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Ovi Symposium; Second Meeting Ovi Symposium; Second Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2013-06-21 12:11:17
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

between Drs. Nannery, Paolozzi and Paparella

Second Meeting (20 June 2013)


Dr. Lawrence Nannery has studied at Boston College, Columbia University and at The New School for Social Research where he obtained his Ph.D. He founded The Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal and authored The Esoteric Composition of Kafka’s Corpus. Devising Nihilistic Literature, 2 vols. Mellen Press.

Dr. Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science.

Dr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press.L




 Comments by Lawrence Nannery on Ernesto Paolozzi’s First Presentation

(as presented by Ernesto Paolozzi on the first Meeting of 6 June 2013) 

Ernesto makes the claim that art is immediately intuited by all humans as human artifact, and therefore the specifica differentia of the human species. This shocked me, and I thought about for hours.  My reaction was: why did I not think of that first???

Frankly, the claim is very interesting and bold.  I reached back into my own life, and found that I had always been affected by art, from the end of Rossini's piece that we children called "The Lone Ranger song," which would play just as my mother called me to dinner every night, and to my 2-year old daughter's standing transfixed before any piece of Bach and calling it "the pretty music."

But the move of taking the issue as settled.  That is it tells us that it does not behoove us to argue about the generation of the art object, that we should try to read things backwards: i.e., the qualities found in the work should be able to tell us what the author intended to put there for us to see or hear or both.

This suspends the desire to psychologize the intention of the author.  Lord knows, there have been a whole industry in the 20th century devoted to the psychology of art.  What a waste!  Nothing was found.  And what was lost was so much more.  For example, the joy of the encounter with a great artist, whoever he or she might be, and the lingering sensation of traveling in a better or at least more consequential world than others who do not encounter the arts.

In sum, I congratulate Ernesto for an insight I had been long looking for, which is a pass to go directly to the artwork without having to stop and worry that you need it explained before you can look and enjoy. 



Response by Ernesto Paolozzi

In the first place I must say that the frank and deep observations of Larry Nannery make me happy. There is an ongoing fierce battle on my part and that of others to defend the authenticity of art and the freedom of artists. With the particular sensibility of the artist as well as that of the philosopher Nannery captures the most genuine aspect of Crocean and Vichian aesthetics. We could quote Baudelaire, Poe, Joyce (reader of Vico and Croce) of the Portrait, and so many other artists and philosophers. Indeed art is born with man in the guise of freedom. Art does not imitate and as such depends on nothing but itself. Its creation is an act of freedom. The musical sensibility of Nannery shows us how true this is when he tells us about his childhood experience mesmerized by Rossini, not a trivial author. I have known many historians of music who lacked a musical sensibility! Which is not to say that art has nothing to do with life in all its infinite expressions. Art feeds on feelings, passions, thoughts, faith in ethics as well as in politics. But it transforms these subjects and renders them autonomous and absolutely freedom vis a vis those same subjects (an ethical content becomes art and does not remain as ethics).

I am afraid that school in general and the University have gone backward in part because they seem to have lost the authentic sense of the poetic and the artistic. Just think of how many unfortunate students are compelled to perform useless studies on the psychology of art (as Nannery reminds us), on linguistic analysis, reminiscent of the studies of the old pedants at the end of the 19th century. Linguistic structuralism is in fact a new appearance of the old rhetoric and has literally sucked the blood out of the poetical discouraging young people to read poetry. Even film is now subjected to technical analysis as ends in themselves when they ought to be only a means for the proper understanding of art. What I am attempting to do is to interpret Vico’s and Croce’s aesthetics as a liberation of art, a liberation from abstract regulations which, as Giordano Bruno used to quip, are useful to pseudo artists to mimic the poetry of others. I’d like to express a heartfelt thank you to professor Paparella, professor Nannery and Ovi’s director for having granted me this opportunity.



The Rise and Decline of Music

Lawrence Nannery’s Initial Presentation to the Symposium

nannery01In considering what to address in the wide body of the cultural life of Europe in the modern era, I thought I should make some claims that I have long held about music.  I choose music because it is the profoundest of the arts, the art that affects us most deeply because it is the most beautiful and most moving of all the arts, especially for the two centuries that cover 1700 to 1900. This would include the music of J.S. Bach; Handel; Haydn; Mozart; Beethoven; and Schubert, and also a collection of at least a half dozen later composers such as Brahms, Verdi, Grieg and Tchaikovsky, and the most beautiful singing (the Opera) of all time.  These high arts were Eurocentric, but reached all the way to the Urals and included the Americas in the Western Hemisphere, and followed immigrants to all the continents of the globe.

Earlier music, grouped together as “Baroque,” had many good points, but in some ways was hostage to a lack of tonality, both in voices and in instruments.  And Bach’s “Saint John’s Passion” and the “Saint Matthew Passion” both of which are remarkable works, highly religious and serious.  But the tonality of the voice that leads these great works lacks beauty in the light of later developments, and there are deficiencies in rhythm and pacing, when compared to the music of later periods.  Luckily for Europe, there were three centuries of musical development, the progression in that period was always in an increase in expressiveness, which came to be thought of as the only value of music by some.  But it was a pardonable error, since chromatic values could be found in Bach’s work in counterpoint, an amazing achievement. 

Music in the middle of the 19th century included works by Brahms and Grieg, as well as piano geniuses such as Liszt and Chopin; and violin masters such as Paderewski]; and of course the sweep of bel canto, which is among the most beautiful music ever known, and which has dominated the stages of all the European capitals even up to today, though its heyday ended just after World War I.  

During this long period all the orchestras, choruses, and stage business grew larger and larger.  But the problem was signaled even in that, since a certain lack of delicacy crept in and the large works and casts became, in the last quarter of the century, more and more difficult to manage successfully — in short, the forms of music had grown top heavy.

There was a reason why music met a crisis towards the end of the nineteenth century.  I ascribe the softening and decline of the standards of “classical music” to the genius of Opera, Richard Wagner.  His arrogance and self-centeredness, his cheap nationalism and his decision to go another way in opera, into what he called “the Gesamtkunstwerk” viz., a work of art that included all the arts together in one work.  Even the construction of a special place to have the music played at Bayreuth was a overblown nationalistic revolt against French opera.   

As an amateur in music I refuse to delve into a study the technical details of the construction of great pieces here.  My reasoning proceeds from my ears.  I can tell what is good or bad, genuine or false, pleasing or far-fetched by simply listening.  But listening many times to most of Wagner’s oeuvre, I found that there are two major faults with all of his music.  The first is the background of the music, the mythical element, echt Deutsch that bears a grudge.  Wagner thought himself a master of all the elements of the Gesamtkunstwerk, but I feel that he did not have real mastery over all the elements.  The mythic background is very weak, and cannot carry the music because it is childish.  The gods depicted in the Ring Cycle are paltry and extremely ugly demons, without a living connection to any nation, not even Germany.  Worse, so flatulent were the libretti that even a child would not believe in any of it.  And yet, here in Bayreuth, one could see, for nearly a century, these absurd, laughable creatures bouncing around on the stage, causing mirth among those witnessing the songs that were really talking, the awful dancing of the Valkyries, rather too obese to have any erotic or military effect upon any knowledgeable audience, who generally attended to show their Germanic pride.  

The second great deficiency is the matter of staging and pace.  It was oh so slow!  How the haute bourgeois could manage to sit through it astounds me.  It also was lacking in action — remember, Opera is a drama that it sung.  In the Die Walküre, the second opera in the Ring des Nibelungen, which premiered in 1870,the main female character is smitten by a spell cast upon her, and remains on stage for no less than a half hour, just lying there, not participating, while the god and a handmaiden discuss, for all that time, how and why the Rheingold was stolen and what that meant.  Alberich, a dragon who lives at the bottom of the Rhine, has told the audience the first part of the story, in the previous opera, Das Rheingold, which premiered in 1876. The audiences were certainly poorly served by the author.  Longeurs of such magnitude should be avoided at all cost.  

The initial opening of Das Rheingold contains the worst mistake in timing I have ever experienced.  The opening overture lasts about 45 minutes, during which the audience is treated to a curtain and nothing more.  Wagner hated action on the stage.  He demanded far too much of his audiences.  

Worse, there a mortal sin was committed against the voice in the whole of the Ring Cycle.  Instead of bel canto, used to such emotional effect in Italian Opera, the words of the characters In Wagner’s works are not only not soaring and beautiful, they are below the level of ordinary speech as it tries to replace song with what can only be called croaking noises and screeching shouts.  Why is this believed to be singing by anybody?  The sounds are positively wretched imitations of animal noises, to put a fine point to it.  Only power is demanded in these works.  The titanic strength of the voices, both male and female, are unworthy because they are only strong and nothing else; emotions expressed have a total lack of depth and subtlety.  One is tempted to say the word “unworthy of the art form” itself. 

Friedrich Nietzsche was the first and the greatest supporter of Wagner in his earlier period.  He became a very able supporter of Wagner, and was in love with Wagner’s wife.  Nietzsche composed many songs himself, and promoted Wagner in his first major work, The Birth of Tragedy, in 1872.  In addition, during the same period, he published a long consideration of Wagner, entitled “Richard Wagner in Bayreuth” as part of his Untimely Meditations.

But later, with Wagner writing Parzifal, which is given over to a simpering, clearly insincere version of Christianity, Nietzsche became Wagner’s first and greatest critic.  He could just as well have parted with Wagner over The Ring of the Niebelungen.  From 1870 onwards Nietzsche penned many private reservations over Wagner’s personality and works, but he did not publish anything in that vein until he produced The Case of Wagner.  In that work he called Wagner many things, but the first was that of “an actor,” by which he meant a phony, and other remarks that showed that these works were showy, but deep down, insubstantial.  Most important, he charged Wagner with being decadent, and this stung Wagner, who cut off relations with Nietzsche.

With a genius like Nietsche behind me, I do not fear criticisms of my criticisms.

In terms of the singing, Wagner made very poor choices.  Strength of voice seems to be Wagner’s only concern.  Neither beauty nor sonority nor adornment of the voices is essayed.  In place of beauty Wagner wanted strengths that could knock down doors, based perhaps on his notion of myth, but more probably it was indulged in just in order to criticize the love of beauty of the singing in other countries.   

It seems to me that Wagner was determined to make slaves of his audiences, and to demand everything of them, even their memories of beautiful song, excising their judgment altogether, confirming their slavery in a defense that consisted of mere technicalities that are not “in tune with” one another.

In the event, this was the beginning of the end for opera, because beauty was ignored, the imagination of the composer was false to life and, more generally, stultifying in the extreme.

This set the tone for music for nearly two generations.  Gustav Mahler was heavily influenced by Wagner, and he also is revered to this day, but his works, monstrous in size, have weak structures, and even less joy.  Music in the two decades that crossed the boundaries of the old and new centuries were overripe, in my opinion, and lack discipline.

Such overblown music was challenged early in the new century, even before the music, which was generally at a low level, spinning their wheels so to speak, but in the first decade of the 20th century the academic world began to dictate that music that was musical was passé, and that it should be reconstructed along minimalist and purely formal lines, which is to say, purified of emotion, and therefore of meaning.  This meant unambiguously that classical music had died.  I shall discuss this in my next contribution on this subject. 



 Comments on Lawrence Nannery’s Initial Presentation by Emanuel Paparella

The above by Lawrence Nannery is an intriguing take on classical music’s stand within modernity. To speak of the decline of music is ipso facto to scrutinize the whole aesthetic patrimony of Western civilization not to speak of the idolized figure of Richard Wagner, the idol and epitome of German Romantic music.

But then, as Nannery puts it, he is not alone in that criticism, a genius such as Friedrich Nietzsche, at first a friend and collaborator with Wagner, turned out to be a severe critic of Wagner’s music, and this beyond Wagner’s obvious character flaws and his anti-Semitism. The question arises, where would a Croce place Wagner’s music in the modern aesthetic canon? Would he, like Kant make a radical distinction between aesthetic and ethical judgments?

There are unmistakable echoes of Wagner’s nemesis in Nannery’s essay, I mean of course Giuseppe Verdi who was born the very same year Wagner was born (1813). How is one to explain that four of Verdi’s operas (Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Aida and La Traviata)are among the twenty most popular operas in North America while none of Wagner’s operas are on that list? What about the emphasis on myth we detect in Wagner’s operas contrasted to the emphasis on history in Verdi’s (consider Nabucco)? Is this a difference in mere national cultures (the Renaissance cultural background of Verdi, his Catholicism rooted in the Roman Empire, contrasted to the Enlightenment/Romantic/Reformation cultural background of Wagner rooted in the mythology of the people who brought down Rome) or is there also a deep philosophical divergence which has much to do with Vichian-Crocean aesthetics?

Are we talking about two parallel musical universes or was there mutual influence as one can easily detect in Verdi’s Aida?  How to explain the fact that Verdi called Tristan und Isolde “one of the greatest creations of the human spirit”? What about Wagner proposal of “the total artwork encompassing music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts, stagecraft which in some way opera has always been? Why did Wagner call his libretti poems and philosophical tales beyond mere human passions, a la Verdi? What about his concept of pure music as an expression of metaphysical will (Schopenhauer influence is unmistakable here)? What about his strange idea that the orchestra’s role is equal to that of the singers via leitmotifs announcing characters, places and plots? That is to say pure music as illuminating the progress of the drama which to some extend Verdi does too in his Shakespearean operas Rigoletto, Othello and Falstaff.

 These are various conundrums and perplexities which will surely be further discussed and clarified in the next meetings of the symposium. I look forward to the promised sequel to this interesting essay on the status of music within modernity and to the dialogue it will undoubtedly generate.



Art as a Form of Knowledge

Ernesto Paolozzi’s Initial Presentation to the Symposium: part 2

enGranted 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, 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. But 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. Where 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 perceptionof 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 vice versa.”

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.

We could here discuss the issue presented also by Antonio Gramsci regarding canto X of Dante’s Inferno, whether or not, from a Crocean viewpoint, we can speak of a social, moral, political, economic aspect which influences artists and consequently the expressive forms. This is probably true, ma it is equally true that those social, economic, moral contents become particular  and original within the individual works of art; to wit the fact that there exist other tragedies, other poems written by persons of the same historical era, the same days, even the same hours which are profoundly different, just as every individual act  that is accomplished is always different and original. In a particular act there is no diversity between content and form just as it does not exist our life on one side and us that live it on the other, given that we are our life and our life is us. That having been said, it may be worth remembering that the two positions of contenutists and formalists are not necessarily in contradiction to each other since, after affirming the unity of form and content, it would not be illicit to utilize great works of poetry as a moral, political, philosophic document of a particular era. Even a liberal historicism such as Isaiah Berlin’s has often affirmed that to understand the meaning of an era it is better to have recourse to a works of art than to the writing of sociologists and political scientists. Aesthetic critique, which is to say the critique of the single works of art is the true proper critique of art. Which does not exclude that other kinds of critique are not possible among which that of historical character is fundamental. What is important is not to confuse them and not to place them one against the other. Not for nothing in both Croce and Gramsci one discovers both types of critiques, and it is not coincidental that in Francesco De Sanctis one may discern the greatest synthesis of aesthetic critiqueand of civil-political history.



Symposium’s Notes by the Coordinator Emanuel Paparella

“All real living is meeting”  --Martin Buber

The above is the initial presentation of Larry Nannery and second and last part of Ernesto Paolozzi’s initial presentation in the Ovi Symposium as translated from his essay titled “Art as a Form of Knowledge: Intuition, Expression, Unity of Form and Content” as it originally appeared in his 2002 book Croce’s Aesthetics. I will translate from Italian Ernesto Paolozzi’s contributions.  

As is well known, In ancient Greece, the symposium (Greek συμπόσιον symposion, from συμπίνειν sympinein, "to drink together") was a drinking party. Literary philosophical works that describe or take place at a symposium include two Socratic dialogues, Plato’s Symposium and Xenophon’s Symposium, as well as a number of Greek poems such as the elegies of Theognis of Megara. For a better visualization see the depiction of a symposium at the end of this second section of the Ovi Symposium, a fresco found in a tomb in Magna Graecia near Naples only forty years or so ago.

This virtual Ovi Symposium, whose first meeting was on 6 June 2013, as approved and encouraged by the Ovi’s editor Thanos Kalamidas, was originally envisioned and construed as one of Ovi’s regular features. As such it will appear regularly in Ovi every other Thursday. The various and varied presentations, and/or responses, and/or comments will be formatted, listed by sections and forwarded verbatim to the magazine’s editor as per alphabetical order of the contributors’ last names (i.e., Nannery, Paolozzi, Paparella). Metaphorically the symposium’s table in Ovi is envisioned as a round table with plenty of good intellectual wine passed around.

As a coordinator I will format, translate and write occasional notes and/or comments on the symposium itself; however, to ensure enthusiasm and spontaneity, I will refrain from revisions, editing, additions, deleting, censoring of any kind on my colleagues’ interventions, comments and presentations.  My function will be strictly that of a facilitator who  coordinates, translates and forwards the various interventions. Moreover, honoring the well established populist democratic Ovi tradition, there will be no prioritizing, no application of stringent rigorous ideological or academic criteria, not even a strict obligation to submit a contribution every two weeks; for at a party what ought to prevail is not the drudgery and tiring routine of the daily grind and work but spontaneity, conviviality and the sheer joy and enjoyment of a conversation among friends.

I can reassure the readers that the three symposium participants (all with an extensive background and expertise in philosophy, the humanities and the liberal arts to which they are committed) are well endowed and prepared for approaching this conversation not only with competence but also with great enthusiasm and an overall commitment to Ovi magazinein general and the Symposium in particular whose thrust, goal and overarching vision is the imagining and the theorizing of a new humanism within modernity.



Historicism-Humanism in Vico and Croce

Emanuel Paparella’s Second Presentation to the Symposium

By Way of a Response to Ernesto’s Paolozzi’s First Presentation

papIn 1989 I submitted a Ph.D. dissertation to the Yale Graduate School titled “The Paradox of Transcendence and Immanence in Vico’s Concept of Providence.” In 1993 the same dissertation was turned into a book titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of Giambattista Vico (Mellen Press, N.Y.). Croce is mentioned there no less than 15 times.

In both publications while mentioning the affinities between the two Italian thinkers and their humanistic background, I made reference to what at the time I purported to be Croce’s idealist deformation of Vico, to what I considered a tendency to subsume Vico under Hegel’s philosophy of history characterized by the assumption that conceptual thought is always superior to any other kind of thought. I argued then, and I was not the only one who so argued, that such a way of adapting or subsuming Vico leads to ignoring or missing some of the unique insights Vico had to offer, specifically in his concept of Providence which is able to encompass both the immanent and the transcendent in history.

Twenty years or so later, after a long intellectual journey, I have arrived at a slightly different interpretation and this is so in part due to Ernesto Paolozzi’s masterful elucidation of Croce’s philosophy which we have recently read in Ovi’s pages. He is currently bravely attempting nothing less than the revival of the neglected memory and of the philosophy and figure of Benedetto Croce in Italy and abroad. There is no doubt in my mind that given his genuine enthusiasm and perseverance he will eventually succeed in this worthy task.  

About a year ago Ernesto Paolozzi, who has become a good friend of mine since then, and my friend and fellow Yale alumnus Massimo Verdicchio, from the University of Alberta, cordially invited me to contribute to a memorial eulogy on Croce in the philosophical Italian journal Libro Aperto (see issue XXXIII n. 2/2012, April-June, pp. 186-190). I gladly accepted the invitation, initially thinking of offering to the journal the contrast Vico-Croce utilized in my dissertation at Yale University. In the process of doing so I arrived at a slightly revised interpretation of Croce’s philosophy which, were I to resubmit it today, I would include as an addenda to my dissertation.

In the light of what Ernesto Paolozzi has already presented to us in the initial stages of the Ovi Symposium, I’d like to share this reassessment with its readers.While not changing my mind on Vico’s concept of providence whose immanent and transcendent aspects have to be kept in tension with each other for its proper understanding and for the correct interpretation of Vico’s philosophy, I have largely modified my take on Croce’s historicism and hermeneutics of which he and Vico can rightly claim to be ground breaking pioneers. What initially stimulated this revision  and led me to eventually accept Professor Paolozzi invitation to contribute to Croce’s eulogy on the fiftieth anniversary of Croce’s passing were two seminal works on historicism which appeared in the early 90s: namely the elucidations of the meaning of historicism of Fulvio Tessitore in Italy (see his Introduzione allo storicismo, 1991), and that of David D. Roberts’ concomitant work in the USA (see his Nothing but History, 1993). 

To be sure, one can go back all the way to Immanuel Kant for similar assertions on the end of metaphysics, but Kant and German idealism have long been debated, if never wholly accepted, in Anglo-American thought. The historicism of Benedetto Croce, on the other hand, has had only a limited impact, although Croce’s aesthetics, even if not well understood, has had a wide readership since the early decades of the 20th century. This was also the decade when Croce was popularizing Vico in Italy. In any case, the historical sense in its philosophically mature form somehow never struck deep roots in Anglo-American intellectual soil. I, for example, had to wait till graduate school to even hear the name of Vico and Croce mentioned extensively in surveys of the history of philosophy.

I suppose such an incomprehension of the historical consciousness can be traced all the way back to Vico’s anti-Cartesian complaint and Hume and the anti-rationalist school of empiricism and the debate on the two cultures between Huxley and Arnold mentioned in my first presentation, and of course Croce anti-positivistic stance. What remains curious however is that now historicism in a post-modernist anti-metaphysical form is being embraced with a vengeance. Writers of generally radical temperament are making highly selective use of anti-metaphysical, historicist elements of thought to discredit social and intellectual structures they disapprove of.

The pre-historicist rationalistic mind, as Vico has well explained in his corsi and ricorsi, simply does not see the possibility of an actual union between universality and particularity. Universality, it assumes, has to be separate from history, from that which is forever changing. That explains why even the giants of ancient Greek philosophy were never really enamored of history and the historical process.

But the historicism of Burke and subsequently of Vico and Croce and various later German thinkers, such as  Heidegger and Gadamer, opens up another perspective. Moral goodness can indeed be seen as a universal quality that an infinite number of different actions may have. But moral universality, while remaining universal, also enters human experience in historically particular form, as specific actions advancing good; it arrives with the third cycle of Vico’s three cycles of history. The transcendent reveals itself in history by becoming selectively immanent in it. The "concrete universal" was a refutation both of the abstract, a-historical transcendent of old and of any cult of the particular as self-sustaining. Even when marred by excessive intellectualism and other flaws, as in Hegel, this historicism disproved enlightenment rationalism and universalism. The extreme reaction to this reconstitution of philosophy as a synthesis of the universal and the particular was positivism and its worship of science in the 19th century.

Early in the 20th century when Benedetto Croce revived and strengthened historicism the positivist trend was dominant. There was in America and England an aversion to anything looking like German idealistic philosophy. Only Croce’s aesthetics became widely discussed and admired and even that was not completely understood. I am now convinced that had Croce’s thought as a whole been generally absorbed, many of the targets against which postmodernism has taken aim would not exist or would look very different. In fact, a thorough reading of Croce’s more philosophical opus would reveal that Crocean historicism anticipated many of the concerns of postmodernism, without falling prey to its glaring weaknesses.

Which are those weaknesses? Well, for one, there is the fact that postmodernism carries earlier opposition to rational, moral or aesthetical rigidity to extremes, even absurd extremes. It is not misguided in contending that human existence is full of transitory structures and norms, some arbitrary and oppressive, but postmodernism also forbids the possibility of structures of a different kind. Postmodernism is viscerally opposed to the notion of an enduring higher purpose or what Vico calls providence. It wants all order to be ultimately contingent and arbitrary.  Also, a great weakness of postmodernism is that it cannot fathom that life might be indistinguishably both changeable and unchangeable, contingent and non-contingent, coherent and incoherent. That life might have an enduring purpose, but one that manifests itself differently as individuals and circumstances are different, seems a contradiction in terms to postmodernism. Deconstructionists make much of the point that no two persons can read the same text in the same way, as if this notion were some kind of original and recent discovery. In actuality it has long been regarded as self-evident by philosophical historicism. What postmodernists do not know, and would prefer not to hear, is that the uniqueness of personal experience and perspective does not exclude the possibility of shared humanity and meaning.

Missing from postmodernism is the possibility of synthesis, of the mutual implication of universality and particularity, the idea that if man makes history, the opposite is also true, history makes man. Here is the very crux of modern philosophy, but postmodernism is barely aware of its existence. Emphasis on the contingency and flux of history distorts human experience unless balanced by attention to equally present order and continuity. What postmodernism needs is not the order and continuity of a-historical foundationalist metaphysics, but that of value-centered historicism, "value" standing for the qualities that give moral, intellectual and imaginative form to man’s historical existence. Understanding unity and diversity together—not as separate, reified entities, but in their relationship of mutual implication—yields the concept of historical universality, that is to say universality in particular form. That such an idea should elicit incomprehension and incredulity betrays a debilitating defect in Western philosophy. This puzzling neglect of Croce’s humanism was also pointed out to me at Yale University by the great literary critic Renè Welleck as I have reminisced in the introduction to Professor Paolozzi’s Ovi e-book on Croce.

In that book as published in Ovi recently Ernesto Paolozzi surveys the thee seminal works  of Croce: Aesthetic (1902), Logic (1905) and Philosophy of the Practical (1908). These three books provide the philosophical context for all of Croce’s other writing. They develop his philosophy of the forms, or categories, of the human spirit—imagination, thought, and practical action—and their relationships. There is no doubt that Croce was far ahead of Derrida and others when, in his 1902 Aesthetic, he set forth a radically anti-positivist view of the world, based on imaginative language, language being inherently poetic and creative. He based this view on Vico’s concept of poetic philosophy apparent in the first historical cycle of the gods and the second of the heroes. And here we are back, willy nilly, to the conundrum of the two cultures which ultimately cannot be avoided.

Indeed, for Vico and Croce the work of philosophy is never done. It cannot be "foundational" in the sense that it is able to separate itself from history and achieve final, incontestable insight. And yet, some philosophical insights, though they must be expressed within the limitations of time and place, are not merely provisional and ad hoc. There is much that is Platonic in both philosophers despite appearances. Good philosophy tries to capture the enduring traits of human existence, not as something existing apart from history but as giving form to particularity. In so far as philosophy is successful, it both possesses and does not possess lasting truth. Though always falling far short of definitive, comprehensive Truth, what it humbly and gropingly knows, it does know. That knowledge is not negated by the fact that it is at the same time tentative in the sense that particular formulations of what is known can be forever improved, extended, and applied. Life goes on, and it continually offers new material for examination.

Philosophizing, then, is not an elitist dwelling with the gods on Mount Olympus looking down one’s nose on the oi polloi happy with what is considered low culture who can be satisfied with the pie in the sky of religion, but a condition of both knowing and not knowing the truth about our own existence, which is another way of saying that the philosophical mind is dialectical, oriented by what it knows but bothered by what it does not yet know, or cannot yet express with conceptual clarity. The genuine philosopher is always striving to remove obstacles to a fuller understanding.

Professor Paolozzi has demonstrated to us that Croce distinguishes between philosophical and pragmatic thought, that science exemplifies the latter, that he is an epistemological pragmatist in so far as some thought-processes, those serving practical utility, are concerned, but he is not a pragmatist in his view of what he considers philosophical rationality which is able to discern the pragmatic nature of science. In so doing Croce’s thought  observes something about the enduring forms of man’s historical existence: pragmatic rationality—one of the "categories" of human activity without which there would be no human consciousness.

Philosophical examination of human experience tries faithfully to record what is actually there. Unlike pragmatic thought, it does not simplify the experiential evidence or take such short-cuts or liberties with the facts as is compatible with achieving a particular practical objective. Philosophical rationality is not aimed at achieving practical purposes. It is an attempt to know—faithfully to know as much as it can about life in all its complexity—to improve our cognitive, conceptual hold on what persists in the midst of change and particularity.

Ultimately, for Vico and Croce history and philosophy become one and the same. The philosopher studies history in order better to understand himself and his own time. Thus "all history is contemporary history." Philosophical rationality seeks understanding about human life, expressed with the greatest possible conceptual clarity, but it is not trying to jump to some extra-historical vantage believed to be protected from the contingencies and uncertainties of existence on Mount Olympus.

Philosophy does not pursue abstraction, metaphysical or otherwise, but seeks conceptually to articulate the categories of man’s actual, historical life. These forms are indistinguishable from their particular content, and they interact in every moment of life. They are an endless circle of related but distinguishable forms of the spirit. In Vico’s and Croce’s claim to have discerned a permanent structure of human consciousness, there is, no implication that philosophy, or history for that matter, might now be coming to an end. Neither do Vico and Croce in their affirmation of enduring meaning appeal to an extra-historical order. The insight is this: History, whether as an intellectual discipline or as the arena of human action, derives its coherence from the ongoing interaction of universality and particularity.

Postmodernists would have us think that only now, after the likes of Derrida, Foucault and Rorty have spoken, is it possible to view the world without illusion, that transcendence, universality, and higher purpose and meaning can no longer be given any credence; and ironically, all of this is proclaimed while laying claim to extraordinary intellectual openness. They generally assume that in the end contingency, incoherence and meaninglessness are the whole of life, but mankind over the generations emphatically disagrees. Vico calls that disagreement “the common sense” of the people.  The postmodernist habit of simply ignoring or dismissing what humanity has long believed suggests just the very kind of willfulness that postmodernists like so much to condemn in others.

If one looks carefully at the cover for my Ovi e-book Aesthetic Theories of the Great Western Philosophers as chosen and created by its editor Thanos Kalamidas one may at first be puzzled in discerning on that cover not a great work of art as made by man but an aesthetically pleasing natural phenomenon, a work of nature, if you will. That is to say that nature too can present us with sublime aesthetically pleasing phenomena that put our artistic masterpieces to shame. But the paradox is this: without a perceiver who apprehends and graphically presents to us such beauty there would not be any beautiful works of nature either: to be is to be perceived, as Berkeley has well taught us. So Man or God creating and apprehending beauty is still a needed component of the aesthetic experience. But there is more to this conundrum, for while it is true that man makes history and language and great works of art, it is equally true that history and language and great works of art (including the natural ones as presented by nature) make man, as Vico and Croce have indeed very well taught us. 

Indeed, there is a historicist approach that is compatible with the notion of trans-historical order and probably even with the notion of transcendence. The whole of nature may be a metaphor for what is hidden. Were that not so I would not have revised my interpretation of Croce vis a vis Vico. Professor Paolozzi has shown us, and for that he is to be commended, that while it is true that Croce put emphasis on the immanent, he never jettisoned the transcendent. Thus I for one concur with him that for all those reasons, it is about time that Croce, like Vico, be rediscovered, interpreted correctly and appreciated in his own right. It is about time that both thinkers be granted their due in the history of philosophy, as the quintessentially Neapolitan philosophical geniuses that they are.

Footnote: For a more thorough treatment of the aesthetic theories of Vico and Croce the reader may wish to consult the 2 recent Ovi e-books (open link http://www.ovimagazine.com/cat/56). One by Ernesto Paolozzi’s titled Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom. The other, as  mentioned, by Emanuel Paparella titled The Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers, especially chapter 3 titled “Vico: Aesthetic as Beauty,” p. 17, and chapter 22 titled “Conclusion: Art as a Problematic of Aesthetics,” p. 77.





The illustrations above are frescos from the walls of a tomb from Magna Graecia (Paestum, near Naples, Italy) depicting a Greek symposium. The Tomb was found by Mario Napoli in June of 1968, near the city of Paestum, not too far from Naples (Na Polis, or “new city” for the ancient Greeks). The artistic significance of this particular tomb is that it contains the only example of Greek wall painting from the Orientalizing, Archaic, or Classical period to survive in its entirety. The tomb was created around 470 B.C. in the Greek city of Poseidon (later in Roman times known as Paestum).


Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting -


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Orpheus Vas2013-06-23 22:48:22
Invoking a Vichian "aesthetics," Mr. Paolozzi writes:

>Art does not imitate and as such depends on nothing but itself. Its creation is an act of freedom.

The claim strikes me as incredible. Vico himself stresses the tie of "art" to "poetry" emphasizing the *imitative* nature of all poetry: "the first poets were by nature" and "poetry is nothing but imitation" (cf. Scienza Nuova 1744, "Of the Elements," LI-LII).

Now, to cut art off from imitation is eo ipso to cut it off from poetry/nature. This move strikes me as especially anti-Vichian insofar as Vico countered all tendencies to conceive of art as uprooted from nature or as imposed upon nature, a la Descartes (but also to a great extent in the manner of Christian dogmatics), ex machina.

For further pertinent thoughts, I invite readers to visit my www.theologiapoetica.webs.com

Orpheus Vas2013-06-24 11:15:40
Tried posting a comment yesterday. Will it ever appear, or has it been banned? Would appreciate a clarification. Thank you.

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