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Emanuele Severino: There Will Be No Third World War

Emanuele Severino 2 November 2016

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Ahead of tomorrow's start of the three day conference on the work of Emanuele Severino, entitled A Third World War? The management of death, between the new social emergencies and their solution’, Severino spoke to Daniela Monti of Corriere Della Sera about his work, the impact of technology, and the possibility of a third world war between the US and Russia.

A terrifying hypothetical Third World War is but a ‘rearguard campaign’ compared to the ‘primary conflict’ that is already underway. Namely, the conflict between the set of forces that make use of technology – from capitalism to democracy, religions, communism and nationalism – and technology itself.

Traditional forces think that they are directing things, but in reality they have already been marginalised. For one such force to prevail over another, they have to strengthen the technological means of which they make use. But in so doing they forget their original purpose – in capitalism’s case increasing profits, in Islam’s case doing Allah’s will. They therefore become something different: to put it in the most delightfully Severinian terms ‘they are destined for the twilight’. This is a ‘destination’ whose authentic meaning escapes contemporary culture’s grasp, be it humanistic or scientific. But it doesn’t escape philosophy.

So what wins out is technology, or the West’s ‘poisoned gift’, the deployment of the ‘project of transforming the world’ carried forward – once God has been declared dead – by the apparatus of technology, science, rational thought, physics, and mathematics. This is an apparatus destined to become stronger than the systems that today make use of it. And what about mankind? It is a means for increasing the power of technology, not the end goal in itself. ‘Technology’s humanity is the death of man’.

On 3 November Emanuele Severino will lead off the international conference entitled ‘A Third World War?’, part of the activities surrounding Padua University’s masters programme in Death Studies and the End of Life. It is unique – in Italy or anywhere else – in elaborating the problem of managing death in a scientific-philosophical way.According to the course director Ines Testoni,‘The conference seeks to describe how death, nihilism and fear promote violence, terrorism, and war, and it is also trying to give voice to strategies for understanding the problem. And this is where Severino’s concept of nihilism becomes central’. Testoni together with her colleague Alessandro Carrera (Houston University) is editor of the English edition of ‘Essenza del nichilismo’, The Essence of Nihilism, published by Verso Books, one of the most prestigious publishers in the Anglo-American cultural world. Published in Italy in 1972, it remains perhaps Severino’s most renowned book, a work in which we find the foundations of his thought: the essence of nihilism, the essence ‘of an extreme and extremely well-hidden madness: the conviction that beings, as such, might escape from their non-being and return to it’. The English translation (a Chinese translation is also underway) is thus a recognition of Severino’s organic, unitary and highly coherent philosophical system – a system that Carrera defines in his preface as a ‘magical castle’ for which ‘The Essence of Nihilism is the key to the main entrance’ (he continues: ‘the reader must be warned: it will take quite some time to explore the whole building’. But once you have gone in, ‘even if you do not agree with the architecture, which is perhaps too solid for your postmodern sensibility, you do not want to get out’).

Professor Severino, is a Third World War possible? And why pose philosophy this question?

This is accepted as a possibility even in scholarly circles – we need only think of George Friedman’s predictions. The friction between Russia and the United States and the signs of telecoms warfare in recent days are a reminder of this. Even so, neither political science, analysis of geopolitics, sociology or psychology sufficiently take into account the mutual implications between technology guided by modern science and the forces that today want to make use of technology to realise their objectives. First and foremost, they do not take account of the fundamental principle that the purpose of a more or less complex activity defines its configuration and structure. The forces that today make use of technology are engaged in very complex actions, and precisely because these forces make use of technology they are destined to assume a purpose different to their own. They are destined for the twilight, and technology is destined to rule over them. The result is surprising: the conflictuality between these forces becomes a rearguard action, an obsolete one, as compared to the primary conflict that exists between these forces taken as a whole and technology.  The culture of our time – humanistic as well as scientific culture – overlooks the authentic meaning of this destination. Technology is destined to rule because the essential substratum of the philosophy of the last two centuries shows that the only possible truth is the becoming of everything. This is a truth in which every other truth is overwhelmed – and first and foremost the truth of Western tradition, which places limits on technology’s action. The framing of the Padua conference very clearly recognises all this and everything that it implies.

So if technology is asserting itself through this process, what about mankind?

The purpose of the world’s technological-scientific Apparatus is not Christian, capitalist, communist or democratic human well-being, but the indefinite increase of power: and the conflict between the forces who are today fighting one another is a brake on that. The enrichment of arms traders does not increase the power of the technological-scientific Apparatus; it increases their capital. So the Apparatus increases its power by reducing and ultimately eliminating this potential for conflict. The Apparatus’s purpose – the purpose of the supreme form of the will to power – is not ‘mankind’; ‘mankind’ is a means for it to increase its power. Even so, like capitalism – which even before technology already has a purpose different from ‘mankind’ – it succeeds in giving mankind greater well-being than do movements like actually-existing socialism that do in fact identify their purpose with mankind. The same happens with the Apparatus [as with capitalism, in this regard], indeed an essentially superior way. And even more radically than capitalism, the Apparatus does not take ‘mankind’ for an end in itself.

Is the final destination a Pax tecnica? The end of all conflict?

Before it ultimately prevails the planetary technological Apparatus has to react to the traditional forces’ efforts to avoid marginalisation. And this reaction is an episode – perhaps among the last ones – in the rearguard campaigns [mentioned earlier]. The Third World War cannot [however] be one of these episodes. First and foremost, it would be a world war if it set against one another the great powers still today able to cause the atomic destruction of the planet, namely the United States and Russia (the US-USSR duumvirate constituted one of the decisive phases in the transition to technology’s domination over the world). The process through which technology’s goal increasingly becomes its own empowerment is more advanced in these countries than elsewhere. If we rule out total technological blindness prevailing in the very two places where technology has been most empowered – failing to make them understand their identity of purpose (i.e. empowering technology) and thus the unreal character of the motives for their opposition – then not only is a Third World War impossible, but it appears inevitable that technical ‘universalism’ in the authentic sense will prevail. That is, if we rule out blindness stopping the two from realising that their opposition weakens and prevents the realisation of their common purpose itself, which makes them ever more similar. This inevitability does not mean that the pax technica to which the triumph of technology leads is the end of all conflict. But it does mean a shift in the configuration of enemies and wars. The new enemies are the historic forms destined to continue acting even beyond the moment of technological domination – for not even this will mean the last word has been said. Rather, it is at this point that the onset of the last word begins. And this, moreover, is an infinite last word. 

On 3 November an intervention by Emanuele Severino will lead off the first of three days of the conference held in Padua entitled ‘A Third World War? The management of death, between the new social emergencies and their solution’. Ines Testoni and Alberto Voci are the scientific directors of the conference, organised by Padua University in collaboration with the Veneto region Psychologists’ Order, the Berlucchi Foundation and the Fabretti Foundation. Among the list of speakers participating in the sessions there stick out such names as Sheldon Solomon, Michel Bitbol, Vincenzo Milanesi, Adriano Zamperini, Camillo Regalia, Franca Bambi, Luigi Manconi, Dora Capozza, Staffan De Mistura, and Elizabeth Brondolo. Severino’s intervention, in a plenary session, is planned for Thursday at 10am, after the organisers give their welcome. At midday Verso Books will be presenting the volume The Essence of Nihilism. 

30 October 2016, updated 31 October. Translation by David Broder. Original text from

Severino's The Essence of Nihilism is available to purchase now from the Verso Books website, with 30% off and free postage. 

Filed under: philosophy, technology