Croce, Benedetto (1866–1952)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD015-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

2. Aesthetics

Croce’s aesthetics were tied both to his activity as a literary critic, which was copious, and developments in his general philosophy. He confessed to having no appreciation of music and wrote comparatively little on architecture or the figurative arts, leading some commentators to suggest that his theory is biased towards poetry. As the major influences on his own thinking, he claimed Francesco De Sanctis, whose La storia della letteratura italiana (History of Italian Literature) (1870–1) he continued through to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and Giambattista Vico, whose aesthetic thought he first brought to prominence.

Commentators commonly identify four phases within Croce’s aesthetic doctrine, roughly corresponding to changes in his philosophy, although opinions differ over their compatibility with each other. The first phase, associated with the Aesthetic of 1902, consists of Croce’s identification of art with intuition. His main targets were positivist or empiricist theories, on the one hand, and intellectualist or rationalist views on the other. Against the first, he claimed that feeling and emotion have to be expressed to have any existence, and that this is a cognitive process. Against the second, he distinguished logical from intuitive knowledge. Whereas the former works through concepts and deals with universal relations between things, the latter is obtained through images of particular things. Adopting a Herbartian reading of Kant, he argued that we organize the world of experience and sensation through the intuitive faculty of the imagination that gave expression to them. Form and content, intuition and expression were identical. That which was not expressed had not been intuited and remained ‘a mere natural fact’. The logical categorization of this intuitive knowledge was a subsequent stage. He also contended that the theoretical activity of the imagination was distinct from any practical or ethical purpose. True art, therefore, was concerned neither with the True, the Useful or the Good – an argument he deployed against the Italian verismo school of naturalist writers influenced by Emile Zola.

The second phase of Croce’s aesthetics came with his theory of the lyrical nature of art. First enunciated in an article of 1908, and subsequently elaborated in the Breviario di estetica (The Essence of Aesthetic) (1913), this doctrine attempted to specify further just what artistic expression consisted of: namely the lyrical intuition of ‘intense feelings’ or emotions. Such feelings, he still insisted, could not be described in sensationist terms, but could only be expressed through images. For analogous reasons, he also rejected romantic theories that treated art as no more than a spontaneous outpouring of emotion. Art is a spiritual activity that transforms our bare animal existence. However, he continued to distinguish the images of intuition from the categories of logical thought, and he criticized the artificial canons and rules of classical theorists for ignoring this fact.

While distinct from either philosophy or practice, art was related to them. Drawing on his contemporaneous revision of Hegel and the resulting thesis that spirit evolved via a dialectic of distincts rather than of opposites, Croce argued that intuition tends to give way to perception and so to conceptual thought or judgment. Furthermore, such knowledge leads us to take up a new attitude to life and so affects our practice. This new will in its turn solicits new passions and feelings that find expression in a new lyric and fresh art, constituting a process which Croce termed the ‘circle of spirit’, in which each moment is both independent and dependent, condition and conditioned.

The third phase of Croce’s aesthetics builds on this thesis by insisting on the ‘cosmic’ or ‘universal’ character of art. Put forward in his article ‘Il carattere di totalità dell’espressione artistica’ (The Totality of Artistic Expression) (1918a), this doctrine served to underline the cognitive aspect of his theory by stressing that as an aspect of spirit ‘every genuine artistic representation is itself and is the universe, the universe in that individual form’ (1926: 122). However, intuition formed only a part of the ‘circle of spirit’, and he rebutted criticisms of mysticism or aestheticism which accused him of reducing all knowledge to artistic intuition. Nevertheless, at this time Croce tended to reify spirit and treat human activity as a mere manifestation of its unfolding, a position he later rectified. Croce illustrated his argument in studies of Goethe (1919a), Ariosto, Shakespeare, Corneille (1920) and La poesia di Dante (The Poetry of Dante) (1921).

The final phase was signalled by La poesia (1936). Croce regarded this book as incorporating all the subsequent revisions of his aesthetic theory and replacing the Aesthetic of 1902. He argued that there were four types of ‘expression’: the ‘sentimental or immediate’, the ‘poetic’, the ‘prosaic’ and the ‘rhetorical’. True poetry, he argued, only arose when these types originated from a ‘lyrical expression’ and had no ulterior utilitarian, moral or philosophical purpose. When lyricism was absent, one had literature, which he further subdivided into the sentimental, moralistic, entertaining or instructive.

Citing this article:
Bellamy, Richard. Aesthetics. Croce, Benedetto (1866–1952), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD015-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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