On September 19, 2023, the philosopher Gianni Vattimo died in Turin. A student and translator of Hans-Georg Gadamer whose own writings developed the thought of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Vattimo was a towering figure in European intellectual life. From nihilism to communism, Vattimo wrestled with the entanglement of religious and political ideas. Late in life he was elected to the European Parliament, and he was a steadfast advocate of gay rights and Palestinian liberation. We asked colleagues to reflect on Vattimo’s legacy for political theology.
Gianni Vattimo, who left us at the age of 87, was one of those rare philosophers who could claim the mantle of public intellectual, the engagé thinker called to comment on the political and social issues of his time while simultaneously developing an extremely sophisticated and distinctive kind of philosophical thought. He was a philosopher in the classic sense of the term: a well-rounded, inclusive figure who had embraced, in his mature years especially, the idea that philosophy is praxis – in the political sense as much as in any other – an approach we find in the origins of Western philosophy.
The narrative of his early years, which Vattimo recounts in numerous places, reveals the fundamental themes and passions that would accompany him throughout his long and productive career: the question of aesthetics as the experience of truth, the tradition of philosophical hermeneutics, the ways in which Nietzsche and Heidegger (and later, Marx and Hegel) can be read intertextually, and the discourses and practices of religion and politics.
Religion and politics were intertwined in Vattimo’s life from an early age, but when he was a student of Gadamer in Heidelberg, he shifted from his former “Catto-communist” position to what he called a “Catto-Heideggerian” mentality (as recounted by his collaborator Santiago Zabala in Weakening Philosophy), in which the God of the Bible became the “Heideggerian Being,” that is, a matter of interpretation and not of dogmatic acceptance. Heidegger was later credited for bringing him closer to Christianity, in the sense of a dismissal of metaphysics (“God as supreme object that I cannot fail to recognize”), which in Vattimo’s view is always associated with violence.
The concept of pensiero debole, or “weak thought” – which he developed together with Pier Aldo Rovatti in the early 1980s – is one of the central themes in Vattimo’s hermeneutics, and it is the contribution for which he is most well known in Italy and throughout the international community. At times, it has been widely misunderstood by the popular press and conveniently dismissed by colleagues who subscribe to different philosophical positions. Despite being tied to the emergence of the discourse around postmodernism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the concept of “weak thought” is still very current. In fact, according to Rovatti, its full expression may still lie ahead, and it is needed today more than ever. ‘Weak thought’ starts with interpreting nihilism as a weakening of the structures of metaphysics and a dissolving of the concept of being as an “objective foundation,” and it develops a particular notion of postmodernity as the experience of the “end of history,” not as a new historical phase itself (The End of Modernity, xviii).
The concept of “weak thought” or “weakening” also informs the way Vattimo’s reflection on religion is carried forward under the umbrella of Christianity, understood not as metaphysical faith but as adherence to cultural tradition. As he put in a recent interview for his eightieth birthday (La Stampa, January 3, 2016), the interpretation of Christianity through the “weakening” effect of hermeneutics emphasizes “the incarnation, the kenosis, God that becomes man and therefore abandons his sacrality,” leading to a philosophy of history in which human emancipation can only be thought of as a progressive reduction of natural violence,” which is perhaps the most important legacy of “weak thought.”
This legacy is what we, readers and interpreters of Vattimo’s thought, are fortunate to inherit and make our own, through the hermeneutical work that enables us to interrogate the present against every metaphysical return to order, so pervasive today in a variety of fields. It is a responsibility he taught us to embrace with courage, generosity, and characteristic irony.
Director; Professor of Art, Philosophy, and Visual Studies
Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts
Gianni Vattimo and I shared a weak spot for weakness. I had picked up the trope from Derrida, which Derrida linked with the “weak messianic” in Benjamin, but mostly I had in mind St. Paul’s saying that the weakness of God’s mind is greater than the power of the world. While I did not initially have Vattimo in mind, I was happy to associate my weakness with his, because Vattimo was engaged in a comparable project of emancipation issuing from the weakening of metaphysics. This convergent orchestration of the melodies of weakness was a bit of fortuitousness, a piece of luck, and perhaps there was something deeply Italian about it. We had that in common, too, growing up in the world of Italian (in my case Italian-American) Catholicism, and our love of hermeneutics was in no small part an attempt to twist free from a church too much in love with power and too little in love with love, he having very boldly challenged the Church’s stand on same-sex love. I enjoyed the rapport he found with Rorty, and I remember seeing the two of them huddled together over lunch at a Heidegger conference, a table I dared not ask to join, negotiating the distance between the “conversation of mankind” and the “death of God.”
He had a joyous way of doing philosophy and making friends around the world. He showed that the love of wisdom and the God of love, that hermeneutics and politics and Christianity, if they were true to themselves, had a common issue, an order of democratic fairness and inclusiveness, a world of peace and justice. He recognized that what we all have in common is the right to be different and that where we differ, we have made common cause with love. Gianni did this with humor and good will, with unpretentious clarity and a welcoming smile, scarce commodities in our increasingly polarized world. He will be sorely missed but I am grateful to have known him and to have learned so much from him.
John D. Caputo
Cook Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus
They say never meet your heroes, but I’m glad I met Gianni Vattimo. He wasn’t my hero at the time: although his work had helped me, my interest in “religion and postmodernism” had already begun to fade. Still, seeing him there – rumpled and charming, happy to chat with a couple of students – I came to appreciate the generosity of his work.
Apart from Vattimo’s collaboration with Jacques Derrida, After Christianity is the book I read most closely. I was drawn to Vattimo’s claim that secularization is the fulfillment of Christianity rather than its negation. With this gesture, Vattimo split the difference between metaphysical theology and an ideological atheism, offering a “weak thought” in their place. Most memorably, he identified the death of God with the self-emptying incarnation of Jesus Christ.
The book oriented me toward questions that have continued to preoccupy me – about the relationship between atheism and religious traditions, for instance, and the power of negativity. Vattimo explained that anti-modern, anti-Christian authors led him back to an uncertain faith, and that was my experience as well. Although it took me some time to realize, my interest in these themes was always political, and it was Vattimo’s politics that most appealed to me.
As a plenary keynote for the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, Vattimo once remarked: “Phenomenology is the most reactionary form of thought.” He delivered the line with a mischievous smile, but it cut to the heart of a certain philosophical theology. Just as Vattimo saw metaphysical foundationalism as out of step with a pluralist world, he was attuned to the political stakes of phenomenological claims to objectivity. In both cases, Vattimo was motivated by a certain vision of democracy – one that pursues dialogical consensus rather than universal validity.
I came to see Vattimo’s critique of metaphysics as paradoxically triumphalist. Although Vattimo valorized a weak thought that is hospitable to pluralism and democracy, his strict distinction between postmodernism (Good!) and traditionalism (Bad!) was oddly doctrinaire. Like his confreres in the “religion and postmodernism” crowd, Vattimo was prone to enthusiastic generalization, and that made his analysis seem unreliable. As I drew toward Derrida’s understanding of temporality and tradition, I read Vattimo less and less, but his virtues stayed with me.
Unlike most philosophers who opine about politics, Vattimo actually ran for election. From what I could see of it, his career as a Member of the European Parliament did not always display excellent judgment. To take one example, he suggested that the chador should be prohibited in public since it expresses “strong thought,” whereas the crucifix is unobjectionable because it has become a secular symbol (After Christianity, 101). This seemed to confirm my suspicions about Vattimo’s triumphalist tendencies, but still I admired his courage to address concrete politics (even if he could have been more careful).
That’s the impression I was left with that cold Chicago evening. Like his work, Gianni Vattimo was imperfect but very engaging, a tall man with a twinkle in his eye who tried to say something true without taking himself too seriously.
Senior Research Fellow
Australian Catholic University
For those of us who were students of philosophy and theology in the 1990s, the work of Gianni Vattimo offered something distinctive and refreshing. His book The End of Modernity had been translated into English in 1988 and was influential on many of us in Britain in the following decade. It seemed to offer a nuanced interpretation of Nietzsche that was suggestive of a nihilism that was almost self-subverting. What Vattimo rejected was a metaphysical nihilism that, although espoused by many, he believed to be at odds with Nietzsche’s own central insights. Instead, he interpreted nihilism as a verb, an act of ontological weakening that was to be applied even to itself.
This was heady and exciting stuff, but for me, at any rate, this could only be a movement of transition rather than a dwelling place. Ultimately, it led me to join many others in a rediscovery of Hegel, and to Hegel’s contemporary interpreters such as Gillian Rose and Slavoj Žižek. Needless to say, Vattimo himself never made any such Hegelian turn. He preferred to remain in the creative space between Nietzsche and Heidegger for which he was so well known and which he did so much to promote.
It is interesting that so many theologians and religious thinkers found his work suggestive even before he himself had made any explicit turn to religion. His insistence on the ontological weakening even of nihilism itself seemed to raise the question of how an ever-weakening nihilism might open onto a theological horizon. This was terrain, of course, explored by Jean-Luc Marion, also deeply influenced by Nietzsche and Heidegger, although here again Vattimo himself never made any such return to theological orthodoxy. His religious sensibilities were much more deconstructionist, as was made clear by his book Religion (1998), co-authored with Jacques Derrida, and After the Death of God (2006), co-authored with John D. Caputo. But as with his work on Nietzsche and nihilism, his work on religion seemed to open doors to worlds that he himself preferred not to enter.
We were vaguely aware, too, that Vattimo was not merely a political thinker but a political practitioner. We knew that he had been a member of the European parliament, and we were somewhat puzzled as to how his philosophy translated into practical politics, especially the institutional politics of European liberal democracy. On one hand, there was some admiration for a philosopher willing to get his hands dirty in the practice of parliamentary politics. On the other hand, there was a suspicion that he was perhaps too liberal, too modern, too much still a child of the Enlightenment, a suspicion confirmed for some of us by Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics and Law (2004), although he was later to take a more radical political turn with Hermeneutic Communism (2011), co-authored with Santiago Zabala.
It is impossible to remember Gianni Vattimo through his books alone. He was a larger-than-life presence who enlivened many an academic gathering through his wit, warmth, and bonhomie. He was exuberantly Italian, flamboyantly fun, and without any hint of pomposity. At conferences, he seemed at his happiest – with his keynote lecture over – getting into a taxi with a group of friends old and new heading for drinks and dinner on the town. He was a living embodiment of the joy of life.
Senior Lecturer in Politics, Philosophy, and Religion
University of Lancaster
The world-renowned Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo was used to inhabiting multiple paradoxes: Heideggerian and Communist, Catholic and Communist, Catholic and homosexual. Unsurprisingly, Vattimo called his “weak thought” (pensiero debole) a paradox. His original and creative declination of postmodernity is all but weak: it strongly opposes Western metaphysical (and therefore also political, cultural and economic) violence.
If this violence was used to impose the unitary and absolute fundament of Western metaphysics, Vattimo interpreted the end of colonialism and of the “metanarratives” as The End of Modernity (1985): a multiplication of cultures, of voices, of points of view. This way, Nietzsche’s famous aphorism became Vattimo’s manifesto: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” Weak reality is not a “strong” presence but must be interpreted as the new ethical approach to Being through a hermeneutical dialogue (Beyond Interpretation, 1994; Of Reality, 2012). Weakening became, for Vattimo, a constitutive aspect in human history and the history of Being.
In Belief (1999), Vattimo unfolded this paradox of Weak Thought in line with the Paulinian concept of kenosis: incarnation, for Vattimo, was a weakening of God, a decision of God to interpret his omnipotence through becoming human, in flesh and blood. Jesus called for creatively reinterpreting the Hebrew Bible and opening human history to new possibilities.
One could say that Vattimo exposed his philosophy to a Paulinian kenosis, too: from Weak Thought (an ontological interpretation) to Thought of the Weak – in blood and flesh.
In the last decades, Vattimo engaged in politics, in the European parliament and cultural debates, defending the position of the Weak – of those still at the margins of society. This philosophical, political, and human stance was one of the reasons for his admiration of Pope Francis, on whom Vattimo would have liked to write a book. As he wrote with Santiago Zabala in Hermeneutic Communism (2011), supporting the Weak was not defined as a “strong” mission but as a weak interpretation, one of the possible interpretations from which one could choose. And Vattimo firmly chose to be on the side of the weak. In this, he gave us another paradox.
We will miss his sharp analyses, his ironical and elegant participation in political debates, and his warm way of being among others. His call for a weak dialogue resonates strongly among us, opening to multiple, plural Adventures of Differences (1980) and interpretations.
Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Art Theory
Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts
The death of Gianni Vattimo brings with it the death of a line of Christian thinkers who were not afraid to challenge the division of religion and politics. Vattimo was a Communist because he was a Christian and he was a politician because he understood God as intervening in the politics of the world. Vattimo made a big impression on my younger years when eternal structures were being challenged by those of us who did not believe that reason or reality are immanent. With Vattimo, Gutiérrez, and the 14th Dalai Lama, we argued that human beings are central, standing in solidarity with each other. Vattimo was the one who shouted that he could change the world, with the workers, with the intellectuals, and as a Christian politician.
This is where Vattimo’s arguments connected with Liberation Theology and Tibetan Buddhism. Christianity at times seems to be nihilistic and empty. But this is because Christianity offers an anti-metaphysical response to the dreams of an ontological way of appreciating the world. The latter has made human beings prisoners of Platonic worlds in which we can no longer find our identity. Vattimo’s response to this absence of a humane and democratic society motivated his own search, and his service in European politics.
However, as Vattimo theorized the possibility of Christian existence after the end of theism and atheism, he developed a new understanding of the possibilities of a Christianity freed from an ontological and rational explanation for all. He wrote:
There is a third possibility between, on the one hand, the metaphysical demonstration of the truth of Christianity (the preambula fidei and the historical veracity of the resurrection) and, on the other, its falseness with respect to scientific reason (entailing the quasi-naturalistic acceptance of the differences among individuals, cultures, and societies): Christianity as a historical message of salvation.
It is interesting that Vattimo argued, after a life full of doubt about the Church and Christianity, for the possibility of historicity within a life as a Christian, asserting, “if I were not a Christian, I would probably be a metaphysician.” As in the case of Latin American liberationists, Vattimo’s journey started as a committed Christian, a Roman Catholic, who developed his interests in the world, and his social, religious, and political interests through the church. He studied philosophy to continue taking part in that blend of human interests, and he realised a political project that made an enormous difference in the contemporary world of political theology. Vattimo conquered our philosophical fears and sent reason out of political theology once and for all!
Mario I Aguilar
Professor of Religion and Politics
University of St Andrews