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Croce's Historicism: a Reassessment and a Revision
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-03-12 07:56:46
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“All history is contemporary history” 

                         --Benedetto Croce

As briefly mentioned in a previous posting, of which this is a follow-up, 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). 

Twenty years or so later, I still cannot say that I have wholly changed my mind on Croce vis a 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. However, I have reassessed Croce’s historicism and hermeneutics of which he was pioneer with Vico.  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).  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, ahistorical 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.

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 and elitist dwelling with the gods on Mount Olympus looking down one’s nose on the oi 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 human kind. Indeed, there is a historicist approach that is compatible with the notion of trans-historical order and probably even with the notion of transcendence.  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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