Newsletter Issue:
Fall 2023

The Strength of Weak Thought

By Michael F. Hogan, Cohort ’20

Book cover: The Vattimo Dictionary. Photo by Michael F. Hogan

The title of the recently published The Vattimo Dictionary (Edinburgh University Press, 2023), edited by Dr. Simonetta Moro, may cause the unsuspecting reader to have low expectations concerning the breadth of the book’s philosophical value. Its designation as a dictionary may suggest that its contents are merely referential – that is, a resource that contains “a selection of words and information about their meanings, pronunciations, etymologies, inflected forms, derived forms, etc.” But its content delivers so much more by setting context for, describing the content of, and identifying conflict with the impressive body of work by Gianni Vattimo. Because of the fertile ground its comparatively brief 250 pages or so of content sows by way of alphabetically ordered entries by 52 contributors that capture concepts, people, and places of relevance to Vattimo, the reader enjoys a single-volume source that efficiently yet unequivocally demonstrates why Vattimo is considered one of the foremost philosophical minds of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. This is well beyond what the typical dictionary seeks to accomplish and a clear benefit to readers of every background.

Its entries are designed to convey specific information by way of people, places, or concepts. But they also communicate through cross-references to related entries listed at the end of each entry and through repetitions of these same categories within and among the various entries. One of the most important revelations of this interaction is the highlighting of Nietzsche and Heidegger as the most impactful historical figures to Vattimo’s project, both as stimulating sources themselves and as foundations for his engagement in intertextual dialogue with contemporaries including François Lyotard, René Girard, Reiner Schürmann, as well as Vattimo’s student, collaborator and confidant, Santiago Zabala. Moreover, the importance of hermeneutics to Vattimo’s philosophy is evident in the interconnectivity of his work with that of his teacher and dissertation director, Luigi Pareyson, and his friend, Hans-Georg Gadamer. The disparate physical locations from which he, his contemporaries in dialogue, and the esteemed contributors to Moro’s edition interact underscore how global the impact of this philosopher from Turin has been. Far from reading as a name game of contemporary philosophy, the extent of the significance of these and the other philosophers referenced in the Dictionary to Vattimo’s overall project underscores his status as not only a preeminent Italian philosopher but as an essential global philosopher in the Western tradition.

We noted above the importance of hermeneutics in Vattimo’s work. Moro’s Introduction does an admirable job of bringing together hermeneutics and other related concepts that are considered the core of his thinking. Against this foundation, we see clearly how Vattimo’s concept of weak thought strikes a middle ground between those who long to revive the preeminence of metaphysics in Western philosophy, and their detractors who argue for an end to metaphysics altogether. We also witness that Vattimo’s thoughts developed throughout his life, resulting in, at times, dramatic shifts in his thinking about which he was unapologetic. A prime example of this shift is his return to religion in his later writing. We observe that his commitment to politics – including his own service as a member of the European Parliament – comes as no surprise given his similar commitment to praxis in philosophy. What emerges from the threads by which these and other concepts are woven together throughout his work – and rightfully throughout the entries of the Dictionary – is a picture of a philosopher whose concepts take the notion put forth by Hannah Arendt of vita activa to heart in response to the conditions of his era. Indeed, this is, in effect, what he argues for in his positive notion of nihilistic hermeneutics and why he seeks, not a rejection of metaphysics, but a reformation of it: philosophy must recognize that all truth is interpretation, that multiple interpretations must be permitted and encouraged to co-exist, and that, through praxis, the multivalency of interpretation leads ultimately to emancipation.

As a group, the entries in this book demonstrate the strength of Vattimo’s philosophy while acknowledging where differences exist between him and other philosophers. Notable in this regard is the entry on Jürgen Habermas, another influential philosopher from the twentieth century. Its author, Eduardo Mendieta, observes that, while Habermas had not publicly or in print expressed views on Vattimo, Vattimo had indicated disagreement with Habermas in several respects, including the transcendental implications of Habermas’ concept of discourse ethics as well as his reversion to social sciences to avoid having to deal directly with the historicist results of hermeneutics. These instances of conflict or difference only reinforce Habermas’ broad embrace of dialogue and its solicitation of a multiplicity of interpretations. In other words, they demonstrate by praxis the strength of weak thought. 

While the reader who is not familiar with the depth of Vattimo’s work may initially be surprised at the breadth of information this “dictionary” offers, she indeed, by the end of her reading, understands that nothing less should be expected of a book dedicated to Vattimo’s work which its author made accessible and relevant to a broad public. The volume is certain to be a valued resource to scholars of Vattimo. But it is likely also to convince the novice reader of the rich fabric of accessible, relevant philosophy Vattimo has left us.

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