Ovi -
we cover every issue
Apopseis magazine  
Ovi Bookshop - Free Ebook
Tony Zuvela - Cartoons, Illustrations
Ovi Language
Michael R. Czinkota: As I See It...
WordsPlease - Inspiring the young to learn
Murray Hunter: Opportunity, Strategy and Entrepreneurship
Stop human trafficking
BBC News :   - 
iBite :   - 
Ovi Symposium; Eighth Meeting Ovi Symposium; Eighth Meeting
by The Ovi Symposium
2013-09-12 08:49:06
Print - Comment - Send to a Friend - More from this Author
DeliciousRedditFacebookDigg! StumbleUpon

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
Eighth Meeting: 12 September 2013




nannery01Dr. 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.


enDr.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 and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


papDr. 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. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


Section 1: A Presentation by Dr. Paolozzi: “Art and technology” as translated from his book L’Estetica di
                Benedetto Croce.
Section 2: A follow-up Exploration by Dr. Paparella: “Vico’s aesthetics vis a vis Modern Education:                                           toward a New Humanism?”
Section 3: An addendum by Dr. Paparella from his e-book Aesthetic Theories of the Great Western
Philosophers: “Robin George Collingwood’s Aesthetic Theory of Art as Vichian Fantasia.”
Section 4: A brief Comparison between R.G. Collingwood and Hans Georg Gadamer’s Hermeneutics.
Section 5: In Memoriam: on the passing of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney.


Art and Technique
A presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi as translated from his book L’estetica di Benedetto Croce

Following the reasoning that we have presented so far, it becomes evident that in Croce’s aesthetics there is a rejection of any theory which attempts to distinguish or judge art based on purely technical notions. Indeed, the problem is not one of choosing between the spontaneity of art and the technique of artistic expressions, but rather that of understanding the complexity of their relationship to each other. It would be enough to the paradoxes that would surface if one were to attempt to be sustained in a radical mode by one or the other only. One cannot conceive an artistic expression which does not follow specific technical trajectories, just as one cannot identify technique with art. To be able to use a film camera does not mean that one is a great film director.

Croce was of the opinion that technique had a purely comunicative function, foreign to the true original artistic creation. For example, the neat division of the arts (sculpture, painting, music, etc.) based on purely empirical or physical principles does not yeld the essential nature of art which depends on the aesthetic result of the work. One can know the technique of music and yet one may be unable to produce significant musical compositions. Technique however does have its own function. In his Breviario Croce insists, in fact that the artist, like every man is a complicated being, and therefore he is both poet and practical man “and as such he suggests the means so that his spiritual work is not dissipated and lost and the reproduction of his images becomes easy.” Moreover, in his Aesthetica in nuce (1928) Croce writes that “technique is generally speaking a complex of cognitions tending toward practical action, and in the case of art, it is the practical action which forges objects and instruments for the recollection and the communication of works of art.”

Only with the publication of La Poesia (1936) does the philosopher, without modifying his in depth concept, amplifies the practical horizon within which technique fulfills its precious function. In a marginal note titled “Technique within the understanding of historical tradition” he writes that “Therefore, to free oneself from technique, that is to say, within the meaning we assigned to it, is impossible; not is it possible with mere technique to ‘make oneself virgin and primitive,’ something which happens with every inspiration or creation, which constitutes one of the two indivisible acts of the same act.”

Within this point of view one can speak of a reevaluation of technique in as much as it represents the historical result of a process. Perhaps it should be also mentioned that in reality poetic imagination and intuition cannot be achieved without technique since the painter thinks pictorially, the music composer thinks musically and the playwriter teathrically. Just as we need to admit that technique by itself does not result in art, we must also accept the idea that artistic creation always happens conretely within a particular historic condition. The playwriter, as well as a movie director, imagine within a particular concrete situation, not in the abstract, and always in reference to the expressive means which is more in accordance with his sensibility. Which of course does not mean that without a stage and without actors in flesh and blood the playwriter cannot construct his work of art, or that an artist while erring in chosing the appropriate technique, neverthless can intuit, imagine, fantasize, create the work of art. Men involved with the theater know how to distinguish between talent and artistic prowess. It is in such a distinction, dictated by experience, if not by common sense, that one can find the fundamental position of the Crocean distinction.

Finally, there is the issue of thecnical innovation. In this case too, innovation can be original and important, worthy to represent an important historical development (for example, the introduction of perspective in painting). However, all by itself it is not enough to justify artistic experience which can happen or not happen, despite the new technique. On the other hand, technical innovation, especially when it is revolutionary, for example the use of photographs, of the cinema and finally of the computer, shows ultimately the fallacy of technique in itself which remains a mode of expression. But, as we have already said, because between the means and the end there is a dialectic relationship and not merely and extrinsic one, it often happens that the choosing of a new technique is also an aesthetic choice, deriving from artistic creativity and not only of ingenuity. Those who defend the category of technique risks becoming trapped in a sort of aesthetic conservatism parading as progressivism; of defending, in other words, a tradition, as important and majestic as it may be, vis a vis the new creativity.

To then distinguish, concretely, between ingenuity and imagination, or between talent and art, is not a duty of aesthetics, which merely indicates the general horizon of thought, but it is the duty of the critic and of the public who judge and choose each individual work in an absolutely new way and absolutely free.


Mechanized City from the Shadows” (1920)
A futurist painting by Fortunato Depero


L’estetica di Benedetto Croce by Ernesto Paolozzi
Book published in Naples on January 1, 2002


Ovi e-book on Croce by Ernesto Paolozzi as translated by Dr. Massimo Verdicchio


Ovi e-book on Aesthetic Theories by Emanuel L. Paparella


 Modern Format of Vico’s New Science
Penguin Classics; 3rd edition (2000)


Vico’s Aesthetics vis a vis Modern Education: toward a New Humanism?
An Exploration by Emanuel L. Paparella

symposium49Following Paolozzi’s insightful presentation clarifying the dialectic between Croce’s aesthetics and technique, I’d like to follow-up on his pertinent reflections on the dialectical nexus between poetic man and practical man, universal art and particular technique, and the communication of works of arts, by a brief exploration of Giambattista Vico’s aesthetics in his New Science. We should not lose sight that this astounding work begins with an image, a frontispiece which Vico placed there as an aid to the reader so that he/she could recollect, at a glance, the whole opus. It in fact informs the whole of Vico’s poetic philosophy. Indeed, the art of memory and recalling is fundamental for a proper understanding of Vico’s thought,  one that is free of distortions, misrepresentations, misreading or subsuming.

Within this image, very familiar to those who know anything about Vico, one soon notices that the universe within time and space has been divided into three observed and clearly perceived   phenomena: the divine, the human, and the natural world. Observed by whom? By Providence represented as an all seeing eye, but most importantly by man who needs poetic wisdom (represented by Homer receiving the light of providence as reflected by metaphysics). Without these Man cannot ascend to Truth. That image holds all those elements together. Hence the first important observation of Vico’s thought is that it represents a philosophy of recollective universals generating philosophical understanding not from rational categories but from the image. In other words, imagination becomes a new method, rather than mere subject matter for philosophical thought.

A corollary to this observation is that were we to use the rationalistic method (that of the category) to understand Vico, we would ipso facto distort him and misunderstand him. Another way of putting it is this: Vico’s thought can only be understood from the inside. The human mind has to apply the same methodology that Vico uses to arrive at an understanding of itself. In his oration on “The Heroic Mind” (1732) Vico tells us that the heroic mind is the basis of a true education and in seeking the sublime has as its goal human wisdom oriented toward the common good of the human race. Not too dissimilar it would appear from Plato’s Republic. However, in his address of 1737 to the Academia degli Oziosi (The Academy of the Men of Leisure) Vico has recourse to Socrates as exemplary of someone who could reason about all parts of knowledge, human and divine.

What Vico deplores in modern education is the loss of the perspective of the whole. He always insists that the flower of wisdom is the grasping of the whole through the particular and the specific. What Vico is suggesting is that the reader of his work needs to be heroic too but in doing so he ought not consider The New Science something esoteric, reserved to a select few initiates into the mysteries, but rather exoteric in the sense that the human mind has certain common traits and can therefore narrate to itself The New Science and arrive at the same conclusions as Vico did; that is, discern within itself the ideal eternal history narrated by Vico and thus experience the same divine pleasure. For after all the story is the story of humankind (“storia” in Italian means both story and history) and Vico, as Virgil with Dante, is a mere guide for the reader to attain the “dilettoso monte.”

What are the ideas to which Vico guides the reader? Basically they are wisdom, heroism, tragedy, barbarism (of both sense and intellect), memory, providence, imagination, ingenuity. All ideas which the Western philosophical tradition considers superseded. And yet these ideas contain principles which are basic to the shaping of any modern humanistic thought.

The greatest danger to those who would correctly interpret Vico is that of placing his thought at the service of a position that is not his own by pigeon-holing him into a particular school of thought or a discipline. One such is the philosophy of history, another is cultural anthropology. Croce, for example, while attempting to promote Vico’s ideas has been accused of seeing Vico as a precursor of Hegel. I think that Paolozzi has already clarified that conundrum but unfortunately the accusation remains standing in several philosophical quarters.

Indeed Vico’s ship has been sailed under many banners: idealism, Catholicism, Marxism, historicism, modern methodologies galore, contemporary epistemology, emphasizing Vico as an influence, a mere precursor of more thorough philosophies. Thus Vico is robbed of his own originality. In his Autobiography Vico speaks of his hope to be an influential thinker but in Vici vindiciae he warns of the distortions of his thought already afoot (in the Acta Eruditorum where his book was reviewed). Later he writes to Abbè Esperti (1726) lamenting that the reception of his book was like that of an infant still born, then musing that indeed a book that displeases so many people cannot possibly have universal applause especially in a world dominated by the “chance” of Epicurus and the “necessity" of Descartes. Both are still alive and well in Europe. And how could Vico expect otherwise? His ideas were considered not modern enough, passé, anachronistic. His conception of “verum factum convertuntur” could be traced back to St. Augustine’s doctrine that God creates by knowing or to Aquinas’ statement that “ens et verum convertuntur” (truth and reality are convertible), or the Renaissance Platonism of Marsilio Ficino, or the experimental method of Galileo (see Rodolfo Mondolfo’s Il verum factum prima di Vico (Naples, Guida, 1969).

To go from these antecedents to the principle of history made by humans, man who is his own history, was not an easy nut to crack within the prevalent Cartesian philosophical approach of the times. He was considered an anachronistic throw-back to the ancients, “the owl of Minerva of Renaissance humanistic culture” as Karl-Otto Apel defines Vico in his Die idée der Sparche in der Tradition des Humanismus von Dante bis Vico echoing Ernesto Grassi’s Macht des Bildes (Power of the Image. Cologne: 1970, p.194), where Grassi connects Vico’s thought to certain humanists: Salutati, Landino, Pico, Valla, Poliziano. But these men are usually regarded as mere literati and accorded little if any philosophical study.

Since Thomas Bergin’s translation of The New Science into English (1948, Cornell University), it has come to be regarded as a tool to confront the fragmentation of contemporary thought. But once again his ideas have been connected to seminal thinkers in semiotic, phenomenology, structuralism, genetic psychology, myth analysis, literary criticism, linguistics, and so on. In other words, there seems to be a post-modern concern to seek the foundations of knowledge through Vico’s thought. And here indeed Vico has been most helpful. In grasping what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect” as symptomatic of the deep solitude of spirit and will of modern man [“la somma solitudine d’animo e di voleri”] which Vico associates with the end of the third era of the ideal eternal history, the era of men where pure reason reigns uncontested; a sort of decadence when men “finally go mad and waste their substance” (N.S., 241 and 1106). This is what Vico defines as reflective thought devoid of what he calls “sapienza poetica.”(poetic wisdom). This is a thought that has forgotten its connection with the imagination of the whole, a loss of the human image of itself; the inability of the thinker to reflect its own wholeness into the products of his own thought. This barbarism of thought is a kind of human experience deprived of a cultural guide or center, without a perspective on the human mind. As Elio Gianturco used to comment in his magisterial lectures on Vico at New York University (1970): we live in a Cartesian world dominated by procedures, efficient ordering and technological know-how as fix-all for whatever ails us.

From what we have said above, it would appear that using Vico’s thought to seek the foundations of social humanistic knowledge fits quite well with Vico’s own concerns as stated in his orations: to connect knowledge with wisdom, heroism and eloquence. We should remember that Vico was for most of his academic career an Assistant Professor of Eloquence at the University of Naples. This is all well and good, but there is a caveat of which Vico himself warns us about; namely that the human mind has a propensity to reduce what is unfamiliar and distant to what is familiar and at hand. And Vico goes pretty far back into the origins of the human world. In other words, the propensity is to merge the meaning of Vico’s ideas to those developed more fully by later thinkers. Donald Phillip Verene calls this propensity “Vico’s Achilles’ heel” thus identifying the facility with which Vico’s thought has been transformed into viewpoints that are not his. This is astonishing indeed when one thinks that Vico himself takes pains in his oration De Antiquissima Italorum sapientia to declare that he belongs to no school of thought as such.

So the crucial question is this: How should the reader approach Vico? The simple answer is this: on his own merits, as the unique thinker he was and the originator of a new original orientation for philosophical thought. The originality of his philosophy consists in placing the image over the concept. For a tradition conceiving of its origins as Aristotle’s rationality this sounds topsy-turvy; for indeed “reason” continues to dominate it together with scientific thought. But let the reader pay attention to the title of Vico’s work: it is not a “New Philosophy” but a “New Science.” So Vico is far from abandoning reason and science as such. He is proposing a novantiqua or a new humanism.

In any case the tradition begins with the Platonic quarrel with poetic images (which some have misguidedly resurrected as the quarrel between ancients and moderns); although it must also be said that Plato’s language remains ambiguous because it uses the poetical and the mythological and images galore when it best suits it. In fairness to Plato one ought to keep in mind that he made a distinction between “good poetry” (that which spoke of the gods and the heroes) and "bad poetry," everything else. Aristotle reinforces the rationalistic tradition by defining man a rational animal; that definition gives no clue that integral to reason, even at its most developed stage, are feelings and emotions from which it originally sprang. But in reality, despite Croce's brave attempt at integration through Hegel, Vico stands outside the Western philosophical tradition.

Cassirer who like Croce had a great affinity for Vico, also attempted an integration by distinguishing the philosophy of spirit (Geist) and the philosophy of life (Leben). This is a distinction that may prove useful for understanding Vico’s position vis-à-vis modern philosophy without subsuming him under the ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. However, the fundamental model of the symbol in Cassirer remains cognitive. It is a brave attempt to extend a cognitive model of thought to other form of experience: language, art, history, myth. Something that Plato would not have approved. Cassirer gives due credit to Vico by calling him “the true discoverer of the myth” [der eigentliche Entdecker des Mythos in Erkenntmisproblem inder Philosophie und Wissenschaft der neuern Zeit, 1973, IV, p. 300], as translated in The Problem of Knowledge by William H. Hoglam and Charles W. Hendel, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1950, p. 296), but he remains different from Vico because he discovers the myth through the rational concept and in so doing he has to necessarily identify Vico with the philosophy of Geist.

How so? In the sense that Cassirer sees philosophical idealism moving from Leibniz to Kant and Klaus Held within the philosophy of Geist all the way to his own conception of symbols (see his Introduction to The Symbolic Forms). He sees the role of the imagination in the outline of Kant’s Critique of Judgment as an important aspect of his thought. And indeed Kant has a great interest in the bond between intuition and the concept and the existence of the “unreflective judgment” (reflektierende Urteilshkraft) and organic form pointing in the direction of a concrete philosophy of all areas of human culture. Cassirer also appreciates Hegel’s effects within the philosophy of the concept as something abstracted from experience in order to create by means of the speculative proposition [speculative Satz] a new sense of the concept as “concrete universal” [begriff] within the Western tradition of reason. He transforms reason from simple understanding [Verstand] into reason as the inner form of experience [Verneuft] in his Phenomenology of Spirit. Cassirer himself point out that their transformation ends up as the reduction of the idea to the simple form of logic in Hegel’s Science of Logic.

On the other side of the spectrum of the Western philosophical tradition there is the philosophy of Leben, of life and existence and even the irrational which Cassirer sees as a reaction to Geist, an attempt to come to terms with the immediate. It is most apparent in the thought of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Scheler and Heidegger. Here one waits for the appearance of Being. Spirit (Geist) is seen not as a transformation of life but as alienation, an inauthentic relationship to Being. So, Western Philosophy presents us with a disjoint: either we pursue philosophical understanding in terms of the principles of evidence, the concept, the syllogism, the argument; or we think directly from the situation of life, we "transvaluate values" as Nietzsche suggests, or wait for Being, as Heidegger advices. Vico offers an alternative to both traditions because his thought begins outside this disjoint. It begins neither with Geist nor with Leben but with fantasia as an original and independent power of the human mind. Here images are manifestations of an original power of spirit which gives fundamental form to mind and life. Vico calls these images "universali fantastici" but they are not concepts in poetic cloaks as rationalists tend to assert. The image is not understood in relation to the concept but on its own terms.

By building his philosophy on fantasia Vico creates a position outside Western philosophy as traditionally understood. His is the kind of thought that teaches the art of memory and recovery. Unfortunately philosophers of memory have enjoyed no respectful standing in the general histories of philosophy. They are seen as literary, rhetorical, not philosophical in nature because they are not conceptual. What is not conceptual is simply denied philosophical standing. Within this rationalism imagination is at best conceived as the handmaiden of the concept, an element of the mind subject to investigation by a theory of knowledge (standing between perception and concept) or perhaps viewed as part of a theory of aesthetics. Within the latter imagination is seen as apart from the concerns of theory of knowledge; the image is free only apart from the concept seen as supreme achievement of reason fully developed ["ragione tutta spiegata," as Vico calls it].

In other words, imagination is considered a mere subject matter, never a mode of philosophical thought; at best the image and the metaphor become devices to illustrate conceptual philosophical meanings. Plato is exemplary here. In his dialogues, the image remains outside the form of philosophical thought to be used only when conceptual reasoning rises toward what he considers a view of the whole, or it is used as a simple instrument of communication to liven up the thought. Vico to the contrary insists that philosophy, astronomy, economics, morality, politics, history, even logic can be poetic (see book II of The New Science).

Paradoxically, without imagination, a view of the whole cannot be reached. See the image of the charioteer and the two winged horses in the Phaedrus and then read book X of the Republic where the rational idea is separated from the wisdom of Homer (a figure most prominently displayed in Vico's frontispiece above shown). This contemptuous cavalier attitude toward the image considered inferior to the idea, has dogged Western philosophy for twenty four centuries. Vico proves that indeed there is no such thing as an individual called Homer: he is the representation of the oral poetical tradition of the Greeks and in that sense, despite Plato's esoteric opinion, Homer remains the exoteric "educator of Hellas."

In conclusion, I would like to propose that Vico's philosophy offers a fresh new starting point. It is not a question of siding with the poetic wisdom of Homer against the rational wisdom of Plato, but of interpreting wisdom (and therefore reason too) in a new way as "sapienza poetica," (poetical wisdom). It is a sort of synthesis, a novantiqua; a blending of the two to arrive at a new understanding of both image and idea. That is what Vico shows the reader: he works his way back to the world of original thought (the myth) since for him "verum factum convertuntur," the true and the made are convertible and Man can return to origins via what he himself has made: history, institutions, languages, artifacts, etc., in fact he can do that more surely than with science observing a nature that he has not made. Through his discovery of the imaginative universal, of fantasia as a way of thinking and acting, Vico finds a new origin for philosophical thought. Heidegger calls it "originative thinking," without however giving much credit to Vico for this insight, but then he did the same disservice to Kierkegaard’s powerful critique of Hegel’s philosophy of history.

In any case, it is Vico who with his conception of fantasia creates a novantiqua outside of the above mentioned disjoint between Geist and Leben and the ancient Platonic disjoint between idea and image. Vico is definitely not Hegel. I suggest that Vico in the 21st century ought to be accorded a fair hearing on his own merits as a Herculean hero of philosophy. His message is urgently needed for a reassessment of the cultural identity of Western civilization in general and of the European Union in particular.


Ovi e-book by Emanuel L. Paparella Published in July 2012




R.G. Collingwood (1889-1943)


-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002)

Foreword to the addendum by the symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella: Two modern philosophers who were greatly inspired by Vico and Croce’s philosophy of aesthetics are Collingwood and Gadamer. We will survey briefly the great affinity of these two 20th century  philosophers (one British and the other German who lived to be 102 years old) to the two Neapolitan philosophers, one 18th century and the other 20th century’s, that we have been discussing and elucidating in the symposium, by citing an excerpt from my Ovi e-book Aesthetic Theories of the Great Western Philosophers (June 2013). The focus in this 8th meeting of the symposium will be on Collingwood, reserving a lengthier more thorough treatment of Gadamer’s Hermeneutics for a future addendum.

Robin George Collingwood's Theory of Art as Vichian Fantasia
An Addendum by Emanuel L. Paparella excerpted from his Ovi
e-book Aesthetic Theories of the Great Western Philosophers

“The business of this book [The Principles of Art] is to answer the question: What is art?

A question of this kind has to be answered in two stages. First we must make sure that the key word (in this case ‘art’) is a word which we know how to apply where it ought to be applied and refuse where it ought to be refused. It would not be much use beginning to argue about the correct definition of a general term whose instances we could not recognize when we saw them. Our first business, then, is to bring ourselves into a position in which we can say with confidence ‘this and this are art; that and that are not art’….

Secondly, we must proceed to a definition of the term ‘art’. This comes second, and not first, because no one can even try to define a term until he has settled in his own mind a definite usage of it: no one can define a term in common use until he satisfied himself that his personal usage of it harmonizes with the common usage. Definition necessarily means defining one thing in terms of something else; therefore, in order to define any given thing, one must have in one’s head not only a clear idea of the thing to be defined, but an equally clear idea of all the other things by reference to which one defines it. People often go wrong over this. They think that in order to construct a definition or (what is the same thing) a ‘theory’ of something, it is enough to have a clear idea of that one thing. That is absurd. Having a clear idea of the thing enables them to recognize it when they see it, just as having a clear idea of a certain house enables them to recognize it when they are there; but defining the thing is like explaining where the house is or pointing out its position on the map; you must know its relations to other things as well, and if your ideas of these other things are vague, your definition will be worthless….

…We disimagine, if I may use the word, a great deal which actually we see and hear. The street noises at a concert, the noises made by our breathing and shuffling neighbors, and even some of the noises made by the performers, are thus shut out of the picture unless by their loudness or in some other way they are too obtrusive to be ignored. At the theater, we are strangely able to ignore the silhouettes of the people sitting in front of us, and a good many things that happen on the stage. Looking at a picture, we do not notice the shadows that fall on it or, unless it is excessive, the light reflected from its varnish.

All this is commonplace. And the conclusion has already been stated by Shakespeare’s Theseus ‘the best in this kind [‘works of art’, as things actually perceived by the senses—R.G.C.] are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.’ The music to which we listen is not the heard sound, but that sound as amended in various ways by the listener’s imagination, and so with the other arts. But this does not go nearly far enough. Reflection will show that the imagination with which we listen to music is something more, and more complex, than any inward ear; the imagination with which we look at paintings is something more than ‘the mind’s eye’….”

                                                               --Robin George Collingwood (from The Principles of Art,1938)

R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) was a multitalented intellectual: both an archeologist and a philosophy professor at Oxford University. Besides his influential The Principles of Art, (1938) he is best known for his philosophy of history. What is less known is that both his aesthetics and his philosophy of history were influenced to a large extent by the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico whom Collingwood greatly admired and even translated into English, especially by Vico’s concept of “fantasia” (imagination) which encompasses both the aesthetic sensibility and the history of man. He was also greatly influenced by Croce’s theory of aesthetics and in some way built on it, as even a cursory reading of the two philosophers will attest to and as Paolozzi has brilliantly elucidated for us in regard to Croce.

That having been said, what distinguishes Collingwood’s theory of art are two claims, that: 1) the work of art is a purely imaginary object which exists only and truly in the artist’s mind, and 2) that the work of art is an expression of the artist’s emotion. Let’s look at those two extraordinary claims.

That works of art are imaginary entities seems to go against common sense and even the evidence of the senses; after all museums are full of works of art in various media, some of them are in our streets as monuments, architecture, sculptures, songs, films, etc. How can anyone claim that these are not the works of art? Collingwood would urge us to consider a symphony. Unless we attend a live performance at the concert hall we need a medium to listen to the symphony. That medium could be a radio, a TV, a CD, but we would not say that the work is identical with the sounds we hear via those media, for the work of art that is a symphony transcends any specific performances (even that of the concert hall) which might be given. This also applies to works of literature such as novels. I may have a copy of Crime and Punishment on my book shelves, but the novel is not my individual copy of it.

This begs the question: How are we to understand the essence or the being of a work of art? Collingwood suggests as an answer that the work exists in the artist’s mind as an imaginary object and it is therefore not identical with any of its physical manifestations in which it incarnates itself, so to speak. As necessary as those manifestations are for its perception, they remain the means the artist employs to get others to experience the work. Let us not forget that Beethoven was completely deaf when he composed his ninth symphony; which means that the symphony was mainly in his mind and there was no need for him to hear it physically before putting final notes on paper or picking up the baton and conducting an orchestra. The work is in the artist’s imagination, albeit he needs physical manifestations to make it present to the audience’s imagination as well. As Paolozzi has explained the ideal of the work of art has to find practical means by which it can be communicated and transmitted to posterity or it will be lost forever. This in effect means that while communication is not a defining feature of the artwork, it is incidental to it, nevertheless it cannot be dispensed with. Obviously this is a radical deviation from Tolstoy’s theory of art as mere communication.

The above leads to another question: why is communication incidental to the work of art? In Collingwood’s view, this is because artistic creation is essentially a process of self-acknowledgment. Back to the ancient Socratic injunction: Know thyself. Or as Vico aptly puts it: man makes history, but equally true is that history makes man; i.e., man gets to know himself via history.

Yes, emotion is important to the creation of a work of art, as Tolstoy also thought, but Collingwood account of what emotion is quite different from Tolstoy’s. It is basically a Vichian account rooted in the poetics of fantasia. Often we are not sure which emotion grips us. We may be aware of feeling something, but we need to go through a process, which most of the times is linguistic, allowing us to understand what that emotion is. Animals too have powerful emotions, but they lack the language by which they can explain them to themselves. Which is to say, if I am in a car accident, I may be initially aware of being in a state of emotional turmoil, but it is only with the expression of my emotion (swearing at the other driver who may have caused the incident for example) that I become fully aware that I am angry. The linguistic outburst is needed to discover what I feel.

In Collingwood’s opinion artists proceed in a similar fashion. Becoming aware that they are in the grip of an emotion, they give form to it via the work of art they create. So what is the difference between my venting of emotions by swearing at the other driver who caused the accident and the artist? To be sure, cultural philistines of many persuasions see no difference: everything that man makes is art, they proclaim; we are all artists in as much as we make things; which in effect means that nothing is art. Collingwood would answer that the difference is that artists explore carefully the particularity of their emotion, taking pain to understand it as a particular specific instance it is. In other words, artists are more interested than most of us in deciphering their emotions. This emphasis on emotions may tempt us to characterize Collingwood’s theory as a proto-Romantic one, but as hinted above, it goes further back to Vico’s description of emotions as being primary in the forging of man’s cultural world, at least at its origins; to his description that language itself came about via powerful emotions and that in point of fact before man could speak he sang impelled by powerful emotions.

Perhaps it is now clearer why Collingwood does not believe that physical entities or events, which we usually identify as works of art, are really the works of art or, as he puts, “art proper.” That is not to deny that those physical manifestations are crucial for the audience’s experience of art. But, as far as Collingwood is concerned, the primary goal of art is not communication per se but rather, it is a process by means of which the artist expresses his own emotions to himself. The communication of that emotion to others is secondary.

Finally, Collingwood, not unlike Heidegger, differentiates artistic creation proper from other forms of making or producing things. The difference lies in the role of individuality. Crafts and mass production aim at making things that fit a general description and are useful (a sofa, a suit, a pair of shoes, a pencil), the artist aims at creating an individual thing, this very novel or poem, and no other. Collingwood insists, throughout his book, on the unique character of the artworld and in fact seems to imply that when that uniqueness is blurred, then we may be dealing not with art but with pseudo-art. Some modern and post-modern art appears to be pseudo-art.



A Brief Comparison between Collingwood and Gadamer’s Hermeneutics

Collingwood's defense of the autonomy of action explanations and his identification of the historical sciences with a search for meaning has sometimes been compared with the project of philosophical hermeneutics pursued by Hans Georg Gadamer in Truth and Method. Gadamer himself acknowledged Collingwood's influence in his introduction to the German edition of Collingwood's An Autobiography. Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics constitutes an attack on psychologism because it refuses to identify meaning with authorial intentions. The meaning of a text, far from being just what's intended by the author, emerges through the process of interpretation. The interpreter brings to this process the fore-conceptions or fore-judgments of his Zeitgeist. In the process of interpretation, these fore-conceptions are tested to see whether they can yield a coherent explanation. If they fail to do so, the interpreter must revise his or her understanding of the text accordingly. Although understanding a text is not a matter of merely imposing one's prejudgments upon it, meaning is ultimately rethought in a new way as the Zeitgeist of the interpreter changes. Gadamer's anti-psychologism thus leads him to the view that the meaning of the text is not only rediscovered by each generation of interpreters; it changes with each generation of interpreters.

Collingwood's philosophy of history shares with Gadamer the view that meaning (in Collingwood's case the meaning of an action rather than a text) is not to be identified with inner psychological processes. An action's meaning is to be found in a publicly re-enactable syllogism. It is because meaning is not a hidden psychological entity that it is inter-subjectively accessible. But although Collingwood, like Gadamer, eschews a psychologistic account of meaning, he does not endorse the quasi-skeptical conclusion according to which the meaning of a text is different for each generation of interpreters. For Collingwood there is such a thing as seeing the world from the agent's point of view. Taking the agent's point of view does not mean entering the agent's mind by some quasi-miraculous telepathic process; it requires rather that we temporarily suspend our own epistemic and motivational premises in order to understand the inferential processes that guide agents with radically different beliefs. Failing to take the agent's epistemic and motivational premises on board leads the historian to write bad historical narratives, the narratives Collingwood refers to as scissors-and-paste histories. Thus, whilst Collingwood's philosophy of history, like Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics, rejects psychologism, Collingwood, unlike Gadamer, is not skeptical about the possibility of reaching inter-generational agreement about the meaning of past actions via Vichian fantasia.



Collingwood’s The Idea of History (1946)


Gadamer’s Truth and Method (1960)




RIP Seamus Heaney

In Memoriam: On the Passing of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) 

Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995), poet, translator, lecturer, playwright has alternatively been called “one of the greatest, if not the greatest poet of our age” and “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” He died unexpectedly in a Dublin hospital on 30 August 2013. His last words texted to his wife a few seconds before his passing were “Do not be afraid.” He is a truly irreplaceable loss for contemporary humanities and Liberal Arts. While mourning his passing, we’d like to celebrate his extraordinary lyric poetry by presenting the Ovi readership with one of his most famous poems on being a writer and a poet: “Digging”.


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.



The 12th and final poetry collection of Seamus Heaney (2010)


End of eight meeting of the Ovi Symposium (09/12/13)


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 -


Print - Comment - Send to a Friend - More from this Author

Get it off your chest
 (comments policy)

© Copyright CHAMELEON PROJECT Tmi 2005-2008  -  Sitemap  -  Add to favourites  -  Link to Ovi
Privacy Policy  -  Contact  -  RSS Feeds  -  Search  -  Submissions  -  Subscribe  -  About Ovi