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Oui!Learn – Library || Liberty- Liber-Libri and Liber-Liberi 2019-05-15T11:52:20+00:00

Library – Liberty: liberlibri and liber-liberi

“To live in a library”, writes Gianni Vattimo, capitalising on the etymological link between liberty and libri in the Romance languages, “ is perhaps the image itself of perfection, of humanism, of the experience of truth which renders us … free” (2001: 69). To live without a library, then, is a case for humanitarian intervention. In a globalised ‘information society’, teaching someone to read and write may still represent the quintessential act of humanitarianism. All of these secular expressions of faith in reading share a foundational assumption about the intrinsic relation between literacy and liberty.” (Slaughter, 2009)

In seeking to make an inventory of that which comes from the book form of communication, in respect of education, and not just school or formal education but the very Bildung, humanitas or paideia of our (Western) tradition, Gianni Vattimo (2001), starts by recalling the link between books and freedom, a link whose precursor can be found in the double meaning of the Latin homonym liber (a book; a free person).

In the modern political tradition, Vattimo points out, a decisive step was taken towards a freer society when kings accepted having their laws written down. This is notable, Vattimo comments, to the extent that it was around the interpretation of certain basic texts that liberty affirmed itself. This began with the great religious revolt of the 16th century, in which the right to read and to interpret the Bible personally was asserted against all the restrictions of the authorities of the Catholic Church.

Nor is the book an innocent metaphor in the domain of the natural sciences, Vattimo continues. Galileo thought of tangible nature as being like a book written in mathematical characters. This parallel has played a decisive role in the history of modernity (Blumenberg, 1999).

For centuries, well before Gutenberg’s (re-)invention of printing, books, in the form of sacred writings, statutes, classics of literature and philosophy, were only accessible through the verbal mediation of a few authorised personages. However, it is through the transformation of the book form that there developed the modern process of individual liberation, the conquest of freedom of conscience (freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly) and so on, including the possibility of having use of a library, a possibility first offered to the dominant classes, as one of the bases of their ‘authority’. Books, as written transmissions experienced in the silence of private reading, are in many respects a constitutive element of our definition of freedom.

Another decisive element of the book form of Bildung, as content and manner of education, as educational culture, is interiority, giving rise to a whole series of links between freedom and privacy. Modern freedom relies in many respects on the distinction between the public and the private, a distinction which implies the constitution of an interior space, even in the physical sense of the word, such as, for example the salon of a bourgeois house, as discussed by Walter Benjamin.

Vattimo develops this cluster of relations by arguing that the link between books, freedom and interiority, including the interiority of bourgeois privacy, open on to another room in the bourgeois interior: the library. Even more than the image of the book, Vattimo suggests, it is the image of the library that dominates the very form of our culture, our Bildung, our humanitas, our paideia.

Thus, Vattimo (2001: 70) states that,

“To live in a library is perhaps, in many regards, the image itself of perfection, of humanism, of the experience of the truth which renders us, according to the words of The Book, The Gospel, free. (And if ‘the truth renders us free’, what can we say about books?) To live in a library is at once to realize fully and to go beyond the itinerary of the phenomenology of the Hegelian spirit.”

Vattimo proposes a scenario in which one has become the perfect resident of a library, initated into its complexity and knowing how to live in it, having absorbed all of its contents. Such familiarity with the contents of an immense collection of knowledge and experience, he argues, would not appease the adaptation of the pure Hegelian spirit.

Rather, Vattimo (2001: 70) suggests, this scenario,

“corresponds more exactly to a particular kind of assimilation, related, in other respects, to the very model of the modern, or rather postmodern, experience of the truth: one does not know all the volumes of a library and even less what they contain analytically. But one knows where to look when a problem presents itself. It is a hermeneutic rather than a metaphysical notion of the truth.”

This is worthy of attention, Vattimo continues, because it could prove decisive for understanding and adapting to the new forms of experience determined by computerisation. This experience of truth, as a kind of inhabitation of the library, has much to do with memory. This is so because, either, the freedom which results from knowing how to inhabit the library depends on the fact that we have at our disposal all the of the information, the library’s index, or its ‘DNA’, perhaps; or, there is something more, which cannot be reduced to an objectified memory deposited in a catalogue, but is related to the organic memory that has become part of us.

The Bildung (humanitas, paideia) which is transmitted to us in books is characterised by freedom, which is not simply independence from others, and also interiority, along with its links to privacy, in a time and rhythm more biological and biographical than strictly physical and material, as well as by an otium (leisure) which also implies freedom in terms of the possibility of imagination and free association, a term that evokes the relationship of the culture of books with psychoanalysis.

What is more, Vattimo (2001: 71) adds,

“the image of the library, the fact of living in the library more as a librarian than as a specialist researcher, has become the very model of the postmodern experience of truth: the experience of a multiple truth which never lets itself be possessed by an individual, and so not even by the absolute Hegelian spirit, at least in the measure that the latter is thought of as a punctual act, as the nous noeseos of Aristotle.”

This raises a question in Vattimo’s mind: “How … can one recover and appreciate the same ‘values’ of our Bildung in a situation where computers and electronic communication will increasingly replace books?”

The most difficult and intriguing aspect, he thinks, concerns the ‘interactivity’ of electronic communications. Thus, “Rather than proposing new interpretations of texts, on-screen readers will intervene more and more in the texts themselves.” (Vattimo, 2001: 71).

In so far as he conceives of the European tradition as an affair of comments on a basic text, around which will develop the very experience of modern freedom, religiosity, the arts, he wonders what will become of all this under new conditions.

The dilemma can be characterised as follows. The computer, with all its possibilities for interaction and intervention, will permit a greater sense of freedom, because less constrained by the form of the book and its attendant culture (Bildung, humanitas, paideia). The question for Vattimo, is whether this freedom will be accompanied by a rich interiority, fundamental to the culture of the book (the book’s diegese, so to speak, its imaginary world co-constituted by the ‘reader’), or will it be accompanied by an empty independence, the empty independence of ‘the user’, which will be fundamentally open to all forms of charismatic domination?

In short, does computerisation, as it reformulates the ground, the culture, the textuality and contextuality, upon which we stand, presage a greater vulnerability to preaching and prophets of all kinds? Or does it usher in an era which calls for an extended understanding of responsibility for the continued, performative constitution of a culture of respect and compassion, in the sense outlined by Viriasova [1], for both culture and education and the grounding through which culture and education are  realised? This is because the stability, the reliability and the authority of the textuality and its grounding can no longer be taken for granted.


[1] Viriasova (2018: 158-159, 169) cites the Dalai Lama’s discussion of bodhchitta, defined as the “altruistic intention to attain buddhahood [enlightenment] for the benefit of all beings”, a crucial state for a bodhisattva, in the context of understanding the Buddhist conception of compassion. The Dalai Lama states that even while compassion is an experience that arises spontaneously in response to the suffering of others, it is also a desire and and action directed towards freeing others from suffering that arises from knowledge of the human condition (or the conditional character of ‘human nature’). Furthermore, given the passive and active aspects of compassion, the spontaneity of compassion is itself not a given but an achievement: compassion seemingly arises spontaneously even while spontaneity is considered an achievement. This highlights the Buddhist view of compassion as a heterogeneous experience. For Buddhism, compassion contains multiple experiences and stages that develop over time as a result of practice.

Computerisation, then, may be said to open up to explicit recognition the need to practice both culture and education (Bildung, humanitas and paideia) and its grounding through reflexive, iterative, performative cycles, not forgetting its relationship to computerisation in its role in ongoing socio-economic modernisation.


Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

Slaughter, J. R.  (2009) Humanitarian Reading, in Richard Ashby Wilson and Richard D. Brown, eds., Humanitarianism and suffering: the mobilization of empathy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vattimo, G. (2001) Library, liberty. In Portella, E. (ed.) The Book: a world transformed. Paris, France: UNESCO. Available from [Accessed 15 December 2018].

Viriasova, I. (2018). At the limits of the political: affect, life, things. New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

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