Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics and Law 
by Gianni Vattimo, translated by William McCuaig.
Columbia, 197 pp., £16, October 2004, 0 231 13082 1
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When Nietzsche’s madman tries to proclaim that God is dead, he soon realises that his intervention is premature. Although his audience already think of themselves as atheists, the madman sees that they don’t really understand what that means; self-comprehension is still on its way to them, like light from a remote star. Nowadays, many philosophers who take this aspect of Nietzsche’s work seriously tend to write about the death of God as if it were old news – rather more than a century and half old. They take God’s death for granted as a widely accepted fact of modernity, and ask what the significance of that death is for our moral and political values, and, more generally, for the idea of human life as having significance or meaning. But judging the madman’s message to be old news is precisely what his fellow citizens do in the parable – a judgment that betrays their lack of self-awareness, and shows these men of knowledge to be unknown to themselves. How, then, should we judge our contemporary men of knowledge?

For Gianni Vattimo, the death of God means the dissolution of any ultimate or absolute structures of value. Belief in God is simply one example of a more general human tendency to posit something wholly external to the human situation as the objective foundation of its meaning or worth. If there were a God, so the thought goes, His will would confer absolute authority on a particular system of values, and hence a particular way of living; and even if there were no God, a similar authority might accrue to any understanding of human life if it were grounded in some other aspect of reality taken to be objective – the nature of reason, for example, or of the gene.

To acknowledge the death of God, then, it is not enough to embrace atheism. Thoroughly secular accounts of the worth of human life that invoke an ultimate foundation in reality are nonetheless theological: they amount to a refusal to accept that God is dead. This is the negative or critical aspect of what Nietzsche and Vattimo call nihilism; to accept it means ensuring that one’s philosophy is thoroughgoingly anti-foundational. It also means recognising what Vattimo calls the hermeneutic nature of human understanding. If we cannot prefer one account of the meaning of life over another because it reflects the way reality ultimately is, then it seems we must recognise that every such account is simply one more human interpretation or construction: a making of meaning from within a particular cultural moment rather than something read off from the way things really are.

Vattimo knows that the most likely response to this nihilistic vision is despair: he sees its expression in the reflorescence of fundamentalist thinking – religious and nationalist – but also in the spread of purely relativist moral and political attitudes. For if all value-systems are simply human interpretations, surely none has any more claim on us than any other; all are equally subjective, hence essentially arbitrary and lacking in authority. How, then, can we accept the insights of nihilism without devaluing all our values and revealing human life as essentially meaningless? Vattimo’s positive or constructive version of nihilism aims to show us, by adapting Heidegger’s intuition that the possibility of our salvation might lie within what seems to be the deepest threat to it.

Nietzsche prepares the way for Heidegger here, when he argues that his own discovery of the repellent nature of Christianity – and hence of the need to transcend it – was made possible by Christianity itself. For the Christian conception of a divine Reality lying behind the realm of appearances, and more specifically its practices of confession and self-examination, created and fed an ascetic drive to uncover the truth of things at all costs. So, when Nietzsche argues that Christian self-sacrifice actually constitutes a sado-masochistic denial of life, he sees himself as having uncovered the truth about religious belief, and hence as embodying the moment in which the Christian will to truth turns on itself and devours itself. The death of God is thus a kind of suicide; the history of Christian self-denial culminates in the denial of Christianity as an authentic form of human understanding.

Heidegger, in turn, sees Nietzsche’s nihilism as the culminating development of modernity, the point at which the underlying essence of the Enlightenment (and so of Western culture) at once fulfils and exhausts itself, thereby opening up a range of human possibilities that are genuinely new, yet unthinkable except as the overcoming of the old. Vattimo reinterprets Heidegger’s understanding of nihilism in terms of emancipation. He points out that the freedom of all individuals is central to the value-system of modernity, yet that modern thinkers have attempted to ground that value in claims about the essence of human nature, reason and society. If, however, the value of freedom were there to be read off from reality, our endorsement of it would not be free but rather demanded of us. Its acknowledgment would, in effect, be a metaphysical requirement on any human being. Freedom would thus be founded on coercion, on a species of metaphysical violence; the Enlightenment’s defining hostility to external authority would reveal itself to be simply another self-concealing exercise of such authority.

Vattimo’s intuition is that modernity’s contradictory endorsement of freedom can be re-evaluated, and so at once fulfilled and transcended, in the terms provided by nihilism. For if there are no absolutely authorised values, only interpretations, then nihilism invites us to recognise the inherent plurality of interpretations, and to endorse a way of living that acknowledges their equal status. It values our freedom to choose among these interpretations for ourselves, to understand ourselves and our world in any one of a variety of ways; but it does so without trying to ground this endorsement on a metaphysical claim about the way things really are. Vattimo calls this freedom ‘human projectuality’; it is the postmodern revision of modernity’s defining concern for the autonomy of all human beings.

To acknowledge the plurality of interpretations in this spirit means recognising that the process of reaching moral and political conclusions in society must be dialogical: we must aim to achieve consensus through debate and conversation with others who may have adopted interpretations different from our own. We must therefore not only give weight to our fellow citizens’ views in the decision-making process, but also construct a political and social system that delivers the conditions without which they could not exercise their capacity to establish and revise those views. In more concrete terms, this would mean adopting a system of rights to healthcare, schooling and other public services, rights to security and quality of life, freedom of speech and assembly, and so on. In effect, then, the practical political manifesto that Vattimo derives from his Nietzschean and Heideggerian postmodernism amounts to a robust, but essentially familiar, set of leftist liberal rights and duties.

It is, in this respect, no surprise to find Richard Rorty writing a commendatory foreword to this collection. As Rorty points out, however, Heidegger himself – notorious for his entanglements with Fascism – would be more than a little surprised to see what, in Vattimo’s hands, his account of the weakening of Being in Western culture delivers in the way of practical politics. But it is also worth emphasising that Nietzsche would be no less disconcerted. For the concrete political pay-off of emancipatory nihilism, saturated as it is with compassion for the weak and vulnerable, looks remarkably similar in content to the ascetic altruism of Christianity. In other words, Vattimo’s values seem to be not only a continuation of modernity by other means, but also a continuation of what Nietzsche thought of as the life-denying perversity of Christian morality.

Vattimo might well plead guilty as charged. He is a believing Christian; and he understands emancipatory nihilism not as an alternative to Christianity but as its redemption from metaphysics. To say that the God of metaphysics is dead means that certain versions of religious belief (particularly that exemplified by the role of the Catholic Church in Italian society) must be rejected. But once that God is dead, genuinely Christian values can be resurrected. For in Vattimo’s interpretation, the heart of Christianity lies in the Incarnation. The idea of God becoming man encapsulates a religious version of the complete transfer of authority from the extrahuman or superhuman to the human. Taken together with the Crucifixion, it also presents the divine nature as self-emptying and self-sacrificial; so Vattimo’s God embodies a suffering refusal of violence, and an identification with its victims, that is in harmony with the postmodern critique of the violence inherent in foundationalism. A religious acceptance of the death of the God of metaphysics is thus the only way in which Christianity in the West can be rescued from its own failures of self-understanding. But in suffering this violence, and reconstructing itself in its wake, Christianity reattunes itself to its own core meaning and recovers the possibility of an authentic contemporary incarnation in Western culture.

This spiritual hinterland is more visible in Rorty’s foreword than in Vattimo’s essays. In fact, doubtless because this collection of essentially occasional pieces (it includes conference papers, lectures and newspaper articles written over a number of years) is slim and heterogeneous, much of the foreground of Vattimo’s thought is equally hard to discern. For example, in one chapter he asserts that ‘equality will always be a metaphysical thesis,’ and in the next that ‘free projectuality’ requires that we ensure equality, or at least that we adopt practical measures to reduce a variety of inequalities as far as possible. Similarly, his constant sensitivity to violence at the level of metaphysics or theory is less insistent at the level of practical politics. When discussing immigration policy, Vattimo urges that ‘we have to fight the snakeheads in speedboats . . . Let’s put our merchant marine to work instead and open fire on contraband craft if it comes to that.’ And he is happy with the idea of legitimate (as opposed to just) wars, endorsing military interventions by Nato and the UN insofar as they realise their claims to be international, democratic institutions. Here, representative democracy legitimates violence; but does it also, for example, legitimate the UN’s self-interpretation as the defender of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Would any talk in that Declaration, or by its representatives, of grounding rights in human nature render that violence illegitimate by giving it a metaphysical inflection?

Invoking the UN also raises the question of how far Vattimo’s emancipatory nihilism, as a transfigured expression of modernity and Christianity, is also an expression of Western culture and its universalist aspirations, and hence an expression of cultural imperialism with respect to the rest of the planet. Again, the matter is not extensively discussed; but the outline of Vattimo’s response is fairly clear. Political force, carried out in an international context on the terms he endorses, will be legitimate only insofar as it is exercised by a truly representative and democratic international institution. For any such institution will have provided the necessary context for respecting the voices and views of all those affected by the policy that is being enforced: the plurality of interpretations will have been properly acknowledged.

In other words, emancipatory nihilism distinguishes itself from relativism by providing criteria for distinguishing better from worse interpretations – criteria such as the reduction of violence, the avoidance of metaphysics, the necessity for dialogue and consensus, and the enactment of respect for freedom of choice. But the obvious question then arises: what if someone contests the value of these criteria, either by rejecting them entirely or by giving them much less significance than Vattimo would wish? If there are many interpretations of the meaning of life, must there not be many ways to interpret competing interpretations of the meaning of life? How can Vattimo’s reliance on one such (meta-)interpretation amount to a form of respect for the plurality of interpretations, as opposed to a violent denial of it?

It cannot be enough to say that in fact there is no such plurality since we are all Western left-liberals now. This is plainly false; what Vattimo thinks of as violent, repressive fundamentalisms (religious and secular) are flourishing not only outside the North Atlantic democracies but also within them, as he recognises. If we are to respect that plurality, we must, according to his own criteria, take up a dialogical stance towards them; we must, in other words, at least try to understand why they have adopted an interpretation of reality at variance with ours, and to explain our reasons for preferring our interpretation to theirs.

Judging from this collection, Vattimo’s distinctive contribution to that conversation is the connection he draws between liberalism and anti-foundationalism; or, to put matters the other way around, his claim that foundationalist interpretations of reality are to be rejected as philosophically erroneous, and that his anti-foundationalist liberalism is to be preferred for that reason. One might, after all, say that if one’s evaluative judgments are supported by a philosophical error, one does a kind of violence to oneself and others. But what exactly is philosophically illegitimate about foundationalism? And what difference would the eradication of belief in the God of metaphysics really make?

The matter never comes precisely into focus in this collection; but thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, Rorty and Vattimo are utterly convinced of God’s death because they can see no way of making sense of the idea of an ultimate, foundational structure or aspect or element of reality. How could meaning or significance be written into the way things are, as if values were a kind of fact, out there to be discovered in the way scientists uncover new substances or particles, and yet, simply by virtue of their existence, imposing categorical demands on our will? And even if reality were inherently meaningful, how could it present itself to us as such, except insofar as we conceptualise and so interpret it in that way? But then, it is always the interpretation that engages with our thought and action; the reality putatively under interpretation simply drops out of the picture.

These arguments are hardly beyond contestation; but let’s suppose that Vattimo’s philosophical authorities are right to endorse them, and so give us reason to reject any moral and political views that have foundationalist presuppositions. Just how tightly would this narrow down the field of acceptable evaluative stances? After all, Vattimo himself thinks that, while there are metaphysically confused versions of both liberalism and Christianity, he can construct and advocate anti-foundationalist versions of both. But if we can distinguish foundationalist from anti-foundationalist versions of Christianity (so that even belief in God can survive the death of God), why can we not do so with respect to any evaluative view? Why not simply reinterpret metaphysically confused talk of human nature, or of the real identity of the nation, in legitimately nihilistic ways? Such localised myopia about a possible plurality of interpretations seems strange in a thinker who prides himself on his sensitivity to such things.

Vattimo further seems to believe that if we reject metaphysically confused talk of wholly external groundings for our values, the very idea that one interpretation may be better grounded than another can survive only if it is reinterpreted in terms of consonance with one’s historical context. This, I take it, is why he encourages us to see emancipatory nihilism as a natural development of the culture of modernity, with its defining concern for human autonomy: its claim on us depends on its deeper attunement to the possibilities of our present historical circumstances.

But the consonance of Vattimo’s values with those of modernity counts as an argument in their favour only for those already sympathetic to the broader values of modernity; and, as he repeatedly acknowledges, there are many inhabitants of the modern epoch who reject those broader values either in part or as a whole (Heidegger and Nietzsche among them). For them, this consonance would, if anything, speak against Vattimo’s position.

Anyway, why assume in the first place that the claim that some views are better than others must involve a metaphysically confused notion of objectivity or authority? In advancing such claims, I may have in mind something akin to the Ultimate Structure of Reality; but I may simply be giving expression to the conviction that this particular moral or political vision is the right one, that it really is the best available interpretation, more insightful or profound or illuminating than its competitors. Such a sincere commitment to one’s views is, moreover, a precondition for entering into any serious moral or political conversation about them. For why talk about the merits of rival views at all, unless one thinks some are better than others, and that this can be settled, however provisionally?

Of course, whether my endorsement of a given interpretation is in fact justified is another matter. That will be determined by what can be said in its favour, what kinds of criticism might be made of it, how one might rebut such criticisms and so on – in short, all the hard, detailed work of concrete evaluative judgment in dialogue. Vattimo repeatedly claims to respect that work, but he barely engages in it himself; and by invoking the death of God to short-circuit such discourse rather than contribute to it, he indicates a preference for the rewards of theft over honest conversational toil.

In effect, Vattimo conflates one metaphysical interpretation of the idea of well-grounded views with the idea of rational grounding itself. And such interpretative myopia colludes with the metaphysical confusion it claims to attack, for it assumes that the rejection of metaphysics amounts to the rejection of any genuine authority in the realm of thought. Vattimo talks constantly of facing up to a weakening of Being or of Reality in the wake of God’s death; but in doing so he expresses exactly the same sense of disappointment with human finitude that is evident in the religious and political fundamentalisms that he abhors. And when he says that there are only interpretations, the pathos of that ‘only’ indicates his slide from noting a truism – that all views are articulated in culturally specific terms by historically situated individuals – to betraying a nostalgic yearning for the God of metaphysics. For it implies that there might have been something (some metaphysical Truth or Reality) other than, and better than, the everyday context of human dialogue to which one might refer to ground one’s convictions. In the end, then, the message of Nietzsche’s madman remains a prophecy; for even his self-styled disciples continue to speak in terms which imply that genuinely emancipatory nihilism is barely even in prospect.

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