Italy, philosophy in

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N028-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. The twentieth century

In the early twentieth century, Italian philosophy was dominated by a lively anti-positivist controversy, led by Idealist, Marxist and by Pragmatic thinkers. The major figures of neo-Idealism were Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile, both committed to reforming Hegelianism. Initially close to Marxism, Croce later embraced a philosophy of Spirit clearly of Hegelian stamp. For the triad of the dialectic movement (thesis, antithesis and synthesis), Croce substituted a dialectic of opposites articulated in four distinct categories: aesthetics, theoretics, economics and ethics. The first two make up theoretical activity, the others the practical (Logica come scienza del concetto puro (Logic as the science of pure concept) (1905); Filosofia della pratica, economia e etica (Philosophy of practice, economics and ethics) (1909)). The distinct categories are mutually irreducible, though they are not independent. Croce is especially famous for his aesthetic theory, outlined in Estetica come scienza dell’espressione e Linguistica generale (Aesthetics as the science of expression and general linguistics) (1902), which was founded on the identification of both intuition and expression. He also provoked philosophical debate through the journal La Critica, a forum for cultural, civil and social discussion which was open to European influences.

If the Idealism of Croce is characterized by a devaluation of scientific thought (whose concepts he regarded as ‘pseudo-concepts’), the Idealism of Giovanni Gentile classified science in the dogmatic manner of Fichte. The reform of Hegelianism proposed by Gentile in his Teoria generale dello spirito come atto puro (General theory of the spirit as pure act) (1916) and Sistema di logica (System of logic) (1917–22) eliminates any presupposition (both logic and philosophy of nature) of the life of the spirit. The life of the spirit is consequently reduced to pure act – beyond the actuality of thought there is nothing. As in Fichte, the ego is self-creation. Whereas Croce viewed philosophy as history in a wide sense (economic, political and so on), for Gentile philosophy is merely the history of thought, it is the history of philosophy and the history of the spirit is its own education. As Minister for Education in the Fascist Government Gentile had enormous influence on Italian culture. He was instrumental in the education reforms of 1924 and directed the Enciclopedia Italiana, one of the greatest productions of Italian culture from that time. Gentile’s involvement with Fascism, however, caused a bitter rift with Croce, who had distanced himself from Mussolini. Similarly, Piero Martinetti was strongly anti-Fascist. He reinterpreted Kant’s philosophy in Platonic and Spiritualistic terms and, arguing against positivism, he maintained the superiority of a philosophy whose result is faith, which he regarded as the most radical fruit of reason. Giovanni Vailati also argued against positivism: his pragmatism is independent of the corresponding American movement and is original in its attention to language through the study of semantic and syntactic structure, and the demand for logical rigour as a tool for conceptual clarification.

The prevailing climate of Idealism at the beginning of the twentieth century meant that Marxism had little support in Italy. It is thanks to Antonio Labriola that the philosophies of Marx and Engels became known, thereby opening a debate with Positivism and Idealism. A pupil of Spaventa, Labriola developed a philosophy whose central element is a social psychology which considers the ego not in an abstract sense but in the context of its historical condition. Only after the Second World War did Marxism permeate cultural life more deeply due to the publication of the works of Antonio Gramsci. A vigorous opponent of Fascism and a founder of the Italian Communist Party, Gramsci was imprisoned and wrote the majority of his works while thus incarcerated. These were published posthumously under the title Quaderni dal carcere (Notebooks from Prison) (1948–51). His philosophy is a philosophy of practice – in opposition to the speculative historicism of Croce, it eliminates all transcendency and thus is absolute Historicism and Humanism. The intellectual is not separated from the rest of society (a renaissance ideal still valid for Croce and Gentile), but rooted in it, an ‘organic intellectual’ with a fundamental role to play in the revolution. Gramsci reversed the Marxist relation between structure and superstructure. He regarded it as the duty of intellectuals to guide the masses to the revolution, to permeate civilian society, and to undertake a role of cultural hegemony in the awareness that the Party is the ‘modern Prince’. Unlike Machiavelli, for Gramsci this prince is merely a body expressing a collective will. The influence of Lenin is evident in the demand for a synthesis between theory and practice, the duty to inaugurate a new society falling on intellectuals and on the Party (see Lenin, V.I.).

After the Second World War, Italian philosophy became more open to contemporary European culture, especially to German phenomenology and hermeneutic existentialism. This phase was dominated by the Turin school, where some of the major present-day Italian philosophers taught or were educated. Nicola Abbagnano was among the first Italians to develop existentialist themes, but was also known for his historical studies on ancient scepticism and Hume. His ‘positive’ existentialism, which is strongly influenced by Dewey’s Pragmatism, regards existence as a possibility or project within a finite horizon. The existentialism of Luigi Pareyson has personal and hermeneutical elements as outlined in his Verità e Interpretazione (Truth and interpretation) (1970): the human person is an organ of truth, which is interpretation, although not exhausting itself in interpretation. These themes were developed towards a theory of ‘formativeness’ in Pareyson’s aesthetics, whereby artistic activity becomes object and manner of its own action (Estetica, Teoria della formatività (Aesthetics: A Theory of Formativeness) (1954)). The final phase of his philosophy is strongly religious, offering a meditation on mythical and revelatory language.

Norberto Bobbio, a political philosopher initially closer to phenomenology, has moved towards Anglo-American trends, from the analytical philosophy expressed in his Giusnaturalismo e positivismo giuridico (Natural law doctrine and legal positivism) (1964) to the formalism of Kelsen which he revised in a functionalist manner more appropriate to the description of democratic societies in Dalla struttura alla funzione (From structure to function) (1977). Well-known for his anti-Fascist views and for his civic commitment (he was made a senator for life), Bobbio represents a new spirit of enlightenment. He has contributed to widening the horizons of political studies in Italy, freeing them from Idealism, and has contributed greatly to the theory of law with works such as Teoria della norma giuridica (Legal Theory) (1968), La teoria delle forme di governo(Theory of the forms of government) (1976), and Destra e sinistra (Right and left) (1994).

The founder of the phenomenological school in Italy is Enzo Paci whose thought centres mainly on Husserl’s ideas, trying to bridge the gap between the categorial and pre-categorial world. Umberto Eco, a pupil of Pareyson and professor of semiotics at Bologna, is well-known not only as a philosopher but also as a writer (Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose) is his most famous novel). Applying Pareyson’s aesthetic theories to modern art, Eco has developed a semiological theory which sees meaning as indefinite and open (Opera aperta (Open Work) (1962)), which does not mean absent, as he particularly points out in his recent works against American deconstructionism, including I limiti della interpretazione (The Limits of Interpretation) (1990).

Another pupil of Pareyson is Gianni Vattimo, a professor in Turin and Italy’s most important representative of hermeneutic philosophy based on Heidegger and Gadamer. In works such as La fine della modernità (The end of modernity) (1985), Vattimo regards hermeneutics as the philosophy consequent upon the end of metaphysics and modernity. The acknowledgement of the end of foundational systems is seen to bring a liberating and emancipating effect (La società trasparente (Transparent society) (1989)). His hermeneutic way of thinking follows Nietzsche and Heidegger: Pensiero debole (Weak Thought) (1983) posits the end of the stable structure of being, noting that any relation to being is within linguistic boundaries which are historically determined.

The philosophies of Emanuele Severino and Massimo Cacciari (both professors at Venice) are developed on original lines. Severino criticizes the nihilism of Western philosophy which, by reducing being to nothing (going from being to becoming), creates a philosophical justification for its project of domination, whose final outcome is technology (Essenza del nichilismo (The Essence of Nihilism) (1972)). Against this tendency Severino proposes a return to Parmenides, to an ontology of identity that unmasks the illusion of becoming and makes it possible to act free from domination. Through an original interpretation of Nietzsche, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, Cacciari sees in ‘negative thought’ (technology and conventionalism) the origin of the modern crisis of foundations, whose outcome is disenchantment and whose theoretical premises are found in the religious tradition of the West. His works include Krisis (1976), L’angelo necessario (The necessary angel) (1986), and Dell’inizio (On origins) (1990).

Italian philosophy has always considered philosophical movements and fields such as empiricism, analytical philosophy, logic and philosophy of science to be of minor importance, its strong humanist and historical tradition aligning more with French and German thought. This has become less true in recent times. The example of Ludovico Geymonat, who held the first chair of Philosophy of Science in Milan, is indicative. Having studied with Reichenbach, Schlick and Carnap, Geymonat developed an epistemological theory sensitive to the historical evolution of science, attempting to bridge the traditional gap between humanist and scientific culture. His studies of Galileo and of philosophical and scientific thought are also directed to this end.

Citing this article:
Chiurazzi, Gaetano. The twentieth century. Italy, philosophy in, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N028-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Searches


Related Articles