Pre-Gifford Seminar

One of the unanticipated benefits of working at an ancient university in Scotland is the opportunity to attend the fabled Gifford Lectures. Last year’s Glasgow series of Giffords was given by Charles Taylor (would have been great to see him!); this year, they’ll be given by Gianni Vattimo, an Italian philosopher who’s been working in the fields of continental philosophy since the 1960s. I drew on his book The End of Modernity and his article “Bottles, Nets, Revolution, and the Tasks of Philosophy” for my doctoral dissertation (= UK “thesis”), and was intrigued when, several years later, he and Jacques Derrida hosted a small conference of European intellectuals about the topic of religion.
Right about that time, he began developing his philosophy into what he has come to call “weak thought,” the conclusion that — absent any basis for metaphysical certainty — any strong claims to certainty or truth have to be regarded as occluded power grabs. Although I’d found certain aspects of his approach useful before this stage, I see a different status to truth-claims or certainty-claims, so I gradually lost interest in his work. Those were just the days, though, that his stock began to rise sharply in the USA, as John Caputo began promoting Vattimo’s flavour of weak thought as an aspect of Caputo’s own projects. One of Vattimo’s students and prominent interpreters, Thomas Guarino, was working on a book about Vattimo at the Center of Theological Inquiry during the year I was there; Tom did not win me back to the Vattimian fold.
Anyway, this afternoon Prof. (and MEP) Vattimo gave a warm-up seminar attended mostly by students, mingled with a few staff colleagues. David Jasper began the event by introducing Vattimo and asking him what he means by the catch-phrase he repeats a lot, “Thank God, I’m an atheist.” Vattimo explained (and hereinafter I invoke the Weinberger Reservation that I was taking notes as rapidly as I could, but anything you read from now on is likely to be a misunderstanding, misquotation, or just plain ornery refusal to ascribe to Vattimo the full profundity of his philosophical credentials) that he appreciates the work that Christianity did towards the end of loosing the bonds of Greek metaphysics on philosophical reflection. Thank God for that!
But at the same time, he (as an heir of Nietzsche) agrees that God is dead. Not that one can deny God’s existence in some sense — but that God’s function as the guarantor of metaphysical propositions is no longer necessary.
(At this point, Vattimo apologised for his English, noted that he doesn’t [yet] speak Scottish, but allowed that at least his English is better than Henry Kissinger’s, and Kissinger was the U S Secretary of State!)
Nattimo cited Heidegger and Nietzsche as his two main influences, and indicated that he shares with them the endeavour of overcoming metaphysics (by which he means “the effort to establish an objective, given, order of nature, which one must then serve and observe”).
He then explained that the meaning of the Death of God for Heidegger, Nietsche, and Vattimo (with an abashed reluctance to count himself in their company) is that it is no longer possible to think metaphysically. Once, we needed God to shore up the social order; now, God is an excessive hypothesis. He made a reference that I lost track of relative to Vico’s citing Thales’s “All things are full of gods,” then noted that religion no longer serves human advancement, but obstructs the progress of technology. Are we then finished with God? Well, one can say with Pascal that the God of metaphysics isn’t the true God, but Vattimo rejects that path.
He argues that if there is an objective truth, it is almost inevitable that there grow a caste of people who lay claim to the prerogative to adjudicate that truth — leading to authoritarianism. He notes that this principle is not just anti-religious, but also tells against such projects as Habermas’s advocacy of “ideal speech situations,” for which one still needs someone to distinguish the correct disinterested circumstances. Contrariwise, Vattimo argues, democracy at its best constitutes a polytheism of values. “No monarch ever enacted a constitution because he was convinced by Voltaire that human freedom was a necessity.”
He went on, “for the same reason I say ‘Thank God I’m an atheist,’ I say ‘Thank Jesus I’m an anti-papist.’ ” He proposes that the thing that makes Roman Catholicism absolutely intolerable is the institutionalisation of the gospel. He then made a remark about regarding Deleuze’s characterisation of Kafka’s The Trial as a humorous novel; this evidently had something to do with Vattimo’s suggestion that Israel betrays the heritage of Judaism — that in face of the lack of confidence in metaphysics, the definite truth of Israel (which he seemed to associate with the Holocaust) functioned as a warrant for the use of definite power. (Since this is a delicate topic, I hesitate to report with assurance that this is what Vattimo said, although we will see further on that he comes back to this topic.)
We used to accept Christian revelation not on the basis of reason, but of tradition. Tradition, he suggests, is the opposite of metaphysics. At this point he referred to Benedetto Croce’s essay entitled “Why We Cannot Not Call Ourselves Christians” — Christian sensibilities permeate modern democratic ideals. Nonetheless, he pressed the case that Christianity is, in the opposite of Michel de Certeau’s essay’s title, not thinkable today. (Vattimo didn’t cite Certau; that was just me making the inverse connection.) “A God that exists, does not exist.” God is not a possible object existing somewhere as an object. Again, if there is a metaphysical revelation, that warrants an authority that mediates and enforces it. Thus, he notes, the Roman Catholic stake in defining various matters as “natural” derives from their determination to exercise control over all human behaviour, not just the behaviour of Catholics.
At this point he ventured into a discussion of missionary activity which, it seemed to me, did not do credit to the sophistication of his philosophy, so I stopped taking notes for a while.
He is more and more uneasy with the things Christians affirm, but he is outright hostile to the God of the Old Testament. The spirit of revenge in Israel (justified by the Holocaust) derives from the Old Testament; Jesus accepted the Old Testament vengefulness, but tried to deflect and diminish it. Catholics who resist papal pronouncements by citing other encyclicals and traditions are still inside a wrong-headed system; Vattimo has worked himself more and more outside of that system.
In response to a question about his work in the European Parliament, Vattimo observed that the economic crisis of the past couple of years has made it possible for him to be a communist. Whereas the Soviet Union falsified the Marxian prophecies of a Workers’ Revolution — and here he digressed to note that Stalin (as it turns out) was the saviour of Europe at the time of World War II, because whatever his wickedness, he forced the Soviet Union into becoming an industrial power strong enough to hold Nazi Germany at bay.
But the question of contemporary democracy is the possibility of true participatory rule. You need money to run for office. And then, as he was serving in the European Parliament, he was to some extent implicated in the European role in instituting the Echelon electronic eavesdropping network, which was approved because after 2001, the threat of international terrorism can be used to justify anything, “like the Holocaust for Israel.” “And now I’m anti-Semitic,” he noted, “because I criticised Israel.”
He was winding down at this point, and — to be candid — I was growing disheartened by his casual, shallow deprecation of pretty much anything that didn’t earn his imprimatur. I have some notes from the Q-and-A, but it’s getting late and I’m tired, and re-reading my notes increases my feeling of disappointment in him. I did appreciate, though, one of his later observations: “Every night I pray, and every night I don’t know what I’m doing.”
I still see many aspects of his off-the-cuff, unnuanced remarks that I’d readily agree with had they not been over-seasoned with startlingly glib misprisions of relatively simple points. I expect that he expresses himself more carefully in formal lectures. I don’t think, though, that I can identify myself as sympathetic to pretty much anything he says now, because I don’t see a clear way to distinguish his facile insults at Israel and Roman Catholicism (to take just two examples) or his stunningly naïve assessment of biblical material, from whatever he might have on offer by way of sound insight. I’ll miss the first Gifford Lecture because W J T Mitchell is giving a lecture concurrently; but I’ll go to the last three Giffords, and will share notes as I can.

9 thoughts on “Pre-Gifford Seminar

  1. wow. i saw you post on the “pre-gifford” but it never occurred to me it was THOSE giffords! any more than it occurred to me that one actually attends them, since i’ve read so many hugely influential ones, but of course one can. wow.

    that said, i must also assert that the “in personhood” of philosophers is almost always disappointing 🙁

  2. For what it’s worth (probably not much!) my understanding of his Roman Catholic Church/State of Israel comparison was that he was attempting to convey that the structure of organised religion is a betrayal of the basic principles of religion (he returned to this in his discussion on politics, using Communism and Stalin’s Russia as his examples). Which is a fair enough point, except for where he seems to have confused Israel with a religious establishment. (If he had said the same thing about the Israeli Rabbinate, I might’ve been inclined to agree, though!)

  3. That would be lovely, Tom. I thought at the time (lacking my Italian teacher’s guidance) that he was setting up an opposition between metaphysics (which establishes identity, role, and function with reference to a supposed natural order) and tradition (which establishes identity, role, and function on a nakedly arbitrary (or mostly arbitrary) principle. “Cos that’s the way we’ve always done it.” “Because your mother and her mother and her mother before her have all been named ‘Rosalinda’!”

  4. I did take it that way, AKMA, as well. But wanted to suggest two possible unintended consequences: 1) our understanding of “tradition” as, essentially, a chain of rote gossip, might warrant further reflection – unless we might see gossip as the deconstruction of monological authority… (2) to oppose some entity like “metaphysics” to tradizione is to risk ambiguating the question of whether something like philosophical speculation is not simply another form of gossip – Socrates to Plato to Nietzsche to Heidegger to Gadamer, to Vattimo etc. Can one speak of a tradition of interrogating and betraying tradition?

  5. I reckoned as much, Tom; I was mostly temporising, waiting to think of something worth saying.
    If I heard that opposition correctly, I would venture that in (2) you’ve made explicit what he did not (perhaps due to hurrying, perhaps because it’s so familiar to him now that it’s hard to remember to spell it out) — that one reason he’s so opposed to “metaphysics” lies in its own false account of itself. Since “tradition” lies at the heart of “metaphysics” also (in a way similar to Lyotard’s reminder that narrative knowledge lies at the heart of scientific knowledge), “metaphysics” can only distinguish itself by denying its endebtedness to and origins in “tradition.”
    And with regard to (1), some of us would hold that rehabilitating “tradition’s” soiled reputation among Aufklärers is no bad thing. If only one could help Vattimo envision tradition, even a structured/articulated tradition, as a non-coercive discourse of truth, he and I might have more to talk about.

  6. Thanks – this is very helpful, provoking, and touches upon things that I think are important to you as well as to me – the peculiar tenacities and vulgarities of tradition, the seemingly “unacademic” yet strangely “knowing” memory found in handed down renditions of abiding, but not binding, value; perhaps akin to what Benjamin valued in the storyteller, among other hand-me-downs.

  7. “He is more and more uneasy with the things Christians affirm, but he is outright hostile to the God of the Old Testament. The spirit of revenge in Israel (justified by the Holocaust) derives from the Old Testament; Jesus accepted the Old Testament vengefulness, but tried to deflect and diminish it. ”

    I hear and see things like this quite often, occasionally in churches. My natural contrarian tendency is to claim that wrath/vengeance takes up a larger portion of the New Testament than of the Old, though I haven’t actually verified that for myself yet. I think a thorough essay comparing OT and NT on vengeance would be of value. Perhaps I’ll work on that someday.

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