Epistomological rubbish and the dictatorship of relativism

I have been reading about “pensiero debole“… “weak” or “soft” thought. This is mostly an Italian trend in post-modernism.


It is like … chaos theory meets epistomology. One interpretation is pitted against another for the sake of weakening all conclusions. Of course, it has ethical implications and it could warp the minds of readers and young students forever.

On First Things there is a short piece that mentions “weak thought” in which we read:

Vattimo is most famous for his idea of “weak thought,” writes Guarino in The Return of Religion in Europe?:

It is perhaps best to understand Vattimo’s weak thought as an attempt to reconstruct rationality in a postmodern way. By this I mean that the Torinese intends to move contemporary construals of rationality away from modern notions of reason, with their aggressive assertions about the “certainly true,” the “really real” and “absolute objectivity,” and with their insinuations that evidence and warrants are unproblematic concepts, readily available to settle questions of interpretative adequacy. Weak thought, on the contrary, holds that the world is not simply given to us as pure, uninterpreted, unmediated reality.

If contemporary philosophy has taught us anything, it is that the world is known by men and women who are already deeply enmeshed in history and tradition, who are themselves entirely theory-laden. Vattimo is convinced, then, that the world is “given” to the postmodern christianity of gianni vattimo 19us as an always-already interpreted reality. And precisely because of this, we must avoid “strong thought” with its blinkered claims to truth, finality, and objectivity and with its concomitant avoidance of historical contingency. No ultimate, normative foundations exist that are available to us outside of interpretation.

There exists no “evidence” that is not already deeply implicated in determinate sociocultural forms of life and in already elaborated interpretative structures. Consequently, we have no clearly available archai or Gründe, undisputed first principles or warrants, that could settle matters finally, that could offer definitive notions of truth that would escape perpetual provisionality.

Ad intra, with John Paul II and Benedict XVI we are moving toward “strong thought”, as the First Things piece calls it.

More about it here.

Is this the ultimate language of the dictatorship of relativism?

I suspect we will hear more about “weak thought”.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. PhilipNeri says:

    Lame. We were doing this “is there really a text?” nonsense in grad school back in the early 90’s. If theologians are going to be trendy, they need better hipsters.

    Fr. Philip Neri, OP

  2. rcg says:

    Teachers love this sort of thinking because it makes it difficult to challenge them. It is damaging, as Fr say, because it teaches the bad habit of devoting a lot of thought to getting out of commitment and real work. This is especially unfortunate because this is targeted at the best minds and robs them and us of a mutually beneficial life-long relationship.

  3. Midwest St. Michael says:


    Can my properly formed conscience really be real then? (according to “weak thought”?)

    Oh wait, I get it. Weak thought (and its proponents) is telling me that my conscience is always a half bubble off, yes?

    Okay then! Let us all succumb to the absolute subjectivity of weak thought after all those who present it are certain of its truth.


  4. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    One is tempted to say, ‘pensiero delle debole’ but that might seem to neglect consideration of ‘debolezza’ and other things which make it more ‘pensiero diabolico’ – it certainly seems serviceable to various sorts of ‘tyranny’. (What would Puddleglum say?) What never ceases to astonish me is the absolutely sweeping, comprehensive, systematic ‘truth claims’ (implicitly but inescapably) made by such ‘theoretical’ ‘prestidigitatori’, and how little they are taken to task for them.

  5. aragonjohn7 says:

    if this is the best thought of ( sarcasm )
    What is next?

    God bless You

  6. Quirinus says:

    Vattimo is a militant socialist – needless to say, educated in Catholic schools and former member of Catholic Action – who brags about his practice of homosexuality. He is also big on “animal rights” but is of course also in favor of all sorts of crimes committed on unborn humans. Surprise huh? He says that Christ can only be understood as the rejection of all ideas of sacrifice and hierarchy. Which tells you how smart the guy is.

    I remember then Cardinal Ratzinger referring explicitly to the dangers of the so-called “weak thought” on many occasions, for instance at the conference for the release of Bl. John Paul II’s “Fides et Ratio”. Vattimo is a pathetic, pompous fool but that’s more than enough to make a philosopher and a maître à penser these days.

  7. Rich says:

    “No ultimate, normative foundations exist that are available to us outside of interpretation.”
    “There exists no ‘evidence’ that is not already deeply implicated in determinate sociocultural forms of life and in already elaborated interpretative structures.”
    Such sweeping statements about reality belie themselves. Is it just one’s interpretation, then, that no ultimate, normative foundations exist? Why, then, should this interpretation act as an ultimate, normative foundation in telling us that no such ultimate, normative foundations exist? And, is the assertion that there is no “evidence” already not implicated in determinate sociocultural forms itself merely a product of such determinate forms? If so, then how then is it applicable to other already determined forms? If it is applicable to all forms, then something must be determining that which determines in each form, no?

  8. Thom says:

    Well, at least “weak thought” has the virtue of having an accurate name.

  9. Nathan says:

    Fr. Z, a book tangentially related to this discussion but well worth engaging (although there are some directions in the book that IMO require more fleshing out) is Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. It’s a sweeping historical survey that links our current philosophical/epistemological problems with the outcome of the Protestant Revolution (recommended by Abp Chaput). If you’re interested, please put it in your Amazon wish list and I will send it to you.

    In Christ,

  10. OrthodoxChick says:

    “Is this the ultimate language of the dictatorship of relativism?”

    I believe that this is the ultimate language of intellectual sloth, which dictators feed on and require everytime they seize more power. So, yes. It makes perfect sense to me that dictators will fatten their prey before the slaughter by convincing them to weaken their thoughts.

  11. fvhale says:


  12. norancor says:

    Can someone ask Vattimo his thoughts on perceivable reality, after they walk up to him and punch him in the face?

    I think non-lethal means of persuasion are in order. Also, this brings to mind the old idiom, “If someone punches Vattimo in the face, and no one decides to interpret it as a punch, did it hurt?”

    I’m sorry for the violence of the illustration, but dictatorships are often resisted with nothing short of violence.

  13. JPManning says:

    “Weak thought, on the contrary, holds that the world is not simply given to us as pure, uninterpreted, unmediated reality.”

    In terms of the physical senses this is literally true. Neurologists have established that you do not perceive reality. Recognising that you cannot accurately perceive reality is a great source of humility. It motivates my prayers for ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’.

    More importantly the idea of weak thought will be a bridge to those who ‘believe in Science.’ Young people (particularly men) like hard thought, they believe in it and hence their attachment to Science. The concept of ‘weak thought’ demonstrates that Science needs God. Without a guarantee of truth we can only have weak thought. It is precisely a belief in the God of Truth, who guarantees the reality of perception, that created the cultural environment necessary for Science to flourish. It is no coincidence that as society becomes more atheist weak thought is becoming more common. Show ordinary people the consequences of weak thought then show them that atheism is incompatible with strong thought and we will convert them.

  14. ‘Weak Thought’: sounds like a perfect new name for the National (so-called) Catholic Reporter.

  15. MichaelJ says:

    “Weak Thought”? Wasn’t that the name of the super computer built by a group of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings to answer the Ultimate Question?

    No, wait, that was Deep Thought. My mistake.

  16. The Masked Chicken says:

    “It is perhaps best to understand Vattimo’s weak thought as an attempt to reconstruct rationality in a postmodern way. By this I mean that the Torinese intends to move contemporary construals of rationality away from modern notions of reason, with their aggressive assertions about the “certainly true,” the “really real” and “absolute objectivity,” and with their insinuations that evidence and warrants are unproblematic concepts, readily available to settle questions of interpretative adequacy. Weak thought, on the contrary, holds that the world is not simply given to us as pure, uninterpreted, unmediated reality.”

    It is not uncharitable to call nonsense, nonsense. I want to do violence to this philosophy, so let me quickly and surgically demolish it so that we may all get on to soemthing more important like twittling our thumbs.

    The simple problem with, “weak thought,” is that it evaporates. If one cannot make an interpretation outside of a social context, then how can decide that there is a social context? One must, apparently, use weak thought to make the decision, since there are no hard and fast truths. Well, what is weak thought operating on weak thought? Meta-weak thought is even weaker thought. Now, how do we know that this meta-weak thought can tell us that there is a social context? We must use meta-meta-weak thought, but, surely, that is even weaker thought than (weaker thought)^2. Eventually, one gets to the point where a meta-level is reached where no only communication is impossible, but even asking questions is impossible. Thus, the entire concept of thought has evaporated.

    The man is a bloomin’ idiot and I have little patience for such nonsense. He is like my students who like to tell me in written reports that they feel that helium has the right value for its atomic mass. Well, nature doesn’t care how you feel and neither nature nor God cares how Vattimo feels about reality. The next time he drives over a bridge, he should thank God that iron woould exist whether he thought it did or not.


    You comment is very good. One little point: you say, “Neurologists have established that you do not perceive reality.” How can they do that unless they, themselves can perceive reality so as to distinguish it from what other people perceive? Sensory organs receive unfiltered data, but (here is another place that Vittamo is wrong) we can use mechanisms outside of ourselves to limit the personal bias in the measurements. Those sorts of measurement, being at least one, if not more steps removed from man, depend less and less on social contructs.

    This is theory of mind stuff and Ed Feser would demolish Vittamo with simple, clear, Thomistic arguments. His book, The Last Superstition, is an excellent introduction to Thomism and how it collides with both Post-modernism and Atheism.

    Really, only (no offense) people who don’t want to deal with reality try to make this stuff up. This is Cargo Cult science writ large. As Feynman said,

    “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

    Vittamo, it seems to me, is doing science by public relations. He is trying to fool others. Nature, he cannot fool.

    Oh, and at his death, will he suddenly spring back to life because everyone in the crowd interpretes him to be alive? This is worse than Schrodinger’s Cat. At least he knew he was alive at some point. Vittamo’s philosophy certainly won’t even fool a cat.

    The Chicken

    The Chicken

  17. The Masked Chicken says:

    Sorry for the many typing mistakes, today. I’m typing of a tempermental laptop.

    The Chicken

  18. PostCatholic says:

    That was interesting but I have to say I had a hard time following the translation.

  19. Cathy says:

    Ugh, the greatest problem with the “weak thought” thinkers, is they forget, historically the society and the history of the society into which the Church was born – infanticide, abortion, pederasty and unnatural relationships being socially acceptable. They also forget that Moses allowed divorce, not out of “weak thought”, but out of the hardness of hearts. In their “weak thought”, they even use St. Paul as one who would compromise with the “weakness” instead of standing firmly against it. Our “weak thinkers” have more in common with Corinth and feel more secure living there than with Christ.

  20. robtbrown says:

    The basis for weak thought precedes the Reformation. It goeos back go Wm of Ockam and before him Lucretius.

    Vattino warms up the old contradiction of skepticism: He states with certitude thay there is no certitude. It’s a dog chasing its tail.

    Similar problems are found with Empiricism: It cannot be Provence empirically that only empirical knowledge is true

  21. The Masked Chicken says:

    “If contemporary philosophy has taught us anything, it is that the world is known by men and women who are already deeply enmeshed in history and tradition, who are themselves entirely theory-laden.”

    I feel like Colombo, today…just one more thing…

    Is he saying we should all be lobotomized, so that we can get rid of our enmeshed sense of history?

    Further, this philosophy is so lame, I would flunk it in a freshman. He claims the sentence, “There is no truth outside of interpretation,” is true, but the truth of this statement is, itself, also not true outside of interpretation, but the truth of the truth of his statement is only not true outside of interpretation, etc. Thus, his philosophy reduces to the simple fact that we cannot know anything. If there is no truth, then HE has no truth to give, so why is anyone listening to him?

    One someone tsake him down in print, one and for all? A mistake is only entitled to be heard from until one knows it is a mistake.. Any hearing beyond that is, at first, an annoyance, then an affront, and then a call to arms.


    I think the problem goes back even farther to the Greek Skeptics.

    The Chicken

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    Today, I need an edtor :(

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    Sorry, no meta-humor intended in the last comment.

  24. Supertradmum says:

    There are several problems here and I think a misreading of Heidegger and Nietzsche. No offense, but Derrida and Foucault do something similar and do it better, than Vattimo. The problem with Vattimo is the same dangerous warning which Gramsci gave to nihilists not to mix up philosophy with concepts of liberty or politics. The concept of liberty has been defined as both in context of groups or governments, such as in communism or socialism, or in the context of the person, such as in democracies and to a certain extent, monarchies. But, liberty of will and mind are different than historical liberty or political liberty and I find the mixing of ideas messy, sloppy.

    To see history or humanity in terms of progression is as old as the Reformation, sola fide, sola scriptura, with every person being a pope and determining that science or thought, as opposed to religion, causes spiritual growth. This is what I call the Star Trek philosophy and it is based on spiritual evolution of the mind outside of religion; progressivism is basically atheistic. To see the development of being in these terms begs the question as to what would cause that progressivism, if there is no soul or no deity. This leads to the ideas of self-creation or self-determination, which Heidegger, to me, was trying to address in his examinations of being and non-being.

    The nihilism of Nietzsche is not merely self-creation or self-determination, but the fact that in the face of nothing this is necessary for any meaning if there is going to be meaning, but it is totally personal and never absolute–Sartre et al.

    Heidegger’s ideas of Being are more connected to history and time and therefore have more “meaning” then pure relativism. Derrida and Foucault attempt to put this type of discussion into the meaning of knowledge and human existence in a time frame of history, somewhat like Gramsci in his ideas of hegemony. All these men use different language until they come to similar conclusions that there is no meaning, except what one accepts in order to influence the world. Meaning must be either seen in actions, such as in Gramsci’s ideals of new order, new intellectuals, or in complete disintegration of meanings at all in any way, including signs and symbols, and the overthrowing of all hierarchies, including linguists.

    The huge problem of either using linguistics or philosophy to explain or move politics proves more difficult, as humans needs absolute structures in order to create some type of government, either by an elite or by the masses. All of these men either see and define the rupture of knowledge (Bachelard’s idea and David Jones in his poetry, calling it the Break from Western Civilization), or the complete absence of meaning in any ontological sense. This leads to the idea (ironically) of no knowledge at all

    Instead of weak knowledge, some go for “no knowledge”, only reactions, or the complete destruction of both language and thought and therefore, structures.

    The logical consequence of all these ideas, is, of course, anarchy. That Heidegger attempted to go back into the history of metaphysics to try and reconstruct some sort of structure of being was surpassed by the complete undermining of the concept of person or individual as having meaning per se by those who followed. Nothing is left but spontaneity and the moment, which equals anarchy.

    As to the decontructionists and post-decontructionists, “no thought” is what they actually came to as their reality. No thought seems to be the real basis of relativism as opposed to weak thought. No thought denies any supernatural or spiritual reality outside of a person and indeed, the soul within as well.

    I think Vattimo is old hat and the anarchists have taken the argument much further, a la Rome, 2011, with no thought.

    I am so glad I am a Catholic.

  25. Nathan says:

    robtbrown, pointing to William of Ockam and Lucretius (and the Chicken’s reference to the Greek Skeptics) as “weak thought’s” historical antecedent is brilliant. It’s also a theme developed in the Brad Gregory book I mentioned above, along with an unintentional bounding of God in Duns Scotus. To avoid my temptation to prattle on, though, I’ll just link to Archbishop Chaput’s excellent review: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/11/6902/

    In Christ,

  26. Cathy says:

    Seriously, I have recently heard argued that the Council of Jerusalem was not about lifting the penalty of circumcision from those entering into the faith, but was about being “inclusive”.

  27. Cathy says:

    This in an argument that St. Paul would, today, argue for so-called “same-sex” marriage.

  28. The Astronomer says:

    Revelation 3:16 (Douay-Rheims Bible)
    “But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will to vomit thee out of my mouth.”

    Methinks this kind of wilderness-of-mirrors relativistic doubletalk is what the above phrase pertains to. Our Blessed Lord does not mince words.

  29. The Astronomer says:

    Revelation 3:16 being an example of strong thought… ;-)

  30. rollingrj says:

    Another piece of material off the bolt of cloth known as existentialism.

    Another attempt to put a garment on “nothing”.

    Another Post-Modern emperor has no clothing.

  31. fvhale says:

    Dear Fr. Z,

    If you are reading the Italian Vattimo and “weak thought,” are you also reading the American John D. Caputo and “weak theology”? The come like two scoops of gelato in one cup in the book After the Death of God (Columbia U. Press, June 2009). Just deconstruct all those (strong) religious structures, rules, traditions, morals, faith, and be enlightened that it is all about love, and all subjective. No absolutes. God is just that coming event of peace, love and justice for all the oppressed.

    Solo “in interiore homine habitat veritas.” “Dilige et quod vis fac.” These guys like St. Augustine, in a completely-out-of-context sort of way.

  32. Hugh says:

    “When suave Politeness, temp’ring bigot Zeal,
    Corrected ‘I believe’ to ‘One does feel’ ”

    Ronald Knox: “Absolute and Abitofhell”

  33. UncleBlobb says:

    It seems like just another rehash of Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum”, where we can’t really know anything objectively, and which certainly isn’t new. It’s just the same rotten egg in a new, uglier wrapper. And it doesn’t even use Latin.

  34. Harriet Vane says:

    This reminds me of a joke my calculus professor told us:
    A philosopher, a mathematician, and an engineer are all sitting at a bar eyeing a pretty woman across the room. The philosopher concludes that it is pointless to talk to her, since none of them really exist anyway, and the risk of humiliation isn’t worth it. The mathematician gives up after some calculations when he realises, in theory, that he will never actually REACH the girl, as the distance between them is halved infinite times, but will only approach zero, without reaching it. The engineer looks at the other two, rolls his eyes, and walks across to the room to buy her a drink. Thank goodness for people like Vattimo that computer engineers and the like believe in objective truth when it comes to THEIR jobs.

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