Tag Archives: Baroncelli

Conversion and Inclusiveness

The problem that I intend to try to tackle in this brief intervention of mine is the following: is the current notion of religious freedom or freedom of conscience – I do not mean to distinguish the two things even though one probably should – compatible with the current notion of tolerance? I will briefly try to prove: 1. that this problem exists, 2. that the setting given by Baroncelli to the problem of tolerance is the only way, at least among those I know, to set it correctly.

In the abstract, of course, the two concepts seem to fit together perfectly, after all they were almost always compatible in the internal forum (with the exception of the Catholic inquisition, as far as I know). If, however, we are striving to understand as we are trying to do today, the problem emerges immediately: it happens in fact that often the two concepts will involve, consciously or not, two opposing rhetorics, of inclusion and exclusion, often and willingly at the same time. On the other hand, from a public point of view the principle of religious freedom implies a form of public ignorance (even if almost always this is only very relatively true) with regard to the contents of this freedom; on the other hand, every religious freedom in which it is exercised implies a radical exclusivism: one cannot convert simultaneously to Christianity or Islam or practice different rites at the same time.

The same thing naturally applies to political liberty, but in this case, it is normally stated that the exercise of the aforementioned freedom is subordinated to the acceptance of a set of common values ​​- constitutional principles – and of common rules within which only political freedom is exercisable. This is because political confrontation exists in function of the exercise of a political power: everyone can disagree with any political proposal but must obey it when it turns into law correctly through a series of constitutionally guaranteed procedures. Every discussion or political confrontation is aimed at the conquest of a political monopoly. The purpose of constitutions, or at least of liberal constitutions, is to limit this monopoly to allow the survival of an adequate political dialectic through the protection of oppositions.

The problem lies in the fact that, unlike the political one, religious freedom implies the recognition of a right to a series of external and therefore public behaviours that by definition cannot be compulsively transformed into obligatory behaviours for all, under penalty of the abolition of religious freedom itself as external freedom. A quick examination of Hobbes Leviathan or of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologicus Politicus – from my point of view the two paradigmatic texts of modernity – would be sufficient to detect the dramatic centrality of the problem: on the one hand both Hobbes and Spinoza admit and defend the freedom of conscience in internal forum, on the other hand they  affirm at the same time the right of the sovereign in power to establish common dogmas and common rituals mandatory from a public point of view.[1] Locke’s ‘tolerance’ has – on the other hand within very clear limits – fortunately amended, not completely erased, from the paradigm of modernity this scheme, but the problem remains and is destined to emerge  periodically in particular situations.[2]

In a certain sense it could be argued that, at least after Locke, religious freedom could be assimilated more to economic freedom than to political freedom:[3] not surprisingly we hear about a religious market and about religious demands to which religions  offer religious supplies and even about a supermarket of the Sacred. That captures something essential that adequately describes the behaviour of many churches and sects within the modern open society.[4] The analogy, however, cannot be perfect because the goods put up – please allow my coarseness – for sale by the various religious denominations are metaphysical as Stark has often pointed out; in other words, while in theory it would always be possible to check the efficiency of any goods put up for sale obviously in relation to their price – and consumer companies take on this function primarily  – there is no metaphysical body that can control the qualities of the goods of ‘salvation’ put up for sale. In other words, the verification can only be internal. Religions are ultimately self-referential realities, even when they are in competition with one another.

The tools through which a hypothetical religious market can function may be, given the aforementioned self-reference, only two: fusion-syncretism and the transition from one perspective to another e.g. conversion. These two elements can be set against each other but are also strongly complementary to each other.[5] Here, with the help of William James, I will only deal with ‘conversion’.


What does being reborn mean?

As is well known, William James distinguished religious experiences into two categories: the religions of the healthy self and those of the sick self. Men, claimed James, on the basis of a statement by Francis William Newman,[6] the much lesser-known brother of the well-known cardinal, are divided into two basic categories, those who are content to be born once and those who want to be born twice. The former are in turn divided into two categories. Those who are naturally and instinctively happy with their state, who instinctively rejoice in the fullness of life that flows around them and those for whom optimism is a moral duty – in this regard the model is the hated-loved Ralph Waldo Emerson. The experience of conversion is irretrievably precluded to them: they are too healthy or at least they would like to be so too strongly and energetically. On the other hand, the experience of conversion concerns the second type of men because it implies a leap from a state of melancholy to one of exaltation. The religions of conversion are the most complete for James, although less widespread. Obviously, even if James does not take the trouble to highlight it, they are all of a biblical matrix, with the unique although an extremely important exception of Buddhism.

What  does distinguish these two types? James uses two technical terms in this regard: the first is threshold, the second is field of consciousness which is characterised by the indetermination of the margin; conversion is caused by the presence of an active subliminal self.

1) by ‘threshold’ James means a limit point that varies from individual to individual, and that can also vary within the consciousness of a single individual at different times, warning of the malum mundi.

2) in order to be converted a man must not only have a very or relatively low ‘threshold’ with regard to the malum mundi – or suffer as Job’s particularly tragic life experiences – but have a ‘second self’ available in the unconscious but not present on a conscious level.These two conditions must naturally be equally present. A man could have a very rich unconscious life but a very low threshold, or vice versa feel the malum mundi in a particularly tragic way but have no other ‘self’ in reserve, able to emerge or re-emerge at a decisive moment and therefore be completely devoid of ‘mythopoietic’ imagination.

It is therefore evident that the truly religious individuals are, have been and always will be very few: men, said James with an expression destined to become a common place, are divided into those that have their own religion and those that have the religion of someone else – the majority. One of the effects of secularisation is probably the, at least apparent, disappearance of this majority.

Given the theme of this conference, I will not critically address this approach, which I reserve the right to resume at the conclusion, but I will only briefly examine a passage that James uses to present the subject of his lectures to his Scottish listeners, perhaps to shock them enough to make them pay attention to his speech. This is a passage taken from the Journal of George Fox, notoriously the founder of the most open, reasonable and tolerant religious sect born of the reform. Here is the passage:

as I was walking with several friends I lifted up my head, and saw three steepled-hauses spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to […] I stept away […] till I came within a mile of Lichfield, where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then I was commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter, and the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put of my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished […] and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again saying; Cry, ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, WO TO THE BLOODY CITY OF LICHFIELD! It being a market day. […] And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I have declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace, and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so in my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or not, till I felt freedom from the lord so to do: then, after I washed my feet, I put on my shoes again.[7]

To be noted that James had already taken steps to inform his listeners of the psychopath or détraqué nature of George Fox, and it is no coincidence that the passage is quoted in his first lecture entitled Religion and Neurology.

However, the interest in the passage resides not in the more or less pathological state that the passage testifies to. In a certain sense one could say that not only James and his learned listeners, but Fox himself was well aware of it, so much so that the passage goes on to tell how Fox himself strove, through the elaboration of a series of ad hoc hypotheses, to construct an a posteriori rationalisation of this embarrassing word of the Lord, which in its immediate meaning seemed senseless to him too: for what reason in fact would the quiet town of Lichfield have been a bloody city? Instead, I would like to focus on one central point of this narrative: George Fox emerges from the common universe of all men, and first of all pastors who are surprised and frightened by this, for an explicit divine command to take off his shoes, and return, always for another explicit divine command, putting them back on. It should be noted that if there had been a particularly heinous crime in Lichfield a few days earlier, even unbeknownst to George Fox, an essential element, a verifiable ‘fact’, would act as a trait d’union between the two planes of the discourse that would be appearing overall sensible even though he would have remained ‘foolish’ to George Fox, who knew nothing about it.

There is another interesting point in this narrative: George Fox is surprised that none of the peaceful citizens of Lichfield have beaten him up. If they had done, he probably would have understood and apologised – ‘forgive them Lord for they do not know what they do’ as per the Evangelical citation. This could mean that the peaceful citizens of Lichfield, unlike those of Jonah’s Nineveh, had accepted Fox’s behaviour in complete indifference. But I will return to this point at the end of my paper. The passage quoted has the merit of presenting the problem that interests me in a particularly radical way: there are two George Foxes, and above all two different levels of communication, the pathology of the situation has to do only with the fact that these two levels of communication they have no point in common and that therefore the self-referentiality of George Fox’s speech without shoes is total, while in almost all ‘normal’ religious discourses there is still a margin of common meanings that can be more or less broad – think for instance of the five ways of Thomas.

At this point let us try to rethink the notion of conversion set out above: it is clear that the concept of ‘threshold’ becomes central. Let us imagine making this aspect of the question clear that a ‘vegan’ of our days was miraculously present in Lichfield, or more precisely still in its bloody meat market that certainly George Fox must have gone through during his preaching. He would have found Fox’s invective to be perfectly sensible, indeed he would have found it even more sensible than Fox himself, who, as I have already mentioned, had to construct a complicated attempt at rationalisation afterwards, going back to the time of the Roman occupation. The example, however absurd it may be, allows us to understand the deep connection that links the two essential conditions of James: I do not think the horror of blood is a natural fact, since after all man has been an animal hunter since prehistoric times; but it is probable that it has characterised many human individuals throughout the history of our species, so much so that it has always been exorcised in many ways since prehistoric times. To produce a religion such as Jainism, it is necessary that in some individuals a very low threshold for horror for this practice is combined with the emergence from the unconscious of a positive feeling towards every living being. An original James-type of religious experience, and a subsequent mythical transcription of it, was probably essential both to become hunters and to become vegans.[8] An individual, one could conclude, is first and foremost his mythopoeic imagination, and the recognition of religious freedom is precisely for this essential.


Flavio Baroncelli and the virtue of indifference

At this point we are almost back to the starting point: how to reconcile the claim of universality of every serious religious discourse with its self-referentiality in external forum? Avoiding both the Talibanism of all the prophets and the inverse Talibanism of all the contemporary atheologists who think of the “religious” as, in the best case, sick to cure, with a very early scientific education.[9]

Probably the best solution remains the small one practised by the peaceful citizens of Lichfield. The virtue of indifference for which they avoided beating up poor George Fox. What is often missed is an adequate theoretical justification for this fact, which did not coincide with prudential arguments – repression would have too high a social cost – or a merciful one – we must tolerate wanderers to give them time to find the truth – or again of a sociological or pseudo-sociological nature – it is a question of residual behaviour destined to be absorbed with the progress of civilisation, or in any case of true religion.

Particularly significant was a theory, different, and in some way opposite and morally more demanding, that was fashionable about thirty years ago, supported by an illustrious Argentine professor, Ernesto Garzon Valdès, who was also a visiting professor in Genoa in those years.[10] Tolerance is a particularly worthy virtue because it forces us to bear the unbearable. The starting point of the article is a story of Manuel Vincent ten years before in which he told of a father willing to tolerate the asocial and rude behaviour of his daughter and her friends until the fateful date of 14th May 1980, when she tried to put her filthy hands on his Mozart to make her friends listen to him. Another important point of reference is an analogous position of Mary Warnock[11], inherent as well prima facieto the complex mother-child relationships. From these two particularly significant exempla Valdès drew an essential conclusion:

in both cases tolerance appears as a dispositional property which in different and repeated circumstances […] is tested. Common to all these circumstances is the rejection that the respective acts immediately arouse in the tolerant person.[12]

The inevitable consequences of this approach are the affirmation that the idea of tolerance is always accompanied by the idea of an evil which should be the object of tolerance itself and therefore the need for a judgment weighed between the evil to be tolerated and the evil of intolerance; secondly the weighting presupposed by tolerance and a good criterion to distinguish this from indifference. It was therefore a matter of finding a new Aristotelian medium between the opposing vices of intolerance and indifference.

It was a version of the virtue of tolerance that was particularly demanding and ascetic in that it imposed the tolerance of the intolerable through a form of castration – even if this term was not used – of our moral or simply aesthetic instinct which should have involved suffering and therefore a complacency of this suffering.

The merit of Flavio Baroncelli was to react to this approach through the elaboration of an alternative hypothesis – the development of which probably would have led to the defence of political correctness in Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti  and lastly to Il razzismo è una gaffe  – tolerance is a public virtue that concerns the public space where differences must not be seen or at least noticed even if they are accidentally glimpsed. It is therefore a question of building institutions – and in the broadest sense of the term, even language is an institution, or rather the first institution – that are tolerant, not castrations of our private preferences whose public manifestation becomes a blunder. In this decidedly non-Aristotelian perspective, indifference becomes a public virtue that should not necessarily imply the castration of our private preferences, but if ever their “relativisation” in public space. An intolerant person would become essentially a blunderer, ridiculous not only in front of others, but above all in front of himself.

Only within a framework of this kind can the right to religious freedom in the external forum find its place through the construction of a public space within which, like within a Goffmann-style ‘scenario’, behaviours of religious actors can move. This would imply the need to postulate more alternative, parallel but not necessarily self-excluding public spaces.

The difficulty will then be again in the exercise of what Walzer called the ‘art of separation’ proper to liberalism, the exercise of which is particularly complex and difficult, especially since the World Wide Web seems to have erased the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’. I fear it will fall back more and more on the ordinary magistracy. In a certain sense we could say that the need to re-delineate this essential distinction is the difficult task that Baroncelli has left us with.


Endnotes & references

[1] From this point of view, the credo minimumrepresents a weak attempt to find a balance between the internal and the external, public and private. In this regard I refer to my ‘Dual language’: ‘Le salut des ignorants‘ and the ‘Homo liber’.The paradoxes of the ‘credo minimum’ according to Spinoza in ‘La ragione della parola’. Religione ermeneutica e linguaggio  in Baruch Spinoza, edited by F. Camera and A. Sangiacomo, II prato, Saonara (PD). 2013, pp. 97-130.

[2] See for instance the problem of the Burka.

[3] In this regard I refer to the General theory of religionwhich Rodney Stark, with the help of William Sims Bainbridge, expounded in the ever valid A Theory of Religion(1sted. Lang, New York 1987).

[4] But not in Europe, considering that in all European countries, excluding France, which on the contrary seems to apply a kind of monopoly of non-religion, there is some weak form of religious monopoly of a dominant confession.

[5] Without syncretism no common religious lexicon could exist and therefore no new religious proposal could find an adequate listener, on the other hand without exclusivism any metaphysical advantage that would make it convenient to support the cost of abandoning the old rites, beliefs and habits would disappear.

[6] Cf.The Soul, its Sorrows, and its Aspirations. An Assay towards the Natural History of the Soul as the True Basis of Theology, 1sted. 1849.

[7] W. James,The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1985, p. 16.

[8] James’s unconscious appears from this point of view particularly ambiguous: first, taking James’s speech to the letter, it should be understood as a sort of spare wheel of the individual, who can save himself from anguish, allowing another of his possible ‘self’s to emerge; on the other hand, by just forcing James’s discourse, one could think of it as an alternative to Jung’s collective unconscious without its potentially reactionary ambiguities: we can only imagine what is part of our culture and can be understood starting from it, even if we can remix the pieces of a puzzle in a radically innovative way by building something totally innovative. After all, to use the terminology of Ernest Renan, every génie religieux (among which George Fox can certainly be counted) did just that.

[9] Cf. for instance the small volume by V. Girotto, T. Pievani, G. Vallortigara,Nati per credere, Codice edizioni, Milano 2008.

[10] Cf. his article of 1992 ‘No ponga tua sucia manos sobre Mozart’. Algunas consideraciones sobre el concepto de tolerancia, Italian translation in Tolleranza, responsabilità e stato di diritto, il Mulino, Bologna 2003.

[11] M. Warnock,Limiti della tolleranza, in S. Mendus – D. Edwards (eds), Saggi sulla tolleranza, II Saggiatore , Milan 1980.

[12] G. Valdés, op.cit. p.166.

Diversity, Otherness and the Politics of Recognition

To Flavio Baroncelli, a friend I met only too late,

whose lively intellect, critical sense, friendliness

and clever  irony I just had time to appreciate.


The whole and the part*

In introducing his article “Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi”[1], Flavio Baroncelli identifies the difficulties experienced by philosophical debate when dealing with the relationship between the whole and the part. He states: “For centuries, philosophers have debated extensively on ‘the whole and the part’, and their debates might appear totally gratuitous to the layperson. Does the whole or the part come first? In which sense ‘first’? Logical, axiological, temporal? What is meant is hardly ever clear.”[2] The reference to the above-mentioned difficulties is to be taken seriously, since it takes us back to the origins of philosophical thinking, when Plato, in his Sophist, develops the theory of the summa genera[3] and originates a fundamental aspect of Western culture, still very relevant today, that is, comparative reasoning, comparing in particular what is the same and what is other. This type of reasoning considers the other as not-being, since it is a being that is other[4].

Referred back to human relationships and transferred from separate beings (individuals) to the whole − the community absorbing the parts making it up to the point that it cannot conceive of their independent existence − the definition of what unites us (same) and what divides us (other) is of great consequence on the anthropological, ethical and political plane. It originates the distinction between us (those who identify themselves as belonging to a given community) and them (those who are other than us)[5], which is based on comparison: they do not have some quality characterising us or, conversely, have some quality that does not belong to us. They are therefore immediately identifiable as not us.

The debate between political liberalism and communitarianism, which is the backdrop of Baroncelli’s article, has much to do with the above-mentioned way of defining both in terms of the individual-community relationship and in terms of the relationship among different communities. This is not the place to look into detail at the terms of the debate between liberals and communitarians and the specificities of the contributions by individual philosophers. To get an idea of its extent, suffice it to mention the priority issue characterising it: should we favour justice over good, as the former claim, or rather the opposite, as the latter say? Political liberalism is willing to acknowledge the pluralism of comprehensive notions of good life (characterising individuals or groups) and to extinguish possible conflicts through procedures based on the neutrality of the State, intended as a cooperative and voluntary association. For communitarians, on the other hand, good must prevail over justice lest society be disrupted and means instrumental to pursuing specific interests dominate. Hence it would not be possible to try to make a political community survive independent of the telos determined by a unitary and all-embracing notion of good and by objectives with which participants in the political community may identify. The community defines not only what they have as fellow citizens, but also what they are− not a relationship they choose (as a voluntary association would be), but a tie they uncover, not a mere attribute, but a constitutive element of their identity, so that the whole prevails over the part and makes it conceivable only in relation to the whole itself.

Since in the above-mentioned article Baroncelli posed the question of the whole and the part in relation to the recognition and interpretation of it provided by communitarian philosophers, I will focus on the following interconnected notions, which I believe to be crucial to deal with this topic: otherness, identity and recognition. The aim of this analysis is to identify a perspective that may overcome the most blatant limitations of political liberalism, also in the light of the issues posed by communitarianism, while adopting a liberal standpoint.


Otherness and translatability

At the dawn of modernity, with the discovery of America, Europe had to confront the “trauma” of otherness[6].  It was basically dealt with by reassuringly changing the other into the different, transforming “the non-relation of otherness into the relation of diversity, the incommensurable into the commensurable»[7]. It was on this basis that the debate on the nature of the Indios, and later on the savages, was developed[8]. Independent of what they were considered to be, the yardstick for their assessment was what was in them the same as or different from Europeans, in terms of physical characteristics, culture, economic development.

Since otherness based on incommensurability between cultures[9] may provide reasons in favour of political liberalism and the principle of (political) neutrality, I find it necessary to make it explicit what it is and which its ethical and political implications are. According to P. Feyerabend, “[…]languages and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affair), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs)[…]their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception.”[10]. This means that each linguistic universe represents a world of its own, its descriptions are a way – the way in that universe – of “seeing” the world, but also a construction of the world. In language, moreover, there can be covert classificationsoriginating“[…] patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view’. If these resistances oppose not just the truth of the resisted alternatives but the presumption that an alternative has been presented, then we have an instance of incommensurability.”[11].

It is therefore a question of distinguishing between possible alternatives within a linguistic universe or, in any case, between translations already put in place, classifying the latter as typical of a weak otherness (or diversity), and the non-existence of alternatives since other languages describe and determine other worlds. In the latter case, we might be facing an instance of strong otherness and, in particular cases, of absolute otherness. A distinction is made between strong and absolute otherness because the former is referred to realities which are used to be confronted with translation, although they do not presuppose the existence of alternatives, Whereas the latter concerns cultures which are the expression of groups of humans which have long been separated and are therefore not used to mutual translation. These considerations allow us to understand how our recognition of individuals or cultures depends on forming standard judgements, stereotypes and prejudice, developed according to a comparative criterion,within linguistic universes. In addition, they may shed some light on how we may intend the criterion of truth, which cannot be solely reduced to the correspondence between what is and what is affirmed, but which has to assume as fact also views of the world which, within a certain linguistic universe, may seem to be bizarre.

When Cortés met Moteczuma[12], the latter was really convinced that a cosmic cycle was coming to an end and this represented afact of fundamental importance for the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spaniards. Thanks to Malinche’s[13] decisive help, Cortés very cleverly exploited Moteczuma’s convictions to his advantage, since he could enter his linguistic universe and translate it. As is well known, the relationship between Cortés and Moteczuma ended tragically. We should therefore ask ourselves this question: is it possible to have tolerant confrontation and dialogue between culture, theories and comprehensive notions of good life that are mutually incommensurable? This opens up a further question: which relationship (if any) can we establish between incommensurability and translatability? According to H.G. Gadamer, translation of texts is an interpretation of them implying the activation of a hermeneutic circle[14]. But how far may interpretation go before it turns into misrepresentation when you move from texts to the even more problematic translation between linguistic universes finding themselves in a state of strong or absolute otherness?

A first step may be to “[…]recognize each other as a member of different language communities[…]”[15]secondly, we should refer this recognition to cultures to become aware of the type of otherness involved. It should be borne in mind how translation does not concern individual words and their meanings nor formal logic understood as universal language. Confrontation pertains to such logics, that is, the inherent structures of languages. This is the confrontation making it possible to reshape ideas in one’s own language. This does not mean that there is commensurability, but that languages “[…] can be bent in many directions and that understanding does not depend on any particular set of rules.”[16]. As translation goes on, we could begin to understand why statements that to us are obscure, bizarre or even meaningless have an explanation within the linguistic universe in which they are located. Here a word of warning may be needed: “To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language in not to make it one’s own.”[17]; furthermore, translation will hardly be really complete.

Lastly, translation may make it possible to construct a new language. This may happen independent of an informed decision[18], but also, in my view, as a result of an intentional process. On an ethical and political plane, the idea that cultures are incommensurable, but that translation puts them in a relationship, allows for a conception of cultures as open systems that import and export culture, that co-evolve and that may hybridise and originate new cultures. If interculture is not to be dealt with in general and misleading terms, we should deem the linguistic transition operated by translation the basis on which intercultural relations may be built. This may be carried out by maintaining the centrality of the crucial principle for establishing a real intercultural relationship: the awareness of the otherness at the heart of this process. Such awareness, like translation, refers back to the role of individuals. A process of dialogue and hybridisation between cultures may be constructed only thanks to their experiences, sensitivity, care, to their recognising themselves as bearers of a plurality of needs, interests, identities, to their recognising themselves as same and other at the same time, as belonging to the same species, and as situated individuals, with a history, a background, habits inherited by traditions. In other words, we should not consider communities from a holistic point of view as a homogeneous and cohesive whole on the basis of a single cultural identity, but as a hologram, a network of relations among individuals, groups, associations where communication, knowledge, different cultures and subcultures and their translations uninterruptedly flow within the system and out of it, opening it up to the innovation engendered by the combination of endogenous and exogenous factors.


Identity of the part or of the whole?  

In the light of what has been said, I believe Baroncelli had good reasons for thinking that the recognition philosophies and politics proposed by communitarians were based on rhetorical patterns that may be summed up by two strategies: “[…] the former is providing a poor image of the liberal enemy; the latter is presenting oneself as the champions of the cultural minorities the enemy cannot or will not protect.”[19]

Here is where two questions may be posed: which is the relationship between identity and recognition? Can we deal with individuals and communities in the same way, that is, moving from the recognition of individual rights characterising the liberal tradition to the recognition of cultural rights for each community? In this connection, Baroncelli emphasises a relevant feature: identity may be individual or collective (cultural, religious, etc.). Meditation on communitarianism, a holistic view holding that individuals are identifiable only as members of a community, as parts of a whole teleologically shaped by a comprehensive view of good life, implies coming to terms with the fact that communitarianism seems to embrace solidaristic values and be posed as a moral and political philosophy not proposing a conservative and illiberal view based on the community prevailing over individuals, but as a philosophy which, by opposing individualism, thehomo economicus,the preposterousness of cultural and e political majorities and Western modernity, defends, as Baroncelli says, the rights of the “parts that are also wholes”, of the cultural communities struggling to survive[20].

Individuals need other people to recognise what they are to perceive themselves as somebodies; what is more, individuals are mostly what other people recognise them to be; and they exist only within a culture, a set of shared values, hopes and fears, of life projects in common with others. […] when different communities live on the same territory, they need mutual respect and recognition […] For communitarians, this is tantamount to saying that the different value and sign systems we call cultures should be considered worthy of endless survival[21].

Hence communitarianism poses itself as a philosophy and as politics able to defend the community and the individuals making them up as parts of a whole, a form of non-abstract individualism, since it considers individuals as concrete and situated. In his critique to the foundations of liberalism[22], Sandel refers to Kant’s and Mill’s philosophies as particularly influential also for later developments of liberalism and for contemporary liberalism. The “deontological liberalism” of the former, characterised by the prevalence of justice over moral and political ideals, connects the two different meanings that may be assigned to deontology: the moral and the founding meaning. The former proposes deontology as a first level ethics by which certain duties (and prohibitions) are categorical and therefore have unconditional priority over other moral or practical needs; the latter defines deontology as a form of justification the founding principles of which do not presuppose a final aim or purpose, thus, no specific notion of good life. To put it shortly, according to Sandel, the prevalence of justice over good characterising Kantianism and related contemporary philosophical approaches, such as Rawls’ theory of justice[23], should have a foundation that precedes all empirical ends, including the pursuit of happiness.

From a Kantian perspective, the reply to this objection, concerning its foundations, is the subject of practical reason as the subject of an independent will, able to make choices that are not empirically conditional. This, however, poses a problem: to justify this view of the subject, a metaphysics of the transcendental moral subject would be needed, which, however, being noumenal, is not an unattainable object of knowledge, as it were. In this respect, what is also problematic is the particular version of the Kantian deontological approach provided by Rawls in A Theory of Justice: separating Kant’s theory from its background based on transcendental idealism to repropose it within the canons of a sensible empiricism[24]. A Hume-like deontology, where basic principles are derived from a hypothetical situation of discernment, the original position[25] characterised by conditions bound to produce a certain result suitable for real human beings. According to Sandel, Rawls fails in his attempt: the original position, a highly abstract hypothesis, only revives the incorporeal and noumenal subject it is trying to avoid[26].

As far as Mill and utilitarianism are concerned, Sandel underlines how he reaffirms the primacy of justice starting from a vision according to which having a right means having something whose possession society must guarantee[27]. The reason of such duty on the part of society lies in general usefulness[28]. Justice is therefore considered by Mill as the most sacred and binding part of morals, because its requirements are at the top of social utility and are the most binding of all[29]. In addition, the principles of justice, like other moral principles, are teleologically oriented towards the pursuit of happiness, which is the only desirable thing in terms of ends. Hence justice is what utility requires and if, in some specific cases, another moral duty may prevail over some principles of justice, it is because it depends on happiness[30].The conclusion Sandel makes is, very shortly, that the primacy assigned to justice by liberalism, in its variety and in its presumption of neutrality with respect to notions of good life, lies in a particular conception of person and of the abstract and disembodied moral subject of the strictly deontological view by Kant and Kantians; this appears to be too focussed on a teleological view where justice maintains its primacy because it is useful to the pursuit of individual and social happiness in the utilitarian approach.

According to Sandel, both versions of liberalism fail to effectively answer the question on what type of subjects we should be in order to make sense of justice rather than reduce it, on the one hand, to pure proceduralism, and, on the other, to calculations of social (welfare) utility[31]. Since individuals are situated rather than abstract subjects the primacy assigned to justice by the various forms of liberalism is misleading. Hence the fundamental function he assigns to thecommunity. It defines not only what individuals have as fellow citizens, but also what they are, not a relationship they choose (e.g., a voluntary partnership), but a bond they discover, not a mere attribute, but a constitutive part of their identity. In my opinion, the consequences of Sandel’s critique of liberalism are the incapability of recognising differences and alterities. Based on the neutrality principle, on the one hand this would condemn us to moral undecidedness, on the other its concreteness would end up imposing – which is only seemingly a paradox – a particular vision coinciding, as mentioned above, with the values of Western modernity considered to be universal and neutral (a blatant example would be human rights in opposition to community cultural rights because of the former’s abstract nature). In Sandel’s account, the double caricature ofliberalism mentioned by Baroncelli[32] emerges: the liberalism that is “too abstract” (by Kant and Kantians), the one that is “too concrete” (by Mill and utilitarians). What also emerges is an aspect he rightly emphasises: “Actually, there are liberalisms which are not neutral neither in practice (which is inevitable) nor  programmatically (which is evitable) and which do not have any superior universality to counter the particularistic and separatist drives by which they are challenged.”[33]. This concept is not elaborated in Baroncelli’s paper; given its complexity, however, it is worthy of a few considerations I will make very briefly[34].

The question of neutrality is indeed crucial for answering the objections made by communitarianism and by Sandel in particular. First, this question needs to deal with the nature of politics and of its relationship with morals. I believe the following statement by Larmore provides a good summary of a liberal view I personally share:

[…]our political thinking should not rely on all the truth we believe we have at hand, at least when it concerns the aimsof politics. What I mean is our thinking on politics aiming to establish the rules and principles of political society in such a way that those entering this political partnership will be able to see, discuss and recognise these principles; in this sense I intend political aims.[35].

Thus, politics concerns a sphere of human relationships in which the aim of decisions is not answering the question “how should I behave to others?”, but the definition of institutions, constitutions, rules and laws designed so as to make living together and cooperation possible among citizens expressing needs, interests, hierarchies in moral values, notions of good life which are mutually heterogeneous, incommensurable, sometimes openly conflictual, and wishing to act according to their needs and beliefs. More specifically, while the result of a debate outside the political sphere may not necessarily be bounding, also because it is not to be taken for granted that agreement or shared views are reached, in politics decisions binding for all citizens and the latter consider it legitimate to have recourse to force, coertion and sanctions to ensure behaviours conform to rules decided on by politics. Coercion in specific and well-defined cases is usually acceptable for all citizens, as long as it does not compel dissenters to behaviours that are in contrast with their morals or renouncing options that are consistent with the latter, provided that the latter do not jeopardise social and fellow citizens’ peace, or that dissenters, in case they would become a majority, are willing to accept the rules and practices characterising tolerance. This also takes into consideration that political decisions have feedback on our private lives and may influence them so much that our freedom may be significantly limited or increased. What has been said on the nature of political decision making allows for more clarity on the neutrality principle. It should not be intended in absolute terms, but as an exclusively political principle only related to controversial (reasonable) conceptions of good life[36].

Thus, any exception to the principle of political neutrality dismisses the legitimate use of coercion and undermines an essential function of the State: guaranteeing the opportunity to pursue one’s projects and lifestyles without harming others to all citizens, also independent of their community belonging, and allowing those who so wish to distance oneselves from it. The State being politically neutral with respect to what separates us from an ethical point of view, does not embrace a specific view – however mainstream − of good life in society, and provides everybody with a legalised space for dissenting in the form of conscientious objection. When it is not about abstaining from doing something, but acting in a certain way, if there is no danger for social peace, there should not be legal constraints[37].

It must be emphasised that, however specific political decision making is, it is based on deontological or consequentialist moral reasons. The political neutrality principle establishes itself as a deontological principle: when one is called to making political decisions they should take it as a duty to observe this principle as one of the foundations of political decision making. By the Seventeenth Century, it had become clear that those who are not willing to concede tolerance when they constitute a majority cannot claim tolerance for themselves and their own group when they constitute a minority[38]. In addition, those who are not willing to accept the principle of political neutrality as a deontological principle pave the way for those who have political recourse, at least on some topics, to all the truth they think they are entrusted with, when they are enabled to do so. The duty of respecting the neutrality principle also makes it possible to preserve the moral principle by which we cannot demand that others do what we are not willing to accept for ourselves, that a given behaviour is imposed by force of law on me that I do not share in terms of deep moral loyalty. The interpretation of the neutrality principle I propose seems to me to respond to the objections made by Sandel on this principle, also because this way “[…]we can circumvent one of the damaging paradoxes of later liberal theory, namely, its defense of political neutrality by appeal to ideals of the persons that are themselves rightly controversial.”[39], such as the Kantian one of the person as a transcendental moral subject or the perfectionist one by J.S. Mill of the person as a progressive subject perfecting themselves by having an opportunity to experiment life projects[40].


The recognition “leap”: from individuals to communities

The second strategy enacted by communitarians,the one on which Baroncelli dwells the most,consists in a theory and practice defending the cultural minorities the liberal enemy cannot and will not defend. The immediate reference is to those cultures “[…] whose identity is objectively jeopardised by illegitimate external agents.”[41] Such discourse is founded on the idea of cultures conceived as disadvantaged minorities. Baroncelli emphasises the weak points of communitarian rhetoric underlining how it avoids answering the question: “does this line of thought conceptually apply only to minorities, or are the same arguments just as sound if applied to majorities as well?”[42]

The answer is that communitarian arguments applying to minorities will then apply in the same way to majorities. This is because, from a communitarian perspective,every culture, even the most blatantly majority, may be conceived at all times by somebody within this culture as having the same urgencies as a minority. In other words, if the central reason is the defence and survival of cultures, communitarians do not have arguments against defending majority cultures. Thinking from within each culture, “[…] the arguments based on the need for envisaging a future for one’s culture apply to the Eskimo culture in the same way as they apply to capitalism causing the extinction of the Eskimo culture.”[43]. In so doing, communitarians interpret cultures as super-individuals: this is the only way of dealing with the rights of cultures, but within each single culture, beyond the way it is described from the outside, there are a large number of reasons why it should be perceived as endangered, and in the name of “danger” intolerance may be rationally justified[44].

If the individualism and cosmopolitarianism typical of liberal thinking cannot but give up to this transformation – the death of cultures – the indefinite survival of a given culture implies the possibility of supporting arguments against tolerance by basing them on the right to survival and by presenting them rationally within that culture. The historical examples of higher tolerance than a liberal regime may ensure feature peaceful coexistence of religious communities such as the millet system in the Turkish Empire[45]. Without discussing in detail whether this is an actual case of tolerance, at least in the modern sense of the term, I would like to emphasise two aspects: the former, considered by Baroncelli too, states that both the examples made and the ideal proposed by communitarians takes it for granted that individuals outside the community to which they belong are nothing and have no rights. They do not exist because they are not allowed to, and have no exit rights:

 […] where there is no territorial state assigning rights and civil and criminal responsibility to the individual as such, it is by no means possible to give an individual the right to abandon their community any time. […] if the misty area of intellectual communitarianism is abandoned and attention is focussed on real communitarianism, by which I mean the “serious” one by extremists, it is to be immediately understood that the logic behind it is that of exclusion. Either the individual or the community.[46]

As a consequence, while the recognition of rights to individuals may grant to those who identify with a particular community some typical advantages of communitarian life, it is not possible to grant anything to individuals as such under a communitarian perspective.

In addition, systems such as the millet hold as long as a strong central authority imposes them and make sure that they are complied with. Examples from the Turkish Empire and Yugoslavia after Titus’ death are quite telling. In short, with its sophistry, the rhetoric of communitarianism posing itself as a political theory and practice the aim of which is to defend weak, marginalised and neglected identities, ends up by making up arguments to the advantage of extremist, intolerant views in which the part (the individual) is subordinate to the whole. As A. Sen suggests, identity and, in particular, monoidentity, especially of a religious nature, can kill – and kill with abandon[47].


An impossible synthesis                                                                                                        

Provided that communitarian analyses on the limits of liberalism must be taken seriously and, as shown above, are important to make the limits of some liberal views comprehensible, I would look into some detail into a question, to which Baroncelli replies negatively in the light of the above-mentioned considerations, that is, the possible integration between the communitarian and the liberal logic to give birth to a new and improved synthesis. Under this perspective, a comparison with C. Taylor’s elaborations appears to be interesting[48]. The key concepts at the heart of the Canadian philosopher’s treatment are recognition, identity, authenticity and difference. His attempt consists in relating them to make the limits of liberalism apparent and proposing a new form of liberalism that may be able to overcome individualism and valorise belonging and, with it, cultural rights.

Although his appears to be the most serious effort to integrate liberalism and communitarianism, it is not convincing for two reasons: 1. It does not effectively counter criticism such as that advanced by Baroncelli; 2. It cannot utterly deal with the questions posed by otherness. According to Taylor, recognition is the central feature of multicultural societies and it poses more and more pressure because of the relationship between recognition and identity,the latter being “a vision a person has of what they are, of their fundamental characteristics defining them as a human being”. Identity is partially shaped by recognition, but also by lack of recognition on the part of other people or groups.Recognition overcomes respect and appears as “a vital human need”, since an individual or a group may be harmed if the people or societies around them construct a humiliating, limited or diminished image of them condemning them to low self-esteem.

Taylor underlines how recognition is a consequence of modernity in the light of two factors: 1. The collapse of social hierarchies made legitimate by honour as opposed to the universalist and egalitarian notion of human dignity; 2. The rise of individualised identity which can be expressed as an ideal of authenticity and loyalty to oneself. (1) implies democratic culture’s essential need for equal recognition,which today is posed a demand for cultural and gender equality; (2) refers back to the theory of moral sentiments (intended as means the aim of which is acting rightly), according to which we need to be in close touch with our sentiments if we want to become complete human beings. Referring explicitly to Herder and, more generally, to Romantic expressivism, Taylor highlights how each person has their own measure, and therefore not being faithful to oneself makes one lose their main reason for living, what being human is to them: every single voice of ours has something unique to say.

Herder’s fundamental contribution to putting recognition politics at the centre of attention lies in extending that vision from individual to peoples. Everybody has their own originality and culture. A people, like an individual, should be faithful to oneself. Moreover, discovering one’s own authenticity is not a monological process. We define our identity by negotiating with, and sometimes fighting against, what significant others want from us. Therefore identity connotes itself as the background against which our tastes, desires, opinions and wishes acquire a meaning. The rise of the modern notion of identity requires recognition of unrepeatable identity, different from everybody else’s, either individual or group, and at the same time poses a paradox:we take note of the existence of something universal (everybody has their own identity) because we recognise something that is uniquely one’s own for everybody. “The universal need promotes taking note of specificity”. The politics of difference redefines nondiscrimination as something that compels us to make of distinctions the basis for different treatment.

 The aim of these policies is not transient; rather, the aim is preserving and cultivating difference forever on the basis of the legitimate aspiration that one’s identity may never be lost. Classical liberalism cannot cope with the politics of difference because, from an ethical point of view, its commitment is procedural: we are compelled to treat one another equally, independent of the idea we have of our aims; on the other hand, the substantive commitment regarding life aims and what we deem worthy of fighting together is neglected. Liberal neutrality would therefore consist in the lack of the State’s and society’s interference in the affirmation of individual dignity, based on independence,that is, the ability of individuals to figure out an idea of good life for themselves. But this proceduralist liberalism, pursuing politics of equal respect among individuals, would not welcome difference, would impose a uniform application of rules defining rights, would view collective rights with suspicion and would not be able to accommodate the aspiration to survival of societies separated on the basis of the different conceptions of good life characterising them.

In addition, Taylor believes liberalism itself is not completely neutral: the separation of State and religion is incomprehensible in other contexts, such as the Islamic culture. A new kind of liberalism therefore becomes necessary, which he defines Liberalism 2, which maintains the habeas corpus, but distinguishes fundamental rights from the wide variety of immunities and presumptions of equal treatment. It is not a procedural liberalism, but one founded on judgments concerning good life, and in this sense these are judgments in which the integrity of cultures plays an important role. As a consequence, in a context where societies are increasingly multicultural and open to multinational migrations, what is needed is not only that cultures survive, but also that everybody recognise the equal value of different cultures and take note that they are precious.

The criterion for recognition refers to all those human cultures which have nurtured whole societies for a considerable lapse of time and have something important to say to each human being. Taylor highlights how this is a presumptive thesis, that is, an assumption with which we should approach the study of any other culture while aware that a real value judgment presupposes the fusion of normative horizons; it also presupposes that studying the other has transformed us so much that we do not judge by our original criteria any more. This transformation would be possible through the presumption of value of cultures. All cultures that have given a meaning horizon to a large number of human beings for a long time deserve respect and admiration. For this reason, we should become aware of the limits of our part in the entire history of humankind, also through comparative cultural studies.


A non-liberal liberalism 

The proposed integration of liberalism and communitarianism implied in Liberalism 2 is based on the acceptance of two assumptions that are by no means to be taken for granted and should be demonstrated: 1. Individuals, like cultures, have an identity; 2. Cultures are closed and impervious systems. Actually, the single-affiliation view is hardly justifiable: everybody belongs to a number of groups, nor it is demonstrable that a group has a natural primacy over others, which means we are not able to decide independently on the relative importance of the different categories of belonging. The importance we recognise to an identity depends on its social context and, in any case, not all identities necessarily have lasting importance. Finally, each individual not only does not possess a single or a predominant identity, but has to do with a plurality of identities that are, by the way, mobile.

We all constantly make choices on priorities to be given to our affiliations. In the light of these considerations, the argument on faithfulness to oneself is diminished, at least in the sense intended by Taylor. It is also questionable that the modern view of identity has created politics of difference. Communitarianism proposes two distinct but related lines of argumentation: 1. Individuals only have access to the notions of identity of the community they belong to: community and culture determine the reasoning and ethical models available to them; 2. Identity is something you discover. Particularly, community identity has an overwhelming importance and therefore ethical assessment is only possible within community values and norms. This is conflict with the modern idea that ethical pluralism is inherent in human rationality and cannot be reduced to the observance of traditions and community belonging.

As far as the view of cultures as closed and impervious systems is concerned, it does not take into account that cultures are not monolithic, but very complex (suffice it to mention subcultures) and, as it were, mobile and in constant coevolution. It is fact that cultures relate to one another when they get in contact, thus producing, in some cases, fully-fledged hybridizations – e.g. the relationship between Greek and Roman culture and between the latter cultures and the Judeo-Christian culture.

Cultures therefore cannot be treated as endangered animal or plant species, and cannot be “ecologically” defended as if they were protected species. There is a sharp distinction between cultural freedom and the importance of the preservation of cultures. In the end, also Taylor realises this when he introduces his presumptive thesis. Not all cultures would have a right to survival, but only those cultures which have given a meaning horizon to a large number of human beings, over a long period of time. How this sort of classification may be structured remains quite obscure. The only clue is reference to a comparative method, but, as mentioned above, comparativism belongs to a specific cultural view and is not free from ethnocentrism. Thus Taylor’s communitarian synthesis comes down to the far from democratic and respectful of differences idea that somebody (who?) may decide which culture is worthy of survival and which not. In this respect, I believe the most serious reply possible is taking note that the cultural richness of our world cannot be subdivided and categorised according to one single criterion.

Pursuing this view may cause conflict. On the contrary, imagining ourselves as differently different, to the point of realising cultural otherness, wherever the latter may emerge, and being willing to translate may allow us to understand the pluralities of human identity and lie at the basis of the recognition politics of a number of issues: these pluralities are cross-cultural; we are bound by our belonging to the same species; the ecosystem is our common home and we are all called to take care of it. If we value the heritage of modernity and focus our attention on freedom (including cultural freedom), then the importance of cultural diversity cannot be absolute, but must vary consistently with its causal linkages to human freedom and its weight in decision-making processes by single individuals. The relationship between cultural freedom and cultural diversity is not necessarily uniformly defined.                                         

In the name of cultural diversity, should we support conservatism and any tradition? Violation of freedom may also be induced by the tyranny of conformism to tradition, the more so if it is legally protected on the basis of the recognition of community cultural rights.



The unveiling of the sophistry supporting the politics of recognition championed by communitarians does not eliminate the need for rethinking classical liberalism in the light the big questions we are confronted with today. The basic idea is that we are not necessarily bound to moral estrangement based on our views of good and on our ethnic and cultural belonging. The perspective is that of policies recognising pluralism and cultural plurality, making it possible not only to live together peacefully, but also to promote relations beyond nation States. In this connection, Sartori’s words seem to be very important:

Pluralism will not identify with a multicultural descent, but rather with interculturalism [:::]. What does our European identity, our “feeling we are European”, depend upon? What created it? Interculturalism. And the same goes for Western identity, for our “being Western”[…]. Multiculturalism leads to Bosnia and Balkanisation; it is interculturalism that leads to Europe. Let us be careful, then. The multicultural project is really disruptive, as it reverses the pluralistic direction substantialising liberal civilisation. And it is really striking that this disruption is affirmed and legitimated by philosophers proclaiming themselves liberals[49].

In my view, however, it is necessary to bear in mind that, to get a convincing reply, communitarian claims should envisage a clarification of the neutrality principle, its justification and its nature and should take into consideration the social imagination of Western modernity. As to neutrality and its justification, the matter has been discussed above while looking at Kant’s and Mill’s visions. As to its nature, it must be made clear that it is to be intended as exclusively political (not ethical) and related to controversial notions of good life. In this respect one may make sense of the separation between religion and politics that is accepted also in countries with an Islamic majority and represents a well-accepted guarantee to those who practise this religion in countries where they are a minority. In this connection, one should bear in mind that there is not only one Islam and that it is inappropriate to refer to the Islamic community as if it were a homogeneous entity.

As far as the social imagination is concerned, we should take note of the crisis and the limits of what modernity has handed on to us. Here we will not look into detail at such a complex question concerning globalisation, the ethics-economics-politics relationship, inequalities, justice, citizenship, and many other topics. I will briefly look at the moral order acting as a backdrop for social imagination. Taylor has highlighted, and in my view rightly so, how the backdrop for social imagination in Western modernity is represented by the doctrine of natural law by Grotius and Locke. What Taylor fails to underline is that that vision was not meant to provide a moral order of the world with which the Western community could identify, but the principles on which the modern State was to be founded. These moral principles are certainly to be considered prepolitical, subtracted to contractual negotiation and constitutive of a shared civil ethos, but they acknowledged the discover of religious pluralism and of the notions of good life the State had to follow to guarantee the freedom, rights and private life of individuals.

The question might be asked how to envisage a shared civil ethos in a time of mobility, rapid obsolescence, uncertainty, plurality of decision makers beyond nation States? A promising view, worthy of study and elaboration, is E. Morin’s. First, he states the need “to abandon the obsessive idea of a project perfectly encapsulating the form of society to be constructed, in favour of the idea that political action may make new possible forms of freedom and solidarity emerge”[50]. What seems to me to be relevant is that Morin thinks that a new planetary consciousness is necessary, that is based on solidarity in the relations among humans and between humans and nature. What should be developed is what he calls an “ethics of reliance”[51]. But which principles may provide the foundation of these relations and may at least potentially be accepted in universal terms? First of all, human rights as a background for an idea of citizenship no longer constrained by fragmentation, but supranational and, in perspective, planetary[52].

This perspective is all the more relevant nowadays since “For the first time in human history the universal has become a concrete reality: it is the objective inter-solidarity of humankind, in which the global fate of the planet decides the individual destinies of nations and in which the individual destinies of nations upset or change the global destiny.»[53]. The suggestions of Morin’s “planetary ethics”[54] with its nine commandments[55] make it possible, on the one hand, to consider the emergencies of our time in unitary terms, on the other, to identify a possible pathway for further civilisation for the whole of humanity. In short, awareness that the earth is our home country and that the destiny of our species cannot be separated by the environment implies taking on ethical and political responsibility regarding the exploitation of resources, pollution, the development model to be used; the idea of world citizenship requires progressive liberation from national belonging to reach human belonging without this causing the disappearance of cultural pluralism which would rather become the basis for the development of intercultural relations.

This approach is therefore not holistic, but hologrammatic, because it valorises the relations network among all the components of the ecosystem, starting from human beings (as individuals and as a species). Thus, not only the whole does not prevail over parts and individuals, but is the ever changing result of the relations network existing among them. It is a way of providing a positive answer to Baroncelli’s concerns about the holistic vision characterising communitarians:

Through the powerful philosophical machine that has made the argument for the concrete and primary existence of the Whole prestigious as opposed to the secondary and abstract existence of the part, we are used to taking the metaphors of cultures as individuals seriously. There is, however, a fatal difference: while the claim that an individual’s life should be earthly and eternal at one time is usually considered foolish, thus very little popular, the claim that a culture should be at once earthly and eternal seems much more reasonable at a first glance; it is therefore much more infectious and dangerous[56].

*Translated from Italian into English by Ilaria Rizzato, University of Genoa



[1] See F. Baroncelli, Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, inF. Manti (ed.), La tolleranza e le sue ragioni. Un approccio pluridisciplinare a un principio controverso, Macro Edizioni, Cesena, 1997, pp. 147-160.

[2] Ibid, p. 147.

[3] See Plato, Sophist, XL, 254b-255e. The summa genera are five: being, motion, rest, same and other. Not-being may therefore be defined as other (cfr. ibid, XLI 254b – 255e) and coextensive with being (see ibid, XLII, 257c-258c).

[4] In the light of the summa genera theory, not-being may be defined as other (see ibid, XLI 254b-255e) and coextensive with being at the same time (ibid, XLII, 257c-258c).

[5] See. A.N. Balslev Cultural Otherness. Correspondence with Richard Rorty, Indian Institute of Advanced Study in collaboration with Munshiram Manohar Lal, New Delhi, 1991.

[6] See N. Wachtel, La vision des vaincus: les Indiens du Pérou devant la conquête espagnole, 1530-1570, Gallimard, Paris 1992; T. Todorov, The Conquest of America. The question of the Other, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma, 1999; G. Bocchi, M. Ceruti, Origini di storie, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1993.

[7] D.A. Conci, L’invenzione della differenza. Fenomenologia di un latente motivo ideologico e metodologico, in F. Manti (a cura di) La tolleranza e le sue ragioni, op. cit., p. 138.

[8] See B. de Las Casas, J.G. de Sepúlveda, La controversia sugli indios, a cura e con introduzione di S. di Liso, Edizioni di Pagina, Bari 2006; cf. also, F. De Vitoria, Relectio de Indis o libertad de los indios. Edición critica bilingue por L. Perenay J. Pérez Prendes, CSIC, Madrid 1967; on the debate on savages, see G. Gliozzi, La scoperta dei selvaggi, Principato, 1971; S. Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi (1580-1780). Laterza, Bari, 1972; F. Cipriani, Un Dibattito Socioantropologico nel Settecento. Il Mito del Buon Selvaggio, in International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, n.8, 2007, pp. 37-49.

[9] See F. Manti, Bios e polis. Etica, politica, responsabilità per la vita, Genova UP, Genova 2012, pp.126-145.

[10] P.K. Feyerabend, Against Method. Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge, New Left Books, London- New York City 1975, third edition published by Verso London-New York City 1993, p.164; see B.L. Whorff, Language, Thought and Reality, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1956, p. 121.

[11] Ibid, p. 186.

[12] Motēcuhzōma in the nahuatl language.

[13] Malinche was an Aztec woman, a slave of the Mayans, offered as a gift to Cortés. According to Todorov, her role went much beyond that of the interpreter since she succeeded in translation, adopting and adapting the Spaniards’ values and objectives. In short, an example of cultural hybridization (see T. Todorov, op. cit., pp. 100-103).

[14] See H.G. Gadamer, Hermeneutic I. Wahrheit und Methode, J.C.B Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen 1990, pp. 270-276.

[15] T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, third edition, Chicago 1996, p. 202.

[16] P. Feyerabend, op. cit., p. 208.

[17] T. Kuhn, op. cit., p. 204.

[18] See ibidem.

[19] F. Baroncelli, op.cit., p. 150.

[20] Cfr. F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 148.

[21] Ibid, p.149.

[22] See M. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge UP, second edition, Cambridge 1998, pp.1-14.

[23] See J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, Oxford UP, Oxford New York, pp. 1-10.

[24] See J. Rawls, The basic structure as subject, in American Philosophical Quarterly, 1077, p.14.

[25] See J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, op. cit., p. 11, pp.15-19.

[26] See M. Sandel, op. cit., p.14.

[27] See J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, in The Utilitarians, Anchor Books Garden City. NY, 1973, p. 459.

[28] See ibidem.

[29] See ibid, p. 465 e p. 469; cfr., also, J.S. Mill, On Liberty, in The Utilitarians, op. cit., p. 14.

[30] See ibid, p. 469.

[31] See J. Harsanyi, Rational behavior and bargaining equilibrium in games and social situations, Cambridge UP, Cambridge 1977, pp. 48-84.

[32] See F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 150.

[33] Ibid, p. 151.

[34] For a closer examination, see F. Manti La neutralità politica come principio deontologico, in Etica e politica/Ethics and politics, vol. 17, n. 3, 2015, pp. 247-261.

[35] C. Larmore, Dare ragioni. Il soggetto, l’etica, la politica, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino 2008, p. 99. In this regard, Rawls states that we should accept the imperfection of laws and institutions and “[…] it is only in this way, and by accepting that politics in a democratic society can never be guided by what we see as the whole truth, that we can realize the ideal expressed by the principle of legitimacy: to live politically with others in the light of reasons all might reasonably be expected to endorse.” (J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia UP, 2005, p. 243).

[36] By reasonable conceptions I mean conceptions that are willing to recognise the principle and the pratices of tolerance.

[37] Looking only at Italian laws, see L. n. 194 del 22 maggio 1978 Norme per la tutela sociale della maternità e sull’interruzione volontaria della gravidanza, op. cit., esp. art. 9 e L.n. 413 del 12ottobre 1993, Norme sull’obiezione di coscienza alla sperimentazione animale.

[38] See J. Locke, Saggio sulla tolleranza, It. transl., in Id. Sulla tolleranza, op. cit., p. 119.

[39] C. Larmore, Patterns of Moral Complexity, Preface, Cambridge UP, New York 1992,p. xiii.

[40]See J.S. Mill, On Liberty, in The Utilitarians, op. cit., p.14.

[41] F. Baroncelli, op. cit.,p. 151.

[42] Ibidem.

[43] Ibid, p. 153.

[44] See ibid, pp. 154-155.

[45] On millets and tolerance in multinational empires, see M. Walzer, On Toleration, Yale UP; Revised Edition, Yale 1997, pp. 14-18.

[46] F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p.157.

[47] See A. Sen, Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny,W.W. Norton & Co, New York 2006.

[48] See C. Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Princeton UP, Princeton 1992.

[49] G. Sartori, Pluralismo, multiculturalismo ed estranei, Rizzoli, Milano 1999, p. 112.

[50] G. Bocchi, M. Ceruti, E. Morin, L’Europa nell’era planetaria, Sperling & Kupfer, Milano 1991, p. 182.

[51] See E. Morin, La Méthod VI, Éthique, Le Seuil, Paris 2004, pp. 113-120. The term reliance was coined by M. Bolle de Bal and refers to the blending of relier (to tie) and alliance (alliance); see La tentation communitaire. Les paradoxes de la reliance et de la contre-culture, Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1985 and Id., Reliance, déliance, liance? Emergence de trois notions sociologique?, Sociétés, n. 80, 2003, pp. 99-131.

[52] European citizenship is seen by Morin as an important element in this sense.

[53] E. Morin, Éthique, op. cit., p. 204.

[54] Ibid, pp. 210-212

[55] See ibid, pp. 206-209.

[56] F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 160.


In Lightning Memory: A Philosophical Dictionary à la Baroncelli

The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, and associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.



Another word for potentiality.



A disease mistaken for moral failure.



Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.



The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.



A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.


Analysis (of concepts)

The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.


Analytic (philosophy)

A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.



The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.


Beauty (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.



The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.



A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.



When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.



Powerful, sweet, devious killers.



The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.


Coherence (aka consistency)

The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.



The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.



The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.



Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.


Continental (philosophy)

A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.



Someone else’s form of madness.



The folklore of the rich.



Coping with far-too-real nightmares.



Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.


Discipline (and Punish)

The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.



The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.


Economics (contemporary)

A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.


Economics (modern)

A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.



The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.



See “Get lost!” below.



It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.


Exceptions (making)

The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.



An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.



The culture of the poor.



Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.



An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasonings.


Get (lost!)

Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.



If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.



The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.


Hegel (Georg Friedrich)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.


History (of ideas)

A way to find out why we think the way we think.



The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.


Hume (David)

An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.



A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.



The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.



The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.


Insight (aka Intuition)

Prejudice we like.



The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations less likely to repeat them.



A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.


Kant (Immanuel)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.



That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.



The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.


Lashes (by whip)

As long as someone else gets more than yourself, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.



Another good way to show one’s own erudition.



The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemy: her neighbours.



A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.



An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.



Another way to understand religion.


Marx (Karl)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gains, the employee loses out—and vice versa.


Mixed (marriage)

The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.


Montaigne (Michel de)

His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.


More (Thomas)

Great wisdom expressed with clarity.


Nietzsche (Friedrich)

An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.



The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.



In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.



The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.


Pain (and Pleasure)

The fabric of our inner tapestry.



When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and be even more confused in the end.



An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.


Political (correctness)

The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.



A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.



Another word for actuality.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



Insights we dislike.



A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.



Often confused with quantity.



Often confused with quality.



The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.



A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.



The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.



The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.



The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.



The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.



Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.



A natural reminder of life’s beauty.


Spinoza (Baruch)

Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.



Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.



The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.



Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.



A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.



The socially crucial ability to endure people we dislike.



The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.



The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.



To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.


Ugliness (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.



See defecation.



Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.



The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.


Wittgenstein (Ludwig)

A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.



One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.



The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.



Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:

Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Flavio Baroncelli: A Personal Recollection

This memoire begins, as it must, by recounting some of the facts about the academic life of a good friend—too early departed and profoundly missed—Flavio Baroncelli.1


Flavio the Academic: A Brief Curriculum

Flavio was born in Savona on January 15th, 1944. He attended the University of Genoa and completed his laurea degree in 1969 with a dissertation on David Hume, written under the supervision of Professor Romeo Crippa. Between 1969 and 1975, Flavio worked as Crippa’s assistant and in 1976, in the light of independent research conducted in the U.K., published his first book, Un inquietante filosofo perbene – Saggio su David Hume (A Disquieting, Respectable Philosopher – Essay on David Hume; Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1976).Between 1974 and 1977, Flavio taught History of the Age of Enlightenment at the University of Trieste, returning to Genoa in 1977 to teach History of Modern Philosophy. He was co-founder, with Gianni Francioni, of the journal, Studi settecenteschi, and worked together with Giovanni Assereto, Franz Brunetti, Salvatore Rotta and other historians of the Enlightenment.In the early 80’s, Flavio’s examination of the cultural and political processes of modernity caused his attention to shift towards the ideological and social aspects of inequality and poverty. In 1983 he and Giovanni Assereto co-authored a book entitled Sulla povertà, idee leggi e progetti nell’Europa moderna (On Poverty. Ideas, Laws and Projects in Modern Europe; Genova-Ivrea: Herodote), whose content is indicated by its title.

In 1981, Flavio was appointed Full Professor in Moral Philosophy at the University of Calabria, returning once more to the University of Genoa in 1982 as Full Professor in Moral Philosophy.

In the early 90’s, his interests shifted once again towards issues in contemporary political philosophy: the theory and practice of toleration, the causes and evils of racism, the standing of liberal theory vs. the communitarian challenge, and the faults and virtues of “political correctness”. Along with many journal articles on these topics, he published two books: Il razzismo è una gaffe. Eccessi e virtù del “politically correct” (Racism Is a Gaffe. Excesses and Virtues of the “Politically Correct”; Rome: Donzelli, 1996) and Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti. Perché gli americani votano Bush e se ne vantano (Voyage To the Limits of the United States. Why the Americans Elected Bush And Boast About It; Rome: Donzelli, 2006).Il razzismo è una gaffe is an analysis of political correctness as a cultural phenomenon. Flavio explains how it came about in the United States and examines the main debates that it generated. The first part of the book, which is mainly reconstructive, paints a very illuminating fresco of the cultural and political processes behind the battles around speech codes on American campuses and their reception in Italy. In the second part of the book, through a very deep analysis that resorts to the conceptual tools of moral and political philosophy and pragmatics, Flavio defends political correctness as a way to achieve a fairer and more tolerant society, notwithstanding its excesses and faults. To Flavio’s surprise and delight, this book was adopted as an introductory text in sociolinguistics in more than one university course in Italy.In his last book, Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti, Flavio follows a formula very similar to the one used in the preceding book: he intertwines a narrative description of a long trip to the United States (written in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was intermittently treated for the protracted illness that ultimately killed him) with philosophical reflections on the opposition between the liberal culture and the neo-conservative culture that was at its apex at the time.

In 2006, Flavio changed the institutional disciplinary area of his professorship to political philosophy.

Flavio died on February 20th, 2007, at Saint Martin’s Hospital of Genoa after a long battle with leukemia. He was in his 64th year2.


Flavio the Philosopher

Flavio Baroncelli was a formidable philosopher, albeit an unusual—and even “disquieting”—one. His work is well known in Italy, but little known in other countries. The obvious explanation for this is that Flavio wrote and published almost exclusively in Italian. And that was no accident, for he knew English well and could easily have written much more in English in order to raise his international profile. But for Flavio, the Italian language was a basic philosophical instrument. He employed a great deal of straightforward (and clever) analytical argument. But he also argued (like Nietzsche) by means of humor, irony, story-telling and various forms of linguistic artistry. For this, he needed Italian, in which language he was a master craftsman.

Flavio understood and cultivated the rhetorical aspect of philosophical writing. He seems not to have viewed rhetoric and reasoning as disjoint enterprises, in the manner of Socrates (who also viewed them as antagonistic enterprises), but rather as intersecting. Of course he understood that rhetoric could be malignant, but, like Aristotle, thought that there was also benign, or constructive rhetoric—rhetoric with a legitimate, and thus rational, persuasive force. His admiration for Hume was in large part based upon his appreciation of Hume’s skill as a rhetorician, but what he valued was Hume’s employment of constructive rhetoric, while he rejected Hume’s all-too-frequent descents into sophistry.

In a short piece that recently appeared in English translation, “Rawls and Hume: A Fable” (tr. Gillian Parker),3 Flavio imagines a conversation between Hume and Rawls upon the latter’s arrival at the Elysian Fields. Hume there is made to remark to Rawls that “rhetoric really isn’t your strong point”; and this is meant as a criticism. More specifically, Flavio’s Hume chastises Rawls for having “invented a ridiculous term”—the original position—to describe a “simple and brilliant idea”. Part of constructive rhetoric consists in the apt, lucid and illuminating choice of terminology. On the other hand, Hume is made to chastise himself for being unable to make his own account of justice sound appealing “except by adulterating, by subjecting to the most bombastic propaganda, the psychological mechanisms available to me”.4 This is the sort of rhetoric for which Flavio had little tolerance.

The philosophical methodology that recognizes rhetorical, or perhaps one should say, aesthetic, modes of rational persuasion is indicative of a deeper commitment that Flavio shared with Hume. Humean scholars tend to call this “sentimentalism”, a label Flavio would surely have resisted. But whatever one calls it, the idea is that there is a shared human nature which is at once discursive and sympathetic. Rational appeals may be made discursively or sympathetically; it may even be difficult to view these two elements as entirely distinct. As I understand Flavio, this was his view; and I perceive it to be Hume’s as well. Indeed, I think that this was Hume’s main appeal for Flavio. Flavio felt that the Socratic (or ancient Greek) disjunction between reason and sentiment—or between reason and sympathy—was a false one: one that distorted the nature of human rationality. It was therefore that Flavio rejected all forms of traditional rationalism. In the fable of Rawls and Hume mentioned earlier, Hume confronts Rawls in the following manner:

There’s something I just don’t get; for instance, resorting to practical reason for stability seems odd to me, a sort of oxymoron, because I’m used to thinking it’s the passions that create a minimum of stability, of similarity between us . . . as well as a semblance . . . of brotherhood. . . . [F]or the last two hundred years now you’ve been ashamed of having an idea of human nature and pretend you can do without it, but what’s the result? That you, for example, . . . try to restrict the things for which you require mutual consent, as if all you were worried about were restricting the grounds on which someone different from you could say no, while in this way you actually exclude the grounds on which someone different from you could say yes.5

Of course, Flavio is here speaking for Hume; but I believe that he was also, in this place, speaking for himself.Both Flavio and Hume treated philosophy as a human activity, situated in history, culture and tradition. It addresses itself to people who have the shared nature mentioned above, who have specific traditions and concerns, and who, in any particular discussion, share a certain language which resonates with their beliefs, emotions and sympathies. Rationalism, on their view, attempts to address bloodless wraiths—parodies of the human being. It is exaggeratedly discursive, ahistorical, unsituated, and liable to slide into fanaticism.While one can never, I think, fully appreciate Flavio as a philosopher without reading him in Italian (for the reasons I have explained), I believe that understanding the way in which he conceived and practiced philosophy can help those who read him in other languages (and it is to be fervently hoped that his works will be widely translated) to appreciate his work6.


Flavio the Humanist

Flavio identified himself as a philosopher, and he was, indeed, a philosopher by any standard. But he was perhaps even more a humanist.If you conceive and practice philosophy in Flavio’s way, you are almost necessarily drawn to humanistic subjects and are less concerned with the analytic-synthetic distinction or the question whether it would be possible for something to be red and green all over. Flavio began his philosophical researches in the history of modern philosophy; but even in that period, it is clear that what interested him most was the significance of philosophical movements and they way they shaped Modernity: the way they influenced the manner in which people understood themselves, one another, and human relationships (especially moral and political relationships). What did Modernity have to offer in the face of poverty? In the face of war? In the face of racism and oppression?

These are the things that Flavio thought and wrote about—and he cared what philosophy could say about them and wanted philosophy to have a positive and wholesome influence. And of course he moved on from thinking about the significance of modern philosophy for the human condition (Locke, Smith, Hume, Kant) to thinking and writing about the significance of contemporary philosophy (Rawls, Walzer, Rorty and others). His movement from the history of philosophy and the history of ideas into moral and political philosophy was inevitable and inexorable.

Flavio’s humanism found expression in his intense activity as a contributor to various Italian national magazines and newspapers, such as La VoceVillageIl diario della settimana and Il Secolo XIX. His writings there focussed almost exclusively upon cultural, social and political issues, and he was an insightful and incisive critic of the contemporary scene. Unlike many such critics, he eschewed all forms of fanaticism, while at the same time offering scathing critiques of the beliefs and practices that conduce to human misery.Flavio’s humanism also expressed itself in research. He co-directed various research projects at local and the national level, sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Universities. Particularly important projects were The Ethico-political Philosophical Lexicon in the Italian Culture of the Eighteenth Century (part of a larger project for the creation of an internet library of the Italian culture, Biblioteca Italiana Telematica), and the work on Equal Respect: Its Nature and Its Normative Implications for Institutions, co-ordinated at the national level by Salvatore Veca.


Flavio the Human Being

Flavio’s philosophy and philosophical humanism were of course reflections of the soul of Flavio the man. Like the author of this memoire, Flavio was in certain respects a superannuated hippy. He was, after all, 24 years old in 1968. There were no doubt many earlier occasions; but the only time that I actually saw Flavio dressed in a dark suit was when I paid my respects to him, or rather to his earthly remains, in the hospital morgue. He most often appeared at the university dressed in blue jeans and a sports shirt. He confronted people on a social, intellectual and emotional basis—not a sartorial one.

And Flavio was a biker! Of course, many if not most younger Italians are devotees of scooters and cycles, but Flavio continued to ride and travel on his motorcycle long after most of his colleagues had moved over to their more comfortable Lancias (or whatnot). In 1988, Flavio had a serious motorcycle accident while traveling in Turkey that incapacitated him for more than a year and kept him from teaching and research. Right up until his death, he suffered from pain in his foot and leg that made it difficult for him to walk for long distances and sometimes kept him in bed.

Flavio was not a softie. He set severe standards for himself and others but was generally (although not always!) gentle in applying them. Humor, irony and sometimes sarcasm were his weapons, rather than aggression or intimidation.

He was typically adored by his students and had the ability to get them deeply engaged in philosophical questions. A class with Flavio did not end when everyone left the room; some of his classes may never end, even now that he’s gone.

The highlights of Flavio’s personal life were his marriage to Annalisa Siri and the adoption of Gurol, their Turkish son. I met them both at the hospital on a very sad day in February, 2007. In 1997, Annalisa had arranged for my own son to participate in cancer research at the institute where she worked as part of his medical education. This was an indirect consequence of my cooperation with Flavio in the Erasmus program, discussed further below.

During his long, final illness, Flavio was often unable to work at the university. His colleagues missed him and his influence in university affairs, and they were mostly in denial about what from the outside looked clearly like a terminal sickness. “When is Flavio going to come back to work?” one of his close colleagues complained; “We need him!” Of course, I had no answer.

The final period of Flavio’s life was unfortunate for more reasons than one. He had had to spend a number of years caring for his aged, and rather difficult, father, which prevented him from traveling and, often, from working as he wished. And when at last liberated from the duties of a faithful son, he became aware of the illness that eventually ended his life.

Being unable to travel was a serious loss for Flavio. He was fascinated by the similarities and differences among peoples and nations and relished international contact in a way that could not be fully served by the Internet. In 1991-92 he was an honorary fellow at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Iceland (1994), Glasgow University (1994) and the University of Bergen (1996). He was also instrumental in organizing Erasmus exchanges for students and colleagues in philosophy.It was through the Erasmus program that I first met Flavio; and it was also through this program that he visited—and became a friend of—Iceland.

We went together with a group of students to a country retreat in mid-winter. Ever the speculator about human motivation, Flavio gazed wonderingly out of the window of our bus at the bleak, frozen landscape. “What did those people think when they came here?” he asked, referring to the settlement of Iceland, which began in 874. “What could they have been thinking of?” He also warned me, “I hope that you are not sleeping with me in the same cabin. I snore like a bear!” He did snore a bit, but not really with bear-like intensity (as I imagine it).

The Icelandic students were as inspired by him as his Italian students, and discussions continued far into the night. Flavio arranged to send students, and a number of colleagues to Iceland, and to receive Icelandic students and colleagues in Genoa. Eventually, others took over this work, but the lively interchanges between the University of Iceland and the University of Genoa continue.

Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death. But Socrates viewed the body as a kind of prison for the soul, and daily life (and perhaps even human intercourse generally) as a distraction—at least so Plato tells us. Socrates looked forward to bodily death as a liberation of the soul. This was not Flavio’s view. For Flavio, as I maintained earlier, human nature was inseparably discursive, sentimental and sympathetic, with human rationality encompassing all of these elements. This, I maintained, was a Humean vision. Flavio did not understand himself as a soul imprisoned in a body; and he reveled in human intercourse. Despite his fable about a meeting of Hume and Rawls in the Elysian Fields, Flavio did not (I think) believe in an afterlife, any more than Hume did. Even if Flavio had believed in an afterlife, he would surely have wanted to put it off as long as it was possible to live fulfillingly in an earthly life: a life of language, culture, history, society—and in short what I have twice referred to as “human intercourse”. I know from our personal conversations that Flavio—long before he became terminally ill—was disquieted by death. He was afraid of contracting breast cancer, as had one of his male relatives. Philosophy for Flavio was not a preparation for death; it was a preparation for continuing, deepening and advancing the dialogue.Flavio faced illness and death bravely, and was able, despite weakness and pain, to write out of his experience a remarkable book (Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti); but I doubt that he “went gentle into that good night”; and why should he have?


Flavio Altogether

I have given a somewhat kaleidoscopic recounting of Flavio as a human being. This was the only way I could think of to present him to the reader, not as an academic, but as a person of flesh and blood.

But what unified the kaleidoscopic Flavio was his curiosity about the human animal and about human relations and his passionate hope that people might grow to treat one another better than they do. This curiosity and hope guided his personal life, his interaction with friends, students, and colleagues, his choice of a career, and his philosophical humanism: the honed instrument of his life pursuit.

We have now lost the bodily Flavio, but the spiritual Flavio lives on—not in the fifth dimension, but in Flavio’s own way, in this world. He lives on as long as we remember him, study his work, and are moved by his influence. We will be the better for it.



1 I express my special thanks to Valeria Ottonelli, who helped me to collect together some of the essential material concerning Flavio’s life and work.

2 A bibliography of Flavio’s most important work can be found here:

1975 Un inquietante filosofo perbene. Saggio su David Hume, La Nuova Italia, Firenze
1977 Blaise Pascal, Solitudine e storia, antologia degli scritti, scelta, introduzione e note di F. Baroncelli, La Nuova Italia, Firenze
1980 Pauperismo e religione nell’eta moderna (con G. Assereto), «Società e storia», n. 7, 1980
1981 Tra Locke e Smith. Alcune immagini del rapporto col “povero”, «Studi Settecenteschi», n. 2
1982 La droga, il sesso, l’Iliade e l’Odissea in Piacere e felicità: fortuna e declino. Atti del 3° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia Morale (Chiavari – S.Margherita Ligure, 15-17 maggio 1980), a cura di Romeo Crippa, Liviana, Padova, pp. 247-63.
1983 (con Giovanni Assereto) Sulla povertà, idee leggi e progetti nell’Europa moderna, Herodote, Genova-Ivrea
1985 Contro la carità discreta. Misericordia, raziocinio e volontà di non sapere in una polemica cinquecentesca sulla povertà, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XV (1985), 1
1987 D. Hume, Scritti morali, traduzione, introduzione e note a cura di F. Baroncelli, La scuola, Brescia
1987 I filosofi e la pace. Atti del 5° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia Morale in memoria di Romeo Crippa (Sanremo, Villa Nobel, 13-15 dicembre 1984), a cura di F. Baroncelli e M. Pasini, Ecig, Genova
1987 Corpo e cosmo nell’esperienza morale. Atti del 4° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia morale (Pietrasanta, 30 settembre-2 ottobre 1982) a cura di Romeo Crippa, edizione a cura di F. Baroncelli e D. Rolando, Paideia, Brescia
1989 Suicidio e garanzie. Riflessioni a proposito di un libro recente, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XIX (1989), 2
1993 L’incerta fortuna della critica all’immaginazionismo di James Augustus Blondel, «Studi Settecenteschi»
Cinici e scimmie. Osservazioni sull’anti-etnocentrismo di Montaigne e Rousseau, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXIII (1993), 1
1994 Il linguaggio non offending come strategia di tolleranza, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXIV (1994), 1
1995 Razzismo e verità, «Ragion pratica», III (1995), pp. 79-97
1996 Il razzismo è una gaffe, Eccessi e virtù del “politically correct”, Donzelli, Roma
1997 Giustizialismo, «Ragion Pratica», n.7, pp. 119-137
Post-fazione a Lysander Spooner, No treason n.6. La costituzione senza autorità, ed. e trad. di V.Ottonelli, Il Melangolo, Roma
Etica e razionalità. Un finto divorzio?, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXVII (1997), 1, pp. 230-260
Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, in F. Manti (a cura di), La tolleranza e le sue ragioni, pp. 120-147.
1998 Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, «Quaderni di Bioetica», pp. 120-147.
Come scrivere sulla tolleranza, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXVIII (1998), 1, pp. 49-68.
2000 Razzismo e correttezza politica: la riscossa della natura, in Mezzadra, I confini della globalizzazione, Manifestolibri, Roma
Giudizio, giustizia, giustizialismo, in S. Nicosia (a cura di), Il giudizio. Filosofia, teologia, diritto, estetica. Carocci, Roma, pp. 320-339.
2001 Liberalismo e multiculturalismo in Liberalismo e società giusta, a cura di M. Marsonet, Name, Genova
Le quattro indegnità dei liberali irresoluti. Teoria politica, XVII (2001), pp. 23-47
Il chiliagono della politica mondiale e la povertà della nostra immaginazione, «Ragion pratica», 16 (2001), pp. 135-138
La tolleranza dell’errore e del disvalore, in V. Dini (a cura di), Tolleranza e libertà, Eleuthera, Milano, pp. 257-276
2005 L’onore dei Labdacidi: religione, politica e familismo nell’ Antigone di Sofocle, in M. Ripoli – M. Rubino (a cura di), Antigone. Il mito, il diritto, lo spettacolo, pp. 21-44
2006 Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti. Perché gli americani votano Bush e se ne vantano, Donzelli, Roma.

3 Published in Emilio Mazza & Emanuele Ronchetti, eds. New Essays on David Hume (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2007), pp. 259-63, and originally presented in Italian at the seminar “La filosofia è politica”, held in honor of John Rawls at the University of Milan, 31 Janary 2003.

4 “Rawls and Hume: A Fable”, p. 260.

5 “Rawls and Hume: A Fable”, p. 261.

6 Others who know Flavio’s work may think differently than I about how it should be understood. This piece reflects my personal view, and should at least be of help to those who have yet to encounter Flavio’s philosophy.

Prejudice and Presupposition in Offensive Language

  1. Updating an old distinction: Frege on sense and tone[1]

In a much-discussed example from his Posthumous Writings (from the piece called “Logik” , written in 1897), Frege makes an analysis of the difference between two similar sentences:

(1) That dog howled all night

(2) That cur howled all night

The two sentences, Frege says, express the same thought:

[T]he first sentence tells us neither more nor less than does the second. But whilst the word ‘dog’ is neutral as between having pleasant or unpleasant associations, the word ‘cur’ certainly has unpleasant rather than pleasant associations and puts us rather in mind of a dog with a somewhat unkempt appearance. Even if it is grossly unfaith to the dog to think of it in this way, we cannot say that this makes the second sentence false. True, anyone who utters this sentence speaks pejoratively, but this is not part of the thought expressed (…) It might be thought that the second sentence does nevertheless tell us more than the first, namely that the speaker has a poor opinion of the dog. In that case, the word ‘cur’ would contain an entire thought.

I have quoted Frege at length because the selection contains many ideas that we may summarise as follows:

– The two sentences express the same assertive content, so that if (1) is true then (2) is true;

– However, (2) expresses also a tone or colouring given the pejorative expression “cur”, which suggests a negative attitude towards dogs;

– The term “cur” may be thought to contain an entire sentence expressing a derogatory attitude towards dogs;

– But the sentence ideally contained in the word “cur” is not expressed, but hinted at with the use of the pejorative word; a person unaware of the derogatory meaning of “cur” would interpret (2) as intending exactly what (1) means.

Therefore, we need to distinguish between:

(a) The thought expressed, which has to do with the truth or falsity of the state of affairs described (we may speak of the truth conditional content of the sentence);

(b) The thoughts “which the speaker leads others to take as true although he does not express them”.

The distinction is reminiscent of a distinction already made by Frege in his 1879 masterpiece, Conceptual Notation (Begriffsschrift), where he insists that we have to distinguish between sense and tone:

(a) The sense of a sentence is what pertains to the truth.

(b) The tone or colouring of a sentence is what pertains to pragmatic agreements.

Although Frege does not use the term “implicature”, widely applied by the philosopher Paul Grice in his analysis of implicit communication, many authors have considered his distinction as a forerunner of Grice’s idea of conventional implicature. Following this lead, David Kaplan (1999) suggested developing the Fregean distinction between sense and tone with the following analysis: in pejorative expressions we have to distinguish a descriptive part and an expressive part; both have the same information content (they refer to the same individuals when used to refer), but the pejoratives express also an attitude that we should take into account.

Consider two sentences concerning a crime:

(3) That nigger is the culprit.

(4) That man is the culprit.

Both have the same truth conditions; they are both true or false depending on the person in question having committed the crime, provided that with “that man” and “that nigger” the speaker intends to refer to the same individual. But while the descriptive part of (3) and (4) have the same function in helping the hearer, maybe together with a gesture, to refer to the individual in question, the expressive part of (3) creates a problem because it expresses a strongly negative attitude towards a class of individuals just because of the colour of their skin.

A possible reaction to this difference could be, “I don’t care about expressive aspects or tone: what counts is the truth of the matter”. The problem is just to answer correctly to the questions:

– Is that man the culprit or not?

– Did that dog howl all night or not?

If we are interested only in the objective truth of the matter, who cares about different shades of linguistic expressions? Actually, this reaction has been more and more powerful since the diffusion of “politically correct language”. Sometimes exasperated by the societal request or even imposition to use politically correct language, many people have begun to think that such a language is only an imposition that hides the real beliefs: political correctness comes across as if people abandon their prejudices, while those prejudices continue to stand as solid rock hidden by a pretentious and insincere use of politically correct jargon. After having been exposed to the excesses of politically correct language during his stay in the United States, Flavio Baroncelli, a political philosopher from Genoa, thought of a way out of the difficulties of politically correct language, by individuating—with a sarcastic humour he often used in his interactions with colleagues—its particular properties and possible virtues.


  1. A suggestion by Flavio Baroncelli (1996)

Commenting on the (sometimes correct and sound) reactions to politically correct language, Baroncelli reminds us that:

 There is not only a question of truth but also a question of appropriateness.

I was impressed at that time (the mid-1990s) by Baroncelli’s precise wording. Actually, “appropriateness” is a property of utterances, and it is traditionally connected in the studies of pragmatics to the concept of presupposition, which, in turn, is strictly connected with the concept of prejudice. Although this is not the place to define prejudice, given the abundant literature and different concepts behind different words in different languages (and we may refer to the paper by Oprah Załęska in this issue), I want to provide at least a generic distinction about the term “prejudice”, given that literally “pre-judice” means a “judgment before…”. The question remains “before what”?

Is a prejudice a judgment given before having correct information or is it something that comes before a judgment? There are two ways of taking the term “before” that lead us to see two different aspects of prejudice: we may think of a prejudice (a) as a judgement given in advance, before having proper information; or (b) as something that comes before the actual act of judging and supports the judgement. On the one hand, we have missing information that is normally required to give a proper judgment; on the other hand, we have assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes that lie hidden and are taken for granted, as a common ground on which a judgment is possible. These kinds of opinions or beliefs on which we ground our judgments can be labelled—in contemporary terminology—“presuppositions”.

Frege distinguished the mental act of judgment from the linguistic act of assertion: an assertion is the expression of a judgment. Using the term “cur” instead of “dog”, in asserting (2), I express a prejudice against dogs; while giving a judgment on a situation I rely on a background of tacit assumptions that lie hidden in my judgment. Is this necessarily bad? Not necessarily. Actually, every assertion is based on some presuppositions. If I say that Elena stopped smoking, my assertion presupposes that Elena smoked. However, this doesn’t mean that I have a prejudice against Elena; I just tacitly state that she was a smoker in a previous time. We speak of “prejudices” only when we think that presuppositions are fundamentally wrong, and often these presuppositions are wrong because they select some superficial feature of a class to define the class itself as being negatively characterized by those features (race, gender, and so on).

From this point of view, prejudices belong to presuppositions, to what is taken for granted without or before any speech act (assertion, question, command…). A presupposition is what is taken for granted without the need for being expressed explicitly. Prejudices are a subset of the set of presuppositions.  Studying presuppositions, we study the basic features of prejudice itself, features that it shares with “normal” harmless presuppositions, but that may drastically impinge on our well-being and social life.

A basically accepted definition of presupposition is the one introduced by Robert Stalnaker (2002: 712):

[PRES] A sentence S pragmatically presupposes a belief B when an utterance of S is appropriate only if B is shared by participants to a conversation (or B is taken for granted by participants)

Taking the example above, the sentence “Elena stopped smoking” presupposes the belief “Elena used to smoke”, and this presupposition is triggered or activated by a simple piece of the lexicon, in this case, the verb “to stop” that indicates a change of state that requires having done an action before. If I say, “Carlo gave a talk on prejudices again”, I presuppose that Carlo has already given a talk on prejudice because of the use of the iterative adverb “again”. My interlocutors take for granted those presuppositions either because they already know them or because they “accommodate” the common ground of shared beliefs with those presuppositions. Analogously, if I say, “that nigger is the culprit”, I presuppose that blacks are inferior as such, because I use a pejorative word that requires assuming an attitude of contempt towards blacks. And one who uses this pejorative expression assumes that her interlocutors share the same kind of belief and attitude.

There are at least two apparent problems in applying Stalnaker’s theory and his definition to the case of derogatory words, and they are the following:

(i) In using a pejorative in a case of reappropriation, people do not share the prejudice attached to the term; therefore we should say that their use is not appropriate, but intuitively it does not seem so.

(ii) In contrast, the use of derogatory terms by people with racist prejudices seems perfectly appropriate in their own context of dialogue where the prejudice is shared. Should we accept that?

I give here two short answers to these two problems:

(i) Reappropriation as detachment

The term “nigger” is normally and typically used in contexts where black friends enjoy using the term as a signifier of social bonding; but certainly, they do not share a prejudice against black people. However, they share the knowledge of the prejudice attached to the derogatory term and want to explicitly reject the prejudice by using the term in order to change the presuppositions. Not only is the knowledge of the presupposition shared, but also the understanding that they want to detach the use of the term from the prejudice. It is similar to irony, where a term is not used with its literal meaning, but the literal meaning is intended to produce in the audience the contrary of what is normally intended. In the philosophical and linguistic environment, irony is typically interpreted as an implicature or as an “echoing” of others’ point of view in order to mock the speaker. It is as if the group of people wanting a reappropriation were mocking the usage by racists: in using irony concerning their presuppositions, they detach the term from the prejudice and can use it freely—but they cannot leave other people to use it.

Apparently this problem would deserve a deeper analysis, but it is at least useful to have an insight from actual discussion on the subject, like the wording of one famous rapper, Ice Cube: “A slur is like a knife. You can use it as a weapon or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. It’s in the lexicon, everybody talks it, but it’s our word now. You can’t have it back.”[2] Not everybody agrees on the idea or practice of reappropriation, and some take a more radical stance similar to the one held by Jennifer Hornsby (2001: 129) concerning pejoratives in general: “Derogatory words are ‘useless’ for us. Some people have a use for them. But there is nothing that we want to say with them. Since there are other words that suit us better, we lose nothing by imposing for ourselves a blanket selection restriction on them, as it were.” In particular, with the term “nigger”, Oprah Winfrey claims that the term “should not be a part of the language, of the lexicon”[3].

(ii) Appropriateness of hate speech in small groups

It may sound awkward to say that the use of derogatory terms is “appropriate” in small groups, but it is just a consequence of the definition. And it helps in understanding the working of prejudices. In fact, if an expression is appropriate if its presuppositions are shared by the participants in a conversation, then a pejorative term is perfectly at home in a conversation among racists, because they certainly share the prejudices attached to the pejorative term. And knowing that using a term presupposes a common ground of racist beliefs may help us to acknowledge other people’s perspective—also in order to find ways to contrast them. However appropriate in small groups, racist or hate language should be legally forbidden
 in public—as it happens or should happen, in Italy, where promoting Fascism is a felony punished by the law. A public offence always invites the possibility of legal action, and we have many cases of public debate on that, as well as on situations where the speaker did not intend to offend. (The quotations from the previous section come from a discussion of the use of the term “nigger” by a notorious white television personality.) At the same time, we cannot actually “forbid” using slurs, including derogatory and offensive language, in private conversation. Besides—and this is not so different from reappropriation—it is well known that derogatory language is often used in groups or pairs as a joke or as a sign of confidence. (I may use derogatory language and you are not offended because you know that I don’t mean it.)

But we have invented “politically correct language” where even in private conversation people tend to adhere to a kind of language that avoids pejoratives and offensive terminology. And in this particular fashion, developed to some extremes in the United States, Baroncelli makes his provocative challenge: with politically correct language, racism becomes a “gaffe”.


  1. A provocation by Flavio Baroncelli: “Racism is a gaffe”

In what follows, I try to present Baroncelli’s idea without his humour (and therefore missing something relevant, but I cannot be him). Let us take again our examples (3) and (4). Following the definition [PRES] above, the sentence (S) “that nigger is the culprit” is appropriate if it presupposes the sharing of the tacit belief (B) “coloured people are inferior as such”. Now imagine a situation of a classroom in a scholarly educated town for which we may assume that (B) is not shared among the participants in the conversation. Let us imagine that the classroom is brought to a court to assist a case in which—let us say—the former president of the US is accused of having wiretapped Donald Trump. What will happen if a less educated girl—seeing the once president of the US accused of the crime, and maybe unaware of the role of the person in front of her—utters “that nigger is the culprit”? Other students will look at her in a very curious way and will judge her with mixed feelings of astonishment or embarrassment and maybe take distance from her. At this point, facing the reactions of her companions, she will realize that she has made a gaffe.

But what is a gaffe? By common definitions (e.g. Wikipedia), a gaffe is:

To say something true but inappropriate in social context.

By this definition, a sentence is inappropriate in a social context when the presuppositions are not shared. Using the case of politically correct language, Baroncelli, on the one hand, puts racists in a humiliating situation, whereby they are unable to understand the social place they are in, and on the other hand puts politically correct language users in a ridiculous situation, making them reduce racism to a mere gaffe.

Yet there is something deep in this analysis, and it is the attempt of analysing the interaction of different presuppositions in different contexts. The point is that there are always many social contexts and they have complex relations; in small local contexts, you are allowed more liberty. As we have hinted at before, slurs and offensive language are easily used in small groups of friends, xenophobes or not, and offensive language among friends may also be a sign of friendship: you are not offended, but take the slur as a joke, as a colourful way to say something that could be also expressed in “educated” language. Youngsters are used to this (although sometimes there are periods when bad examples by adults get over the fence; Italian television during the Berlusconi era became a means to foster far too much vulgar language[4]).

What politically correct language teaches us is therefore the need to take care of different presuppositions contained in our lexicon and in different contexts where these presuppositions are or are not shared. Only with this awareness can people avoid making a gaffe, when they involuntarily use a pejorative expression in an environment that rejects the prejudices attached to the term. Often young and old people are not aware of prejudices of this kind. An aunt of mine, Maria Bianca Penco, in a report of her travel through Italy after the second World War, wrote something like “….and we met groups of niggers…”. She did not have another lexical item, like “black”, and we had to explain to her that “nigger” is now a pejorative term with such and such presuppositions. She was happy to learn, and she felt enriched and changed her lexicon. But young people are not excusable; they need to learn as soon as possible (and this is the duty of teachers) the presuppositions attached to the lexicon they use.

If in a local small context you are allowed to use slurs, in a larger context you receive social censorship (or even denunciation). The main thing to teach in this regard is that what seems normal in your small environment may be inappropriate if uttered in a larger context. Understanding this implies understanding the stereotypical presuppositions triggered by derogatory words (whose force people are often not aware of), and getting to the roots of prejudice.

What then is the role of politically correct language? Through realizing having made a gaffe, a person may learn the power of the prejudices hidden in language and emotionally react to them; a person may learn more about others and about social history, and, taking a careful attitude towards the use of lexicon in a public environment, the racist himself may find a way to change. As Baroncelli says:

It is not important just having different words; what is relevant is the effort of changing. It is the way we train the animals we are.

Last, but not least, there is also a particular form of prejudice: assuming that others share racist stereotypes while they do not. This attitude, this presumption, may be considered a kind of prejudice and may be felt very offensive. If you attribute a presupposition to a social group where the presupposition is not shared, your utterance in not appropriate, and therefore you make a gaffe. More than 10 years after Baroncelli’s book, I have been struck by an apology made by Microsoft. In the US, Microsoft deployed advertising that depicted three experts in discussion around a table: a white woman, a white man, and a black man. When the company began to use this advertising in Poland, it cancelled the image of the black expert and put in his place a white person, probably thinking that the Polish cultural environment might not have been ready to positively accept a black figure. Many people in Poland reacted strongly, feeling themselves to be judged as culturally inferior by Americans; eventually, on August 26, 2009, Microsoft re-introduced the original picture (with the black expert, as you can see from a journal article commenting on the fact[5]) with a comment, which sounds mysterious unless you know the entire history, saying:

Microsoft apologizes for the gaffe.



  1. Baroncelli 20 years later

Baroncelli’s main lesson is the search for awareness of the clash of contexts, from contexts of face-to-face conversation to different kinds of contexts of public interaction. What is new after 20 years? The World Wide Web  was invented in 1994; the first University homepage in Genoa (the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy homepage) was launched in 1996, the same year of the publication of Il razzismo è una gaffe. Twenty years later, we realise that two aspects could not have been foreseen:

(1) When derogatory expressions pass by ignorance from the context of private or small-group conversation into the context of social networks.

(2) When derogatory expressions are used on purpose in structured ways in social networks to convey the prejudice presupposed by those words.

If considered with care, (1) is exactly the kind of problem Baroncelli was trying to denounce: you cannot use offensive language out of a restricted context without paying consequences or making others pay consequences. The enormous consequences of offensive language on the Web have attracted public attention; (some) people are beginning to understand that they cannot write the first thing that passes through their mind without having or provoking dangerous consequences. Public offence can have provocative consequences both for the writer and for the offended. It depends on the strength of the offended person, who can be devastated—if young or inexperienced—or can devastate the writer, who may be denounced by the public. The novelty in the social space since the 1990s is the wide variety of social networks, from Facebook to Instagram or YouTube and Twitter. The varieties of contexts on the Web are a novelty that we still have to learn to fully manage and master, trying to find software that could check tens of thousands of pages coming online every minute[6].

However, the analysis made in the previous section, concerning the sharing of presuppositions in different contexts, still keeps its original flavour and interest. And Baroncelli’s legacy might be a warning for teachers to work with students to better understand different levels of contexts of reception.

The second aspect above, concerning the use of social networks for actual intentional spreading of prejudices, fake news, and offensive or hate language, is really something new, and it was unpredictable in the nineties. We can no more speak of a “gaffe” inside a context, but we are facing a new way of spreading prejudices through new means. Here I abandon philosophical and linguistic analysis, and give a short comment on some common news.

The diffusion of offensive language[7] increased sharply during the “Brexit” referendum in the UK (June 23, 2017). In June 2017 in Great Britain we had 5,468 records of hate speech (40% more that one year before), and in July–September 2016 there were 14,300 hate crime reports. We have to consider these to represent only a small part of actual hate crimes, given that most are not denounced. There is a strong hidden support to hate speech grounded on prejudices, which politicians have used to support their party (think of the UKIP, which had a fundamental role in deciding Brexit and disappeared in the June 2017 elections). Similar statistics come from the US after Donald Trump’s election, as a sign that prejudices are not typical of Europe, but are spreading around, supporting different political agendas (we don’t have statistics about hate crimes between Sunni and Shia populations, which go beyond what we know in Europe).

Statistics typically report only actual hate crimes in the streets, expressing prejudices against “other Europeans” or against “non-Europeans” just because of the emergence of nationalism. Is nationalism enough to explain the diffusion of prejudices and hate crimes? Not really, although we already know that propaganda in the Nazi period made great use of prejudices shared or imposed on a great part of the population. What is new today is the way in which hate crimes and offensive language are diffused through the internet, where neo-Nazi and white supremacist channels are always very active, and the way in which countless sites deliberately generate and distribute fake news on any enemy. Some YouTube channels reach very high numbers and have therefore a very high influence in generating prejudices. To provide only a few examples:

– Steve Anderson is a famous US pastor who commented on the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando as “good news” and said “there’s 50 less paedophiles in the world”. For him, gay people “were not born that way, but they will burn that way”. His YouTube channel has had 33.5 million views.

– Wagdi Ghoneim is a Muslim preacher and a central figure in the diffusion of hate speech; his channel has more than 200,000 subscribers and has had 31 million views.

– Donald Trump’s twitter account has a similar number of followers: 31 million. A peculiar feature of this president of the United States is that he insists on defining the official press as “fake news”: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC@CBS@CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”[8] In this way he implicitly suggests that his supporters rely more and more on sites that support hate speech (like the sites supporting the news that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief John Podesta ran a child sex ring—also provoking an assault on an innocent pizza restaurant in Washington[9]).

The novelty of the Web is that hate speech and offensive language not only create a common ground of shared presuppositions, but they do it while making money. According to marketing experts, extremists and hate preachers have made around 300,000 euros from advertisements for household brands and government departments placed alongside their YouTube videos. The above-mentioned sites make money by spreading prejudices; but in having millions of views they use their sites also for advertising normal products, services, and institutions. And they make a LOT of money (gaining something like $4.18 for every 1,000 clicks may not seem like much, but it becomes relevant if you reach millions of visualisations).

In front of this new diffusion of hate language we need reactions, and perhaps Europe may be able to do something about that. We need both institutional reactions and communitarian reactions. Here are some data and suggestions, selected only from recent news. Two examples of institutional reactions: the Home Affairs Committee (British Parliament) in April 2017 asserted that the largest and richest technology firms are “shamefully far” from taking action to tackle illegal and dangerous content, and specifically that “one of the world’s largest companies has profited from hatred and has allowed itself to be a platform from which extremists have generated revenue.” And the Germany Justice Ministry in April 2017 proposed imposing financial penalties of up to 50m Euros on social media companies that are slow to remove illegal material. But reactions from private firms have also been relevant, and McDonald’s, the BBC, L’Oréal, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds, the Guardian, Audi, and Channel 4 are among the companies that have decided to refuse to work with web companies if they permit advertisements on their sites with offensive or hate language[10].

As I reported at the end of Section 3, in 2009 Microsoft made an apology for a gaffe implicating that Poland is a retrograde and racist nation; later, in March 2017, Google’s European chief has publicly apologised after online advertising for major brands appeared next to extremist material[11]. As Aristotle taught us, if you ask for excuses you begin to admit there is something wrong. It’s just a first step.




Baroncelli, F. (1996). ll razzismo è una gaffe; eccessi e virtù del “politically correct”. Roma: Donzelli.

Frege, G. (1879). Begriffsschrift. Halle: L. Nebert. English translation in M. Beaney (1996), The Frege Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Frege, G. (1897). “Logik”. In H. Hermes, F. Kambartel, & F. Kaulbach (Eds.), Frege Gottlob 1969: Nachgelassene Schriften. Hamburg: Felix Meiner (pp.137–163). English translation in M. Beaney (1996), The Frege Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gundle S. (1997) “Television in Italy”. In James Coleman and Brigitte Rollet (eds.), Television in Europe, Exeter: Intellect Books, 61-76.

Hornsby, J. (2001). Meaning and uselessness: how to think about derogatory words. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXV, 128–141.

Kaplan D. (1999). The meaning of Ouch and Oops. Exploration in the theory of meaning as use. Unpublished.

Penco, C. (in press). Refusing to endorse: a must explanation for pejoratives.

Rovatti, P.A. (2012). Un velo di sobrietà. Uno sguardo filosofico alla vita pubblica e privata degli italiani, Milano: Il Saggiatore.

Stalnaker, R. (2002). Common Ground. Linguistics and Philosophy 25, 701–721.


[note] Carlotta Pavese suggested that it is literally wrong to call “prejudices” a “subset of presuppositions”. If a presupposition is expressed it is no more a presupposition. If a prejudice is expressed it is still a prejudice. Therefore I should recommend a lighter rendering of the intuitive idea. I should say that when prejudices are hidden, they work as if they were shared in the common ground, therefore as presuppositions given for granted.The similarity with presuppositions runs as follows:
Like many presupposed contents triggered by a presupposition trigger, also prejudices may be challenged. If you say “Elena stopped smoking” and I know that Elena never smoked, I may react saying: “hey, wait a moment! Elena did not smoke at any time!” canceling the presupposition. If you say “that cur howled all night” I may react saying: “hey, wait a moment! dogs are nice animals; I don’t accept your way of speaking”, putting the prejudice against dogs in the open, rejecting it and pulling it out of the presupposed common ground.
I cannot cancel the prejudice expressing it, but I may refuse to endorse it.


[1] I have developed these hints in Penco (in press).

[2] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnwiYdFaRfk

[3] See  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5A9aPUpHQ6M

[4] P.A.Rovatti, 2012.

[5] See: http://edition.cnn.com/2009/TECH/08/26/microsoft.ad.gaffe/index.html

[6] See for instance Google’s attempt to “flag” hate speech on line:


The task is difficult, and any solution has its shortcomings. Think for example of the ontology used by Facebook to avoid and cancel offensive posts. The first solution is to distinguish main “protected” categories and subsets of those categories. This is a tentative ontology that has, among its consequences, the effect that “white man” (main categories) is more protected than “black children” (where “children” is a subset and not a main category). This has been criticised as intentional. However, the difficulty of the task is overwhelming for any ontologist, and we are assisting in the first attempts to provide regulation on the spread of prejudices through hate language.

[7] From now on, unless differently remarked, data comes from The Guardian—a reliable source of information, although not specialised.

[8] Twitter 17 Feb. 2017. Another Trump Twitter on July 27, 2017, was: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!”
See for instance: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/06/27/trump-renews-attack-on-fake-news-cnn-after-retraction/?utm_term=.49bd0eda471a

[9] See for instance: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/hillary-clinton-fake-news-conspiracy-theory-child-sex-ring-edgar-maddison-welch-open-fire-comet-ping-a7456021.html

[10] With results from pressure by the UK government, McDonald and Mark & Spencer’s on Google:
Online petitions are also useful; Sumofus succeeded in making 2,000 companies dissociate themselves from Breitbart and forcing the commerce giant Shopify to adopt hate speech policies. Some gains may also come from websites that actually fight against prejudices:



[11] “Recently, we had a number of cases where brands’ ads appeared on content that was not aligned with their values. For this, we deeply apologise.” (from link at endnote 8). See also:


Flavio Baroncelli, Mi manda Platone, edited by Annalisa Siri and Emilio Mazza (Genoa: il melangolo, 2009)

Flavio Baroncelli’s posthumous collection of short pieces by il melangolo is a splendid exception to standard philosophical literature. It is a slender book (157 pp.) that can be read purely and simply. Indeed, to the extent available to hopeless academically minded professional philosophers like myself, it can be enjoyed as a string of exquisite literary-philosophical vignettes. These short pieces, originally published in various Italian periodicals and newspapers, range from scholarly debates on Plato’s role in Western culture to the pride of showing scars and tattoos on one’s own body. They are divided in two parts, the former dealing with philosophical themes (15-83) and the latter dealing with ordinary life and socio-political affairs (87-149). Witty and concise, they retain the inventiveness and the curiosity that characterised Baroncelli’s life, of which Armando Massarenti, Emilio Mazza, Annalisa Siri and Gürol Sagiroglu Baroncelli provide a useful account via the preface (5-8), a short biography (151-3) and an editorial note (155-7).

Some professional philosophers, like the undersigned, may attempt to make some use of Baroncelli’s book, e.g. by writing a review of it. However, the review is bound to be fairly unorthodox. What can one say of a book that reads: refreshingly colloquial yet deep; humbly self-depreciating but highly learned; ironically sceptical though warmly humane; both open to the general public and pregnant nonetheless with precious insights for actual academics? Baroncelli’s prose, full of abstraction-averse, real-life examples and academic-pomposity-shattering vernacular gems, flows like the prose of his eighteenth-century role-models. Most of all, it recalls Voltaire’s prose, whose humour and compassion it evokes when dealing with topics such as tolerance, liberty, dignity, multiculturalism, religion and scientific realism.

Perhaps, the author of this slender book would have preferred to be compared to David Hume, whom Baroncelli admired and studied. Or even to Hume’s and the French philosophes’ much older mentor, i.e. Michel de Montaigne, to whom Baroncelli devotes a delightful sketch (23-6). Still, it is Voltaire the name that springs to mind when Baroncelli combines together, with a few touches of his pen, experience, irony, linguistic analysis, moral wisdom and intellectual acumen.

Professional philosophers may fear such a facility of expression. Clear and pleasant language is often seen as a threat to an argument’s poignancy and visibility. Long, tedious, difficult passages abound in philosophical literature. This happens not solely because philosophers are not poets or novelists, though they may be failed ones, but also because philosophers want the full load of reasoning poured into their works to be felt and borne by the reader. Whenever reasoning seems too unhindered and beautifully rendered, professional philosophers are likely to accuse it of being either “shallow” or “rhetorical”, if not even both. Nonetheless Baroncelli was a professional philosopher, and a good one. His arguments are sound, they stand on solid ground, and they are written so well and humorously – there is enough to become bitterly envious.

Certainly, the same philosophers that treat as “shallow” and “rhetorical” their literarily gifted colleagues are likely to accuse me of being partial. After all, I knew personally Flavio Baroncelli as a teacher, mentor, and friend. That is why I shall invite them to attempt to read simply his latest and, probably, last book. They should follow the advice that he himself gave with regard to Plato, whom one should read “because he is useless” (66). Hopefully, they will appreciate Baroncelli’s gentle and humorous way of being a genuine, unpretentious source of enlightenment.