Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, by Benedetto Croce

Benedetto Croce

Benedetto Croce



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Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, by Benedetto Croce

Benedetto Croce

(February 25, 1866 – November 20, 1952) (pronounced “CROW-chay”) was an Italian critic, idealist philosopher, and politician. He wrote on numerous topics, including philosophy of history and aesthetics, and was a prominent liberal, although he opposed laissez-faire free trade. His influence on Antonio Gramsci is quite notable.
Croce was born in Pescasseroli in the Abruzzo region of Italy. He came from an influential and wealthy family, and was raised in a very strict Catholic environment. Around the age of 18, he turned away from Catholicism and became an atheist, remaining so for the rest of his life. In 1883, an earthquake hit the village of Casamicciola, Ischia, where he was on holiday with his family, destroying the home they lived in. His mother, father, and only sister were all killed, while he was buried for a very long time and barely survived. After the incident he inherited his family’s fortune and was able to live the rest of his life in relative leisure, enabling him to devote a great deal of time to philosophy. As his fame increased, many pushed him, against his wishes, to go into politics. He was made Minister of Public Education, and later moved to the Italian Senate, a lifelong position. He was an open critic of Italy’s participation in World War I, feeling that it was a suicidal trade war. Though this made him initially unpopular, his reputation was restored after the war and he became a well-loved public figure. He was also instrumental in the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III’s move to the Palazzo Reale in 1923.

Though Benedetto Croce initially supported Benito Mussolini’s Fascist government (1922-24)[1], eventually he openly opposed the Fascist Party[2], he remained so till his death in 1952.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)


Aesthetic ideas in Graeco-Roman antiquity–In the Middle Age and at the Renaissance–Fermentation of thought in the seventeenth century–Aesthetic ideas in Cartesianism, Leibnitzianism, and in the “Aesthetic” of Baumgarten–G.B. Vico–Aesthetic doctrines in the eighteenth century–Emmanuel Kant–The Aesthetic of Idealism with Schiller and Hegel–Schopenhauer and Herbart–Friedrich Schleiermacher–The philosophy of language with Humboldt and Steinthal–Aesthetic in France, England, and Italy during the first half of the nineteenth century–Francesco de Sanctis–The Aesthetic of the epigoni–Positivism and aesthetic naturalism–Aesthetic psychologism and other recent tendencies–Glance at the history of certain particular doctrines–Conclusion.


There are always Americas to be discovered: the most interesting in Europe.

I can lay no claim to having discovered an America, but I do claim to have discovered a Columbus. His name is Benedetto Croce, and he dwells on the shores of the Mediterranean, at Naples, city of the antique

Croce’s America cannot be expressed in geographical terms. It is more important than any space of mountain and river, of forest and dale. It belongs to the kingdom of the spirit, and has many provinces. That province which most interests me, I have striven in the following pages to annex to the possessions of the Anglo-Saxon race; an act which cannot be blamed as predatory, since it may be said of philosophy more truly than of love, that “to divide is not to take away.”

The Historical Summary will show how many a brave adventurer has navigated the perilous seas of speculation upon Art, how Aristotle’s marvellous insight gave him glimpses of its beauty, how Plato threw away its golden fruit, how Baumgarten sounded the depth of its waters, Kant sailed along its coast without landing, and Vico hoisted the Italian flag upon its shore.

But Benedetto Croce has been the first thoroughly to explore it, cutting his way inland through the tangled undergrowth of imperfect thought. He has measured its length and breadth, marked out and described its
spiritual features with minute accuracy. The country thus won to philosophy will always bear his name, “Estetica di Croce”, a new America.

It was at Naples, in the winter of 1907, that I first saw the Philosopher of Aesthetic. Benedetto Croce, although born in the Abruzzi, Province of Aquila (1866), is essentially a Neapolitan, and rarely remains long absent from the city, on the shore of that magical sea, where once Ulysses sailed, and where sometimes yet (near Amalfi) we may hear the Syrens sing their song. But more wonderful than the song of any Syren seems to me the Theory of Aesthetic as the Science of Expression, and that is why I have overcome the obstacles that stood between me and the giving of this theory, which in my belief is the truth, to the English-speaking world.

No one could have been further removed than myself, as I turned over at Naples the pages of “La Critica”, from any idea that I was nearing the solution of the problem of Art. All my youth it had haunted me. As an
undergraduate at Oxford I had caught the exquisite cadence of Walter Pater’s speech, as it came from his very lips, or rose like the perfume of some exotic flower from the ribbed pages of the “Renaissance”.

Seeming to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, he solved it not–only delighted with pure pleasure of poetry and of subtle thought as he led one along the pathways of his Enchanted Garden, where I shall always love to tread.

Oscar Wilde, too, I had often heard at his best, the most brilliant talker of our time, his wit flashing in the spring sunlight of Oxford luncheon-parties as now in his beautiful writings, like the jewelled rapier of Mercutio. But his works, too, will be searched in vain by the seeker after definite aesthetic truth.

With A.C. Swinburne I had sat and watched the lava that yet flowed from those lips that were kissed in youth by all the Muses. Neither from him nor from J.M. Whistler’s brilliant aphorisms on art could be gathered
anything more than the exquisite pleasure of the moment: the “monochronos haedonae”. Of the great pedagogues, I had known, but never sat at the feet of Jowett, whom I found far less inspiring than any of the great men above mentioned. Among the dead, I had studied Herbert Spencer and Matthew Arnold, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Guyau: I had conversed with that living Neo-Latin, Anatole France, the modern Rousseau, and had enjoyed the marvellous irony and eloquence of his writings, which, while they delight the society in which he lives, may well be one of the causes that lead to its eventual destruction.

The solution of the problem of Aesthetic is not in the gift of the Muses.

To return to Naples. As I looked over those pages of the bound volumes of “La Critica”. I soon became aware that I was in the presence of a mind far above the ordinary level of literary criticism. The profound studies of Carducci, of d’Annunzio, and of Pascoli (to name but three), in which those writers passed before me in all their strength and in all their weakness, led me to devote several days to the “Critica”. At the end of that time I was convinced that I had made a discovery, and wrote to the philosopher, who owns and edits that journal.

In response to his invitation, I made my way, on a sunny day in November, past the little shops of the coral-vendors that surround, like a necklace, the Rione de la Bellezza, and wound zigzag along the over-crowded Toledo. I knew that Signor Croce lived in the old part of the town, but had hardly anticipated so remarkable a change as I experienced on passing beneath the great archway and finding myself in old Naples. This has already been described elsewhere, and I will not here dilate upon this world within a world, having so much of greater interest to tell in a brief space. I will merely say that the costumes here seemed more picturesque, the dark eyes flashed more dangerously than elsewhere, there was a quaint life, an animation about the streets, different from anything I had known before. As I climbed the lofty stone steps of the Palazzo to the floor where dwells the philosopher of Aesthetic I felt as though I had stumbled into the eighteenth century and were calling on Giambattista Vico. After a brief inspection by a young man with the appearance of a secretary, I was told that I was expected, and admitted into a small room opening out of the hall.
Thence, after a few moments’ waiting, I was led into a much larger room.
The walls were lined all round with bookcases, barred and numbered, filled with volumes forming part of the philosopher’s great library. I had not long to wait. A door opened behind me on my left, and a rather
short, thick-set man advanced to greet me, and pronouncing my name at the same time with a slight foreign accent, asked me to be seated beside him. After the interchange of a few brief formulae of politeness in French, our conversation was carried on in Italian, and I had a better opportunity of studying my host’s air and manner. His hands he held clasped before him, but frequently released them, to make those vivid gestures with which Neapolitans frequently clinch their phrase. His most remarkable feature was his eyes, of a greenish grey: extraordinary eyes, not for beauty, but for their fathomless depth, and for the sympathy which one felt welling up in them from the soul beneath. This was especially noticeable as our conversation fell upon the question of Art and upon the many problems bound up with it. I do not know how long that first interview lasted, but it seemed a few minutes only, during which was displayed before me a vast panorama of unknown height and headland, of league upon league of forest, with its bright-winged birds of thought flying from tree to tree down the long avenues into the dim blue vistas of the unknown.

I returned with my brain awhirl, as though I had been in fairyland, and when I looked at the second edition of the “Estetica”, with his inscription, I was sure of it.

These lines will suffice to show how the translation of the “Estetica” originated from the acquaintance thus formed, which has developed into friendship. I will now make brief mention of Benedetto Croce’s other work, especially in so far as it throws light upon the “Aesthetic”.
For this purpose, besides articles in Italian and German reviews, I have made use of the excellent monograph on the philosopher, by G. Prezzolini.[1]

First, then, it will be well to point out that the “Aesthetic” forms part of a complete philosophical system, to which the author gives the general title of “Philosophy of the Spirit.” The “Aesthetic” is the first of the three volumes. The second is the “Logic”, the third the “Philosophy of the Practical”.

In the “Logic”, as elsewhere in the system, Croce combats that false conception, by which natural science, in the shape of psychology, makes claim to philosophy, and formal logic to absolute value. The thesis of the “pure concept” cannot be discussed here. It is connected with the logic of evolution as discovered by Hegel, and is the only logic which contains in itself the interpretation and the continuity of reality.
Bergson in his “L’Evolution Creatrice” deals with logic in a somewhat similar manner. I recently heard him lecture on the distinction between spirit and matter at the College de France, and those who read French and Italian will find that both Croce’s “Logic” and the book above mentioned by the French philosopher will amply repay their labour. The conception of nature as something lying outside the spirit which informs it, as the non-being which aspires to being, underlies all Croce’s thought, and we find constant reference to it throughout his philosophical system.

With regard to the third volume, the “Philosophy of the Practical”, it is impossible here to give more than a hint of its treasures. I merely refer in passing to the treatment of the will, which is posited as a unity “inseparable from the volitional act”. For Croce there is no difference between action and intention, means and end: they are one thing, inseparable as the intuition-expression of Aesthetic. The “Philosophy of the Practical” is a logic and science of the will, not a normative science. Just as in Aesthetic the individuality of expression made models and rules impossible, so in practical life the individuality of action removes the possibility of catalogues of virtues, of the exact application of laws, of the existence of practical judgments and judgments of value “previous to action”.

The reader will probably ask here: But what, then, becomes of morality?
The question will be found answered in the “Theory of Aesthetic”, and I will merely say here that Croce’s thesis of the “double degree” of the practical activity, economic and moral, is one of the greatest contributions to modern thought. Just as it is proved in the “Theory of Aesthetic” that the “concept” depends upon the “intuition”, which is the first degree, the primary and indispensable thing, so it is proved in the “Philosophy of the Practical” that “Morality” or “Ethic” depends upon “Economic”, which is the “first” degree of the practical activity.
The volitional act is “always economic”, but true freedom of the will exists and consists in conforming not merely to economic, but to moral conditions, to the human spirit, which is greater than any individual.
Here we are face to face with the ethics of Christianity, to which Croce accords all honour.

This Philosophy of the Spirit is symptomatic of the happy reaction of the twentieth century against the crude materialism of the second half of the nineteenth. It is the spirit which gives to the work of art its value, not this or that method of arrangement, this or that tint or cadence, which can always be copied by skilful plagiarists: not so the _spirit_ of the creator. In England we hear too much of (natural) science, which has usurped the very name of Philosophy. The natural sciences are very well in their place, but discoveries such as aviation are of infinitely less importance to the race than the smallest addition to the philosophy of the spirit. Empirical science, with the collusion of positivism, has stolen the cloak of philosophy and must be made to give it back.

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