Translated essays for the Ovi Symposium (2013) from Ernesto Paolozzi’s book L’estetica di Benedetto Croce.
Art as a Form of Knowledge
“Knowledge has two forms: it can be intuitive or logical knowledge; knowledge for imagination or knowledge for the intellect; knowledge of the particular or knowledge of the universal; knowledge of things and their relationships: in short it can produce images or concepts.”
This opening of Croce’s Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e linguistica generale [Aesthetics as science of expression and general linguistic] places us smack in the middle of the philosophical conversation. Art, as intuitive knowledge of the particular represents, within Croce’s philosophical system, the very origins of human knowledge. It is on the foundation of such a concept that Croce builds his entire philosophy. It is important to notice at the outset how peculiar and important is such a Crocean approach to aesthetics. Indeed, if we do not grasp initially that art is for Croce an essential element of knowledge, we run the risk of falling into misunderstandings, as has happened and continues to happen.
There is no doubt that the philosophical tradition to which Croce goes back to support his theoretical approach to art is an illustrious and ancient one. The closest references, as admitted by the same Croce, are Baumgarten and, above all, Giambattista Vico. But even the aesthetics of Baumgarten refers back in some way to the intuitions of Leibnitz who, within the rationalistic school of thought, opened a breach for intuitive knowledge. Similarly, it cannot be denied that even in Plato, even if the intention remains that of devaluing, one can individuate the concept of mimesis, a concept of art as knowledge. A conception this that, as is well known, one can detect also in the philosophical systems of Shelling (intellectual intuition) and of Hegel (sensible apparition of the idea), even if in those systems there is no clear distinction between aesthetic knowledge and philosophical knowledge.
All this does not take anything away from the fact that the emphasis Croce places on the cognitive value or art is such that even if his thought cannot be considered in this aspect wholly original, nevertheless it opens new horizons which remain to be explored. When we think of art we of course think of the great complex masterpieces of music, painting, cinema, theater, the poems one learned in school, the great novels read for cultural enrichment or sheer enjoyment and it becomes difficult to think of Shiller’s Hymn to Joy, put to music by Beethoven, or of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or Joyce’s Ulysses, as a work of knowledge.
The concept of art as a form of knowledge may appear even more paradoxical if one keeps in mind that with such a term we generally think of the idea of a sensible knowledge or purely intellectual, logico-formal. But this is not so if we are aiming primarily at overcoming a psychological condition more than a philosophical one.
Croce’s aesthetics is not a mere brilliant extrinsic enumeration of art’s characteristics but a search which fully locates artistic activity in the context of a rigorous philosophical discourse. In fact in the very first pages of Croce’s the most important writing, Logic as science of the pure concept, he declares that the relationship between intuition (art) and philosophy is indissoluble. There he writes that “Behind logical activity there are the assumptions of representations or intuitions. If man represented nothing he would be unable to think…What is important however is to keep well in mind that logical activity or thought arises from representations, intuitions, and sensations through which the human spirit elaborates in theoretical form the process of the real.” This is a complex passage which may mislead the reader. Philosophers who have written many years ago must be read with extreme caution. Perhaps they ought to be translated in contemporary usage of the words they utilize barring the problem that often enough more ambiguity is the result.
But the conundrum here is this: if art is a form of knowledge, what does it know and what is the tool it uses? Yes, it knows the world in its particulars and answers without equivocation, but such knowledge remains a knowledge springing from feelings via intuition upon which is based all knowledge. Which is to say, art is intuition. This carries a strong dose of romanticism which could not but result in equivocations. This is so because the general concept of intuition carries with it a strong Romantic connotation generating many equivocations.
The very concept of intuition calls to mind a conception of life as anti-rationalist with its connotation on the semantic level of irrationalistic and sentimentalist tones. On the historical level we may remember the great philosophers of the 19th century (it would be enough to think of Shelling) or of the great Romantic artists and decadentists to become aware that parallels and analogies were inevitable, at time authorized by the same Croce.
And yet Croce’s position is different and can be characterized as equidistant: it is neither Romantic nor anti-Romantic. His speculative effort is focused on defining logically a state of being of knowledge. In his first Aesthetics in which we do not perceive yet his definition of knowledge as lyrical intuition, Croce via a Socratic method, which he used frequently, attempt to establish first what intuition is not, and therefore he proposes it as pure cognitive function, that is to say, autonomous function. It is a form of knowledge but it is not knowledge via the intellect. Croce writes there that “The first point to be established is that intuitive knowledge has no need of masters or to be sponsored by anybody; it does not need to borrow others’ eyes because it has its own eyes and they are quite valid. Undoubtedly concepts can be identified mixed with many intuitions but in many others there is no sign of this mixing which proves that it is not necessary to mix the two. The impression of a moon light as depicted by a painter, the landscape of a town delineated by a cartographer, a musical motif, gentle or energetic, the words of a spirited poetry, or those with which we ask, order or complain in ordinary life, can all be intuitive facts with no shadow of intellectual references.”
However, granted that intuition is autonomous (and with such an affirmation Croce signals a benchmark of his philosophy: that which will become his theory of distinctions) and granted that it does not need the concept to know the world, it nevertheless it is not mere perception. Croce puts it this way: “There is no doubt that perception is intuition: the perceptions of the room in which I am writing, of the inkwell and the paper that I have before me, of the pen which I utilize which if it functions it means it exists, of the objects which I touch instrumentally, those are all intuitions. Ma equally so is the image which comes into my head momentarily, of a me who writes in another room, in another city with a different pen, inkwell and paper. Which means that the distinction between reality and non-reality is extraneous and secondary to the character of intuition. Let us imagine a human spirit who intuits for the first time. It would appear that it cannot intuit anything but an effective reality, that is to say, it can only have intuitions about what is real. But given that knowledge is based on the distinction between real and unreal images, and that such a distinction does not exist at the beginning, then those intuitions will therefore not be intuitions of the real or the unreal, will not be perceptions but pure intuitions. Were everything is real, nothing is real. A vague and approximate idea of this naïve state can be the child with its difficulty in distinguishing the real from the fictitious, history from fable; for the child they are one and the same. Intuition is the undifferentiated perception of the real and of the simple image of what is possible. Within intuition we do not place ourselves as empirical beings against external reality, but we simply objectify our impressions, whatever they might be.”
Therefore for Croce intuition is a form of autonomous knowledge, which cannot be confused or synthesized to other forms of knowledge or with other forms of knowledge or other assumed ways of knowing; at best it can be in relationship with them. Let us say we’d like to describe a place where we shall meet, it would be useless to employ conceptual definitions or scientific descriptions; we need to describe that place in all its particularity: a garden with knotted trees, tall bushes, few flowers, and so on. That is only way to know such a place.
One may ask why intuition is placed in relationship with art and how can one place on the same level the banal description of a garden with great works of art. Croce’s reply may appear paradoxical but it is clear and precise: there is no categorical distinction between high and low art, so to say. If there is any difference, it is only quantitative, even it appears paradoxical and a bit forced. It may appear that art, sublime art, can be insulted by comparing it to our simple everyday intuitions. But were we to turn up-side-down our viewpoint, it could be true instead that such a procedure tends to humanize great art, it being, together with all the other expressive forms, a function, a fundamental activity of humankind. As we shall see, it guarantees the possibility of the understanding of art.
This Crocean affirmation should not surprise us, since it cannot be denied that all men are capable of expressing concepts or formulate syllogisms or produce judgments without denying specificity to philosophers, mathematicians and historians. Just a thought remains thought, art remains art, be they the thought or the art of ordinary men or great philosophers and great artists. Thus considered Crocean aesthetics cannot be considered Romantic. Croce expresses this very clearly thus: “Frankly we have not identified intuitive or expressive knowledge with the aesthetic or artistic fact, assuming works of art to be examples of intuitive knowledge and attributing to the one the characteristics of the other, or viceversa.”
We could not understand fully this concept of intuition if one does not first clarify its relationship with expression. This may be difficult to grasp in Croce’s thought but it remains absolutely fundamental and relevant. Croce makes a distinction between expression and communication. While communication is an extrinsic empirical non necessary act, expression is intuition. What we know can also be expressed. If one knows a particular situation, one can express it at least to oneself: were that not to be the case, one could not know what one knows. The extrinsic communication of our knowledge, on the other hand, can happen or not happen, can be adequate or not, but that does not mean that what we think or intuit is not always expressed, that is to say, it does not have a form. As Croce puts it: “Every true intuition or representation is also and always expression…Intuitive activity intuits as well as it expresses. If this sounds paradoxical it is because we assign to the word ‘expression’ a very restrictive meaning thinking only of expression that are called verbal. But there are also non-verbal expressions, such as those of lines, colors, tones, and our affirmation includes them too.”
A fundamental corollary is the concept of the unity of form and content. It is a signal characteristic of modern aesthetics and it pervades the thought of Francesco De Sanctis as Croce himself reminds us. As position which, after its cautionary warnings, is a throwback to the Ancient Aristotelian philosophy.
There is seems to be nothing simpler than distinguishing the form from the content of a work of art. On one side we have the form to choose freely (sonnets, songs, free verse, etc.), on the other side we have the content to be expressed by the forms (sadness or joy, pain or pleasure, and so on). But why is it that a certain contents go best with certain forms? Why is it that in every great work form and content assume an aspect of indissoluble originality and unity? Rigorously and logically speaking there is no content that does not have a form, just as there is no form that is not the form of a content.
Irony as expressed from Ariosto in the Orlando Furioso is not the same as Cervante’s Don Quijote , nor is it the same as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The pain of Leopardi who desperately remembers Silvia, is not the same metaphysically speaking, as the one he expresses for the destiny of the whole of humankind in his Canto per un pastore errante per l’Asia. Styles and forms are purely exterior if we take them as separate from their poetical context which they mold and in which they have their existence.
The Autonomy of Art
The other big question, connected to the first one, and in some way encompassing the entire Crocean problematic is that of the autonomy of art. Just as the idea of aesthetics had difficulties in establishing itself as an autonomous philosophical science, similarly the idea of the autonomy of art is a modern and fragile acquisition. We cannot discern one single great philosopher who, in the last two centuries, has not felt and at times openly theorized the autonomy of artistic expression, beginning with Baumgarten all the way to Kant, from Boudelaire to Flaubert and to Poe. Vice-versa, even when art has been distinguished from other human activities and at times located above them, it has been substantially reabsorbed within them, sometimes by philosophy, sometimes by ethics and even from hedonism. What was found useful was to confer on it an autonomous logical status.
Within Croce’s aesthetics this vexata quaestio was addressed from an exquisite theoretical viewpoint, conferring on art the categorical value of an irrepressible form of knowledge. As Croce writes: “because to dispute the independence or the dependence of art’s autonomy and heteronomy means in effect to search if art is or is not and if it exists exactly what it is. This is an activity which depends on another activity and is substantially that other activity and retains for itself a merely putative or conventional existence: that is to say, art which depends on ethics, on pleasure or on philosophy is after all ethics, pleasure and philosophy and not art.”
So, if art does not possess autonomy, why do we call it art? If two objects, a pen and a pencil have different names that’s because they are distinct; all the more so that is valid for a rigorously distinct philosophical distinction such as the one Croce utilizes to designate the various functions through which the practical and theoretical activity of man exhibits itself. On the other hand, to establish diversity and autonomy also means to establish relationships. The pen of our example has its individuality (given by its effectual givennss) because there are pencils and other objects. In a hypothetical world of pens only, there would not be any difference but only an absurd totality or unity. What is different implies a relationship. Now, if we pass over the world of empirical evidence to that of philosophical determinations, the issue becomes even more challenging. Distinction implies relationship but also opposition, or vice-versa. Art affirms with its autonomy that there are facts and events which are not art. In other words, every affirmation is also a negation.
So, the affirmation of the autonomy of art also implies the necessity to explain relationships and oppositions which justify its diversity. As Croce puts it: “Independence is a relational concept, and under this concept what is absolutely independent is the Absolute itself, or the absolute relationship: every particular form and concepts is both dependent and independent at the same time.”
However, to establish the autonomy, i.e., the independence of any spiritual form, it is necessary to trace its specific function which confers to it its necessity. Again, as Croce writes: “A form’s independence assumes the matter by which it expresses itself, as we have already seen in following the development of the origins of art as an intuitive perception of a sentimental or passionate subject. … But, in as much as the recognized independence forbids that we think of an activity as subsumed to the activity of another activity, the dependency must be such as to guarantee its independence.”
It is here that we find the fundamental reasoning of the entire Crocean philosophical journey. It is by implication related to Hegelian dialectic and in fact the entire philosophical tradition. As Croce writes: “Thus considering the issue in its generality, there seems to be no other way to think of independence and dependence as regards the various spiritual activities than that of conceiving them in their relationship of condition and conditioned, in which the conditioned overcomes the conditioned presupposing it, and then in turn becoming the condition, giving rise to a new conditioned and constituting a series of developments.”
Of course the development of which Croce speaks does not suppose a first unconditioned or uncaused but, as the same philosopher states it, the circularity of every form which is at the same time both condition and conditioned. To be able to understand this difficult Crocean position one must go back to his philosophical system, to the long and hard deepening of dialectic in relation to logic and distinctions. We have to keep in mind that in between the first Aesthetics and the Breviario, from which I have quoted above the philosopher has written the Logic as a science of the pure concept as well as his Essay on Hegel.
But to return to our fundamental issue, the artist is not some kind of special man who lives outside the world, devoid of any relationship. Artistic inspiration is always born from a practical need, utilitarian or ethical as the case may be. One wants to know something; one wants to express a particular interior world or a particular feeling; one wants to express a particular human condition of humankind, a social condition, or political condition or psychological condition. From this desire, this movement of conscience is born a second movement which is aesthetic knowledge and expression. This is an indissoluble circle which holds together praxis and art within a unity of distinctions. But of course relationships do not end there. The aesthetic moment exists in a nexus with the philosophical moment since, as we have seen, this second movement is related to the first. As Croce sees it, one cannot conceive an universal philosophical knowledge without basing it on the particular. Knowledge is therefore the a priori synthesis between particular and universal, that is to say, a judgment whose form is the coming together of the universal predicate with the individual subject. In order to explain this we have placed the moment of praxis at the outset of the movement of knowledge. But, as it is obvious, given the circularity of consciousness, it cannot be a first and in fact one cannot wish for anything before one knows it.
Consequently, if we put aside the idea that art is constituted only by great art and go back to conceiving of intuition as the normal function through which man knows the world in its individual aspects, we will grasp that a cognitive function needs to be distinct from other functions but that at the same time it cannot but utilize all other functions (and in turn serve them). Were we to look at one single artistic masterpiece, The Betrothed, for example one cannot but admit that it is a complex work, that can be individuated by its complexity into which flow all the categories or functions of the spirit as we now say in modern parlance. Manzoni must have desired to write such a novel, and not only this, but this desire must have resisted time year after year. He had to reflect and meditate on how to write it; had to plan an outline of the work; worked on a plot, outlined the protagonists. There are parts in the novel that are not poetical, wherein we can detect the writer’s ideology, his liberal Catholicism. All we need to do is think of the figure of Borromeo, the meaning attributed to pestilence, the recourse to the concept of Providence and the final edifying conclusion of the novel.
All of this does not mean that art (intuition) is not the fundamental and connotative element of the work, that is to say, the great ability of Manzoni to penetrate (to be able to know in depth) the most hidden human sentiments through those masterful portraits of don Abbondio, don Rodrigo, Renzo, Lucia, Agnese, fra’ Cristoforo, Perpetua, il Griso, don Ferrante and so on. And here we have arrived at the issue of the autonomy and the heteronomy of art as perpetual interconnection of problems, since art is a the same time autonomous and heteronymous.
As we shall see better later on regarding literary criticism and hermeneutics, it is obvious that an aesthetic judgment, a judgment that wishes to be aesthetic must be exclusively aesthetic. Judgment must remain autonomous, distinct, independent just as the category to which it refers is also independent, autonomous and distinct. Not to judge thus means to fall into moralism, philosophism, utilitarianism. It would be the same as to deny aesthetic value to I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) because one discerns there a different religious sentiment. Which does not mean, as we have already seen, that one cannot consider I Promessi Sposi an historical document of a different nature that can be utilized for the most varied researches.
On the Universality of Art
The issue of the universality of art can be discussed from two different viewpoints which are directly or indirectly related to Crocean thought. Some deny the very concept of universality, and then there are those who sustain that Croce contradicts himself when he affirms that art is a universal form of knowledge.
As far as the first viewpoint is concerned, we are dealing with a general philosophical issue which can go all the way back to the polemical Socratic dialogues with the sophists. As far as we are concerned, I retain indispensable to think of this concept in other than universal terms. Specifically, the fact itself that we distinguish art as a separate category affirms its universality since one cannot generate a universal from a universal, it can only be generated by itself. Either we consider art universal, or under the name art we empirically and arbitrarily gather a series of objects and events which we consider more or less similar.
Let’s us consider therefore the apparent contradictions of Crocean thought. If aesthetic thought is alogical, if it is to be distinguished from philosophy, how can it be universal if universality is something attributable to thought? I art knows the particular, how can it be universal? To these objections we can add others of a psychological nature. To discuss the beauty of a poem may seem futile given that we would immediately intuit that we cannot find a serious point of common agreement as is the case for mathematical and logical issues. These kind of valid objections are the same as those which occur within the problematic of taste (whether it is objective or subjective), and more generally, the problematic of interpretation. In fact, the universality of art guarantees the objectivity (at least hypothetically) of taste and interpretation, or as the same Croce writes, the re-evocation of the poetical. We need to be aware here that the entire conceptual fabric of Crocean aesthetic is held together by a very tight net of logical connections.
There are moreover valid objections of an historical or social nature which can find their foundation in Croce’s historicism, a theoretical aspirations to oppose his theories. For example, a Chinese, because of a different historical and linguistic environment, will have difficulty to understand Ungaretti’s or Montale’s poetry, just as a Westerner will have difficulty in understanding oriental arts. Therefore art appears incommunicable and therefore not universal, given that communicability is the sine qua non of universality.
In reality, in Croce’s thought, art is a Kantian foundational reality, the possibility of transcendent knowledge of the particular. This identification of aesthetic with language, that is to say with expressivity, means that art is a common function and therefore it is universal, integral part of every man’s humanity.
Thus we have arrived at the second aspect of the issue which explains better even the first one. We have arrived at the theoretical Crocean problematic of the cosmic aspect of art. In his Il carattere dell’espressione artistica [The Character of Artistic Expression] Croce had asserted that “to confer to a sentimental content an artistic form is to endow it at the same time with imprint of totality or the aspiration to the cosmic…every genuine artistic representation is itself and the universe, the universe in a particular form, and the particular form as the universe. In every poet’s enunciation, in every creature of his imagination there is the whole of human destiny, all its hope, its illusions, its pains and its joys, the greatness and the poverty of humanity, the entire drama of the real which evolves and grows by itself expressing suffering and joy (p. 122).
The above is the modern transformation of the Aristotelian catharsis from a purely moral position to an epistemological one. It is the Leopardian distinction between lived feeling (practical, for Croce) and the contemplated feeling (theoretical): “my feelings of joy are different from the narration of it to a group of friends. This is what Croce writes about in his Aesthetica in nuce: “Within this distinction between contemplated feelings or poetry vis a vis acted out or suffered feelings there is the virtue attributable to art as liberator and calming of feelings (catharsis); and the condemnation of those works or part of those artworks where the immediate feeling burst forth or gives vent. Moreover, from this distinction one can derive the other character,…its infinity juxtaposed to the finitude of feelings or immediate passion: this being branded as the universal or cosmic character of poetry.”
From all this we can deduce that art is communicable and, at least in part, we can overcome the mystery of its incommunicability. A physical pain or a sentimental depression cannot be communicated in themselves ma only as representations, known, intuited, made universal by art which, without recurring to the concept, renders the particular universal.
To sum up, there are at least three fundamental meanings that we can confer to the Crocean position: art is universal because it is a transcendental activity, something which is substantially inherent to all men and not only in an empirical mode, because it renders objective subjective and individual intuitions via representation, because in every single representation one becomes conscious of the entire drama of the universe sub specie intuitionis. This last point is undoubtedly the most complex and has not appeared clear to all critics. At first sight it appears that the philosopher wishes to say that in every particular act of the spirit one can detect the entire human history, the entire process of consciousness, the entire drama of the universe in its etymological sense, that is to say, in the sense of the contrast which can be comic, ironic, sad, tragic, indifferent. This explains why each one of us can recreate and feel as one’s own the tragedy of the lucid and astonished perplexity of Hamlet which paralyzes action.
Undoubtedly this thinking of Croce is an arduous and complex one, reminiscent, to remain within our own century, of the Bergson of the concrete duration, the Proust of involuntary memory, the Joyce of the stream of consciousness, of the epiphany. A complex position to be further deepened.
Art and Morality
Croce writes that “a third negation, which is accomplished via the theory of art as intuition, is that of conceiving art as a moral act …An artistic image may indeed portray an act that is morally approvable or disapprovable, however the image itself, qua image, is neither morally approvable or disapprovable. Not only there is no criminal code which can condemn an image to death or to jail, but no moral judgment by a rational being can make it his object: it would be like judging as immoral Dante’s Francesca or moral Shakespeare’s Cordelia…as to judge a square moral and a triangle immoral. (Breviario di estetica, in Nuovi saggi di estetica, pp. 13-14).
It is this particular aspect of Croce’s aesthetics which has with greatest probability and more than any other given rise to controversies. In fact the moralistic conception of art is well represented in the history of aesthetics, is pervasive in the most varied philosophical conceptions and is close to that common sense which tends to judge reality in a moralistic key. As the same Croce reminds us, it is this position which, while at times criticized by the critics, has as its supporters eminent representatives such as Parini, Alfieri, Manzoni, Mazzini (even if the last one often contradicts it) and it also had the important function of contradicting another misguided theory, that of the identification of art with purely hedonistic pleasure. As Croce puts it: “The moralistic theory of art is also represented in the history of aesthetic theories, and it never died even if today it is discredited; discredited not only for its inherent lack of merit, but also in part because of the current lack of morality within some modern tendencies, which render easy, albeit psychologically uncomfortable, a refusal which ought to be made only for logical reasons as we do here. This moralistic doctrine is derived from the goal given to art of guiding to what is good, to inspire the rejection of evil, to correct and improve social customs and the request submitted to artists to contribute to the civil education of the masses, to the strengthening of the national militaristic spirit of a people, to the spreading of ideals of industrious and modest life, and so on. All things which art cannot accomplish, just as geometry cannot accomplish, which despite this inability does not lose its respectability, and there is no reason why art should lose it. (Ibidem, p. 14).
This, up to now, is the clearest and least controversial part of the Crocean theory, given that it cannot be denied that art is distinct from morality as it is from philosophy, since were it not so, it would no longer be art but philosophy or morality. The complications ensue as soon as Croce attempts, as we have seen in the preceding chapters, to understand the terms of the nexus between art and the other forms of human activity, ethics in particular. The problem is dealt with in Croce’s more mature essays after establishing that at best morality can be subject matter for art, and then attempting to show that art has its own intrinsic morality and that at the basis of art one can only posit the moral personality. As Croce puts it: “Therefore the foundation of every poetry, is human personality, and since human personality culminates in human morality, the foundation of every poem is moral consciousness. It is understood that with this we are not affirming that the artist has to be a deep thinker and critic, not that he needs to be an exemplary or even an heroic man; but he does need to have that participation in the world of thought and action which allows him to live by his own direct experience or in sympathy with that of others, the full human drama.” With those words, Croce is reemphasizing that we ought not look into contends for the morality of art, but rather in the success of the artistic expression. In fact, just as it is true that artists who “close themselves to human emotions and the anxiety of thought, end up as sterile, at best they succeed by imitation or by a disconnected impressionism” it is also true that on the other hand, it is not necessary “to possess a moral personality to be a poet and an artist.” Further exemplifying, what is immoral in art is present when the artistic expression is modified for ends that are not aesthetic, to get publicity, to divulge a political or philosophical idea or, as it now does not appear paradoxical, to transmit a moral message.
This new position of Croce has given rise to a great span of very interesting interpretations. Certainly the emphasis on moral strength intrinsic to poetry, as we have seen, was controversial vis a vis the ruling Dannunzianism, just as the renewed critique against didacticism was controversial vis a vis fascism. On a purely philosophical plane, these reflections in the field of aesthetics ought to be located within the mature phase of Croce’s thought where ethics seems to lose its categorical character of a category among other categories (since there is no such thing as a work of art that is only ethical; works of art are either aesthetic or logical or useful and ethics pervades them all) in order to assume a wider meaning of categorical mode.
The Indivisibility and Infinity of Art, Above Normative Activity of Aesthetics
Like every human function Art is inexhaustible. According to Croce, it is evident that we cannot put limitations on artistic acts, just as we cannot exhaust by a determinate number of categories moral or useful acts. We can affirm that either metaphorically or as a controversial statement, art is dead, that there is no morality any longer, that values have vanished. These are expressions that have no real philosophical meaning: every man in a way always performs moral actions, aesthetic actions and so on. Every man acts and thinks.
Croce’s aesthetics as we have seen in the previous presentations, from a mere theoretical point of view, wished to define some general reference points, without intending (because it could not) define concretely the boundaries within which the aesthetic experience can be limited. We can assert that art is form of knowledge, a state of being of the cognitive intention, without being able to establish which are the infinite, cognitive acts of knowledge which can be realized through art. In this sense we can also assert that Croce’s aesthetics is formal, which is to say, it is not normative, but neither is it formalistic: Croce’s aesthetic in fact does not privilege style or form at the expense of content.
This does not mean that the formality of aesthetics or of philosophy in general has no nexus with praxis which influences philosophy and vice versa, as the same Croce, going back to the Vichian, Hegelian, in some aspects Marxist tradition, clarified, especially in his book of 1938 revealingly titled History as Thought and as Action. We would go too far afield were we to pause to examine the very deep connections between theory and praxis. Here we will limit ourselves to examining the indirect aspect through which a philosophical theory, in our case aesthetics, determines a different orientation and behavior in those who get inspiration from such a philosophy and from which he/she is conditioned. To deny, for example, that art is a philosophy in nuce, tending to the education of human kind, is the equivalent of denying aesthetic value to those didactic works which can have other values but not aesthetic ones. In such a sense even the most formalistic philosophy is normative. Were it not so, even the pure formality of philosophy would end up in the useless. But what no philosophy can determine a priori, according to Croce, is which work can be considered didactic, which is to say aesthetic or not aesthetic, since that judgment belongs to the critics, or to the readers who operate at all times within concrete particular conditions determined by the taste of the times and individual predispositions.
For all those reasons, from the general principles of Croce’s aesthetics derive a series of corollaries which address concretely the life of art and which with the passage of time have become the genuine matter of investigation for writers and critics. Particular motives have increasingly become the fundamental motive, leaving in the background the central theoretical issues. The very same activity of literary critic of Croce and his frequent returning to specific themes have led scholars and critics to focus on various questions, more than on the essence of Crocean thought.
If art, as it is evident, is infinite and indivisible as a category or specific function, is equally evident that we could discuss particular problematic and issues which issue from the concrete life of works of art.
On Literary Genres
As a brief synthesis we can affirm that Croce denies the possibility of formulating aesthetic judgments based on the literary genres since he considers them abstractions vis a vis the concrete artistic products which are constituted by the particular works of art. As Croce puts it: “This mistakes begins with the deduction of the expression from the concept and in attempting to find the laws of this substitution in what has been substituted, when the difference between the first and the second step is not perceived thus ending up asserting that one is on the first step when in reality one is on the second. This mistake can be dubbed the theorizing of artistic and literary genres.” (Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e linguistic generale, 1902, p. 41).
This mistake on which Croce focuses is not irrelevant and has often contributed to the destruction of the moral life of artists and poets who, unable to place their works into the boxes of the popular categories at the time, painfully felt the delusion of the incomprehension of their epoch. Again Croce puts it best: “From the theorizing of literary genres we arrive at those false paradigm of judgment and critique which, confronted with a work of art, instead of determining if it is expressive…one asks if it is in conformity to the laws of the epic poem, of that of tragedy; to the laws of historical painting of that of the landscape. Indeed artists have faked obedience and have feigned to accept those laws of the genre, but have always ignored them. Every work of art has violated the established genre, thus causing confusion in the ideas of the critics who in turn have felt compelled to widen the definition of a genre until, that is, this enlarged definition becomes too narrow with the appearance of other works of art, always followed naturally by new scandals, new muddlings and new enlargements.” (ibid. p. 44).
Thus this second look at the genres, is a liberating theory on artistic activity such as the attempt to confer to artists and their activities full expressive autonomy. It remains to be determined what are the practical limits of this constant enlargement of the genres, something that Croce has never denied. The genres, which from a logical standpoint are abstract concepts, belonging to the Hegelian Verstand, fulfill the important function, as Croce writes in his Logica referring to this type of formalization (some authors use the word form in this sense rather than the Kantian or Crocean sense) “to reawake or call to attendance many representations.” They fulfill therefore the necessary function of orientation for both action and knowledge. In fact the historian as well as the scientist have necessarily to use abstractions. This clarification can be useful for banishing other equivocations, such as that of gravitates around the conceptions of the sciences understood as part of practical activity and not for the knowledge of man’s identity. In fact those abstractions and generalizations rather than the particular scientific theories contain aspects of truth, of historical knowledge just as on the other side of the coin one can individuate within concrete works of history abstractions and generalizations. So, keeping in mind the particular products (i.e., the concrete theories) and not the categorizing activity which ideally presides over them, the only distinction possible is one of quantity and not of quality as would be the case within a rigorously philosophical argument. This clarification frees us, in my opinion, from many equivocations and helps us to better understand the terms of the issue of genres.
The Argentinean poet Borges, after quoting a passage from Croce declares that: “I would add a personal observation: literary genres depend less from texts than from the way those texts are read. The aesthetic fact requires a conjunction of reader and text which only then exists. It is absurd to assume that a book is much more than a book. It begins to exist only when a reader opens it. Then the aesthetic phenomenon manifests itself resembling the very moment when the book was conceived.” (Oral, 1981, pp. 48-50).
That having been said, we perhaps need to reflect on the fact that literary genres fulfill a mission which is greater than that of mere content holders. Mario Fubini has clarified this issue with great competence; therefore let me end this piece with his words: “Those generic definitions are useful to us even when we grasp their inadequacy. It is enough to think about political history where we survey feudal States, absolute States, liberal States: think of the local little history, if we may call it that, which we ourselves make with our judgments and the things we talk about, pervaded by similar classifications and definitions…so that for every judgment we came face to face with a new reality, but the judgment we must render has of course been preceded by innumerable other judgments which are useful for orientation, so much easier to do in as much as we have gathered the multitudinous conclusions reordering them in classifications which in our memory fulfill the function of symbols of the most complex historical reality.”(Critica e poesia, 1966, p. 140).
Art and Technique
Following the reasoning that we have presented so far, it becomes evident that in Croce’s aesthetics there is a rejection of any theory which attempts to distinguish or judge art based on purely technical notions. Indeed, the problem is not one of choosing between the spontaneity of art and the technique of artistic expressions, but rather that of understanding the complexity of their relationship to each other. It would be enough to the paradoxes that would surface if one were to attempt to be sustained in a radical mode by one or the other only. One cannot conceive an artistic expression which does not follow specific technical trajectories, just as one cannot identify technique with art. To be able to use a film camera does not mean that one is a great film director.
Croce was of the opinion that technique had a purely comunicative function, foreign to the true original artistic creation. For example, the neat division of the arts (sculpture, painting, music, etc.) based on purely empirical or physical principles does not yeld the essential nature of art which depends on the aesthetic result of the work. One can know the technique of music and yet one may be unable to produce significant musical compositions. Technique however does have its own function. In his Breviario Croce insists, in fact that the artist, like every man is a complicated being, and therefore he is both poet and practical man “and as such he suggests the means so that his spiritual work is not dissipated and lost and the reproduction of his images becomes easy.” Moreover, in his Aesthetica in nuce (1928) Croce writes that “technique is generally speaking a complex of cognitions tending toward practical action, and in the case of art, it is the practical action which forges objects and instruments for the recollection and the communication of works of art.”
Only with the publication of La Poesia (1936) does the philosopher, without modifying his in depth concept, amplifies the practical horizon within which technique fulfills its precious function. In a marginal note titled “Technique within the understanding of historical tradition” he writes that “Therefore, to free oneself from technique, that is to say, within the meaning we assigned to it, is impossible; not is it possible with mere technique to ‘make oneself virgin and primitive,’ something which happens with every inspiration or creation, which constitutes one of the two indivisible acts of the same act.”
Within this point of view one can speak of a reevaluation of technique in as much as it represents the historical result of a process. Perhaps it should be also mentioned that in reality poetic imagination and intuition cannot be achieved without technique since the painter thinks pictorially, the music composer thinks musically and the playwriter teathrically. Just as we need to admit that technique by itself does not result in art, we must also accept the idea that artistic creation always happens conretely within a particular historic condition. The playwriter, as well as a movie director, imagine within a particular concrete situation, not in the abstract, and always in reference to the expressive means which is more in accordance with his sensibility. Which of course does not mean that without a stage and without actors in flesh and blood the playwriter cannot construct his work of art, or that an artist while erring in chosing the appropriate technique, neverthless can intuit, imagine, fantasize, create the work of art. Men involved with the theater know how to distinguish between talent and artistic prowess. It is in such a distinction, dictated by experience, if not by common sense, that one can find the fundamental position of the Crocean distinction.
Finally, there is the issue of thecnical innovation. In this case too, innovation can be original and important, worthy to represent an important historical development (for example, the introduction of perspective in painting). However, all by itself it is not enough to justify artistic experience which can happen or not happen, despite the new technique. On the other hand, technical innovation, especially when it is revolutionary, for example the use of photographs, of the cinema and finally of the computer, shows ultimately the fallacy of technique in itself which remains a mode of expression. But, as we have already said, because between the means and the end there is a dialectic relationship and not merely and extrinsic one, it often happens that the choosing of a new technique is also an aesthetic choice, deriving from artistic creativity and not only of ingenuity. Those who defend the category of technique risks becoming trapped in a sort of aesthetic conservatism parading as progressivism; of defending, in other words, a tradition, as important and majestic as it may be, vis a vis the new creativity.
To then distinguish, concretely, between ingenuity and imagination, or between talent and art, is not a duty of aesthetics, which merely indicates the general horizon of thought, but it is the duty of the critic and of the public who judge and choose each individual work in an absolutely new way and absolutely free.
As is well known, Croce denies that it is possible to execute a perfect translation of a literary text, and of other kind of texts. It is obvious that such a position is in certain aspects nothing but a necessary corollary of the already demonstrated unity between form and content. In fact, to translate a literary work means in effect to transfer a determined content into a new language, a new form. This is indeed an impossible operation as anyone who has attempted to translate any poet or even a poet who wrote in ancient language in a more modern version. It is not easy to contradict such an experience. It can happen that the translation is beautiful, or as they say, successful, ma it is never adequate to the text that has been translated.
This having been said, it is also true, that there may be particular cases wherein, at least from a psychological point, or as we could affirm, an empirical point of view, the general concept rigorously expressed will not find a uniform application. It would be simpler, for example, to translate from languages that have a certain affinity, from French to Italian rather than from German or Russian. Moreover, it appears to be easier to reproduce the atmosphere of universal works, even in verses, such as a Shakespeare drama, rather than that of a brief lyric poem by Ungaretti or Di Giacomo. Many other examples are possible, but finally it should be noted that it is paradoxical that the aesthetic pleasure we experience in reading or seeing a representation of Oedipus Rex is all due to the merit of its translator, as excellent as he may be as such, and not to the genius of the great Greek poet.
As is also known, they are all issues of an empirical nature which could be presented ad infinitum. In any case, the problem remains: why did Croce declare impossible a perfect translation while admitting the possibility of a re-evocation the poetic in the original as he puts it, understood in its most intimate expressive meaning. It seems to us that, even without an appeal to Croce’s statement, that it is exactly the logical possibility of re-evocation (distinct from a critical judgment or the specific ever-changing conditions within which the interpreter finds himself) that allows for a translation, which, if executed according to its re-evocation, always preserves something of the original, even it meets problems of a practical nature which remain insurmountable.
There is a Crocean paragraph in La Poesia, written almost half a century later than l’Estetica which supports our thesis. After having mentioned the utility of literary translations, some bad others faithful, seems to be attenuating his first radical position on translations. He focuses on those translations which can be branded as poetical, and writes that they “…moving from the re-creation of the original poetry, other sentiments can be added, as residing in those who receive it, which, because of a different historical condition or a different individual personality, are different and give rise to the translation which is the poetical being transferred from an ancient into a new soul.”
Therefore, the aesthetic translation, assumes a re-creation or a re-evocation of the poetic which one intends to translate, to then detach oneself from it because of personal or historic conditions which inevitably condition the activity of the translator. But given that translation assumes a re-evocation, the work of art cannot be completely lost when it is translated. This position needs to be deepened and perhaps the same Croce should have better clarified the issue.
Taste and Interpretation
If art is subjective and creative, how can it be interpreted and evoked in an objective mode? Is there such a thing as objectivity, and if not, how is it possible to understand art?
In his Estetica, with a procedure and style still redolent of positivism, Croce writes that “Having gone through the entire aesthetic and extrinsic procedure and having fixed art in a definite physical material, having produced a beautiful expression, the question arises, how does one go about judging it? Art critics will egregiously answer in unison that one needs to reproduce it within oneself. Let us attempt to understand well this fact and, consequently, let us offer an outline. Individual A is looking for an expression of an impression which he feels present but has not yet expressed. Here we see him attempting it with various words and phrases which will render what he is looking for, which he knows to be existent but which he does not yet possess. He tries combination m but he rejects it as not appropriate, not expressive enough, lacking something, ugly: then he tries the combination n, with the same result. The expression remains elusive. After various other attempts, wherein he will at times get closer, and at times get farther away from the target to which it aims suddenly he forms the sought after expression…Another individual which we’ll call B must now judge the expression, and determine if it is beautiful or ugly; he must place himself in A’s viewpoint and recreate the creative process with the help of the physical sign.”
According to this first Crocean position, art is therefore revocable, even if it is not easy to do so. But as we have already examined, the problem of interpretation has taken a good part of Croce’s thought, even when not explicitly so. Initially Croce clearly asserts that translations, theatrical representations and even the recitation of a poem lead, after all, to the creation of new and original works, even when they derive for their inspiration from the original text. We have postulated a clear difference with the revocation, in its strict sense, of poetry. Engendering some perplexity Croce will later assert that musical interpretation is similar to the revocation of the poetical while art critics assert that the philosopher could have assimilated the reading of musical scores to theatrical representations or to translations, that is to say to an interpretation which remains a surplus vis a vis the text.
This Crocean perspective gets modified with the publication of the volume La Poesia, and as we have seen, where even the possibility of translations seems plausible to him even when they retain the general theoretical viewpoint. That volume of 1936 mitigates many judgments of the philosopher in an attempt to understand the very complex life of art in all its manifestations.
It must nevertheless be noted that even in these particular aspects of his philosophy one detects the fundamental problem of every philosophy, that of the relationship between the subject and object, the universal and the particular, truth and interpretation of truth. There is no doubt that in Croce’s thought, especially in its aesthetics, the moment of subjectivity, understood in a transcendental mode, is held firmly in place, because it appears obvious that every interpretation qua interpretation is always subjective. One could affirm, using the usual idiom of contemporary philosophers, that life itself is a hermeneutic, and interpretation, that those few pages we are now writing are nothing less than what is for us, explicitly or implicitly, is the representation of life. The question arises: can one conceive of an interpretation that is not the interpretation of something? That is to say, is it possible to have a cogitans without a cogitatum? Is it possible to conceive of intentionality, to return to Husserl and medieval philosophy, without intentionality having in mind a content? Certainly not, unless we wish to fall back in what Kant called, referring to Berkeley, a delirious idealism, or conversely to place on the table again, as it happened with Kant, the problematic issue of objectivism having recourse to hypothetical things in themselves.
The oscillations between the Scylla of subjectivism and the Carrdi of objectivism can be detected, in my opinion, even in the Crocean historicism, which attempts valiantly, to keep steady its synthesis without privileging one or the other pole. It would appear that for Croce art is revocable while critical judgment remain shifting.
A final clarification. We need to keep in mind that when we assert that the revocation or the interpretation is possible, one is affirming it in a purely formal mode, according to the identification, as we have already seen, of the categorization of art as irrepressible and universal function of man.
The History of the Arts
Every young student has at some time or other glanced at a book on the history of literature, or of painting, or music. Every critic worth his salt has written or at least fantasized on the writing of a thorough history of a particular artistic form. There are debates on the validity of various histories. Some are privileged, others are discarded. There are distinctions made within their analysis separating what is treated competently and what is not. Francesco De Sanctis, one of the greatest essayist and critic, is essentially noteworthy for his History of Italian Literature.
Is it therefore possible to deny the possibility of conceiving a history of literature, of poetry, of sculpture, of cinema, the kind of disciplines to which every civilized country has dedicated chairs, institutes, journals and foundations. And yet Croce, the ideal disciple of De Sanctis, does promote this negation.
But the doubt arises: does Croce, the philosopher of historicism, radically deny the very possibility of writing histories? Or rather, does he limit himself to warn us against certain particular historicist methodologies?
In fact, when the philosopher asserts that he prefers the monographic methodology for aesthetic criticism (i.e., the search for the intrinsic values of individual artists and, above all, of the single works of art) he simply wanted to critique certain methodological prejudices which harmed what he considers the authentic historicity of art. The first among those prejudices is that of considering the history of artistic phenomena as a history of mere progress.
As far as Croce is concerned, it is impossible to theorize progress in art understood as a development of inferior forms toward superior forms. This thesis is tenable in discussing the development of techniques, of genres, of styles, of poetics. One can maintain, for example, that the overcoming of the Atistotelic unities within the dramatic theater may represent a sort of progress.
What cannot be maintained, however, is to maintain that between Aeschylus and Shakespeare there is an aesthetic progress. Pari passu one cannot affirm the same thing for scientific and philosophical production. As Popper teaches us, within a scientific environment, for example, a new theory includes and falsifies at the same time those that have preceded it, thus extending the field of veracity.
In an analogous mode, one cannot but doubt the development of art as a causal connection of one work or a group of works with others according to a mechanistic or deterministic vision. It is indeed permissible to talk of Petrachism or Manzonianism, given that between schools and authors there are connections which create relationships of mutual exchanges and mutual conditioning. It is said that a painter or a movie director instructs. However, each work of art is an work unto itself, with its particular history, connected to the entire history of humankind and tied to a particular human event which is the human event of its author.
We can bring to bear many proofs: one that is particularly significant, just to mention one, is the issue of the relationship between history and art and the social problematic with which positivistic and Marxist critique are very much concerned. As Croce puts it: “Dante is not only a social document of Medieval times, or Shakepeare one of Elizabethan times; as documentaries they have there are others by bad poets or non poets which can supply more abundant information on those ages. It has been pointed out that thus the artistic-literary history becomes a series of unrelated essays and monographyes with no nexus existing between them; but clearly the nexus is the whole of human history of which poetic personalities are an integral and conspicuous part…, and exactly because they are part of it they cannot be submersed or hidden in such a history, that is to say, in the other parts of that history, but must be allowed to keep their poroper and original character.” (Aesthetics in Nuce, p. 31).
This page from Croce is quite clear. We need to be aware that the philosopher is not denying that it is possible to interpret and above all utilize works of art, and opinion documents such as poetics and manifestos, for goals that go beyond those which are purely aesthetics. There are many fundamental pages in his books dedicated to cultural movements which are essential to understand the era in question. In La Poesia Croce looks back at his positions and attempts to better clarify them based on a criterion of equilibrium lacking in the polemical writing in the first phase of his writings. Regarding the aesthetic judgment as a history of poetry he writes that “One may surmise that identifying judgment with the history of poetry destroys history as such, breaking it up in a multiplicity individual histories placed side by side to each other, thus destroying the order of succession which is indispensable to historical thinking. Nevertheless, the judgment of poetry not only does not deny, but it does not even negate such order, which is reaffirmed and assumed in all its movements. How could we ever seriously understand and think about the Divine Comedy were we to locate it before the Ilyad, or Orlando Furioso before the Chanson de Roland? Every and each work is well interpreted and evoked only by locating it in its proper historical setting in which all the preceding works and all the preceding history converge. (La Poesia, p. 120)
Croce as an Historian of Aesthetics
Given his historicism, even though it is a very peculiar and particular historicism, Croce could not ignore the issue of the history of aesthetics. Already we detect in his first Aesthetics a history who the same Croce subsequently judged too reductive and rigid, but nevertheless it had marked a fundamental moment within European culture.
Croce returns to those authors and cultural movements which he had depicted, via various essays which were subsequently arranged in his A History of Aesthetics via Essays.
Croce The Two Worldly Sciences: Aesthetics and Economy published in 1931 became quite famous. Inthat essay the philosopher held a thesis, which appeared paradoxical and certainly debatable, according to which the genuine philosophy of art was born in modern times, with the modern philosophy of the spirit and of the subject which detached itself from metaphysics, thus becoming worldly. The same process occurred, according to Croce, with economy. As Croce puts it: “The ongoing and increasing intensity of political economic and artistic achievements in the first centuries of the modern era, expressed itself theoretically with the formation of two novel modes of thought or two new disciplines: politics and economy (which here we consider within the substantial philosophical unity within which they are found) and the philosophy of art or Aesthetics. Those two sciences had been all but ignored by medieval philosophy which, within the pragmatic sphere knew only of morality, and resolved political and economic problem via morality when they presented themselves and could not be bypassed, while within the theoretical sphere logic predominated thus reducing poetry and art to mere means of signification and dissemination of sacred truths.
But with the arrival of the Renaissance, we first detect a strong new science called science of the States or Politics, followed by the art of prudence, and more slowly, the science of economics, which incarnated itself in laws and regulations in the 18th century even if it did not present itself with a full philosophical self-awareness. Thus began the distinguishing of law from morality, and the investigation of the concepts of poetry, of figurative arts, of architecture, of music, attempting to find a common foundation and the intellectual faculty from which they all sprang. This research within the 18th century, it arrives at an initial conclusion when, having found the originality of this new principle, it constructed an autonomous science to which was appended the name of Aesthetics.”
As mentioned, this thesis is debatable on many of its aspects, given that the same Croce asserts by implication in some of his writings, it cannot be denied that the ancient and medieval world had their own aesthetic and economic consciousness. In any case, it is an astonishing and original thesis.
The enterprise of the historian of aesthetics carried out by Croce was pervaded by a will to find common foundations, to propose once again or rediscover theories that had been forgotten or undervalued and on the other hand to demolish traditional positions accepted without challenge by the scientific community which he considered erroneous or ineffectual.
As is well known, Croce considers Vico his most authentic predecessor and De Sanctis his ideal master deemed by him the greatest Italian philosopher of art, undoubtedly superior to many professional philosophers, just as in the context of that other-worldly political philosophy he finds Niccolò Machiavelli superior by far. An analogous judgment is expressed by Croce for French culture. He individuates the poets Flaubert and Boudelaire, as the greatest art philosophers. He places Baumgarten in a central position within the history of aesthetic and analyzes with deep care Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He considers Hegel’s aesthetic confusing and over-intellectualized, and prefers the acute and brilliant reflections of Schleiermaker as a theoretician of pure visibility while evaluating the positivists as trivial and the idealists as empty, preferring to those the English Peter, the German Hanslick and the Dutch Lange.
Classicism and Romanticism
The distinction that Croce made between Classicism and Romanticism, in order to proclaim that genuine art is always classical, is well known.
One could hazard the statement that Croce, having been accused so many times of being a romantic was in the end seduced by classicism. After all, wasn’t Croce a sworn enemy of empirical distinctions or convenient distinction such as that between Romanticism and Classicism? Ultimately, the philosopher wished to distinguish two mental and psychological attitudes with which he felt he could trace back some historical speculative positions.
As Croce puts it: “The principal problematic of our times, namely that aesthetics must be dominant, can be traced to art’s crisis and in the judgment of art produced by the era of Romanticism. We are not distancing away from previous eras where the crisis surfaces such as antiquity’s Hellenistic art and literature in the last years of the Roman Empire, and in modern times art and baroque poetry which followed those of the Renaissance. But in the Romantic era the crisis, in its motivations and characteristics, was quite different in its grandiosity, compared to naïve and sentimental poetry, Classical and Romantic art thus dividing indivisible art into two wholly different arts, even taking sides with the latter as the one which conforms to modern times which see in art the primacy of passion and feelings and imagination. On one hand this was justified as a reaction to rationalistic, French style, literature, which is sometimes satiric sometimes frivolous, destitute in feelings and imagination, and of any deep poetical sense…” (Aesthetica in nuce, 1935, p. 27).
Thus we see that Croce holds on to the general theoretical distinction between life’s functions which will not allow a separation of the unity of aesthetic activity. Which is to say that in this context the classicism of poetry is for Croce its universalism which has little to do with Classicism as an historical period or a distinct poetic. As Croce puts it: “The fundamental problem of aesthetics, is the restoration and the defense of Classicism against Romanticism” which is to say of the epistemological character of human feelings and sentiments not to be confused with pure passion. Again, as Croce himself puts it: “this is something that Goethe understood very well, for he was at the same time a poet of passion and of serenity and as such a classical poet.” (Ibidem, p. 29).
Croce’s complaint is obviously against the years of cultural exaggerations when his book Aesthetica in nuce is published with the purpose of fighting the irrationalities and the activism of fascism.
Classicism, which is not historical temporal Classicism which is school and imitation, is integral part of the nature of art, which is not ethical action but it cannot separate itself from ethics as long as by that term we do not intend a compilation of norms and doctrines but the most profound sense of conscience’s psychological unity.
Therefore, classicism, cosmic approach, universality of art are all synonymous and a moment in Crocean thought, albeit, as we have seen, a problematic phase of it. It remains however an elevated moment since the philosopher was reaffirming the dominant force of the individual conscience during a rear historical moment of great psychological and moral confusion.
Aesthetics as Linguistics and Art as Language
If art is intuition, and if intuition is always expression, then art is language. This conclusion to which Croce arrives and to which he returns in all his conclusions, beginning with his book titled Aesthetics as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, is of utmost importance, even if not always easily understood. As Croce puts it: “Aesthetics as science of expression has been studied by me under every aspect. Nevertheless, it still behooves me to justify its sub-title of General Linguistic which I have added to its title and propose and clarify the thesis that the science of art and that of language, i.e., Aesthetics and Linguistics, as true sciences, are not two distinct sciences but only one science (Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e linguistic generale, p. 161, 1902).
In the first place we ought to attempt an understanding of what constitutes language for Croce, otherwise his theoretical stance remains incomprehensible. In this instance, language does not refer to the language of literary people, or the language of institutions, or the language of a people, nor the codified language of grammars and dictionaries. Language is not to be understood as the great linguist Saussure defined as langue (that is to say, the organic and structural whole of a particular language) but what he defined as parole, or creative language. In fact Croce asserts that “the philosophy of language is not a philosophical grammar, but is beyond all grammars and does not render philosophical grammatical classes, rather it ignores them, and when it meets them, it destroys them; which is to say, that the philosophy of language is one and the same as the philosophy of the poetical and the artistic, with the science of intuition-expression, and with aesthetics…” (Croce, Aesthetica in nuce, 1935, p 26).
Having established that much it becomes almost superfluous to remember that language should be understood as any form of expression, even the most simple gesture of a primitive man, since with such a gesture he expresses a particular gesture of his particular individual reality. Expressivity, which is always creative and imaginative even when it is very elementary, is constituent of a common element of every artistic expression, of every language, of painting, of sculpture, from geometry to cinematographic expression, and so on. This is what Croce derives from ancient philosophic tradition, from Vico to Humboldt, which intersects modern linguistic as thematized by Sapir.
A fundamental aspect of Crocean thought is that there is no expressive aspect of human life which is not in some way tied to art. In order for philosophy and science to express themselves they must individuate themselves. Even the most abstract and universal logical reasoning must be expressed, must find words, signs, particular symbols. As Croce puts it: “The concept has the character of expressivity, which is to say it is a descriptive work and as such it must be expressed or spoken; it is not a dumb act of the spirit, as a practical action would be in itself. To put to a first test the effective possession of a concept we can use an experiment which I have advised on another occasion: invite anyone who claims to possess it to express it with words or other means of expression (graphic symbols or similar things). If the interlocutor refuses to do so claiming that his concept is so deep that words cannot translate it, one can be sure that either he is deluding himself that he is in possession of a concept and in reality he possesses only nebulous phantasms or pieces of ideas, which is to say that such a deep concept is only vaguely grasped or at most it has begun to be formed but in reality he has no possession of it” (Logica come scienza del concetto puro, 1905, p. 26).
A philosophical or scientific idea (even the coldest or driest), when it is well expressed (that is to say, if has scientific or philosophical validity) has its own style, as Croce asserts or as all those who distinguish the style of Galileo or Newton, of Aristotle or Hegel, well know.
Croce’s Aesthetics concludes with those words: “These observations ought to be enough to demonstrate that all scientific problems are the same as those of aesthetics, and the mistakes and the truth of one are the same as those of the other. The reason that linguistics and aesthetics seem two different sciences is due to the fact that with the first one we think of grammar, or a mixture of philosophy and grammar, or an arbitrary mnemonic outline, not a rational science or a pure philosophy of speech. Grammar, or what is certain in the grammatical, generates prejudice in the mind, given that the reality of speech consists of isolated words that can be combined, and not in living speeches, in expressive organisms which are rationally indivisible.
Linguists and glottologists with philosophical talent who have best deepened the issues of linguistics, are in the condition of a workers in a tunnel (to use an abuse but effective image): at a certain point they need to be able to hear the voice of their fellow workers, i.e., the philosophers of Aethetics, which have begun on the other side, a certain grade of scientific elaboration, linguistics, in as much as it is philosophy, it must join with aesthetics; a joining that in fact leaves no residues” (Estetica, 1935, p. 71).
Thus ends one of the most celebrated philosophy books of the 20th century, a book that is loved and hated, discussed or despised, a book which has influenced generations upon generations of scholars, not only within philosophy, but perhaps even more in literary, musical, artistic criticism. A book which reveals tracts of extreme modernity, as well as some residue of 19th century philosophy. But throughout its theme, one can always detect the preoccupation of conferring to art an autonomous value which is due to it within the intricate journey of life. Which is the equivalent of declaring art’s absolute freedom.