It is an honor to have been asked by Professor Ernesto Paolozzi to write a brief introduction to this extraordinary book which valiantly attempts not only to recover and commemorate the memory of one of the foremost philosophical geniuses that Italy has given to the world from the neglect he suffered after his death, but also to show how relevant he remains to our post-modern philosophical concerns.
He has recently put together a series of writing in honor of the 50th anniversary of the death of the great thinker Benedetto Croce that appeared in the prestigious Italian journal Libro Aperto. The contributions arrived from all over the world. Mine was a reevaluation of my own perception of Croce’s thought since the time I submitted a dissertation on Vico at Yale University. Indeed, Croce may be dead but he is far from been forgotten. If anything, it is his thought which has been misguidedly found passé and has consequently been neglected. Paolozzi, not unlike Tagliacozzo for Vico, is about to correct such and unfortunate mistake with this gem of a book on Croce’s philosophy of history and of freedom.
Some scholars 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. To speak of modern historicism is to speak of post-metaphysical historicism. An uncritical return to the Enlightenment runs the risk of making us think of Vico and especially Croce as the culmination of the Enlightenment rather than the culmination of Italian Humanism. There is an unfortunate 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. 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.
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.
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 line of thinking can indeed be found in my own dissertation on Vico at Yale University (1990) titled “The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence in Vico’s concept of Providence.”
But my view of Croce has evolved since then. 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. It is this insight that makes Paolozzi’s book so relevant to our modern post-metaphysical concerns.
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 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. Notice that the second part of the title of this book is “the Duty of Freedom.”
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, but 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 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. The relevancy of this book resides exactly in the corrective it makes to the unfortunate neglect of Croce after his death and show how relevant he remains to our post-modern concerns.
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. 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, Croce’s philosophy is not relativistic, far from it, but even great philosophers have fallen in that trap.
For example, 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. This book attempts to correct that kind of confusion.
In fact it did not help much that 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 pond, 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 was finally discovered in the American academic world thanks to the efforts of Giorgio Tagliacozzo and the translation into English of Bergin and Fisch.
It is high time that Croce too, like Vico, be rediscovered and appreciated in his own right, as the other great modern Neapolitan philosophical genius that he is. This book will undoubtedly be a giant step in that direction.
Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy Barry University, Miami Florida
Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Struggle against Rationalism and Irrationalism
Chapter Two: Aesthetics: The liberation of Art
Chapter Three: The Logic. From the Abstract to the Concrete: Thought and Action
Chapter Four: The Question of the Sciences. Are they True, False or Useful?
Chapter Five: The World of Praxis: Economy, Politics, Ethics, Vitality
Chapter Six: Methodological Liberalism
Chapter Seven: History as Contemporary History and Ethico-Political Historiography
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.
Aesthetics: The liberation of Art
Croce’s Aesthetics as science of expression and general linguistics, known simply as Aesthetics or Grand Aesthetics, is the work that earned Croce international fame and that, even today, almost a century from its publication, is perhaps his most popular work, at least, outside of Italy. One only needs to run through the best informed and most up to date bibliographical reviews to realize it. From Japan to England, there are a number of translations of this work, and in anthologies of his works devoted to the philosophy of art, this work always occupies a central role. The Aesthetics can be regarded as a milestone in the history of twentieth century philosophy, and in the history of aesthetics in general. It contains in essence Croce’s entire thought and sums up its close confrontation with the philosophical currents of the time. Croce, always ready to historicize himself, gives an account of both issues, in the Preface to the fifth edition of September 15, 1921:
The strength of this first treatment consisted, on the one hand, of a critique of the physiological, psychological and naturalistic Aesthetic in all its forms, and on the other, of a critique of any metaphysical accounts of the Aesthetic, with the consequential destruction of the conceptual errors that they upheld and valorized, against which this work opposed the simple notion that art is expression, expression, of course, which is not immediate and practical, but theoretical, that is to say, intuition. On this clearly established notion, which I have never had any reason to abandon, since it proved to be sound and adaptable, I have not ceased, since then, to define it more precisely. The two main developments I have outlined are: (1) the demonstration of the lyrical character of pure intuition (1908); and (2) the demonstration of its universal or cosmic character (1918). One could say that the first counters any false view of art as realistic or imitative, and the second counters the no less false view of art as unbridled passion or “romantic” effusion. The origins or seeds of both of these developments were certainly to be found in this present book, but no more than as seeds or origins.
Croce expresses himself even more clearly in the Introduction to Guide to Aesthetics (Breviario di estetica) of 1912, a set of four papers written for the Opening of the Rice Institute at Houston University, and which had enormous editorial success. Hoping that the short volume could also benefit Italian students, whom the editor Laterza wanted to target, Croce thought that it would be simpler and more interesting for those who wanted to get closer to philosophical questions, to start with the aesthetic.
The problems of Art lead more easily and spontaneously not only to acquire the habit of speculation, but also to give a foretaste of the logic, ethics, and metaphysics. For in fact, to understand the relation of content and form in art is to begin to understand the synthetic a priori. Similarly, to understand the relation of intuition and expression is to overcome the materialism and spiritualism dualism. To understand the empiricism of the classification of literary genres and of the arts is to understand a glimpse of the difference between naturalistic and philosophical processes, and so on.
The aesthetic is for Croce the testing ground of every philosophy. And, in fact, the fundamental concepts worked out and outlined in his first great book, and always re-examined and better clarified throughout the years, are seminal to understanding the development of his thought and to substantiating the ideological and cultural premises put forward in the first pages of this short work. The Aesthetic begins with this very famous statement:
Knowledge takes two forms: it is either intuitive knowledge or logical knowledge; knowledge obtained by means of our power to create mental representations, or knowledge obtained by means of the intellect; knowledge of individuals, or knowledge of universals; of particular things, or of the relationships between them; it is, in short, either that which produces representations or that which produces concepts.(Ae 1)
In so doing the philosopher states his own position clearly and precisely which, even after many reflections and clarifications, will remain fundamental to its overall philosophical system. Knowledge originates in intuition and this is the form of knowledge of the individual. Above all, we represent the world to ourselves, the “reality” around us, then we understand the relations and the connections that hold together the unitarian (universal) fabric of our experiences. What we see, feel, perceive, in what Croce calls the auroral (i.e. original ) form of knowledge are the images or representations of particular events: the face of an interesting woman, the curious face of a child before a new object, the monotony of a middle class interior, a certain expression of ours in a given moment of our existence, and so on. Only in a secondary, ideal moment, we define what we intuit linking it to a universal concept, qualifying what we represent to ourselves as a practical or theoretical event, useful or harmful, good or bad, and so on.
It is useless to add that the schematization or simplification proposed here has only didactic and popular value because both in Croce’s thought and in reality (which is what matters most) the development and the unraveling of conscience occurs in a much more complex way. But, it is worth emphasizing, even in passing, that Croce’s argument has in common with empiricism, which he opposed, the idea that the origin of knowledge is in sensation (modernly understood as activity productive of knowledge and not as mere, passive, reception and, therefore, as definite image, representation), in the knowledge of individuality. In short, an argumentation, even in the largely tributary Kantian thought, to which Croce (as we shall see with respect to the theory of judgment) may be owes much more than to Hegel.
It may useful in order to uphold this interpretation, to compare the Aesthetic of 1902 to the less well-known beginning of the later Logic.
The premise of logical activity, which is the subject of this treatise, are representations or intuitions. If man had no representations, he would not think; if he were not an imaginative spirit, he would not be a logical spirit either. It is generally admitted that thought refers back to sensation, as its antecedent, and this doctrine we have no difficulty in making our own, provided two things are clear. In the first place that sensation is conceived as something active and cognitive, as a cognitive act; and not as something formless and passive, or active, rather as living and not theorizing activity. In the second place that sensation be understood in its purity, without any logical reflection and elaboration, as simple sensation, and not as perception. The latter, as we shall see later, far from being implied, implies logical activity, or even identifies with it (L 3-4) .
Of course, these first Crocean theses, above all that of the Aesthetic, presented various problems that the philosopher will confront, in particular for what concerns the nature of intuiton, in the later writings on the philosophy of art. In the first book already, the difference with Kant is, often times, implicitly marked and, in particular, with respect to spatiality and temporality to which one used to link intuitions. An undue relation to which Croce decisively objected. But it is without doubt, as Croce often times recognized, that in the first Aesthetic, the general framework, the language and the style, suffer from the cultural climate of the day, from that positivist naturalism that the philosopher always harshly fought. With time, as we mentioned, Croce developed the concept of intuition. He will specify that the chief character of intuition is knowledge of the sentiment. In Guide to Aesthetics, Croce writes that “what lends coherence and unity to intuition is intense feeling. Intuition is truly such because it expresses an intense feeling, and can arise only when the latter is its source and basis”(25) . This reflection, which tends to substantiate the empty mechanical character of intuition, understood first as mere knowledge of the individual, led to many misunderstandings. The use of the adjective lyric, for instance, to indicate the new nature of intuition, even though Croce made it clear that it was only a synonym of intuition, generated the confusion, not entirely cleared up, that he was a romantic. In actual fact, among the many possible implications, which cannot all be accounted for here, Croce meant precisely that intuitive knowledge is always sentimentally affected, that it is always an expression of an inner state which invests the “content” of knowledge itself. If this were not the case, one would fall back in a kind of empiricism, even if skillful and modern. If we go back to some of the examples mentioned, it will be easy to understand the meaning of Croce’s thought. We spoke of intuition-representation of the face of a woman or of a child, and we added the attributes of interesting and curiousity. Now, if we analyze carefully the cognitive process, we realize that we cannot “know” those faces outside their sentimental determinations (interesting, curious). At best, those faces (or anything else) could inspire indifference, but indifference too is a state of mind, a sentiment. We should not speak, therefore, of a Crocean romanticism but, if anything, of a subjective gnosiologism, if this too were not a reductive formula. In fact, an intense feeling, an intuition which is not an intense feeling, an intuition of something, is an empty abstraction. That is why Croce, like Kant, defines art as a lyrical synthetic a priori.
By intense feeling, one should not understand the show of emotion of a mere psychological or practical order. The contemplated but not lived intense feeling belongs to Leopardi, which is something similar but theoretically less ambiguous than Husserl’s erlebnis, to mention a trend of contemporary philosophy shaped by the same cultural climate. Croce clarifies this concept first, in the essay of 1917, “Il carattere di totalità dell’espressione artistica,” (The totality character of artistic expression), where he speaks of cosmic intuition, and later in Aesthetica in nuce. Many are the meanings that one can attribute to the new definition, and many and controversial are the interpretations. Here it will suffice to allude to the distinction between practical and cognitive feeling through which one knows the world in its individual aspects. So we will understand why intuition has a universal character, even though it is knowledge of the individual, and, therefore, can be intelligible; why we cannot communicate to others our pain for the disappearance of a person dear to us but we can represent it, communicate it as representation. This is how Croce puts it in Aesthetica in nuce:
It is in the difference between feeling as contemplated (poetry, in fact), and feeling as enacted or undergone, that lies the catharsis, the liberation from the affections, the calming property which has been attributed to art; and to this corresponds the aesthetic condemnation of works of art if or in so far as immediate feeling breaks into them or uses them as an outlet. The same difference accounts for that other character (once agin, properly speaking, synonymous with poetic expressiveness), the “infinity” of art which differentiates it from feeling or immediate passion which are finite, and this is also described as the “universal” or “cosmic” character of poetry (Ain 219-220).
Are these shifts from pure intuition to cosmic intuition the sign of clear-cut caesura in Croce’s work? Croce denies it, stating that it is improper to speak of a second or a third aesthetics, but only of developments, refinements and corollaries of the first. Alfredo Parente takes up with great insight the question of the logical status of feeling to which the philosopher will never attribute an autonomous value, a categorical meaning. These are complex and fascinating questions which, however, cannot be the object of a synthetic paper on Croce’s vast production such as this.
It is useful, however, to take a step back to discuss the basic theses of his Aesthetic by trying to capture the “subversive” nature of their pronouncements. Above all the identity of intuition and expression and, as a result, that of intuition and art that seemed to his contemporaries surprising if not paradoxical. If a mood is really known, and fully intuited, it is also totally expressed and represented. Some will say that common experience shows the contrary because it is easy to show that there is nothing more difficult than communicating to others our experiences, emotions, and moods. In fact, it is like that. But Croce differentiates between expression and communication, despite creating new uncertainties and many misunderstandings, supporting the thesis according to which the communication of a certain emotional state, of an intuition, can fail for various reasons, but this does not happen to the expression in and for itself. In order to understand this, it is useful to reflect on one’s own personal experience. What we intuit, what we know, is always expressed, represented at least to ourselves. If things were otherwise, we would not really have knowledge of anything. What could we know if we did not represent it? And what could we try to communicate to others? There would be a dualism between intuition and representation that would dissolve the entire cognitive act. Common experience, or common sense, show us, this time, that Croce’s thesis (and of philosophers in general, from Kant on) is not at all paradoxical and, if anything, what is paradoxical is the criticism moved to that thesis. Naturally, one should not underestimate the effort that sometimes is needed to reach what one usually calls a full expression of one’s moods. Croce accepts this process (in fact, he believes that the ultra-romantic view that holds the contrary is misleading), but he simply reminds us that in this plight what one has difficulty achieving is not the expression but the intuition that one has to define, and which is always already expressed.
Let us move now to the question of the identification of the individual’s intuitive knowledge with art, so far implied as a given. Croce is aware of the difficulty of maintaining that the normal faculty, or function, whereby we represent the world in its individual aspects, is identifiable with the great works of art. But if we look closely, the difference that everyone seems to grasp is not “specific,” but only extensive and empirical. “The intuition enshrined in the simplest popular love song,” writes Croce in the Aesthetics, “which says as much, or little more, than the declarations of love that issue daily from the mouths of thousand ordinary people, can be perfect in the intensity of its humble simplicity, although substantially more limited in its range than the complex intuition enshrined in one of Leopardi’s poems”(Ae 14). If we are allowed a banal example, we could say that between ordinary intuition and great art there is the same difference that exists between a simple arithmetic operation and a complicated algebraic calculation. They are both calculations, even though, apparently, very different from one another.
From what we have said, it is clear that art is an autonomous form (distinct) from other forms or functions of the spirit, that is, of human activity. Art is knowledge but not Logic. Art is feeling but not practical feeling; therefore, not praxis. Naturally, art is inseparable from the remaining activities of man though it differentiates itself from them. In fact, it implies them or it is implied by them. In this sense, and only in this sense, we can speak of pure intuition. Not in a moral or in an aesthetic-critical sense, but in relation to the fact that it is autonomous from other categorical forms.
From the theoretical picture we have drawn so far, many particular doctrines derive as corollaries, often more well-known than Croce’s general theory, because more immediately effective at the level of critical activity. One has just to think of the identity of content and form, which was already asserted by De Sanctis. This is an unquestionable identity because, to put it once again in Kantian language, between form and content there is a synthetic a priori, as we have already seen in the case of the identity intuition-expression. Hence the impossibility of the perfect translation since it is not possible to transfer a “content” in other forms of expression without modifying at least in part that content, for the reasons already given. One more reason to believe that it is not possible to have an objective interpretation of works of art, which has led some to include Croce in the so-called philosophy of hermeneutics, and justifiedly so. Not to mention the importance of the negation of genera and the classification of the arts. These are useful and practical empirical distinctions but useless and often harmful when strictly applied as criteria for judging a work of art. In much the same way one must understand the question of technique which accompanies artistic activity, but does not exhaust artistic expression, which is always a creative and original act. Art is one insofar as it is expression and Croce, beginning with the title of “Aesthetics as Science of Expression and General Linguistics,” identifies it without question with language. With extreme modernity, by identifying language (not single languages, as historically developed) with the expression of intuitive or individual knowledge, Croce liberated human activity from its oppressive conditions.
This is the fundamental point on which I would like to conclude. Croce’s Aesthetic, as his entire philosophy, is a concrete and working philosophy of liberty. In this specific case it was a question of liberating artistic activity from the ties with which tradition, the pedantry of critics, the slyness of false artists, tried and will always try to repress it and force it. A novel, a symphony or a monument are not romantic, classical, baroque, Arcadic, ancient or modern, unless by metaphor. Above all, they are beautiful or ugly, successful or unsuccessful cognitive acts. After a long and bumpy course, full of theoretical difficulties that implicate the whole history of philosophy, one arrives, finally, to a conclusion that may seem simple, and which after all is the task of philosophy: to explain reality and not to replace it with more or less ingenious eccentricities, to find the reasons of what we all observe and know. It is not by chance that Guide to Aesthetics begins with these subtly ironic, but true, words:
To the question, “What is art?,” one could reply in jest – and it would not be a foolish retort – that art is something everybody knows about. As a matter or fact, had we not some inkling already as to what art is, the question itself could not even be raised. For every question entails some notion of what is being asked, implicit in the question and, therefore, qualified and known. (3)
Philosophy of Art and its Criticism
It would not be fair to Croce if we instituted a hierarchy between his activity as critic and as a theorist of art. There is between the two a clear and continuous osmosis, both because the concrete experience of critic suggested to the philosopher problems and themes of general speculation, and because the theory sheds light on the criticism. In the long study process the two attitudes are born, Vichian-like, out of a single birth. Just as his aesthetic pronouncements, Croce’s critical essays have generated polemics, enthusiastic adherence, and sharp rejections: from the initial essays collected in the first four volumes of La letteratura della nuova Italia (Literature of the New Italy)(1914-1940) to those in Poesia e non poesia, (Poetry and Not Poetry) not to mention the reaction generated from his study on Dante, to the studies on Goethe (1919) and on Ariosto Shakespeare e Corneille (1920) where the variations on the cosmic character of intuition are introduced.
In an extended survey of great, small and even unimportant poets of post-unification Italy, Croce fully exercises his taste and even a certain polemical vocation that sometimes even risks excess. There is real harsh criticism of major poets such as Giovanni Pascoli, and disproportionate enthusiasm for minor poets. However, a unified guideline emerges as the essay “Di un carattere della più recente letteratura italiana” (About a trait in the most recent Italian Literature) of 1907, makes clear, namely the opposition between Carducci’s era to the later and decadent period of Pascoli, Fogazzaro and D’Annunzio. Croce’s negative judgment of the latter period reflect his personal taste, his general ideas on the nature of art and, in some ways, the ethico-political beliefs of the philosopher, not yet completely expressed as in the later years of opposition to the Fascist regime, but already evident in many of his attitudes. The fight against aestheticism, sensualism, romanticism, which at a general philosophical level always goes together with a struggle against rationalism and positivism, as we have seen, also applies to his literary criticism.
But beyond the ideological connotations that somehow condition Croce’s thought, some of his pronouncements, even if not always accepted, remain famous, as they are always original, surprising, to the point of always arousing interest and attention. For example, negating artistic value to the first five cantos of Dante’s Commedia, the distinction between the allegorical structure (that is, non poetic, other than art) of the poem, considered a mere, if indispensable, basis on which poetry is generated, and, consequently, the negation of the aesthetic value of allegory. Similar pronouncements undermined many of the taboos of Italian literature, and were a threat to so many pedants and moralists. A sort of ante litteram fight against received ideas. But the arguments set off by Croce’s critical essays were many. Among these, the polemic on Manzoni, at first viewed as a mere moralist caught in a Catholicism verging on conformism, and then partially rehabilitated later. The peremptory condemnation of Leopardi philosopher. The contemptuous slashing of D’Annunzio, defined an “amateur of sensations”. The rejection of the Baroque. The uncompromising criticism of Pirandello as a bad philosopher, and as the poet of the “identity card.” On the other hand, he praised Ariosto as poet of harmony and refined irony. His boundless admiration for Goethe and Shakespeare, and his definite appreciation for Baudelaire and Flaubert. He “discovered” and launched Salvatore Di Giacomo, as a regional and European poet.
Clearly, it is much easier to disagree with Croce’s single critical judgments, tendencies and taste than with his more theoretical pronouncements. His essay on Leopardi leaves much to be desired, so much so that two of the greatest historians of Italian literature, and sympathetic to Croce’s views, Francesco Flora and Natalino Sapegno, re-examined more liberally the figure of Leopardi and his work, qualifying Croce’s judgment of a “strangled life,” which does contain some grain of truth, into the more humanly comprehensible “history of a soul.”
And yet, we must be aware that if we move from the famous definitions, by now well assimilated, to a re-reading of those works, our judgement changes once again. Both because sometimes even the most severe pronouncements appear plausible and because the critical “slashing” seem less final, paired more with adjectives that disturb than with substantial disparagements. Leopardi’s poetry, to return to our example, is salvaged even if his attitude is condemned, which, by the way, is perfectly in line with Croce’s methodology.
To be sure the case of Pascoli, D’Annunzio and Pirandello are different but, even years later, can one deny a certain puerility in Pascoli, the obvious artfulness of D’Annunzio, and even in the case of the greatly acclaimed Pirandello, can one deny a certain tiresome pedantry in trying to “shock” the ladies and the middle class with his vaunting the mutability of the human condition?
Having said this, it is probably also true that some of Croce’s “devaluations” are somewhat excessive. What is astonishing (and, surprisingly, it is very rarely pointed out), it often seems that Croce the critic forgets Croce the theorist, that in some cases the philosopher conducts a type of content-oriented, if not ideological, criticism which, as we saw, is an attitude that he had always harshly combated. It would seem, and the use of the conditional is necessary, that in Pirandello’s case, perhaps the most surprising, (as far as D’Annunzio is concerned, once his rehabilitation is no longer fashionable, Croce’s judgement will be in part softened by the public’s reluctance to read his works) the negative judgement on the derivative philosophy of the Sicilian writer conditions the overall critical judgement, as if Croce could not understand that in some cases “philosophy” is transformed in art, in state of mind, mood. Of course, in most cases, aesthetic judgement is well differentiated from the moral one, even if in the mature phase of Croce’s thought the relation between ethics and art becomes ever narrower without yielding, however, to moralism, or to content. The moral condemnation of decadentism, for instance, goes hand in hand with the aesthetic condemnation of an art that is never fulfilled but gets reduced, in our view, to a relation of mere causality. On the other hand, one ought to better investigate his positive judgement of Baudelaire, the cursed poet par excellence. In the great French poet, Croce finds that special truth of art that is a form of knowledge, which is not always present in D’Annunzio’s provincial imitations. Therefore, there is no moral prejudice.
In trying to classify Croce’s taste, we could set up two groups, on the one hand the poets he loved and on the other those he disliked. From these a common trait emerges, namely a classical, virile taste, a favoritism for great art, for art as expression of the fundamental dialectic of pain and pleasure, as Alfredo Parente has justly noted. An art that resolves in expression, in the poetic image, life’s turmoil, the tragedy of human condition that trouble us from birth to death, and which is not annulment, or rhetorical artifice, or intellectual play. But it is not always like this, because Croce’s judgement often catches us by surprise forcing us to reconsider the composition of the ideal classifications that we have just set up. Fortunately, this occurs because taste is free. Even when influenced it is never conditioned or determined.
Finally, I would like to remember the importance that Croce attaches to the theories of some poets and critics to the study of the history of aesthetics. Naturally, he differentiates between poetics and aesthetic, between the programs, the personal declarations of taste, the poetic manifestoes, from the proper and true analyses of the artistic phenomenon. Nonetheless, Croce discovers in the poetics of Baudelaire and Flaubert elements of the greatest interest, and he even goes so far as to state that in order to attain innovative elements for the history of aesthetic, one must turn, in French culture, to the poets and not to the philosophical tradition, too tied up with Cartesianism and almost made powerless by rationalism. As far as Italy is concerned, he remarks that only Francesco De Sanctis (even if he thinks that the little known Antonio Tari is also important) despite the rhapsodic character of his writings, rises up to the speculative power of a Giambattista Vico, true “discoverer” of modern aesthetics (Baumgarten is a special case that cannot be dealt with here). One could write, as we have suggested elsewhere, a history of aesthetics by non philosophers (that is, non professional ones) from Croce’s point of view. Thus, one could deal in greater depth, and in a less fragmentary way, with the affinities between Croce’s aesthetic of the autonomy of art and French symbolism, the intuitions of E. Allan Poe, the theories of T.S. Eliot, or Joyce’s sensibility (for instance, the aesthetic statements in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). From this study, very probably, a view of Croce could emerge that is very current in its conception of modernity, and even post-modernity, in striking contradiction to his language, and life style.
From this point of view, there is something that marks the specificity of Italian culture, and in particular the Southern one, from Vico to Leopardi, from Machiavelli to Croce, from De Sanctis to Gramsci. Southern culture is both cosmopolitan and tied to its traditions, both revolutionary in substance and conservative in its external attitudes, almost as if an instinctive form of modesty made it impossible to our “genius” to take on the character of “immoderation.” Greatness and limitation of our culture.
The Logic: from the Abstract to the Concrete. Thought and Action
The Logic as Science of the Pure Concept , sketched in 1905 and revised and expanded in 1909, is the fundamental work of Benedetto Croce and, certainly, among the most important in the history of philosophy. To presume to account for the complexity of this work and the possible contradictions left to the living thought of posterity, would be a daring act given the essentially didactic nature of the present work. However, it is necessary to pause on some essential points to account for a philosophy that while not claiming to be definitive is architecturally coherent and tending to be conclusive, by trying to resolve problems and refusing to force them into a sterile intellectual exercise. Croce’s Logic is strongly positioned on the transcendental logic of Kant and Hegel, even if in time a strong connection with Giambattista Vico will emerge, whose conception of the unity of philosophy and philology can be said to be the logical antecedent to the theory of historical judgment. Closer to Kant than to Hegel, as I mentioned earlier, Croce eliminates any transcendental or realistic residue, puts into motion Kant’s synthetic a priori, situates it in history and “realizes,“ to use Hegel’s terminology, the dialectic of opposites by placing it in relation (but it is a question of more than a simple relation) with the logic of distincts.
The foundation of this new logical system, or method, is the assertion of the concept as pure concept, that is, distinct from representations or intuitions and from logical fictions or pseudoconcepts. The true concept arises from representation (previously we have seen that knowledge has for Croce two forms, the intuitive and the conceptual) and without them it could only live as mere abstraction, but it is distinct from it, as it is obvious and natural. But the concept is not the one that we currently designate with this term. It is not an arbitrary abstraction constructed on the concrete representations of reality. This is Croce’s famous example:
If we think of the house, we refer to an artificial structure of stone or masonry or wood, or iron or straw, where beings, whom we call men, are wont to abide for some hours, or for entire days and entire years. Now, however great may be the number of objects denoted by that concept, it is always a finite number; there was a time when men did not exist, when, therefore, neither did his house; and there was another time when man existed without his house, living in caverns and under the open sky. Of course, undoubtedly, we shall be able to extend the concept of house, so as to include also the places inhabited by animals; but it will never be possible to follow with absolute clearness the distinction between artificial and natural […]; or between the animals which are inhabitants and the non-animals, which nevertheless are inhabitants, such as plants, which, as well as animals, often seek a roof; admitting that certain plants and animals have other plants and animals as their houses. Hence, in view of the impossibility of a clear and universal distinctive character, it is advisable to have recourse at once to enumeration and to give the name house to certain particular objects, which, however numerous they are, are also finite in number, and which, with the enumeration complete, or capable of completion, exclude other objects from themselves (L 23-24).
Therefore, these types of objects lack the necessary, universal character of the true concept. One can think of a world without houses, or without roses and cats (whose concepts are deduced through abstraction) but a world without the concept of utility or morality is unthinkable. Any human action is either useful or useless, good or evil. To other types of concepts, which also appear to take on the characteristics of the most striking truths, a fundamental requisite is missing. They are universal in form, or so they seem, but they are empty, deprived of reality, because to the perfection that characterizes them reality is lacking. They are, to use the useful Heideggerian terminology, precise but not true.
What is then the function of pseudoconcepts? Are they minor truths, as Hegel and later philosophy claimed, or philosophical sketches waiting for higher realization, are they errors of which one should be wary? No, is Croce’s original reply. They have in fact a practical and not a theoretical character. They are distinct and not opposed to art and philosophy.
Now, in order to avoid (for as long as one can) equivocation and misunderstandings, it is good to remember that the pure concept is always also expression, language or whatever else one wants to call it, and that its fundamental character, in fact the only one, is that of being universal and concrete at the same time, so that universality does not degrade into abstraction, and individuality (the concerete!) into mere sensation.
The concept has the character of expressivity; that is to say, it is a cognitive product, and, therefore, expressed or spoken, not a mute act of the spirit, as is a practical act. If we wish to submit the effective possession of a concept to a first test, we can employ the experiment which was advised on a previous occasion: – whoever asserts that he possesses a concept, should be invited to expound it in words, and with other means of expression (graphic symbols and the like). If he refuses to do so and says that his concept is so profound that words cannot avail to render it, we can be sure, either that he is under the illusion of possessing a concept, when he possesses only turbid fancies and morsels of ideas; or that he has a presentiment of the profound concept, that it is in a process of formation, and will be, but is not yet, possessed (L 40-41).
Having established this, it remains to be said that the proper character of the concept is its being universal-concrete: “two words which designate one thing only, and can also grammatically become one: “Transcendental” (L 49).
The Kantian and Hegelian origins of Croce’s thought are unavoidable, which helps us to understand better our assertion about “putting into mobility” the concept of a synthetic a priori. Croce’s system is a continuous linking together of synthetic a priori (art as aesthetic synthetic a priori, judgment as logical synthetic a priori, will and volition as practical synthetic a priori, and so on) in the most general constitutive synthesis of life, of history (of spirit, to use a terminology that creates too many misunderstandings but which is also the most philosophically rigorous) which is unity and distinction and, precisely, a synthetic a priori of both. Before clarifying this last fundamental passage of Croce’s thought and arriving at the conclusion, to individual judgment or historical judgment, it is best to pause on the universal-concrete concept without which the theory of judgment would not make any sense. For instance, the concept of utility can be defined by abstraction as volition of the individual (which means, as we shall see, distinguishing it and putting it in relation with other concepts) but in reality as a concept it cannot exists outside of the infinite utilitarian actions that are accomplished. If this were the case, we would be returning to Platonism, to the world of ideas, whose relation with reality can only be explained mythologically with the theory of recollection, the myth of the Demiurge, and so on. But a modern Platonism, present in Croce as in all great philosophers, moves away from mythology and thinks the concept as immanent and not as transcendental. In their turn, the infinite single utilitarian actions would not be such if they were not qualified conceptually and universally as utilitarian. To think of the concept of utility as outside the single useful actions and vice versa, it would be like thinking an empty space or an object that does not occupy a space. It would be, in short, impossible.
The concept, therefore, is universal-concrete. But what are its relations, how can one determine its logical necessity in the world of spirit? We have arrived at the famous determination of the logic of distincts, at the theory of unity-distinction, as it would be best to put it, since we are dealing with the first fundamental polemical qualification with respect to the logic of opposites. Pure concepts, the categories founding human life in its essence, can only be deduced from their implication, from the very necessity that controls its existence, so to speak. There is no external limit that can serve as principle of identification to the number and quality of the categories. Croce, in reply to his critics, stated that there was nothing that forbade them to decrease or increase the number of categories. As long as that the reductions or the increase could occur on the basis of logical demonstrations and not arbitrarily.
Croce identifies four categories or pure concepts, to which the infinity of experience can be reduced. Human activity, divided in two spheres, a theoretical or cognitive one, and a practical and volitional one, distinguishes, as we saw, knowledge in two forms (art and philosophy) and practical activity in two more forms (the economical and the ethical). We have used the term “activity”, perhaps redundantly, and not very elegantly, because it is important to always remember that the general character of the categories is always that of their infinite mobility, the only guarantee of liberty. The fundamental functions through which our life is exemplified are at the same time “powers of action,” constitutive elements of the judgment that recognizes, both Vichian-like and Kantian-like, that action. Even though thought, at the level of logic, is not properly an action, since it is not a practical act, it is in any case an act, namely, a particular way of doing something, namely, thinking.
Since all subdivisions of the logical form have been excluded, the multiplicity of concepts can be referred only to the variety of objects that are thought in the logical form of the concept. The concept of goodness is not that of beauty. That is, both are logically the same act, since both are logical form, but the aspect of reality designated by the first is not the same designated by the second (L 74-75).
The categories, as they are found in all the summaries of the history of philosophy, respectively, identify the concepts of beautiful (art), truth (philosophy), utility (economics), good (ethics). They are distinct amongst themselves in a precise and rigorous way. At the same time the great theme of dialectics, the motive force of history, if one can say so, arises. Does Croce deny it? Of course not. It is reformed, according to the principle of distinction, which is placed next to that of opposition and unity. According to Croce, contrast, opposition, and the negative — absolutely necessary so that the positive may arise and assert itself, be motivated and understood in its not abstract reality — lives within the concept of the distinct. The error of many philosophical systems, and in particular of Hegel in a very major way, consists in having thought the opposition between distincts. For instance, the opposition between art, religion, and philosophy within the sphere of the Hegelian absolute spirit has led to the absurd idea of the death of art, because overcome and transcended by philosophy. In actuality, utility is not opposed to the good or to truth, rather to the useless, the harmful and so on.
Croce’s theory, so far described, appears clear, easily comprehensible and, why not say it, even too simple, and exposed to any type of criticism. In fact, the logic of distincts implies many delicate and complex questions: that of unity, within which alone it is possible to determine if one wants to flounder toward metaphysical or empirical positions; that of the qualification of the negative, of not-being (i.e. the not-beautiful), and that of the real movement of categories or pure concepts, which, because of their universal-concrete nature cannot be thought in abstraction, unless in a purely logical setting, or for didactic purposes. These problems, as is clear by now, run through Croce’s entire philosophy, and return, as we shall see, in History as the Story of Liberty of 1938 and in the later essays on vitality and on Hegel’s dialectic written in the last years and months of his life. But let us turn to the Logic.
[Distinct concepts] are distinguishable in unity; reality is their unity and also their distinction. Man is thought and action, indivisible but distinguishable forms; so much so that in so far as we think we deny action, and in so far as we act we deny thought. But the opposites are not distinguishable in this way; the man who commits an evil action, if he really does something, does not commit an evil action, but an action which is useful to him […]. Hence we see that the opposites, when taken as distinct moments, are no longer opposites, but distincts; and in that case they retain negative denominations only metaphorically, whereas, strictly speaking, they would merit positive ones. […] When we talk of negative terms, or of non-values and, thus, of not-beings as existing, existence really means that to the establishment of the fact we add the expression of the desire that another existence should arise upon that existence. “You are dishonest” means “You are a man that seeks your own pleasure” (a theoretical judgment); “but you ought to be (no longer a judgment, but the expression of a desire) “something else, and so serve the universal ends of Reality”(94-98).
The vicissitudes of distincts, therefore, becomes more complex and more clear at the same time. Raffaello Franchini has remarked how in this phase of Croce’s thought a platonic reflection is at play , even if Croce does not quote the Greek philosopher directly. The negative, in fact, is considered reality (the mere negative, not-being, is unthinkable) in so far as different. It is the genial platonic overcoming of the impasse, in which ancient philosophy found itself, because of the unresolved polemic between the followers of Parmenides and Heraclitus.
Life, therefore, is unity and distinction because what else could unity be if not the unity of ‘things” distinct, and what else could distinction be if not distinction of a unity? This means that human activity is not really concretely conceivable if it lacks one of its constitutive elements. Only by metaphor we can affirm that one man is practical and another artistic, and so on. In so doing, generally, we are in the habit of qualifying one aspect of the character of a person, judging it eminently devoted to practical or artistic things. But is there perhaps a man that acts without knowing why and how, or who lives contemplating reality without doing anything else? And above all, is any one action ever conceivable (including theoretical ones, that, in their own way, are also actions) independently of life as a whole? The “passages” that occur between the various movements of the spirit (if we can say so without creating further misunderstandings) always also qualify the negative and are distinguishable only in judgment because, in actual fact, they are deeply united. Within the concrete products of human activity (a work of philosophy, the foundation of a political party) the distinction that is made must not annul its unity. In writing the Logic, Croce has performed theoretical acts but also practical acts. He has decided, wanted to write it. He thought of organizing it in a certain way. He has privileged one didactic method over another. In founding the Italian socialist Party, Turati thought, that is, judged when it was the most appropriate historical moment. He believed that it was morally proper to perform that act, and so on. In short, he acted and thought, he performed moral, political and theoretical acts in the unity and indissolubility of life as a whole.
Of great importance to what we have been saying is the question of the origin of error, which is strictly connected with it. Thought cannot be wrong. If it were to fall in error once, there would be no longer any guarantee as to the infallibility of thought itself and, therefore, sooner or later, skepticism would triumph. We are aware of how absurd this may seem but if we reflect well on this question it is possible to agree that in and of itself thought cannot err. How, then, can error originate since it exists, irrefutably? For instance, it originates because a scholar intends, wants, to defend Croce and goes out of his way to demonstrate the validity of his thesis even in the face of serious and rigorous critiques. This could also happen unconsciously, of course, when one is moved, as it often happens, by strong and sincere passion. This is how the Catholic wants to defend his dogma; the Marxist his Communism, and so on. I have emphasized the verb to want more than once. In fact, in the given example, what generates error is an act of will, a practical exigency. This is the practical origin of error to which the example we quoted above gives a noble origin. One can err on purpose, out of fear, ambition, carelessness, for many reasons that have nothing to do with philosophy.
I have already alluded to the fact that the question is, in a certain way, even more complex. In fact, there a few cases when the logical error originates, instead, from an excess of intuition, which is what in philosophy we defines as aestheticism. In this case the origin of the error is not of a practical nature. On the other hand, the artist also finds himself in the condition of often having to live the drama of the contrast between his representational world and his general conception of the world. From Dante to Tasso to Manzoni, to cite the most famous examples, it is a continuous coming up against this fundamental contradiction, that in Torquato Tasso’s case became a tragedy.
Something of the same occurs even in praxis. Aestheticism, philosophism, moralism lead inevitably to error even within the sphere of the category of utility. It is important to understand the question well. Morality, for instance, in substance, is what restrains, controls the useful, and, in so doing, accomplishes its necessary function. Another thing is being inhibited from pursuing one’s own utilitarian purpose in the name of moralistic ideals, in short, this is what Machiavelli meant, essentially, when he asserted that States cannot be governed by Our Fathers and Holy Marys. As one can see, the question is complex and intricate and there is no doubt that if one wants to go beyond Croce without running the risk of going backward this is one of the points that offer ample subject for reflection.
Among the many other issues, there is one major and fundamental aspect of Croce’s Logic that needs to be examined, namely, the now ancient question, which some interpreters have thought to be superfluous for the same reasons given by Croce, of the unity of the judgment of definition and individual judgment.
The descent, as we have called it, from the pure concept to the intuition, or the examination of the relations which are established between the concepts and the intuitions, when we attained the first, and of the ensuing transformations, to which the second are subject, might at first sight seem complete. The concept, which was first contemplated in abstraction, has been demonstrated in a more concrete manner, in so far as it takes the forms of language and exists as the judgment of definition. Further, we have shown how, when thus concretely possessed, it reacts upon the intuitions from which it was formed, or how it is applied to them, as it is called, giving rise to the individual or perceptive judgment. […] The judgment of definition is not an individual judgment; but the individual judgment implies a previous judgment of definition. To think the concept of man does not mean that the man Peter exists. But if we affirm that the man Peter exists, we must have first have affirmed that the concept of man exists, or is thought (L 198-99).
Croce explains, with a wealth of examples and particulars, that the judgment of definition, the definition, is dissolved in the unique, true judgment which is always an individual judgment. Even the most pure definition is always conditioned by the “individual” (historical) situation in which it is pronounced:
“Virtue is the habit of moral actions,” is a formula which can be pronounced a hundred times. But if it be seriously pronounced as a definition of virtue each of those hundred times, it answers to a hundred psychological situations, more or less different, and is in reality not one, but a hundred definitions (L 210)
Judgment, therefore, is logical synthetic a priori, real unity of truth of reason and truth of fact, indissoluble union of representation or intuition and concept, subject and predicate, particular and universal. Judgment is individual because it originates in history and is exemplified in history, it is universal because it puts into motion the universal category and because it is in its form (the a priori conjunction of subject and predicate) universal.
From this perspective, it is easier to understand the apparent paradoxical nature of the unification of philosophy and history made by Croce, namely the reduction of philosophy to a methodological moment of historiography. The misunderstandings, even banal, on this theme are countless. Paradoxically, the same educational reform, originated by Croce and Gentile, in which, sole country in the world, the teaching of philosophy was unified with that of history, is in large part a gigantic misunderstanding. In fact, the unity of philosophy and history means essentially that it is useless to conceive a history of objective facts, not thought out. And, vice versa, it means that it is mythological to believe in a pure philosophy which is not always historically conditioned. But to derive from this that the same teacher ought to know the history of philosophy as well as the ethico-political or economic history, the step is great, and it certainly does not correspond to the real, profound demands of Croce’s thought and of didactic “common sense.”
But let us turn to the central moment of Croce’s philosophy , to the theory of judgment as historical judgment, sole form of knowledge because unity of representation and concept. In History as the Story of Liberty, in which, as Croce intimates in the Forward, he takes up the themes of History: Its Theory and Practice, the question is resumed once again and situated further in the perspective of the relation between theory and praxis, thought and action. It is a complex and fundamental shift, so much so that Croce himself could write: ”in writing these pages the author has sometimes had the feeling, in the course of his meditations, of having penetrated into the grueling depths of Goethe’s Kingdom of the Mothers.”(HSL 8) Here emerges the great theme that will preoccupy the later Croce confronted by the dark and yet necessary forces that seemed to shake humanity from its bowels. This is the theme of vitality, raw and green, that will engage the meditations of the old philosopher, gloomy spectator of the drama staged by the totalitarianisms of World War II. This is how Croce puts it with his usual simplicity and clarity:
It is not enough to say that history is historical judgment, it is necessary to add that every judgment is an historical judgment or, quite simply, history. If judgment is a relation between a subject and a predicate, then the subject or the event, whatever it is that is being judged, is always an historical fact, a becoming, a process under way, for there are no mobile facts nor can such things be envisaged in the world of reality. Historical judgment is embodied even in the merest perception of the judging mind (if it did not judge, there would not even be perception but merely blind and dumb sensation). For example the perception that the object in front of me is a stone, and that it will not fly away of its own accord like a bird at the sound of my approach, makes it expedient that I should dislodge it with my stick or with my foot. The stone is really a process under way. Struggling against the forces of disintegration and yielding only bit by bit, and my judgment refers to one aspect of its history (HSL 32).
Allowing, therefore, that this cognitive process is real, and distinct from “false knowledges” (which are not found to be false but practical and necessary classifications), what is the relation between thought and action, theory and praxis? Man, as we saw, is always a whole man, he is not divided, split, as could appear from the analytic necessity to describe what in reality is synthetic. Croce, in fact, writes:
For if knowledge is necessary to practice, practice, as we have demonstrated above, is necessary to knowledge, and cannot arise without it. There is a circle of the spirit which, when recognized, does away with all need of a primary absolute and a secondary dependent, by continually making the first the second and the second the first (HSL 41).
Judgement, therefore, prepares the action (even without determining it, Croce specifies) but from the action, in a certain way, it originates as exigency of knowledge. We realize, for instance, that in a given historical moment democracy is at risk. It is probable, then, that we reread Tocqueville , the great scholar of democracy, and that reading will lead us to assume attitudes of a certain type in the concrete political praxis. This is an example, among many, to be taking with the benefit of inventory, but it is clear that even the most common of our actions requires a reflection, a judgment.
But is this how the nexus between judgment and action is resolved and motivated? Raffaello Franchini proposes an acute rereading of Croce’s thought by trying to take a further step, from historical judgment to perspective judgment, intending in this mannerway to reinforce the unitarian aspect and to save, naturally, the distinction. Judgment, in placing history always before us, in our perspective, makes history itself happen, even though leaving it free, since judgment “grasps” a part of reality contributing to the creation of new conditions, new subjects of judgment. History and liberty. In conclusion the great theme of the relation between philosophy and liberty presents itself.
Croce denies and combats what he calls terminal philosophies (those of Hegel and Marx amongst others) or philosophies of history that subordinate the development of history to absolute principles, stationary and external to history itself. It goes without saying that wanting to read history according to a pre-established plan, or according to laws and causes that would determine it (as in Auguste Comte) means to fall in more or less implicit metaphysical forms. Whether it is the idea or matter that determines history, matters little, what is being denied is that history can be determined, that one can, as Croce put it effectively, put the pants on the world.
It is understood that once we accept the idea that history is governed by laws or causes, that a single absolute determines its development, inevitably, at the political level, we arrive at justifying more or less violent forms of totalitarianism, even though one is trying sincerely to defend democracy. In views such as these, the political adversary is not simply an enemy to be abolished because of differing opinions. The political adversary embodies the very enemy of history, who wants to shatter the supreme laws of history and who, eventually, will be crushed by history itself. Man can only suffer this process. In some ways he is de-responsibilized. In the last instance, man is not free.
The unity of philosophy and history postulated, or better, deducted by Croce, is of an entirely different nature. Philosophy does not swallow up history (the opposite could be the case, in Croce’s system) but thinks history and with history of which it is a part, it is transformed continuously in the ceaseless, perpetual struggle with the negative. From this viewpoint, Croce’s thought is a severe critique of the philosophies of history and historicism in its nineteenth century version.
History, then, is the story of liberty in the sense that liberty constitutes its essence, not because at the climax of history, at a certain moment, without knowing why, the kingdom of liberty would be realized. Who believed, even kindly, in this dogma, has often contributed to create reigns of oppression and slavery. Croce writes:
He sees this and he sees so many other things and he draws the conclusion that if history is not an idyll, neither is it a “tragedy of horrors” but a drama in which all the actions, all the actors, and all the members of the chorus are, in the Aristotelian sense, “middling,” guilty-non-guilty, a mixture of good and bad, yet ruled always by a governing thought which is good and to which evil ends by acting as a stimulus and that this achievement is the work of liberty which always strives to re-establish and always does re-establish the social and political conditions of a more intense liberty. […] Having said this, what is then the anguish that men feel for liberty that has been lost, the invocations, the lost hopes, the words of love and anger which come from the hearts of men in certain moments and in certain ages of history? We have already said it in examining a similar case: these are not philosophical nor historical truths, nor are they errors or dreams; they are movements of moral conscience; they are history in the making (HSL 62).
Croce’s complex thought is certainly not exhausted here, and many are the implications that should be discussed and cleared up from the critique of logical formalism, to philosophism and aestheticism, from the pages dedicated to the history of philosophy in the Historical Retrospect, in appendix to the Logic, to the many minor writings, to the reviews, the translations, and so on.
The essay on Hegel with the fortunate title of “What is living and what is dead of the philosophy of Hegel” represents a decisive stage along Croce’s long and troubled journey. Even if the dialogue with Hegel will last until the last months of the philosopher’s life, it is without doubt in this early composition that Croce’s hermeneutics is manifest in all its strength, with its capacity to catch Hegel’s most inner meanings. The great themes that we identified in the Logic are also the themes of the dialogue with Hegel: the dialectic , the status of the sciences, the historicity and eternity of philosophy. In acknowledging his debt to the great philosopher, Croce does not spare him his criticism, at times even severe, written in a clear and transparent style that does not avoid an irony, which is sometime a bit too pungent. But in reading the pages that he dedicates to the last days of the German philosopher, we have the confirmation that Croce, while being less “Hegelian,” as some critics have made him out to be, he always found in Hegel a constant point of reference. We are referring to the tormented pages that accompany the reflections on the category of vitality, to the years of the afterthoughts on the dialectic, to the question of the motor principle of the very same categories. Croce reflects over the essence of Hegel as the author of a great Ethic even more than a great Logic, who made the effort of redeeming evil, acknowledging its essential function. It is the theme of the Anti-Christ which is in us, of the perennial dialectic between positive and negative.
Giambattista Vico is Croce’s “author” par excellence, if we take into consideration, within this perspective, what we could also define the affective value, a sympathy, in the etymological sense, for the “misunderstood” genius of the philosopher of the New Science. It is not by chance, that the tenor of his study on Vico is didactic and almost popular. The critiques that this study contains (and how could it have been otherwise), are always respectful and sympathetic. In a few parts, Croce even seems to attribute to the Neapolitan philosopher modern ideas and concepts, and the fine line between Vico’s and Croce’s views is not always apparent.
In Croce’s interpretation shines forth Vico’s originality and courage who, in full rationalist era, between Cartesians and Empiricists, announces a new science of history. He anticipates Kant’s synthetic a priori and Hegel’s concrete-universal. He thinks the philosophical character of history and the historical character of philosophy; confronts with independence and a new spirit the great themes of natural law and politics and, above all, he intuits the deep sense of art distinguishing it from philosophy since one is closer to the knowledge of the individual and the other to universal knowledge, thus sanctioning the autonomy of art. From this perspective, therefore, Vico appears the precursor of the great German philosophy, of the renewed historicism of De Sanctis and Croce. Whatever the discussions that may arise on Croce’s various interpretations and whatever the judgment on the place of Vico in his time may be, Croce’s inquiry as well as those of his disciple and friend Fausto Nicolini were decisive for the European and world divulgation of a philosopher who was always more familiar than known, admired but not always understood.
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 World of Praxis: Economy, Politics, Ethics, Vitality
We have seen how Croce, in the Logic, within the frame work of the unity of human life, differentiates between the theoretical and practical sphere, that are indissolubly (dialectically) correlated, so that one presupposes the other and vice versa. It is a question now of determining the nature of praxis, of describing the internal relations that form what we call actions or acts, in the strict sense, because, as we said, even thinking is an action (fare), an acting in the sense that it is an activity.
Willing is what makes action happen (if we can put this way) in a synthetic a priori relation. As in Croce’s entire thinking, in this case too there is the attempt to overcome any dualism. An abstract, detached willing does not exist that precedes the actual volitional act. Willing means truly realizing that will which would, otherwise, remain a mere phantasy, a play of the imagination, an optative. One thing is to dream of being the emperor of China, another is to want to read a book on the Celestial Emperor. If there is truly a will, the desire is realized and the book will be concretely read. Naturally, opposing the will there is the event, what escapes the single will but which is also the result of those same wills. Human will, therefore, is not completely free, but it is not completely determined, or enslaved to causes external to the will either. And, once again, from this particular point of view, the great theme of liberty is placed in evidence. Croce explains that the volitional act is free and necessary at the same time.
Volition, in fact, as has been seen, does not arise in the void, but in a definite situation, in unchangeable historical conditions, in relation to an event, which, if it be, is necessary. The volition corresponds to that situation and it is impossible to separate it: when the situation changes, the volition changes; as the situation, so volition.[…] But this also means that the volition is free. Because if the actual situation is its condition, the volition is not the condition, but the conditioned, for it does not remain fixed in the actual situation, nor does it repeat it by making a duplicate of it, which would be superfluous and therefore impossible in the effective development of the real, which does not allow of superfluity. The volition produces something different, that is, something new, something that did not exist previously and that now comes into existence: it is initiative, creation, and therefore act of freedom. Were this not so, volition would not be volition, and reality would not change, would not become, would not grow upon itself (Pop 176-177).
Once the essential nature of the will is established, through an analysis (which is also meticulous, and, in some cases, of absolute psychological importance) of various doctrines, prejudices and ambiguities of which we cannot give an account of it here, Croce goes on to identify the specific forms of practical activity or volition. As is well-known he distinguishes between an utilitarian or economic form and a moral or ethical form:
The economic activity is that which wills and effects only what corresponds to the conditions of fact in which a man finds himself; the ethical activity is that which, although it correspond to these conditions, also refers to something that transcends them. To the first correspond what are called individual ends, to the second universal ends; the one gives rise to the judgment concerning the greater or less coherence of the action taken in itself, the other to that concerning its greater or lesser coherence in respect to the universal end, which transcends the individual
One may wish to be elected to Parliament for personal gratification or in order to do one’s duty toward the community in which one lives or to defend a political ideal. In this example the first action may seem merely negative. In actual fact this is not really Croce’s idea, especially in the first phase of his activity. In fact we could say that one may wish to write a grammar to earn money, or to get a job, or to keep alive the classical tradition, the culture of a people. The first action is not in and of itself negative. It is not immoral to want to earn money but it is beyond morals. In fact, it is a legitimate utilitarian desire. Utility is not in and of itself immoral or moral, it is autonomous, a value in and of itself. It can become a negative value when it goes against a moral principle, for example, when the work is used to achieve an undeserved result that will be detrimental to others.
In this sense, utility is the volition of the individual and the ethics of the universal. Now, to look closer, ethics cannot live without utility because any moral action is also and always a useful action, while the contrary is not true, as we can see from our first example. This helps resolve another problem that Croce’s ethics could raise, namely the idea that there could be a volition of the universal, while it is clear that every volitional act is always individual. To will freedom in the absolute is not, properly, an act of will. It belongs to what we have called a mere play of the imagination, or to an abstract wish, even if impassioned and noble. What one can truly wish for is always a concrete truth. The freedom to behave as one wishes but also the freedom to conquer freedom for the workers of a certain country. The universal volition of which Croce speaks, therefore, is a conditioned universality. We shall see how, in the development of Croce’s thought, the question is modified, at least in part, and, perhaps, even complicated. Now, it is important to bring Croce’s philosophy back to its origins not so much and not only to fulfill a sort of duty toward its predecessors but because Croce’s position acquires a particular value in the contemporary history of the philosophy of the practical, as he himself was to indicate more than once, almost boasting. An unusual attitude for the otherwise stern Croce who was afraid of inserting in his autobiographical writings elements foreign to a strictly intellectual biography. But in this case, the question is different because the “discovery” of utility as spiritual value marks without doubt a decisive moment in contemporary philosophy.
Croce vindicates the absolute spirituality of utility by placing it next to the ancient triad of traditional values: the beautiful, the true and the good. The economic, the search for individual interest, have been generally considered opposed to morality both in the Greek and in the Catholic traditions. Of course, it would be easy to read between the lines of philosophical doctrines of every age implicit, and sometime even explicit, acknowledgments of the positive value of the economic, but according to Croce the positivity of this category was substantially unknown. In a famous essay, “Le due scienze mondane” (The two worldly sciences) , the aesthetic and the economic, Croce claims that art and utility could not find their proper place as long as philosophy was strictly connected to metaphysics. The two sciences could achieve full recognition only when thought freed itself of metaphysics between the XVIIth C. and the XVIIIth C when it becomes philosophy of spirit and, thus, “modern”. A journey clearly long and uneven that climaxes with the full collocation of the category of utility within the sphere of a full system of relations functional to the unity of life.
In Croce’s interpretation, Machiavelli is the first to realize, with absolute clarity, the autonomous value of politics, understood as a coherent force that dominates the sphere of civil passions. But not only Machiavelli, but Vico and Hegel too, and Marx, above all, are the close antecedents of Croce’s thought. But what is the domain of economy, of the category of utility? Above all, it is necessary to forget what we intend by economy in the strict sense. As we saw, by economy Croce means that vast world in which the passions of man are tossed, in which those passions are organized and, for certain aspects, rationalized. This is why the economic category includes politics and law, scientific as well as historical classifications, grammatical forms, as well as all the other necessary forms through which humanity organizes empirically its own life.
Those who do not have an aptitude for philosophical distinctions will hardly be able to overcome the psychological barrier whereby the banal organization of a small office should be held to be a utilitarian action similar in everything to that which is found in the organization of laws, or in the classification of human beings according to species and class, or in the division of literature in genres, and so on. We need to free ourselves of many prejudices remembering, if nothing else, that humanity founded its existence, for many centuries, on “truths” that to us appear to be obvious folly. Thus, in trying to understand Croce’s position, one must reflect at least on this one point, that what all these various economic activities have in common is the abstractive procedure. Biological classification is an operation which tends to abstract common elements from different individuals, but it is clear that, in fact, no individual corresponds perfectly to the biological law so derived. Even written laws correspond to abstract criteria, so much so that for any law there are exceptions and every judge falls back on jurisprudence (that is, on the concrete history of law practice), and lawyers fall back on extenuating circumstances, and so on. Homicide is punished with a life sentence unless it was done in self-defense, or in war, or out of necessity, or in a state of temporary insanity, and so on. And often the laws of a State find themselves in clear contradiction with the public morality of a nation. The same goes for grammar which is the abstraction of concrete language, or for literary genres that list under the heading of historical novel writers as different as Walter Scott and Alessandro Manzoni, or under lyric the diverse poems of Giambattista Marino and Baudelaire.
One can abstract from reality by generalizing or creating laws, or by dividing what is in itself united. Only the whole man exists, not the practical man, the bourgeois, the male gender, the black, the Aryan. As long as these concepts are understood in their practical dimension they are useful but woe to those who misunderstand their real nature! Racial persecutions, sexual discrimination find in similar misunderstandings their tragic foundation.
The abstraction of reality, therefore, is one of the common denominators of the utilitarian spirit. But here Croce’s terminology does not help. Abstraction from reality does not mean unreality. In fact, these abstractions possess a specific reality, a life of their own, even if they seem to mortify and kill the flow of life. They are realities, precisely, of the utilitarian world. And here, once again, Croce’s position is different from Hegel’s as well as from Heidegger’s and that of similar philosophers. Hegel, for instance, believed abstraction to be an inferior moment of truth, a stage of the process through which truth is affirmed. For Croce, utilitarian abstraction is not the opposite of truth, but a distinct, an essential different way of operating. Naturally, it is not only this component that defines the essential character of the economic. There is what we have defined summarily as the passional element because even moral acts are accomplished with passion, and in fact, so every act of life. But in this case, by passion we mean that which drives to fulfill individual expectations. Politics, in a certain way, is, on the whole, the typical example of the utilitarian attitude because it summarizes the very nature of the category. Politics is the reign of passions and of organizational capacity, and possesses what animates the economy, understood in the traditional sense, and the utilitarian attitude, taken in the broader sense.
The relation between ethics and politics is seminal to Croce’s thought and has given way to many discussions at various levels. The reduction of the State to a mere economic act seemed to many almost an outrage to the liberal Italian tradition, and yet one must admit that the State understood as ethical State can represent the antechamber to dictatorship. The State cannot and must not be preoccupied with individual morality which is a concept far superior to that of any concrete State. If by State, then, the community is designated, metaphorically, it is natural that a community can be ethical insofar as it represents the expansion of individual morality which, as we know, is for Croce the universal. Ethics belongs to universality and no particular State can arrogate the right of being ethical. At this point, many problems pose themselves, such as that of the relation between economy and ethics, and that of vitality, which occupied the last years of Croce’s life. Vitality seems to be (and perhaps is not) the expression of utility on the specific side of what we have precariously defined as the satisfaction of individual expectations.
From what has been said, it would seem that once the autonomy of utility and, therefore, of politics, has been sanctioned, the useful can unfold in all its volitional force upsetting the material of life. But as we have already shown in the chapter on the Logic, the relation between distincts is extremely close, inseparable. The categories converge, diverge, and imply one another. Utility finds in ethics its limitations, politics has its intrinsic laws that somehow ought to be respected but that always find their limitations in those of morality. One should not think, however, that the relation consists solely of limitations and, therefore, of oppositions. Ethics, in fact, has force and vigor only if it makes use of economy, politics, to be realized concretely. An ethic, which in order to remain “pure,” would renounce to becoming an actual reality, machiavellian-like, would be an empty, unresolved morality, and, therefore, intrinsically immoral because sterile. The good politician, as the authentic moral man is, according to the gospels, pure as the dove, and cunning as the snake.
But what are the limitations of politics, the confines of ethics? Croce does not tell us and this silence has earned him all kinds of accusations. But the philosopher, as such, cannot establish these confines. It is up to the politician, immersed in history, to judge from time to time. Croce’s ethics is a philosophical and not a normative ethics. The so-called normative ethics, even if enunciated through more or less logical and coherent reasons, is substantially the abstraction of a political feeling raised to a rule of behavior. The problem of philosophy is that of ascertaining if liberty has a sense, and not to take for granted that a reasonable man would accept the concepts of tolerance, plurality, democracy, and so on. This is the sense in which Croce’s ethics is a philosophical ethics within which liberty ends up by being compared to morality. In this delicate shift there is, perhaps, the greatest point of contact with Kant, but not the philosopher of the enlightenment, the theorist of the formal autonomy of morals.
Liberty is what combats and overcomes the negative, its opposite, that sometimes can be utility in its diverse manifestations. In this sense liberty is the triumph of morality over instincts, over the mechanical (and only in this sense, natural) production of passions. What in Kant occurred in a static manner (the categorical imperative), in Croce occurs, historically, through the mediation of Vico, Hegel and Marx. Liberty never wins and never dies. It represents the eternal struggle with the negative. These last considerations take us back to the central theme of Croce’s last speculative work.
The bitter, terrifying experiences of totalitarianism, of two World Wars, the devastation of the atomic bomb, drove the old Croce to wonder what terrible force led men to such inhumane acts, a force that could destroy our civilization achieved with such great difficulty. This “raw and green” force, Croce calls vitality which is and is not utility. It is what is opposed to morality, to freedom, but it is also what moves history (and that is why it is vitality) because no action, as noble as it may be, can be performed without that movement of satisfaction, that natural inclination of which our life is woven. Croce’s system seems to be modified substantially since vitality and morality have become two categorical modes, as Alfredo Parente observed, namely, the inner structure of conscience that accompanies and holds up the scaffolding of life itself.
Raffaello Franchini, without wanting to play down the novelty of Croce’s thought, has emphasized its substantial continuity. In fact, we saw how, at a certain stage, at first the preoccupation to safeguard the autonomy of utility seems to prevail, then that of ethics and, finally, we have a new attention to vitality-utility. Therefore, there is an oscillation of emphasis but substantially confirming the dialectic interweaving between the two forms of life, distinct and united, without priorities or devaluations.
Croce’s political thought, even if always connected to the problematic of freedom, because of the enormity of references and the questions he dealt with, did not create particular interest in the liberal world. Croce’s adherence to Giolitti seemed more tied to a particular form of government than to a true ideology. In the same way Croce’s concrete political commitment first as deputy commissioner of the Municipality of Naples, as Senator, and later as Minister of Education in 1921, did not take on that tone that usually connotes the activity of a leader. Furthermore, and perhaps this is the most important aspect, Croce’s philosophy, his historicism, and Marxist and Hegelian origins, were somehow foreign to the classical tradition of liberalism which was clearly empiricist. The real turn came with the advent of dictatorship. After an initial phase of uncertainty, especially after Matteotti’s murder, Croce passed to the opposition, drawing up, at Giovanni Amendola’s instigation, the Manifest of the anti-fascists intellectuals and, later, with memorable speeches in the Senate, he became the voice of strong dissent of the Italian anti-fascist culture. He became the symbol of the moral and cultural resistance to despotism both in Italy and abroad. Once the war was over, he took part in the reconstruction of the Italian government and founded the Liberal party, of which he became the President. In these twenty-five years, in a variety of writings for various occasions, Croce elaborated what we could define as a more stringent acknowledgment of the themes tied to his philosophy of liberty. These are the years when the metapolitical theory of freedom was conceived, which introduced liberalism as a general conception of life, beyond the single economic, political and judicial doctrine that constituted the history of the liberal movement.
Once liberalism is understood not only as an historically determined political movement but as an ethico-political expression of a general conception or idea of liberty, the traditional relations among the various political movements change. From what has been said in previous chapters, it will be clear why liberty for Croce, which is the ethical force that moves history in a perpetual struggle against negative value, against raw and green vitality, cannot be exhausted in this or that determined party, movement or specific doctrine. For instance, the doctrine of natural law has been a decisive movement for the affirmation of the rights to freedom for millions of men and women, but not for this reason it can be considered the sole liberal theory, the point of arrival, the goal of the struggle for freedom. If it were not so, liberalism would have exhausted its drive by having been, at least partially, realized and could have hardly resisted the many criticisms of its adversaries, by being transformed as a preservation force. Liberty and the unceasing struggle for its concrete realization, do not recognize similar limitations.
Therefore, the terms of Croce’s polemic against Einaudi and Ropke, on the issue of whether liberalism could or should be identified with the so-called market economy or economic free-trade, result more clear now. While Croce, in his concrete political life, never denied the importance of market economy, he could not but point out that freedom can, theoretically, co-exist with other forms of economy and, we could add that, unfortunately, a free-trading society does not guarantee in itself political, juridical and moral freedom. One can, I believe, assert with some confidence that history proved Croce right. Many examples from Statist and social-democratic Sweden in the seventies, to free-trading and authoritarian Chile of those same years, prove that freedom is not necessarily tied to an economic system. Free-traders, in some ways, make Marx’s same mistake who absolutized economy as the sole motor cause of history. On the other hand, there are no pure economic systems. There are only concrete political economies that are subject to the always new and unforeseeable conditions dictated by history.
Thus, one could define Croce’s liberalism as a methodological liberalism as is, after all, his entire philosophy that he calls a methodology of history. The term “method” can also help resolve many of the ambiguities created by the definition “metapolitical theory of freedom.” From here, in fact, derive the many misunderstandings and accusations of metaphysicism, abstractism, and contempt for institutional empiricism. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Liberals (and they are in the majority) who persist in elevating to a single liberal doctrine a particular political or economic program end up by abstracting from complex reality only a part of it. These doctrines are put forward in the schematic form of logical reasoning joined together and perfect in their form so that at first they seem extremely concrete because exact but, as we saw, they are really abstract. Croce’s liberalism, instead, is a method of interpretation of reality and, at the same time, a regulatory idea of reality itself. In this sense, and only in this sense, it is possible to rethink the concept of freedom as utopia, meaning by it the moral rule one intends to follow, and for whose realization one organizes always new concrete politics. One can rethink, historically, new institutional models; parties, unions, associations are founded; laws are promoted; if the need arises one fights and one struggles to abolish privilege, old institutions, surpassed laws. A very concrete liberalism, therefore, and not at all metaphysical. Croce does not always explain these concepts thoroughly but only here and there in occasional writings and interventions.
Another points needs to be brought to the attention of scholars and politicians. If liberalism so understood has a methodological value and is not a collection of doctrines put together ad hoc at a given historical moment and then arbitrarily elevated as eternal theories, if modern liberalism is this, it can dialogue and open itself up to comparison with other movements that do not pretend in their turn to be representative of the entire reality, transforming themselves in philosophies of history. This is the case of the socialist movement. Liberalism is extremely exacting when it is a question of contesting and contrasting even with force (which is not mere violence) any political movement that proposes implicitly or explicitly to limit liberty, but is prepared to recognize the reasons of the adversary and to make them its own when they do not contrast with the fundamental regulatory principles. In our example, if socialism abandons, as it has already done in large part, the old Hegelian- Marxist trappings, as Croce defined them once, and transforms itself (or returns to its origins, as Croce says) into a movement for social and political emancipation of the least well-off, the workers, the disadvantaged, it will be able and will have to cooperate with liberalism.
This is Croce’s position and one should not be misled by the sharp and perhaps excessive polemics that he entertained with some representative of liberal-socialism and with some distinguished representatives of the Action party (azionismo), who moreover were often his pupils and his friends. These polemics, in fact, were dictated by contingent factors and by the exquisitely philosophical preoccupation of keeping the categories (liberty in this case) well distinct from the empirical concepts such as those of justice and democracy.
Naturally, what has been said for socialism also goes for other ethico-political movements with the exclusion of those, it is worth repeating it, decidedly totalitarian. Similar remarks can be made with respect to the great question of party legitimacy. If liberalism is a method, a general conception of life, then the parties, and the so-called political programs, cannot be absolutized and immobilized. They are judgments not prejudgments , as the title of one of Croce’s famous essay goes. They are concrete and empirical formations that are inspired by an ideal, that represents interests that must conform, every time, to the always new concrete historical conditions.
This mobility, which is not ambiguity, is the fundamental guarantee of liberty and democracy, and is the very foundation of responsibility, because an act is truly responsible if it is the result of a choice, and in those ideologies, in those parties that believe to be founded on absolute certainties, no choice is possible. Democracy can degenerate in totalitarianism if it absolutizes its principles by changing, for instance, the principle of majority in the tyranny of the majority.
Therefore, Croce’s liberalism represents a novelty within the sphere of traditional political philosophy. Critical literature on the subject is still slight and only recently one begins to be aware of the originality and the force of this aspect of Croce’s philosophical activity, not to be seen at all as secondary. But the crisis lived by liberalism, almost dragged in the vortex created by the collapse of the opposed totalitarianisms of our century, communism and fascism, will be a stimulus to seek and certainly to find new and more secure roads. Croce’s thought, while perhaps producing aporias and certainly pointing out new problems, proposes itself as a secure reference point for those who intend to defend and extend the right of citizenship, the rights of the individual, and to preserve and promote the cause of liberty.
History as Contemporary History and Ethico-political Historiography
The previous chapters, especially those devoted to the aesthetics and to the logic as theory of historical judgment, allow us to pause briefly on two questions, two famous definitions, whose theoretical origin is traceable and partly implicit in Croce’s meditations, with which we have already dealt. In History, Theory and Practice, written between 1912 and 1917, and first published in German, Croce asserts that history, if it is truly history, is always contemporary history. This assumption, whose subversive claim is clear, is both theoretical and polemical, as any philosophical proposition. From a logical point of view, it is clear that historiography, since it is founded on judgment, can only be “contemporary,” as it arises out of exigencies or an interest contemporary to the historian, even if what is being investigated is a remote past. In a polemical sense, Croce means to refute both the objectivist histories and thesis histories, as well as mere chronicle and aprioristic history.
It is the present that “creates” the past, just as in Kant the eye makes the world, and historical judgment changes because of its nature, that of never being definitive but always ready to be put into question. There is no doubt that at first Croce’s concept can appear relativistic, subjective and idealistic, according to the point of view and the terminology one employs. If everyone makes history according to his intellectual or practical needs, what guarantee do we have as to the veracity or objectivity of the story being told? In recent times, but even in the past, we have come to think of historiography in terms of story (récit), of mere narrative experience, devoid of any real truth-content. Is Croce the unaware and unrecognized precursor of relativistic hermeneutics, of what has been effectively defined as “weak thought”? Is Croce the first postmodern thinker, granted that this definition means anything? Croce would deny peremptorily this presumed relationship, just as he took great care to differentiate his historicism (which he defined as absolute) from the relativistic one (if indeed it was) of the so-called German Historismus, offspring of the crisis of Hegelianism. Judgment, which is always contemporary because it unites particular and universal, is always, in its form, true. If it changes it is because the conditions change, which does not mean that in previous formulations it was false. If, for instance, one is convinced that art is the beautiful, he will regard the work of Dante as not artistic because he only focuses on the allegorical-moralistic aspect. If, at a later moment, one “discovers” that beside the allegory, the Commedia is a work rich in representations, in images, in short, in expressive force (that is, art, according to our definition), the judgment changes, but not the form, that is, the intentionality of the concept itself. Historiography changes with the changing of history, culture, interests, but this does not meant that it vanishes because truth is nothing more than this process of continuous and infinite succession of judgments. There is no truth with capital “T.” Hegel would have said that truth is a process, becoming, it makes itself.
Although this point deserves a longer and a more in-depth discussion, this partial clarification that confirms the “contemporaneity” of every history, also denies, as its logical consequence, all those false histories or pseudo-histories that do not satisfy those requirements because they do not originate from a real need, from a true interest, but remain closed within the circle of mere erudition. Hence, the resolute negation of the distinction between chronicle and history (there is no chronicle that precedes History), between the “facts,” which supposedly precede interpretation providing it with an objective base, and judgments. Once again, then, a concise polemic with respect to positivism, whose philosophical and methodological “ingenuity” seems to bring historiography back before Vico, who claimed the inseparable unity of philology and philosophy, of the verum and the factum. In fact, Croce does not condemn serious and rigorous philology, which is certainly essential to historical research which employs it toward a synthesis that in reality is inseparable.
If in Croce’s view, there is no value in anecdoctal histories (even though he himself had been an impassioned collector), in the history of curiosities that more or less excite the imagination, in documentary history, and alike, it does not mean that the real (contemporary) need of the historian is assimilated to the a priori of those stories that we could define thesis histories. Subjectivity does not imply distortion of events subservient to a pre-constituted will, even for noble ideals. Thus Croce denies truth value to those philosophies of histories that aimed at demonstrating, by instrumentalizing the “facts” of history, a general and abstract conception of life. From St. Augustine to Hegel to Marx, Croce’s critique targets the overall attitude assumed by these philosophers beyond the depth of their theories and, as we said, of their ideal and moral intentions.
There is no doubt that in debunking the traditional and somewhat trite idea of history as magistra vitae (since it is always life, the present, that puts the past into perspective) there is at play a Marxist reminiscence. Namely, the idea that an objective history does not exist but only and always a biased, instrumental, ideological history, or whatever else one may wish to call it. As we have seen, the basic diversity between Croce’s theory and that of Marxist historians consists in Croce’s belief, of theoretical and ethical origins, according to which judgment is always a judgment that aims to arrive at the truth. Croce speaks of the interest for truth, the need to see clearly before taking action. This is not a dogmatic, predetermined truth which, in order to confirm it, one constructs a convenient past.
The influence of Marxism does not end here. Croce himself reminds us that from Marx he learned, as we have already seen with the “discovery of utility” as a spiritual value, to realize the importance of economic factors in history. It is precisely on this theme that Croce’s critique (in Latin America they thought of him as a reformist), in denying philosophical value to Marxism, proposes to view it as a canon of historical interpretation, a good pair of glasses to look at historical events, but not to absolutize as a metaphysical principle. “Mmetaphysical,” precisely, since to raise just one aspect of life, even if it is the material principle of economy, as a founding moment of the entire history of humanity, means wanting to explain the whole of reality through an entity that is situated outside reality itself, outside becoming, as being the only generating cause, a sort of laic causa sui.
History, therefore, is not determined by any particular or privileged cause, least of all it is a quantitative whole of special juxtaposed histories (economic, juridical, institutional, cultural histories, history of ideas, customs, and so on) reducible empirically to one comprehensive, universal history. There is no doubt that for Croce one can and must privilege one aspect, one moment of the immense flow of history, but the real universality is in the ability of putting judgment into motion, in the way the events are qualified. It is the interpreter’s point of view that confers the necessary unity. In this sense, and only in this sense, history is always positive history, that is, of the categorical value that one confers to the event which, however brutal, has a sense, a meaning, in the complex web that holds the many events together. Historiography, therefore, is never an executioner. It neither condemns nor absolves. In a certain way it justifies but, let it be clear, at the level of logic not of morality. In short, it understands. Moral judgment is valid for action, for history in the making, not for the one that is already made. To understand the reasons of an event, of a dictatorship for instance, does not mean resigning oneself and not combating the possible advent of new dictatorships. This is the circle of thought and action, which I have discussed previously.
In 1924, Croce meant to define what we commonly understand for history with the well-known definition of a ethico-political history. This was a definition that could seem (and in some ways is) ambiguous and contradictory with respect to his doctrine of the unity of history. With this formula, Croce intends to stress the ethical and religious character (i.e. secular religiosity) of history understood as history of human civilization. In fact, the addition of the adjective “political” goes to prove the will of the philosopher not to abandon the logical synthesis between ideal moment and moment of force, both dialectically indispensable for the evolution of life and, therefore, history. From this point of view the new definition ends up by attributing to history a strong unitarian sense since, in the end, the many possible histories find a sense in the unique history of peoples, namely the one that flows, precisely, into ethico-political feelings and ideals. To give one example, it will certainly not be from the histories of parliamentary institutions, or from the history of fine arts, that we will be able to determine the overall level of a people’s civilization.
There is no doubt that Croce’s doctrine feels the effects of the incipient struggle that liberty will have to conduct against the new totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and, therefore, that the emphasis shifts from the evaluation of history as power and force of Machiavellian and Marxist memory, to that of platonic origins, as we said, of history understood as history of moral freedom. But in either case, it does not seem to us that from a purely philosophical point of view, Croce meant to privilege a single aspect of the complex human events.
As in the case of aesthetics, it is not possible to distinguish, almost hierarchically, the activity of Croce the theorist from Croce the critic, in the same way that one cannot affirm that his historical works derive mechanically from the methodological ones. In fact, their gestation is strictly interwoven with his vast and varied philosophical activity, and they are closely connected to the development of the historical conditions of his time.
History of the Kingdom of Naples (1925) closes, in a certain way, the period of erudite research that Croce devoted to Naples (famous his work on the theaters of Naples) and represents the first remarkable example of ethico-political history.
The Storia dell’età barocca in Italia. Letteratura e vita morale, (History of the Baroque Age in Italy. Literature and Moral Life) (1929), with its famous polemic on the baroque, is also exemplary, for certain aspects, of his method and judgment, his thought and taste, who saw in baroque artfulness a flaw both in poetry and in moral life, and in whose harsh judgment one can detect a devaluation of the baroque. After all, it cannot be denied that if the baroque had been an empty rhetorical exercise, as in part it was, Croce’s critique would be well-founded.
A History of Italy, 1871-1915 (1928), even in the purity of its historiographical undertaking, that is, in the impartiality that characterizes it, is not at all neutral, in fact it is decisively a polemical and political work, tending to demonstrate the “superiority” of the entire civilization of liberal Italy over Fascist Italy.
The History of Europe in the Nineteenth Century (1932) is probably the most well-known (certainly outside of Italy) and may be the most controversial of the historical narratives that make up the great tetralogy. This fundamental work, which narrates in a style worthy of the greatest prose writers of any age, the triumph and the decline of liberalism in the nineteenth century, is at the same time an acute reconstruction of the historical events of that century, an essay of political philosophy, an invective against totalitarianism, a moral witnessing as sincere as it was suffered. In this work, a vision is drawn of the original liberalism and of the present one and, at the same time, and coherently with this vision of the world, one finds a resolute act of faith in liberty that was of great encouragement to so many who in that dramatic historical moment, seemed to have lost all hope. This is the sense of the famous closing lines of the book that, so often quoted, is still worth remembering, with the admonition that to fully understand the sincerity of the style one must keep in mind the historical moment in which it was written. The same goes for the repeated call to Christian religion understood as the foundation of Western civilization, jeopardized by totalitarian regimes, a call which echoes the sense of that famous statement “we cannot but call ourselves Christians,” uttered by a lay philosopher who had also singled out the Church, as a political organization of dogma, the eternal enemy of the State.
A history inspired by the liberal idea cannot, even in its practical and moral corollary, end with the absolute rejection and condemnation of those who feel and think differently. It simply says to those who agree with it: “Work according to the line that is here laid down for you, with your whole self, every day, every hour, in your every act; and trust in divine Providence, which knows more than we individuals do and works with us, inside us and over us.” Words like these, which we have often heard and uttered in our Christian education and life, have their place, like others from the same source, in the “religion of liberty.”