Gianni Vattimo is considered to be among the most important living philosophers, alongside Charles Taylor, and Jürgen Habermas.  Known for his interpretation of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s philosophies, he also developed a postmodern theory he calls “weak thought,” meant to question the hard objectivity of claims in religion, politics, and culture. Over several decades he maintained a dialogue and correspondence with Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and René Girard. In this interview, he reflects on his life and work, on the occasion of a new Vattimo archive opening in Barcelona.

Claudio Gallo is currently culture editor at La Stampa, a major Italian newspaper. He has also worked as a foreign desk editor and London correspondent, and has written for AsiaTimes, Enduring and the Los Angeles Review of Books. His main interests include Middle East politics and Western philosophy. He interviewed Gianni Vattimo for Public Seminar.

Before venturing into your philosophy, please tell us about your archives, which were inaugurated at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona a few weeks ago. Why Barcelona, and what do they contain?

Why Barcelona? First of all because they were the first to offer to host them. I’ve told my friends in Turin not to be upset. After all, Barcelona is very near Turin. Certainly nearer than Irvine, California where Derrida’s archives are. At the inauguration there were also several former students of mine from Turin, including Elena Ficara and Santiago Zabala. The latter now teaches there and will oversee a center they will create around the archives. What do they contain? When we gathered them, over the past months, from my home library, we found several courses on Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Nietzsche from the 60s and 70s, as well as my notes. These are interesting (at least for me) since from them I prepared my first books on aesthetics, hermeneutics and postmodernity. Then there are many letters from Apel, Gadamer, and other philosophers I stayed in touch with over the years. Particularly touching are the notes I prepared with Derrida for our two volumes on religion and law for Seuil and Laterza. I think these archives will be useful for all those interested not only in my thought (my “pensiero debole,” — “weak thought”), but also in the contribution of Italian philosophy at large.

Professor Vattimo, what is the use of philosophy?

Someone said that it is important — you cannot live without it — exactly because it is useless. As Heidegger put it in a famous sentence: “Science doesn’t think” — precisely because it is useful, it works toward goals that it doesn’t choose. In Kantian terms, science deals with phenomena, factual data that it receives according to reason’s frames, organizes them in time and space, expresses them mathematically, connects and measures them in various ways. But Kant says that there is the noumenon beyond the phenomenon: what you can think but is phenomenologically unknown. It is part of what Kant calls the “Kingdom of Ends.” In this kingdom you encounter freedom; that is something impossible to know phenomenologically. The same goes for the existence of God. In [philosophy], there are higher questions that usually don’t have an answer because they do not concern phenomenal data, the way science does. This is the source of a peculiar feeling of uselessness and void-ness about philosophy. But we cannot live without it if we don’t want to become machines or robots.

Who were your schoolmasters?

I grew up as a Catholic militant; when I was a boy I used to read authors like Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier and novelists like Bernanos. But Catholic inspiration led me also to read authors that were heretical to the modern tradition. I didn’t like rationalistic historicism that came from Enlightenment, peaking in Hegel and Marx. After completing my graduation thesis in aesthetics, about “Aristotle and the Problem of Doing” (poiein), and falling in love with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, I found the most radical critic of modernity, i.e. Nietzsche. In 1960 they published the two volumes of Heidegger’s Nietzsche, so I met my second crucial author. I was reading Nietzsche and Heidegger under the wise guide of my Turin master Luigi Pareyson who interpreted them through such thinkers as Gadamer, the architect of hermeneutics.

Which is the weight of Nazism in Heidegger’s philosophy?

I must confess that my approach to Heidegger started precisely from his connection to Nietzsche and so from his more “suspect” works, the mature ones, which were already controversially against modernity, with those political implications. For a long time, I read Heidegger almost ignoring his compromise with Nazism. On the other hand, all my masters were antifascists: Pareyson was a partisan; Pietro Chiodi, Being and Time’s first Italian translator, was in the Resistance’s ranks (he learned German in a lager (concentration camp) where he got many diseases that brought him to an early death). Perhaps my lack of attention to Heidegger’s Nazism arose from a kind of disinterest of mine in the biography of authors – a very puzzling disinterest, especially in Nietzsche’s case, since he went mad in his last years. At the time, it was true that many of Heidegger’s readers and enthusiasts were leftists.

You read Heidegger starting with Nietzsche, but your Nietzsche is different from Heidegger’s, don’t you think?

Yes, my reading of Nietzsche is different, literally, from Heidegger’s. But it is, let me say, Heideggerian “malgré lui”. I published an essay titled “Nietzsche, Heidegger’s interpreter,” an obvious anachronism, to say that you cannot read Heidegger without passing through Nietzsche’s nihilism first. This is now included in my Dialogue with Nietzsche. The history of metaphysical thought that Heidegger shows us is the history of the nihilism that Nietzsche taught us to recognize.

The continuous interpretation of reality that you propose in your last book, Of Reality, rests on the reality’s “weakness.” But what is it that you interpret, if the frame of reality vanishes?

It is the history of a progressive weakness of what metaphysics calls Being, which Heidegger showed us shouldn’t be confused with beings. Being does not identify itself with beings, not even with a supreme being – otherwise it could not be given in the first place. Why, in Heidegger, this obsession with the “ontological difference”? My answer is because Heidegger develops his philosophy in the spirit of the first part of 19th century’s European intellectual and artistic vanguards, all oriented to criticizing the scientific objectivism that was inspiring the building of industrial mass society. Weak Thought thinks the ontological difference not in the way of negative theology — the Being is not beings, it exists somewhere, but we cannot grasp it. Being differentiates itself from beings precisely because it tends to vanish, to weaken. It is a historical reading of Being that deals with ethical reasons no less than ecological ones. Human progress is not in growing towards a pre-defined condition of perfection, but in helping things acquire the truth of Being, is reducing the brute claims of what is present and is framed. This doesn’t mean that things will end in the nothingness, as the nothingness could not “be.” I’m thinking rather of a reduction of the given, of existence, of the objective given’s framing. The most advanced physics is also a way of seeing things as a symbolic system, mathematical or not — as an indisputable material existence. You can think of this idea as a progressive spiritualization of everything that is given to us. This was essentially Hegel’s vision: human development as a progressive transformation of the world in forms given by man and included in a symbolic system, where man find himself at home.

In your 2011 book Hermeneutic Communism, written with Santiago Zabala, you recover the communism that you didn’t love so much when you were young. Why this change of mind? What does “hermeneutic communism” mean?

In the first place, it means not metaphysical or scientific communism, as materialism would have it. The reference to “hermeneutic” shows that this communism doesn’t think of itself as history’s “objective truth”; besides, it has no reasons to impose itself with violence, like all presumed truths about the world. It is called communism because it is linked to the original aspiration to build a society without classes, without dominion, but based on the active participation of citizens and their democratic “dialogue” or, as we prefer, “conversation.” To call it communism is a way to recognize and reaffirm that the only possible ideal of human society is the one that shows up historically with this name — whatever disfigurations it was subjected to in actual 20th century events.

But you also remain attached to the Christianity.

Thank God I am an atheist. I am saying this paradoxically but to me it is true. It is because I believe in the Christian God that I release myself from all idolatries: from the scientific and economic ones (that today they try to impose on us as “technical” solutions to a political problem). This is the meaning of not recognizing God as a being among the others, even though he is the supreme being. The great German theologist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis, said that “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” If God is a being, he should not be God. This doesn’t mean that the religious experience is meaningless, rather the contrary. It removes the superstition and also the dogmatic authoritarianism. The God, who in Nietzsche’s words is dead, is the God of philosophy, guaranteeing the fixed order of the world as it is; in the end, the God of reactionaries.

You were twice elected to the European Parliament. What is your evaluation of that experience?

I believed strongly in it, but not anymore. Not in this Europe: it has become a kind of agency that transmits the banks’ imperatives to the national states, like the “fiscal compact” that Italy has even put into its constitution. Leave Europe? You must smash the current order and rethink it in new terms. Maybe the immigrants will force us to make this change.

As you recall in your autobiography, Not Being God, you came out at a time when it was very arduous to be a homosexual. Has this choice in some way influenced your way of thinking?

It wasn’t so easy to feel and recognize oneself “different” in a world in which this was still a stain. However, I don’t think that my being a philosopher was influenced by this condition, even if, probably — as “si licet,” in Pasolini’s case — it always made me feel close to every kind of marginalized person. Maybe if I wouldn’t have been gay neither would I have been a Christian or communist. So what?