Social life and the enigma of the relationship: the paradox of relational goods

From Firenze University Press Journal: SocietàMutamentoPolitica

University of Florence
5 min readNov 11, 2020


Pierpaolo Donati

Social life is made up of social relations which are always problematic because they have to relate the different, i.e. single persons or collective subjects, who are puzzles for each other. Solving the enigmas contained in social relations means being able to unite the diverse while at the same time maintaining their diversity. This is a task that modernity cannot accomplish, because for it the enigma of the relationship can only generate paradoxes.

However, what I call after-modern society (beyond the post-modern) shows an inclination to solve these paradoxes through the creation of relational goods. The latter consist of relationships created by subjects who realize that they can obtain certain goods only if they produce them and use them together with others. Certainly, the probability of having relational evils remains higher than that of having relational goods. If we want to understand the society that is emerging before our eyes, that is the society that takes care of the environment and nature, which practices the green and circular economy, which regenerates the common goods, then we must learn how to solve the enigma of the relationship and produce relational goods.

Where do we come from and where are we going? These primordial questions refer to relationships: the relationships that each one of us has with an origin and with a goal or with an end. In turn, the two terms of the origin and of the goal of human existence send us back to the problem of their mutual relationship, assuming that they cannot be completely separated from each other. And yet, we do not see these relationships, which are not only logical. In short, the relationships that bind us to our origin and our destiny are a big problem. The problem, really, is that we need to answer the question of our identity (who am I? who or what do I want to be?). Identity is formed in relation to something else, but this is precisely the point that is hard to deal with.

The difficulties in giving meaningful answers to these questions lie in the fact that the reasons for our existence are not made explicit; they remain obscure, silent, latent, if not completely empty, because we do not know how to relate to them. Reasoning on the causes and purposes of what makes us exist is almost always looking for something or someone who is concrete and easily identifiable, certainly not a relationship. The relationship is considered as a derivative, something that is residual, and in any case accidental and impalpable. This attitude seems natural. It is so, in fact, when it is not supported by a sufficient reflexivity. The reality, in fact, should be investigated with a certain reflexivity if we want to understand more of what it shows the naked eye. With observation of first order we do not go very far, we need to dig into the deeper layers of reality.

Knowing the relationship we have with what has generated us (and continues to beget us, that is, why we are the way we are) and what we are thrusting toward (who or what we want to be) is necessary not only to better identify the two terms, but also to understand what is between them, that is our concrete existence over time. Our existence remains obscure unless we investigate the hidden reality that is our relationship with what is relevant for us. Of course, addressing the relationships we have with others and with the world is difficult and often painful. If it is so, it is because there, in relation-ships, the enigmas of our lives lie.The word enigma comes from the Latin aenigma -ătis, which in turn comes from the greek αἴνιγμα -ατος, on the theme of αἰνίσσομαι : ‘to speak covertly.’ Reality speaks to us ‘covertly’, without uncovering itself, without tell-ing us its secret.

The enigma is expressed by a sentence of obscure meaning, an ambiguous or veiled expression, which proposes — through images and allusions — a concept, an inexplicable or incomprehensible entity, a mystery, or even a word whose meaning has to be understood or even to be guessed. The enigma of human life lies in the fact that the relationship implies stepping out of our-selves to meet an Other who is unknown to us and with whom we do not know what to do.The heart of the enigma that is inherent in human relationships is something that escapes us, that we fail to identify, because it does not have a name. We can-not grasp it. We feel that the relationship with ourselves, even before the one with the others, is an enigma. Most of the time we react thinking about how to avoid it, how to do away with it, or at least how to make it harmless, indifferent.

These are examples of an impeded or fractured reflexivity.For example, when an engaged or married couple do not understand each other anymore, the easiest thing is to get out of the relationship, since it seems that no reflexivity can be applied to it. Or when we meet on the street a poor man who asks for help, we feel embarrassed for the situation and our inability to relate to him, so we tend to avoid it. The same happens when we are con-fronted with someone who thinks the opposite of us, because the simple fact of having to confront someone is a vexatious experience that contains reasons (the enigma of the relationship) that we do not understand. In all these cases, we are unable to deal with the difference — the distance — that separates us from others. The difference is shunned, unless other factors turn it into open conflict in which we hope to have a certain outcome. Most often, however, under the pressure of postmodern culture, we learn how to immunize ourselves against the differences, to put them aside. This happens not only in liminal situations, as in the encounter with the immi-grant who wanders the streets, with the homeless, with those who are captive of an addiction that they cannot get rid of, but it also happens in the most common situations of ordinary life, in families, in meetings at work, with friends.


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