Return to site

Psychotherapy and Gianni Vattimo

Epistemology, phenomenology and 'the weak thought'

Gianni Vattimo passed away recently (on 19/09/23) so I'm writing this to remember him and all the things he taught me.
I remember reading his books in my late teens/early 20s and discovering a new way to look at the world. I studied History of philosophy in secondary school and at university, but Vattimo was for me an unexpected revolution. His writing felt like a rebellion to the sedimented knowledge of the past: Aristotele, Decartes and Hegel. In my young mind, Vattimo was a rebellion! His writing had profound political connotations and gave me a new lens to look at the world. It fascinated me and guided my self-development for a long time.

His concept of ‘il pensiero debole’ (the weak thought) helped me to find stillness, to focus on myself and my ‘life story’. At the end of the day, that self-narrative is all we can truly know about ourself. This also brought me to focus on the social and political narrative around me. I felt I had to be politically engaged and started to feel that I can belong to a community. This awakening made me step into adulthood. After a few years, this became an integral piece of my self-development and ultimately led me to approach psychotherapy as a profession.

Vattimo first introduced me to the concept of ‘multiple truths’. This is the idea that we cannot really know the world objectively. Objectivity is not possible. This has interesting iplications in the way he conceptualise science as a discipline. What is different in Vattimo is that this is not seen as pure nihilism. This attitude is called positive-nihilism, which means that what matters is the research for the truth (or truths). The 'positive' indicates that this is something we actively seek. If we cannot have a definite knowledge of something, all we can do is constantly approach and re-approach it. This links to phenomenology in Gestalt as a way of knowing (epistemology).

Vattimo’s postmodern approach to epistemology feels very current for me and for my work as a psychotherapist. In the room with my clients, this is the concept of not-knowing and sitting with uncertainty. Seeking the subjectivity of experience is crucial for de-pathologising and for meeting someone with a therapeutic intent. The therapist needs to bracket all assumptions and pre-existing knowledge, leaving space for the exploration. Every thought the therapist might have needs to be suspended to allow the client’s subjectivity to unfold.

It is impossible to decontestualise Vattimo's political work. I'm aware that certain words he uses seem strange and outdated (e.g. hermeneutic communism). It all needs to be linked to his person in the socio-political context of Northern Italy (Torino): his coexisting identities of Christian and openly gay man, as well as his approach to communism as a philosophical stance. Vattimo brought this epistemology to a wider public and actively engaged in politics (he was elected a member of the European Parlament twice, in 1999 and 2009). This political engagement is also importnat for therapy, because therapy cannot be disentangled from politics. Therapy is a political act.

The way we approach philosophy, science, epistemology and even psychotherapy will forever be marked by his work. I always felt connected to Vattimo, as he shaped me as a person, as well as a therapist. His writing speaks to me differently at different points in my life and I always pick up something new. I was sad to hear about his passing away and I’ll do what I can to keep his work alive in me and in my practice.

My two favourite quotes from Vattimo:

“It is only thanks to God that I'm an atheist.”
(Christianity, Truth, and Weakening Faith: A Dialogue)

Il fatto paradossale è che proprio la passione per la verità, la coscienza, nella sua ricerca del vero, è giunta a mettere in crisi se stessa: ha scoperto di essere solo una passione come le altre.
(Le Avventure della Differenza)