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News: February/March 2024

Sadly, our news round-up this time is dominated by the deaths of four well-known philosophers. This does at least give us a chance to briefly set out the ideas of these intrepid thinkers. Their overlapping interests and concerns reveal much about the course Continental philosophy took in the shadow of the Cold War and afterwards. — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Antonio Negri

The influential Italian philosopher and political scientist Antonio Negri, known for his radical leftist views, has died at the age of 90. Born in Padua in 1933, his first experience as an activist was in the Catholic youth organisation Gioventú Italiana di Azione Cattolica. He started organising demonstrations, founding workers’ associations and writing political manifestos as early as his student days. He became a professor of political science at the age of 33, soon after completing his doctorate. Negri was a leading theoretician of the Italian radical left, especially in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and his friendships with extremists made him an object of suspicion as Italy passed through its infamous ‘years of lead’. In 1979, Negri was arrested, together with other left-wing intellectuals, having been falsely accused of involvement in the kidnapping and murder of prominent politician and former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. Those charges were dropped, but replaced by others of inspiring and carrying moral responsibility for acts of terrorism. In 1983, still in prison awaiting trial, he was elected to parliament as a representative of the Radical Party and could leave prison under parliamentary immunity. He soon fled to France with the support of philosopher Félix Guattari and Amnesty International. In 1997, he gave himself up to the Italian authorities to raise awareness of the status of hundreds of other political exiles from Italy. Eventually his sentence was commuted, and he was released from prison in 2003, having written some of his most influential works during his incarceration. He returned to France where he lived and remained politically active till the end of his life. The author of more than 30 books, his work ranged from Spinoza to various topics within political philosophy. He is internationally best known for his collaborative work with the American political philosopher Michael Hardt. Their 2000 post-Marxist book Empire: A New World Order and its subsequent volumes sold surprisingly well, being picked up not just by academic audiences but by an international public. It was hailed by some as a communist manifesto for the 21st century.

Mihály Vajda

In March 1944, when Mihály Vajda was nine years old, German troops occupied Hungary and the following year his home city of Budapest was surrounded by the Soviet army. As a teenager, Vajda joined the Communist movement. He began studying chemistry at university, which he soon swapped for Marxism, and finally, when a year after Stalin’s death he experienced first doubts, he moved to philosophy. His teachers, convinced Marxists who opposed the ruling orthodoxy, provided him with a vantage point from which to interpret the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 as an attempt to free the country for ‘true socialism’. After the uprising was crushed, Vajda developed even closer ties to intellectuals such as Georg Lukács, of whose ‘Budapest School’ he was a founding member. In the 1960’s Vajda was given a position at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, where he began work on a dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology, which he completed in 1968. In 1973, the members of the Budapest School lost their jobs and were subjected to a publishing ban. Some of them, including Vajda, left Hungary for the decadent capitalist West. He then held a number of guest professorships in Germany, the US and Canada. With the fall of Communism in 1989 he was invited home to become professor of philosophy at the Kossuth Lajos University in Debrecen. There he remained, eventually as director of its Institute of Philosophy, until 2000. The same university gave him an honorary doctorate in 2007 – which he returned in 2017 when the university honoured Vladimir Putin. He died on 27 November 2023. His areas of expertise were German 20th century philosophy, especially that of Martin Heidegger, as well as the analysis of totalitarian societies (having studied them the hard way). He died at the age of 88.

Günter Figal

Born in 1949 in the Rhineland region of Germany, Günter Figal was a communicator. He excelled at making philosophical ideas accessible in their context, publishing very insightful yet readable books on Socrates, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, Hermeneutics and Critical Theory. Having studied philosophy under Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ernst Tugendhat, he held professorships in Tübingen, then in Freiburg. He developed Gadamer’s hermeneutic ideas into reflections on the ‘object nature’ of the world in a ‘hermeneutic space’, and combined aesthetics and metaphysics with particular reference to architecture. An expert on Heidegger, he was President of the Martin Heidegger Society from 2003 to 2015. In late 2014, the publication of Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, an aphoristic philosophical journal that Heidegger had asked to remain unpublished until the end of his complete works, thrust Figal into the limelight. The notebooks showed that Heidegger had been more lastingly committed to National Socialism than had been generally assumed, and more antisemitic too. Figal, who like many had believed in Hannah Arendt’s take on Heidegger’s Nazi enthusiasm as being “a phase”, was deeply shocked and resigned his position at the Heidegger Society. He also amended his popular introductory book on Heidegger. In a 2015 interview, Figal explains: “Philosophy is not in need of gurus; philosophy as founded by Socrates and Plato is critical examination, led by the assumption that every philosophical argument has to stand a critical test in order to prove to be valid. Philosophy is dialogue, not monologue; and Heidegger, at least from the early thirties on, is a very monological thinker.”

Gianni Vattimo

Gianni Vattimo
Gianni Vattimo
© Ministerio De Cultura De La Nacion Argentina 2011. Creative Commons 2.0

Given his proud publication list of over 100 books and innumerable articles, it is likely that philosophy enthusiasts will have come across Gianni Vattimo in one context or another. His interests ranged from hermeneutics, in particular hermeneutic ontology, and nihilism. He was an expert in the philosophies of Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Gadamer. Vattimo studied literature and philosophy in Turin, graduating with a PhD on Aristotle in 1961, and was given full professorial status for his work on Heidegger in 1963. Following a research scholarship to study in Heidelberg under Löwith and Gadamer, he became professor of aesthetics and later of theoretical philosophy in Turin, before accepting guest professorships in various US universities in the 1970s and 80s. Vattimo is best known for his idea of ‘weak thought’, il pensiero debole, which reflects the increasing erosion of the metaphysical and rational foundations of modernity. With these pillars of our thinking disappearing, Vattimo believed that society was entering a nihilistic phase, leading to changes in the moral, social and political spheres. Vattimo was honoured with numerous prestigious awards for his work in philosophy. While usually describing himself as Catholic and being personally acquainted with Pope Francis, he once said in an interview: “Thank God I’m an atheist.” In a parallel career in politics, he served two terms as a Member of the European Parliament. Throughout his life, Vattimo, motivated by his own experience of living openly as a homosexual, fought for gay rights, especially the recognition of same sex relationships. He died aged 87 in Rivoli.

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