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Ovi Symposium; Thirty-first Meeting Ovi Symposium; Thirty-first Meeting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-08-09 09:19:13
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Paolozzi, Paparella and Mr. Rywalt
Thirty-first Meeting: 31 July 2014



Symposium's regular participants (in alphabetical order):

enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

rywaltEdwin Rywalt is a computer specialist living in Pennsylvania with his family. He is a talented and accomplished pianist with a college education from Columbia University and a life---long scholarly interest in the nexus between science, technology, and the liberal arts. Beginning in May 2014 he will be offering pro bono services to the Ovi Symposium with typo correction editing and other useful suggestions aiming at improving the overall format of the twice a month section of Ovi magazine. Perhaps in the future, if his commitments allow it, he may decide to join the Symposium’s ongoing dialogue.



Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)

Sub-theme: A Reassessment of Benedetto Croce since his death in 1952.

Indirect Participants within the Great Conversation across the ages: Croce, Sartre, Jaspers, Greco, Camus, Husserl, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx, Lepschy, Hackett, Chomsky, Saussurre, Kant, Arendt, Gadamer, Comte, Husserl, Heidegger, Ereigmis, Dewey, Heisenberg, Prigogine, Morin, Vico, Derida, Foucault, Rorty, Strauss, Gramsci, Hume, Rousseau, Emerson, Thoreau, Bergson, Roberts, Burke.


Table of Contents for the 31th Session of the Ovi Symposium

Preamble by the Symposium’s coordinator

Section 1: “Croce after Croce: The Reconstruction of a Profile.”  A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi

Section 2: “Croce’s Historicism: a 21st Century’s Reassessment.” A Presentation by Emanuel  L. Paparella


Preamble by the Symposium’s Coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

In this 31st meeting of the Ovi symposium we return to Benedetto Croce, or better to a reassessment of the fortunes and the impact of his philosophy on present Western Civilization.

Ernesto Paolozzi begins with a presentation titled “Croce after Croce: the Reconstruction of a Profile.” In it he traces for us the anti-positivistic stance of Croce and his dialectical historicism which he shares with that other giant of modern philosophy, Giambattista Vico, in some important sense his example and inspiration, as Croce himself has revealed to us. He examines the fortunes of Croce’s philosophy after his death in 1952 all the way to our 21st century. In the process he also examines historicism vis á vis Marxism, Positivism, Structuralism, Existentialism, Deconstructionism to determine the philosophical forces that militate against historicism in the modern world and the harm those movements have done to genuine philosophy by their attempt to discredit historicism and erase it from philosophical speculation. I have eliminated a good 50 % of the totality of this  essay, the parts thoroughly dealing with Positivism, Hermeneutics, Post-modernity which have already been extensively dealt by Paolozzi in previous sessions of the symposium.

I then follow-up on Paolozzi’s genial assessment with an essay which is in part a personal reassessment of my own views on Croce and how they have evolved over a quarter of a century, since my writing of a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico’s concept of Providence at Yale University in the 80s. Together with Paolozzi, I ask the crucial question: What would have happened had both Vico and Croce been given a more attentive hearing within modern philosophical developments and had been considered as viable alternatives between the extremes of Positivism and an abstract rationalism, and Deriddanian anti-metaphysical deconstructionism and post-modernism?

Both Paolozzi and Paparella propose that indeed it is high time that such an alternative be seriously debated and implemented. That is to say, we need to arrive at the consciousness that modern philosophy may be in urgent need of a major corrective, and that both Vico and Croce can be masterful  guides for such a task. Without such a corrective, the authors feel that the sorry plight of present day Western Civilization may continue to persist and even worsen, while a new Humanism and Renaissance may turn out to be an elusive and impossible dream. But here too the curious readers of Ovi magazine need to arrive at their own judgment. All we are doing here is supplying the facts and the analysis.



Croce after Croce: the Reconstruction of a Profile
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
(translated by Emanuel L. Paparella)


Ernesto Paolozzi

Regarding the first half of the 20th century, the nexus between Italian culture and European culture has been largely reconstructed, albeit not exhaustively. It is still lacking today an in depth study between the Crocean heritage and the cultural debate that has been ongoing since the end of World War II….


If one wishes to identify a common sign of the reaction to Croce’s thought before we attempt to identify the positive side, we could affirm that it was about, and it still is, of an essentially anti-dialectical feeling, better still of an anti-historicist feeling. A feeling which, as we shall soon see, becomes a taken-for-granted assumption at the end of the 70s, when Marxism too is relegated to the attic together with the historicist expression which it represented and expressed.

Indeed, anti-historicism has profound roots and it appears in all its virulence in the years before the Second World War, especially in the years of totalitarianism. On the 3rd of September 1930, for the international Congress of Philosophy held at Oxford, not for nothing, the same Croce titled his presentation “Anti-historicism.” Choosing the location of a free country, he briefly outlined the essential contours of anti-historicist movements which had appeared in the history of philosophy in an attempt to find the reasons, even the positive traits, of such a stance which he had repeatedly examined. In searching the motivations of his contemporary anti-historicism he individuated two specific causes: extreme irrationalism and abstract rationalism.

This is the way Croce renders it: “Christian anti-historicism affirmed the virtue of charity, the enlightenment anti-historicism was softened with humanitarianism and sensibilism, but the current anti-historicism is an extreme of egotism and hard imperative. it seems to celebrate an orgy or a “satanic cult.” It is obvious here the allusion to the fascist activism, to the exaltation of a climate exalting the will which can by itself cancel history, traditions, distinctions, in order to absorb it all within the blind individual strength of the leader or of the party.

But, as already mentioned, the sum of the anti-historicism does not reside only in an irrational attitude. Croce continues: “As already demonstrated, rather than a unitary concept, we find in anti-historicism a dichotomy of two opposite concepts, which are not in place in their own right, rather one enters the other and comes out from the other, releasing and recollecting its semblance, which is always a sign of logical nihilism. What is, in fact, the first of the two concepts, the one of the formalists of energy, those who celebrate life for life’s sake, of the future without a past, of doing without ideals, if not the well known philosophical stance of the phenomenology of error named irrationalism, the negation of spiritual values? And what is the second concept, that which preaches the construction or reconstruction of human life deprived of life itself as constituted by history, the imposition of the act of the rhythm of life, the rule than rather than being created by man as one of his tools, itself creates man, what is this but the philosophical stance, already condemned, of the abstract rationalism, which does not deny directly spiritual values but makes them material and renders them useless by making them transcendent?”

The advent of Nazism, the eruption of World War II and the menacing presence of Stalinism, made Croce’s warning prophetic: Nazism led to the extreme limits of irrationality, which led to that immense tragedy which was World War II, and Stalinism reduced what was alive and concrete in Marxism to a terrible dictatorship with an iron grip imposed from above on the individual freedom of millions of human beings. Already then, in the Western world, began the envisioning a milder dictatorship of the rules, of the laws, which unfortunately is an integral part of the abstract constructions logico-politcal of both liberals and democrats who dream of building well regulated and just societies founded on logical and abstract concepts.

The Great War, however, was a wake up call to the world, even on the moral sphere, so that for a while those old ideals and values of liberty which for a while had disappeared and were trampled under foot, found their identity and a new efficacy. Which did not prevent that anti-historicism should come back in all its forms, above all those two mentioned by Croce in his Oxford presentation. 

We should take notice that, at least in the West, they did not return to those excessive and paradoxical forms which had motivated Croce to speak in the 30’s of disease, sickness, which only time and patience would cure. In comparison, the anti-historicism of our times is essentially mild, has little of the orgiastic and demonic which alarmed the free spirits of Europe in the 30’s and 40’s. Obviously it had its reasons and it attempted to react to concrete exigencies of our times, but it has failed to offer a decisive contribution, at least in philosophical studies in their slow and laborious progress represented by history.

In post-war Italy, which is our privileged point of observation, together with the birth of Marxism, of which we have already spoken, and of the reappearance of that scientific mind-set characterized by both Croce and Hegel as part of anti-historicism and the abstract intellect, there were various and different cultural sensibilities, some that could be assimilated to the first ones, others of a different form which could be defined as pure intellectual trend. Those were the years of existentialism, the philosophical movement which could be traced back to Jean-Paul Sartre, the most influential intellectual of the times.

But even here, as for all cultural phenomena of the era, it is difficult to identify a fundamental theoretical core, especially in Italy, where the phenomenon is clearly imported from abroad. These are the years of the existential revolution, of the rebellion of individual existence against everything else, against the Absolute, the era of well polished and well engineered philosophical systems, of global visions. Together with this Sartrian thought, of the thought of existentialists less well known but perhaps deeper such as Jaspers, we find above all, music, songs, films of human incommunicability or despair before a meaningless life. Those are the years wherein the most significant symbolical reference is incarnated by a French singer, Juliette Greco. It is the time of The Foreigner, or The Pestilence, of Camus.

Proof of the complexity of this phenomenon of existential revolt, even if today by hindsight it appears simple, is due to the fact that it got confused with the student revolt of 68, so that existentialism became a sort of “humanism,” mixed with Marxism uniting a radical despair for the destiny of personal existence thrown into the world vis á  vis the certitude of death, and the revolutionary hope creating a total polygenesis and a definitive salvation. Whereas in Christian existentialism the tragic condition of man, condemned to live in a valley of tears, finds its rescue in the hope of a life after life on earth, in a God who reassumes everything thus giving sense to life itself, godless existentialism, on the other hand, culminated with the assignment of that task to the building a communist society. But the dream, in both, is once again that of anti-historicism, of the abandonment of the idea that within history, and with history, it is possible to find some meaning in life, if not exactly the only possible sense.

After the 68 fury, those hopes having also been dashed, existentialism joins Husserlian and then Heideggerian phenomenology of Being. The anti-historicism matrix becomes even more evident with the return of Nietzsche, this time utilized by the left, as a function of the critique of existing society. One can detect more and more the irrationalistic, passionate, sentimentalistic, neo-romantic dimension as opposition to authentic philosophy. Together with the refusal of reason, of dialectics, of Kantian and Hegelian tradition, Crocean historicism too, which in many aspects diverges from such a tradition, is simply put aside.

But we need to change our horizon to better understand how deep was the fracture between the 60’s and the 80’s, only fully understood today, not only in regard to Crocean thought, but as we have already hinted at, to philosophy in general, to classical thought, which ought never be confused with traditionalistic conservative culture. All one needs to do is think of the so called structuralist thought, almost forgotten nowadays, which had a following and almost hegemony within French and Italian culture spreading throughout Europe and America.

Following the lead of anthropological studies that research a common structure of human civilizations that have occurred in history and the studies of some linguists searching for a common structure of language and languages, there was an attempt to build a general referential system within which historicity, when human categories ensued, is substituted by a search for deep structures, which however would not have the characteristics of absolute philosophical categories.

Within the field of linguistics, to refer to a specific case, the question arose on the identification of structural nexuses that keep together a language, such as French or Italian, while avoiding the search within historicist, philosophical or even empirical structures. So it was not a question of identifying a logical principle which is fundamental of Italian language. It was even less a matter of finding the syntactico-grammatical laws, which would in any case have been a banal re-proposing of classical rhetoric. It was a question of understanding the indivisible union of a certain language in itself. For example, it was argued that if within the Italian language the adjective pink were to be eliminated, the entire language would have to be modified, given that the meanings of that adjective would be assumed, de facto, by the other adjectives in their totality. Which is to say, the word red would have probably covered more meanings than it expressed presently vis á vis the adjective pink.


An Ovi e-book on Croce by Ernesto Paolozzi

The implications of those analyses were obvious. But the impossibility of arriving at plausible conclusions was also obvious. So in effect it became a vicious circle of explaining a fact with another fact, in order to simply explain what was already known and assumed.

As mentioned, structuralism assumed various forms. In the study of ancient civilizations, nexuses were identified which seemed universal, such as the behavior that even the most primitive civilizations have in common with our more developed ones, as for example some taboos on incest which were repressed and hidden from culture, from religions, from the law, from politics, and so on. These were studies that could have had some interest in the empirical sphere via the research which was conducted; research which sometimes was accurate, sometimes imaginary on the behavior of little known civilizations, just as in the studies of fairy tales which revealed common elements in civilizations and societies very far from each other in time and space, for example, the fairy tale of Little Red Hood, whose in depth elements could be found in many places, even where the bad wolf did not exist or was substituted with other wild animals such as the tiger in India. These were interesting studies in many respects which stimulate one’s curiosity, but which ultimately revealed little beyond repeating what everybody knows by common experience, namely that at all times there are similar modes of behavior among people.

But the deeper meaning of those researches, and one could almost say, this mind-set, was that of, as it is by now easily deductable, depriving humanity of temporality, or better still, of the historical process. It is not a coincidence that some structuralists asserted that the moment had finally come to store away in the attic the whole of humanistic studies. With such an assertion they meant to convey that the motor of history was neither history itself nor man as a creative protagonist, and, we should add, a free agent of life which is always a coming into being, but the history of an eternal structure, constant and immutable which supposedly regulates all our relationships, even those who may appear novel and original.

Some critics have spoken of a sort of unconscious Platonism as revealed in the theories of the structuralists, given that those structural nexuses which govern our lives, as in the example given of the forbidding of incest, are nothing else but sorts of Platonic ideas which operate either above or below human history, whose origin is unknown, about which we can only say that they exist. If then concrete empirical events or evidence should demonstrate that it is not a fact that they govern all human relationships, the structuralists would counteract those objections with an argument which can be called metaphysical-justification, asserting that ultimately those objections could be, or eventually will be brought back to unity and inserted by some scholar within the actual structures of humanity.

Be that as it may, the structuralist movement eventually disappears with the passing of time; even within linguistics and its attendant aesthetic discussions, it was reduced to sections which tended to be more and more restrictive and specialized. What we wish to point out is the fact that even here what is argued, explicitly or implicitly, is historicism and therefore, willy-nilly, Crocean thought.

We should take notice that in the 60’s there were attempts, as we have pointed out, by the existentialist movement to join the anti-historicism of structuralism to the historicism of Marxism. There was an attempt to somehow to created analogies between the economic structure by which allegedly Marx explained the entire historical journey of man, with the fundamental idea of structuralism. But here again, more than an organic unification, what was at work was a certain syncretism. The priorities were those of political necessities, that forbade any opposition to Communism or Marxism which seemed winners at that time, and seemed to condition times and history.

But Marxism was not Structuralism, given that it was saturated with subjectivism and voluntarism, of sheer politics. So, soon enough that marriage also ended in a divorce even before neo-Marxism itself entered its own crisis. Meanwhile many games had been played, especially on the field of literary criticism which had attempted to incorporate that kind of mind-set. The damage was enormous. Structuralist criticism not only lost the sense and the dimensions of history, but as we have pointed out, it was inevitable that in a criticism which was merely a descriptive and evaluative one, in search of the nexuses which regulate a poetic text or any other aesthetic product, it remains impossible to get to the root of the original aesthetic and creative values which stand behind a work of art.

Giulio C. Lepschy, a noted structuralist scholar, in an essay of 1971 (later published in the volume Changing Perspectives in Linguistics, has the intellectual courage, referring to his own Crocean experience as a youth, to sign what can be called the death certificate of linguistic structuralism. This justifies this long quote: “My formation as a linguist, happened in Italy and therefore I am familiar with a long tradition which goes back to the philosophy of language of Benedetto Croce. I have learned from my teachers that language is an object of study of the natural sciences, not of the logico-mathematics investigations, but of historical research. Croce’s thought seems to be unkown to Hockett and Chomsky, from what I can tell from their writings. If there is no connection, and I assume that my subjective experience allows me to see in this discussion I have mentioned certain changes of perspective vis a vis Croce’s theory. Chomsky stresses creative language, and investigates the relationship between the creativity of language and the structure of language, and sees them both in relation to notions such as freedom and mind (that is to say, spirit, in the idealistic tradition of Italy). This probably derives directly from Croce. But Chomsky is interested of the logico-mathematical characterization of the linguistic competence, something that Croce would not have understood and would in fact have rejected. Hockett affirms that ‘language is exactly the same as any other natural phenomenon’ and ought to be studied with the methods of the natural sciences, not that of logic and mathematics. This too would probably have been rejected by Croce. But the affirmation of Hockett that ‘there is only on object of study: the specific linguistic acts, such as historical events could also come directly from Croce. Croce’s concern was for language as a creative act of the spirit, an individual historical event. I don’t think that Croce’s theories have shown many fruits in linguistic research (in fact, the way it has been utilized by certain linguistics proved disastrous). However, they have contributed in revealing a problem, which is still unsolved today (after the Saussurian allusions to an autonomous linguistic endowed with a scientific method sui generis). How is language to be studied, as an historical phenomenon, or with the methods of science and mathematics, or with the methods of natural science?” Today, thirty years or so later, we can affirm that even this question asked by the Italo-English scholar, a repentant structuralist, is not wholly answered. Parallel to the diffusion of the so called structuralism in anthropological and linguistic circles, historiography too distanced itself from the fundamental principle of historicism, especially Croce’s, putting aside the very concept of ethico-political historiography, and the other, of equal importance, according to which every history, if it be genuine history, is always contemporary history, as Croce had in fact affirmed in his Theory and History of Historiorgraphy.

Right after World War II, between 1950 and 1970, there was a second wind of Marxist economicist historicity which was in tandem with the more general recovery of Marxism and of Communism in the political sphere. Such an historicity, even if in many aspects different from that of Croce and differentiating itself from varied interpretations of liberal historicity, especially that of Croce, still, it retained several common elements, that is to say, a similar fundamental attitude. They were in reality two sister historiographies having historicism as their common matrix, which is to say the idea that the sense of historical events could be captured in their development, if not exactly in their progress.

Moreover, if Croce thought that the past could be explained in the light of the present, which is to say, in the light of the real interests and needs of the present,  then Marxist historiography, even if it emphasized the importance of the past influence on contemporary history, once again, for ideological motives more than for philosophical motives, tended to read the whole of history, far or near, in the light of that particular interest which was Marxism and Communism. Here again, even if Marxist historiography emphasized on economic aspects in the light of the Marxist idea which is the economic structure, which ultimately determines the higher juridical, political and cultural structures, it still did not abandon the idea, which was typically Crocean, that the point of convergence of all histories, of all so-called special histories, from economic to military or literary or philosophical ones, is represented by ethico-political history, by what is concretely produced in the field of political governance of people and nations.

This new history that came about in an era which was essentially anti-historicist, was situated on a different realm. In references to the French journal “Les Annales” which preceded World War II, these new historians rejected the very idea of historicity, of evolutionary becoming, attempting to identify within the historical process those structural elements which would remain unchanged, whatever particular elements were examined. Here what is obvious is the commonality of interests, the shared perspective, even if at times not conscious, with structuralism. We are not talking any longer of histories of dynasties or wars, of revolutions and congresses, of peace and armistice, or the stories of great personalities for that matter, or social civil struggles between parties and movements. Neither are we talking about philosophical stories largely derived from cultural, or artistic or literary or ideological movements. Nor are we talking of economic histories, founded on the analysis of the development of systems of production and the relations among classes and groups.

So what kind of history are we talking about? History in long terms. History capable of interpreting the meaning of a deep structure which lies beneath particular events and determines, on a long term basis, original and new things, but always governed by the underlying structure; a principle which is in itself a hermeneutic principle, even empirical. This history had and still has an intrinsic value. But as in the case of the new linguistic philology, it was still antecedent to the real historicity which remains the ethico-political historiography, just as in the critical-literary field the final judgment is always the aesthetic judgment.

On one hand certain discoveries were brought to the light, as the one on the plough within the civil development of Europe, and on the other hand, in subsequent studies, which emphasized the importance of complex changes of mentalities within a society, capable of conditioning the development of history itself. Some great historians produced works of some importance, but quite often this historiography produced works of pure curiosity, as if to substitute to the old anecdotal history one that was more modern, but not that much different in its substance, a history consisting of changing habits and techniques.

It is not by chance that this historiography was fundamentally successful within the sector of medieval historiography, given that such a period, as documented, was more easily inserted within a long term perspective and was more adequate for the supporting hypotheses that, even when expressed in a technical language, were often purely imaginative inventions. A bit like the imaginative inventions on the aesthetic level, reconstructions which can be seen in so many TV programs, on the origins of the universe, on the birth of life on earth, on the great animals of pre-history, and so on.

Naturally, such an historiographical attitude found an insurmountable limit in the analysis of the period which spans the French Revolution to the present time. Those years were rich in particular facts, in revolutions, in new paths, in events, in personalities which could more and more easily be documented. Fast times to which the long run dress did not fit well. Those were times when the fundamental structure seems to be the non-structure, the years of deconstruction and reconstruction.

Thus we arrive at the challenge of the analysis of the only moment of philosophical debate of the second half of the 19th century, which in our opinion had several points of contact, together with the new epistemology, with Crocean thought, all going under the generic name of hermeneutics and which pervades even the new philosophy of science and the new sociology, but especially theoretical philosophy which falls back in important points on the ethico-political thought. The idea, that is, that with the name even more general of “post modern” presents philosophy essentially as philosophy of judgment, capable of questioning facts and events but unable to resolve satisfactorily the great problems of classical philosophy, those called metaphysical problems or in more modern language, strong ideological systems, Nevertheless, the tone of those years which we have described remains anti-historicist, as is well documented.



Croce’s Historicism: A Twenty-first Century Reassessment
  A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella


Emanuel L. Paparella

“All history is contemporary history” 
                        --Benedetto Croce

In 1990 I submitted a Ph.D. dissertation to the Yale Graduate School titled “The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence in Vico’s Concept of Providence.” In 1993 the same dissertation became a book titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico. Croce is mentioned no less than 15 times in the book. In both publications I made reference to Croce’s idealist deformation of Vico, to a tendency to subsume Vico under Hegel’s philosophy of history characterized by the assumption that conceptual thought is always superior to any other kind of thought. I argued then, and I am not the only one who so argued at the time, that such a way of adapting Vico leads to missing some of the unique things Vico had to say, specifically his concept of Providence which is able to encompass both the immanent and the transcendent in history. I arrived at such conclusion after looking into the three seminal philosophical works of Croce, namely his Aesthetics (1902), his Logic (1905), and his Philosophy of the Practical (1908).


Emanue L. Paparella’s published Ph.D dissertation (1993)
Presented to the Yale University Graduate School in 1990

Twenty years or so later, I still cannot say that I have wholly changed my mind on Croce vis á vis Vico’s philosophy of history, specifically in its treatment of the concept of providence where Croce stresses its immanent aspect and ignores its transcendence aspect which to my mind needs to be kept together and in tension with each other for a proper interpretation of Vico. It is telling that the title of my dissertation is “Transcendence and Immanence in Vico’s Concept of Providence.” However, I have reassessed Croce’s historicism and hermeneutics of which he was indeed a pioneer with Vico in modern times; for the ancient Greeks certainly did not emphasize history in their philosophy. It is, in fact, historicism which makes those two philosophers (with Hegel) unique in the history of philosophy.. 

What stimulated the rethinking in a positive way were two seminal works on historicism which appeared in both Italy and the USA: namely the elucidations of the meaning of historicism of Fulvio Tessitore in Italy (see his Introduzione allo storicismo, 1991), and that of David D. Roberts’ concomitant work in the USA (see his Nothing but History, 1993). Also Ernesto Paolozzi’s book on the philosophy of Croce (which has also appeared as an e-book in Ovi magazine) titled Croce and the Duty of Freedom.  On the more negative side, there was the attempt on the part of Straussianism, a philosophy better known in the USA than in Italy which at times assumes the traits of a cult of sort, to deny historicism in both Vico and Croce, make them both neo-Platonist classicists and subsume them under the thought  of Leo Strauss, thus depriving both giants of philosophy of their very uniqueness as philosophers of history and pioneers of hermeneutics. This essay will attempt an historical narration of my reassessment in the light of contemporary philosophical trends in philosophy.

In the first place, we should take note that in the last thirty years or so, the American academy, under the enormous influence of post-metaphysical philosophers such as Derrida, Foucault and Rorty, has been quite busy with the identification and demolishing of  what in philosophy is known as "foundational" thinking and the widely accepted proclamation, at least in more liberal progressive circles, that there are no supra-historical essences, no permanent ends, no enduring identities, meanings, or truths. For better or for worse, that is the academic milieu in which I found myself after graduating from a Catholic college and later writing a dissertation on Vico at Yale University. The alternatives might have been the philosophies of Strauss, or perhaps Gramsci’s brand of Marxist philosophy, still rather popular in today’s academic circles, albeit at the extremes.

To be sure, one can go back all the way to Immanuel Kant for similar assertions on the end of metaphysics, but Kant and German idealism have long been debated, if never wholly accepted, in Anglo-American thought. The historicism of Benedetto Croce, on the other hand, has had only a limited impact, although Croce’s aesthetics, even if not well understood, has had a wide readership since the early decades of the 20th century. The historical sense in its philosophically mature form somehow never struck deep roots in Anglo-American intellectual soil. I had to wait till graduate school to even hear the name of Vico and Croce in America. I suppose such an incomprehension of the historical consciousness can be traced all the way back to Hume and the anti-rationalist school of empiricism. What remains curious however is that now historicism in a post-modernist anti-metaphysical form is being embraced with a vengeance. Writers of generally radical temperament are making highly selective use of anti-metaphysical, historicist elements of thought to discredit social and intellectual structures they disapprove of. Indeed, postmodernism is for the most part not particularly original. It is reminiscent, for example, of the old romantic opposition to rational and other interference with intuition, spontaneity and freedom reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Postmodernism has much in common with the thought of such critics of rationalism and scientism as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau in America and Henri Bergson in Europe.

And here we arrive at the crux of the matter, at history conceived as a synthesis of sort of universality and particularity, something considered an untenable oxymoron by Straussians and a paradox to be held in tension by historicists. As the above mentioned Roberts for one points out, the postmodernist criticism of metaphysics and rationalism is foreshadowed in the English-speaking world in the work of Edmund Burke. This statesman-thinker opposed over-abstract rationality and stressed the need to consider concrete particular historical circumstances, without however undermining rationality. He simply did not let his acute sense of the particularity of history overwhelm a sense of historical continuity, nor did he show any inclination to distrust restrictions on freedom. The civilized freedom that he advocated is inseparable from order, the amount of either freedom or order to be decided by the particular historical situations. In other words, Burke was highly suspicious of a-historical  highly abstract conceptions of universality so fond to the Jacobin mind-set. He did not deny the normative in human life and in fact believed in a standard of good that is not a mere creature of time and place but universal. Yet, for him, that standard becomes embodied in and known to man in the particularities of history.

The pre-historicist mind, as Vico has well explained in his corsi and ricorsi, simply does not see the possibility of an actual union between universality and particularity. Universality, it assumes, has to be separate from history, from that which is forever changing. That explains why even the giants of ancient Greek philosophy were never really enamored  of history and the historical process. But the historicism of Burke and subsequently of various later German thinkers, such as  Heidegger, Gadamer, not to speak of Vico and Croce opens up another perspective. Moral goodness can indeed be seen as a universal quality that an infinite number of different actions may have. But moral universality, while remaining universal, also enters human experience in historically particular form, as specific actions advancing good; it arrives with the third cycle of Vico’s three cycles of history. The transcendent reveals itself in history by becoming selectively immanent in it. The "concrete universal" was a refutation both of the abstract, a-historical transcendent of old and of any cult of the particular as self-sustaining. Even when marred by excessive intellectualism and other flaws, as in Hegel, this historicism disproved enlightenment rationalism and universalism. The extreme reaction to this reconstitution of philosophy as a synthesis of the universal and the particular was positivism and its worship of science in the 19th century.


A book on the Cultural Identity of the EU
by Emanuel L. Paparella

At this point one may ask: what is this historical consciousness. It is most fundamentally an acute awareness of the past as moving in the present, a sense of the historicity, the historical nature and context, of the here and now. Human existence is a living whole across the generations, change and continuity together. Though the particular individual may be oblivious of it, how he acts, thinks and imagines is in very large measure shaped by history. Man makes history but the opposite is also true: history makes man. This of course had been pointed out by Vico. But let’s go back to Croce. Early in the 20th century when Benedetto Croce revived and strengthened historicism the positivist trend was dominant. There was in America and England an aversion to anything looking like German idealistic philosophy. Only Croce’s aesthetics became widely discussed and admired and even that was not completely understood. I am now convinced that had Croce’s thought as a whole been generally absorbed, many of the targets against which postmodernism has taken aim would not exist or would look very different. In fact, a thorough reading of Croce’s more philosophical opus would reveal that Crocean historicism anticipated many of the concerns of postmodernism, without falling prey to its glaring weaknesses.

Which are those weaknesses? Well, for one, there is the fact that postmodernism carries earlier opposition to rational, moral or aesthetical rigidity to extremes, even absurd extremes. It is not misguided in contending that human existence is full of transitory structures and norms, some arbitrary and oppressive, but postmodernism also forbids the possibility of structures of a different kind. Postmodernism is viscerally opposed to the notion of an enduring higher purpose. It wants all order to be ultimately contingent and arbitrary.  Also, a great weakness of postmodernism is that it cannot fathom that life might be indistinguishably both changeable and unchangeable, contingent and non-contingent, coherent and incoherent. That life might have an enduring purpose, but one that manifests itself differently as individuals and circumstances are different, seems a contradiction in terms to postmodernism. Deconstructionists make much of the point that no two persons can read the same text in the same way, as if this notion were some kind of original and recent discovery. In actuality it has long been regarded as self-evident by philosophical historicism. What postmodernists do not know, and would prefer not to hear, is that the uniqueness of personal experience and perspective does not exclude the possibility of shared humanity and meaning.

Missing from postmodernism, as from so much other philosophy, is the possibility of synthesis, of the mutual implication of universality and particularity. Here is the very crux of modern philosophy, but postmodernism is barely aware of its existence. Emphasis on the contingency and flux of history distorts human experience unless balanced by attention to equally present order and continuity. What postmodernism needs is not the order and continuity of a-historical foundationalist metaphysics, but that of value-centered historicism, "value" standing for the qualities that give moral, intellectual and imaginative form to man’s historical existence. Understanding unity and diversity together—not as separate, reified entities, but in their relationship of mutual implication—yields the concept of historical universality, that is to say universality in particular form. That such an idea should elicit incomprehension and incredulity betrays a debilitating defect in Western philosophy. Eastern philosophy has no problem accepting it.

Another example of postmodernist one-sidedness is the tendency to neglect practical action. As with many of the romantics of old what is regarded as most significant in life lies outside of practical action. Postmodernism likes to point out—here expecting credit for something that students of Croce have long known—that intellectual and cultural constructs are not disinterested. They are "regimes of power," expressions of willfulness. Postmodernism has much less to say about what the will is and how it influences the whole of the human.

We now need to return to the three seminal works of Croce: Aesthetic (1902), Logic (1905) and Philosophy of the Practical (1908). These three books provide the philosophical context for all of his other writing. They develop his philosophy of the forms, or categories, of the human spirit—imagination, thought, and practical action—and their relationships. As Roberts has shown in Nothing but History Croce’s philosophy, if read attentively, will show that Croce anticipated and dealt in depth with concerns made fashionable by postmodernism much later in the century. He did so not only with respect to historicism in general, but with respect to particular philosophical questions that have received much attention in recent decades. For example, Croce was far ahead of Derrida and others when, in his 1902 Aesthetic, he set forth a radically anti-positivist view of the world, based on imaginative language, language being inherently poetic and creative.

What is unfortunately missing in the modern interpretations of Croce is an in depth exploration of Croce’s philosophy of the categories. Until that happens, he will continue to be misunderstood and ignored. Those categories can contribute much to our understanding of continuity and coherence in history. For Croce was indeed a systematic philosopher, contrary to popular opinion; but being systematic after Croce’s fashion means something quite different from being a "system-builder." It is wholly compatible with intellectual humility, may indeed be integral to it. Indeed, for Croce the work of philosophy is never done. It cannot be "foundational" in the sense that it is able to separate itself from history and achieve final, incontestable insight. And yet, some philosophical insights, though they must be expressed within the limitations of time and place, are not merely provisional and ad hoc. Good philosophy tries to capture the enduring traits of human existence, not as something existing apart from history but as giving form to particularity. In so far as philosophy is successful, it both possesses and does not possess lasting truth. Though always falling far short of definitive, comprehensive Truth, what it humbly and gropingly knows, it does know. That knowledge is not negated by the fact that it is at the same time tentative in the sense that particular formulations of what is known can be forever improved, extended, and applied. Life goes on, and it continually offers new material for examination.

Philosophizing, then, is not an elitist dwelling with the gods on Mount Olympus looking down one’s nose on the hoi polloi who can be satisfied with the pie in the sky of religion, but a condition of both knowing and not knowing the truth about our own existence, which is another way of saying that the philosophical mind is dialectical. Oriented by what he knows but bothered by what he does not yet know, or cannot yet express with conceptual clarity. The genuine philosopher is always striving to remove obstacles to a fuller understanding.

Croce distinguishes between philosophical and pragmatic thought, and shows how science exemplifies the latter. He is an epistemological pragmatist in so far as some thought-processes, those serving practical utility, are concerned, but he is not a pragmatist in his view of what he considers philosophical rationality which is able to discern the pragmatic nature of science. In so doing it observes something about the enduring forms of man’s historical existence: pragmatic rationality—one of the "categories" of human activity without which there would be no human consciousness. Philosophical examination of human experience tries faithfully to record what is actually there. Unlike pragmatic thought, it does not simplify the experiential evidence or take such short-cuts or liberties with the facts as is compatible with achieving a particular practical objective. Philosophical rationality is not aimed at achieving practical purposes. It is an attempt to know—faithfully to know as much as it can about life in all its complexity—to improve our cognitive, conceptual hold on what persists in the midst of change and particularity.

For Croce history and philosophy ultimately become one and the same. The philosopher studies history in order better to understand himself and his own time. For Croce as well as for Vico and Gadamer, "all history is contemporary history." Philosophical rationality seeks understanding about human life, expressed with the greatest possible conceptual clarity, but it is not trying to jump to some extra-historical vantage believed to be protected from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence on Mount Olympus, with the gods. Philosophy does not pursue abstraction, metaphysical or otherwise, but seeks conceptually to articulate the categories of man’s actual, historical life. These forms are indistinguishable from their particular content, and they interact in every moment of life. They are an endless circle of related but distinguishable forms of the spirit. In Vico’s and Croce’s claim to have discerned a permanent structure of human consciousness, there is, to repeat, no implication that philosophy, or history for that matter, might now come to an end. Neither does Croce in his affirmation of enduring meaning appeal to an extra-historical order. History, whether as an intellectual discipline or as the arena of human action, derives its coherence from the ongoing interaction of universality and particularity.

In conclusion, I think we can safely state that although the attacks on "foundationalism" are not without justification, there is something disingenuous about the categorical denial of lasting structure and meaning. Postmodernists would have us think that only now, after the likes of Derrida, Foucault and Rorty have spoken, is it possible to view the world without illusion, that transcendence, universality, and higher purpose and meaning can no longer be given any credence; and ironically, all of this is proclaimed while laying claim to extraordinary intellectual openness. Postmodernists generally assume that in the end contingency, incoherence and meaninglessness are the whole of life, but mankind over the generations emphatically disagrees. Vico calls that disagreement “the common sense” of the people.  The postmodernist habit of simply ignoring or dismissing what humanity has long believed suggests just the very kind of willfulness that postmodernists like so much to condemn in others.

To return to "foundationalist" and metaphysical conceptions in their old form, as Straussians are in the inveterate habit of doing, proclaiming themselves Platonists but in reality worshipping Strauss, would indeed be philosophically retrograde and rather anachronistic, but to explore what valid elements are contained in them and how they might be retained in revised form would seem to respect human experience which is the experience of humankind. Indeed, there is a historicist approach that is compatible with the notion of trans-historical order and probably even with the notion of transcendence. 


The Neapolitan Philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1743)

For all those reasons, it is about time that Croce, like Vico, be rediscovered, interpreted correctly and appreciated in their own right and be granted their due, as the quintessentially Neapolitan philosophical geniuses that they are.




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28th Meeting -29th Meeting - 30th Meeting - 31st Meeting -



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