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Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter IV Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter IV
by Prof. Ernesto Paolozzi
2013-03-07 11:00:15
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Chapter IV
The Question of the Sciences. Are they True, False or Useful?

In this chapter I would like to discredit a prejudice hard to eliminate outside the small circle of specialists and to contribute to the general discussion. The prejudice consists in believing Italian historicist thinking to be anti-scientific and incompatible with the scientific one. In the first place, we need to remember that in the classical tradition of nineteenth century pre-positivist thought, philosophy had reached from Kant to Hegel the awareness of the difference between scientific research and philosophy. Without wishing to indulge in the usual and banal critique of idealism, we need to acknowledge that a devaluation of science had already been accomplished by Hegel. Not because Hegel, as is so often claimed, had not understood the deep-seated nature of science, at least as it was developed in his time, but because he did not take, at least in Croce’s view, that further step that would have allowed him to understand the relations and the specificity resulting from his reasoning. In other words, it was a question of adding to the logic of distincts. the logic of the dialectic. Hegel held that science belonged to the world of intellect (Verstand), that is, to the world of analysis and empiricism that represent an outline of knowledge, while true and proper knowledge could only be obtained through concrete knowledge (Vernunft), that is, through that reason capable of understanding the world in its relations, just as the most astute scientists question themselves on life’s deepest meaning

And this is where Croce’s originality with respect to the Romantic and Idealist traditions can be measured. Not wishing to sacrifice the fundamental concept of dialectic, Croce understood that it is not possible to function simply according to the model of contradiction and its overcoming. This position would have led Hegel, and idelaists in general, in closing themselves, inevitably, in a monistic view of the world, in some aspects metaphysical, and in the worst scenario, totalitarian. According to Croce, the logic of contradiction cannot have a terminal point but is the eternal law of becoming that situates itself within a pluralist vision of history, or of the spirit, to use an old terminology. Therefore, the world must also to be thought in terms of distinction. What is then the new place that science, or the intellect, we could ask, occupies within the sphere of human functions? It is no longer a knowledge “inferior” to philosophy but a distinct. Therefore, it no longer belongs to the sphere of the intellect proper but to the practical, to the sphere of practical reason, or in Croce’s terms, the economic sphere.

Sciences cannot be judged according to the criterion of truth or falsehood, but to that of utility. Sciences are not opposed to art, philosophy, religion or judgment as proper forms of knowledge but they exist alongside them in the dialectic game of life. From this viewpoint, although Croce employed the unfortunate expression, “pseudoconceptual,” to designate the activity of the sciences with respect to classical tradition there is no devaluation but, if anything, revaluation.

To look closer, the struggle against the sciences is not attributable to German Idealism or to the many-colored romantic or decadent irrationalisms, but to classical empiricism, if it is true that the most brilliant refutation of scientific knowledge remains that of David Hume who criticized, as Popper has acknowledged in recent times, the concepts of cause and induction.

Kant, in fact, takes position against Hume and attempts to re-establish the philosophical validity of the sciences taking its starting point from the Copernican revolution which, as is well-known, marks paradoxically the idealistic turn in the history of modern philosophical thought.

That is why, if we take into account the historical condition in which Croce’s thought originates and the climate of anti-positivist revolt which characterizes European culture in the years between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century we can hardly fault Croce as the enemy of science. In fact, a serious crisis affected the entire world of epistemology which, in different ways, rejected the enthusiasm for positivism and the faith in the absolute truthfulness of scientific knowledge. Men of science or scholars attentive to questions of epistemology like Ernst Mach and Henri Poincaré began to question the fundamental principles of classical science. Philosophers of various schools such as Bergson and Husserl, not to mention the tradition of the so-called German Historismus, reacted in greater or lesser measure to the positivist mentality. A new climate came to be formed that lasted through the years, as is evident in Heidegger’s later writings, which eventually consolidated in a more general political and cultural movement. If at the political level, positivism had always been coupled with socialist and democratic positions, or at least progressive ones, and if at times the struggle against science may have been a struggle against human reason and, thus, an objective critique of the reasons of liberty and human cohabitation, in the concrete case at hand, the fight against positivism was also led from the left. We are referring, for instance, to a considerable part of the Marxist tradition that was attempting to free itself from scientific elements in order to establish its ideology on the solid ground of Historicism. In Italy, this was the case with Antonio Labriola, who strongly influenced the young Croce, and with Antonio Gramsci who, in turn, was strongly influenced by Croce.

Are we denying that in Croce’s thought there were elements that sharply criticized the sciences or, on the other hand, that Croce could be situated amongst the defenders of scientific epistemology with respect to his contemporaries? It would certainly be an exaggeration. In almost every page of his writings, from those strictly speculative to those historically or aesthetically critical, the antipositivist polemic is always alive, and never negated till the last days of his life. In fact, it is a question, precisely, of a polemic against scientism, an ideology, rather than a true and proper critical analysis of the logical status of the sciences. Croce combated the positivist mentality, the attempt, as presumptuous as it was clumsy, of extending the so-called method of the sciences to reality as a whole. He combated the hypocrisy of philosophers, artists, historians and politicians who hid behind the presumed tangible truths of facts, that were none other than arbitrary intellectual constructions. He combated the widespread and popular idea according to which the schemata, for clarity of exposition, was more real than the mobile reality it was supposed to schematize; that the analysis came before and was more pregnant than what it concretely wanted to analyze; the idea that accuracy would be smuggled for the truth, and so on. But all this belongs to what we could call the history of culture. Whereas we are also interested, if not above all, in investigating the profound philosophical motives of Croce’s thought, and there is no doubt that the philosopher, beyond the polemical posture, tended to look for a space in which to situate scientific research.

To a reader used to view Croce as a philosopher ferociously hostile to the sciences, it may come as a surprise what he wrote in the Preface to the Logic of 1916.

The separation there effected by philosophy from science is not separation from what is true knowledge in science, that is from the historical and real elements of science. It is only separation from the schematic form in which those elements are compressed, mutilated and altered. Thus it is at the same time a reuniting with what is living, concrete and progressive in those sciences. If one aims at the destruction of anything, it can clearly be nothing else than abstract and anti-historical philosophy. In this respect, if abstract science be posited as true philosophy, this Logic must be looked upon as a liquidation of philosophy rather than of science (L ix).

In later years, Croce dealt very little with strictly logical questions and, perhaps, this is why his strictly rigorous philosophical thought is hardly known with respect to the notoriety he received within the sphere of aesthetics and historiography. And yet, European culture continued to follow similar roads to those pursued by Croce namely, the clear devaluation of science at the hands of existentialism, or even from the Frankfurt School, and from many currents of Marxist thought. To be sure, there was a renewal of positivism, of the so-called logical positivism which, however, exhausted its initial thrust precisely within the movement itself. The later Wittgenstein if not opposed to the earlier Wittgenstein is certainly not a slavish continuation of the difficult and naive Tractatus. But Popper, above all, was the one to conduct a close criticism of the principle of verification on which the Circle of Vienna and neo-empiricism was founded. Without getting lost in specific discussions on the oscillating work of Wittgenstein, it is without doubt in the following years, when Croce was by now dead, that Popper’s disciples went well beyond their teacher, arriving at forms of irrationalism to which Croce would never have subscribed. As he would have never accepted, probably, the historical relativism of someone like Kuhn who brings the progress of the sciences back to the alternating of cultural and ideal paradigms of obscure origin, that would determine scientific change.

On the other hand, Croce was aware of the changing climate and could only express his satisfaction, which he did, as early as 1938, in History as the story of Liberty:

Those who remember the conceit of scientists, that is, of the naturalists and mathematicians toward the historians, - that in the second half of the nineteenth century was exemplified by the contemptuous exhortation to historians to do away with their literary and philosophical habits, and imitate them, taking advantage of observation, induction, and calculation, of laboratories, observatories, and statistics, in order to raise history to “science” - may be amazed now at how the situation has reversed. Theorists, or scientists themselves, who theorize over the physical-mathematical and natural sciences, insist now that natural science be recognized as history, and that we should no longer oppose history to science with its pale generalities and abstractions.

Unfortunately, Croce does not go beyond and while in other fields of inquiry, as I have indicated, he went into specifics of the single disciplines, he was not able to go deeper in this question that ought to be examined more closely. Certainly not in the sense of going over the old anti-Crocean polemics. On this issue, the statements of two scholars, far from Croce’s historicism, like Agazzi and Barone should suffice and, above all, the work of Giuseppe Gembillo where Croce’s position is clarified with an abundance of textual references.

What must be taken into account, instead, is the observation that those truth elements that Croce admitted could be found in the sciences have to find a precise philosophical reference. To many it may seem strange, in reading his words, to hear about the concreteness of history and the abstractness of science. Anyone who can count or has experienced the well-being brought on by medicine will never be able to accept the idea that the sciences are abstract because of the tendency to confuse the particulars produced by technology with science as a method to investigate and conceive reality. Perhaps it is not even necessary to polemicize in this sense. But what Croce has to show is that those scientific products are such not only for merely practical motives (in which case we fall back on Croce’s theory of the practicality of science) but also because within the sphere of the sciences there are elements of truth that determine on the one hand the economic function and , on the other, they express a cognitive value.

The confusion can be resolved if we keep in mind a concept that is already partly developed in Croce, namely, that we have to differentiate between categories that preside over the development of every human activity and the concrete products of the very same activity. If, however, we analyze a single, concrete and historical scientific theory, we would observe in it some elements of truth because in any single product of the spirit, to employ Croce’s own terms, all the categories are always co-present. For this reason, Raffaello Franchini, in the final phase of his thinking, went so far as to call his own philosophy, still very much Crocean, a philosophy of functions.

In terms of functions it is possible to distinguish between attractive and, thus, economic activity and cognitive activity, such as aesthetics and logic. But when the functions are set in motion, so to speak, they operate in the inseparable unity of history. An example taken from another field of knowledge can help us better to understand this position. In a poem by Leopardi we distinguish between strictly cognitive-aesthetic parts, practical elements (the necessary order that the poet wanted to give to intuition), and so on. We judge it a work of art because its ultimate end is an aesthetic one and because quantitatively the characterizing element is still artistic. Thus in a history book, in a concrete history book, the different spiritual functions alternate and are fused into one another, and the historian, while he knows a concrete and individual condition, he works with abstractions of a scientific type, necessary to his work.

To conclude, we have to keep always firmly in mind that any particular scientific theory represents a complex spiritual object that is judged, essentially, in and for itself, while in terms of category distinction, the scientific activity is held not to be cognitive insofar as activity that abstracts, generalizes, and produces laws that not always correspond to mobile reality. This is an activity that is predominant in scientific research but which is also present in any other activity and in any other product of this same activity. At this point, everyone is aware that the real distinction to be made is between scientific discovery, always historical and thus cognitive, and scientific law which, by having discovery as its foundation, contains cognitive elements but as it is elaborated as generalization and abstraction, it moves away from its proper and truly logical sphere. If this weren’t the case it would be difficult to explain the progress of the sciences, namely the continuous renewal of the discoveries that break the old laws. In conclusion, one must always keep in mind Popper’s idea that science is founded on hypotheses and conjectures, and not just on mere empirical data.


The book has been translated from Italian, proofread and diligence in English by Professor Massimo Verdicchio of the University of Alberta, Canada


Chapter I - Chapter II - Chapter III - Chapter IV - Chapter V - Chapter VI - Chapter VII



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Emanuel Paparella2013-03-07 12:37:53
Indeed Ernesto, it is logical positivism that eventually creates the chasm between “the two worlds”: that of the humanities and that of the sciences who run on parallel tracks never to meet in contempt of each other. The merit of both Vico and Croce’s poetic humanistic philosophy is the attempt to create a bridge over that disatrous chasm.

The temptation that we need to resist, especially strong in the Anglo-Saxon world in love with empriricism since Hume, is the attempt that logical positivists have made since the 19th century to reduce philosophy to just another science. No science introduces itself as a discipline of dispute and resolution of contradictions, as argumentation and conversation; philosophy does and as such it will continue to be essential even for science as Thomas Kuhn has well taught us in his famous book The Nature of Scientific Revolutions (1971) which raised so much furor and controversy among scientists and logical positivists.

There Kuhn points out that it is not that behind every credible philosophy there is a science and a method but to the contrary that behind every science there is a philosophy of sort. An example that Kuhn gives is that before science can even begin it must have at bottom a belief or a trust, if you will in rationality and the ability of the human mind to reach truth. That rock bottom belief or philosophy assumed but not analyzed by most scientists is indeed not scientific and most logical positivists, even psychologists who dub themselves scientists unfortunately ignore it. But we ignore it at our own peril.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-07 23:57:47
P.S. Serendipitously, just a few hours ago I came across a report which announced that Italian physicists are close to declaring the nature of the so called “God particle” within the atom (also called Higgs boson particle) which would explain the mass of the universe and give us a glimpse into true beginnings. That title “God particle” is revealing in itself and harks back to the problem of the two worlds. What is being attempted is nothing less than a substitution of the explanation for God from spiritual to material entity, or better a reduction of sort of a philosophical explanation beginning with Aristotle (as “the first cause”) through Anselm, Aquinas, Spinoza, to a scientific materialistic explanation which purports to be more modern, “enlightened,” less mythical and more believable, better explaining reality, never mind a Berkeley who declares that to be is to be perceived. I wonder how the announcement will be made. If Steven Hawking and Karl Sagan are any guide here, it will probably be something to the effect that “we have found what was there before the big bang, or the time before time when the universe was in the making and it is not God but the God particle which was there eternally and explains why God is unnecessary or superfluous, or better we can now substitute the worship of the eternal creator God with the eternal uncreated Higgs boson particle.” Out goes the language of a David Sparenberg or a Theilard De Chardin, in comes the language of quantum mechanics. Sounds a bit idolatrous, but there it is in all its “enlightened” superior posture; the language of scientific positivism debunking anything that is poetic or ineffable.

Leah Sellers2013-03-08 06:37:49
Indeed, Gentlemen.
Einstein was a great Scientist because of his Creative Genius. His Philosophies created the Questioning Energies from which all of his Scientific Ideations and Practical Work sprang. A Scientist's Philosophy is infused within every aspect of their hypothesis, theory, experimentation and creation of the theory into what We call Reality and then its eventual application(s).
Science is not a Tabula Rasa. The Tabula Rasa is created by the Energetic Creative Genius of its Source (the Philosopher-Scientist).
We are Our Philosophies, and Our Philosophies are brought to Life and breathe Life into Our Individual and collective Environments and Lives.
The Philosopher's Stone(s) is(are) Alive and well, Gentlemen.

Ernesto Paolozzi2013-03-08 15:41:24
Si, Emanuel, il problema dei filosofi scientisti è quello di ostinarsi a voler ricondurre qualsiasi cosa ad una causa materiale che, però, abbia le caretteristiche della spiritualità. E' una contraddizione un pò comica. L'ironia consiste, inoltre, nel fatto che i maggiori scienzati del secolo passato sono invece antiscientisti. Heisenberg su tutti.kuhn, è interessantissimo. La sua teoria del mutamento dei paradigni culturali come cusa delle ricerche scientifiche si potrebbe addirittura definire uno storicismo estremista.Più storicista di Vico e Croce!

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-08 17:38:27
Infatti, Ernesto, ho sempre trovato interessante che Vico abbia intitolato la sua opera non Il Nuovo Umanesimo ma La Nuova Scienza; ovvero una correzione al concetto Humiano ed anche Cartesiano della scienza. Quel che si continua a confondere oggidì nel mondo accademico anglo-sassone, specialmente da parte dei positivisti, è il fatto che mentre la scienza ci rivela come funzione l’universo, la filosofia e la teologia ce ne rivela il significato. Vale a dire c’è un abbisso a cui bisogna trovare un ponte. Leonardo non avrebbe problemi a trovarlo nel Rinascimento. Spero che questa tematica per cui Vico e Croce sono essenziali continuerà ad essere trattata nelle pagine di Ovi. Cari saluti.

[Infact, Ernesto, it never ceases to amaze me that Vico did not title his great philosophical work The New Humanism but The New Science; it was meant to be a correction to the Humian and even Cartesian notion of what science is. But what remains a big confusion and a failure today in the anglo saxon academic world of “the two cultures,” especially on the part of logical positivist, is the fact that while science reveals to us how the universe functions and how it can be useful to man, philosophy and theology reveal to us its significance. A bridge needs to be found. Vico and Croce are the key. I hope this theme of the bridging of the two cultures will continue to be pursued in Ovi.] Best regards.

Leah Sellers2013-03-08 22:08:53
Do you truly Believe that Vico and Croce are the only Human Beings to ever have these Thoughts and Ideations.
It is the Thoughts and Ideations themselves which should be Questioned, Explored, Answered and Revered. These Briliiant Men were merely another physical vehicles for them.
"A Rose by any other Name is a Rose..." Shakespeare (or whoever he (or they) was (were) or was(were) not had it right.
Perhaps the Names of the Philosophers are important for the Launguage of Symbology representative of the Thoughts and Ideations you Gentlemen revere. If such is the case, my Apologies.
Shamans and True Spirtualists have always known these two Worlds to be Intertwined.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-09 04:00:36
Indeed Leah, the point is not to idolize or demonize any particular philosopher speaking in any language (that would be a shallow cult of personality which has no place in any genuine philosophy) but rather to look carefully at the issues any of those philosophers were dealing with and ultimately determine whether or not they are persuasive, and to decide this rationally by the use of reason, the same universal reason they themselves utilized to arrive at their particular insights on a particular issue.

The issue at hand presently is that of the “two cultures” which has been discussed rather extensively in Ovi, or better, the issue is that of determining if a bridge between those two cultures can be envisioned. As already mentioned, a Da Vinci would have had no problem in envisioning such a bridge. Language is indeed a mere vehicle to express ideas. In point of fact both Vico and Croce have been translated in most major languages. The issue is to convince people that their thought is essential for the understanding of the problem and the envisioning of a solution so that once persuaded people are motivated to read them in any language they prefer. I believe that is what Professor Paolozzi is attempting to do with this remarkable book as translated into English and now being presented in Ovi, and he like me is of course grateful to the Ovi team that they have seen fit to enable him to do so. But I’ll let him speak for himself should he disagree with what I have just enunciated.

Emanuel Paparella2013-03-09 04:04:54
P.S. Ultimately we can re-invent the wheel or build on what genial thinkers have already discovered about a controversial issue. I think the latter is the wiser path.

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