Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Rocco Rubini reviews Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought

Roberto Esposito. Living Thought: The Origins and Actuality of Italian Philosophy. Trans. Zakiya Hanafi. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2012. 296 pp. Paperback $23.95.

Reviewed by Rocco Rubini

Roberto Esposito’s Living Thought aims to define a contemporary “Italian theory” that is consistent with an Italian intellectual canon that harks back to Renaissance humanism (a topic that Esposito treats solely through the mediation of congenial twentieth-century scholarship, namely that of Eugenio Garin and Ernesto Grassi). That canon may be best represented by thinkers as varied as Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, Giambattista Vico, Vincenzo Cuoco, Bertrando Spaventa, Francesco De Sanctis, Benedetto Croce, Giovanni Gentile, and Antonio Gramsci (whose theories are given an original and mutually enlightening reading); it accommodates, among others, outsiders like Leonardo da Vinci, Giacomo Leopardi, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. After all, Italian thought is inclusive: “its propensity for the nonphilosophical conveys, in terms of content, a pronounced tendency to push outside its disciplinary confines” (29). The last chapter of the book, “The Return of Italian Philosophy,” makes clear that Esposito’s aim in presenting this daunting roster is to familiarize an international audience with a tradition that has been neglected yet nevertheless informs the present-day revision of biopolitics advanced by Italian thinkers (Esposito and others including Giorgio Agamben, and Antonio Negri). 

Living Thought does not claim merely that knowledge of the Italian intellectual tradition is overdue or useful for the understanding of some current theory; it claims that such knowledge is of epochal momentousness. In Esposito’s account, Italian “living thought” stands out in all of its eccentricity against the backdrop of a moribund “French Theory” whose current “repetitive and even self-referential” discourse heralds the demise of the Continental philosophy it defined in the postmodern moment. This outcome was predictable, argues Esposito, given the tendency of modern philosophy since Hegel—through Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Rorty—to place “itself in the self-confuting framework of its own end, yielding to that attraction for the ‘post-’ that dominates the entire semantics of late modernity” (p. 6). In light of this, the “Italian difference,” that is, the original (modern yet pre-Cartesian) and invariably “civil” (rather than “metaphysical”) bent of Italian thought, may be co-opted for the sake of a new theoretical age able to overcome the “postmodern celebration of its own end” and “resume functioning in an affirmative mode” (p. 10).

I would suggest that Esposito’s claims succeed better through the implicit example set by Living Thought itself than through Esposito’s overt (sometimes bombastic) articulation of them. First and foremost Esposito’s work points to the fact that not all “theory” (or theorists) are alike; some theory relies on and draws direct inspiration from sources that are as distant in time as they are in place. In other words, if the task of theory is to constantly redefine modernity and the present, individual theorists will attend to this undertaking more strongly by reaching back and patiently retracing (each for herself!) the path of the modern self-consciousness; they will naturally favor, in honing their perspective, the “pre-,” “parallel to,” and “around” over the exclusive “post-.” Second, it follows that “theory,” despite all efforts to recover man’s situated consciousness against the mental abstractions of academic philosophy, all too often fails to contextualize itself, linguistically and culturally, outside the contemporary discourse in which it participates: the sources to which we are exposed during our formation (assuming that we are not raised on secondary sources – as is all too often the case) will inform and model our theory, not the other way around. Ultimately, such erudition bolsters and freshens theoretical acumen (the same semantic and conceptual virtuosity with which Esposito’s book abounds).

Is Esposito asking too much of the international audience who might want to engage with his biopolitics: that they be as conversant with distant, even esoteric, Italian sources as with more visible French influences such as Foucault? Most readers will think so, and the author knows it. This perhaps explains why, in the effort to carry through his agenda, Esposito strays into that same philosophical mindset which he, and the whole Italian tradition he cites for support, fought to eschew. There are traces of Hegelianism in his attempt to present Italian theory as a moment following to the French one, itself (it is implied) succeeding a German one, all the way back to the original Greek moment. And there is a discomforting hubris in placing oneself at the end of a long tradition (the myth of the last philosopher). In the Italian philosophical community, furthermore, the most recent version of Esposito may be seen as an Italophone French thinker, at best. That said, Esposito should be commended for leveraging his well-deserved appeal to widen horizons, for pointing to the presence of an internal other in the Western philosophical legacy – not least because doing so raises the question: how much, how many “traditions” of thought, do we routinely ignore? To answer this question requires a break, a return to sources, and a fruitful realignment of intellectual historical investigation and creative theory.