Silvia Benso: Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers

Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers Book Cover Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers
SUNY series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy
Silvia Benso
SUNY Press
Paperback $25.95

Reviewed by: Flaminia Incecchi (St. Andrews University)

In recent years there has been a palpable growth of interest in Italian thought. Perhaps, one could claim that the popularity of thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Gianni Vattimo, and (more recently) Adriana Cavarero, has invited the Anglophone gaze towards the Italian intellectual panorama. The scholarship’s focus has been twofold: on the conceptual roots of the Italian philosophical tradition, as well as its contemporary trends. As far as the first segment is concerned, a number of works are worth mentioning: Giorgio Pinton’s translation of Eugenio Garin’s History of Italian Philosophy (2008) – a monumental guide which in two volumes covers Italian thinkers from Boethius to Emanuele Severino; Zakiya Hanafi’s translation of Roberto Esposito’s ‘The Return of Italian Philosophy’ (2009), a short piece that aims at tracing parallels between contemporary debates in continental philosophy – biopolitics among those – and the Italian philosophical tradition; Rocco Rubini’s The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger (2012), a lucid and erudite exploration of the reaction of Italian intellectuals to the Renaissance, analysing how and why Italian thinkers have historically experienced a sense of ‘Renaissance shame’; Brian and Rebecca Copenhaver’s From Kant to Croce: Modern Philosophy in Italy 1800-1950 (2012), in which the authors offer several translations of some thinkers who were previously unknown and unaccessible to Anglophone readers. The range covered by the book quite impressive, extending from severely understudied figures such as Pasquale Galluppi and Bertrando Spaventa, but also covering Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci.

The other front on which the scholarship is growing steadily was inaugurated by Giovanna Borradori, with Recoding Metaphysics: The New Italian Philosophy (1988), a collection of essays by high profile Italian thinkers, such as Umberto Eco, Gianni Vattimo, and Emanuele Severino. Today, the translation of Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought: Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy (2012), as well as the forthcoming Journal of Italian Philosophy, make access to the Italian intellectual front easier than ever before. That said, the medium through which Anglophone readers can gain familiarity with contemporary Italian thought, is SUNY’s excellent book series in Contemporary Italian Philosophy (2007 – ) edited by Silvia Benso and Brian Schroeder, of which Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers is a part of. The series features several translations from the Italian. Among them, Luigi Payerson’s Truth and Interpretation (2013), Carlo Sini’s Ethics of Writing (2009), and Gianni Vattimo’s Weak Thought (2012), just to name a few. The first book in the series, Contemporary Italian Philosophy (2007) is a collection of essays written by leading Italian philosophers, which in Benso’s words “added some new Italian voices to the continental philosophical tradition as known in the English-speaking countries, that is, a tradition deeply focused on French and German contributions” (Benso: 2017:1).

The aim of Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers is in close conversation with, if not a continuation of, the project begun by Benso and Schroeder in 2007 with Contemporary Italian Philosophy. Similarly, Viva Voce presents readers a snapshot over the work of twenty-three contemporary Italian thinkers working within different fields of philosophy, both in the continental and the analytic tradition. Thus, Viva Voce furthers the scope of perspectives it wishes to introduce to the Anglophone world in bringing Italian analytic voices to the fore – an element that was absent in Contemporary Italian Philosophy, which was dealing with the continental tradition specifically. Benso writes:

“Despite the recent increase in attention and recognition paid to contemporary Italian philosophy, a volume that provides a contextualisation – that is, a tracing of the general interconnections, threads, and fabrics that nourish the emergence of contemporary Italian thinkers in their magnificent individualities and enable them to be the thresholds … is still missing from the Anglo-American philosophical landscape. Albeit in a minimalist format, the goal of the present volume is precisely to work toward filling of minimising such a lack” (Benso: 2016:9).

Viva Voce pledges no thematic allegiance. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the thinkers interviewed have different philosophical orientations, and work within different areas of the philosophical landscape. For navigation purposes, Benso has grouped thinkers along six thematic lines: (1) Ethics, Passions, Practices: Remo Bodei, Eugenio Lecaldano, Salvatore Natoli, Carlo Sini, Carmelo Vigna; (2) History, Justice, Communities: Adriana Cavarero, Giacomo Marramao, Fulvio Tessitore, Gianni Vattimo, Salvatore Vacca; (3) Imagination, Art, Technology: Mario Costa, Sergio Givone, Mario Perniola; (4) Rationality, Sciences, Experience: Evandro Agazzi, Giulio Giorello, Paolo Parrini; (5) Being, Nothing, Temporality, Place: Enrico Berti, Virgilio Melchiorre, Ugo Perone, Emanuele Severino, Vincenzo Vitiello; (6) Human Beings, Evil and Transcendence: Giovanni Ferretti, Giuseppe Riconda. Having excluded the thematic selection, the criteria informing the array of thinkers is marked by two principal factors: the “theoretical vigour that thinkers have displayed in terms of making meaningful and lasting contributions to the Italian philosophical landscape” (Benso: 2016:9), and that all were born before 1948. As the title suggests, the book format is highly innovative. Thinkers recount themselves in their own terms by answering a set of questions Benso posed over email. The motivation behind such stylistic choice is explained by Benso in the following way:

“the practices of historicism, hermeneutics, and deconstruction have taught us how all historical accounts bespeak the perspective of the narrator. In light of such considerations, it has been the more modest choice of this editor to let the story be told not by a grand narrative but by those who, through their scholarly writings as well as their academic lectures, public conferences, and performances of various kinds, have contributed to delineate such a history. Thus, the format of the interview as been chosen as the most appropriate mode of narration for the volume.” (Benso: 2016:7)

The questions are formulated adopting a “zoom-in/zoom-out technique” (Benso: 2016:8). The result is an interesting temporal movement: the first set of question asks the author about their intellectual past, in terms of their provenance, as well as the external influences and traditions they subscribed to; the second set is geared towards the present of the thinker as they envisage it, here they are asked to outline the basic tenets of their philosophical positions, the originality of their contributions, and the timelessness thereof; finally, thinkers are asked to voice their opinion about the future of philosophy given the current world, as well as offering some conclusive thoughts for philosophers and non-philosophers alike. As Benso puts it:

“The interviews follow a three-step cadence. First, they star with more general questions that address issues of provenance, external (domestic and foreign) influences, and lineages. Next, they move to a self-description offered by each interviewed philosopher and aimed at highlighting the main tenets, theoretical originality, and timeliness of each individual position. Finally, the interviews dare to glance toward the future by asking for possible ways, suggestions, and advice through which philosophy can contribute to the delineation of such a future” (Benso: 2016:8).

In the Introduction: ‘Italian Philosophy – Threshold between Cultures’, Benso raises the issue of consonance between nationality and philosophy as a potential problematic, she notes: “One question that lurks behind the denomination ‘Italian thinkers’ is, understandably, the appropriateness or even desirability of framing philosophy within national borders and identities” (Benso: 2016:2). Benso escapes the impasse by referring to the notion of geographical specificity which entails a particular “socio-politcal-economic-historic-cultural landscape” and in virtue of these factors, “Italian philosophy retains its own specificity and individuality – its own uniqueness and difference” (Benso: 2016:3). Although Benso raises a valid point by appealing to the notion of specificity, it is this reviewer’s belief that the Introduction would have acquired a greater depth had the author addressed the contested nature of Italian philosophy, from Italian philosopher’s own perspectives. The history of Italian philosophy is constellated by thinkers reflecting on the link between philosophy and national borders in two interconnected ways: the very validity of ascribing a national qualifier to philosophy, and the nature of Italian philosophy as such. Perhaps the most explicit debate in this direction was Luigi Palmieri and Bertrando Spaventa’s post-Risorgimento tête-à-tête, where the former insisted on the national character of philosophy, and the latter on its universal nature, which by definition excludes the question of nationality. Thus, integrating the question of national philosophy with the testament from Italy’s own past of contestation, would have given Anglophone readers an even deeper grasp of the Italian difference, and exorcised Benso’s veiled, but nonetheless present, fear of ‘nationalism’:

“There is an Italian language and thus an Italian literature, philosophy, and culture based on such a language much earlier than Italy becomes a sovereign state in the modern sense. In this sense, Italian philosophy as a cultural event based on language precedes the formation of all possibilities of an Italian nationalism based on geographical borders. Being Italian is a cultural event ahead of all belonging to a territory, a soil, a nation (or even a blood lineage).” (Benso: 2016:5-6).

On a related note, Benso underlines another significant aspect of Italian thought connected with its interaction with the ‘foreign’ philosophical world, namely, that of porosity. Ascribing to Dante the merit highlighting this characteristic of Italian philosophy, Benso notes: “a fundamental aspect of Italian philosophy has nevertheless to do with a peculiar penetrability, permeability, and fluidity with respect to the possibility of infiltration by foreign elements – in the specific, the influence of non-Italian philosophies and thinkers on the Italian philosophical landscape” (Benso: 2016:4). Further on Benso elaborates the notion of porosity, and describes the Italian philosophical model as “osmotic”, in the sense that it resembles:

“An alchemist’s or magician’s laboratory where experiments of fusions, amalgams, and transformations happen and new configurations are creates as a result. To be an Italian philosopher might precisely mean to be such an alchemic, magic, perhaps kaleidoscopic threshold – an opening and a door onto the outside through which inside and outside enter in contact, communicate, and open up to new visions rather than a gate that ultimately defensively closes on itself in a nationalistic move” (Benso: 2016:6-7).

Through the interviews, readers learn about the turbulent philosophical climate of post-war Italy. The demise of Fascism brought Idealism along with it, and most thinkers interviewed reflect on the opening frontiers of the philosophical horizon after decades of idealist ‘hegemony’. This is nicely put by Vattimo, as he reflects on his university experience begun in 1941: “those were the years just after the post-World War II reconstruction. They were also the years after Fascism. A common idea was the need to get out of the cultural isolation Fascism created. That meant no more focusing on Croce and Gentile, no more idealism […]” (Benso: 2016:108). The voluntary act of forgetting Idealism lead to an exponential interest in ‘imported ideas’, in engagement with outlooks that had been developed and circulated abroad while Italy was preoccupied with its own philosophy. From existentialism to analytic philosophy, new currents of thought started occupying the minds of young Italian intellectuals. An emblematic testimony of the scarce appeal of Idealism on the new generation of Italian intellectuals is that of the interviewed. Among them, only Enrico Berti (Benso: 2016:203) and Emanuele Severino (Benso: 2016:234) list Gentile among their influences. The case of the Italian post-War philosophical climate was that of a nascent pluriverse, a fertile soil where imported ideas mixed and grew following unpredictable way, much like what Benso describes as the ‘osmotic’ model of Italian thought. Of course Viva Voce cannot by definition be an all-encompassing collection, but it serves as a good indicator of the heterogeneity of philosophical orientations Italy opened up to, the variety of fields those interviewed are active in is remarkable: from feminism (Adriana Cavarero), to the aesthetics of communication and the technological sublime (Mario Costa), to Historismus (Fulvio Tessitore), the philosophy of logic, mathematics, and empirical sciences (Evandro Agazzi), just to name a few. The very diversity of schools of thought and areas of enquiry, makes it almost daunting to find a fil rouge binding the thinkers, which leads to a further difficulty: what constitutes the Italian difference? It is this reviewer’s modest opinion, that its essence is not so much rooted in content, but in methodology. What thinkers share is the approach to the discipline: the degree of philological attention and detail, which instead of suffocating their philosophical voice, makes it all the more alluring.

Overall, Benso’s Viva Voce makes an elegant contribution to the growing field of Italian thought in a number of ways. Firstly, it widens the horizon of the discipline by presenting new voices and perspectives previously unknown to the Anglophone world. Secondly, in doing so and by adopting the format it does, readers get a vivid picture of post-war philosophical climate in Italy, characterised by its reaction to Idealism as well as the profound cleavage between secular and Catholic thinkers. Thirdly, that Benso does not comment the interviews either at the beginning or at the end of the work, which amplifies the feeling of ‘encounter’ the reader experiences with the interviewed. That also leaves it at the discretion of the reader to form an opinion of the contested Italian difference, as well as identifying possible synergies between those interviewed and thinkers of the reader’s own tradition. Aside from contributing to the spread of Italian thought, Benso’s work also opens a wide array of possibilities for scholarship more generally. That those interviewed are relatively unknown in the Anglophone world, coupled with the dialogical structure of Benso’s book allows a self-presentation on the thinkers’s past that is a sort of mis a nu, quite befitting considering that the audience is not acquainted with them. This presentation style might be an interesting format for future works with a similar aim.


Benso, Silvia. Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers. New York: State University of New York Press. 2017. Print.

Benso, Silvia, and Schroeder, Brian. Contemporary Italian Philosophy: Crossing the Borders of Ethics, Politics, and Religion. New York: State University of New York Press. 2007. Print.

Borradori, Giovanna. “Recoding Metaphysics.” Recoding Metaphysics: The New Italian Philosophy. Ed. Borradori, Giovanna. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988. 1 – 26. Print.

Copenhaver, Brian., and Rebecca. Copenhaver. From Kant to Croce: Modern Philosophy in Italy 1800-1950. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2012. Print.

Esposito, Roberto. Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy. Pensiero vivente: Origine e attualità della filosofia italiana. Trans. Hanafi, Zakiya. Cultural Memory in the Present. Ed. Vries, Mieke Bal and Hent de. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012. Print.

—. “The Return of Italian Philosophy (translated by Zakiya Hanafi).” Diacritics 39.3 (2009): 55 – 61. Print.

Garin, Eugenio. History of Italian Philosophy. Trans. Pinton, Giorgio. Vol. II: From Enlightenment to Risorgimento. II vols. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. Print.
—. History of Italian Philosophy. Trans. Pinton, Giorgio. Vol. I. II vols. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. Print.

Rubini, Rocco. The Other Renaissance: Italian Humanism between Hegel and Heidegger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. Print.


Stefano Marino: Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Language: Essays on Heidegger and Gadamer

Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Language: Essays on Heidegger and Gadamer Book Cover Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Language: Essays on Heidegger and Gadamer
Stefano Marino
Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Hardback £41.99

Reviewed by: Diego D'Angelo (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)

Sono pochi, forse pochissimi gli autori di lingua italiana in grado di muoversi agevolmente nel panorama filosofico internazionale. Molti si astengono persino dal provarci. Tanto più va lodato e apprezzato, allora, il riuscito tentativo di Stefano Marino di pubblicare anche in lingua inglese, come dimostra questo volume, uscito di recente per Cambridge Scholars Publishing, su estetica, metafisica e linguaggio in Heidegger e in Gadamer. Non si tratta peraltro della prima pubblicazione di Marino diretta ad un pubblico internazionale: ricordiamo qui il volume, risalente 2011, Gadamer and the Limits of the Modern Techno-Scientific Civilization (Peter Lang, Francoforte sul Meno), nonché il saggio in lingua tedesca Aufklärung in einer Krisenzeit: Ästhetik, Ethik und Metaphysik bei Theodor W. Adorno, pubblicato nel 2015 (Kovac Verlag, Amburgo).

La raccolta di saggi qui in questione continua dunque un discorso di apertura nei confronti della ricerca filosofica in lingue che non siano unicamente quella italiana. E si nota che, qui, Marino si muove con coerenza, affrontando soprattutto temi legati all’estetica e alla metafisica, rivolgendo la propria attenzione ad autori classici della tradizione tedesca del Novecento: Adorno, Heidegger e Gadamer, soprattutto, per quanto proprio questo volume contenga un’apertura anche verso il pensiero – diretto soprattutto alla politica – di Hannah Arendt, nonché al discorso anglofono di John McDowell e Richard Rorty. In questa recensione forniremo dunque alcune osservazioni contenutistiche a proposito dei cinque capitoli che costituiscono il volume, chiudendo poi con alcune osservazioni critiche di carattere generale. Tutti i testi tranne il primo, che è un contributo originale al volume, sono infatti rimaneggiamenti, a volte anche sostanziali, di articoli pubblicati in precedenza.

Il saggio di apertura, Gadamer and McDowell on Second Nature, World/Environment, and Language, cerca di ricostruire il debito, espressamente riconosciuto da McDowell stesso, che alcune posizioni di Mind and World – uno dei libri più dibattuti degli ultimi vent’anni – hanno nei confronti del pensiero di Hans-Georg Gadamer, e in particolare del suo capolavoro Wahrheit und Methode (Mohr Siebeck, Tubinga 1960). Nella ricostruzione di Marino, questo debito è individuabile soprattutto nei temi della seconda natura, del mondo (ambiente) e del linguaggio. Infatti, McDowell si riferisce espressamente a Gadamer, per il quale, nella lettura che ne dà il filosofo sudafricano, “the human experience of the world is verbal in nature” (p. 10; le indicazioni del numero di pagina in questo formato si riferiscono sempre, nel testo seguente, al libro preso in esame). Partendo da qui, Marino individua somiglianze e corrispondenze (cfr. p. 13) tra i due autori che ci consentono di vedere il discorso di entrambi sotto una luce nuova, in grado di chiarifica in particolare la genesi filosofica dei concetti di mondo e mondo ambiente: se è vero che McDowell si rifà a Gadamer per questi concetti, e che questo legame è riconosciuto dalla maggior parte degli studiosi, il merito di Marino sta nel connettere questo legame, a sua volta, agli autori cui Gadamer stesso si ispira per il suo concetto di mondo (cfr. p. 23), restituendo così al concetto tutta la sua complessità anche dal punto di vista della storiografia filosofica.

Un approccio simile, legato alla ricostruzione di punti precisi di storiografia filosofica, è perseguito anche nel secondo saggio, Gadamer on Heidegger: The History of Being as Philosophy of History. Se prima si trattava soprattutto di ricondurre concetti adoperati da McDowell alla loro fonte in Gadamer, e poi di vedere da dove Gadamer aveva a sua volta tratto certe linee del pensiero, ora è proprio questo secondo aspetto a venir enfatizzando, mostrando come Gadamer sia, nella sua filosofia della storia, debitore alla cosiddetta “storia dell’essere” di cui parla l’Heidegger degli anni ’30-’40. Eppure, questo “debito” è soprattutto di carattere negativo: secondo Marino, Gadamer recupera alcuni temi “particolari” della storia dell’essere, rigettandone l’impianto concettuale generale (cfr. p. 50). In particolare, Marino individua tre motivi. Il primo, di carattere filologico, è che la violenza con cui Heidegger interpreta altri filosofi per iscriverli nella sua storia dell’essere è, secondo Gadamer, un atto “barbarico” (cfr. p. 51). In secondo luogo, Gadamer rifiuta, secondo la lettura di Marino, l’esistenza, postulata da Heidegger, di un linguaggio unitario della metafisica che andrebbe superato (p. 52). In terzo luogo, legando Heidegger a Hegel, Gadamer è essenzialmente scettico nei confronti dell’unificazione forzata della storia della filosofia sotto l’egida della “dimenticanza dell’essere”: questo introduce una teleologia nella storia che Gadamer non può sostenere, secondo Marino. Discutendo anche alcune conseguenze che questa impostazione porta con sé per la questione estetica, cioè per la questione relativa al ruolo dell’arte nella contemporaneità, il saggio si chiude mettendo il luce come, forse, il debito di Gadamer nei confronti di Heidegger sia meno diretto di quanto si tenda comunemente a pensare (p. 63).

Il terzo saggio, Gadamer’s and Arendt’s Divergent Appropriations of Kant: Taste, Sensus Communis, and Judgment, ricostruisce un altro momento di questa critica ad una storiografia basata sui “debiti filosofici”, se si può dire così: Marino vuole, in effetti, anche in questo caso mettere in luce soprattutto le divergenze tra Arendt e Gadamer. Le loro letture della Critica del Giudizio, infatti, sarebbero addirittura “opposte” (p. 76): sintetizzando l’opposizione, spiega Marino, “Kant is praised by Arendt for having politicized some basic aesthetic concepts, but he is criticized by Gadamer for having depoliticized and aestheticized those same concepts!” (p. 77, corsivi ed enfasi nell’originale). Non si tratta, però, di semplici errori di interpretazione da parte dei due filosofi del Novecento: piuttosto, la storia delle ricezioni kantiane è una storia fatta di “productive misunderstandings” (p. 79), di cui il presente non è che un esempio.

Il quarto saggio presentato nel volume porta il titolo Gadamer’s Hermeneutical Aesthetics of Tragedy and the Tragic, ed è l’unico a non seguire già dal titolo la struttura del confronto tra due (o più) autori della storia della filosofia. Si tratta in questo caso, infatti, piuttosto di un’analisi concettuale in senso stretto: Marino si dedica ad una disamina del modo in cui Gadamer pensa e interpreta la tragedia e il tragico, un tema tradizionalmente poco esaminato (p. 85). Marino sposta il concetto di tragedia al centro del pensiero gadameriano, ricostruendone il ruolo giocato anche in Verità e Metodo: la tragedia, così la tesi dell’Autore, dimostra in maniera pregnante l’irriducibilità dell’esperienza umana all’approccio scientifico (p. 87). La tragedia sorge infatti dall’incontro/scontro tra l’umano e il divino (p. 88), ma non è riducibile unicamente a questa origine (p. 99), andando, nel suo sviluppo, al di là di essa. Gadamer ci consente, infatti, di riconoscere l’origine religiosa della tragedia senza negarne il valore estetico autonomo.

In conclusione, il volume ritorna alla struttura binomiale dei saggi precedenti, concentrandosi su Heidegger and Rorty: Philosophy and/as Poetry and Literature. Cerando di superare l’impasse che ha costituito buona parte dell’attrito tra filosofia analitica e filosofia continentale, ossia l’accusa rivolta dalla prima alla seconda di essere troppo vicina alla letteratura e poco al rigore scientifico, Marino decide di interrogare i massimi rappresentati di una filosofia contaminata con la letteratura: Heidegger perché nessun autore ha mai avvicinato così tanto poesia e filosofia (p. 107), e Rorty perché egli stesso vede la sua filosofia “come” letteratura (p. 108). Anche qui Marino ricostruisce il debito di Rorty nel confronti di Heidegger, concludendo però in modo fortemente critico: la lettura rortiana di Heidegger è – uso l’indicativo perché mi sembra difficile non concordare, specialmente alla luce delle ultime pubblicazioni e degli esiti della ricerca internazionale – “hermenutically careless and does not adhere to Heidegger’s own text” (p. 114). Purtroppo l’articolo si chiude, a mio parere, troppo presto, mancando di discutere se, effettivamente, da un punto di vista sistematico, l’idea di filosofia come letteratura sia davvero perseguibile.

In generale – sia detto in chiusura – l’approccio di Marino non vuole affrontare questioni di carattere teoretico-sistematico, ma solo fornire una disamina storiografica: egli stesso riconosce che si tratta di un “comparative approach” (p. 5). In tal senso, i limiti della lettura sono chiaramente definiti fin dall’inizio. Ciononostante, il lettore rimane con un certo amaro in bocca proprio per la mancanza di una discussione più approfondita di certi punti proprio in una prospettiva sistematica. Nel momento in cui, in effetti, l’Autore si ripromette di superare il “gap” tra analitico e sistematico, come afferma con chiarezza nell’Introduzione (p. 6), questo obiettivo sembra mancato: come si può, in effetti, istituire, da parte continentale, un discorso con la filosofia analitica – per altro, auspicabilissimo, se non addirittura necessario al giorno d’oggi – concentrandosi su questioni di storiografia? Certamente il tentativo sviluppato nel primo saggio di ricollegare espressamente John McDowell al pensiero di Gadamer è lodevole anche sotto questo punto di vista, ma non è forse abbastanza per rinfocolare un discorso tra due tradizioni. Lo stesso valga per l’ultimo saggio, riguardante appunto il problema della filosofia e/come letteratura, che lascia la questione in sospeso.

Al di là di questo limite, che è, come detto, intrinseco all’approccio esplicitamente adottato dall’autore, la “storiografica comparatistica” sviluppata qui da Marino ha grandi pregi: innanzitutto, la chiarezza espositiva; in secondo luogo: l’onestà intellettuale di restringere chiaramente a pochi concetti le proprie analisi, senza ricadere nella retorica roboante di certa letteratura; e infine, di presentare la tradizione filosofica italiana (buona parte dei contributi scientifici che Marino cita sono infatti di area italiana) al pubblico internazionale, un’impresa che, pur nei limiti accennati, non si può che lodare.

Mauro Carbone: The Flesh of Images

The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema Book Cover The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty between Painting and Cinema
SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Mauro Carbone
SUNY Press
Paperback $24.95

Reviewed by: Paul A. di Georgio (Department of Philosophy,  Duquesne University)

Mauro Carbone’s The Flesh of Images: Merleau-Ponty Between Painting and Cinema, a translation by Marta Nijhuis of the French original that debuted in 2011, is a short book that, despite its brevity, has quite a lot to say. Instead of deliberately working towards a grand, singular thesis with his chapters (although the final chapter is rather conclusive and synthetic), Carbone assembles six essays that all look in different, sophisticated ways at how Merleau-Ponty’s late work can further our understanding of art, music, time, and ontology.

Carbone does not only situate Merleau-Ponty’s later phenomenology vis-a-vis thoughtful reflections on cinema and painting, but he also establishes thoughtful connections, as well as creative and sometimes playful tensions, with the work of myriad other writers, from Freud to Jean-Luc Nancy. This smart book is nothing short of a philosophical tour de force that nicely sweeps through numerous dimensions of Carbone’s work over the course of the past decade and a half.

As is the case with some other recent Merleau-Ponty scholarship, here the central focus is on the late-period turn to the ontology of the “flesh,” an area that Carbone has been exploring since at least the early 2000s. He notes in his introduction that “flesh” is sometimes used interchangeably in Merleau-Ponty’s writing with the term “visibility” (1) and he argues that too often this point is “forgotten.” It shouldn’t be, though, because for Carbone thinking of the flesh in terms of visibility can sort out the way phenomenology can grasp at Being.

He points out that one of the most noteworthy features of Merleau-Ponty’s texts during this period is a turn to a different manner of ontological thinking, which isn’t exactly a novel or controversial claim, but what Carbone does with the “visible” is intriguing. He indicates that the “visible” is “only sketched” in Merleau-Ponty’s writing but evinces what he calls “the reciprocal precession of the vision and the invisible.” (5) He refers to the mutually constitutive relation between seeing, vision, and capability-of-being-seen, or the visible. To put it simply, the visible is “folded” into the viewer, while at the same time the viewer can’t view anything at all without that which is visibleand so the viewer is herself folded into the visual phenomenon. (57) “Visibility” is what we call the product of this mutual folding. Carbone characterizes this situation as paradoxical, and he illuminates the scrambling and disruptive effect of the “presence of images” that betrays how inadequate our normal philosophical categories are. Thus what Merleau-Ponty does with visibility is not so different from what he does in earlier texts with the opposition between subject and object (Phenomenology of Perception). We’ve seen similar claims in Nietzsche (“Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense”) and and even Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception) but what’s new here is a sophisticated phenomenological framework that Merleau-Ponty brings to the table, elaborated upon by Carbone, although comparing these various sources might prove to be useful.

The essays that make up the chapters basically work off of this observation about the disruptive power of beholding an image, and they apply it to different areas of aesthetics. I’d have to say that the fourth chapter, centered on cinema and temporality, is the most provocative  and interesting and it is here that Carbone does some of his best work. It is also here with the focus on the rhythmic nature of the cinematic frame that you can already see Carbone working toward a leap that he will make near the end of the book. Carbone echoes Jean-Pierre Charcosset and argues that on Merleau-Ponty’s terms, the film cannot be what it is not without the image as such, but rather, not without the rhythmic arrangement of its set of images.

Ultimately in the sixth and final chapter Carbone ends up at a form of visibility which doesn’t seem so visible at all, and yet after thoughtful consideration with Carbone seems like the example of visibility par excellence: audition, or listening. One would not say that in the case of music there is not an image, so this move is quite natural despite how surprising it might be to jump from one faculty of sense to another. In a way part of the point here, I think, is to minimize the distinction between these faculties. In this final chapter Carbone also makes some interesting remarks concerning the relation between philosophy and non-philosophy, a topic of great interest, of course, to Merleau-Ponty.

As fecund as it is short, the book does ask for a bit of work from its readers, and it will probably be a more straightforward experience for engaged readers who have been following Carbone for a while. That said, because of the fact that some of the repackaged and revised material will be very familiar to Carbone’s readers, the book might be the most rewarding and enlightening for those who are taking their first look at his Merleau-Ponty scholarship. These readers should work slowly through the book, even if it might be tempting to do otherwise with such a short text.