Interviewer: Your recent book From Outside: A Philosophy for Europe seems to be located at the intersection of two axes: on the one hand, it looks at European philosophies; on the other hand, it explores the idea of a philosophy for Europe. The point of intersection between these two vectors could be the following question: what role should philosophy play in the current debate on Europe?

Roberto Esposito: If you think about it, in the most dramatic moments of its history Europe has always turned to philosophy and, in turn, philosophy has interrogated itself about the destiny of Europe as something that touches its very essence. Why? Which bond holds inseparably together philosophy and Europe? A preliminary answer to this question concerns the European – especially Greek – birth of philosophy. While it was nourished by other traditions of thought, the European connotation marked philosophy indelibly. Even the line of thought that has assumed the name of “analytic philosophy,” curiously opposed by some to “continental philosophy,” was born in our continent and only subsequently, fleeing Nazism, emigrated elsewhere. But there is something more; something that pertains to the philosophical character of the very constitution of Europe. Not possessing definite geographical boundaries, at least in the East – its distinction from Asia is problematic, considering that two large countries, Russia and Turkey, stretch between the two continents –, Europe, from the beginning, has defined itself from the perspective of the constitutive specificity of its philosophical principles: the freedom of the Greek cities as opposed to the Asian despotic regimes. Although these principles were often contradicted and reversed into their opposite, the idea of Europe is inseparable from them.

The fact is that philosophy has been a decisive source of inspiration in all the great crises that Europe has faced. It has been so in the time that preceded the fall of the Roman Empire, when Augustine of Hippo delineated the features of a new spiritual civilization; in the age of religious wars, when Descartes and Hobbes established the principles of modern science and politics; and at the turn of the French Revolution, interpreted by Kant and Hegel as an event destined to change the history of the world. Finally, it has been so in the deeply philosophical clash between totalitarianism and democracy. If all this is true, why not imagine, even in the crisis that we are currently experiencing, that philosophy can offer Europe, if not a solution to the current crisis, at least a new way of seeing things, a different direction to take? Of course philosophy is not able to impose its own choices on politics, let alone on the economy. Nonetheless, it can help to identify the role of Europe in the global world and the principles that should inform its conduct.

Your book proposes a genealogical analysis of the history of European philosophy in the late twentieth century, identifying three geo-philosophical articulations that develop between them a complex twine of overlays, hegemonic conflicts and cross-references: German critical theory, French post-structuralism, and Italian thought. Each of these theoretical paradigms has reached full development and dissemination through a passage to the outside, a hybridization with what is other than itself. At the same time, however, the crucial distinction between these different ‘philosophical streams’ depends precisely on the relationship they have established with the outside. How does the thematization of the outside vary? And what do its different assumptions entail for the philosophical relevance of these three theoretical horizons?

In the book, the “outside” is understood in its geographical connotation – the Northwest Passage to America – but also in a disciplinary sense, alluding to what does not strictly belong to philosophical self-reflection but to other languages, like those of politics, sociology, and anthropology. Moreover, it can be argued that thought itself always originates from the outside, as Averroes had already realized, for he describes the “possible intellect” as a “separate” and “impersonal competence.” If we think about it, all great discoveries and paradigm shifts are always stimulated by an external event. In what I have called “German Philosophy” – referring to the Frankfurt School, which emigrated to America with the advent of Nazism – the philosophical “outside” is essentially represented by the “social,” but also, especially for Adorno, by art. In his Negative Dialectics – perhaps the last great philosophical work of the 20th century – Adorno refers to the non-conceptual element internal to the concept, thus creating a rigorously ‘negative’ theory of thought. Regarding “French Theory” – which also passed through America, where it has had its consecration – we should distinguish between a Heideggerian line of thinking represented by Derrida, and a Nietzschean one, which can be traced back to Foucault and Deleuze. For Derrida, the “outside” is essentially writing, which he dialectically opposes to the word, the logos. Foucault, however, holds a more radical idea of the “outside,” meaning by this notion, on the one hand, the sphere of power, of the real power relations inherent in every discourse and, on the other, the dimension of biological life, as opposed to spiritual interiority, over which humans never have full mastery. As for Italian philosophy – whose origin dates back to Machiavelli – the “outside” is essentially the dimension of the political, thought of as something external to the State. In short, from all points of view and despite all the differences just mentioned, the “outside” constitutes the horizon of meaning and the vital energy of our practice and thought.

The book can be seen as a continuation of your recent work Living Thought. The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (Stanford University Press), devoted to Italian philosophy. In the reconstruction of its different stages, what appears to distinguish Italian thought – from Machiavelli to Vico, from Leopardi and Gramsci up to its most recent developments – is the theme of conflict, the relationship that this thought establishes between origin and actuality, thus offering a more adequate articulation of ontology and politics. How does Italian thought articulate this relationship?

In effect, From Outside forms a sort of diptych with Living Thought. While the latter is devoted to Italian philosophy, From Outside is focused on European philosophy, with the exception of the English tradition, which has long been oriented toward the Atlantic axis. From Outside also discusses “Italian theory,” or rather “Italian thought,” by placing it in a differential relationship with German and French thought. The theme of conflict, in its various meanings, constantly returns in Italian philosophy, from Machiavelli to Gramsci, up to Operaismo [Workerism] in the 60s. The fundamental idea that underlies our tradition is that political order does not eliminate conflict, as Hobbes believed, but is indeed entirely crossed by it. It is an idea that is also found in German authors such as Nietzsche, and French ones, like Foucault. But we can say that the dialectic of order and conflict – their co-belonging – is a distinguishing trait of Italian thought.

The relation between origin and actuality, although connected to the dialectic of order and conflict, is a different matter. It is has to do with the conception of history as perpetual crisis, rather than progressive development. The origin of this conception lies in Vico’s work, as can be deduced from the idea underlying his New Science [Scienza Nuova], based precisely on a continuous alternation of recurring cycles [“corsi” and “ricorsi”]. But even Machiavelli believed that when a political organization loses contact with its origin, it declines and risks implosion. After all, if actuality could coincide fully with itself, if it were not inhabited by an element irreducible to it, it would ultimately remain blind to itself. It would lack a critical counterpoint through which to deconstruct its perspective. In the most recent Italian philosophy, categories and terms derived from the archaic tradition, both Greek and Latin, such as sacertas, imperium, communitas, have played a significant role in the international debate. Indeed, the notion of ‘contemporaneity’ is to be understood not merely as the age that follows the modern one, but rather, as the co-presence, in every age, of different and conflicting times – something that, if radically thought, ends up calling into question the very paradigm of “epoch,” the entire epochal economy.

Translated by Antonio Cerella

[Part II of this interview will be published on Monday, July 18]

Roberto Esposito’s From Outside: A Philosophy for Europe, a translation of Da Fuori. Una filosofia per l’Europa (Turin: Einaudi, 2016) is scheduled for publication by Polity Press in 2017.