the stilts of historical inevitability. But it should be noted that 20th-century communism’s claim to metaphysical grounds places before us a paradox: on the one hand, communism presents itself as an ethical cry and project, a project of struggle against injustice and dehumanization; on the other, communism is a “scientific” project. In this guise, it claims to be the proper way to decipher the laws of history. Communism becomes a form of social engineering that constructs a just society with the skillful use of proper technology, the technology of revolution. The paradox is: if the construction of the just society is reducible to a technology, why should we be morally and politically invested in it? The appeal to metaphysical foundations by this form of communism undermined communism’s indispensable appeal to ethical outrage.

    Hermeneutic communism, stripped of all metaphysical referents, aims to rescue that ethical dimension of communism. Vattimo and Zabala argue something like the following: we live in the age of the end of metaphysics. All that remains after the demise of metaphysics is the imperative to interpret (hermeneutics). Consequently, all we have left is history and our attempts to make sense of it — in other words, since the only available point of reference is the history of interpretations, hermeneutics, pure interpretation, is all we have left. And hermeneutics is the only philosophy that we need or could need, for in it we find both a politics and ethics. The politics left after the demise of metaphysics, the authors claim, is that of a weakened communism, that is, a communism without metaphysical support, one that offers itself simply as the clamoring of the oppressed and the appellation for economic justice of the victims of capitalism. The ethics implied by this is an ethics of interpretation, in which all interpretations have a prima facie claim to be heard and countenanced.

    A number of questions follow. First, and most importantly, how did metaphysics come to an end? Sometimes Vattimo and Zabala write as though the end of metaphysics had happened qua dispensation of being (Sein) itself, implying that the end had been mandated by being (Sein). Here they speak in unison with Martin Heidegger, reminiscent of some divine dispensation or will that rules over humans, dictating what they may or may not do. As with the God of Jewish mysticism, Schelling’s onto-theology, or Heidegger’s Gelassenheit (letting-be), being contracts and retracts to make space for the human will, and human history. The idea here is that God willingly surrenders complete dominium over creation by creating a creature that is free — we create because God created us in God’s image. Our freedom is granted by God’s withdrawal, stepping back, dispossession, or let us say, exposure to our freedom.

    The end of metaphysics, however, has not come, at least not in the sense that Vattimo and Zabala seem to imply.

    Second, what they call “framed democracy,” and its handmaiden, analytical philosophy, with its own metaphysics of descriptions and truth as objectivity, are still tethered to a metaphysics of representation, or a metaphysics of representational equivalences. By this I mean that our attempts to describe the world as it really is presupposes that we can indeed jump over our own epistemic shadows and touch reality as it really is. We always see but from an angle, from a perspective. As children of our times, we cannot take off our historical lenses, for all seeing is refracted through those historical lenses. The metaphysics of representation is still operative, then, even if it seems to be anachronistic. The question that follows is: how can something come to an end, and yet still remain operative? Indeed, how can metaphysics have come to an end, while it is still grinding our historical lenses?

    Third, and finally, is metaphysics, in announcing its end, actually renewed and given a new lease on life? Saying that something has come to an end is a way to make it endure by evoking it, even in its languishing or fading. Isn’t every exorcism a conjuring up of the ghost that we want to rid ourselves of?

    What ought to concern us, however, is not whether metaphysics has come to an end, which is not unlike Nietzsche’s announcing the “death of god” — for as he makes explicit, God still haunts the caves in which we dwell. Instead, we ought to be more concerned with how it may have come about, how we abolished metaphysics — for as Neitzsche makes clear, it is not simply about proclaiming God’s death, but about ceasing to be either blithe or anxious about God’s death. Neither God nor metaphysics came to their putative end of their own accord. We learned, together and painfully, to dispense with such banisters, crutches, guarantees, and unquestioned dogmas. One of the most consistent and enduring themes of Western philosophy is precisely the project of abolishing metaphysics. It was first announced by Gorgias of Leontini, when he famously and cryptically argued: “there is nothing, and even if there were something we could not know it, and even if we could know it, we could not communicate it.” Gorgias’s argument, if we can call it that, is that all we have is language, and our attempts to make sense of our world with it. Gorgias’s argument arguably anticipates Hans-Georg Gadamer’s claim in Truth and Method that “Being that can be understood is Language.”

    Gorgias’s argument is echoed in Protagoras’s equally famous and misunderstood aphorism: “man is the measure of all that is that it is, and of all that it is not that it is not.” In a word, all we have is language — interpretation, persuasion, and all the norms for coming to an understanding can only be derived from language itself. Yet, metaphysical projects endured, whether in their Platonic, Augustinian, Aristotelian, or Kantian versions and updates. At every turn, other philosophers have taken up Gorgias’s flag: even if being could be known, it would have to be known through a language, a language that is always a natural language, a shared language, a language rustling in the winds of time. This insight, which has now become common philosophical currency thanks to Richard Rorty, goes by the name of “the linguistic turn.”

    This turn was instigated by three key philosophers: C. S. Peirce, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Heidegger. The philosophy of the last century has been an attempt to make sense of what these three philosophers meant when they claimed that all we have is semiology (Peirce), that language games are forms of life (Wittgenstein), and that language is the house of being (Heidegger). In short: metaphysics did not come to an end of its own accord, nor was it a gift that we have received or struggled to interpret from being, or some transworldly force. Metaphysics keeps being abolished by the work of philosophy, which is carried out by philosophers using different tools within different philosophical traditions.

     Philosophers persevere in the task of abolishing metaphysics because they continue to be seduced by the metaphysics of the end. They trade prophetic messianism for an apocalyptic eschatology: either we are saved or all has come to an end or must come to an end. There are neither messianic beginnings nor apocalyptic ends: “in the conversation we are,” to use that Gadamer-inspired expression, as ungrammatical as it may sound.

    Here, I agree with Vattimo and Zabala. All we have is the task of our interpretation, and each interpretation is the continuation of an incomplete interpretation. All interpretation is incomplete because it is radically open to the past that is evoked toward a possible future. For every hermeneutic event is a radical beginning that reactivates the past, opening up temporal horizons that engage our communicative freedom: freedom with and toward others. Hermeneutics is that part of philosophy through which we exercise a neglected faculty we all have: the faculty of hope. For to interpret is to hope that we may become different, together.

    There are some great phrases in Hermeneutic Communism, and the book is a wonderful exercise in philosophical rhetoric. Vattimo and Zabala write that “the task of philosophy today is not to describe [the world] but rather to learn to interpret it productively.” This phrase, which rewrites Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, points out that the task of philosophy is to contribute to our transformation of ourselves and our world to achieve “better,” more “expansive,” more ecumenical, more emancipatory, understandings. Hermeneutics transforms us and others, our worlds and our forms of life by the fusion of horizons of meaning, even at the lowest register of hermeneutics — when a new interpretation is put forth — although not all interpretations are equally close to God, to echo that famous expression, and neither do all interpretations interpret the world productively.

    As Vattimo and Zabala argue, hermeneutics has a radical, emancipatory character. The late Reiner Schürmann, who used to teach at The New School for Social Research, can be said to be one of the main defenders of such a perspective. But when Vattimo and Zabala urge us to engage in a hermeneutics that interprets the world productively, they also direct us to a major question: what counts as a more productive interpretation? What are the criteria of evaluation of better or worse interpretations?

    Karl-Otto Apel, who also taught at the New School in the 1970s, in fact took up this question in the 1950s and 1960s in a debate with Gadamer. Apel’s position was that Gadamer had done a great service by taking up Heidegger’s insights about the world-disclosing power of language and transforming them into the art of interpretation. But for Apel, the art of interpretation entailed addressing the question of the conditions for coming to an understanding about anything. Hermeneutics, like semiotics and pragmatics, was also implicated in the game of having to provide rational criteria for its execution. In fact, in early essays, Apel referred to his positions as transcendental hermeneutics-pragmatics. Eventually he settled for “transcendental semiotics” — but it was clear to him that hermeneutics and pragmatics were folded into, or implied, in semiotics. In fact, when he called his two-volume work Transformation der Philosophie, he was directing us not simply to a desideratum, but to what had already taken place through the work of Peirce, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Gadamer. The “transformation of philosophy” that Apel aimed to diagnose and document was one that had been brought about by a hermeneutical-pragmatic reflection on the conditions of possibility of coming to an understanding. “What are the conditions of possibility that enable us to recognize that we have come to a successful and more ‘productive’ understanding?” is a question that modern hermeneutics raised correctly, even if it has not satisfactorily answered it yet.

    I have invoked Apel, and his engagement with the ontological hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer, to suggest that hermeneutics itself has raised the issue of normative criteria, and that there is no understanding that, at some level, does not give a justification for why it is a better understanding than any other. When we make claims about coming to understanding, we are already in the grip of reason, of having to give and answer to reasons. Reason, in short, is justificatory and answerable. Reason is a scorekeeping of the giving and redeeming of reasons — to paraphrase Robert Brandom. Neither hermeneutics nor communism dispenses with the claim of reason, the necessity of giving reasons, reasons that have to be evaluated and scored. Hitherto, and to echo the last line of Vattimo and Zabala’s book, philosophers have only “described” the world, but the task is to interpret it in ever more productive ways that will lead to its transformation. For this transformation to take place as hermeneutic communism, one would need to show why this particular interpretation is better than that of liberals, neoliberals, or Tea Partiers.

    The Communist Manifesto’s rhetorical power, to this day, continues to inspire and move people. In a not well known but indispensable little essay titled “A Rhetorical Approach to the Communist Manifesto,” Haig A. Bosmajian offers an exacting analysis of the compositional brilliance of the manifesto. Bosmajian notes that the text offers an exordium, a narration, and a peroration, but that these particular rhetorical devices are all held together by an ethos. The ethos of the Communist Manifesto is dissimulated by the very approach to its narration and exordium. The narration and the exordium carry forth, witness, and enact the ethos without this ethos having to name itself, or to argue for itself.

    In his essay for the 150th-year celebratory publication of the manifesto, the celebrated historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote:

    What gives the Manifesto its force is two things. The first is its vision, even at the outset of the triumphal march of capitalism, that this mode of production was not permanent, stable, ‘the end of history,’ but a temporary phase in the history of humanity — one due, like its predecessors, to be superseded by another kind of society (unless –the Manifesto’s phrase has not been much noted — it founders ‘in the common ruin of the contending classes’). The second is its recognition of the necessary long-term historical tendencies of capitalist development. The revolutionary potential of the capitalist economy was already evident. 

    What Marx and Engels accomplished in the manifesto was to bring together historical contingency with historical tendency in such a way that historical agency could be both catalyzed and energized. As Bosmajian puts it:

    Marx not only attempts to arouse anger, which is always attended by a certain pleasure arising from the expectation of revenge against a particular person or persons, but he also attempts to arouse hatred which is directed not only against an individual, but also against a class. Marx obviously was interested in more than arousing his audience to anger which would induce them to wish the object of their anger to suffer; his goal was to arouse his listeners to the state in which they would wish the bourgeois eradicated.

     The manifesto, then, should be read as a text that through its rhetoric produces a certain kind of moral affect, by placing us in a certain subject position, one that urges us to engage in a project. Manifestos are affect-inducing, somatological devices, producing the kind of moral outrage that appears both justified and necessary and that warrants a call to arms, to action. The Communist Manifesto’s rhetoric, though, is more complicated, with a balance between prophecy and messianism, that is, between historical contingency and anticipated agency. History determines, and yet human agency is enabled on a horizon where history remains open and yet to be decided.

    The question for us today is this: what kind of narration can we link to an exordium and peroration that enables a new moral outrage as we face problems very different from those of the 19th century, when Marx and Engels wrote their manifesto? This narrative will include stories about the rise of the bourgeoisie, industrial capitalism, imperialism, and neo-imperialism, certainly, but it must also include stories about ecological devastation, human-induced famines, and growing economic and political interdependence — as does, for example, Vandana Shiva’s Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed. This narration can no longer be focused narrowly on Europe, or even the North Atlantic, or the interaction between Europe and the Americas. Its historical horizon will have to be more expansive, if it is going to appeal to a larger “we.”

    Richard Rorty argued that the debate between communitarians and liberals, Aristotelians and Kantians, Derrideans and Habermasians could be phrased as an argument about whether we should “contract the circle [of our community of moral accountability] for the sake of loyalty, or expand it for the sake of justice.” In Rorty’s view, this is a false dichotomy. For him, justice is a form of loyalty to a certain “we,” a large and enlarged community of moral accountability. As Rorty wrote beautifully: “For groups build their moral strength by achieving increasing semantic authority over their members, thereby increasing the ability of those members to find their moral identities in their membership in such groups.”

    Manifestos are the tools through which we fashion new moral identities. They conjure and interpellate a more expansive “we.” Hermeneutic Communism teaches us that we not only have to interpret the inheritance of communism in ever more generative and creative ways, but also fashion a more ecumenical and humane “we,” through the new stories we tell about how we got where we are today and where we should be going in the near future.


    Eduardo Mendieta teaches at SUNY Stony Brook.

    LARB Contributor

    Eduardo Mendieta is professor of philosophy, associate director of the Rock Ethics Institute, affiliated faculty at the School of International Affairs, and the Bioethics Program at Penn State University. He is the author of The Adventures of Transcendental Philosophy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002) and Global Fragments: Globalizations, Latinamericanisms, and Critical Theory (SUNY Press, 2007). He is also co-editor with Jonathan VanAntwerpen of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia University Press, 2011), and with Craig Calhoun and Jonathan VanAntwerpen of Habermas and Religion (Polity, 2013), and with Amy Allen, From Alienation to Forms of Life: The Critical Theory of Rahel Jaeggi (Penn State University Press, 2018), The Cambridge Habermas Lexicon (Cambridge University Press, 2019), and Justification and Emancipation: The Critical Theory of Rainer Forst (Penn State University Press, 2019). He is the 2017 the recipient of the Frantz Fanon Outstanding Achievements Award.


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!