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.

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