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Sundry Ruminations on Vico, Croce, and Historicism
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-01-30 10:08:31
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What follows are mere ruminations on the nexus between Croce, Vico, Historicism and Relativism. Much confusion exists on such a nexus. Some have confused historicism with relativism and then have gone on to identify multiculturalism and diversity in the EU as cultural relativism, even nihilism, as the cultural cancer threatening the very identity of Western Civilization. The brilliant Vico scholar Fulvio Tessitore, a former Rector of the University Frederick II and director of the Center for Vico studies in Naples has, perhaps more than any other scholar attempted to clarify the term historicism via various books and articles, too many to even list here. They remain the sine qua non for anybody who wishes to seriously delve into the issue of historicism and relativism.

What concerns me on this side of the Atlantic is the rather cavalier attempt to subsume Vico, and to a certain extent Croce’s thought, under Straussian thought, making them mere archeologists of ancient classical philosophy or products of the Enlightenment or even anti-Enlightenment, anti-modern philosophers. Straussianism may not be as popular and well disseminated in Italy as it is here but there you have works such as Le Sterminate Antichità by Paolo Rossi and Vico, Pagano e Barbaro by Paolo Cristofolini. Anti-multiculturalists will tend to associate the two phenomena and so Cristofolini will be promoted together with the illegible and inaccurate transcripts and tapes of Strauss’seminar on Vico in 1963 at the University of Chicago.

Let me say at the outset that those concerns stem from my intellectual interests and expertise. I happen to have written a Ph.D. dissertation on Vico at Yale University titled The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence in Vico’s Concept of Providence (1990). Some of the Vico Dante professors, mentors and advisors  whom I met there are: Giuseppe Mazzotta, Gianni Vattimo, Andrea Battistini, Elio Gianturco, Thomas Bergin, Dante Della Terza, Lowery Nelson, Louis Duprè, Paolo Valesio, John Freccero, Ernesto Grassi, Renè Wellek, Giorgio Tagliacozzo. They all, in various way prepared and helped me in the proper interpretation of Vico. For that I remain grateful. A fellow student at the time was Massimo Verdicchio who now teaches Vico at the University of Alberta in Canada. The interest in Vico has kept us convivially in touch for many years. In any case, said dissertation was followed by a book titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, N.Y. 1993). In both those works Croce is contrasted extensively to Vico not only for a proper elucidation of the concept of providence in Vico but to also to explain why Vico’s philosophy of history has been mistakenly designated as precursor to Hegel, thus robbing Vico of his uniqueness, not to speak of the Straussian subsuming operation.

In these rambling ruminations I’d like to revisit Croce’s historicism and Vichianism, if for no other reason than to determine how has my own take on the above enumerated themes developed in my intellectual life, or perhaps has remained unchanged after a twenty two year hiatus. It is a habit of mine to clarify my ideas by writing them down. It always works. Ovi is ideal for the purpose since it accepts all points of views and one feels free in expressing one’s view in a less than fully academic form. Those sundry notes and ruminations may eventually be properly footnoted and referenced, and find a more appropriate academic niche.

To speak of modern historicism is to speak of post-metaphysical historicism. Tessitore is of course aware of this but seems to say that Crocean historicism was simply the culmination of the abstract reason of the Enlightenment; that history is the history of reason, with everything explained and anything  irrational excluded. Croce did in fact emphasize the coherence and even rationality of history, he even advocated "faith in history." But Tessitore's rather uncritical return to the Enlightenment runs the risk of making us think of Vico and Croce as the culmination of the Enlightenment rather than the culmination of Italian Humanism. The risk is plausible, given our tendency to understand the central categories of both thinkers in Hegelian, still-metaphysical terms. Croce was fully abreast of the debates about history that brought Wilhelm Dilthey to the fore in Germany by the late nineteenth century. But once he had forged the essentials of his response, he felt he had gone beyond the terms of those debates. In fact, Croce's absolute historicism was a synthesis of the Hegelian sense of totality and the opposing emphasis on individuality in German historicism. Thus he came to characterize his historicism as absolute, in contrast to the individualizing romanticizing German version. This creates a confusion in some people’s mind, even those who can read Croce in the original, which will be analyzed further down.

Against the positivist insistence that history had to be a science if it was to count as knowledge, Croce would sustain that history is not a form of science, seeking to derive law-like generalizations with predictive power, but a form of art—art, however, understood idiosyncratically, as the mode of knowledge of particulars. His initial emphasis stemmed from a sense that reality is particular and thus in some sense historical. To assume that science gets at stable laws, categories, or essences was the height of metaphysics, Croce argued. Up to a point, of course, this argument paralleled that of many of Croce's contemporaries, from Bergson to the American pragmatists. But Croce was taking an extra step into a radical historicism; our ways of understanding the human world cannot be scientific because they are aspects of the ongoing creation, or coming to be, of something new, which endlessly makes necessary a renewed understanding even of what there already is.

But Croce was also aware that the old questions about the whole or totality did not simply disappear; rather, they had to be confronted afresh. Enters Hegel whom Croce treats systematically in a famous essay on Hegel published in 1906 and to whom he returns repeatedly throughout his long career.  For Croce, Hegel's way of positing the totality as a single history was indeed essential, but Croce anticipated in some way postmodernism in denying that anything like Hegel's grand master story was at work in that total history. As far as Croce is concerned Hegel's conception rested on unwarranted teleological assumptions. The challenge for Croce was to posit a post-Hegelian totality and to conceive that single history as radically open, without following some necessary deterministic dialectic, that is to say, without telos. Thus in Croce's synthesis, the totality becomes concrete and mundane, particular and forever incomplete. Croce had intuited that deterministic progressivism undermines man’s freedom and, as Kant had suggested, without freedom there is no ethics either.

It is now de rigueur in Vichian studies to point out Croce's alleged idealist deformation of Vico, a sort of subsuming of Vico to Hegel, based on the assumption that Croce was a Hegelian affording privilege to conceptual thought. That way of adapting Vico, it is argued, led him to miss some of what Vico had to say. I must frankly acknowledge that this argument can indeed be found in my own above mentioned dissertation on Vico. However, in the light of Cristofolini’s and the Straussians’ subsuming operation that wants to make of Vico a Platonist and a classicist, I am not so sure now whether or not I and others were being completely fair to Croce. I now tend toward the view that Croce was not so much deforming Vico as pursuing one of the several directions Vico had opened up. Croce found his way beyond the dichotomy between Hegel and historicism by developing one possibility in the legacy of his Neapolitan predecessor. He claimed that only in our time, with the eclipse of metaphysics, could we begin to appreciate the most radical implications of Vico's thought. He may well have had it on target.

Croce fully understood the revolutionary import of Vico's "poetic" conception of thought, and his notion of the autonomy of fantasia. For Vico, imagination is the original, creative power of spirit; it does not simply afford images of something—something already here—but gives form to mind and life, to thinking and acting. But for Croce we are also forever making a kind of rational sense of the world, through a distinguishable cognitive faculty. Thus Croce posits an endless "circle" of related but distinguishable forms of the spirit, or facets of human being, so that neither imagination nor cognition can be conceived as higher. Rather, they complement each other; each is equally essential to human beings and to the endless coming to be of the world. And each is eternal.

Adapting Vico, Croce posits not telos, or even progress, but only neutral growth; what we do can only respond to—and grow upon—the resultant of what has been done before. In this sense, past actions endure even as something new results from what we do. The "reason" at work in history is nothing but this coherence, which is sufficient for there to be some particular world.  For Croce, then, as for Vico, it was axiomatic that at every moment a world has resulted from history, a world open to human understanding; we can look back and see how it came to be this way and not some other way. Indeed, we perceive a species of necessity to its becoming. But this is simply to say that the history had to be this way for there to be this world and not some other, not that the history had to be this way in some metaphysical sense.

An Hegelian and a Straussian might well disagree with this deviation from Hegel, but what Croce was proposing was not trivial as some have misguidedly claimed; for it opened the way to a certain, relatively productive kind of post-metaphysical culture. Part of what Croce found in Vico was a way of positing the creativity and novelty that seemed essential to a world that was perpetually incomplete. If we ponder the endless growth of the world through human response, we conclude that what there is, is creative—and indeed may be conceived as a single creative spirit. The spirit does not operate apart from differentiated, historically specific human beings. Rather, it is nothing but us. We are all finite embodiments of the spirit, and as such, we all participate in the process through which a particular world endlessly comes to be. Each individual is creative, but our creativity must respond to the present resultant of history, or the total activity of the spirit so far, and we necessarily interact with others as we respond. Thus the creation of reality in history is a supra-personal task, not of any one individual, but of the universal spirit, or Dio-creatore , immanent in all individuals. Here is Croce’s radical immanentism with which I took issue in my dissertation. I thought then, and still think now, that Croce, as a secular liberal with anti-clerical and even anti-religion sentiments, was ignoring the transcendent more Christian aspect of Vico’s concept of Providence, its transcendence, to be kept in tension with immanence; that is to say, the two poles belong together complementarly and can be distinguished but not separated.

Though his reliance on the term "spirit" breeds confusion, Croce's way of relating totality and individuality anticipated more recent efforts to do without the strong Cartesian self. In one sense, the Vichian Croce never embraced in the first place the assumptions that led to the "sovereign ego" so evident in an academic world so full of fanatical absolutist ego-maniacs, and the other aspects of modern philosophy that thinkers from Nietzsche to Rorty have taken such pains to reject. So Croce found it relatively easy to deny a self conceivable apart from the happening, or coming to be, of this particular world. The world at every moment results from the interaction of all our efforts to impose our own form, interpretation, or truth. To be sure, this anti-Cartesian stance is already there in Vico prior to Croce.

But for Croce, human response remains "moral" insofar as it stems from "care" for what the world becomes. The ethical impulse that Croce emphasized aims to free up human creativity—and thus converges in some way with the Nietzschean imperative of life enhancement via the quest for power. Crocean freedom is the freedom to respond creatively. Croce emphasized our continual striving for ever more freedom by overcoming obstacles to our creativity. It is indeed the quest for creativity rather than power.

Finally, to better situate the above within history and philosophy, let us look briefly at some biographical data from Croce’s life and career. In the 1880s Croce began the intellectual quest that led to what he labeled absolute historicism. By then he had already lost his Christian religious faith. For him, as for Nietzsche and Heidegger, traditional religion was bound up with a dissolving metaphysics, so he too ended up as an overtly anti-metaphysical thinker. But whereas Nietzsche and Heidegger ended up proposing extreme strategies in response to the loss of transcendence, Croce sought a kind of middle ground. And this has to be emphasized because it is an important difference. Croce was attempting to head off what he found to be the overreaction that threatened with the eclipse of metaphysics. So he held on to "history" to specify a way of conceiving both knowing and doing in a post-metaphysical world. We can know the world as history, and history is what we need to know; in fact, as Vico teaches, we may know with certitude only the world we ourselves make: the world of culture, while the natural world was made by God and only He can know it fully. Moreover, it is history that we make when we act, building onto every present moment, each of which is nothing but the resultant of all human actions so far. Which is to say, the proposition that man makes history is true but the proposition that history makes man is equally true.

Such notions on “originative thinking” seem bland and tame nowadays alongside those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, in fact they are already there in Vico’s New Science, so it has been rather easy to miss Croce's radical originality. To some he was a systematic, neo-Hegelian philosopher; to others, primarily an aesthetician and literary critic; to others, a historian, moralist, and organizer of culture. Then, after World War II, Italian intellectuals began to consider him passé as they looked for fresh ideas after Fascism. Many embraced Antonio Gramsci's innovative form of Marxism as a way beyond the Crocean framework. Gramsci's critique of Croce in his posthumously published Prison Notebooks helped cement the notion that Croce invited a premium on abstract speculation or mere understanding as opposed to the praxis emphasized by Gramsci.

Indeed, Croce seemed to stand for a passive, conservative acceptance of whatever results from history. He began to be considered a retrograde humanist. In effect he was neglected. It was assumed that to come to terms with the likes of Heidegger one had to move as far from Croce as possible. Yet there was something anomalous about Croce's dramatic eclipse, a fact which is noted by René Wellek, the distinguished historian of literary criticism who spent most of his academic career at Yale University. Wellek was astonished at discovering that that in movements considered influential since Croce's death, from Russian formalism and structuralism to hermeneutics and deconstruction, Croce is not referred to or quoted, even when he discusses the same problems and gives similar solutions as post-modern systems of philosophy do. Yet Croce, as far as Wellek is concerned, was arguably the most erudite and wide-ranging figure in the history of criticism; even greater than the 19th century literary critic Francesco De Santis.

Even a cursory look, from the perspective that becomes possible with the waning of metaphysics, would suggest that Croce came to be neglected for dubious reasons—and that he might fruitfully be rediscovered and reconsidered in the 21st century. Unfortunately, by the 1960s Croce gets generally lumped with R. G. Collingwood, a misleading juxtaposition, because certain of Collingwood's best-known themes—reenactment, for example—are not really Crocean. Later on, once the focus of historiographical discussion shifts with the appearance of  White's Metahistory in 1973, when Croce virtually disappears from the scene.  Croce is then viewed as a neo-idealist system builder, operating within an essentially Hegelian framework. But Croce insisted all along that no philosophy, including his own, could be definitive. Indeed, his repeated attacks on system building and any pretense of definitive absolutistic philosophy are among the most striking features of his thought. In effect Croce was seeking, among other things, to understand the role philosophy plays in a world without foundations, essences, rules, or structures that philosophy had tried to establish since Plato and Aristotle. A contemporary philosopher who echoes these notions is Gianni Vattimo and his concept of “weak thought.” Sadly, all of this has been confused with relativism giving ammunition to anti-multiculturalists who preach intolerance toward alien non-Western cultures. But I repeat, it is not relativism, far from it but even great philosophers have fallen in that trap.

Ernst Cassirer noted with disapproval in 1913 that Croce's whole doctrine, even while  proclaiming logic as the basic science, in fact turns out to be an unlimited historical relativism in which change is studied so to speak for its own sake, in which no objective-logical enduring factors of any kind are discerned or set off.  Cassirer understood that Croce's was no ordinary logic; it was rather a kind of giving in to history and historicism. But Cassirer fails to understand that for Croce, philosophy would always be with us, but it would always be ad hoc and provisional—hardly foundational. In effect Cassirer had mistaken historicism for relativism.

To make matters worse, Croce himself had portrayed himself as a radical historicist which was in turn mistaken for absolutism. Major Italian students of European historicism on both sides of the Atlantic divide, while embracing the German tradition of individualizing historicism, from Herder to Dilthey, have sadly failed to give Croce his due. Because Croce criticized that German tradition, these critics have found it easy to lump him with Hegel and the system builders of philosophical idealism. So it is hardly surprising that Croce's thinking has proven elusive—and easily misconstrued. He has suffered the same neglect suffered by his great Neapolitan predecessor. Vico who remained obscure for a good while within the field of philosophy has in fact been discovered in the American academic world thanks to the efforts of the likes of Giorgio Tagliacozzo and the translation into English of Bergin and Fisch. It is about time that Croce too, like Vico, be rediscovered and appreciated in his own right, as the second great modern Neapolitan philosophical genius that he is.

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James Woodbury2012-01-31 07:47:43
Dear Emanuel.
Glad you are talking up Croce.
He is too often underestimated as a critic and thinker Northern European and North American academia.
However, the notion that history is really an art, not a science, was well established in ancient times.
Indeed, many, if not most, great historical works are also great works of literature. Think only of Burckhardt's "Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy."
Hames W.

Emanuel Paparella2012-01-31 13:08:44
Thank you for your insightful comment, James. Indeed, the ancients never really made history part of their philosophical system; they considered it an imprecise art rather than a precise rigorously logical enterprise. We have to wait for Vico for history to become a science of sort, but in the Vichian sense of that word. After all, Vico calls his opus “the new science.” And that is the mistake of the Straussians, they wish to subsume Vico’s historicism under Plato which then turns out to be Strauss, thus distorting him and robbing him of his uniqueness. I am afraid something like that has also happened to Croce. Both great philosophers have been misunderstood and distorted. It is about time that they be revisited and appreciated on their own merits.

M. Andreacchio2012-01-31 14:44:25
"Scientific" history begins most notably with Machiavelli and is systematized by Hobbes. Vico was its *critic,* not its herald.

With his jurisprudential "Science" (entailing knowledge of the *principles* of morality), Vico is critiquing the modernist (from Machiavelli to Hobbes and Spinoza) attempt to make historical writing "scientific," i.e. to present a "geometrical" narrative as autonomous from its metaphysical ground. Accordingly, in his Scienza Nuova, Vico argues that every historical narrative "runs" its common/particular course over a metaphysical counterpart--an "eternal" platform of legal forms or ideas.

Vico's work (PRINCIPI DI SCIENZA NUOVA) is about the legal/metaphysical PRINCIPLES of "Scienza Nuova" (reversing the terms of Galileo's "Nuova Scienza"). Vico explains what he means by "new" by quoting Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher.

Vico is EXPOSING Galileo's "nuova scienza" to its *metaphysical principles*--which, in turn, are exposed to critical reflection.

Emanuel Paparella2012-01-31 17:15:01
I said in my dialogue with James Woodbury that the scientific approach to history has to be understood in a Vichian sense and not in a Galilean or Cartesian mode, but alas, this was lost on the above interlocutor, a self-declared Vico expert, in his eagerness to propose a Straussian take on the Neapolitan philosopher. Perfect example, if we needed one, of a subsuming operation which ends up distorting Vico. To do that Providence in Vico must be overlooked, but that concept in Vico is the sine qua non for the right interpretation of the philosopher.
To the contrary, what Vico proposes in calling his opus a new science is that if human beings approach the natural world as something to be known analogically, the false pride of the natural scientists is avoided, and the relationship between human institutions and the natural world is seen to be providential. For Vico, the work of providence makes nature intelligible to us by manifesting itself within our own historical development. That is, since God is involved in creation as we are ourselves, the intelligible order of the natural world—birth, growth, and decay—is seen to be at work in the human world of institutions just as it is in nature.
For Vico, Providence, acting in no mysterious way, but through the spontaneous development of human activity, is the basis of all history, which reveals itself in the evolution of language, mythology, religion, law and government. The above erroneous interpretation would have us think of nature as a mystery of sort, conceiving of human consciousness and creativity as entities which stand over against nature and which take the measure of nature by reflecting upon the mind (as in Descartes), rather than as entities which unfold within nature in accordance with providence (as in Vico).

M. Andreacchio2012-02-01 00:51:48
Mr. Paparella,

I do think that nature is mysterious and I do think that human creativity *presupposes* nature.

Doesn't Vico agree that the human mind comprehends the fictitious world of artful production, which is an imitation of the world of nature (in a divine[d] mind)? I understand Vico as arguing that in some sense and to some extent we discern the natural world within the human mind, albeit not within the localized or definite mind of Cartesians. For, "the human mind is by its very nature indefinite."

Where does Vico suggest that the human mind unfolds providentially "within nature"? Throughout his works, does Vico not argue that the unfolding (corso) of minds coincides with a folding (ricorso) in a "circle of divination" that is, in turn, contained by GOD (*not* nature)?

Not Vico, but modern empirical rationalism (Machiavelli, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, etc.) places the unfolding of the human mind in nature (where human thought is determined in res extensa).

Emanuel Paparella2012-02-01 06:52:28
Errata: My colleague Dr. Verdicchio does not teach Vico at the University of Alberta but at the University of Edmonton.

Emanuel Paparella2012-02-01 13:14:34

Tha above link to an article on Vico's concept of Providence in Ovi may be helpful to answer the queries and puzzlements of my second interlocutor. Then again, it may not, given that the diatribe parading as philosophical dialogue may be going nowhere.

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