‘The Essence of Nihilism’ by Emanuele Severino reviewed by Dalton Winfree


The Essence of Nihilism

tr. Giacomo Donis, Verso, New York, 2016. 344 pp., $29.95 pb
ISBN 9781784786113

Reviewed by Dalton Winfree

About the reviewer

Dalton Winfree is a Marxist Political Activist in Nashville TN, Lead Singer and Guitarist of the …

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How does one write a review for a book such as The Essence of Nihilism? Within the author’s home country of Italy, the book is considered a philosophical classic, akin to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit or Heidegger’s Being and Time; and like these works, The Essence of Nihilism will be studied by generations of philosophers. Within it lies a uniquely original and compelling philosophical discourse, and because of this, it can receive high recommendation. Emanuele Severino is a philosopher par excellence who stands alongside the brightest philosophical minds. Yet attempting to read The Essence of Nihilism without familiarity with classical/Pre-Socratic philosophy or ontology, will undoubtedly result in a struggle, and as such a little preliminary research is highly encouraged. It is also very unfortunate that this translation has opted to remove the sections ‘Reply to the Critics’ and ‘Reply to the Church.’ Given that at present there are no English translations of these sections, Verso has done a little bit of a disservice for those interested in the full work. The restoration of these sections in a second edition, or have them available online, would be an amendment worth pursuing. But what are the contents of The Essence of Nihilism and why should Marxists read it?

The Essence of Nihilism is, after an introduction, divided into three parts. The first consists of Severino’s foundational essays ‘Returning to Parmenides’ and its ‘Postscript’. This section is the most important of the book and lays down the foundations of Severino’s ontology. Part Two is comprised of four essays that broaden the implications of the first and demonstrate how Western civilization has alienated itself from what Severino designates as the ‘Truth of Being’. Part Three consists of one essay titled ‘Aletheia’ which ties together many of the themes from Parts One and Two and deals with the non-contradictoriness of Being and self-contradiction. The book then finishes in a concluding remark indicating how certain topics, such as Severino’s thoughts on human freedom, evolved throughout the course of his career. But what is it about Severino’s thought that makes him such a philosophical force? Unlike Heidegger, who saw in ancient Greek philosophy an interpretation of Being as presence, Severino, through an investigation of Pre-Socratic philosophy, comes to a radical interpretation of Being that unravels the ontological foundations of philosophy and stands in total opposition to Western thought. Severino’s philosophy turns on the original meaning of Being and nothingness that was bequeathed to the world by Parmenides: Being is, while nothingness is not (36). For Severino, this is both the supreme law of ontology and the law of non-contradiction itself. Being for Severino is a force that absolutely repels non-Being; at no point does that which ‘is’ become that which ‘is-not.’ Thus, all Being exists by necessity. But Severino does not make the same fatal mistake as Parmenides by stating that only Being exists, while the world of becoming does not. Instead, he attempts to solve the Parmenidean problem of the One (immutable Being) and the Many (determinations of Being) without abandoning the original meaning of Being. Severino exhaustively argues how both Plato and Aristotle betray the original meaning of Being to salvage the Many from the One. Here, it is the great Plato who committed a great parricide of Being by only allowing the forms to exist by necessity, and thus rendering all other aspects of the determinations of Being consumed by time and become nothing. Severino argues that all philosophy since Plato, with the belief that Being is susceptible to time, has been constructed with the conviction that Being can become nothing. For Severino, this is the very essence of nihilism.

To overcome the nihilist conviction that Being can become nothing, Severino understands Being as the totality of differences. All manifest determinations, i.e. all that ‘is’ (every idea, feeling, object, person, etc.), is Being; and if it is Being, then it must exist by necessity, i.e. it is eternal. Being for Severino is the positive which can never become the negative (nothing). Thus, becoming cannot be an oscillation between Being (positive) and nothingness (negative) as other philosophers have maintained, but is instead an oscillation between two positives: Being as immutable and Being as it is manifest as coming-to-be. For Severino, all the eternal manifestations of Being dwell eternally within a transcendent immutable realm which abstractly manifest themselves within this universe which he calls the ‘horizon of appearing’. Being is not created or destroyed but is perpetually appearing and disappearing, forever maintained within the hospitable immutable realm. Severino identifies this transcendent realm as God and this horizon of appearing as God’s reflection. But do not be thrown off by the theological language. God for Severino is not a divine intelligence that creates, but is instead the totality of differences. All that appears, no matter how large or infinitesimal, is an eternal limb and part of God. Thus, all that exists is sacred and eternal.

But why should this philosophical discussion be of interest to Marxists? If Severino is correct, then Marxist ontology is built on the false conviction that Being can become nothing. In Capital, Vol. 1, labor, in its metabolism with nature, leads things from non-Being into Determinate Being. Marx gives us examples such as wood, gaining its Being from the chopping of the tree by the woodcutter, or the mineral extracted from its vein by the miner. Labor for Marx confers ‘the form of Being,’ and this conferring identifies Being with nothingness. This is because, without the efficient cause of labor, the manifest determinations which appear from human activity would not-be. For example, the wedding band which now rests on my finger is-not (is nothing) before labor conferred Being upon it. Without labor, this wedding band would not be. The Being of the wedding band in the instance of its creation is emerging from non-Being into Being. For Marx, labor can as well confer non-Being. If, for example, I decided to melt down my wedding band, my labor would bestow non-Being upon it since the unity of the band would be no more. The Being of the wedding band in its destruction becomes non-Being. Determinate Being in Marx’s thought is identified with Nothingness because 1.) Marx posits that without the efficient cause of labor its ‘products’ would not be; and 2.) Marx understands that Determinate Being dwells solely within time. Thus there is a time when its Being is not (the past) and then there will be a time where its Being will not-be again (the future). Marx then understands the becoming of Being as an oscillation between Being and Nothingness. For Severino, here lies again the fatal mistake. If something exists, it is Being; and if it is Being, it is eternal, i.e. exists by necessity. So, to posit that there is Being which is dependent on an efficient cause is to betray the very meaning of Being, because it posits a type of Being which does not exist by necessity. This is both an ontological and logical contradiction for Severino. Thus, to posit a determinate Being dwelling solely within time is absurd because that would mean there is Being which becomes nothing, i.e. Being which is consumed by time. Therefore, all the manifestations of determinate Being must dwell eternally outside of time since they cannot not-be. The becoming of Being then cannot be between Being (positive) and Nothingness (negative) because this is ontologically impossible. Instead, for Severino, if becoming is to be understood, it must be as Being that is manifested as coming to be (positive) and immutable Being (positive). To return to our previous example, the wedding band resting on my finger appears within this horizon of appearing. It is not as it is in-itself as immutable, but as manifest as coming to be. Every moment in which this wedding band appears already eternally dwells within the transcendent hospitable realm of immutable Being and is abstractly appearing and disappearing from the horizon in which Being appears manifest as coming-to-be. The wedding band is not then brought forth from non-Being into Being but is being ‘reflected’ from the immutable realm of Being. It is appearing within this horizon of appearing as an abstract manifestation of Being which comes-to-be. Thus, nothing can confer Being or non-Being, not God, nor labor. Labor then is not a conferring of Being and Non-Being. Instead, it must be understood that each act of labor which abstractly manifests and disappears is an eternal act that necessarily brings about the appearance and disappearance of every eternal determination of Being which ‘belong’ to it within this horizon of appearing. This means that every act of labor, like every act, has already been committed insofar as it dwells within the transcendent realm of immutable Being and every product of labor already exists insofar as it dwells within the transcendent realm of immutable Being. Every act of labor and every ‘product’ of labor is Being, and their becoming, like all Being, is an oscillation between immutable and coming-to-be. One could point out the plethora of work by Marxists who have criticized eternal formalizations of labor, but one must understand that these past formalizations commit the same ontological mistakes that Severino is criticizing. Labor in these cases is an eternal immanent activity which confers Being and non-Being. Thus, one cannot use these critiques to discredit Severino’s position, since it is a position already critical of these formalizations.

But why should Marxists take Severino seriously? Since time immemorial philosophy has understood that the status of Being governs the status of truth. Severino exhaustively shows how philosophy since Plato has been operating on a false interpretation of Being, which has guided Western civilization into its furthest alienation from the truth of Being. Like Galileo, Severino stands in opposition to the madness of a mistaken belief by which the world has been consumed, and with the full might of philosophy shows that Being cannot become non-Being. This should be sufficient reason on why Marxists should take seriously the ontological stakes of The Essence of Nihilism.

26 March 2021

11 comments

  1. The tone of Emmanuele Severino’s The Essence of Nihilism (1972) in good part reflected the political upheavals in Europe at that time. As a scholar Severino was concerned with the topic of nihilism for a long time already (his Phd was on Heidegger). He was hailed by some Italian commentators as a visionary of the “big picture” of Western civilization, although the Vatican disapproved of his doctrine about the “eternity of being”, among other things because it left out the Creator (and the virgin birth probably too). http://www.emanueleseverino.it/philosophical-tought-of-emanuele-severino/

    Severino’s book does not offer anything like an intelligently crafted and thought-through analysis of modern forms of nihilism. He does not explain why a variety of nihilist attitudes occur, or what gives rise to them. He does not even capture the “essence” (if there is such a thing) of nihilistic doctrines and attitudes, despite the title.

    The book is more an Italian-style rhetorical rant or rambling polemic, if not a grumbling “nihilistic critique of nihilism” which, after a stream of verbosity, de facto concedes much of what it earlier denied. Severino often goes to extreme lengths to highlight very simple ideas we already know of from common sense – as if the petitio principii he offers about “being” and “non-being” are terribly profound.

    The book is also deeply anti-intellectual, anti-Marx & Engels, and anti-scientific. From a perspective of righteousness, it expresses hatred and contempt for cogent thinking about complex problems. It substitutes superficial analogies and innuendo’s for conscientious research about a topic. It disregards and distorts historical knowledge. It conflates and confuses different strands of nihilism, as if they are the same thing (they aren’t).

    So really Severino’s text shows him to be quite unable to comprehend the formation, problems and powers of modern nihilist culture. He can only rant, preach and curse about an “evil nihilistic blob” hanging over Western civilization, like so many philosophers have done, and still do (Francis Fukuyama, Roger Scruton, André Glucksmann, Bernard-Henri Lévy, etc.). It’s a prologue for the by now familiar conservative moaning about the loss of values in the West, the loss of God, and the perspective of cultural pessimism.

    For that very reason, Severino has no answer to the problems with nihilistic cultures, except that he recommends believing in the eternal, and an ecclesiastical return to texts by Parmenides and Plato, who lived two and a half thousand years ago in totally different circumstances. On the whole, the book appears to be mainly a moralistic text, a melancholic lament about a world that has been lost, and also about a world that never was what it claimed to be.

    Should we then retreat to ancient Greek philosophy, to console ourselves? If you are interested in mythologizing and pre-scientific thought, doing that might take your mind off your own troubles. If you want to live in the real world and look to the future, it is better to leave the myths aside, and concentrate on what is really happening.

    Verso Books has published a series of titles by continental philosophers that are about “nothingness”, “less than nothing”, or “worse than useless” etc. I think myself, that they are part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

    1. You are entitled to your opinion, but the books theses are not what you claim they are: i.e., you didn’t understand them (perhaps it was not the right time, perhaps part of the fault lies on the author/translation).

    2. But, frankly, the ending in which you state that all continental philosophy is bs gives you away…

  2. Thank you for your comment. I find it unfortunate you felt the need to attempt to supplant my review with your own. But by doing so, you have given me a great example of a poisoning the well fallacy among others to teach in future logic courses. I also find your claim that Severino is unscientific as unfounded. Severino spent quite a bit of time writing about Einstein (one can find this in Severino’s essay in the book Determinism and Free Will: New Insights from Physics, Philosophy, and Theology). The fact you don’t note this indicates that you dont actually have quite as good of a grasp of the philosophy you are criticizing. I could spend more time responding to each unfounded criticism but I’d rather not waste any more time on such an anti-intellectual and intellectually dishonest comment that is some vain attempt to detract readers from a great work of Philosophy. I will not respond to any further comments and hope that you go back and attempt a closer reading of the text.

  3. “Yet throughout the history of the West the dominant thought— dominant to the point of not even being expressed—has continued to be the ancient thought
    of Plato: Being (i.e., determinations—which after Parmenides are no longer posited as Nothing) is essentially unstable: it is (i.e., is not a Nothing), but might not-be (i.e., might have remained a Nothing); it is, but earlier was-not, and later will be no longer and might be wholly annihilated.” P. 154

    “But no one is right when everyone is wrong: due to the conviction that the birth and death of Being appear—due, that is, to the alienation of the meaning of Being, which produces in its turn the alienation of
    the meaning of Becoming” p. 136

    I read the book just fine.

    1. If you’re replying to me, what I said was in response to the guy who commented, not to you.

  4. Severino may have written some good books that I have not read (I don’t know, I do not read Italian at all well and I haven’t Severino’s other books, of which there are many), but ‘The Essence of Nihilism” is definitely not it, most basically, because it *fails to explain what the “essence of nihilism” actually is*. It fails to live up to its title in that sense. This is disappointing news I suppose, but it ought to be said, to forewarn potential readers.

    I suppose I could delve into Severino’s philosophy much more deeply, but I have no intention of doing that at present, because it is a distraction, and a path that leads nowhere, since it does not frame the meaning of modern nihilism and its problems adequately, and has almost nothing to say about what the answers to that really are. This book just sows more confusion.

    Furthermore I think also that modern nihilism and its sources are quite different from philosophical nihilism of 2,500 years ago – how could it be otherwise? It would be absurd to picture the “essence” of philosophical nihilism such as it existed 2,500 ago as more or less the same thing as the “essence” of nihilism today.

    Perhaps Severino wrote about Einstein, but that does not mean Severino was a physicist (beyond having a journalistic understanding of physics). Nor would it be correct to argue, that because Severino wrote about Einstein or other scientific (non-philosophical) matters, that his 1972 polemic about nihilism must be correct, because it is “scientific” and “Einsteinian”. This kind of crude sales trick to give a literature some allure is just not going to work, at least not for thinking people.

    The variety of nihilist trends in modern society are a “social, psychological and political phenomenon”, which cannot simply be explained by physics, although there may be physical factors involved too (e.g. starving people, of whom there are tens of millions right now in the world, might feel quite “nihilistic” at times).

    I am not at all “against continental philosophy” as such, I never argued that, and in fact I live in “continental” Europe. Some of the continental theory which Verso publishes I think is very good and exemplary, but other stuff they publish is just terrible in my opinion, quite the wrong models. You shudder to think, that the “intellectually sophisticated” people who buy the terrible books are going to be inspired by them. So I praise Verso, when they publish what I think are good books, and criticize them, when they publish terrible books.

    Of course, if I criticize a book or a statement, there will always be leftists who are going to reframe my criticism as an “immoral attack on a revered sage”, and try to “censor”, “suppress” or “cancel” me. Yet they have no good rational reply to what I said, except falsifying what I actually argue, and recommending that I should revere an author – not because of what he actually *says*, but because of what he is *associated with*. If these are the modern fans that Severino has, they are hardly a recommendation for his writings.

  5. Except Severino does explain (quite explicitly) what the essence of nihilism is. I even indicate this in my book review (which it seems you read as well as the book you criticize). It is apparent you did not read this book closely (if at all). You also admit you don’t have as a deep of an understanding of Severino’s philosophy, so you’re in no place to make a judgement that it’s useless, because you don’t understand it (you’ve now demonstrated this twice). You’re being criticized because your entire criticism is built off your own dubious interpretation of Severino (there is nothing more to it). You can dislike the book, that’s fine and you can make that claim, but that does not mean you understood it.

    There will now be no further comments.

  6. @Dalton: You yourself specifically invited readers to engage with Severino. Is it difficult to understand the essence of what Severino believed? Not really, and in the review above you intended to show that. Severino does explain his metaphysical position, yes, but I happen to regard it as a highly partisan and flawed viewpoint (and ultimately an incoherent one). I can also explain why that is.

    You seem very keen to allege therefore that I “cannot read”. Well, I can read, I do try to inform myself as best as I can (I even watched a Severino video!), but I do think about what I read, and form an opinion.

    Severino certainly stated his own idiosyncratic spiritual meanings about what nihilism signifies, yes. But I don’t think he does real justice to the idea of nihilism and to the evolution of nihilist trends across 2,500 years, never mind making sense of contemporary expressions of nihilism.

    According to Severino, the very technology created by capitalism is destroying capitalism, but there is little evidence of that, except that “some” technologies are killing “some” people (or millions of people, as some claim). We could just as well argue, that capitalism kills off the technologies which are not compatible with capitalism, or that capitalist technologies save a lot of lives.

    All of that is to some extent true in different fields of human endeavour, which is just to say that the explanation of human phenomena is rarely reducible to one “original sin”, or one single factor, variable or prime cause.

    If you follow Severino, you would have to say, that nihilism has always existed, and will always exist – because it is an eternal “form” or else always inscribed in human nature as a potential tendency; all we can do, is choose to accept it or consciously reject it for particular reasons.

    That is a perspective far removed from the dialectical perspective of Marx and Engels on natural, social and human evolution. It can’t be an easy job for the “pluralist” US Solidarity organization to reconcile Severino with Marx…

    It would certainly be a good idea to have a left-wing discussion about nihilist cultures in our own epoch, but I very much doubt that this Severino translation can facilitate that, for reasons I mentioned already.
    We are not talking here primarily about a very abstract “metaphysical” idea of nihilism that is difficult to test or prove, but about an “historical, sociological, political and psychological” idea of nihilism that is verifiable in human experience.

    Severino’s own metaphysical philosophy does show considerable originality, but also had many themes in common with other philosophers publishing at that time (I am thinking e.g. of Wilfrid Desan, Jacques Ellul etc.). He also seems to have been influenced strongly by particular themes in Heidegger’s philosophy, phenomenology, Catholicism and Platonism.

  7. Actually, Severino was scheduled to lecture on “taking philosophy seriously” at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, on 24 January 2020.
    https://www.rug.nl/filosofie/organization/departments/history/gcmemt/blog/emanuele-severino-taking-philosophy-seriously-24-01-2020?lang=en

    However, Severino died a week earlier, on 17 January 2020, so he never gave his presentation.
    There was “being”, and then there was “nothingness”.
    https://www.filosofico.net/severinoenglish.htm

    Nevertheless the record of Severino’s philosophy will probably be archived, and remembered for a long time by successive generations of Italian intellectuals. Plus, Verso Books has now published his polemic on nihilism. In that sense, Severino still “lives on” although he passed away.

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