Living Thought Book Event: The Boundaries of Philosophy and Life

Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought is exquisitely written work, filled with delightfully poetic turns of phrase that bring his philosophical subjects to vivacious life. It genuinely is a joy to read and I would gladly commend it to even non-specialist readers. Like other books of its type, in introducing an number of figures I had previously not been exposed to in detail as well as being furnished with rich footnotes, the work represents a jumping off point for further consideration of Italian philosophy, perhaps even mapping out a distinctive future programme of research. One could consider reading other claims of the “Italian difference” that preceding this work, for example Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno’s collection (Virno is interestingly is unmentioned here) Radical Thought In Italy through the various constructs that Esposito presents here. Indeed, the discussion of Antonio Negri and Mario Tronti appears to suggest this strategy. For example, Esposito states that Italian philosophy was a form that was distinctively anti-state in its orientation due to the historical lack of a centralised Italian state – Italian radical politics appears to similarly orientate itself against the state.

In an earlier post, Adam asked if other philosophers could be potentially be consider “honorary Italians” by virtue of their philosophical writings illustrating the same factors that Esposito locates as being especially Italian characteristics and traces from the renaissance to the present day. I wonder more if there is a danger of Esposito’s claim that Italian philosophy presents a unique relationship between philosophy and life that would encourage readers to believe that for the remainder of European thought can be read through the Heideggerian quip on the lives of philosopher: “He was born, he thought, he died”. For Esposito, Italian philosophy situates itself uniquely by collapsing the relationship which allows him in part to include artists (Leonard da Vinci), writers (Dante) and film makers (Pasolini) in his canon precisely because Italian thought is about the lived life, the political life, even biological life, not abstract thought that divorces from the conflictual, historical or corporal dimensions of living. Which is to say, Esposito’s canon of philosophers lived lives. One can think of the political involvement in the life of court of the key figure of Machiavelli here as an exemplar.

However, even in the least “continental” form of philosophy, say, the often churning dull history of British philosophy, philosophers were more than simply philosophers. John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke, vital influences upon British traditions of liberalism and conservatism respectively were both members of parliament. The group founded by Mill’s father James Mill The Philosophical Radicals, including Jeremy Bentham, sought radical political change and elected members to parliament while publishing philosophical works. The example is deliberately provocative, a mundanisation of one of the proposed properties of Italian thought, but one could choose more interesting examples. Naturally, Marx is a more dynamic exemplar – who split his time between his political economic works, being a journalist and being a social revolutionary, including dull administrative activity and active internal politicking for the same. The Marxist and anarchist traditions are both filled with theorists cum political actors – indeed all political traditions. It is difficult to imagine that any given philosopher with an interest in politics did not intend their contribution to pan out in the density of real political action. Is there a danger then in Esposito’s location of this as a uniquely Italian characteristic projects onto non-Italian philosopher’s an abstraction concerning their lives? This does not begin to consider the thorny question of philosophical biography and the bearing of this “hidden” life upon a philosopher’s work, including further considerations of philosopher’s own philosophical biographies – and what of their correspondence? Esposito would likely be able to fall back on the claim that, while it may be a position in non-Italian philosophy, it presents itself as a particular intensive characteristic in Italy – this is what he suggest in his early warning against a form of philosophical nationalism. Does this claim hold however? One can also similarly consider his claim that Italian philosophy mixes the philosophical with non-philosophical material. It is difficult to think of any major nineteenth century philosopher who did not allow their philosophical endeavours to be marked by the influence of the non-philosophical – again one thinks of Marx, but Hegel could well be a touch point. Hegel’s Jena period, as Georg Lukacs’s study Young Hegel reports was informed by a reading of James Steuart and Adam Smith. Similarly, like Bruno who Esposito spends some time with, Kant’s early career including works such as Universal Natural History were informed by scientific as well as metaphysical considerations.

Indeed, there is perhaps a story of the professionalisation of philosophy to be told here, where disciplinary boundaries are more sharply drawn in comparison to the rambling multi-disciplinary thought of thinkers who preceded that professionalisation. Given the preceding, would it not be interesting to consider in what ways in which, despite himself, we might consider if Esposito is able to maintain the boundary conditions of philosophy at all. Or if this maintenance is a good thing, considering its lack is precisely what commends Italian thought to us? Should we not spend some time stretching the canon of philosophy to include works of literature, but more vitally, works of art as Esposito does with Da Vinci’s work. What would the philosophy suggested by the non-philosophical material of music look like?

We might also wish to consider the relationship between philosophy and non-philosophy in a formal sense, as described by Laruelle. Does Italian philosophy represent a form of philosophy that does not subscribe to the tyrannical relation philosophy claims as having unique access to The Real – the constant reproduction of philosophies of X? Perhaps those with greater understanding of these issues could write a little more here.

There are I think other productive avenues to consider here, which I will mention only briefly. First is the relationship between the human and the animal. Italian thought for Esposito seems to permit humans to be animals even prior to the Darwinian turn, while simultaneously noting the unique qualities of the human, without putting the two into a hierarchical relation.  I wonder how Italian thought could be used to amplify philosophical reflection on animals if this is the case. Second the question of feminism with Italian thought. The book is in part for historical reasons bereft of female examples of Italian thought which feels like a shame. Feminism’s concerns regarding the traditional philosophical privileging of the mind over the body, and its general concern for the bodily as such seem to chime well with Esposito’s description of Italian philosophy as being particular corporal in orientation as well as directed toward praxis.  Moreover, Italian feminism is said to have a unique character, as stated in Paola Bono and Sandra Kemp’s excellent collection Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader. One wonders if this character is the same as that identified by Esposito as Italian philosophy. Is not a text like “Let’s Spit On Hegel” by Carla Lonzi not a classic work of Italian philosophy as Esposito describes it? Thirdly and finally, would we be capable of writing a similar book about another geographically delimited form of philosophy? And what would such a thing mean now, given the advent of the internet, globalisation and the resultant supposed global civil society? Is the spatial and geographical as adequate sorting mechanism as it once was?

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