The Problem of the Soul and its Faculties in Benedetto Croce’s Philosophy
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
(Translated from the Italian by Emanuel L. Paparella)


After the long detailed analysis of Croce’s thought within the context of Christianity by Fr. Ambrogio Manno titled Beyond Benedetto Croce, it is no longer possible to interpret the thought of the great Italian philosopher as that of a secular thinker, devoid of any religious spirit hermetically closed to issues pertaining to faith. This is so, not only because the same Croce has repeatedly declared the contrary, as when he calls his liberalism “a religion of freedom, or as when he expressly places himself and Western history within Christian civilization in his very famous essay Why we cannot but declare ourselves Chistians.  

The issues explored by the long research of Fr. Manno demonstrate, in fact, the problem of religiosity and therefore of faith, of God, of the soul within Croce’s thought. Even if Fr. Manno has no intention to present to us a Croce who believes in a revealed God (which would have been disrespectful toward the philosopher, for the Christian world, for the truth, he does intend to signal polemically the eventual discrepancies and, within a common construction, the possibilities of a dialogue.

There are very few other readings on Croce, that I know of, that follow this example. There is that of Caracciolo, of great merit, and even that of the secular Franchini, who reproposes the whole issue of immanence and transcendence beyond the old paradigm which places transcendence wholly absorbed by an absolute immanentism as shown by the great philosophical journeys such as that of Giordano Bruno, Spinoza, Vico, Hegel and the same Croce; all men who in the final analysis were all deeply ethically religious.

It is within this context that I would place these sundry reflections, which are in no way definitive, and even less they intend to betray, for any practical motive, the substance of the great philosopher’s thought.

In fact, there is no doubt that, were we to look at the totality of Croce’s work, at the paragraphs written in the 80s, the issue of the soul, is confronted in the classical sense of modern and contemporary philosophy,  in the guise of the first Kant, that is to say, the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason. What is negated on many occasions, is the alleged improper passage between the psychological idea of the soul and the substantial idea of the soul itself. Just as with the ontological proof of the existence of God which thought attributes to what is thought as thought, cannot legitimize, for Croce, the thought that God or the soul live their own real autonomous existence; that is to say, autonomous from thought itself. It would be enough to read, among the many controversial pages written in regard, those that are more rigorously theoretical found in his Logic, where we can retrieve a discussion of the predicate of existence, of the individual judgment and of the defining judgment.

It is difficult, up to now, to look for other hidden meanings and affirmations that are clear in their own argumentation, even though, even in this case, as in many others, there are allusions to the issue of the soul and of divinity in the Christian tradition. In his whole opus one is conscious of an oscillation between a polemical stance toward Christian Catholic literature and other stances of absolute respect, almost a nostalgia. Which proves that the same Croce would authorize the affirmation that philosophy, even when abstract and hermetically closed within the reasoning of logic, is always born, as does life itself, from passion, from individual situations historically determined.

Having said all this, we must nevertheless point out that the issue of the soul returns in Croce’s thought not only in many hermeneutical issues, critical essays, reviews, commentaries, annotations, but also at fundamental places of his philosophy. A crucial place is that where Croce discussed what he calls volitional habits, of the character of inclinations which render uniform the concrete individual of flesh and blood; even if in purely logical terms, we are able to demonstrate that the individual person is nothing else but an empirical concepts, given that real existence is not found in the person, but in the concrete actions that such a person performs as creations, be they bit or small quotidian creations.

In his Philosophy of Praxis Croce writesthat “The individual is not a monad or a real, not a soul created as a sign of a God: the individual is the historical situation of the universal spirit in every instance of time, and therefore it is the totality of the characteristics that have been produced because of the effects of historical situations.”

The above passage precludes the possibility of speaking of the soul in a transcendent mode. But that does not mean that it is wholly negated; to the contrary, the moral psychological position of Christianity is reaffirmed. For what else are those peculiar characteristics that an individual possesses from the experiences of life? As Croce puts it: “The conflicts that result as we search our tasks in life can be expressed in the words that religion has taught us as children: the words of a vocation and a particular vision that is given to each one of us in life, till the final judgment and the final goodby: Nunc dimitte servum tuum Domine.” It is this duty, or mission or vocation which constitutes the individual characteristic which, as we have seen, is and it is not the result of the historical experiences which generate the physiognomy and the character of the individual. In a few previous pages Croce had written that ““Every individual, depending on the circumstances under which he comes into the world, is naturally furnished, as the saying goes, with certain determined characteristics; others he acquires in life via events and experiences through which he goes through and the actions that he performs.” This words are somewhat ambiguous, given that Croce who is the philosopher of total historicity, is here leaving a little space to fundamental unconditioned human nature. An ambiguity which shall return in the pages of one of his greatest and faithful interpreters, Carlo Antoni, in his Comment to Croce and The Restoration of the Natural Rights.

It goes without saying that because we may accept the existence of an individual characteristic derived from nature, pre-historic, unconditioned, we still could not transfer this naturality, so to speak, to the concept of soul in a theological sense. Be that as it may, we do not intent to force the interpretation of Croce, even less we intent to change his thought. But it remains a fact, and we need to be aware of it, that even in this classical text, still not influenced by successive tragic historical events which will lead Croce to a less secular and more religious stance, we do not detect a complete foreclosure to the issue of immanence and transcendence. Indeed, this is what we are ultimately dealing whenever we set up the problem of the nexus between natural characteristics and historical characteristics which become immanent exactly because they are transcendent.

In conclusion, it could be interesting indeed (something I don’t normally do) to have recourse to a minor writing of the philosopher, which does not mean a minimal work of the same, which is, at the very least, representative of a psychological condition and is in some aspects surprising. It deals with a review to a 1923 book of a young scholar, Carlo Mazzantini. It has an emblematic title: The Hope of Immortality. This young scholar wished to recuperate vis a vis contemporary philosophy, the typical traditional positions regarding the substantiality of the soul. This is what Croce writes: “Since recently I have severely sparred with the most recent philosophical literature… I’d like to point out a small book of a young man in whom I intuit deep anxiety which is not faked, and because it is genuine it reveals a sincerity of research and discussion. Mazzinetti is bothered from the problem of the soul and individuality, and he thus re-attempts the defense of the substantiality of the soul and the individual, a defense which culminates not in unassailable certitude, but the hope of immortality.”

In a few lines Croce is here defending his philosophy, as well as that of Gentile, from the accusation leveled by the young scholar and pauses above all on a point, the point of having sinned for pride, having substituted by individual to God. And this is how Croce defends himself: “In the life of the world the individual, in whatever he thinks and does, perceives the divine process which is fulfilled in him and for him, and knows that he is nothing unless the spirit blows in him or ceases to blow. Is this pride? It seems to me that we ought to call it humility, or at the very least, modesty.” A bit further down, as it could be expected, Croce proceed to distinguish God understood as Geist, and God whom he calls “a chimera of the imagination” conceived as a transcendent reality. Thus he moves on to the discussion of the theme of immortality, having recourse to a work of Poe he designs its outline via a psychological mode, that is to say, the psychological attitude man has toward the mystery of immortality. And he concludes thus: “And how could man live, if this living, the effective concrete act of living, were nothing else than a running toward death?”

One would think that Croce has thus concluded his discussion with Mazzantini, even if with extreme courtesy and respect, a bit unusual for his polemical character. Yet, he concludes it in a different way, in some way, as mentioned, a bit surprising. He leaves open a door, and this is unequivocal, as it sometimes happens in other parts of his large work. I will therefore end with Croce’s own words which do not need any further comments: “Neverthless, I repeat, Mazzantini’s book is well worth a reading, given that its author gives proof of a vigorous philosophical genius; also because the positions he defends are indeed those that each one of us has attempted on innumerable occasions and has tried to defend at different moments of life. Critical caution forbids us to consider them forever surpassed, and invites us to rethink them, not only to refurbish our own truth with this test, not only to enrich it with new truths that sparkle at the encounter with stone, but also for the possibility (which should never be excluded), that in those new tests, those old positions may prove to be valid still and may compel us to fundamentally change our mental system. Anybody who refuses this possibility, would show himself to be a philosopher in love more with himself than with philosophy; or, to be more precise about the matter, one who does not love oneself in a good way.”


Comments and reflections by Emanuel Paparella on Ernesto Paolozzi’s presentation,
by way of a dialogue.

Thank you Ernesto for this lucid excursus into Croce’s stance on the Christian concept of the soul. I for one learned much from its intriguing aspects. Especially illuminating is the Croce review of Mazzantini’s book on the soul. You are undoubtedly right in individuating Croce’s philosophical problem with the soul’s concept as similar in some respect to Vico’s problem with the concept of Providence. They are similar, it seems to me, because they both deal with the thorny issue of the harmonization of what is transcendent and what is immanent in their thought, which may initially appear as logically mutually exclusive. That is why, I would wager, Croce’s stand on the soul remains ambiguous. As one of the first modern philosopher who discovered and promulgated Vico’s philosophy, Croce was very aware of this Vichian conundrum and thus he could not bring himself to “a complete closure of the issue of transcendence and immanence” as you well observe.

For the sake of the readers who may not be very familiar with the two philosopher’s thought allow me please a brief excursus of my own on the concept of Providence in Vico which is at the same time immanent and transcendent.

Indeed we could go all the way back to Aquinas on the perennial issue of transcendence and immanence but let’s us stay with Vico and Croce who are better situated within modernity. As you know, one of the most misunderstood concepts in Vico’s speculation is exactly that of Providence. Within Vico’s concept of Providence there are two complementary poles, namely transcendence and immanence. Some have misguidedly attempted a resolution of the antinomy by searching for the right rational middle ground, much the same as some physicists attempted to discover the elusive middle ground between the corpuscular and the wave theory of light without arriving at a resolution of the paradox that is light. Ultimately quantum mechanics showed us the way. It is not a question of either/or but one of both/and.

The way lies in returning to origins, for as Vico points out, doctrines must begin at the beginning of the matter of which they treat. Intuitive knowledge is surely one approach to truth just as valid as rationality. Both Vico and Croce were convinced of this. It is not trendy, in the relativistic times in which we live, to speak of ultimate beliefs and values, or of the autonomy of truth from power and human volition. On the other hand it is not in vogue either to oppose to an abstract rational vision of reality the concrete world of art, music, poetry, history.

The power of abstract reasoning, since Descartes and the Enlightenment, is still seen as the supreme achievement of Man. And yet it is precisely this cold, calculating reason that needs to be humanized by harmonizing it to the passions, the sentiments, intuition, myth, imagination. Some have seen the solution in the Nietzschean alternative but, as already argued in our previous issues of the Ovi symposium, such a road goes around in circles and leads nowhere.

Vico was in the middle of two views: one about to die, and the other yet to be born. Croce had brilliantly intuited at the beginning of the 20th century that Vico was the hinge between ancient and modern aesthetics. Where Croce may have gone astray was in seeing Vico as a precursor of Hegelian idealism to then subsume him under his own theory of aesthetics. But the fact remains that even without a Hegel Vico was the first to understand the function of myth in history and its importance for human creativity.

It is Vico who discovered that myth is the first form which truth assumes in revealing itself. It is nothing less than the first historicization of the Eternal. Theologically, that is what the Incarnation is all about. From this historical event understood philosophically issue logic, morality, economy, politics. For Vico myth is the sign of the first transition from the bestial to the rational and contains religious reverberations even when it appears contrary to religion. Croce understood this too, hence the ambiguity and the nostalgia for the religious notions he had learned as a child which you mention in your presentation. For, indeed myth is the veil of transcendence appearing under the form of the particular in a concrete historical moment and in which the whole of reality manifests itself.

For Vico myth is an “imaginative universal” which expresses historically the development from poetic wisdom to rational wisdom. It is a religious truth manifesting itself as a “perturbed imagination.” What is at work here is a complementary movement of the Divine coming down into the human and, vice versa, of the human aspiring to the Divine; finitum quod tendit ad infinitum, that is to say, the principle of complementarity: two seemingly contradictory poles paradoxically related and complementary of the same reality. At its primordial origins Being confronts primitive man (that Vico calls the bestione, a wild creature with little if any reflexive mode of thought) who becoming aware of the phenomenon reacts in fear with a gesture or a scream. Something is born with that scream! A scream, in fact, usually heralds human birth. Nobody is born philosophizing. Next, the “bestione” articulates words to express a vision and a myth is born. Within that myth resides the primordial objective voice of Providence to which the bestione had originally reacted.

Thus we have reached the crux of the paradoxical complementarity of transcendence/immanence in Vico’s concept of providence to which are assigned two complementary poles: pole n. 1, transcendence: God understood as a transcendent reality with ontological existence underpinning the whole of creation, including Man’s nature. Pole n. 2, immanence: the representation (arrived through fantasia and reason) of a providential divinity operating in human affairs through chance and accident. Those poles are complementary.

A useful metaphor for the elucidation of complementarity within such a concept is that of the olive tree: depending on the direction of the wind the tree will appear either green or silver. Actually it is both green and silver since its leaves are green on one side and silver on the other. To perceive only one color is indeed to miss half of the reality of the olive tree. Donald Phillip Verene also uses the metaphor of a tree to characterize Vico’s dialogic language. In his Vico’s Science of Imagination he writes that “Vico’s ‘New Science’ demonstrates the importance of a language that can preserve opposition without resolution. In this sense it is a true language of humanity whose actual life is not that of the category…What is lost in the fatigue of history…is the language that can speak in two ways at once, that can produce both the mute imitation and the monosyllabic interjection. This language that originally gives life to the whole is not monologic. It is dialogic, reflecting the opposition of the branches of the tree which themselves reflect the duality of mind” (p. 219). Verene is saying that in a rational era like ours, when imagination is weakest, this dialogic character of language (that is to say, a language that can encompass opposite and even contradictory statements) is usually lost sight of. Imagination is then narrowed to the mere aesthetic. The question here arises: did Croce perform such an operation with Vico’s “fantasia”? This a problem with which I contend in my Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University (1989). I have since changed my views on Croce’s stance in the matter, in part due to the reading of your lucid expositions of Croce’s philosophy. There is indeed much more affinity between the two Neapolitan philosophers than used to be surmised.

Examining more closely those two complementary poles we notice that in the first place the immanent pole of the concept of providence produces two effects: 1) it reveals the mental level reached by primitive man, and 2) it is a means (named guisa by Vico) used by Providence to persuade man to return to his natural good, i.e., social life. If we keep in mind the distinction  between cause and occasion, it follows that this idea of divinity (i.e., the second immanent meaning of providence) could not possibly have arisen in primitive man’s conscience unless God had been at the origin of man’s being and had placed within man’s conscience a religious structure which, even when corrupted, remains alive as fire under the ashes.

Thunder is this occasion which allows the reemergence of the idea of divinity. In Biblical language they are called chance and accident. When Providence as a transcendent ontological reality operates through man’s conscience, it avails itself of the common notions of eternal truth, namely the idea of a providential divinity. Those are two poles of the same concept which to the logical mind appears as a paradox. What needs to be done is to reorient one’s thinking and see the two poles as complementary of the same reality: while it is true that through chance and accidents the idea of providence brings man back to God, it is equally true that Providence uses this providential idea immanent within human history to bring man back to his own good. The reader should take particular note of the frontispiece to Vico’s New Science which reveals the eye of Divine Providence in the left upper corner from which proceeds wisdom and knowledge and philosophy itself.

While providence operates through natural ways and means and reveals itself immanent within human reality, it nevertheless remains a sign of divine order even within such an immanent revelation, for as Vico renders it “without order (which is to say, without God) human society cannot stand for a moment” (SN, 1100). In Vico there is always the presupposition of a creation prior to the mind. Man is never the exclusive protagonist of history as idealists and/or positivists logically assert after jettisoning the pole of the transcendent from Vico’s concept of providence. Croce never does that altogether although he struggles with the antinomy. Within idealism, in fact, more often than not Vico’s concept of providence is reduced to nothing more than a sort of Hegelian human rationality or “natural necessity” or merely impersonal forces branded as “the irony of history.” Thus Vico is distorted and subsumed under what is purported to be a more advanced idealistic paradigm. What is lost sight of is the complementarity inherent in Vico’s dialogic language.

Vico, and Croce too, and please correct me if I am wrong, seem to see within history a ceaseless dialectical effort to lower the transcendent within the human and to raise the human to the transcendent. There is no hard and fast assigning of priorities and no ultimate synthesis. Throughout the New Science oppositions are preserved without any resolution. I think the same applies to Croce progressive aesthetic philosophy Man’s mind remains both a symbol and an instrument of God’s mind. Therefore, the idea of providence as generated by Man’s mind is both the idea he has of it (immanence) and the revelation through this idea of something, better still, of Someone who transcends that idea (transcendence). In Vico there is Plato (the universal) on one end of the pole of providence, but there is also Tacitus (the contingent facts of history) on the other end held together in a complementary relationship.

Vico’s providence operates through the human heart and human events and is not dissimilar from the Biblical concept of providence as revealed in Joseph’s story. In fact, Western man’s historical consciousness of which Vico is the father, issues from Biblical historical consciousness. The transcendent Being who is the ground of the human mind is the same Being who made the nature from which the human mind evolves. Sagan is correct in that respect: we are made of the stuff of the stars. Where he wholly misses the point is in not being able to discern, as Dante certainly could, that God made those stars in the first place and that his loving care keeps them moving; that as Vico points out, since the human world of nations has not come about by mere chance (it being an occasion utilized by Providence), being is none other than God.

It can be concluded that Vico is the precursor of a tradition that, while remaining grounded in Platonism, searches for the relation between absolute values (Plato’s Republic) and the world of contingency (which Vico calls rather descriptively “the feces of Romulus”). Transcendence is to be located in the immanence of the temple of the human conscience. The Cartesian scientific paradigm insists in seeing this nexus as an unbridgeable antinomy, as a paradox of sort. But it is precisely this paradox that appeals to contemporary man, disillusioned as he is with neat dispassionate and abstract theories of knowledge and ideologies reducing Man to a cog in economic-social schemes. This disappointed man is acutely aware that what is urgently needed is a mode of thought that is both more human and more existentially related to life’s experiences and the transcendent concerns of his humanity. I think that Croce too was aware of the acute disappointment of modern technological man and therefore he could not bring himself to oppose the resurgent argument on the defense of the soul of a Carlo Mazzantini, as you well explain in your presentation.

I remain confident that this perennial and crucial dialogue about the harmonization of reason and faith will be an ongoing one in the pages of the Ovi symposium. We active participants invite the readership, the editorial staff and other Ovi contributors to join the dialogue by participating in it indirectly via public or private comments. Those comments can be personal and subjective or they can be rigorously objective and scholarly. I think we have provided plenty of examples of this dialogue between faith and reason. It is a crucial dialogue impinging on our humanity. The practicing of a religious orthodoxy is not a requirement for it; it may not even be desirable, for religious fanatics do not usually make good philosophers. What is simply required is a love of ideas, for philosophy, and a passion for the search for Truth.