23 Febbraio

The cat's smile without (or even with) the cat: rigorous thinking becomes poetry.


Gabriele Pulli*

Unconscious of thought, unconscious of language. Starting from the work of Emanuele Severino.

Ed. Mimesis, Milan-Udine, 2022

                                                                                        ... it can be assumed that the "part" of thinking that attests to the

                                                                                         the existence of nothingness needs to be supplemented

                                                                                         by the belief that nothingness does not exist in order to exorcise

                                                                                         the anguish of nothingness. But it can also be held that this

                                                                                         occurs in reverse; namely, that the "part" of the

                                                                                         thinking that attests to the nonexistence of nothingness needs

                                                                                         to be supplemented by the belief that nothingness exists, in order to

                                                                                         not to lose the tension toward the absolutely new,

                                                                                         which to be such must arise as something

                                                                                         emerging from nothingness.


                                                                                                                                                                       G. Pulli


Has everything that can be said in language been said? And the same is asked for thought, has everything thinkable been thought? What relationship passes between thought and language? What about the relationship between thought, language and things? What about images? This has always been researched and studied about in the history of thought, right from its beginnings. But from the very beginning of the book it is clear that it will not be a matter of redoing paths already taken; instead, it will be another adventure of thought. Those who read the writings of the scholar from Salerno, who has accustomed us to rigor and independence of argumentation, know this.

The opening of the book makes clear and rarely beautiful the topic at hand.

In general, recourse to the concept of the unconscious is frequent in literature, and is played out differently, even when it comes to art and poetry, by the fathers of psychoanalysis and analytical psychology. Freud1 is mentioned here , but the foundational philosophical reference is that, present from the title, to the work of Severino2 . With him, the author asks, "is it possible that no incontrovertible and definitive thought exists?"3, and answers that "it is necessary to answer negatively"4 .

In language (but also in thought) it is possible to think anything yet "devoid of the word" , called "the pure meaning." Here it is: "Not witnessed by language, it is the 'unconscious' of it"5 .

What are we talking about? About the world and our having a world, in general; how this is possible, and how such a world is, but also how it can be.

To this end, the themes of "pain and desire"6 are examined in light of the two concepts of the "eternity and impermanence"7 of things. The proposition "Things are eternal" (and thus "nothingness is not") coexists, in grief and desire, with the opposite contradictory "all things become" (and thus "nothingness is"): in grief, for example, "One suffers the loss of something"8, one may or may not have had it, and desire itself, according to the Symposium 9, is desire for what is missing, as long as it is missing10. So it seems that one suffers and desires because things become and change. However, in all cases the meaning of "transforming nothing into something" 11 is shown, indeed, more radically, pain "implies both the holding that nothingness is something (...) and the holding that nothingness is nothing12 . Similarly occurs with desire.

The proposition nothingness is is indicated by Severino at the bottom of nihilism as the essence of our epoch: the "persuasion that the entity is nothing”13 is defined by him as our unconscious way of seeing things – what lies behind the persuasion that things become. If everything mutates and becomes something else, then things "are" nothing. In the sense that then nothingness is.

But is what we hold to be contradictory really so, and is what we hold to be impossible really so? Following "such a feature of the unconscious," in which contradictors seem compossible, finally it is a matter of "pushing thought -- the forms of thought we currently have -- beyond its own limits, which is the first goal of this book"14 and so are the limits of language. The second goal of the book is about language: to clarify, if possible, "that tension of pushing language beyond itself that has appeared to be the proper scope of poetry"15.

The unconscious makes itself present to each of us in feeling "something about life that escapes itself"16. "The unspeakable and the unthinkable are (...) parts of the broader spheres of the unspoken and the unthought" because "the unspoken is understood as something not yet said and yet sayable (... and) something not yet said because it is unspeakable in the forms of language available to us" 17; thus there will be "a relatively original saying, which says something not yet said but already sayable, and an absolutely original saying (...), which makes sayable something that until then had been unspeakable. The sphere of this second form of saying is that of poetry, (...) as the highest potentiality of any form of expression, aimed precisely at moving forward the boundaries of the inexpressible"18.

Similarly but not quite symmetrically it is for thought. "The unthought is articulated into something not yet thought and yet thinkable in the forms of thought available to it and into something not yet thought and unthinkable (...) so that it can be thought only by pushing thought beyond its limits." Such unthought is said to be "absolutely original"19 and its scope "is that of philosophical thought" well understood in its "restricted and elevated"20 mode of being .  

Any experienced reader, or reader of good will, is invited at walk through the articulation of the logical-argumentative fabric through the concepts of nothingness and its aporia21, of the eternity of things22, of nihilism seen through the Aristotelian concepts of diorismòs and élenchos23; the proof given by Severino of the argument "Nothingness is not', in Parmenides present only as dogma24 and thus the affirmation, again in Severino' thought, that "even the most minute of things is eternal"25 ; of the relation of élenchos to the unconscious26 ; of pain, of desire, insofar as they are connected to nothingness, of identifiable contradiction, with paradoxical aspects27, although with obvious references to our daily existence and to the making of poetry, which is imbued with this world28.

Thus we reach the novel turn of the book 29, where an attempt is made to transcend the limits of thought and language: sometimes recalling, sometimes exceeding or supplementing Severino's arguments30.

It is the affirmation of the seemingly contradictory coexistence of eternity and impermanence, encompassing the meaning of pain and desire. Precisely nothing that does not concern us, it is precisely about us, about what allows "the livability of what is livable" and the "full shining of things" .

The second and final part, "The Unconscious of Language" deals, from the "extreme clarity of the illumination of the whole," with the eternity of all things, the infinity of things, inaccessible to us finite entities in its infinite unfolding as such, and yet thinkable 31.

The suggestive passage is argued and made explicit as the "infinite richness of the determinations of the whole"32 , affirmed by thought that goes beyond the limit. Then "Together with the finite there appears then that infinity which is beyond itself"33 with all the consequences of the appearance of every part together with the whole, but also of the there being part of every thing in every thing, if of every thing what it is is not to be split off from what it is not, and therefore: what the thing is not, is present in the thing itself, as a trace, as the co-presence in the finite of infinite traces of the infinite whole.

Complex, as it deserves, is the further discussion of the relations between language, which according to Severino would seem to demarcate things (names, words do not show connection to the whole), and thought, which instead shows such connection: in this sense, thought acts somewhat like what things are – in some ways, they themselves exceed language.

How do we think, how do we speak, if not in reference to images? Images are our world. And are the images that thus underlie our world to be understood as images only perceived, that is, images of "things" as supports, stable references of appearance, or even otherwise? On this road of saying, of thinking the appearing of things, an encounter with the subject of images becomes necessary, because precisely things (and according to some it is everything) in the first place appear. And one will then have to distinguish between perceived image, name and absolute image34.

What is meant by absolute image?

Look in Carroll's famous tale: just as in Alice, when the cat's smile appears without the cat, so in any discourse on beauty, the thing appears beautiful not because it is seen in its context, in the set of relations in which one is used to seeing it, but on its own, in ab-solute, loose image: beautiful things or people, we see them as beautiful insofar as they are an image isolated from relations of context.

One thinks of some of Magritte's famous paintings: "When a light glowing behind a window, a bench among the trees, a train passing between suburban houses, something elusive in the expression of a face leap out of their context - (...) they recall the infinite around and within themselves"35.

And how to understand the contents of the unconscious, sought in this view of things? Is it, after all, the thing seen as an absolute image, isolated from context and therefore eternal; or in a form of special relation to the whole? Here it is: "The two ways of understanding the content of the unconscious, as the scope of the connection between all things or as the scope of the isolation of each thing, are two compatible and integrable visions: the vision of the same thing from two opposite points of observation"36 . In Severino's vision, the thing appears in its divine face when one considers it as what it is, not in the fabric of things. In this way, the thing is eternal. But there is also a special form of relation in which the thing dwells permanently. One would say that the thing is seen in such a case not in its established connections sub specie rationis, which thus bind in a certain way the entity to each and every entity, but at the cost of separating them from the whole, but rather sub specie aeternitatis, as pure relationality in the embracing whole, unencumbered by any singular ties.

Worthy of this richness, the conclusion: given the distinction between perceived image, name and absolute image, the first root of imagining, in conjecture, that is, "supposedly"37 , is traced back to hearing and sound, as listening to the mother's voice, still in the womb. That is, one would imagine the visible form of what, in the first place, one hears, beginning with the assumption that imagining (i.e., the absolute object) is other than seeing (the object perceived or thought in relation)38. Which in fact often happens in life: one imagines what a person or thing should be like that one has never seen but only heard.

At the roots of imagining lies a quid that is "completely mysterious"39 but endowed with "an extreme intensity," that springing forth "from the overlooking of life"40.

Hence the role of word and sound. Since in the first months in the womb it will be a matter of translating the meaningless sound into a completely undefined image, having no experience of it, "the word understood as a pure set of sounds (...) is a 'pure signifier' (... ) or "the indefinite that refers to the infinite (...) where the indefinite is the gateway through which the infinite creeps in"41 and one can conjecture that if the word defines by virtue of meaning, it in-defines and "thereby" infinitizes, by virtue of sound42.

The voice, in poetry in particular, "the word as pure sound (...) can really refer back to the thing (...that is ) to that infinity to which the thing defined is connected (...) and whose infinite traces it encloses within itself"43. For the utterly original saying is that which says the unspeakable, suspending language beyond its limits, but the sphere of language that questions its own limits "has seemed to be that of poetry (...) by virtue of that fusion of sound and meaning which is - always - a hallmark of poetry"44.

Nocera Inferiore, February 13, 2023                                                                                                 Carlo Di Legge


 * Gabriele Pulli, Associate Professor of Philosophical Psychology, Psychology of Art and Literature - University of Salerno


1 G. Pulli, Unconscious of thought, unconscious of language. Starting from the work of Emanuele Severino. Ed. Mimesis, Milan-Udine, 2022, cf. at least from p. 11 onward.

2  Cf. Ibid, at least from p. 13 onward.

3 E. Severino, in G. Pulli, cit., , p. 99 and n.

4 Ibid, p. 99 (c.n.t.).

5 E. Severino, Beyond Language, in G. Pulli , cit., p. 101 and n.

6 Ibid, p. 68.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid, p. 47.

9 Plato, Symposium, XXIa.

10 Cf. G. Pulli , cit., p. 47.

  1. Ibid, p. 51.
  2.  Ibid, p. 53.
  3.  E. Severino, Essence of Nihilism, cited therein, p. 14 and n.
  4. Ibid.

15 Ibid, p. 18.

16  Ivi, p. 9.

17  Ibid, p. 10.

18  Ibid.

19 Ibid, p. 11.

20 Ibid.

21  Ibid, pp. 22 ff.

22  Ibid, pp. 24 ff.

23  Ibid, pp 25 ff.

24 See therein, pp 32-3.

25  Ibid, p 34.

26  Cf. ibid, pp. 38 ff.

27  Ibid, pp. 47 ff.

28  Cf. therein, in part, pp. 57 ff.

29  Cf. from pp. 62 ff.

30  Ibid, p. 68.

31 Ibid, pp. 81 ff: as "the necessity of fate" (E. Severino, cited p. 85 and n.), understood precisely as ""the eternity of all things" ( on p. 85).

32  E. Severino, Destiny of Necessity, cited in G. Pulli, cit. p 86 and n.

33  Ibid, pp. 87-8.

34  This discussion reconciles not only Freud's and Severino's apparently different conceptions of image and word, but also the two authors' conceptions of the unconscious - for Severino "infinite illuminating of the whole," for Freud "the pure images of things" insofar as they are "isolated" (cf. ibid., p. 115).

35  Ibid, p. 123.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid, p. 117.

38 Cf. ibid, pp. 126 ff.

39  Ibid, p. 128.

40  Ibid; and cf. p. 130: children, according to some psychology research, are "able to translate a piece of data acquired from one sensory channel into another sensory channel (...) we do not know how they do it; it is amazing that they do it" .

41 Ibid, p. 132.

42 Ibid, cf. p. 133. The relationship between words and things is resolved in the sense that words translate "into that set of sounds which they are, precisely an image" (ibid., p. 131), in the case of a reverse translation as occurs from image to sound. It will thus be "a secondary translation" (ibid.).

43 Ibid, cf. pp. 136-8.

44 Ibid, p. 138.


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