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Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter I Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom - Chapter I
by Prof. Ernesto Paolozzi
2013-02-25 09:09:44
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Chapter One
The Struggle against Rationalism and Irrationalism.

A good method to understand a philosopher, as Croce suggests, is to ask with whom he engaged in polemics and what problems he attempted to solve. In other words, he must be historicized, understood in the concrete existence of a man steeped in life, in the history of his times. There are those who will say that in so doing one invites relativism and, consequently, skepticism. To be sure, this is a risk that one must take. But to do the opposite would entail deducing from the living work of an author a series of dead and abstract formulas, to be fitted into a mosaic with other abstruse and incomprehensible theories that would make up a history of philosophy that to many students (but also to many scholars who do not dare admit it) seems a series of oddities from Plato’s Hyper Uranium to Popper’s third world, from Leibniz’s monads to Kant’s transcendentalism, and so on.

The interpreter’s difficulties consist in comprehending what is universal in the particular, that is, what is still living, interesting for us in the work of the philosopher we want to understand. To historicize Croce, in our case, means reconstructing his problems and his reasons by trying to catch those aspects of his thought that can lead us in the right direction by confronting our problems, and in strengthening our reasons. This means making Croce our contemporary, freeing him from the antiquarian history of Nietzschean memory in which we have tried, in the last few years (after a long period of harsh and prejudiced polemic) to imprison him.

At the end of the last century, what were then the important questions and notions that Croce was dealing with, as his thinking matured and consolidated? The main adversary was certainly positivism against which the young philosopher, born in 1866, led a hard-fought battle in line, to be sure, with the emerging, contemporary European philosophy. It was a question of defeating the scientific myth that dominated European culture and that in Italy had acquired pathological dimensions, entrenched in the ancient roots of empty rhetoric typical of a degenerate humanistic tradition. The young philosopher intuited the danger inherent in a “mentality” bent in extending the method of the sciences to every field of knowledge, from literary criticism to historiography, from pure philosophy to politics. A method, moreover, not understood completely in its complexity. Croce made fun of the Italian intellectual who disguised the old, obstinate pedantry in scientific language. A flaw which we have not entirely eliminated when we think that after fifty years the phenomenon is repeated under the false pretenses of complex scientific analyses, such as those of semiology and semiotics, that have brought back into favor the old formulas of rhetoricians and scholars, logician and grammarians. Therefore, it was a question of freeing Italian culture from its “naturalistic and materialistic”prison, allowing it to breath once again, and making it possible for scholars and for original and creative artists to shake off the yoke of academics who found in their positivist formulas the weapons to defend their lack of power.

It was a difficult battle, never concluded, that reached the climax with the program of La critica, the journal Croce founded with Giovanni Gentile, the manifest of a tiny group of scholars that slowly asserted itself first within Italian culture, and later in the world. From the early erudite studies of his youth, Croce moved on to works of a more philosophical nature such as the essay “La storia ridotta sotto il concetto generale dell’arte” [History reduced under the general concept of art] (1893) (initially written in a positivistic vein but quickly revised during printing) whose title already makes known the author’s intentions, and “La critica letteraria e le sue condizioni in Italia”[Literary Criticism and its conditions in Italy](1895), an analysis of the state of critical studies of the period, and a first reference to the authentic nature of art. In fact, as Croce himself noted in his most authoritative autobiography, An Autobiography [Contributo alla critica di me stesso], written in 1915, his studies on the philosophy of art were instrumental in the development of his philosophy.

But it was only the arduous effort, as I have said, that my Aesthetic cost me, that enabled me to overcome, for myself and by myself, naturalism and Herbartianism that still fettered me. That is, I overcame the logic of naturalism by appeal to the logic of grades of the spirit, or of development, that alone enabled me to grasp the relation between words and thought, imagination and intellect, utility and morality. And I overcame the naturalistic transcendence through the critique that I was irresistibly mounting against literary genres, grammar, the separate arts, and rhetorical styles. This critique enabled me to come to terms with how, into the pure spiritual world of art, “nature,” the product of man’s own spirit, is introduced. And, thus, by denying the reality of nature in art, I began to deny it everywhere, uncovering everywhere its true character, not as reality but as the product of abstracting thought (A 93-94).

We shall try to clarify later the terminology of Croce’s complex thought that has created so much confusion. Here it is more useful to recall, as we have already done, the references and the sources which inspired the philosopher as his work was gradually taking shape.

After losing his parents in Casamicciola, in Ischia’s earthquake, he was entrusted to the care of his uncle Silvio Spaventa, from whom he learned to admire, beside its strong moral sense, the Risorgimento’s principles, if not the style, of that historical liberal Right that, in many ways, remains an unsurpassed example of ethico-political strength and firmness, in a not very exciting period of Italian history. But from his other uncle, Bertrando Spaventa, philosopher and renowned scholar, he was separated by the Hegelian orthodoxy of the latter, as well as by that theological attitude with respect to philosophy, that will mark the constant difference between Croce’s historicism and Italian idealism. Croce always insisted in clearing up, sometimes even in an irreverent manner, the confusion that may arise that his Hegelianism was the result of his relation to his uncle. A confusion, unfortunately, not even resolved today when Croce still appears under the label of “Italian idealism”. The only true teacher that he recognized was Antonio Labriola whose lessons the young Croce followed even though he was registered in the Law Faculty, from where, however, he never graduated. It was in part due to the intense relationship with Labriola, Italy’s foremost interpreter of Marxism , and his influence, that Croce abandoned his merely erudite studies for the study of philosophy and ethico-political commitment.

Croce’s major sources are easily traceable, on his own authority, in the youthful reading of De Sanctis, in his “Platonic-Scholastic-Herbartian conception,” and in his studies on economics, partially related to the interpretation of Marx’s thought. This said, it would be superficial to reduce his cultural background to these texts alone. We only need to think of the profound impact that Empirio-criticism exercised on Croce, which was the most advanced style of epistemological thinking of the time, namely. And, then, there is Mach, Avenarius, and for other aspects, Poincaré, whose theories mark the truest, most profound break with the dominant positivist trend. From Herbartism, Croce derives, at least in part, the sense of distinction and the clarity of thought, from De Sanctis the ability to conceive artistic activity in its autonomy (once again the distinction), and from Marxism the determination of Utility as a positive spiritual category.

But we should not give in to the temptation to schematize and to pigeon hole, as in some kind of puzzle, the different doctrines and the many lectures that miraculously constituted Croce’s thought. In fact, his thinking is very labored and has its genesis in the spontaneous tendency to always search for the concrete, for whatever is individual and can be grasped in the only reality that we can know and experiment, our life, that is, the history in which we are always immersed and from which we can never emerge definitively, if not with death. At the origins of Croce’s thought, therefore, there is more De Sanctis than Herbart; there is Marxism but as historicism. From the great critic De Sanctis, and from his relation with the Spaventas and Labriola, Croce goes back to Hegel and Vico, the two authors of his mature years, the great philosophers whose systematic study will contribute to the great works of the Philosophy of Spirit, through which he joins the great philosophical tradition, which he will confront on the great themes of the dialectic, the concept, judgment, philosophical logic, and finally, in his last writings, Vitality.

If in these years, the basic problem consists in overcoming the positivist, materialistic, naturalism and democraticism, partially related to positivist culture (we should remember that it was precisely the reading of Marx that cured Croce, as he reminds us, from the abstractions of a certain type of democraticism and socialism), the philosopher soon found himself confronting that “sensualism and decadence,” that was advancing alongside the more general European irrationalism, in which one can trace the warning signs of totalitarian movements that in a few years would devastate the world.

Croce’s position between rationalism and irrationalism, therefore, is original, even in the jagged philosophical panorama of his time. Both anti-positivist and anti-irrationalist, Croce takes part and does not take part in the general anti-positivist movements of the turn of the century. We could compare Croce’s speculative and psychological position with the one assumed by Hegel in The Phenomenology of Mind of 1807 with respect to the great debates of his time: anti-enlightenment but not romantic to the end, and, wholeheartedly, as his young friends. If we think of Croce’s association with Gentile, their common battles against the many positivist scientists for an “idealist rebirth” in Italy, how can their break up (philosophical first, and later political) not remind us of Hegel’s polemic against Schelling’s philosophy as the “night in which all cows are black”?

This interpretation can be supported by many facts. From Croce’s gusto that made him prefer the “virile” poet Carducci (whose critical school he held to be inferior to De Sanctis’) to the many fashionable “decadent” poets of his time, to his writing style, impassioned to be sure, complex and tormented, but never obscure or sensual, rhetorical or affected and empty. It would be enough to think of his predecessors -- from Vico, Hegel (and Kant, as we shall see), to Machiavelli, Marx, De Sanctis -- whose originality and creativity consists in that rare ability to be innovators without being eccentric, to be rooted in history without being traditional. But the decisive proof is Croce’s own work, his philosophy.

If we were to trace the thread that runs throughout Croce’s thinking, we would have to identify it, as we shall see in the following chapters, with the concept of liberty, as the moral principle and method of interpreting reality. Not only because during and after the experience of Fascism, Croce will outline a truly liberal conception of life, but because his thinking always tends to liberate human activity from any external or naturalistic ties: whether it is a question of the old and recurrent metaphysics of Being, of beginnings, of totality, or the apparently opposed metaphysics of matter as absolute determining factor; or whether it is a question of the naturalistic determinism that tends to bridle man in oppressive scientific laws, or the irrationalist sensualism that reduces creative liberty to mere psycophysical sensation.

These opposed and different dispositions have in common the objective limitations of individual liberty even when, as in the case of D’Annunzio, it poses as a reckless ideology of libertinism. A false liberty, just as are false many and apparently open-minded externalizations of hidden and recondite sentiments. The strength and originality of Croce’s thought stands in opposition to these various cultural movements of his time, which is only partially dialectical.


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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Thanos2013-02-25 12:13:29
Welcome Professor Paolozzi, looking forward for the rest of the book!

Emanuel Paparella2013-02-25 12:38:49
I second Thanos’s welcome to the Ovi team, Ernesto. This presentation of your book on Croce which has already appeared in Spanish in Argentina will undoubtedly be a signal contribution and addition to your admirable efforts to restore Croce to its proper place in the pantheon of post-modern philosophers, especially in Anglo-Saxon academic quarters.

I say addition, given the admirable efforts you have carried out for many years in Italy in order to restore Croce’s image and fortunes, prominent among which the admirable homage to the commemoration of Croce’s death and memory prepared and published by you last summer in the prestigious Italian journal Libro Aperto ( XXXIII, n. 69, Aprile-Giugno 2012) with contributions and praises arriving from all over the world, where I too have contributed a re-evaluation of Croce's philosophy since my days of graduate studies at Yale University. Ad majorem.

The Ovi Team 2013-02-25 13:38:43
Our apologies to Professor Massimo Verdicchio (who did the translation of the book and all the hard work to adapt it into the English language) for not adding his name in the first edition of the Ovi magazine.

Alan2013-02-25 17:13:23
Waiting for the rest

Emanuel Paparella2013-02-25 18:34:01
P.S. Dear Ernesto, your book which I have read in its entirety and on which I have reflected represents a very much needed addition to the correct interpretation of Croce’s philosophy who unfortunately has been misinterpreted in the Anglo-Saxon academic world (relegating him with Collingwood) or even the French and German academic world since the advent of the post-modern, post-metaphysical philosophy of Derrida and Vattimo relegating him to the role of a post-Hegelian philosopher or a relativist. Both Vico and Croce are much more nuanced and complex than that and your book is what is urgently needed to correct such a misinterpretation and give Croce his due place in the pantheon of great modern philosophers. You primarily and Professor Massimo Verdicchio, whose labor of love translated the book into English, are to be commended and congratulated for initiating this project so important for the contemporary philosophical concerns of the 21st century.

Leah Sellers2013-02-26 06:11:44
Looking forward to reading more of your and Mr. Benedetto's interesting Works and Ideas, Mr. Ernesto.
However, I must admit to preferring a World in the Day in which All Cows are Singularly and Uniquely Diverse.

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