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The Responsibility of the Philosopher

reviewed by Cristina Cammarano - February 22, 2011

coverTitle: The Responsibility of the Philosopher
Author(s): Gianni Vattimo; Franca D'Agostini (ed.); William McCuaig (trans.)
Publisher: Columbia University Press, New York
ISBN: 0231152426, Pages: 168, Year: 2010
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After Thales (VII century BCE), the first philosopher, fell into a well while looking at the sky, he felt he needed to show his fellow citizens that his knowledge was useful. He succeeded in this by renting all the presses in Miletus for the season: thanks to his study of the sky he had foreseen a great harvest of olives. As a result of his insight he became wealthy and his city finally saw the value of his inquiries. Nowadays philosophers have stopped attempting to become rich as a way to prove their social function, but they have not stopped thinking about the problem of their role and function in society.

Vattimo’s The Responsibility of the Philosopher (2010) is an exploration of the status of philosophy as a discipline and of the role of the philosopher from the stance of European contemporary philosophical practice. Gianni Vattimo (born in 1936), professor of Philosophy at the University of Turin, is a scholar, a public intellectual, and a politician. He is an important figure in Italian public and political life, as a European Parliament member, an avowed Catholic, and a queer rights activist. He was a student of both Gadamer and Löwith, and is now committed to a form of hermeneutic ontology that he names pensiero debole (weak thought) to stress its attenuation of the traditional philosophical discourse. This small book, published in Italy in 2000, and carefully translated by William McCuaig for Columbia University Press, is not only a reflection on the philosopher’s job and social utility. It is, as D’Agostini writes in her rigorous introduction, a “natural fulfillment of a process typical of a certain kind of philosophy” (p. 33). Vattimo’s many intellectual paths come to a development in his concrete existential choices and in his understanding of philosophy as a way of “apprehending historicity per se of all that comes to pass in human reality” (p. 51). The route described in the book mirrors and explains the author’s personal path and development as a thinker, characterized by a “turn” from the technicalities of the academic philosophical discipline towards a simpler style with the embrace of the public role of the philosopher.

Vattimo begins by describing what philosophy is not: philosophy is not a science and it does not belong to the humanities. It takes part in the foundational problems of all other ways of knowing, and it is deeply connected to them. Philosophy reads sciences and cultural practices as moments of historical human experience, to which it can provide an access. But because of this, philosophy is not the ways of knowing it helps to interpret. Vattimo writes:

Philosophy is the self-consciousness (and self-conscience) of common language, more precisely the self-consciousness of the metalanguage within which all the specific languages as situated, define their stability, and eventually undergo transformation. So it is not even placeable within the traditional distinction between the sciences of nature and the sciences of the spirit, it is something markedly different that is implicated in both, because the “hard” sciences are interpretative sciences too, an interpretative way of knowing, not purely descriptive knowledge. (p. 79)

Vattimo’s elected frame of reference, the hermeneutic one, requires him to articulate and specify his interpretation of the concept of truth. The second part of his examination of the question of philosophy, arguably its core part, is the six-paged chapter titled “To speak the truth.” Here, Vattimo reformulates the problem of truth as adequacy, that is, of truth as an objective description of how things are. Firstly, he dismantles the idea that such a thing - an objective description - is possible at all. Then, he suggests that in any case, the issues at stake are deeper and have to do with the meaning of truth for one’s life. Here he proposes to reverse the evangelical motto “the truth will make you free” to “that which frees me is true” (p. 96). Thanks to a peculiar combination of biblical references with Heideggerian terms, he puts forward an idea of truth as friendship as opposed to a conception of truth as that which is contemplated. He notes that the biblical depiction of eternal life resembles that of a banquet. There would be no point in imagining eternity as a contemplation of objective truths. Truth, that which frees you, cannot be kept apart from charity. He concludes: “an emancipatory project of this kind certainly seems more reasonable to me than an emancipatory project founded on knowing how matters stand” (p. 97). D’Agostini in the introduction (p. 35) comments that this is a decisive shift to an understanding of the primacy of participative reason: friendship, participation, and human relationality, are where problems of truths find discussion and meaning.

“Actually, in my considered view, there is no difference between what I do when I am teaching in the university, and what I do when I write columns for a newspaper” (p. 101). Vattimo thinks writing pieces of opinion on political and daily matters to be a proper part of his profession. It is not, he explains, a “side benefit” of being an established philosopher, whose authority derives from work in his own academic field. It is part of the philosopher’s job to write for a larger public. The third and last part of the book is dedicated to explaining how his vision of philosophy (that we read of in the first two parts) informs his take on what philosophers are supposed to be doing. A philosopher can - if she cares - write in the first person, maintaining a sense of “intrinsic irony about subjective emphasis” (p. 103) and keeping from sentimental writing. Thought is foregrounded in the first person as a mode in which the problem of beginning takes form. And philosophy is first and foremost thought about the beginnings: “it is the block of the existential condition, it’s the character both personal and impersonal thought in the effectuality of existence” (p. 104). Vattimo recognizes that a philosophy in first person means engaging in self-reflection within a common project. He ascribes to his “proletarian roots” his motivation to project a radical social transformation. He reads philosophy from its origin as inherently related to the city, the polis. He calls “educational” his interest to work for emancipation as a philosopher. “Pedagogy, the idea of educating humanity, of putting the transformation of mankind ahead of the transformation of structures, had a lot to do with my choice to do politics as a philosopher” (p. 109). What a philosopher contributes to politics depends on the characteristic of philosophers to have a certain rapport with totality. This happens oftentimes in a critical way and with the awareness that the philosophical vocation can have many fortuitous elements. Citing his teacher Pareyson, Vattimo concludes that all fortuitousness “becomes a vocation when you interpret it and shoulder it” (p. 112).

This note would have been a good conclusion to Vattimo’s work, and I very much wish that this were the end of the little ambitious book. But it is not and unluckily Vattimo has a few more reflections to share with us, in two last paragraphs entitled, “Filling in the blanks” and “The construction of Universality is political.” In the latter one, he dangerously slips in an arduous comparison between philosophy and the European Parliament. Both are, in his view, exerting relative vacuity by just uttering declarations. Both are less immediately efficacious but “a source of hope that vaster projects bringing change in the long term may be realized” (p. 117). Not exactly a compelling point, considering that the inertia of the European institutions has frustrated more than a few citizens.

Vattimo oscillates between an impressive delusion of self-importance (“I believe that whoever is not doing philosophy is a diminished human being, or a ‘lowly laborer’” (p. 113)), and an honest sense of ironic self-doubt (“sometimes I am appalled at the narrowness of the horizons that bound my own reflections” (p. 115)). Even when he acknowledges that philosophical thinking corresponds to a defect more than to a vocation, philosophy being what one thinks about “in the interludes of existential specification” (p. 114), he is not led to a sobering conclusion. Instead, he turns to a consideration of “the urban poor squatting in the streets of Calcutta” and asks himself “what do I think of my universality vis-à-vis that?” He continues,

I think a little bit like Husserl thinks (…). They would need to have the capacity to compare their existence with mine. And it is my ineluctable belief that they would chose mine, or at any rate would choose a kind of awareness capable of entering in dialogue with me. (…) I do not feel myself more evolved than primitive peoples (sic), but I do think that even just the possibility of communication, of imagining a possible communication with different cultures, puts me in a position of privilege, and basically a certain primacy. (p. 116, emphasis added)

Vattimo reveals that he wonders at times if he is a “parasite, and it isn’t just an ironic pose. I mean, the question comes to mind: how long will the government continue to pay the salaries of philosophy professors?” (p. 114). I wonder if one of the contributions that a politically engaged philosopher might offer to his city could be a better thought of how differences and communalities are weaved together in our human experience. It is of philosophical interest to explore the ways in which a street worker in Calcutta and a philosophy professor in Turin are in dialogue. Here would probably reside an educational significance to philosophical reflection, and perhaps also a reason for the city to keep paying philosophy professors’ salaries.

In conclusion, Vattimo’s The Responsibility of the Philosopher is an interesting read for those who are preoccupied with questions about the destiny of philosophy in the public sphere. In its brief and somewhat cursory nature, it offers many points to further reflection and criticism. Like works that mark a difference, it is at times disconcerting and irritating, and at times awfully self-important. But it is also an incredible effort of philosophizing beyond the boundaries of academic disciplinarism and of offering reasons to consider philosophy’s inescapable political and educational vocation. For this, it deserves attention and consideration.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 22, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16347, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:24:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Cristina Cammarano
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    CRISTINA CAMMARANO is a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. She teaches courses of Humanities and of Philosophy of Education and conducts research on the nature of philosophical thinking and its relation to teaching and teacher education.
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