The Distinction and Unity of the Forms of the Spirit

Updated: Sep 19

Pp 43-46 Gentile, Giovanni. The Philosophy of Art. Translated by Giovanni Gullace. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Pr., 1972.

The problem of art then can be stated and solved only by philosophy. This is not so extravagant a claim as it would at first seem if we take philosophy, as it is usually taken, to be the topmost story of the edifice which thought relentlessly builds and rebuilds, a kind of watchtower from where we can view the horizon denied to the tenants of the lower stories.

But one of the first prejudices, for which philosophy must free us, is that of the existence of various stories or departments or chambers in the mansion of the spirit, all of them connected with each other and accessible, but each separate and distinct and occupying a place of its own. This is a materialistic prejudice; for only in the material world can one imagine a multiplicity of things which can be separated or joined, but not fused in a fundamental unity immanent in each. Only in the material world can one imagine a class of professional philosophers as distinguished from other classes of men belonging to other professions; only from a materialistic point of view can one distinguish functions, activities or forms of spiritual life succeeding one another (in time if not in space) so that the one which follows can only be reached through the one which precedes and the preceding can never be reached through the one which precedes and the preceding can never be found in the following. It is well known that an error of the kind was made by Vico, who was an enthusiastic champion of “pure mind,” free of the thought embodied by a materializing imagination, and who never tired of warning us against the danger of man’s fancy. Owing to this error he conceived of three stages of the spirit - sense, imagination, reason - which he regarded as not merely ideal buy actually historical, through which civilization successfully passes and repasses. Such an error is always possible until we attain the correct concept of spiritual life as present and actual life. So long as the life of the spirit is regarded from outside, as it always is, except when we consider it in its living activity, it takes on the appearance of a totality resulting from the coordination of elements, each of which remains distinct from all others.

But philosophy can only ideally be distinguished within the living unity of the spirit. The analysis of this unity, which is a deductive analysis, exhibits types and forms of thought which are not philosophy, and leads us to distinguish them from philosophical thought. And through this distinction we are enabled to define exactly the nature of what is called philosophical thinking. But we come across a bit of spirit which is philosophy, and other bits which are art, science, morals, religion, and so on. Rather, what we find is always a synthesis, a convergence and concurrence of the various forms in an inseparable unity, full, organic, and harmonious, which is the spiritual reality. This synthesis is necessary because it is intrinsically implied in all the elements that enter into it, for these elements cannot be conceived abstractly, that is,outside the fundamental system of the synthesis. Thus, in primis et ante omnia there is the unity, from which the different forms will spring. If the fundamental principle of the unity is left in mystery, we may describe all the forms one by one: they may be three or four, or, for all I know, five or six or a hundred. We may collect all the descriptions we have made, but we shall be left face to face with the mystery. We may gaze at the tree and admire the fruits that blush among the green foliage; we may even count them: but what can we know of them, of their origin and growth, of the life which has gradually developed them from one seed through the whole course of the plant’s vegetative process?

The distinction must be made within the synthesis and without losing sight of the fundamental principle which unity, whatever may be thought by those who are eaten up with the seal of distinction (in our times the prophets of false distinction multiply like mushrooms in the fat soil of philosophical journalism, with its quick production, and quick return). Without the plant deeply rooted in the soil, from which it draws its vital sap, without the living plant and the organic principle of its life, there can be no real fruit but only limitations.

So philosophy is neither the tenant of the top-floor apartment or, perhaps, the left, as shallow minds would have it, nor is it the nurse of old age. It was born with men, if indeed it was not born before him, and is the constant inspiration of his thoughts and actions, the secret of his innermost life. For, of course, there is the philosophy of the philosopher and the philosophy of the common man, the philosophy of the adult and the philosophy of the child.

All this may perhaps seem to contradict the contention in the preceding chapter that empiricism is not philosophy. But the contradiction disappears if we distinguish between empiricism and the empiricist, between those ideas into which men unreflectively allow themselves to be hurried or ensnared, and the spiritual life which the same men actually manage to realize. Systems may be false; thought is always true; and therefore it grows by bursting its way out through the hard rind in which every system tries to confine it. The empiricist does not live on his system, but in spite of it. Thus, he contradicts himself. He succeeds in putting into many of his particular thoughts and works, the truth of which he has caught a glimpse, which is the life that burns within himself and the power of this thought - the life that cannot allow itself to be contracted and compressed within the system. If there were no perpetual contrast between thought and thinking, every thought, once defined, would become like a stagnant, pestilent pool, where all life would sooner or later perish.

So it is true that every philosopher is always tending to become enchained in the plenary of his system; but so long as he lives he has that advantage over his system which Plato ascribed in the Phaedrus to the oral discourse over the written. Every philosopher is worth more than his philosophy; for, inasmuch as he is a man he has within himself something richer and more vital than what is called, because he has expressed it, his philosophy.

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