Gianni Vattimo and René Girard, Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue, Pierpaolo Antonello (ed.), William McCuaig (tr.), Columbia University Press, 2010, 124 pp, $18.50 (hbk), ISBN 9780231148283.
Reviewed by Kevin Hart, The University of Virginia/The Australian Catholic University
Gianni Vattimo is best known today, at least in the English-speaking world, as one of a triad of European philosophers whose names are often on the lips of a general audience, one existing largely outside Philosophy Departments in the United States. The other two are Georgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek. These three writers do not constitute a school, and perhaps there is little that binds them together except a shared background in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European philosophy. Agamben draws from Heidegger and Benjamin; Žižek elaborates on Lacan; and Vattimo develops from Nietzsche and Luigi Pareyson. Each has a far broader philosophical and artistic culture than is usual in the English-speaking philosophical world. What allows their names to be linked in North American conversations is a willingness to engage in discussions of the nature and future of Christianity and to offer commentary on contemporary political events. So Agamben writes a gloss on Paul's epistle to the Romans, The Time that Remains (2005), reflects on homo sacer, and speaks out against America's response to 9/11. Žižek, a declared atheist, nonetheless figures Christianity as a partner in the quest for social egalitarianism and is a frequent spokesman on contemporary political events. His joint book with theologian John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ (2009), is a recent instance of his engagement with Christianity. And Vattimo, now on more intimate terms with the Catholic Church, has recently written a number of short books -- interventions and dialogues, really -- on Christianity, while also offering insights into contemporary politics. From 1999-2004 he was a member of the European parliament.
It is fair to say that neither of the stricter schools of philosophy today thinks well of this triad. Phenomenologists tend to regard all three as of passing interest, for they lack the clarity and rigor made available by reduction, and only the hermeneutical dimension of their work calls for attention. Analytic philosophers, especially the more hard-boiled sort, usually have little more than barely disguised contempt for them, unless, of course, they are drawn to Europeans' diagnoses of political events, in which case their strength is held to be in the realm of cultural commentary, not philosophy in the narrow sense. Yet the triad clearly seeks to fill a vast cultural space: many people outside the world of professional philosophy need to hear intelligent analysis of politics and religion, not least of all when they are felt to be entwined. Whether the discussion is intelligent is one question; whether it is desired is another. That it is desired is readily apparent: a big publishing house such as Columbia University Press does not repeatedly commit large amounts of money to publishing authors whose books do not sell, especially in a recession. Whether that desire is whipped up by people wanting to follow authors who have been made fashionable by the media, or whether it is a genuine desire on their part to rethink the future of Christian faith is more difficult to distinguish with any confidence. One thing is for sure: analytic philosophers are not entering the space of popular intellectual culture to issue any challenge, and while phenomenologists sometimes take a step or two into that space it is mostly in highly determined circumstances: the world of Catholicism, for example.
Gianni Vattimo (b. 1936) studied in Turin under Pareyson (1918-91), a fecund and creative philosopher whose strengths were in aesthetics and hermeneutics. Only a brief selection of Pareyson's work has been translated, and there is need for an English version of his Estetica: Teoria della formatività (1954), among other works. Much of Vattimo's most significant writing has been, like Pareyson's, in aesthetics and hermeneutics, both broadly understood, and inflected by an enduring engagement with Nietzsche and those who have followed in his wake: Heidegger, Derrida, and Rorty being prominent among them. Intellectual pedigree tells us only so much, though. We need to know what sort of philosopher he is, and what he does best, if we are to do justice to his work.