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  • Of Reality. The Purposes of Philosophy by Gianni Vattimo
  • Brian O'Keeffe
Gianni Vattimo, Of Reality. The Purposes of Philosophy. Translated from the Italian by Robert T. Valgenti. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016. 235 pp.

The touchstone for Gianni Vattimo's reflection in Of Reality is a saying of Nietzsche: "There are no facts, only interpretations." Nietzsche then adds, "And this too is an interpretation." Down the postmodern rabbit hole we go, vainly clutching at truths or facts, scrabbling for any toehold that might arrest the play of interpretations. It is an endless freefall of course—we should not expect to find our footing in reality, or finally reach a stable philosophical foundation for knowledge. But what is the status of Nietzsche's 'thesis'? Is it a fact to say there are no facts? Is this an unarguable, uninterpretable truth? Nietzsche's rider, "And this too is an interpretation," cannily refuses to let that putative 'truth' remain standing where all other verities have fallen away. Nietzsche refuses to let himself off the hook of his own proposition (if that is what it is), and so he falls with us yet further down the rabbit hole. Like a bewildered Alice, we ask our philosophical questions: what is reality? What is truth? Can there be facts? But Nietzsche always has the same crafty answer: they are just interpretations, just words, metaphysical lures for those too philosophically faint-hearted to face up to the hermeneutical "truth."

If everything is an interpretation, and hermeneutics is the philosophy of interpretation, then hermeneutics is all we have. Vattimo characterizes hermeneutics as the lingua franca of philosophy today, our current lingo, the koiné of modern thought. If hermeneutics in the 20th century sprang from Heidegger and Gadamer, then "it seems undeniable that hermeneutics broadly construed as philosophy—in the sense that it has acquired at least since Heidegger and Gadamer—can only be formulated in that Nietzschean maxim" (16). The specific consequence for hermeneutics is that Heidegger and Gadamer will have to be re-read—and radicalized—through Nietzsche. The broader consequence, given this hermeneutic "hegemony" (30), is that there is no point in objecting that postmodernism is out of date, or "dé[post]modé" (29). We remain post-Nietzschean, we have to abide with the various prophets of extremity, and we still have some 'incredulity' to work though, especially vis-à-vis the grands récits that philosophy has recounted for us—the story of Truth, or the story of Being. The text we will still be reading is the portion from Twilight of the Idols, entitled "How the 'True World' Became a Fable," and our Nietzschean conversations, even in 2017, will still be dialogues with those exemplary exponents of radical hermeneutics, namely Donald Trump and Kellyanne Conway, she of the 'alternative facts.'

Would that it were not so. But since it is so, Vattimo proposes that we roll up our philosophical sleeves and adopt the Nietzschean motto in order to see what we might make of those imposing philosophical words—Truth, and Being. In [End Page 341] order, besides, to inspect the 'reality' of the supposedly real world. The title of Vattimo's book might be deemed ironic in that regard, or certainly hedged about by scare quotes. (We will get to the implications of placing words in quotation marks presently.) In any case, what interests Vattimo is reality (or "reality"), and what we might truthfully say about it. Of Reality collects the three lectures Vattimo gave at the University of Leuven in 1998, and the four Gifford Lectures he gave at the University of Glasgow in 2010. There is also an "intermission" essay entitled "The Temptation of Realism," and an "Appendix," which adds a further eight essays.

The objections to postmodern thought are well-known. It has been deemed glib, lacking political and ethical seriousness when confronted with the violently real realities of today's world. It prefers the playground puerilities of the spectacle, the simulation, the Matrix. The objection to hermeneutics is that it is not so much glib as naïve: while Gadamer underpins his philosophical hermeneutics by envisaging interpretation as a dialogue, the philosophical proviso he adduces...


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