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  • The Return of Italian Philosophy
  • Roberto Esposito (bio)
    Translated by Zakiya Hanafi


A number of signs seem to be telling us that the time has come again for the return of Italian philosophy. Apart from a few exceptions, in the early 1990s the image of Italian philosophy had faded—it appeared more like a land for conquest by non-Italian thinkers than an independent site for innovative conceptual work. Over the past few years, the situation seems to have been reversed. The number of Italian philosophers translated and discussed around the globe is increasing rapidly, and within a framework that is bringing the classics of Italian thought to international attention once again.

From America to Japan, Germany to Argentina, and Brazil to Australia, philosophy is beginning to speak Italian in an unprecedented way. Certainly, contingent factors play a part and waves of interest can recede, but they still mark an important transition in the regime of contemporary knowledge. As is the case with other philosophical traditions over the course of the last century—from the German to that of the English-speaking world to the French—Italian philosophy today appears to be in profound synchrony with the dominant features of our time.

Even when elaborating on theoretical paths already embarked on in other places, the Italian interpretations give the impression of contributing something more: a semantic intensification, a force of insight that had been missing. Consider, for instance, what has taken place recently with the categories of “nihilism,” “secularization,” and, above all, “biopolitics.”

Coined in the mid-1970s by Michel Foucault, biopolitics had to wait until the end of the 1990s to enjoy a diffusion that has made it a theme of global importance for contemporary philosophy. Why? Why is it that after some twenty years of inactivity, the biopolitical paradigm had to be translated into Italian before it could achieve its current transnational resonance?

We can provide an indirect answer to this question: the good fortune of Italian thought is also a positive effect stemming from the exhaustion of other, more noble philosophical traditions. If analytic philosophy shows increasing difficulty in enlarging its audience, and German hermeneutics has lost its initial charge, French thought seems to be in no better health.

Still grieving over the loss of its most prestigious figures—from Foucault to Gilles Deleuze, and Jean-François Lyotard to Jacques Derrida—French thought, which continues to produce important texts, tends to shut itself up in a circuit of brilliant but increasingly repetitive and self-referential formulations. This isn’t to say, of course, that either of these schools lacks vital elements or that they will be unable to reinvigorate their themes and conceptual lexicon.

But what we’re dealing with here, undeniably it seems to me, is more than just a setback. What is the underlying cause? What kind of malaise does contemporary knowledge suffer from? I don’t think that it is reducible to a difficulty of communication or to a generational change—there is something more than that at work. I believe that the reasons for their retreat can be laid at the feet of the dominant role played by the sphere of language in the twentieth century, one that Italian philosophy was spared. [End Page 55]

While analytic philosophy came into being explicitly as a critique of language, hermeneutics views the interpreting subject as always immersed in a pre-given linguistic situation; the same holds true for deconstruction. This is especially the case in Derrida’s version, which is enclosed in the critical relation between word and writing, according to the linguistic turn that, even in the first decades of the last century, grouped together in the same self-critical register authors as diverse as Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gottlob Frege and Hans-Georg Gadamer, Karl-Otto Apel and Jacques Lacan. Whether expressed in an epistemological, ontological, or textual sense, the transcendental primacy of language is presumed in all these perspectives.

I would argue that this linguistic choice is closely implicated in the waning I spoke of earlier. Once language—given the irresolvable diversity of its dialects—declares itself to be incapable of formulating models of universal rationality, there seems to...