Of the restlessness of thought, according to Massimo Cacciari. Critical commentary by Enrico Cerasi

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Massimo Cacciari, author Roberto Vicario (Wikimedia Commons)


The least that can be said about Massimo Cacciari's thought is its multiple, labyrinthine, always restless dimension. His writings and even more so his public interventions range from theoretical philosophy to aesthetics, from political science to theology; from Nietzschean negative thought to Dante's philology/philosophy1, to say the least. It is certain that such versatility is a symptom of vitality, or, as Cacciari would perhaps like to say, of "restlessness" of thought, which otherwise gasps and suffocates when confined in spaces too closed, claustrophobic, as appears in most so-called "academic" non-fiction.

I don't know if it was his biographical intentions, but one could consider Cacciari's public figure as an authoritative revival of the fifteenth-century humanist intellectual, of whom from Burkhardt onwards we have learned to appreciate the unprecedented intellectual ubiquity, capable of moving from the political commitment alongside the Italian princes and lords to the highest metaphysical-theological speculation.

If we linger on Humanism it is not to propose "monumental" historiographical theses, but because Cacciari himself made public his convinced adherence to fifteenth-century Italian culture. In the preface to Restless mind, confess:

I had just published Krisis in 1976 when I read […] Rebirths and revolutions by Eugenio Garin. What meeting could possibly take place between an investigation into the scientific, philosophical and artistic earthquake between the 19th and 20th centuries and that 'civil humanism' which I then considered to be the hallmark of Garini's research? And here it is Rebirth it opened up before me a vision of Humanism as an age of crisis, an axial age, in which thought becomes aware of the end of one order and the task of defining another, dramatically oscillating between memory and dark omens, raw skepticism and audacious ideas. of reform2.


It is possible that the rediscovery of Humanism as a period of crisis and refoundation led Cacciari not to republish Krisis (now almost impossible to find), reducing the latently apocalyptic drama of the youthful essay. In any case, in the Restless mind the debts are paid because Italian humanism is presented as the prototype of the "negative thinking" that the young Cacciari had emphatically identified in Nietzsche, Mach and Wittgenstein.

This anecdotal trend may perhaps seem dilatory, but it was intended to lead to the topic of language, which in my opinion perhaps constitutes a question worthy of being discussed. Cacciari introduces it with broad references to De vulgari eloquentia. For Dante, there is no sacred language. The Almighty has given man the power to express oneself in every possible language, but only the one is transcendental facultas loquendi, not in which language man expresses himself. All this is known, but Cacciari's problem is another.

Dante's problem - and which passes from Dante to poetic theology of Humanism – is instead put in these terms: metaphor and allegory can do know something that could not be understood-represented through concepts?3.

It was already, if you like, the problem of Plato and Wittgenstein, both tormented by the need to transcend the logos to reach what Plato called "the Good" and Wittgenstein "the Mystical". Cacciari places himself in this perspective; but in this case the question is about metaphor. Is this the figure of the self-transcendence of language?

Although Cacciari does not delve into the intricate paths of metaphorology, it is clear that his question refers to this problematic area. More precisely, it is put in these terms:

It is clear how in this context the limits assigned byars rhetoric, metaphor and allegory in this context are substantially transgressed. Any proportionality between the terms that compose them disappears. This is about theI invent of a word that carries within itself, in its literal expression, not simply the trace of another meaning, but the sign of what exceeds the expressible-representable itself. […] [Dante's] poetry is divine when his word appears as a sign of the Invisible, beyond any definable analogy of attribution or proportion, when it illuminate-illustrate and she is enlightened by it4.


Giorgione, Three philosophers, 1508-1509, oil on canvas, 125.5 x 146.2 cm – Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Wikimedia Commons)

Some observations. As it stands, the problem does not concern the possibility of the metaphor containing meanings beyond the proper or usual one of the word.vehicle (Richards). In short, it is not a question of establishing whether in metaphorical invention there can be a deviation-distortion-enrichment of the usual meaning of words. This seems to be an established fact. The problem is whether thanks to the metaphor the intellect exceed every possible linguistic expression. That is, if the metaphor transcends every possible “expressible-representable”; if we take language beyond itself.

The problem is accentuated by the belief that reason can never abstract itself from language. Thought does not coincide with language, but it cannot be separated from it.

There cannot be any for him [Lorenzo Valla]. ratio abstract from the language in which it is expressed. Thoughts are only given in linguistic form, nor can there be ideas that are clear in themselves [but] confusedly represented. Language is not an instrument of thought, which it would be desirable to divest5.

Yet the language needs to lead beyond oneself. And he must do it not in a disheveled manner, but in a manner Exactly. Language must lead exactly beyond itself, even though a thought is impossible ungrammatical.

The problem comes back Philosophical labyrinth, but in broader terms. In a famous essay from 1958 (Categories of thought and categories of language), Émile Benveniste argued that the Aristotelian categories they would be nothing more than banal categories of the Greek language. In short, a transposition of Greek grammar into philosophical concepts! The whole metaphysics, a banal misunderstanding.

Cacciari argues tightly, but we are interested in the conclusions:

'Linguistic illusion is the belief that the structures of language 'exhaust' thought, or represent its unshakeable foundation, just as it is 'theoretical illusion' to believe that thought can endow itself with its own logos capable, it alone, of preaching the essence of the entity. Thought grows into language; it is not born from it, but is found in it, inhabits it and lives it. He cannot free himself from it except to return to it6.


The speech resumes a few pages later, in the context of a dense discussion of the "decisive step" (342 a 7 – 344 d 2) of the Letter VII. Plato is explaining to Dio's family why there is not and cannot be one of his philosophical writings. Philosophy, he explains, occurs only in living, oral dialogue, which focuses on the entity, on its essence. Start with the name; continues with the definition of this name; trace theeídolon, the adequate image and finally learns theepisteme with the intellect. 

But however certain and firm it may be, theepisteme does not reachentity itself, to his ab-solute singularity.

But, having reached theepisteme, they [the four movements described by Plato], they are, yes, but on the phenomenon only. They have arrived, yes, but not tolast7.

In light of the thing itself, the epistémand it's a simple one sign. Mera littera, which must be transcended by spiritus. In light of the thing itself, of the prȃgma toȗto, the path taken appears simple sign of something that transcends it. 

L'episteme itself then becomes a trace of an intuition or a sophia, that it does not-is, does not-have […]. Trace is weekly, it is a sign, it is grámma. Indeed, the thing itself, prȃgma toȗto, intuited 'beyond' the how of its appearance, it shows itself, yes illuminate as grámma, sêma of its own unpredictable singularity, grámma of the irreducibility ofHon reified, mere presence8

L'episteme it must be rigorous. It is necessary for the intellect to approach the "thing itself" in the most "scientific" way. This is its only way to extinguish itself, giving way to the self-presentation of the thing. With all its rigor, in the light of the thing itself theepisteme turns out to be mere littera. 

Yet a question remains. L'Advent of the thing reveals that science is a simple sign. At least to the extent that the thing Yes reveals. Since if there were no revelation, theepisteme it would be there conclusion of philosophical discourse. The phenomenon would be exchanged with noumenon. If instead theepisteme it is a mere sign, the excess And appeared. 

Even better: from the beginning, since the imposition of the name, philosophy was driven byLove for the thing itself. The soul could not stopepisteme, because she already knew she hadn't reached the prȃgma toȗto. But this simply shifts the terms of the problem. For the soul to be moved by the desire for the thing itself, it must have appeared to it. If you don't confuse it with the episteme, the thing itself must be present to it. If the soul is looking for the thing, it must know about it.

But where does this news come from? For Christians, Christ reveals himself persuasively in the soul (as he appears, for example, in De Magistro of Augustine) or how catastrophic event in the life of the individual (le Confessions). In any case, the “thing itself” was charismatically revealed; Precisely for this reason we can and must look for it.

This apparently presupposes what should be accounted for. Of course it may be that Not it is possible to account for it; that revelation is the last (and first) word on this matter; but not for Cacciari, whose thought it wants to be philosophy, not revealed theology. For the philosopher, in his opinion, revelation cannot exist pre-supposed; thought must proceed autonomously beyondepisteme and come to the matter in its own way ab-solute uniqueness. Yes, but how?



Inside the essay onMan without qualities (which a well-known TV presenter, without a shadow of a doubt, presented as her "last novel"), we find a chapter dedicated to "metaphor and analogy". Ulrich is the man who knows that the world is devoid of any essential structure; that the only knowledge is mathematical-probabilistic; than the dream of the ancient episteme it is denied by modern physics, and in particular by the uncertainty principle. Nonetheless, he longs for the One, for the prȃgma toȗto, and this leads him to sacred dialogues with his twin sister, both driven by the desire to overcome all opposition.

But how to overcome it? What language will be able to grant it? Apparently, not the metaphor:

Now, common, by metaphor we mean the implication of different absolutely incompatible terms or notions without the comparison being formally made explicit9.

Perhaps the problems associated with the metaphor are a little more complex than the adverb “absolutely” suggests. For example, when Aristotle distinguishes those who "metaphorize well", who "are metaphorical" (to metaphorikon einai10) by those who, however, do not possess this gift, seems to presuppose the ability to grasp real similarities, even if not available to the logos epistemic11. 

The topic, however, is controversial and we can certainly hypothetically admit Cacciari's point of view: the metaphor relates completely different notions. When, for example, with Quintilian we affirm: "the meadow laughs" (pratum ridet), in a single sentence we combine completely incomparable things.

Having said this, Cacciari's thesis is that "The metaphor remains essentially a sign of an unresolved anxiety"12. I wonder if it isn't an advantage not to resolve the anxiety, if only for Cacciari, who several times suggests that it must remain alive, distrusting any attempt (for example revelation) to "resolve" it. Yet, in this context, an unjustifiable limit seems to lie in the metaphorical restlessness.

In the metaphor, things sway towards each other, without being able to define each other, and their unity is merely the sign of the absence of authentic reciprocity13.



Of course, Cacciari's sentence itself is metaphorical, because literally the words do not "sway", but this is not the point. In the metaphorical statement the unity of the different remains extrinsic. A thing is defined by what it is not; but this identification never exceeds the level of “as if”.

In every metaphorical statement, therefore, there would be an implicit "as if", which would make the ontological claim of the identification of the different vain. The metaphor risks a copula (“old age And the evening of life”), but it is as if didn't fully believe it. In truth, the statement would simply state that old age “is as if it were” the evening of life. A simple suggestion, a non-binding comparison. It is not certain that this was the idea that Aristotle had of metaphor; that it was a quasi-category, a harmless can-speak. In any case, metaphor, for Cacciari, is not what Musil needs.

If he had stopped at the Metaphorical Musil he would have "repeated", at least on a compositional level, D'Annunzio [...]. He couldn't do it, because his problem was another [...]: stripping his protagonist of every quality-property so that he could in one penetrate-welcome the other, feel him within yourself and feel in him, receive the gift by giving yourself14.

It is the theme of mysticism, which Cacciari addressed, among other things, in the book dedicated to the mother of Jesus Christ15. The ability of Mary, and of the soul that conforms to her, to welcome the Other, to generate God!
Leaving aside here the fears that Mariology inspires in a person at least a little fond of the Bible, starting from the already patristic title of "mother of God", in that case the language was that of art. In Paradise and shipwreck the question is proposed again at a logical-linguistic level. Is there really a language capable of welcoming the Other? Certainly not the metaphor, which cannot go beyond the stammering of "as if". In analogy, however, there would be the only possibility of one language of the other.

The analogy does not tend [like the metaphor] towards comparison, but rather draws the distinction from the presupposed unity, it begins by establishing the difference between the dimensions of being that are compared. Name things for what they are. And yet, precisely in this, it captures the properties of this thing as Aller-schaften, as common to all. The analogy is “antithetically synthetic” (Novalis); while the metaphor is an always disjoinable synthesis, an apparent agreement, the analogy establishes an indisjunctible difference, it is called to express difference and indistinguishability in one. The metaphor only masks the difference, which, in the end, cannot help but reaffirm itself. While analogy is symbolic in its essence, metaphor, despite its intention, is diabolus in music, brings out the dissonance within the same chord16.



It is curious that the Viennese culture of the early twentieth century, so loved by Cacciari, in those years was theorising and practicing dodecaphony - according to Adorno, the maximum expression of dissonance, unresolved tension, restlessness. Against every synthesis, including analogy, Adorno saw in dissonance perhaps the only language capable of speaking to the Other, of making room for it. But perhaps he was wrong, as he himself would probably have understood when faced with Schoenberg's followers.

In any case, if it is true that "analogy does not tend [like metaphor] towards comparison, but rather draws distinction from unity presupposed”, the question we have remains unchanged. How is it possible presuppose the unity of the different? Apparently, the analogy presupposes the unity he would like to express. It is therefore a positum, a revealatum. Nothing bad, I would say, but in this case, rather than the road that leads to Musil or Rilke, we should take the one to Basel, in the direction of Karl Barth.


1. On Dante's questions, it is worth mentioning a recent translation into English of some of his interventions: cf. M. Cacciari, Philosophy, Mysticism, and Politics. Essays on Dante, and. by A. Carrera, Suny press, New York (USA), 2021
2. M. Cacciari, The restless mind. Essay on Humanism, Einaudi, Turin, 2019, p. 1
3. Ibid. p. 23
4. Ibid. p. 26
5. Ibid. p. 43
6. M. Cacciari, Philosophical labyrinth, Adelphi, Milan, 2014, p. 72
7. M. Cacciari, Philosophical labyrinth, cit., p. 114
8. Ibid
9. M. Cacciari, Paradise and shipwreck, Essay on The man without qualities by Robert Musil, Einaudi, Turin, 2022, p. 91.
10. See Aristotle, Poetics, 1459 at 4-8
11. See for example the important essay by D. Guastini, Aristotle and metaphor, or: a praise of approximation, “Isonomia” 1/2004
12. M. Cacciari, Paradise and shipwreck, cit., p. ninety two
13. Ibid
14. Ibid. p. 93
15. See M. Cacciari, Generate God, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2017
16. M. Cacciari, Paradise and shipwreck, cit., p. 94


Cover image
Massimo Cacciari, © Photo Current Affairs Cesni
We thank the newspaper L'Eco di Bergamo for the kind permission


Enrico Cerasi he is an associate professor of theoretical philosophy at Pegasus University, teaching philosophy of language and philosophy of religion. He is a contract professor of Philosophy of Religion at the Vita e Salute – San Raffaele University of Milan. He dealt with the theology of Karl Barth, the question of demythologization, religious language and the philosophy of Pirandello. With Stefania Salvadori he curated the Theological and political writings by Erasmus of Rotterdam.


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