Is there an Italian Difference?: Introducing Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy

Firstly, I need to start with an apology. We have had to push back our book event on Esposito’s Living Thought as some of the original participants had to pull out due to time constraints. The updated schedule is now:

August 26th – APS
August 28th – Adam Kotsko
August 30th –  Alexander Andrews (TBC)
September 2nd – Alex Dubilet
September 4th – Kirill Chepurin
September 6th – Daniel Colucciello Barber
September 8th – Mark William Westmoreland
In Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (AmazonUK) we are presented with the notion that there is an “Italian difference” that marks out Italian philosophy from its other Continental cousins. As mentioned before the variance of this has been marked out perhaps most clearly in The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics, to which Esposito himself makes reference as well. Esposito’s book goes on to make the case for the existence of this difference and it is one that we would be wise to take note of. For Esposito claims that Italian philosophy has developed and exists today within a horizon very different from the main focus on language in Continental philosophy and Analytic philosophy. And, while noting the various work of Italian thinkers on language, he claims that these works have always placed the question of language within the wider social and political frame. For ultimately Italian philosophy has developed with a smaller gap between the theoretical realm and the political realm. That he couches this as a kind of “realism” suggests that current Continental interest in realism may have much more to learn from the Italian tradition. I would venture, based on Esposito’s reading, that the Italian tradition goes some way towards addressing the split between ontology and ethics we see within current attempts at the construction of a realist philosophy. What is and what may be are taken up within the same thought here.
Of course Esposito is not making an essentialist argument that Italian philosophy is necessarily X or Y, for that would be to assume that Italian as a marker of identity is fixed. Esposito is actually building in part off of the notion of geophilosophy put forth by Deleuze and Guattari in their co-authored work. This is a way of thinking about the rooting of theory and thought within an environment out of which it both arises but also mutually shapes and is shaped by. Italian then does not refer to the nation of Italy as such, in fact Esposito says, “not only can Italian philosophy not be reduced to its national role, but its most authentic reason for being lies precisely in the distance it takes from that role (18).” In other words, the very notion of nation-state assumed in our usual national markers of identity, as when we speak of German or French philosophy, does not work with regard to Italy. The structure of Italy politically has always been far more internally antagonistic and the construction of a coherent pan-Italian identity has never fully taken place. Indeed this was Mussolini’s failed project. Thus Italian philosophy takes place under the condition of this fragmentation and decentralization which allows for the emergence of three distinct elements Esposito traces in the book. 
The first of these is immanentization of antagonism. Esposito clarifies this writing, “The idea that conflict is constitutive of order — or to put it differently, that an order which excludes conflict is neither conceivable nor desirable — signals the emergence of an origin in history, of which it tends to seek — unsuccessfully — to rid itself (24).” In other words, whatever exists exists through the process of conflict, the effects of which remain despite, or perhaps because of, the attempts to repress that origin. The second paradigm Esposito seeks to develop is the “historicization of the nonhistorical”. By this Esposito means something like the realm which exists outside of history, one may call it something like Life, which nevertheless becomes a part of history. On his reading, the complex logic of this notion is developed most completely by Vico and can be thought of in relation to the secularization of the world. The temptation here is to think we can completely unravel the knot that brings together the nonhistorical with the historical, but Esposito following Vico suggests this is actually a failure of thought. This is a way of speaking about something akin to transcendence, at least in a relative sense, to human existence and so is a challenge certain philosophies of immanence that are built upon the idea that everything may be historicized. Finally, the third paradigm which Esposito traces is that of the mundanization of the subject. This refers to the very different way in which the tradition of Italian philosophers have thought the subject. Rather than the subject being thought within the “transcendental fold” which characterizes post-Cartesian philosophy, the subject here is thought as rooted within wider structures. Freeing Italian philosophy from some of the clear problems in individualistic conceptions of the subject and knowledge. The subject is rooted within a world, in other words, a notion that may seem familiar to readers, but which Esposito claims is to be found going all the way back to Machiavelli and Vico.
To bear out these paradigms Esposito gives us a philosophical history of philosophy. He traces figures many of us may be familiar with, but who we have been taught not to hold in the same regard as we hold a Descartes or a Hume. Esposito challenges those prejudices, showing us that if we are interested in the intersection of life, theory, and politics, then this tradition must be attended to as well as provides us resources to deal with our contemporary situation.

2 Responses to “Is there an Italian Difference?: Introducing Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy

  1. Is there an Italian Difference?: Introducing Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy | An und für sich | PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR Says:

    […] Paul Smith starts off the An und für sich on Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian […]

  2. Robert Minto Says:

    This is very interesting. I suppose I will have to read the book now.

    I have a question. My only in-depth acquaintance with Italian philosophy is through Vico, whom I love. I wonder if you could go into what Esposito means in the Vichean context by “something like the realm which exists outside of history, one may call it something like Life, which nevertheless becomes a part of history.” I thought about Vico’s writings for a while with this in mind, but the only thing I could come up with was the way in which his philosophy of history relies upon the corso and ricorso, which in turn relies upon the idea of providence — it seems to me that he would espouse a relativist historicism like Herder were it not for the circular nature he ascribes to history. Though Vico’s philosophy of history is exciting in other ways (the verum-factum principle spring to mind), the providential cyclism of it (to coin a phrase) isn’t. Vico’s providentialism isn’t akin to transcendence, it pretty well is a kind of transcendence. So I’m assuming Esposito must have something else in mind when he speaks of “a way of speaking about something akin to transcendence, at least in a relative sense, […] and so […] a challenge [to] certain philosophies of immanence that are built upon the idea that everything may be historicized.” Or perhaps he tries to argue that Vico’s concept of providence doesn’t involve transcendence? — which would be interesting, as it would make me like Vico a whole hell of a lot better.

    Thanks for this. It promises to be a fascinating book event.


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