Much has man (Mensch) learnt.
Many of the heavenly ones has he named,
Since we have been a conversation
And have been able to hear from one another.
–Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedensfeier
It was very early in the morning at the Beijing Capital International Airport and Gianni and I were waiting to board on a plane back to Europe after an interesting conference with our Chinese colleagues. For some reason, we began a discussion about friends and family who passed away. At a certain point I asked him, “So where did they go?” Gianni looked at me and said, “They are here, in this conversation.”
Unfortunately, the announcement of Gianni Vattimo’s passing did not come as a surprise to his close friends, collogues, and students because his health deteriorated quickly these past two years. He struggled to walk and his voice became unrecognizable. Although he kept reading, he wrote very little. He truly became weak, in keeping with his philosophy which he named “Pensiero Debole,” “Weak Thought.” But Weak Thought, as he often explained, is by no means a weakness of thinking as such. It’s actually the strongest philosophy around because, contrary to other stances, it assumes its weakness to the fullest and can therefore practice a strong theory of weakness.
Vattimo dedicated his life to weaken absolutes: Being, God, ideology, violence, and more recently the so-called return to realism. Now it’s up to us – his students, collaborators, and readers – to continue “Weakening Philosophy” which is how we titled his 70th Festschrift. In this book we can find engagements with his philosophy by none other than Umberto Eco, Jean-Luc Nancy, and many other renown thinkers who considered Vattimo an indispensable philosopher to understand religion, art, and politics in this age of alternative facts.
I doubt Gianni would want his obituary to be about facts of his life – you can find them in his moving autobiography Not Being God (written with Piergiorgio Paterlini) – or about his philosophical contribution – available in many monographs about his thought including the recently published The Vattimo Dictionary remarkably edited by Simonetta Moro. Facts, he often said, are poor, boring, and banal things that are useless without our interpretation, that is, intellectual contribution. I will simply recall some anecdotes about him to pursue the conversation he referred to regarding those friends and family.
These anecdotes, I hope, will also disclose one his lifetime goals: to follow Nietzsche when he asks “Who will prove to be the strongest in the course of this?” And responds: “The most moderate; those who do not require any extreme articles of faith; those who not only concede but love a fair amount of accidents and nonsense; those who can think of man with a considerable reduction of his value without becoming small and weak on that account.” It should not be a surprise that this passage is one of Vattimo’s favorites in Nietzsche’s great oeuvre, to which he dedicated so many years of his life.
As soon as I joined the philosophy program of the University of Turin, I went to see a respected professor of philosophy in Rome who had also studied in the city where Nietzsche went mad. Since he was a longtime friend of my parents, I was confident he would give me some good advice on courses, teachers, and readings. His advice, instead, was very different from what I expected: “Don’t end up in a Heideggerian cage.” I wasn’t certain what he meant, but it struck me as something that had to do with Plato’s allegory of the cave or philosophical schools and traditions. However, a few months later I told this story to Vattimo, whom I just met, and he said smiling: “Before worrying about remaining in a Heideggerian cage,” he said, “you must create one.”
In December 1999, Gianni recommended I attend a conference organized for the 2000 jubilee at the Sorbonne. When I arrived, he immediately introduced me to some speakers and, as it often occurs in the academia, one these Professors was particularly arrogant. While George Steiner and Charles Taylor were very kind and interested in my thesis, another renowned philosopher (whose name I will not reveal) hardly shook my hand as he looked elsewhere with an air of superiority. Later that day I asked Gianni: “How can someone be so arrogant with a student? I’m upset at academics like these.” Gianni, again smiling, looked at me and said, “Instead of feeling upset you should be sad for him. He doesn’t have anything else than his arrogance.”
When the President of my University – Jaume Casals, also a philosopher – gave me the green light to persuade Gianni to bring his archives to Barcelona, it was easier than expected. He wasn’t only happy (as you can see on this video of the inauguration on YouTube) because they were going to be hosted in a respected University library, but also since being abroad would draw more attention than if they stayed in Italy. “If Jacques Derrida’s archives are in California,” he said, “it makes sense mine are in Barcelona. Actually, even better considering it’s not that far.” I must add that, while we gathered his documents, he was surprised by many papers that emerged from his library. Articles on his philosophy by John M. Coetzee, letters from longtime friends, such as Umberto Eco, Jean-François Lyotard and many others…
There are many other anecdotes I could write about – like when during a FIFA World Cup game in 2018 he suddenly said “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, the Pope called me yesterday” – which showed how his ironic attitude towards life always prevailed over his position of respected professor, author, and two-time Member of the European Parliament (MEP). This is probably why he always told me not to worry too much about philosophical debates, because one never persuades the other. And, when you do, they won’t admit it, at least not right away. Gianni remains among us through his teachings, books, and also anecdotes like these which are part of the conversations he referred to that morning in Beijing.